“What really counts in life? What can we identify in our deepest selves that is essential? There must be something within us, something that motivates us, a direction that manifests, and gives meaning to each step we take. Living is not being content with roaming around aimlessly at the whim of chance encounters and circumstances, just getting through the day as best we can. I don’t mean that we have to decide when we get up in the morning that we are going to change the world, but it seems we need to see a certain continuity, a line of progress toward what we want to accomplish in our lives.”
In Search of Wisdom, the book from which the above quote is taken, consists of conversations between a Buddhist monk, a philosopher, and a psychiatrist – a serious threesome if there ever was one. Together they ponder truths that are at the heart of a meaningful life. What really matters? What is essential? What is worth living and dying for? These sound like the kind of questions Socrates, who opined that the unexamined life is not worth living, would be at home with, but not the kind most of us spend much time considering.
As important as it may be to ruminate about such significant queries, to do so can lead to living in our heads, thinking about life rather than experiencing it. Because life is a tough nut to crack, it’s probably best to approach its complexity with the balance of essayist and author E. B. White who stated “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world; this makes it hard to plan the day!”
Are pondering life and experiencing it necessarily at odds? Does wanting to improve the world have to be in opposition to wanting to enjoy the world? Perhaps what can appear disparate is really just the yin and yang of life, complements that together make a whole. Approached with this understanding, planning the day might allow for play as well as work, for doing as well as thinking, for lightheartedness as well as seriousness. In this vein I wonder if the monk, the philosopher, and the psychiatrist can appreciate a joke, and whether they have heard the one that begins “a priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walked into a bar…!”