The past few years, I have been writing “Annual Reviews” and setting down goals for my life. But how do I know that these are the right goals for me? Should I really be striving to run a marathon, and to read five books this year?
Perhaps I should start a family. Or an eco-village? Or become a monk?
Where should my goals come from?
A lot of the time, my goals come from society. From advertising. From what my peers want. From what my family thinks is best for me.
At other times, I’ve turned to biographies and pop psychology texts for guidance on what makes a “good life.”
But there is another way to approach the “good life” question, a way that is perhaps more timeless and steady: philosophy. I recently read The Good Life Method, which recommends writing a “philosophical apology” — a reasoned argument about how to live a good life in response to life’s big questions (about death, money, love, pleasure, suffering, meaning, faith…). The authors emphasize that this writing should be personal, including details from my own life.
So here goes nothing!
I am striving to make this “good life philosophy” timeless. I liken it to the tectonic plates of the earth. It might shift, but not very fast. And if it does, there’s liable to be an earthquake.
My leap of faith
My core leap of faith that a good life is possible for me. I don’t know if it is or it isn’t, but I choose to believe that it is. I believe that if I follow the Buddhist 8-fold path, and investigate my life philosophically, this will bring me to a life of meaning, despite whatever external events may come. I agree with the stoics and Viktor Frankl that we have limited control over many of the winds that may blow, but we do have control over how we respond. Even if I am left without limbs like the black night from Monte Python, I have a choice in how I see my situation. I can respond to every moment by striving to embody my values.
My two core values
My two core values are kindness and gratitude.
For me, kindness is can be represented by a teacup (see the picture above). There are three components to kindness, as I see it:
- The desire to relieve suffering. Suffering is represented by the crack in the teacup.
- The wish for joy. Joy is the tea that fills the cup.
- The desire to have empathy. Empathy is represented by the emptiness of the cup, open to deep listening.
Kindness is roughly synonymous with real love, in my view. The word “love” is confusing, though, because it gets used in all sorts of other ways. Here’s a glossary of positive feels that are not love, but to which the “love” word often gets applied:
- Liking — positive regard towards others, enjoyment, admiration. Seeing others, in the words of improv, as geniuses, poets, artists.
- Limerence — the state of romantic obsession/infatuation.
- Need-fulfilment — humans have needs for intimacy (being seen) and belonging (feeling part of a group).
When I was a junior in college, on a cold Valentine’s day in 2007, I went to a Sonic Youth show in a romantic depression. I had spent the past semester in Australia obsessed with an unavailable woman. I thought I would never experience “love.”
At the show, I met a woman who had travelled to New Haven from Brooklyn for the show. Chemistry ignited us, and the next year was pure exhilaration. We travelled together almost every weekend. We crashed a bonfire party in rural Vermont and drank beer that came from a tap drilled into a tree. We talked about our lives. We laughed at turkeys clumsily falling through thick snow. It was pure magic.
But when the relationship rubber hit the road, I got scared. Scared to have her meet my parents. Scared to move in with her. Confusion about what I would do for my career sapped my attention for romance. She broke up with me. The twelve-year age gap between us probably had something to do with it.
I felt like I got punched in the stomach. I shut down, romantically, for about six years.
I was convinced that this romance, by far the most intense of my life, was love. But was it? It had elements of love, interwoven with liking, limerence, and need fulfillment. I’m pretty sure that I wanted her to be happy and free of suffering. But did I really want to understand her? Did I really have an empty teacup? I’m not sure. At times I did, and at times I probably didn’t.
It seems to me that all I can strive to do is get better at real love, now that I know what it is. Liking, limerence and need fulfillment can be good things too, but kindness/love seems to be more in my control than the others.
When I was in sixth grade, a bully would ask me, repeatedly on the bus: “Do you have any friends?”
I couldn’t answer him.
He’d pick at the wound: “I want you to make one friend today…”
At the end of the day, he’d ask me, “Did you make any friends today?” I would stay silent, and melt into a pool of tears and snot.
I now realize that the bully was using friends as a yardstick for social status, a yardstick to beat me with. He did not know the meaning of true friendship, which is rooted in liking, love, and intimacy. Over the years I’ve gone on to cultivate some true friends.
One such friend is my high school English teacher John. We have a lot to talk about (in the realms of literature and philosophy). There is a mutual desire for our thriving. And we show up for each other, in different small ways, though we don’t live in the same place.
I believe that that friendship is the basis of any real relationship. Friendship is a two-way acknowledgement of humanity. It is a commitment to show up with care, presence and empathy. An empty teacup is a high bar.
Gratitude is about being deeply thankful to the universe for my existence. An attitude of “I got the lottery ticket, I won consciousness! Thank you!” I agree with Stephen Colbert that we don’t get a “Life B” without suffering, so we have the choice to be grateful for life as it is (including the suffering) or not.
I wear a bracelet of beautiful stones to remind myself that life is beautiful and amazing (pictured above). I love the framing of the Jewish Prayer Dayenu: It would have been enough. If I don’t get X, Y, Z, in life, then mere existence would have been enough.
I have spent large parts of my life in stuckness, in isolated rooms where I’m cycling through the same negative thoughts, ad infinitum. Here are some flavors of stuckness:
- Catastrophizing — visualizing negative future outcomes in my head.
- Complaining — about the past or my present situation without doing anything to change it.
- Hopelessness — Believing that my life is forever doomed because of something I did or something that happened in the past. As David Foster Wallace says, “the gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
- Addiction — chasing momentary positive feelings.
The way out of all these forms of stuckness, the way to find flow, I think, is to re-commit to living my values in the here and now. To go back to my leap of faith. Not to deny pain and suffering, but to experience the negative fully while also committing to my values.
Pleasure and meaning
One of the most meaningful days of my life was the day after I had screened Magic Julius, a film I made in college. I felt this incredible sense of serenity. I had spent the entire past year working on the film, from script, to casting, to shooting, to editing. Now, it was done and screened. It felt like completion. I felt fulfilled not by the movie itself, but because I had “gone my own way.” I had pursued an interest that was authentic to me, and saw it through to its conclusion.
The movie was not fun to work on. I did enjoy editing and writing at times, but there was so much stress and conflict at nearly every point in the process. At one point, an angry actor picked me up by my shirt and pinned me against a wall. At another point, a lead actor got sick at the last minute, and I had to recast her. That was the most stressful moment in the whole shoot. I felt like the world was imploding. I started running with no plan. I just ran, ran, ran, to get away from it all.
Making the movie was meaningful because it was something that I wanted to do. I saw “The Big Lebowski” in high school and realized that there was such a job as “director.” I instantly wanted to pursue filmmaking in college. And I did.
I realized, eventually, that I didn’t want to pursue film as a career. Nonetheless, it was meaningful to me to make the movie. To pursue my interest wholeheartedly, and see it to its conclusion. Even though there wasn’t that much pleasure, and there was much stress, in the task.
Pleasure comes in many forms: Chocolate. Music. Sex. Jokes. Pleasure gives life its color and spice. Without it, life would be drab indeed. However, pleasure isn’t enough for a good life, because its half-life is short. Once the chocolate is swallowed, the taste is gone.
Meaning is generated through a slower process than pleasure: it requires telling stories to myself, like the story about the movie above. These stories are driven, at their core, by values. The key value in the movie story is integrity.
An agreement I will make with myself: when there’s a choice between doing the hard thing that will give more meaning, and doing the easy thing that will give more pleasure, I will choose meaning.
God, Death, Spirituality
I was raised Jewish, which taught that the Jewish people were chosen by God. A lot of religions teach something along these lines. “Pray in this way, to our God, and you’ll go to heaven. If you don’t, you are a heathen, and God will hate you.”
I don’t see why God would divide humans up in this way. Why should God love the Jews, and not the Hindus? Why should God love humans above animals? Why would God create all these different groups, that all believe their God is the true one?
In my view, all of the universe, in totality, is God. The universe conspired to create my parents, who conspired to give me the lottery ticket of conscious existence, for a short time. My parents are not separate from the sun, or the bees. So I am also deeply grateful for the sun, and the bees, and the flowers, and the tomato plants. These are my parents too.
I am immensely grateful to the universe, for creating me. I feel connected to all its elements. God is in everything. Thank you, God.
My definition of spirituality is a feeling of connection: to myself, to others, to the universe. There was a point of my life when I thought I was special, that I could cheat death. I was studying abroad in Australia, and would go to dance parties with my friends. I would see everyone dancing, but visualize them as future skeletons. Don’t they know they will perish? Why aren’t they working on curing aging? Why are they involved in such frivolous pursuits?
I did take my desire to cure aging seriously, and this led me to a conference in LA called “Ending Aging.” The people I met there struck me as a bit odd. I couldn’t describe it exactly, but there was something off about the whole vibe.
I kept up my desire to end aging, though, and this was a big part of my motivation to go to medical school. As I progressed through the pipeline of training, and got to see real patients, I came to a slow realization: I would die, and that was OK. Just in the last week, I’ve seen the “God taketh away” part of life’s equation: a pharmaceutical executive rendered bedbound by Guillain-Bare Syndrome. A software engineer went mountain biking and took a small spill, which caused compression of his spinal cord. A man in his 50s has a severe form of dementia.
What keeps me from experiencing such loss? Am I special? Is there a glass wall that separates me from suffering?
No. I don’t think there is. I am made of the same stuff as my patients. I am vulnerable. “Why not me?” is a good way to see suffering. Eventually, the angel of suffering and death will come for me, just as it does for all people and animals. I understand this intellectually, but I’m sure it’ll be a different thing entirely when it happens.
Suffering is a basic fact of life. We come from the earth, and to the earth we must return. We don’t even make “special” compost, we just make “pretty good” compost.
An awareness of death enhances my sense of spirituality, because it enhances my sense of connection. “Does her shit not stink?” a friend once remarked. We all poop, food goes through all our bowels and gets transformed. And in the same way, we will all be transformed by death. As Pink Floyd sang, “After all, we’re only ordinary men.” This feeling of ordinariness is profoundly connecting. No one is special.
Commitment to Truth
I was jogging the other day and came to the gate of beautiful college campus. There was an attendant at the booth.
“Are you a student?” the attendant called.
“Yes,” I said, and ran into the college. I still look like a student! I thought to myself.
Then, realizing that I’d lied, I instantly felt guilty.
But a split-second later, my inner lawyer chimed in: “Well, I am a student…of Buddhism…And besides, I don’t have any bad intentions…”
Just like that, my ego started defending myself against the feeling of guilt. I started spinning a web of lies. Now that I think about it, lying to the attendant wasn’t as bad as the lying to myself. In lying to myself, I split myself off from my true feelings. Without knowing my true feelings, I can’t make truth-based decisions going forwards, such as: don’t lie. It isn’t worth it.
Now there are some situations where I think it’s OK to lie (for instance, to save a life). But I don’t want to be a “casual liar.” I don’t want lie to get a discount on car insurance, or lie to go for a jog through a pretty campus.
Lying in little situations makes it more likely that I’ll lie in bigger ones. I might have to forego certain pleasures if I stay committed to truth, but in the long run, I think I’ll feel more confident and whole for I will know that my words mean something.
Granted, there will likely be situations where I’ll mess up and have to forgive myself for not being perfect. However, truth is my ideal.
I believe we can only make progress on both an individual and societal level if we seek the truth. My first commitment to myself is to be honest with myself. Journaling and talking to others has been a core practice for this. For instance, I didn’t realize that I was lying to myself about feeling guilty until I talked about my feelings with my partner.