When I gave a workshop on change at a well-known retreat center, one participant told me that this was the tenth week-long workshop he attended in the past five years.

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“Why so many?” I asked.

“I’m looking to find meaning in my life.”

What I wanted to say was “why not stop looking and do something instead?” Trying to be compassionate, I nodded as if I understood, but didn’t.

We often look for meaning in our lives by relying on gurus, enrolling in workshops, seeing psychotherapists, and meditating for hours. And when we fail to achieve the success expected through these approaches, we may blame ourselves for not being sufficiently committed to change, rather than questioning the path’s validity. It’s analogous to the old story about a student seeking enlightenment.

The student would sit meditating for long periods of time, waiting for enlightenment to engulf him. A teacher, watching him for weeks, sat down next to him and grabbed a piece of broken pottery. Without looking at the student or saying anything, he placed the chard in his lap and began rubbing it with a filthy cloth. After two hours of silently watching the old man, the student asked a question.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Making a mirror.”

“But how can you make a mirror by polishing a pot shard with a cloth?”

“How can you become enlightened by just sitting?”

There is nothing wrong with attending lectures given by knowledgeable people, or meditating on a specific problem (or on nothing), or going on an introspective journey. Each can contribute to making one’s life better. But, none, either singularly or together will provide the wisdom that comes from engaging in the world.

There is a Buddhist belief, that only by moving into the sharp points in life—those things that we fear the most—can one grow. I doubt few can say they transformed their life by laying on a beach in Hawaii, looking at the waves, and being served Mai Tais.

I believe personal transformation is related to struggle—anything that moves us away from our comfort level into a zone of uncertainty. And there’s nothing like community service to offer a smorgasbord of sharp points.

When you serve others there is no theory, no distance between what is happening and you. It takes you from being an observer to a participant, getting your hands dirty by immersing them into the lives of people who need you.

I witnessed it with those who volunteer in hospice and with family caregivers of chronically and terminally-ill loved ones. Many of their life-long problems that were unsuccessfully treated with psychotherapy or repeatedly addressed in growth workshops, became trivial by comparison to the problems of the people they served. How can one remain obsessed with a stagnating personal relationship when someone you are serving who has no friends or family looks to you for comfort?

I remember a person at one of my workshops who said throughout his life he struggled choosing  between options, such as which of two equally wonderful jobs to accept. According to him, the inability to make a decision was the basis of a history of anxiety and endless “What if…” scenarios. That changed when, as a volunteer for a cancer support group, he was asked by a young woman to help her decide if she should continue heroic medical efforts to prolong her life in pain, or to enter hospice and allow the cancer to progress.

The essayist H.L. Menken wrote, “We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.” Meditation and insight therapy aren’t necessarily moonshine, but neither should they be confused with knowledge. I know my friends who are mediators and those involved in insight therapy will disagree. They forcefully argue that both can lead to an understanding of what’s involved in precepts of living such as acceptance, compassion, living in the moment, and gratitude, among others.

But how would their understanding of acceptance be changed if instead of thinking about it, they listened to a mother who realized her five-year-old severely disabled son will need supportive care throughout his life? Compassion, by feeding a dying AIDs patient no longer able to hold a fork? Living in the moment,as theywatch a mother cradle her terminally-ill newborn during a surprise Mother’s Day party? Andgratitude, in the gentle kiss of a man with ALS as they help him prepare to die?

Yes, it is possible to have a distant understanding of these concepts through meditation and insight. But for me it’s the same as a physician, who, having completed medical school first in his class, performs an advanced open-heart surgery without ever having touched a scalpel.

The mathematician and humanist, Jacob Bronowski said the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. There’s a story of a young man who came to a monastery hoping to learn the secrets of life from an enlightened old monk. After being there one year, he was allowed to ask the master one question.

“Master, what is the secret of life?”

“Have you eaten your rice gruel?” the old man asked.

“Yes,” the confused student responded.

“Then go wash your bowl.”

Maybe we need to listen to the old master and wash our bowls rather than thinking about doing it.

12 Responses

  1. Dr. Ramgopal Devadas

    Nice article. I view it as better explanation and better than any other preaching’s by knowledgeable gurus of present day India.

    Good luck,

    Stan.

    Reply
  2. Gary Polsky

    “Letting go and taking the path of least resistance” is what I have learned after 20 years of hospice ownership. Enjoying your life means acting, doing, being present with all those level 5 people who you choose to fill up your soul “until your last breath”. Persistance and relentlessness to create “real time” joyful habits make this happen. Thank you very much Gary Polsky

    Reply
  3. Mary Hamilton

    Oh, yes, this is so true. One cannot sufficiently be committed to change or to transform their lives unless they are ready to move on the thoughts. One foot in front of the other . . . even baby steps . . . it still counts as movement, and consequently, change in the smallest of form; but change indeed. One must only begin, to take the first step. You write so beautifully, and spark such inner depth of thoughts in your readers. Thank you for sharing YOU with US!

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Mary,

      I agree with you about the distinction between thinking and doing. But it’s so easy–even for the most committed person–to keep think about doing something rather than beginning to change.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Barbara,
      You’re right. I think must people who are unfamiliar with hospice find that you must participate rather than observe. And that, in and of itself, is something that is unique to hospice and caregiving.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Ronee,

      I really believe those who are connected to hospice have a special understanding of the articles I write.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  4. Katharine Dupre

    Absolutely agree with what you said! Moving into sharp points and finding ways to deal with it is definitely the way to grow. I’m finding many sharp points to deal with in my life and feel glad that I’m conquering them. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Katharine,

      I agree about the importance of leaning into the sharp points. Sometimes I wish the points were a little duller–but then so would I be!

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply

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