We all want our lives to have meaning—but sometimes we’re unsure what that is. This question of meaning has many significant threads: it’s a question that touches upon our sense of identity and worthiness, and asks us to explore what we’re committed to in this life. George Eliot once wrote, “It seems to me that we can never give up longing and wishing while we are alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good and we must hunger for them.”

I would suggest that it is the beautiful and the good that we aspire to and value above all else. In the midst of the beautiful and the good, we feel most alive, most awake, and most present. The Buddha’s teachings are about cultivating the beautiful and the good, the seeds of possibility that live in every human heart: generosity, kindness, and compassion. These qualities ennoble our hearts and leave no residue of regret in our minds.

A few weeks ago I was in a conversation with a woman I mentor, a woman who has achieved many things. She develops mindfulness treatments for cancer patients, writes books, and teaches. She lives an incredibly worthy life by any standard. She talked about being of an age at which it is time for her to pull back and to give up some of that activity, but she found herself questioning how much meaning her life would have as she retreated from her essential work. It became apparent how complex the word meaning is—how that longing to live a meaningful, creative, fulfilling life is such a powerful aspiration.

In our culture, the idea of meaning is weighty. We ask children what they’re going to do when they grow up rather than who they’ll be. Early in our lives, the seeds are planted to imagine that the meaning of our lives is going to be defined by what we do or by how we are perceived by others.

I’ve met so many people who, when they wake up without a plan or project for the day, feel that this renders their life meaningless. At the same time I’m increasingly aware of how we live in a culture of exhausted people. This includes dharma teachers! I’m embarrassed when we get together and everybody reports how tired they are. Some of you may sense this when you go on retreat. It feels as if the reservoir is empty. You spend the first two days of retreat simply recovering from life. Thomas Merton spoke about the contemporary violence of our times: being answerable to too many people, saying yes to too many things, taking on too much. But in our culture even the exhaustion can seem admirable because we’re so needed. For some the luxury of waking up to a “don’t-know” day, a day empty of projects, is a distant memory. (I do appreciate that for those who are prone to low moods, “don’t-know” days can feel very bleak and depressing.)

In the Buddha’s teaching, desire is a very interesting word. In fact, it’s not one word alone; there are a number of words in Pali that might be translated as “desire.” The Buddha teaches that there are many wholesome desires: the desire to serve, the desire to give, the desire to be free, the desire to cultivate qualities of heart that ennoble our lives and lead us to connect with others. It’s desire that causes us to seek depth and understanding. It is desire that brings about wholesome social change and justice. Our desires are catalysts for all change and transformation, both outwardly and inwardly. They are at the root of skillful effort.

Yet there are also desires that aren’t so noble. These are the insatiable appetites that create stress. One of the subtlest of these desires is called bhavatanha, which may be translated as “the craving to become.” This is the endless desire to become the kind of person who only has pleasant experiences, who is admired and applauded and loved. It’s a desire to become the kind of person who is secure and safe; a person without blemish or imperfection; a person who never fails, who’s never criticized, who’s never judged. Often we’re barely aware of how powerful and compulsive this craving to become is, the degree to which it organizes our world, our relationships, and our choices. It makes us really busy. In order to become this person, we have to engage in many activities and rearrange the conditions of our lives. The pursuit of this desire is equated with success. It’s about finding an identity, which in turn is about worthiness. If I become a person who has only good meditations, who gets only positive feedback, who is successful, and who manages to defend against the unpleasant, then I’ve reached a state of worthiness. I believe my life will have meaning.

If we look at bhavatanha from a reasonable point of view, we might ask, “Is it possible?” From a rational perspective, we would say “No.” None of us has the power to control and re-arrange the conditions of our lives so that we have only pleasant experiences. The Buddha suggested that bhavatanha, the eternal quest for perfection and the ideal self, is the source of the greatest suffering in our lives. But we may find ourselves wondering: What would we do without bhavatanha? What would motivate us? What would give meaning to our lives if we weren’t always striving to become?

From the angle of contemplative practice, it’s really helpful to release the word “meaning” as we usually understand it and to explore the word “meaningfulness.” There’s a vast difference between these two. Meaningfulness is not about great achievement or success; it’s not about grand identities or roles. It’s about how we live our moments. It’s about how we attend to the details of our lives. As I was sitting in conversation with my mentee, the thought came to me: “Why isn’t it considered meaningful to look out my window and appreciate the camellia blooming? Why isn’t this as meaningful as finishing a grand project or becoming someone?” It was clear to me in that moment that if I attended to the camellia wholeheartedly, the moment filled with appreciation and beauty. Right then, there was no sense of lack and no need to improve upon the moment. There was no need to be anyone. The camellia didn’t affirm a “me,” but by observing it with my whole being it affirmed a capacity for stillness, receptivity, and appreciation. It didn’t mean that I was going to sit in that chair forever. I wasn’t going to tell my publisher that my book would never be finished or my children that I’d retired as a mother. But it pointed to the way we dichotomize doing and being.

It’s a desire to become the kind of person who is secure and safe; a person without blemish or imperfection; a person who never fails, who’s never criticized, who’s never judged.

What do I mean by being? In the exhaustion of our busyness, the thought of “just being” sounds attractive. I hear people say, “I don’t want to expend any more effort to settle my mind, to be mindful, to be awake. I just want to be.” I understand why this sentiment arises, but we need to be careful. The Buddha’s teaching is a profoundly aspirational one. It points to the deep and transformational possibilities that live in every human heart. The Buddha pointed out that the seeds of liberative understanding and clarity, of kindness and compassion, lie within each of us. And the path to their fruition lies in our commitment. These intentions translate into an embodied way of being. It’s said that the whole of this path rests upon the head of the pin of intention, but “effort” is one of the most frequently used words in the Pali canon. Effort sets us on a path to awakening.

And yet in our practice, we discover how our intentions can slide into becoming another project. So often, I hear the word “work” mentioned these days. Everybody’s working on something! Is this what the practice is about? Be aware of how we translate this desire “to become” into our practice. Have you ever wondered where the end of that work is? If the core sense of self remains unquestioned, it’s always going to find something new to work on. We arrive on retreat with a project of what we have to work on and find ourselves engaged in another quest for identity, worthiness, and meaning with a capital M. We want to be a good meditator. We want a perfectly collected mind and to be eternally mindful, compassionate, and kind. When it’s elusive, we tell ourselves to sit more. But just sitting won’t bring aspiration to embodiment and fulfillment—only understanding and commitment can do that. This includes the commitment to relinquish the endless search for becoming that governs our lives. When that desire “to become” remains empty and unfulfilled, we think, “Maybe it’s just not possible for me.” When we collapse into that exhaustion, then “just being” suddenly looks good.

But we need to be aware of this ideology of “just being,” too. With an attachment to “just being,” how easy it is to yield our hunger for the beautiful and the good. “Just being” can be a yielding to doubt. The toxic companion of the craving to become is the craving for non-becoming. This is when we push away everything that delivers an identity we don’t want: difficult thoughts, bodily experiences, events, and even challenging meditations. We try to annihilate the identity we don’t want, annihilating our sense of aspiration in the process. We flounder and despair, convincing ourselves of impossibility and meaninglessness.

It’s difficult to find an equivalent word for being in Pali. Instead, there are phrases that point to a way of being present and inhabiting this life. One phrase the Buddha uses is “calm abiding” [shamatha]. Another is “equanimity” [upekkha]. He uses the word stillness [passaddhi]. as a way of being present within all moments when there is de-centering of “me,” of self, of identity. These phrases are worthy of deep contemplation and exploration.

When I looked at the camellia, for example, a door opened. I saw what it meant to rest in a quality of profound easefulness where I’m alive and dynamic. There’s a clear sense of not-wanting and sufficiency. The meaningfulness is not in the object—the meaningfulness is in the seeing. Buddhist practice is constantly inviting us to explore that calm abiding. In this way, we may discover that doing and being aren’t so polarized. They work in unison, cooperating to allow a wakeful presence in all the moments and details of our lives. This presence is responsive and creative, a way of being that isn’t born of wanting or not wanting, but of stillness.

Craving “to become” is an impulse that makes us lean forward, away from here, into a better moment, a better self. When we do so, we separate that idealized moment from the actuality of what is just here. It’s only when we learn to end the separation of the possible and the actual that we also learn to end this dichotomy between doing and being. Calm abiding is a present-tense phrase, a way of being in the midst of our lives. We learn to calmly abide in the body, in the mind, in the midst of reactivity. Nothing has to go away. It’s the camellia blooming outside the window again. It’s the shift from the object orientation to the seeing orientation. All of our likes and all of our dislikes, our wanting and not wanting, are born of object orientation. This object orientation—defining identity by objects (including the contents of our consciousness)—limits us. We’ll always have a sense of unease within it.

artwork of a field of flowers for story about how to find meaning in life
Beyond the View, No. 2, 2009. © Helen Sear, courtesy Klompching Gallery, New York.

We find ourselves feeling that praise will make me a better self and blame will make me a worse self. A good meditation, whatever that is, says something important about who I am. And a so-called bad meditation really is that: just affirming a sense of unworthiness or failure in capacity. We see how easily we define ourselves by the contents of experience and our minds. In the search for this idealized self, we look at the world through self-referential eyes: “What does this mean to me?” If it means something positive based on the past, my life somehow becomes meaningful. If I look at the world and receive something that challenges or shakes my identity, life becomes impossible and bleak.

Calm abiding is something different. It’s a deep knowing of the ways in which events come and go, both unlovely and lovely. It’s knowing that we can’t control or define ourselves by those events. It’s learning to rest in a non-preferential, non-reactive relationship that is sensitive, receptive, and free from the demand that things go one way or another. Calm abiding is established through intention and commitment. It limits the tide of events and experience. As the Buddha put it, it is knowing “This does not belong to me. This is not who I am. This is not me.”

As we learn to rest in that state of calm abiding amid the river of events and experience, we learn to attend to the details. Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light comes in.” By learning to rest in this caring, sensitive, friendly seeing, we get a taste of upekkha, equanimity, which the Buddha uses interchangeably with nibbana, or liberation, in the Udana Sutta. In the Pali canon there is discourse in praise of equanimity where the Buddha says, “For one who clings, motion exists, but for one who does not cling, there is no motion. Where no motion is, there is stillness. Where stillness is, there no craving is, there is neither coming nor going. Where no coming or going is, there is no arising or passing away. There is neither this world, nor a world beyond, nor a state between. This verily is the end of suffering.”

When we rest, we begin to see the interwoven nature of how events and identity bind together through misperception and clinging to create suffering. We learn to unbind from that perpetual contractedness through awareness. We are less prone to launch ourselves into the compulsive and agitated activities of doing and fixing, getting rid of, in the endless search for the ideal self. We learn to befriend not-knowing, to be still and learn responsiveness, and to foster an intention to bring to each moment just what is needed. It doesn’t mean that there are no objects or events, but that we explore the landscape of meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is found not only in the dramatic and the intense but also in the small moments, illuminated by a curious awareness. We discover that meaningfulness is in our being present. We don’t need to seek meaning, but to understand our capacity to be present in this responsive, still way. It’s in how our foot touches the ground, how we meet another person, how we meet ourselves. The camellia is actually enough. There’s nothing as impoverished as the deeply unawakened heart; and nothing enriches us more, and brings more life and meaningfulness, than the awakened heart.