A Zen tale goes like this.
After spending a few days with his friend, a blind man started for his hometown one night. When his friend handed him a lit lantern, he asked, “Of what use is a lamp to a blind person?”
The friend said, “This lamp is not for you. It’s for the person in front, to stop them from bumping into you.”
The blind man took the lantern and set out on his journey.
Down the road, someone collided with him and caused him to fall down. Angry, the blind man asked, “Can’t you watch where you’re going? I had a lamp with me. Why did you bump into me?”
“What lamp?” the man who bumped into him asked and looked around.
Then he found it and said, “Oh yes! This lamp here. But the flame went out long ago.”
The blind man held the lamp for the light it emitted. But holding it after the flame went out became a meaningless ritual.
Most of us behave in a similar fashion far more than we would like.
Meaningless “Rituals” in Our Lives
Our daily lives are filled with tasks and activities with the aim of achieving certain goals.
We attend meetings and engage in email chains to get work done. We head to the mall to enjoy quality outdoor time with our loved ones. We use social media and text messages to stay updated with people in our circles.
But when we don’t understand their true purpose, activities quickly turn into meaningless rituals.
Meetings and emails get in the way of work getting done.
Going out on weekends becomes a routine but it doesn’t improve the relationship between loved ones and us.
People touch their phones an average of 2,617 times a day, but doing it makes them feel worse instead of better.
And we keep adding more tasks to our lives because we equate productivity with busyness.
In all this, we end up doing things for their sake. And this creates huge problems like:
- Exhaustion: We feel mentally exhausted by doing countless tasks without feeling fulfilled.
- Frustration: We feel like hamsters on a wheel, no matter how hard we run.
- Anxiety: We cannot process our own emotions and understand who we really are.
Life becomes a messy series of reactions to stuff that happens to us. It turns into the polar opposite of what we hoped it would be.
But it doesn’t have to be so. By posing 3 simple questions to ourselves, we can build a life that makes us feel happier and more fulfilled.
The Route to a Meaningful Life
It’s in the human DNA to do meaningful work, to build a life we control with our perceptions, actions, and willpower.
Building such a life doesn’t take heroic capabilities or turning things upside down. It’s simpler than you think.
Just ask yourself these questions and act on the answers.
1. Why am I doing this?
Meaningful tasks contribute to outcomes. What outcome do you hope to achieve through the task?
It’s also important to gauge whether the outcome still matters to you. Is it something that mattered deeply a few years ago but is not relevant to the Present You? If yes, It’s okay to let go of such outcomes (and tasks).
Asking “Why am I doing this?” helps you understand whether the task moves you towards an outcome that helps you become better.
2. Does this make me happy?
A meaningful life is about the pursuit of happiness; not the feeling, but a result of activities where we use our capabilities the best we can.
Taking action always makes us happier than consuming. Tasks that stretch our abilities put us in a state of flow. We enjoy them because they’re challenging enough to just be manageable. In the process, we become better than we were yesterday.
Spend more time than you currently do on tasks that stretch you and offer joy, and you’ll improve the quality of your life.
3. Is this the best use of my time?
A common way to increase anxiety is to put off doing what we should in the present moment in favor of doing something easier.
Playing the guitar makes me happy. But should I play it when a deadline looms? Watching an interesting series makes me happy. But should I watch it during the time allotted for the gym? (Maybe if I need a break, but those are one-off cases.)
Doing what we want to at the expense of what we should, fills us with guilt. Doing what we should at the expense of what’s easier helps us build discipline. The latter doesn’t just make us happier; it also helps us reap long-term rewards.
Your life is a culmination of your actions. Do what’s important in the present moment and you’ll feel more in control.
Reflect on the above questions for each of your tasks. You’ll find that many tasks are as useful as the lamp whose flame ran out. You’ll also find compelling reasons to begin some tasks you’ve been putting off.
Reducing a myriad of meaningless tasks will create a vacuum in your life, which you can fill with a few meaningful ones to build a proactive and fulfilling life.
Widen Your Gaze
The blind man couldn’t tell when the flame went out.
But you can. You just have to do find your true North and move towards it.
It’s time to figure out your purpose and turn it into a guiding lamp. Or you can create new tools to guide you towards your destination.
The power lies in your hands. It always did, and it always will. Use it to the best of your capabilities.