the urgency of finding one’s aim in life

compass held in hand in forest

It is better to find wisdom.

Luang Po

A question we should ask ourselves and try very hard to answer:

What is my aim in the life?

For what purpose do I live? What is my reason for being alive, the thing that accords it a value?

Do I live with an aim, with purpose, do I choose my actions according to what will bring me closer to my aim – or do I just wander here and there, following whatever thing I find that I like, drifting, literally aim-less?

Most people do not know what their aim is, they are just following their nose, going after whatever will bring the most immediate sense of satisfaction; trying to be comfortable, trying to enjoy life.

Do you think this is a good way to live?

The very first place where we have to start, if we are at all interested in finding a sense of meaning that is higher than a nine-to-five job punctuated by entertainment – is to find out what is our aim in the life.

Otherwise, are simply floating in any direction, like a raft without a sail, on the great ocean being blown this way and that, not knowing where we will end up, as our life passes by without us noticing. Once we know the answer to this question for sure, it makes everything clear; completely clear. This aim is our focus, everything else drops away, this is how we decide what we do, we base our actions on our aim.

How do we find an aim in the life if we don’t have one yet? What is an aim?

Can we describe our aim like this: “I will plant so many trees,” “I will write a book,” “I will have a big house,” “I will visit so many countries.”?

No – these are not aims: they are a way to support ourselves; or a hobby, or a form of entertainment; or an object that we want to acquire.

Can we describe an aim in this way: “I will be vegetarian – no, I will be vegan –  no, I will be minimalist, I will only eat this or that; I will only buy this or that”? No, these are not aims either.

What words can we use to describe an aim in the life? Not just a business aim or a short-term goal.

Is it material or immaterial? It is for you, this is about your life and nobody else’s, so try to find an answer.

Do we know that life is limited?

Everyone is very attached to their life, and fears death. Even at the age of eighty or ninety, most people are not ready to die yet, not right this minute.

If we love our life, we should be careful with it – though not in the sense of trying constantly to avoid dying, for no matter what we do, we cannot avoid the death that will come for us when it is our time. Rather, we should careful with the time we are allocated, and use it well. Most of us, however, do not do so. If you really valued your life, you would have an aim, to be sure that you do not waste away the time you have left.

What is the factor that decides whether we waste something and throw it away carelessly, or treat it as something valuable and precious?

If you have ever been without running water for a period of time, relying on a certain limited quantity bottles and buckets, you will know that as long as we have a limited quantity of water with which to do everything we have to do, we are very careful with it, paying attention not to pour any unnecessarily away, not to spill a drop. As soon as the water comes back as normal, though, we quickly and easily go back to our old habit of pouring it away and using more than is necessary for each task we have to do with it, unless we live in a poor country or a very dry place where water is known to be a precious, expensive and limited resource.

 Thus, when we know that something we have is in limited quantity, and this thing is important and necessary to us, we are careful with it.

When we don’t know that something is in limited quantity and think there’s an unending supply of it, we waste it and throw it away.

And so, this question we should ask ourselves – it is a question whose answer profoundly impacts on how we choose to live our life, and therefore we should try to get to the bottom of it: do we know that we will die, do we know that our life is limited?

The truth is that no matter where we live, we have the impression that the air we breathe is unlimited. We think that there is no limit to the breaths we can take. We think it is the normal way of things for our breath to continue, for life to continue, while in reality our breathing is limited: each breath we take is one less that we have left, as though we were underwater with a tank of oxygen, the oxygen in it gradually running out.

This oxygen tank is a metaphor of course, for the air around us is not the thing that limits our breathing. Yet our breathing is absolutely limited all the same, for every one of us has our time to die. We do not know when it will be, but it is the one thing that we can be absolutely certain will happen to us.

We do not know how many breaths we have left to breathe – how big or how small our “tank of oxygen” is. All we know is that every breath we take is one less we have left.

But do we actually know this?  Do we know it like this, do we think of it like this?

 Do we live as though it were true? If not, – why not? Why can’t we believe in such a simple and obvious fact – isn’t it strange?

Whether we believe it and live by it or not: still, nevertheless, it remains true.

Then if we do not really believe this fact, if we do not shape our actions according to it – it means that we are living our lives according to a lie.

What do you think: what is better to live by, truth or untruth?

How would it be if we were to live according to the truth rather than the lie?

What are you doing with the minutes and hours of this life? What are you making of yourself as the days fly away, as the months pass by? If we were to think of it like this, would we feel more the urgency of having an aim for our life, knowing what we are trying to accomplish here?

The rarity of human life

Among the teachings of the Buddha, there is a metaphor of a blind turtle swimming around a planet covered in water, and coming up for air once every hundred years. On this planet covered in water, there floats a single raft with a single small hole in the middle.

If that blind turtle coming up for air once in a hundred years should happen to poke his head through the hole in the raft, it would be an extraordinarily rare and improbable thing.

The great rarity of this event represents the extreme rarity of the event of being born human.

 Beings may be born in any one of literally thousands of worlds that exist. There is the human world, the animal world, the worlds of spirits, the worlds of gods and the worlds of suffering.

Most human beings who are searchers of spirituality, who are on a spiritual quest, desire to have some connection to other realms; praying to spirits and gods. Yet, at the same time, those very spirits and gods desire most of all to be born as a human being. This is considered the best of destinations (though in a degenerate age such as the present, such a destination is perhaps not so desirable.)

This human existence is seen as not only limited in its extent, but as an exceedingly rare and precious opportunity. Once it is gained, it should be used with great care. Why? If we want to start living according to the truth that our lives are limited, and that we die, we should try to understand this first. Why is it considered a blessing to be born as a human? Is there an answer we can find for ourselves?  

The most valuable things in the world are in reality the most useful.

In a time of great famine and drought, the poor farmer on whose land is home to a well of clean water is the richest man in the land, and he will not trade this well for any amount of gold. Water is the most useful substance on earth, besides the air we breathe; it is this that gives us the ability to live.

But what is our life useful for?

Does this life have a value in and of itself, on its own?  It is here, we are here, the body is here, the mind is here, and the body will die, is already dying; the mind will die with the body. Where is the value, where is the meaning of it, in being alive?

On its own, it’s just one of the countless numberless billions of lives of beings that appear and disappear, like stars flickering in the reflection of water, here one moment, gone the next. What is the use?

The opportunity of human birth

Once, monks, the thought occurred to King Yama: ‘Those who commit wrongdoings in this world suffer in these many ways. O, that I might gain the human state! And that a Tathagata – worthy and rightly self-awakened – might arise in this world! And that I might listen to that Tathagata! And that I might understand his Dhamma!

MN 130

We are told that all beings long for a human birth. Just to have the chance be human is considered as something especially valuable. So let us try to find the value in it, so that we can make good use of the opportunity.

What, specifically is so special about human life? Is there an answer that we can find ourselves? What is the difference between an animal and a human?

Both have a body made of cells constantly dividing and constantly dying. There is no difference and nothing superior or inferior in the body of a human compared to the body of an animal. It is ridiculous to think that all beings wish to be human for the sake of a human body.

Neither is it for the sake of the pleasure one can experience as a human being, for being born in a heavenly world, one has the most agreeable of existences, the highest happiness. The lives of beings in heavenly worlds are many times longer than the lives of human beings. Then what is it that we have access to as a human being, to which one does not have access as a god or an animal, or a being in hell?

Both animals and humans have a mind, which is mostly emotionally driven, running for what they love and running from what they hate and fear. Animals can remember, recognise, are conscious.  Both animals and humans can communicate. Humans and animals can both play, and humans have some more refined forms of play than animals; but still they remain simply forms of play.

 What is the difference?

An animal cannot ask himself these questions. He cannot go against his own nature, against his own habits. A pig will never decide to go on a fast when there is a lot of food around. You will not see a herd animal going to live as a hermit in the mountains.

As humans we have a capacity that an animal does not have: an animal cannot reflect on himself, he cannot turn his mind back towards himself, question himself, his own identity, existence, or decisions.

You don’t see animals dedicating their lives to the search for wisdom.

It is here that we see difference between animals and humans.

As for heavenly beings: since only agreeable things surround them, there is only enjoyment, nothing pushing one to change, make sacrifices or work.  Progress and change is very slow. One who has enough to eat easily becomes fat and lazy.

A human has the capacity to turn his mind inward, to interrogate himself, question his own ideas, his own values, reflect on his own thoughts, words and actions and, especially, work to change and correct them, re-direct them.

Because we are constantly confronted with the duality of happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, light and dark, comfort and discomfort, we have a spur to push us from darkness towards light, to go in search of wisdom. When we see problems inside us, it is up to ourselves to get rid of these problems and be free of them.

This is the potential value of life as a human being.

It is a potential value, mind you. Whether we use this opportunity or not to search for truth, to search for the way to live according to truth – that is up to us.

(It also, of course, depends somewhat upon which circumstances in which we are born, what education we have, and whether we have the time and space for such reflection, or whether every day is simply a struggle for survival. All of which is also the result of our own past actions.)

Most of us are not searchers for wisdom. The more time and comfort we have, the more we go for entertainment; nothing more.  Most of what we do in our lives is for entertainment; even our jobs, even our food is our entertainment; we don’t eat just to sustain our lives but to enjoy the taste.

It is not necessary to play sport, or music, or to go to parties, or to watch movies, or to do many of the things on which we spend our time, but we do all these things merely to pass the time in an agreeable way, not to allow ourselves to see how boring life truly is when all the entertainment is stripped from it, or to fall into the pain of loneliness.

And with all this, what are we making of ourselves as the days and months fly by? Do we know ourselves? Have we solved any problems that we find in ourselves, or have we just modified something small that allows us to avoid facing them for the time being?

We come back to the question with which we began: what is my aim in this life? The value of our life is in the aim of our life, nothing more. Without a higher aim, our lives carry no more weight than that of a fruit fly buzzing around a tomato.

If you don’t have an aim in the life, you should find one. One that is true and that comes from your heart, not just to tell people about it and do nothing with it. Not just to think about from time to time without acting on it.

Do not allow yourself to think that it is too hard. It is easy; everything is easy. Only the human mind is lazy.

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