A lot of people talk to me about wanting more direction in their lives, yet their struggles will often be made clear by the phrasing of their request. Which is to ‘want.’ But we aren’t looking for some external direction which we then go toward. That’s what ego’s do.
People don’t need to go far, be rich or famous, or do anything that would be particularly notable to a lot of other people to create a profoundly worthwhile life. Like a poker player on a night of bad cards at a friend’s, we have still won if we just accept our cards, and enjoy the playing, the food and the friendships instead.
As easy as that is, rather than exercise that responsibility, in many cases our ego thinks it’s helpful to ignore those positive things so that we can use our minds to blame ‘the cards’ instead. As though the cards themselves created the laws of nature and mathematics.
It’s hard not to agree that the cards played a role, but what is the point of that exercise in psychology if it we still have no control yet it upsets us?
To begin that blame process is understandable. We got an answer we don’t like. Rejection is a common initial reaction. But why stay in that state of mind when it doesn’t do anyone any good to justify their card-blaming?
We have to get practical. Life is an emotional experience, not a technical conclusion. And this is where the initial point about people wanting direction, and the latter point about people blaming their cards, meet.
Wanting direction is like asking to be pushed toward our value in life. The ‘wanting’ itself implies that this drive would come from outside of us rather than inside of us. But true motivation, enthusiasm and inspiration are not found using ego.
Rather than having society teach us to value and pursue some external version of success, we are better to develop our skills at appreciation and gratitude for everyone and everything around us.
If we scan this world with an appreciating and grateful eye, we will naturally find attractive things. And that attraction is what creates the internal pull that moves healthy people towards goals we value.
Despite the fact that being skilled at appreciation is highly valuable, a large percentage of people grew up with parents that were often too busy to stop to appreciate much themselves. And when they weren’t busy they often just passively watched TV, because they were exhausted.
Given that children mimic parents, it’s no surprise that a percentage of their kids are now killing time watching TV while they grow exhausted, waiting for some external inspiration to somehow strike them.
This isn’t any complaint about the parents. All the numbers show that both time and money have been stretched. But how often did each of us hear our parents dream? How often did they we see our parents deeply engaged in the glory of appreciating something beautiful, or profound, or poignant, or funny?
In short: if kids learn about the world through imitation, then who is teaching young people how to appreciate life?
There’s a joke about an old Scotsman who goes to the doctor. The doctor asks him what’s wrong, and the old guy takes his finger and pushes it on the top of his kneecap and he says, “When I push down like this, it hurts like the dickens.” The doctor nods and writes something down on his pad.
Then the old fella takes his hand and points up at his shoulder, at the little knob right there at the top. And he pushes on it too, and immediately winces. The doctor asks, “Hurts when you do that too?” And the old man nods.
Then the old man said, “But that’s not the end of it. Get this would ya:” And with that the old man slides off the table and he undoes his pants a bit. He takes his finger and pushes on the tip of his hip bone, on the same side of his body as with the knee and the shoulder.
“All on the same side. Any ideas Doc? It’s been hurting like all get-out for two weeks. Please tell me it’s curable.”
The doctor looks at his pad, does one final assessment of the man before looking him in the eye and saying, “Yes, I do believe it is. Based on this diagnosis I feel confident that you have a broken finger.”
Now the reason that little joke relates is that the person looking for direction, or meaning, or value, or purpose is like the old man in pain. The pain is real, but he’s looking at all the wrong parts of his life for the cause, when it’s actually hidden in the way he’s been approaching what he believes are his problems.
Bad relationships (or directionless ones); lackluster careers; a lack of meaningful hobbies or pursuits; or disconnected impersonal ‘friendships’ are not the problem. The ‘finger’ pointing at all of those symptoms is our inability to appreciate –the very same thing we never learned from those busy parents.
Fortunately, this is something that is natural and we can reignite it whenever we want. Besides, we still need to know how to live with a bit of disappointment. Even the people who had parents who were great at appreciating all know that everyone also spends periods of time where we do not fully use this skill to our greatest advantage. That’s just a part of growing wiser.
Equally fortunately, appreciation is a very enjoyable thing to practice, so why not start now? What’s the best thing about the day so far? What positive things do we have to look forward to? And between now and when we go to sleep, what are we going to consciously and actively do to pursue our own joy?
Learning to do this is much like learning anything. At the start it’s forced, we’re clumsy and bad at it, and that can be frustrating. But as with anything we repeat enough, over time we improve.
If we make appreciation a regular practice, within a month or two we will have rewired our own brains enough that optimism, enthusiasm and inspiration can start to become more routine feelings for us. And feeling that way is valuable, because that perspective can make any situation better, no matter how bad or good it might at first appear.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own over-thinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.