In the midst of our mad rush to get somewhere or be something in our lives, we often sense a gnawing emptiness deep inside that we cannot easily explain. We know something essential is missing, but can’t quite put our finger on what it is. We are surrounded by commercials that urge us to consume more, promising that their product will finally satisfy our inner longings. Yet, after a while it becomes apparent that instead of actually getting somewhere new, we are merely lost and walking in circles. We notice ourselves repeating the same pattern of striving for something we think will finally make us happy while desperately hoping that this time it will work.
The consequences of being stuck in this familiar rut can be devastating to the human spirit. Often we lose touch with our physical well-being, growing weak and overweight, and our body is plagued with illness and pain. Less apparent, yet perhaps more significant, we lose touch with our reason for living and sink into silent despair and depression. Our inherent inspiration and creativity is gradually replaced by a one dimensional desire for more that can never be fully satisfied. And we condemn ourselves to an endless treadmill where the only thing that gives our life meaning is reaching for something we do not yet have.
These painful realizations dawned on me at the end of my adolescence and as I was about to enter adulthood I found myself deeply confused about what life was for. Desperate to find something to give me purpose and inspiration, I undertook a quest to get as far away from my familiar life as possible. I found my way to a small country in Asia where I witnessed people living more simply that I could have imagined possible. Months of living in rural villages confirmed the astonishing truth that these people whom we considered impoverished, living lives of hardship in undeveloped conditions, were vastly happier and more secure than anyone I had ever met before.
Attracted by the gentle playfulness and light-hearted nature of these simple people I journeyed further into their culture and found myself continually drawn to the serene Buddhist monks who were ever present. Led by a deep curiosity and hunger for inner clarity, I visited as many monasteries and remote hermitages as possible, and finally realized that I had to experience the practice of meditation for myself. My self-guided quest for meaning culminated in a month-long silent intensive meditation retreat in a Buddhist monastery.
This experience changed my life forever. I knew then that tragically missing from our western civilized culture was a sense of inherent belonging and connection to all of life. I realized that in our blind rush for convenience and mastery over our environment we had abandoned the most essential elements of our happiness. It was suddenly clear to me how all of our technology, progress, and wealth had not resulted in making us happier or more content with life. It fact, it was turning out just the opposite. It seemed that the more possessions and comforts we were able to attain, the less we were able to find peace or serenity.
I recognized how the advancement of our physical comfort and material security resulted in a corresponding decline in our emotional and spiritual well-being. We had created perhaps the most developed society in terms of technology and material support, yet we had neglected the basic well-being of individual people and communities in the process. We assumed that making our lives less physically demanding and increasing our capacity to produce and consume would make us happy. Yet we were tragically mistaken.
I returned from my quest with a vision of a new way to live. Instead of more comfort or stimulation or wealth, we needed a sense of connection and belonging. Merely striving for our immediate daily survival may have been a necessary focus for our cave dwelling ancestors, however we were in an entirely different stage of human evolution. Most of us now were not living with an immediate fear of starving or being attacked or eaten by a larger predator. Yet we were still acting as though we needed to stock pile resources or dominate those around us in order to protect our own lives.
It was clear to me that what we needed most was a sense of purpose and meaning beyond defending our personal space or attacking our imagined enemies. We needed to feel our innate connection to the earth again and regain a sense of gratitude for the miracle of being alive. It was important now to recognize the source of our most basic material support and see that we could never be fully cut off from the earth or each other. The missing piece in our lives was not something out there just beyond our reach, but was instead the simple acknowledgement of our dependency on the most basic elements that have surrounded us all along. We needed air, water, food, companionship, and love for our completion.
The human limitations that our over-developed culture is trying to so hard to overcome turn out to be the foundations of true happiness. The very things we thought were wrong and were busily casting aside contain the seeds of our fulfillment. We are happiest working together with each other in a community focused on tending the earth to meet our most basic physical needs from our immediate surroundings. The simplest and most ancient of human activities give our lives an obvious sense of meaning that we blindly discarded in the name of material progress.