(This article is based on a talk given at the Chan Meditation Center in December 2016.)
We face life choices throughout our lives. Not just when we are young, making decisions about which school to attend, which major to take, and which career to pursue, but also when we are older. Life choices do not end with having our first job out of school. After we start our first job, we may have to decide whether to stay in this job, whether to seek a promotion, and how to balance work demand and other responsibilities and things we want to pursue in our life.
We also need to decide whether we want to have a love relationship, maintain certain friendships, all amidst the need to think about how much time we would like to devote to our birth family. If we marry, we need to decide whether to have children, and if so, how many and how intensively we would like to raise them and how involved we want to be in their lives.
When we approach mid-life, we may find ourselves wondering if we should change the direction of our life and when we would like to retire. We review various aspects of our life–career/job, friendship, family, and time for our personal interests–to see if we are maintaining a balance that reflect our values and priorities. We then decide whether we need to make any adjustments, and if so, how.
All these choices affect whether we live an authentic life and feel fulfilled or get lost in life and feel unsatisfactory and unfulfilled.
One of things I often hear when people are wrestling with decisions shaping the direction of their life is “I want to make a difference.” What is not uttered is often “but I also need to make a living…” What seems to be underlying this dilemma is the common yet mistaken belief that only a certain kind of job allows you to make a difference. In fact, every job, every role, has its functions. If we do it conscientiously with the intention to bring benefit to others while making a living, we are making a difference. Very often, we think of careers like doctors, social workers and advocates for important causes as jobs that make a difference. Yet, I have met many people who are making a difference by doing a good job and fulfilling their responsibilities in what we might consider a normal, “ordinary” career.
Recently, I met a contractor who remodels bathrooms. He is honest, does a good job, finishes everything nicely and meticulously, and charges for his service fairly. When he was recommended to my brother, he was a huge help as renovating one’s home can be very stressful and can result in conflict in the family if things do not go well. Being a good contractor allows homeowners to feel reassured that they can count on someone honest to do the work right and to help guide them through difficult decisions. It’s a great help in their lives. When we work this way, we are helping others. And this contractor has no shortage of business.
Hence, we can make a difference regardless of what we do for a living as long as it is something that is right for us in skill level, temperament, and life circumstances, so that we can devote ourselves to doing a good job. In this way, we can fulfill the functions for which our position is meant and contribute to the society.
A question we need to ask is: what is important in my life? I do not mean “what should be important in my life” but “what is actually important in my life” and we need to be honest with ourselves. Is it material comfort? To be part of a community? To be prominent in our profession? To innovate? To devote to our family?
It is really important to emphasize that we need to ask ourselves, not other people. We may seek out advice from important people in our lives, such as our parents, mentors, or close friends, and their advice can serve as a reference. But we need to be true to our values and priorities, which may be very different from those who advise us. We may respect and love them very much, but it is ultimately our life, and we need to take responsibility for it.
Another question is: are we ready to take responsibility for the consequences of our choices? Or are we seeking and listening to others’ advice to avoid taking responsibility for our life? A number of years ago, someone who has been married for years shared with me that he was having difficulties in his marriage and asked me if he should get a divorce. I told him that he needed to figure it out himself so that he could take responsibility for his decision. Otherwise, he could tell himself that it was not really him that decided to get a divorce and thus it would be someone else’s fault if he was not happy with the outcome. The practice of Chan can help us see into our mind more deeply so that we can understand our real motivation in asking for others’ advice and check if we are ready to take full responsibility for any choices we may make.
When we ask ourselves what is important in our life, it is often not so straightforward. We need to really know ourselves in an honest way so that we know clearly what will make us feel miserable based on our personality and temperament, what an ideal situation would be, and since ideal situations seldom occur what is acceptable if we don’t get what we are shooting for. All these questions can only be answered when we have a clear sense of our own values and priorities as well as our habits, strengths and limitations.
For example, we might say that we are not materialistic and don’t need to make a lot of money. Well, maybe we meant we don’t need to live in a mansion and be chauffeured around, but even an ordinary middle-class life-style, with a nice home, good health care for the family, and annual vacations, is a materially rich life by many people’s standards. And we may have to put a lot of time and effort into education and training in order to obtain that.
Years ago, when I was getting ready for the job market, I looked into various kinds of higher education institutions. When I saw that a research university position would require me to spend most of my waking hours working on my research and trying to get published in addition to teaching, I knew that was not for me even though I really loved doing research and these positions are often seen as more prestigious. I like more balance between research and teaching which is afforded to me at an undergraduate institution. Being able to devote time to the Dharma was also very important for me and I knew that my physical condition could not handle trying to fit everything into my waking hours if I worked at a research university. Engaging in meditative and contemplative practices that allow us to gain more insights into our priorities, habits and tendencies can help us take a more honest look at ourselves.
Such practices also help us cultivate clarity, to see clearly the consequences of our choices, and that there are trade-offs however much we would like to have it all. We can have both career and family, but decisions we make every day to devote our time to achieve more in our career will mean foregoing opportunities to spend time with family (perhaps missing family gatherings, shorter family vacations, more interruptions in our time at home, etc.). Are we clearly aware of the ramifications of our decisions? Very often, they may not be obvious, especially if we do not allow ourselves to pay attention. If we reduce the amount of time spent with family members, our relationships with them will not be as close as if we spent more time with them. It is also not just the amount of time but the quality of it. Are we distracted by our work when we are spending time with our family members? I know some kids who feel closer to their uncle who spent quality time with them than to their father who was usually looking at his phone when “spending time” with his kids. We may also be secretly wishing that members of our family would still feel really close to us even though we never have time for them. Are we aware that we may be entertaining these thoughts, secretly hoping that we can be exempt from the law of cause and effect? Reminding ourselves to investigate our thoughts and feelings helps shed light on them, and if we are honest with ourselves, it will become clear that we need to re-examine our priorities, values and choices.
Of course, it goes the other way around as well. When we decide to devote more time to the family, less time goes to our work. We can work more efficiently, have better time management, sleep less, but we may still find that we are slower in generating the same result compared to our colleagues who put more time into their work. Can we accept the fact that our decision may mean putting our career on a slower track, which perhaps also means that our house or cars or vacations will not be as fancy as the ones our more career-oriented friends/siblings have? Without clarity about what we are actually choosing and the consequences, we may accumulate resentment, disappointment and frustration in our heart without even knowing it. One can end up feeling very angry, bitter or regretful in later life without knowing why.
Accepting the ramifications of our choices is not as easy as it may sound. It is easy to fantasize about the best case scenario or to have an unrealistic estimate of our ability to achieve the impossible, especially if we read a lot about the life stories of highly unusual people–eg. people who only need to sleep three hours and achieve great things plus have a full family life, people who are so devoted to their calling that they can work nonstop but they fail to mention that they were biologically unusual with excessive energy that allowed them to do so much with very little sleep, etc. We need to recognize the appeal of these messages in our culture–that “everything is possible if we put our mind to it.” While it is true theoretically, each person should reassess what is possible based on their unique circumstances. This requires understanding and fully accepting our own limitations as well as recognizing our strengths.
Are we able to accept that we are ordinary people, not super human? Accepting our ordinariness is no ordinary task and is recognized as an important achievement in Chan practice. After an honest reflection of our values and priorities, strengths and limitations, we will have a clearer sense of the general direction of our life. This clarity can guide us through life, as we adapt to changing circumstances and take advantage of emerging opportunities and still stay true to ourselves without losing our way.
It is, therefore, important to have time to ourselves so that we can have the opportunity to see into our mind. In these periods of self-reflection, we take an honest look at what we are actually doing and ask ourselves if we know what we are choosing. We ask if we are making the right choices for ourselves, amidst the unfolding causes and conditions, rather than merely fulfilling other people’s wishes. This takes courage. Being true to ourselves is not being disrespectful to or dismissive of others, but thinking hard and long about our choices and taking full responsibilities for the consequences of our decisions. When we live authentically, we make a difference just by being ourselves whatever we do.