My search for meaning

Image by nataliajakubcova from Shutterstock.

In a previous post, I wrote about how I think being an activist can do more harm than good.

One of the main things that drove me to want to be an activist was a desire for meaning. Growing up, it seemed there were so many things that other people valued that I didn’t think were meaningful at all. I found a lot of what we did at school pointless and boring. I didn’t understand why my fellow teenagers thought that getting wasted was so impressive, and I wasn’t excited about the idea of a career.

So, what was it all about?

Being a climate activist gave me a ‘why’ to base my whole life around: my job, the things I bought, my choice of holiday, and my view of politics and even reality itself.

Unless it was making a decisive contribution to stopping climate change, I didn’t think it had much meaning at all.

So, my framing of what was meaningful rendered almost everything either meaningless, pointless or actively harmful.

Watching TV: meaningless.

Helping orphans: pointless. They’ll be screwed by climate change anyway.

Driving a car: who are you? Satan? Stop killing the planet and get the train!

But even the things that were supposed to be helping with climate change, like saving energy, felt futile, because they were such a drop in the ocean.

In other words, my search for meaning made everything meaningless, including the things designed to make it feel more meaningful!

At a certain point I gave in to the futility and stopped being a climate activist, and for a long time didn’t know what to devote myself to. I knew I had so much energy and enthusiasm, I just didn’t know what to channel it into.

The idea that you’re only doing something meaningful if you’re changing the world is a burden many people carry — not just activists and NGO workers, but businesses that want to scale up and be the biggest, best and most impactful they can be.

One of the great gifts of discovering mindfulness is how much more meaning I now feel in my life.

Meaning in everyday experiences

Through practising mindfulness, I started to find ‘ordinary’ experiences deeply satisfying. Appreciating the beauty of the clouds drifting across the sky; the aliveness, depth and playfulness of a conversation in which I’m actually listening, as opposed to just waiting for my turn to speak; enjoying food so much more because I’m really tasting it… Just being present seems to add meaning.

Meaning in learning and growing

Before, I didn’t think I needed to change. They did. The world. Other people. That belief came with the price tag of a heck of a lot of frustration, because it turns out the more you try to change people the less they want to change!

What I’ve found far more meaningful is changing myself. Through mindfulness, meditation, retreats, courses, workshops, coaching, therapy, books, podcasts and conversations, and generally having a curious attitude, I aim to become happier and more at peace, reduce tension in my body, be kinder and more honest, deal with conflict better, manage my money better, and work more skilfully with my clients.

I have a sense that I am constantly evolving as a human, and that feels good!

Meaning in serving

Another characteristic of my activism was that it often wasn’t that much fun and didn’t make me feel very good. How could it when it was coming from a place of fear, judgement and anger? But I believed it needed to be done whether I enjoyed it or not.

The magic of my mindfulness work is that whilst many people find their job stressful, I feel better after a coaching session or workshop. I feel the benefit of the practices we are doing because I am meditating and enjoy the group atmosphere of being with everyone else. I also get to see the impact that it has on people in the session and over the course of the months that we work together, and hear them say that they feel calmer and happier, that they’re sleeping better, being kinder to themselves, writing more poetry, exercising more — making tangible positive changes in their lives.

But I could only find that satisfying if I let go of the belief that the only thing that is meaningful is generating a force big enough to change the whole world, single-handedly.

My former activist self, it would have seemed so insignificant that meditation has helped a woman in Ealing sleep better and a man in Bicester to stop drinking and gambling. So what? People are dying! The waters are rising! The forests are being cut down!

I’ve changed my view of how change happens. I believe that because everything is interconnected, every action is as important as every other. It isn’t more important to do something at the UN than with your family, or even in a quiet moment when no one’s watching.

That allows me to lift a huge weight off my shoulders, and trust that not only is it enough to only help one person at a time, it’s also enough just to enjoy my own life and do things that make me feel good too.

After all, what’s more meaningful than feeling truly happy?