A Recipe for Living Well

As I worked with James he began to ponder the connections he had with other people and whether he actually shared the truth about life with people. He started to recognise that there were accepted topics for conversations and a person’s inner life was not one of these topics.

By Cynthia Hickman / Photo credit: Unsplash – Priscilla Du Preez

(Please be advised: The following article talks about suicide which may be triggering for some people.)

“I’m just devastated. This has thrown everything up in the air. I just can’t function. I can’t make sense of this. How did this happen?” James1 was talking about the impact that the suicide of an old friend was having on him. He had been seeing me for counselling when this event happened.

He explained, “I’ve known this guy for years. We grew up together. We were just always there for each other. I didn’t see him that much but it didn’t matter. We could just pick up with each other from where we left off the last time. We ‘got’ each other. I cannot believe he’s gone. I had no idea anything like this could happen.”

James was completely rocked by what had happened to his friend. Family and friends could not shed much light on the situation either. His friend had seemed his usual self the last time he saw him, there was no sign that anything was wrong. “Would he have told you if there was?” I asked.

The question quietened James. It was some time before he spoke. “You know, we spoke about everything, but maybe not everything. He’d tell me about his work, his relationship, the kids…we’d have a massive catch up when we saw each other and just get up to date with it all. But you know, as I think about it now, I wonder if we really did get down to things. Did we really know what was going on inside each other?”

“I never told him about how I was worried about my drinking, how I was starting to wonder if I had a problem I needed to deal with. He wouldn’t have known that, I don’t think. Maybe he had something of his own that he didn’t tell anyone about. Well he must have, look what happened.”

As I worked with James he began to ponder the connections he had with other people and whether he actually shared the truth about life with people. He started to recognise that there were accepted topics for conversations and a person’s inner life was not one of these topics.

James also acknowledged that he and most of the people he knew tended to live on the surface of life, pretending all was okay when actually there were small signals to indicate that all was not as it seemed. His life and other people’s lives looked alright on the surface but what was happening under the surface? He acknowledged that he never paid attention to this and his friends or family didn’t either. They just kept on living as if everything was alright, which it was to a degree. But not totally.

I explained to James that the gap between the self we present to others and the reality of our lives can actually be bigger than we realize. It can go deep. The death of his friend was waking James up to this fact. It was very sobering.

The Cracks Appear

Eight people per day die by suicide in Australia2. What a shocking statistic. And thirty more make an attempt. We have to ask what is happening or perhaps what is not happening that makes so many people decide to end their life? This is not about accidents or illness. These people actually choose to die, to give up, to stop their lives. That’s not a small decision to make, its huge.

Might the increasing number of suicides in Australia be telling us something about how we are living? Are we missing something? Is there something we need to attend to? While there are many, many reasons why people choose suicide, ultimately these people are saying that they don’t want to ‘do’ life. Life is too much for some to deal with, it is too painful. And on the other hand, life is not enough for others, meaning that there is too much emptiness or depression for people to want to stay.

Perhaps James was on to something when he noticed that he and his friends lived on the surface of life but didn’t go any deeper. They had families, homes and jobs but something was perhaps still missing. Perhaps we need to look a little deeper at life and what makes it worth living.

Life Purpose

We mostly don’t ask each other why we are alive, what we are here for. The meaning of life doesn’t usually come up in conversation. But why not? It’s a pretty fundamental question. Why are we here? What is the point of it all?

If we don’t have answers to this question we may just accept society’s picture of life; get a stable job, the more well paid the better. Find a relationship, perhaps have some kids, a house would be nice. Tick, tick, tick. This is the picture of life we are offered. But as a psychologist working with people everyday I know that this is not enough.

Every day people come to see me for counselling and they have these things ticked off in their life and yet all is not well for them. The picture they have been given for life does not bring satisfaction.

These people may feel uneasy, anxious, flat or depressed. They may be drinking too much, they may be having an affair. There might be exhaustion or stress or boredom or dissatisfaction. Life is not meeting expectations. This can take some people a long time to recognize and they certainly don’t tell their friends how they are feeling. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing fine!

We therefore have to look a little deeper into people’s lives to see what is missing because on the surface it all looks okay. The first thing that strikes me with people is that they cannot answer the question about why they are here, what their life is for. They have no purpose. They do what they do because it’s just what you do. You have a job, pay the bills, look after the kids, go on outings, buy things and have a few holidays.

There is nothing wrong with these life activities but there needs to be more. There needs to be a purpose behind all of this that informs the activity. Otherwise it is just empty activity. Distracting and diverting perhaps, but empty nonetheless. So what does purpose look like? What is it?

Purpose is the energy or inspiration behind the activity we undertake. It is the reason for doing what we do. When we have a purpose it lights us up and provides the energy for us to move into action. Without purpose, action is empty. With purpose it becomes satisfying and rewarding.

In our culture we are used to receiving external rewards for what we do. We get paid or we get accolades or we get qualifications. But these come from outside us. We need something that comes from within. This is purpose.

Connection

To access purpose we need to connect inside ourselves and specifically we need to connect to our heart. So often we try to think our way through things. But our intelligence and mind only give us the what, the how, the when and the where of life. Our thinking covers the structure and the practicalities of life. But it is our heart that gives us the why.

To connect with our heart we need to take a little time out from the function and activity of the day. We need time to ponder and feel. When we take the time to feel our inner self we may feel a little uncomfortable at first. Perhaps we haven’t done this for a long time.

Our fast pace of life can mean that we miss feeling what there is to feel. Inner feelings are subtle and outer life is ‘loud’ so we may miss what is going on for us. When we do take the time to feel within we may at first find agitation or distress or perhaps a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction. This is just us catching up with ourselves.

In order to connect within we need to start an inner dialogue. It’s like when we catch up with a friend. We want to know what has been going on with them. It’s the same with ourselves; we have to ask similar questions. But we don’t have to pretend or present any false self or some best self, just our true self.

We can ask ourselves, “So, what’s been going on? What has life been like recently? How have you been feeling? Is everything okay? What’s not working? Does anything need to be adjusted?”

Over time as we get used to tuning in to ourselves we begin to find an inner settlement and we can start to tune into our heart. It is a very quiet, gentle place to settle. It is here that we can begin to get a sense of inner meaning and purpose to life. From this quiet place we need to ponder, “What lights me up? What warms my heart? What makes me smile? What makes me want to get up in the morning?”

As we ask our heart these questions we will all find a similar answer within. We want to contribute. We want to make a difference. I have worked with people for many years and this is what people find when they look within their heart. They want their lives to have mattered. Not in terms of having fame or getting attention or rewards, just in terms of feeling they gave something back to the world and that it made some small difference.

Compassion and Care

As people start to ponder their purpose they usually bring other people into the equation. They realize that they care about other people and want to help in some way. This is not literally about starting some charity or being a social worker or paramedic. It’s just that there is something within us that feels a connection with others and want to contribute to other people.

Underneath our everyday self there is a part of us that has compassion for others. It’s the part of us that feels sorrow when we hear stories about someone suffering, it’s the part of us that feels horror if others are treated with cruelty and it’s the part of us that celebrates when someone has something beautiful happen.

A tradesman called Adam comes to mind as I write about compassion. He came to see me because he was becoming deeply dissatisfied with life. But as we spoke about his work he came to realize how much he cared about what he did. He felt that there was indeed a purpose behind his activity. He had just lost connection with this purpose.

Adam actually loved building houses for people. Only they were not just houses, he was building them a home. He loved the idea of people living within the walls that he constructed. He wanted to build the walls with love so that they would support the people within. He took the time to connect with the people he was building for and to find out about them and what they wanted in a home. He kept all of this in mind as he went about his work and was then filled with joy when he got to hand over the home to the new owners.

Now that’s a home I would like to live in, one built with love and care! Wouldn’t that be amazing to live in a world where we all cared about what we did for others and appreciated the difference we could make in everyday, practical ways. Life would not be empty, it would be very satisfying.

Courage

Sometimes in order for us to maintain our connection with our purpose we need to make changes in the external circumstances to support this. As Adam re-connected with his purpose he came to see that he would need to adjust some things in his work situation since there were things about it that were hindering his wellbeing.

The changes Adam had to make might be inconvenient but if they assisted him to stay on track with what brought him meaning in life then they were worth it. Similarly, some people might need to adjust relationships, speak up, change jobs, do some study, expand horizons. Such things can take us out of our comfort zone. It feels safe to stay with what we know, to keep to our familiar routine. But this can be deadening and can disconnect us from our heart.

If we listen to our heart it can keep us on track with what brings meaning to life. This does take courage though. The heart would have us continually expand. It wants us to bring more love to life so it will impulse us to move forward, move outward, to express more of ourselves and offer more to the world. It is not about being powerful or famous but just about bringing forth more and more of the potential and beauty within us in whatever way matches who we really are. If we do anything less than this then we are not going to feel fulfilled and satisfied.

Responsibility

If we simply buy the conventional story of life given to us by our culture then we will come up short. Our activity will be empty no matter how well we fit the promised picture of a happy life. Both James and Adam were discovering this. The truth is we can ‘have it all’ and yet have nothing. Better to have the courage to look behind the façade and find what really matters.

As we develop courage we can begin to acknowledge that only we can make things different for ourselves. No one can do it for us. It’s actually up to us. So the final ingredient for wellbeing in life is responsibility.

We have to take responsibility for bringing meaning and satisfaction into our own life. It’s not about other people and what they are doing or not doing. It’s about the attitude we are cultivating within us – is it caring, is it compassionate? If we have developed a compassionate attitude we then need to ask whether we are acting upon this attitude.

The action we need to take can take many forms. Perhaps we have to have some difficult conversations. Perhaps we have to dedicate ourselves more. Perhaps we need to adjust a relationship, a job, a home, a routine. Perhaps we have to look after our health more.

For example, James’ drinking was hiding some long held hurts from the past. He had to develop the courage to face these feelings and then take responsibility for developing new patterns of relationship with people. For Adam it was about speaking up at work with a view to eventually starting his own company. I got to witness the light that began to shine within each of them as they made the necessary life adjustments.

When we take action, as with James and Adam, there might be a bit of a mess to clean up or some difficult things we have to face. When we don’t face things the issues don’t go away. They get buried inside us and subtly agitate us so that we feel the need to pacify ourselves with some addictive activity such as watching TV, consuming alcohol or eating sugary foods for example. There is a vast array of addictive activities to choose from!

Many people find the notion of responsibility onerous. But it is actually very empowering. When we take responsibility we get to look after our own wellbeing and contribute to the wellbeing of others. We are not at the mercy of the world or at the whim of others. We get to choose our own quality of life. And we don’t need addictions to make it all feel better!

So, you might like to take a leaf out of James and Adam’s recipe book: Connect within, discover your purpose and then allow compassion to arise. Take responsibility and have the courage to put this into action in life. As you bring these capacities into play watch your life transform. Admittedly it is a potentially challenging task but with a deeply rewarding outcome.

1 Names have been changed to protect confidentiality
2 https://www.lifeline.org.au/about-lifeline/lifeline-information/statistics-on-suicide-in-australia

Should you have concerns about your own or someone else’s mental health please contact Lifeline on: 131114

Recipe for life

1 Connection:
Take some quiet time to tune within and ask yourself: How are you really feeling about life? What’s working and what is not?

2 Purpose:
Ask yourself: What lights you up in life? What inspires you?

3 Contribution:
When was the last time you felt an inner warmth about the difference you had made in someone’s life?

4 Courage:
What risks might you have to take in order to create a life with more meaning? 5 Responsibility: What new commitment might you have to make in order to take your life in more rewarding direction?

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