Finding the Path to a Meaningful Existence

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“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Henry David Thoreau

People want to be told what to do; they want to be “inspired;” they want to be influenced from external sources; and they want their “life instructions” to be delivered in neat and convenient little packages. Although our deepest desire is to find “the path to a meaningful existence,” it is our human nature to seek “the path of least resistance.” We prefer to take one sure step to find what we want, rather than taking many uncertain steps to find what we really need… Why?

It is much too challenging and inconvenient to face ourselves and understand that our happiness or well-being is a result of looking within – of seeking self-acquaintance. Questions, such as “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” are much more difficult to ask than “How do others find success?” and even better, “Where can I find a concise list of things to do to find it?”

These “shortcuts” have been given warm, fuzzy meaning with inviting terms, such as “self-help” or “inspiration.” What’s wrong with inspiration? I will defer to the words of Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, who can expand on my point much better than I.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Goleman at

“There is a difference between what is called a ‘State Effect’ and a ‘Trait Effect’ as it’s called in psychology. You experience a State Effect when you go to a workshop – you feel great, that was so good! But there is a shelf life to that. By the next week, life has set in again. You’re stressed about your job, your dog is sick, and you are arguing with your partner. That is the State Effect – it’s great while you are in the circumstance, but alas, it doesn’t last. The Trait Effect, on the other hand, means that you have embarked on a program of training the mind and training the heart in a systematic and prolonged way, which actually changes the neurology of your brain. And the more you do it, the bigger the change, and it will be there a year later, maybe even 10 years later.”

Dr. Goleman goes on to explain that reading a book, such as The Power of Now, may help the reader in the present moment but, if no action is taken, the “inspiration” does not necessarily carry forward into the next moment…

“Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.” – Albert Einstein

The “self-help movement” is quite notable. There is an endless supply of self-help books, periodicals, and blogs devoted to the subject. Personally, I have been guilty of reading any and all of those media sources and telling myself, “Wow! That is so true!” But I didn’t do anything about it. It is quite ironic that “self-help” does not necessarily lead to helping ourselves…

Inspiration and Self-Awareness

So what do we do to truly help ourselves? We are faced with a wonderful example of “unintended consequences,” or what the scholarly crowd would label as a “paradox”. In our search for self-actualization, or meaning in our lives, we lead ourselves away from the path that will help us find it – the path begins with self-awareness – not short-term inspiration…

Seeking and finding “inspiration” is quite valuable but only if it helps us seek and find ourselves first. How can we find our “path” if we are knowingly or unknowingly following the path of others? This short blog post will not provide the tools you need to truly know yourself but I hope that it can be a start. We must know ourselves first as humans, and then we must know ourselves as unique individuals.

* As humans, we are hard-wired for simple, survival-oriented pattern recognition, which can potentially doom the average person to failure.

* This “wiring” has been referred to as our “primitive brain” or “rat brain,” which prefers problem-solving “heuristics” – mental shortcuts that link patterns to potential rewards.

* These shortcuts and patterns were quite effective in aiding primitive man to find food but have the potential to lead us to deceptive “rewards,” such as a bigger paycheck, a bigger home, a bigger car, and a bigger life!

* Using your “rat brain” will keep you perpetually in the “rat race” and distract you from your “path.”
As unique individuals, we have personalities that set us apart from others:

* What works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

* Be careful not to find yourself led by social conventions. Define words for yourself, such as wealth, success, retirement, and happiness.

* Tune out the world: turn off the radio; turn off the TV; follow your own “advice;” and stop reading and watching disturbing news stories.

* Tune in to yourself and the present moment: Take time to be aware of your heartbeat and the rise and fall of your chest while you are breathing; start noticing things around you; notice people in their daily routines; look into a child’s eyes; watch the wind blow in the trees; stare at a blade of grass; watch a storm come and go; or just find anything that reminds you that you are alive now – not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today…

“You can not travel the path until you have become the path itself.” – Buddha

Buddha called it “nirvana;” Lau-tzu sought the “Tao” or “the way;” Socrates promoted “the examined life;” and Maslow suggested that it is “self-actualization” we all seek. Before success in any area in life, we must first know ourselves. Only then will we achieve the objective that truly defines “inspiration” and “self-help…” and only then will we find ourselves on the path to a meaningful existence…