Rightful Living

As part of a service application to help me with the process of relocation, I was recently asked to fill a questionnaire about my accomplishments in life, though I was hard-pressed to find any. I told them I didn’t have much, save for this weblog, where I write to inspire people (myself included) to be their best selves, so that together we can truly change the world.

Needless to say, I have been “unsuccessful” in my life thus far if we measure only by the usual metrics (i.e. money), but in terms of learning and personal growth, I have grown tremendously in the last few years, for which I am super grateful—but more on that later.

Most of us are obsessed with accomplishing things and reaching somewhere in life, but we pay little attention to how we are living each day. We spend most of our lives preparing to live, as if we are going to live forever, but we never end up truly living. Or at least, not until we’ve reached a certain age when we realize more than half our lives has been spent and we don’t have much to show for it. Most of our lives, we end up chasing things to fill the inner void, but we forget that external things can never bring us inner peace.

It’s not uncommon for most of us to fall prey to the “I’ll be happy, when…” syndrome early on in our lives, due to external conditioning. Later on, we find it shocking that having those things doesn’t fill the inner void (nothing does), a lesson we often learn the hard way over time. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We get so caught up in our work and with checking things off our list that we forget to truly live our lives. We get fixated on WHAT we do without knowing (or remembering) WHY we are doing it in the first place. It’s not that our Why is more important than our Hows or What, but it provides the necessary context for our everyday actions (our What), without which we might as well be headless chickens running around haphazardly.

As the Thiền Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, wrote:

We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living. We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.

We forget there is nothing to achieve in life. Playing a finite game in an infinite life doesn’t serve anyone, but we are obsessed with the material world, partly because it’s so alluring, despite being mostly unhealthy for us—just like a lot of the tasty food that is tempting.

The thing is, you don’t take a road trip to fill gas in the car, but you need gas in the car to take the road trip. Replace “gas” with “wealth” and “road trip” with “life”, and you have exactly what a lot of people obsess about: money. Yes, we need money as a means to sustain ourselves, but most of us think of money in and of itself as the goal, which drives our everyday actions, thus resulting in more finite-mindedness.

We put so much stock in our accomplishments that in doing so, we forget to live each day. It’s as if most of us are living in some arbitrary future that might not even exist. We mistakenly think it’s about climbing the mountain to reach the top, but it’s more about who we become in the process of climbing it.

In other words, it’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. (That said, reaching the top doesn’t hurt either, but the order matters.)

As Seneca has wisely put:

There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.

Of course, the point isn’t to accomplish nothing at all, because if we spend an entire life without having anything to show for it, we ought to question our existence. We ought to have some record of our living. While our achievements can definitely serve as milestones in our lives (such as getting an Oscar, let’s say), I’d argue that how we live each day is far more important than what we accomplish, though I think you need both, even if/when what you accomplish may be a result of how you lived.

While the milestones in our lives (which we can use to course-correct) may come and go, at best they ensure we are on the right track—but at worst, we get fixated on that, only to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Robert Louis Stevenson has said:

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.

All that said, I don’t think it’s an either-or choice between living rightfully and achieving things in our lives (we need both), but I do believe the latter to be secondary to the former, just as management is secondary to leadership.

Let’s focus the remainder of this draft on living rightfully—it’s the process that determines the outcome.

I have long believed there is no greater success in the world than rightful living. I believe if we focus on our actions and strive to be the best version of ourselves, together, we can truly change the world. Ergo, I find true success to be inseparable from rightful living:

Would we call ourselves successful while living to society’s expectations and ignoring those of our own and our family? Would we call ourselves successful if we go to the temple/church religiously every week but fail to do good karma toward others? What if we earn lots of money but neglect to take care of our health?

Success is both a goal and a process. Most of us wrongly believe that success is only about achieving goals. When we work hard to achieve our goals and we don’t reach them, we get depressed. One of the greatest joys of life is being able to do work that matters and that makes us happy. When we pursue our goals with excellence, enthusiasm, and joy, the process of attaining our goals becomes a bigger success than the success of achieving the goals. In other words, success is less about arriving at some destination and more about the journey we embark on.

Rightful living isn’t about having more knowledge. It’s easy to gain knowledge in our lives, but we would be better off knowing less and applying what we do know to the fullest. For instance, a person who knows more and practices less (or nothing at all) is quite inept compared to someone who knows less but practices everything they know.

This reminds me of what Bruce Lee once said:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

But irrespective of how much we know, we can still live a meaningful life. We don’t need external knowledge to live effectively to be our best selves. In fact, knowledge can often be a hindrance to growth. As Tolstoy has said:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

One of the things we can do is focus on ourselves. We know we cannot change others, nor do we want to try, but we can inspire others through our actions (by virtue of who we are). Speaking of who we are, we are much greater than what we do. When it comes to us, we need to question our actions more (and our intent less). With others, we need to question their intent/motive more (and their actions less).

We can reflect each day on how we lived and what we did. Every night, I do three things:

  1. I write down Evening Pages.
  2. I make a list of things I accomplished that day.
  3. I write down responses to some reflection prompts about how I lived that day.

I’ve come to realize the value of reflection to be far greater than listing down accomplishments from the day. I replay the events in my day in the exact order. I also do the gratitude exercise. Some of the questions I ask myself in the “reflection” phase include:

It hardly takes me any time to go through these questions, but the very process itself—the actual thinking about the responses, and the conscious decision I make to do this every day—is what makes it useful. It forces me to face myself. It’s the mirror I face each day.

That said, I think it’s important to make note of our accomplishments as well, so we can celebrate our progress in terms of how far we have come, while not forgetting how far we have to go, but I think it’s secondary to how we live. It’s a byproduct of living rightfully. Remember, life itself is infinite. It will remain long after we are gone.

As for my personal growth in the past few years, which I alluded to earlier in the draft, I feel there has been a huge shift for me internally from intellectual to emotional—or in other words, from mind- to heart-centered. While there is a long way to go, I am pleased with my growth thus far.

To that end, I feel writing for this weblog has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. It’s most rewarding and fulfilling, and every piece I write makes my soul grow. In fact, at the end of each piece, I have something tangible to show for it as well, (as part of my legacy). That is the central premise of this piece.

While the weblog enjoys a global readership, more importantly, it helps me find those who believe what I believe, and spread the good word. Of course, let’s not forget when we share things with others, we get to learn the most from it.

I believe no amount of living hurriedly from one thing to the next can replace the joy of living slow. While we may constantly check off things from our lists, in no way does it compare to the feeling of doing a few things better.

I was reminded of this when I was taking the car out biweekly for a 15-minute drive to keep it from stalling. In the first few days of taking the car out, I took advantage of the traffic-free roads to speed up. While I enjoyed the thrill of driving the car at a high speed in the moment, by the time I returned home, I felt somewhat drained from the experience.

In a sharp contrast to this, a few days later when I drove the car at a reasonable speed, I felt totally in the moment. There was no feeling of feeling rushed. I wasn’t going slow, but I wasn’t going fast either. The speed seemed just about right. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the drive much more. Not only did I enjoy the driving, but I reached home feeling a sense of completion from having time well spent.

I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for living life. Wouldn’t it be great if we felt the same way at the end of our lives?

If you liked this piece, subscribe to the Weekly Newsflash to read my latest writing. Topics include mental health, simple living, and true success: