“In every action …the main intention of the agent is to express his own image; thus it is that every agent whenever he acts, enjoys the action. Because everything that exists desires to be, and by acting the agent unfolds his being.” Dante Alighieri
When we were first married I asked my husband what he thought the meaning of life was. He answered, “To find out what we’re capable of.” Subsequent research supports what he said. The reward system in our brains reinforces what helps us develop our powers. Our survival advantage is our minds, so whatever will add to the mental resource will be pleasurable. This is why the peak experience, when you’re stretching your abilities to the utmost is the most deeply rewarding. Studies have shown that learning in general produces endorphins. Considering that this naturally produced opiate is also a mechanism to fight pain suggests a connection between the suppression of pain and being actively engaged in life. As neuroscientist and discoverer of the endorphin receptor, Candace Pert, emphasizes, any drug that works on us signifies there’s a receptor for it, which means we make it for ourselves. Understanding the behaviors that stir the human reward system reveals that our purpose is growth.
Viktor Frankl saw the meaning of life expressed through three aspects- what we give to life, in terms of our attention to others and our contribution to the whole, what we take from life as inspiration and education which includes all we fill our minds with, and perhaps most difficult, the attitude we take toward what we can’t change. We cannot control every circumstance, but we can choose to learn from the experience or to passively be oppressed by it. His account of surviving the holocaust, in “Man’s Search For Meaning” emphasizes the importance of searching for meaning in order to maintain the will to live.
The idea of beginnings, symbolized by a new calendar year, creates the opportunity to make new choices about what we want to give and take from life. These choices give us direction and having any direction is a positive for the mind, organizing mental energy around that purpose. Making a radical change can be frustrating because we’re trying to create a brand new pattern. Creating patterns from scratch is as difficult as trying to completely eliminate an old one. Our conditioned circuits may have been reinforced for many years, which then attract the flow of mental energy to those areas. A simpler way to add a new behavior is to use the existing strange attractor, the way the energy is conditioned to flow, and build on it.
When I resolved to do sitting meditation every day, I did it right after lunch so it was hooked to an existing daily habit. When I decided to walk every day, I fit it between lunch and sitting, and now it all happens without effort as the natural flow of my day, and though the time was taken from my afternoon in the studio, the studio time is of far better quality because walking and meditating clears my mind so the picture I’m working on can guide me without a clutter of other thoughts interfering.
Building new, life-enhancing patterns is a mode of personal creation. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “The Evolving Self”, wrote, ”Shaping one’s own reality, living in a world one has created, can be as enjoyable as writing a symphony.” We are all the artists of our own lives, and making more choices about what is right for us, creates something unique and personal. Where we make no choice we submit to our previous conditioning. We create ourselves by where we give our attention. Being more conscious of where we give our attention helps us shape the mind we want to have, and understand our power to build the future.