The Meaning of Life

It’s late, so today’s post is going to be briefer than usual.

After work, there was a guy sitting outside of his dorm room a few doors down from mine. We met a few weeks ago during a fire drill. Everyone in the dorms evacuated downstairs and while we were waiting, I introduced myself. He was reading a book by Deepak Chopra and seemed like an interesting guy.

Our conversation cut off after the fire alarms stopped ringing and we didn’t get to really have a deep conversation. Over the last couple weeks we’ve walk passed each other and exchanged head nods and hellos.

Well, when I got off today, he was sitting outside writing in a book. I awkwardly said hello and asked him to if he wanted to talk. I didn’t know what about but I don’t meet many people who read. I walked into my room and changed quickly. When I walked back out, I sat on the ground next to him and we started talking about books.

The conversation delved quickly into the meaning of life. He talked about how our purpose in life is to pursue happiness. Ultimately the desire to be happy. An interesting, if not cliché, idea. I was more than okay to discuss this with him. I’ve read enough Buddhist books to feel equipped for this kind of conversation.

He went on about happiness was the meaning of life. I played devil’s advocate and asked him if sadness was the opposite of this goal. Is the point of life to avoid sadness? He disagreed, then continued on about happiness. I asked him if he was happy. “No”. Then I asked him why not.

His answer started to fade out in my head. He started labeling the reasons he wasn’t happy. As if there was this resistance around him that prevented him from achieving happiness. I’m not saying this to invalidate his logic or beliefs but rather to discuss my reaction to it.

He brought up what’s going on in his life, what he’s doing, how he’s pursuing happiness but it just faded in my head. All I could think was how he wasn’t choosing happiness. There was no resistance. It was just him. Nothing in his life was preventing his happiness, only he was.

When I told him that, he said that maybe he wasn’t ready for happiness. Everything within me rumbled. He was pursuing happiness by trying to understand it. He wanted to know what it was, how it got there, and why he should feel it. Yet, the purpose of life, in his head, is to have happiness. He couldn’t have happiness until he understood it.

I asked him if he needed to understand happiness to have happiness. He said no, but he just wants to understand why he’s so resistant to it. Why this and why that. There were so many questions that were getting in the way. Big fancy questions about life that ultimately served no purpose.

These questions used to drive me mad. I wanted to know. Deeply within my being, I wanted to understand happiness and why people feel happy or sad. The questions would feel like a weight on my shoulder. I could only have what I understood emotionally. If I didn’t know what happiness was exactly, how would I know if I had it.

Over time, I’ve realized that these questions, while they seem important, often aren’t. There’s no way I could calm his mind and say “be happy”. He has to find that himself. He’ll pursue understanding of many things – and that’s alright. Maybe he’ll find happiness in a way that I haven’t.

I bring this up because I learned a lot about myself today. He felt like a reflection. I resisted happiness and wanted to understand it. I wanted to know things which are ultimately unimportant. Why my relationships have failed, why I’ve chosen this life path working in the military, what am I going to do to be happy when I finished my contract.

These questions are distractions from happiness. Seeing him fumble through these questions made me realize how much I’ve been focusing on removing obstacles from my happiness. The only block in my path is me. I’m the one who distracting myself and blaming circumstance for my unhappiness.

It seems so simple now. There’s no way I could properly communicate my understanding of this. I tried to explain it to him. Understanding doesn’t always equal happiness. Knowing how to be happy doesn’t make you happy. (As I shout this last sentence at my bookcases filled with self-help guides).

While these are noble pursuits, they don’t bring you what you want. In fact, there’s nothing out there that you don’t already have within yourself. If you want happiness, then take it in. Really appreciate it when you have it.

I don’t think the purpose of life is to seek happiness. I think seeking happiness leads to unhappiness. The purpose of life seems to be to experience life to the fullest. Feel every emotion as deep as it is. That means happiness, sadness, anger, bitterness, bliss, and the wide variety of emotions that you feel on a daily basis. Really take them in. Experience them.

When you walk, feel your feet hitting the floor. When you eat, really taste the food. When you lay in bed, really sink in and feel it. That is my current view on life. Not to say it’s right or wrong but it’s what I’ve learned thus far. Talking to my neighbor today really highlighted that belief. You can choose to take everything and experience it… or you can try to understand it and examine it at every angle. Neither is better than the other. Life is just life.

Anyways, this post is becoming longer than I anticipated and much more existential than it needs to be. It’s almost 0300. I need to hit the hay.

If I haven’t said it enough already, go check out my cousin Tabby’s blog. She’s writing everyday for the month of BLOGtober. AND… AND… she just redesigned her blog. Go give it a looksey through this LINK. Today she wrote an update about living at home while her husband is deployed. It’s worth a read. Her deployment series is interesting – since I haven’t experienced it yet, I enjoy reading her perspectives on it.

Happy day five of BLOGtober!

 

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What Is

We all want a perfect life, where we will be loved and enjoy our time. Where we will work less and have more fun. We all want a mate who will make us comfortable and a life that makes a different in the world. Tonight I watched “The Fault in Our Stars” and I recognized this trait inside of myself. So much of my life is seeking perfection but I’ve realized that the only perfection we have is when we stop seeking.

When we search for a more perfect world, we neglect the world that we live in. It’s difficult to appreciate a world that you’re always trying to improve. While it’s not wrong to want a more beautiful world, I think it leads to a lot of unhappiness. By imagining world which isn’t, we neglect what is. When we seek relationships that aren’t, we forget the relationships which are.

There’s a phrase that I’ve used lately; “The secret to life: low expectations”. While I think that’s it’s good to be easily impressed, I think the real secret is to have no expectations. Live life as it comes, as the sky hits your eyes and the smell in the air curls through your nose. Don’t think about how the sky is, know how it is. Don’t expect, don’t change. First you must know what is.

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Advice and Idleness

Lately I’ve been thinking about life decisions. I find myself reflecting back to when I first arrived here. On the flight between Atlanta and Charleston, I had a long conversation with another passenger. As our conversation ended, I asked for an opinion. I said, “if you could give advice to a younger person, or younger version of yourself, what would you tell them?”. She said:

“…it’s best to keep many opportunities open when you’re younger. Try to keep many possibilities in your life. She also said that even if you’ve gone a long way in your journey, sometimes you find that you’re on the wrong path. It’s okay to restart or go a different direction. […]

The last words roll around in my head, “it’s okay to restart or go a different direction”. She spoke with regret for cornering herself, and although she didn’t specify what it was, I knew that didn’t want to feel the same way.

Those thoughts have returned and I question if I’m taking the right path. Maura O’Halloran gave up her life in Boston to move to a monastery in Japan. She did this back in the 1980s when her only communication with family or friends was through snail mail or brief long-distance calls. I cannot imagine the amount of courage it took for her to leave everything she knew.

David (AWOL) Miller quit his stable job as an engineer to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The hike is 2,100 miles long and takes between 4-6 months. While this journey happened in 2003, he didn’t carry a cell phone or have regular connection with his family. It was his first major hike and he didn’t know what would happen. He had faith that it was something he wanted to do and that it would bring him happiness.

Robert M. Pirsig took his motorcycle across the country from Minnesota into California in the 1970s. Hunter S. Thompson hitchhiked through South America in the 1950s. Twyla Tharp moved across the country to escape her family and to eventually start choreography. Bryan Benson and his girlfriend rode their bikes between the Midwest and the West Coast. How can I see these figures sacrificing so much for a dream, while I sit here and idle?

Internally I return to the advice I received on the plane… “it’s okay to restart or go a different direction”… Maybe this path wasn’t the correct one. Perhaps now is the only time to change it. I read letters from last year when I had the same thoughts. So is it time to cut the line and change paths?

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P.S. The Danish song “Tomgang” by Shaka Loveless is stuck in my head. Why isn’t this genre popular here?!

 

Making Joy

Every night I go to the same cafeteria with the same staff. When I started I noticed something: in the food industry it seems that there’s often a lot of disrespect between the servers and the customers. People order food and treat the servers like machines. There’s little to no personal exchange between them. Sometimes servers have a bad day and treat the customer poorly. Either way, there’s a lot of negative feelings.

There’s really no one to blame. You can’t have all the workers come in joyous every day. People have bad days, it’s human. Nor can you blame the customers. After a long day of working sometimes people just want to get food, eat, and sleep. Neither party is fully responsible for the poor atmosphere.

When I first arrived on night shift, I decided to try something. No matter what happened through the day, good or bad, I was going to put it behind me. I would walk into the cafeteria with a smile on my face and be eager to talk with everyone. I would fill myself with joy and share it with each person I came in contact with.

It sounds cheesy, or maybe fake, but something started happening. Everyday I would ask sincerely how the server was doing and talk about their day. It was simple conversation but it was sincere. When I asked them, I looked them in the eyes. I cared. There was a woman who was exceptionally grumpy, maybe she just came across as annoyed, but after asking her how she was doing everyday for a week, she started greeting me with a smile.

Then other servers started to follow suit. They started to ask me how I was doing, and now they cared. When they asked, they looked me in the eyes. Within a month, conversations would start and I would begin to relate to them. The negative environment I saw before seemed to disappear. Maybe it actually change or maybe my perspective changed.

Today I was getting food and the woman who looked grumpy talked to me. She said, “You smile a lot, that’s what I like about you. If something was wrong, nobody would ever know it.” I realized that each day I was putting my problems away. The problems I had at work vanished when I walked through those doors. All that followed were smiles and genuine care, if only for a few brief moments.

The reason I write this is because I want you to know that there are small impacts you can make on the world. I feel like I’ve somewhat changed the atmosphere. People seem more joyous and I feel more joyous. I now understand that I can set my problems down and I don’t have to carry them. I can talk with others, no matter who they are, and really hear them. That’s something different and deep.

In your life, try it. Find a simple, repetitive task that you do and fill it with joy. Maybe when you’re checking out at the store you could smile or talk more. Maybe start saying lame jokes. It doesn’t matter what you do. Start really focusing and living life. Really talk with others. Really connect. Make eye contact. Meet new people. Make new friends. As it has been said, “life begins at the end of your comfort zone”.

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Grabbing onto the Wheel

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July a couple of years back, a girl named Elodie lived in my house with my family. She was from France and came wide-eyed to America with the intention of improving her English. At the time, she was only 16 years old with the curiosity of a 4 year old. Her goal soon became to explore as much of our culture as she could.

As it turns out, part of that culture was taking private flying lessons. When the opportunity presented itself, she took up the offer and flew away with it so to speak. Having no previous experience with flying, she hopped in ready to go.

When the plane took off, her nervousness became apparent. She sat quietly in her seat while her whole body trembled. The flying instructor got her into the air and when we reached a high enough altitude, he took his hands off the wheel.

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Elodie slowly reached forward and grabbed on. It was clear that she was unsure of herself and her ability to steer the already flying aircraft.

It took a few minutes until she became comfortable with turning the aircraft. After many more sweeps she gained a confidence in herself. The trembling was gone and she steered fluidly left and right above the beautiful chain of lakes below us. For the next 20 minutes, she was in bliss at how remarkable it was to fly. We were thousands of feet in the air and she could direct us anywhere.

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Life moves in the same way; we’re nervous to grab the handles and steer for ourselves. Internally we quiver at the thought of being in control of our lives. We understand how to steer the plane but we’re busy thinking about how many things could go wrong. After all, when you’re a thousand feet in the air, you have a thousand feet to fall if you make a mistake.

Everywhere people are telling you what to do with your life: “You should go to college” or “You should start a family. Where you’re from, the society you live in, the people you hang around, and the family you love, all tell you where to go in life.

Equally importantly, they tell you what you can’t do with your life. “You can’t fly to Europe, where will you stay? How will you afford it?”, “You can’t go to art school, you’ll never make enough money to live!”, or even “What are you doing with your life?”

It’s in these moments that you’re shaking like Elodie was during that flight. Internally you know how to fly the plane. You know generally where you want to go and a little on how to get there. At this time everyone’s voice has gotten into your head and suddenly the voice you hear is your own. “You can’t do it, you’re going to crash this plane.”

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Deep down inside of yourself, you know this isn’t true. When the pilot took his hands off the wheel, Elodie nervously grabbed on. She didn’t know how it felt to fly, or how to move, but she had to take charge.

I want you to feel that same responsibility in yourself. After a few minutes of flying, Elodie calmed down. She took a breath of air and steered us around the lakes. After you start steering your life, you’ll calm down and realize you can go wherever you want to. The sky is the limit.

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People snicker at me, and I assure you it isn’t because of this beautiful face. Instead it’s from openly telling others my dreams. I want to hike the Appalachian Train (2,000+ miles), I want to spend six months CouchSurfing across the country, study at a school in Denmark, and somewhere in there I want to WOOF in Australia.

It is my greatest hope that other people realize that their dreams are within their grasp and that they are free to fly their own plane. When I share my goals, I hope that the fire in my belly lights a flame in yours. When you see that I’m not listening to everyone else, I hope that you grab that steering wheel and set your own course.

At first you may shake, but after a few turns you’ll calm down. I guarantee that you are capable of doing so much more than what other people say. You can set your own course and fly until the skies end. If you do this, when you finally land, you’ll find that you’ve gone to the place you’ve always wanted to be. There’s no greater feeling than doing what you love.

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Who I am and Who I am with

Twenty years have gone by since I was brought into this world. It’s both incredible and terrifying how quickly the days go by and how easily they accumulate from months to years. I’ve lived one fifth of a century and we’ve shifted from dial-up internet to smart-phones capable of sharing video with a person on the other side of Earth.

Instead of just reflecting over the years, I want this post to be dedicated to the people I shared those years with. Twyla Tharp once wrote about how she believes who you are now is the accumulation of the books you’ve read and the people you’ve met. As I agree with her, I want to share some of these people and the experiences I’ve had with them.

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This is a picture of me cooking in my mom’s tummy. I figure since my dear ‘ol mother tagged me in this photo on Facebook for my friends to see, I’ll share it on my blog as well. As you can tell by the hair, the 80s hadn’t worn off yet.

It’s natural to start with my mother, because without her lugging around an extra ten pounds, I wouldn’t be here.

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This photo was taken during my first international trip with my family. We all flew over to Berlin because my grandfather was getting an apartment for part of the summer from a friend. In retrospect, those days were a catalyst for the wanderer in me. I fell in love with traveling many years later.

About half way through, my family found this botanical garden. It was simple and full of beautiful plants with a forested area on the side. As you walked around you could hear birds chirping and the sound of lawn mowers roaring. It was a nice garden but the untamed forest is what caught my attention.

Inside the woods, birds were flying everywhere above us. I felt as though I could reach out and they would land on me. One moment my grandmother was standing still and a bird flew down onto her. She, of course, moved and it flew off immediately.

At this time I had just started taking photographs and thought it would be brilliant to take photos with the birds. We found that holding bread crumbs would cause the birds to fly down onto our hands and sit. It was an incredible feeling holding something so wild and evasive.

Right before our trip to Germany concluded, my mother and I went back with the goal of taking pictures with the birds. Actually, I think it was more of my goal. My mother was terrified when the birds landed on her but she still decided to pose anyways.

We spent all morning with the birds and ended up with a fair number of portraits. While it sounds silly, this moment really shaped me. It was a foreign experience in all senses of the word. There was a connection as a photographer but also a human. I felt alive and as if the world was pushing me towards taking pictures. It felt as if the universe was lining up perfectly and said, “here Eric, we’ll lend you a piece of nature, just reach for your camera and show us what you can do. We’re here to help.”

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One day in World History class my teacher introduced an exchange student from Denmark that would be spending the year with us. Her name was Signe and would soon become one of my greatest friends.

Upon hearing about her I immediately was intrigued. She was beautiful and interesting in so many ways. So, naturally, I made my way towards her. This was a rather difficult task because she sat on the complete opposite side of the classroom from me. Literally desks awkwardly blocked any path I had to get to her.

The desks didn’t stop me and Signe soon found that she always had a partner for class projects. I don’t think she understood my intrigue but we started talking more as we completed many group projects together. Eventually we would run into each other outside of class and talk even more.

This lead to hanging out, movie marathons, teaching each other to cook, going out for runs, and, at the end of the school year, going to prom together. It’s impossible to explain how we went from total strangers from different countries, to being best friends.

To this day I cannot explain my intrigue. We don’t have a lot of common interests but I still smile every time I talk to her. I find myself laughing so loud that my neighbors complain I need to get off the phone. We don’t have to have anything to talk about but yet we can talk for hours. It all leads back to that day in history class, when I awkwardly made my way over to her.

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This guy invaded my life right before Signe left the U.S.. He showed up as an exchange student as well and turned into another one of my closest friends. Jagoba traveled over to study English and somehow I got roped into learning Spanish.

After living with my family for a month, we had become such good friends that I flew back to Spain with him. I was fifteen and it was the first time I traveled internationally alone. We had a blast in Spain so we continued on the tradition for the next three years. He came to visit in the summers and I went back with him before school started.

There are many stories I could tell about Jagoba. My personal favorite is when we went out on a boat with my grandparents and my family. The waves splashed us until we were all soaking wet. When we arrived back at shore, everyone looked horrible. My sister probably had it the worst.

As we were walking off the boat, Jagoba, thinking he was funny and coy, said to my sister, “Jaaaaaamie, do you have crabs?”. At this point, his second year in America, we all had grown used to his mannerisms. Nobody noticed this slip because Jagoba lives on the ocean where they actually have crabs. In an effort to be funny I shouted “You can’t just ask people if they have crabs Jagoba!”.

This caused my family to understand what he just asked and everyone started roaring. Jagoba didn’t understand the joke immediately and when I explained what “crabs” could be, he blushed. It was adorable.

There were many moments like this in the years that he visited. He brought a new, curious energy to me. He was daring and adventurous. After visiting him many times, I feel confident that he changed how I looked at the world. He brought me out of my shell and contributed to who I am now.

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It’s been twenty years since I was born. A lot has happened since then and the experiences I’ve had are beyond what I can put down onto my blog. The people I’ve shared this time with have changed me, and I think who I am now is a direct result of the people I’ve met.

Find the people who intrigue you, who bring out the wild and adventurous version of you. There’s an entire ocean of people who you can connect with, and life is so much better when it’s filled with people you love. This year I’m thankful for all the people I’ve met and the people I will meet. I hope that I get to live another wonderful year with you.

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A Joy That You Cannot Contain

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This image was taken almost two years ago when I traveled for my third and final time to Basque Country. There were fiestas every night for the summer throughout the entire Basque state. Many nights we would go out to the parties and hang out with friends. This image was from a party in the village I lived in: Ea.

The fiesta started early and the streets were filled with people dressed in costumes. To an American it looked like a summer Halloween. Everyone took time out of their day to come out to the streets and celebrate Basque culture.

Songs and dances filled the air. Even greater was the joy that radiated from the crowd. All of the hardships, losses, and stress were surrendered. For this moment, everyone was together and alive.

This photograph has a lot of meaning to me because the main subject was an older woman whose joy radiated like sunbeams. She was jumping and moving more than any other person. You could feel her joy in the air, as if it were reaching out to those surrounding her. She danced on the tips of her toes and she wasn’t part of this world anymore. She was something greater.

Often I struggle with stress and a goal of mine is to live more like this culture. I want to find that happiness within myself and bring it out to the world. There is no greater joy than to feel truly alive. When I found this picture, a smile broadened across my face. Let that be my goal for this week – to express that bubbling joy within myself and share that love with the world around me.

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