Eight Keys to a Fulfilling Life

by Adam J. Pearson

Most if not all of us human beings have  had a strange and unpleasant experience.  We have felt our lives go stale.  We have felt the world dissolve into a grey, boring mass of tedium.  We have felt that we were just “going through the motions” of life, just following the daily routine.  We have watched as life seemed to lose its luster, its color, its wonderful substance.  If someone had asked us how we felt in this state of mind, we would not have uttered much beyond a shallow “meh.”  It was as if someone had emptied the cornucopia of life and left us holding nothing but an empty shell.  We felt we had lost life’s freshness.

For many of us, this experience is not just something that happened once in the past, but an experience that keeps returning to us.  It is as if the tide of life goes out and leaves us wondering where all the waves of excitement have gone.  This is certainly not an experience that any of us actively seek out.  It is also not a state of being in which we could easily say that we feel fulfilled and happy with the condition of our lives.  None of us wants life to become stale and flavorless; we yearn for a life that bursts with passion, power, and vibrancy.

How, then, can we keep life fresh? How can we ensure that we do not simply live our lives on autopilot? Thankfully, there are many ways to keep the electricity circulating through the wires of our lives, many little things we can do to prevent the short circuits that leave us feeling bored and unfulfilled.  Here are eight that have worked for me and which, I hope, will prove helpful to you as well.

1. Follow your Curiosity

The first thing we can do to to live a fulfiling life seems so obvious that we often forget all it.  To keep life fresh, we can fill it with new experiences; we can try new things.  What sorts of ‘new things’ can we try? One thing that keeps my life fresh is exploring new subjects and discovering new interests.  Since I loved music, for instance, I began to learn to play the electric guitar.  Then I tried the acoustic guitar.  Then I began to teach myself some basic piano.  Then I learned how to write electronic music.  Sometimes we can take one of our interests, explore it further, and find that it takes us into previously unchartered territory.  My original interest in rock music led me to learn about Sufi Qawwali, Hindu sitar music, Gregorian chanting, punk rock, and Vodoun drumming.  And I’ve only just scratched the surface of all of the wonderful music the world has to offer.  The same is true of any other interest we can develop.

2. Try New Activities

If you dive deeply into your existing interests or try exploring some new ones, you’ll find that life stays exciting and fresh.  Exploring new interests can lead you to learn about fascinating things, but it can also lead you to try out new activities or to rediscover old ones.  After years of never touching a single kite, I recently went kite flying with friends and found the experience incredibly fulfilling and exhilirating.  I cheered as my kite began to circle through the sky and was caught by a sudden updraft.  I ran with the kite, just following where the wind would take me.  I’ve had similar experiences with rock climbing, cooking, playing badminton, animating short films, and doing many other things I never thought I would end up trying.  Part of keeping life fresh is pushing beyond what we think we can do and beyond what we think could possibly interest us.  The range of our possibilities is always greater than we imagine.  The only way to truly discover what the world has to offer is to leap into the unknown with an open mind and an open heart.

3. Explore New Places or Reexplore Familiar Ones

If novelty is part of what keeps life fresh, then it is wise to follow the call of the new.  Sometimes following the call the new in life can simply mean traveling to a new place.  One  can fly around the world, but one need not travel a great distance to explore a new place.  With friends, I have visited subway stations here in Montreal that I had never previously seen and explored the areas surrounding them.  I found wonderful new restaurants, charming streets, majestic views, and all sorts of exciting new things.  Our world is vast indeed and our lives are equally filled with vast possibilities.  We do not need to spend a great deal of money to explore a new place.  Bus fare to and from a place can be all we need.

In addition to visiting new places, we can also reexplore familiar ones.  How thoroughly have you explored your own backyard? Certainly, you have walked around it.  You may have a garden in which you have worked a great deal.  You may have a barbecue and patio furniture.  But there are other ways of exploring our familiar spaces besides the habitual ones.  We can lie on the grass and look up at the play of leaves in the wind.  We can crawl around on our hands and knees and see how this altered perspective changes our view of the space.  We can look around in the grass with a magnifying glass and see what is transpiring on the very small scale.  We can blindfold ourselves or insert earplugs into our ears and experience the space with one sense blocked off and the others more prominent.  There are hundreds of new ways to experience a familiar space.  If we are ready to use our imagination, we can think of many.  Each fresh way to experience a place brings still more freshness into our daily lives.

4. Meet New People

Many of us are shy about meeting new people.  I know I was dreadfully shy for most of my life.  I was afraid of how others would judge me or whether I might seem awkward or uninteresting.  But as I started to open up and relax into life, I found that meeting new people can be one of the most wonderful experiences we can have.  New people bring with them new conversations, new interests to share with us, new stories to tell, and new perspectives on life.  A single meeting with a new person can transform our whole life; it can shift us onto a new course, open up new possibilities for us, or teach us something that we never could have imagined before.  Before I was afraid to meet new people; now, I’m excited to do so.   I go into each new meeting with an open mind, ready for new experiences.  When we’re open to meeting new people, life remains fresh, because there are always far more people in the world than we ever have the chance or time to meet.  Every new meeting is a new adventure and one which can itself produce new adventures.

Some people wonder how we can best meet new people.  We can do so in all kinds of ways.  We can go with friends to parties or classes or common interest groups or activities in which they are involved.  We can meet friends of friends.  We can meet people on internet forums, blogs, journals, and websites of all kinds.  We can meet people while sitting in cafes or bars or waiting in line at the grocery store.  I’ve had some wonderful conversations with strangers while on long bus rides.  If we’re open to new meetings, we’ll find them in no short supply.

If we are still too shy to meet new people, however, there is something else we can do.  We can learn more about the people we already know.  We can learn about new aspects of their personalities, new things they are interested in, new aspects from their pasts that helped shape who they are today.  We can never exhaust all there is to know about a single person.  If we are curious and open to share with others and allow them to share with us, we’ll find a universe of new possibilities awaits within every person we know.  If we are open to exploration, life will open up the way for us.  The more we are curious about the people in our lives, the fresher and more packed with potential they become for us.

5. Read a New Book

One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was that I fell in love with reading.  I hated books at first.  They seemed at once intimidating and boring compared to the flashy world of television and film.  But when I gave reading a chance, a passion and love began to blossom in me that has never failed to reward me time and time again.  New books contain new knowledge.  They present new possibilities.  They offer new experiences.  They suggest new ways of seeing the world.  This is equally true for works of fiction and works of nonfiction.  I love investigating a new fictional world.  I recently read the epics of Homer, Virgil and Ovid, and was amazed at the colorful vistas of battling heroes, gods directing human affairs, and exotic locales that they contained.  American Psycho gave me a chilling look into the mind of a materialistic, intelligent serial killer.  Dogen’s Shobogenzo showed me the world as seen through the eyes of a Zen master.  The Sciences: An Integrated Approach introduced important scientific concepts to me and showed me how the sciences interconnect.  Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha told me the beautiful story of a man who met the Buddha and decided that he had to find his own path to the truth.

Every new book freshens up my life.   It shapes the way I experience the world.  It delights me and teaches me countless lessons.  It deepens my worldview and perspective on life.  Books have evoked in me nearly every emotion along the spectrum of human feeling from laughter to tears, anger to deep peace, despair to exaltation.  They have given rise to the most powerful ideas and inspired me to look further into topics I never would have thought to research on my own.  Every book is a portal into a new world; this new world can be a fictional world like Peter Pan’s Never Neverland or it can be our own world as seen through new eyes.   A book is a key that unlocks a door in the universe.  The more books we read, the more keys we gain and the more corridors of the world we can explore.

6. Cultivate Mindfulness

Another way to keep life fresh is to cultivate mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the essence of meditation.  What does ‘mindfulness’ mean? It means centering our attention fully on the present moment.  When we eat unmindfully, for instance, we barely taste our food.  Our attention is far off, somewhere else, planning out a vacation, thinking about a coworker who irritated us, or fantasizing about that cute blonde who smiled at us at the coffee shop.  Mindfulness means bringing attention back to the here and now.  When I eat mindfully, I eat fully.  I note every small sensation in every bite of my food.  I note the way my body responds to the food.  I note the feelings that arise as I eat.  I note the way I think about what I am eating.  When I am mindful of what I am doing, I become what I am doing.  I try to be as fully aware of what is going on in this present moment as possible.  In meditation, we do exactly this, but while sitting on a cushion or walking in a special way.

We do not need to be on a meditation cushion to practice mindfulnesss, however; we can be mindful while doing anything in daily life.  For example, I’ve practiced mindfulness while working as a dishwasher with inadequate equipment at an extremely busy restaurant.  At first, I noticed that I felt great aversion to scrubbing pots and feeling unappreciated by my coworkers.  I noticed frustration arising in the mind.  I noticed how my thoughts would obsess over all of the problems I perceived in what I was doing.

As I continued the practice, however, I began to notice other things.  I noticed the pleasant aroma of the dishsoap.  I felt the warmth of the water.  I felt the satisfaction of having cleaned another rack of dishes.  I noticed how all parts in the restaurant are interdependent; without the dishwasher, the Chefs would have no dishes on which to present food and the servers would have nothing to serve.  I saw that my dishwashing had been distracted and clumsy.  I learned to flow with my dishwashing; to become dishwashing while I was working.  This made all the difference in the world for me.  An unpleasant job became joyful.  A hectic endeavour became peaceful.  I still moved with extreme rapidity, but inside, my mind was clear and calm.  I worked hard and smiled as I did so.  It was mindfulness that taught me how to do that.  Mindfulness carries fulfillment and peace in its wings.

Another benefit of cultivating mindfulness is that it prevents us from taking life for granted. When we take life for granted, it quickly becomes dull and monotonous.  We cease to appreciate it.  Mindfulness, in contrast, is all about appreciation.  When we become fully aware of the pleasant feeling of the warm water and the wonderful aroma of the soap, we begin to appreciate them more.  As we appreciate them, we cease to take them for granted.  We find value in them.  In this way, mindfulness uncovers the value in life.  And the more value we find in life, the more life becomes fulfilling.  A fulfilling life is a fresh and fun life.

7. Feel Wonder at the World

One of the most important things we can do to keep life fresh is to relearn how to feel wonder at the world.  Wonder is the feeling of being wowed.  As children, we were all masters of wonder. In young children especially, we can see wonder in action.  Adults might tie their shoes and run out the door, but to a child who is just learning, tying shoes is amazing.  Have you ever seen a child who just succeeded in riding a bike for the first time? A jaded adult might say “what? it’s just a bike ride. No big deal.” But to the child, a bike ride is an incredible thing.  It is exhilirating, breathtaking.  You’re zooming through the world on two wheels and balancing perfectly! How amazing is that?

As we learn to live mindfully, we also remember how to feel wonder.  I once came out of a Zen meditation session at McGill university and was walking down the street when I suddenly noticed this beautiful oak tree.   I had walked by it hundreds of times before on my way to class and never noticed it before.  And then, suddenly, on this day, there it was.  I saw the majestic rise of its branches, the beautiful textures of its bark, the manifold colors of its leaves, the countless undulating forms that made up its powerful shape.  I had seen thousands of trees before, but it was as if I were looking at this tree with new eyes, as if I were seeing it for the first time.  And  I was wowed, awed.  Wonder swept over me and I felt fully alive.  We can wonder at anything.  I’ve felt wonder at dishwashing, at the complexities of physics, at the movie Vanilla Sky, at the beauty of a girl I loved.  Mindfulness reveals wonder and wonder makes us feel fully alive.  Behind every great scientist, philosopher, and artist, there is a capacity to feel intense wonder.  It is a capacity that we all actualized as children and that we can learn to feel again.  The rewards of taking time to wonder at the world are many indeed.

8. Imagine and Create

A final thing that has helped keep life fresh for me is the process of imagining and creating.  We can explore our imaginations in all kinds of ways.  For instance, we can explore our dreams and learn to lucid dream, that is, to intentionally shape our dreams at will while still dreaming.  We can tackle a problem and imagine possible solutions.  We can imagine new songs, sculpltures, mosaics, collages, plays, poems, short stories, and inventions.  All we need to move from imagination to creation is to learn a medium and the skills associated with it.  We can learn to play guitar, sculpt, work with tiles, cut and paste images, sequence a play, write in measured poetic verses, or work with different materials.  Practical knowledge and skills are the vehicles through which the fruits of the imagination enter the world.  Once we know how to work with a medium, we can, within reason, manifest what we imagine.

We do not need special talents to be imaginative and creative.  All children are born with the ability to imagine and creative.  Children are always creating new games, new ideas, drawing new spaceships and fantastical creatures.  We all have the capacity to imagine and create within us.  Sadly, many of us cease to practice imagining and creating as we grow into adulthood and forget that we even have the capacity to do so.  But it is always there within us.  We need only activate it, reawaken it from its slumber.

One way to reawaken the imagination is to envision whole new worlds just for the fun of it.  What would a world look like in which there was no gravity at all? How about one in which it rained cheese? What about a world in which all of what we associate with men was feminine and all of what we associate with women was masculine? What if we could instantaneously evolve at will? What if we had superpowers? What if humans could morph into whichever form they wished at will? A single question can open up a whole new world in the imagination.  Questions can clear the way to new answers, they can cultivate wonder (think of a child asking “why? why?”), and they can help us to imagine.  The imagination can be, in adulthood as it was for all of us in childhood, a powerful force that renews life at each moment and keeps us creatively engaged with the unfolding process of the universe.

Keeping Life Fresh

The universe and all that it contains are constantly changing.  Tremendous things are taking place at every moment.  If we are willing to follow our curiosity, try new activities, explore new places, meet new people, read new books, cultivate mindfulness, feel wonder at the world, or imagine and create, we can be sure that our experience will be as new and fresh as life is at each moment.  A fresh and mindful life is a fulfilling life.  At each moment, we have the power to turn the wonder of life into either a boring, tedious, and bland routine, or a new adventure.   This power is always in our hands.  What is certain is that none of us wants to live a boring life.  None of us yearns for life to be dull, bland, and stale.  We yearn for the new.  What we must know is that the new, the powerful, the exciting, and the fresh are always within reach.  We need only keep our eyes, minds, and hearts open to the possibilities and opportunities that surround us and dare to dive into the unknown.  If we do so, we’ll find that the great riches of life, the secrets of fulfillment, and the rich ingredients of a meaningful existence are already present in the here and now, just waiting to be discovered.

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