How to create something meaningful

It starts with a dream. And with the first whisps of the dream, the machine locks in and the outcome is set.

You create details, the most minute details, which bring the dream to life. It becomes real. Only for you at first, but the minute it’s real for you, there’s a tension. A rubber band, taut and stretching. Stretching, nearly to the breaking point. On one side of the tension, the dream. Solid, clear, as real as you can make it, and getting farther away with every detail. It doesn’t matter if it’s realistic, or even possible. It’s possible enough to pull the rubber band away from the other anchor, you, today, grounded in reality. And that’s all that matters, in the end; that pulling. Whether the dream is achievable in reality is unknowable. Immaterial. It’s real enough to you, the you today with your knowledge and your potential and your blind spots, and that’s enough. That’s enough to pull you. Harder every day. And you have to go. Every day, you live with this end of the tension, the disappointing, un-self-actualized side, the side which becomes less satisfactory with every detail added to the dream. You have to follow that tension, to relieve it in any way possible by chasing that dream, changing today to conform to your vision for tomorrow. That tension propels you out of bed every day, running until you collapse exhausted in bed at night, thinking of all that was left undone. All the problems with the world. The things that don’t yet match your dream.

We deify this tension as a culture. We call it ambition. We call it “being all you can be,” and “making something of yourself.” In addition to propelling folks, it also permeates the afflicted’s life with a generalized dissatisfaction that no amount of achieving can solve. From any given point, it looks like the one piece of the dream within your reach will solve this dissatisfaction and bring peace, but the dirty secret of the dream is that it is a mirage. The moment you attain a piece of your dream, it becomes irrelevant, overwhelmed by the necessity of attaining the next piece. And, if you’re so lucky as to attain every bit of the dream to which you set your sights, rest assured that at the time you get there your dream will have receded to sit as much out of reach from your hard won perch as it was at the beginning.

So the bargain struck by those with the ambition to become something is thus: To succeed in getting closer and closer to my dream, and receive back-pats along the way from a society of like minded people, I offer in trade my contentment, in full, and vow to never be satisfied by anything I achieve along the way, including my dream (yes, we deify even the discontentment, lest we be forced to reflect directly on the meaninglessness of success for its own sake).

Bleak, sure. But this is the trade that many achievers make. Most people who are “going somewhere,” or “making something of themselves,” or “being all they can be,” etc ad infinitum. They get the allure of the chase, the tension that propels us so effectively, at the cost of any sense of success (because any amount of success never feels that way, really, if it’s done for its own sake). They get the idea of a better future at the cost of the moment. This is America. We all crave this tension not because it’s inherently meaningful, but because something is in the water.

Here’s the truth of our situation, as human beings in the Universe:

Everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be. Every breath, every knuckle, every leaf blowing, every fart, curse word, murder, birth, earthquake, sunrise… All of it. It’s all perfect, and none of it could have ever have been different. There is nothing wrong. If you feel like something is wrong, then that feeling of wrongness itself is part of what’s right.

In the face of that truth, chasing a dream translates roughly to “wishing things were different than they are.” Since they cannot possibly be, it’s no wonder our perpetually unfulfilled wishing leaves us wanting. Yes, it gets our asses out of bed in the morning, but it’s worth understanding that chasing a future that is an ever receding mirage is a game you can’t win, before you decide to dedicate your life to it.

So what’s the alternative?

Expressive Action

WTF is that?

Well, the path above, the wide road traveled by the masses, I think of as Functional Action. That is, action done to achieve an aim. You have a goal, a vision, an ambition, and the delta between that goal and where you currently stand manifests as a series of to-dos, the completion of which brings you closer to attaining your goal. Functional Action is action done in this way, to further some broader agenda. This category describes the vast majority of actions taken by the vast majority of Americans, the vast majority of the time. Call it 99% of all actions, are Functional in nature and therefore furthering the action taker’s path down the inherently meaningless treadmill of goals begetting success begetting bigger goals and bigger success, etc. If the reason you got on the treadmill was to get somewhere, you’re going to be disappointed.

Expressive action, on the other hand, refers to action generated vis a vis the interaction of one completely unique individual and one completely unique moment.

Parker Palmer, author, activist & founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, describes this type of action well:

“Right (expressive) action does not require us to be relevant, powerful or spectacular.  Right action only requires that we respond faithfully to our own inner truth and to the truth around us.  It requires not that we aim at any particular outcome, for ourselves or for others, but that we act on truth as we know it, with truth as our only end.  Right action is no more or less than the action it is right to take, taken without anxiety about results.”

Martha Graham, one of the most influential dance choreographers of the 20th century, framed Expressive action in this way:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

And perhaps the first, and best, example of Expressive Action, Chuang Tzu, Taoist philosopher, summarized it thusly:

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

– Chuang Tzu

Each of these wise people are indicating a type of action which is fundamentally different from that which we success-obsessed Americans are comfortable and familiar. We’re used to acting to achieve goals, move us toward where we’re going, check lists and the like, the success or failure of which is easily quantifiable. These people are describing something different. The action they describe recommends that we “forget gain and success…praise and criticism,” and simply “act on truth as we know it, with truth as our only end.”

That doesn’t sound like business, or achieving, or making money or being “somebody.” That sounds a lot like…art.

Said directly: Expressive Action, the key to a successful and fulfilled life from where I’m standing, is doing whatever you’re doing as if it were art.

Not trying to create a Rembrandt — painting whatever the hell the canvas seems like it should have on it, to you. Not painting what some critic or your mother in law might admire — painting what you want to see on the canvas, just because you want to see it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go slow (although at first it may feel that way). When first introduced to this type of action, I resisted it out of fear that I would be left behind by all the people who continued to hustle their lives away. That they would get to some new part of the river that I’d never get to see. But the reality is that artists can be and are overcome by a fever of producing to rival any amount of ambition (my early morning business modeling from last week a perfect example) — the difference being it comes from a place of inspiration, rather than box checking. Inspiration can’t be fit into an hour time slot on your Google Calendar, but you’ll never box-check your way to a masterpiece, either. It might be that by slowing down, by giving yourself space to simply listen to your life, you actually get to the meaningful work, the work you’re meant to do, more quickly.

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with jumping on a treadmill. And one shouldn’t feel guilty about reaping the rewards (getting in shape if we’re being literal, or money if metaphorical). But if you’re doing it to get in shape, recognize that that will never happen. It needs to be about the running, each excruciating step a new experience done for its own sake, rather than a toll begrudgingly paid on the way to somewhere.

Whatever you’re doing, there is forever the opportunity to do it for its own sake, and for no other reason. To practice your craft, off-key as it may be sometimes or all the time, rather than trying to do anything the “right way.” Like an artist.

But what if Expressive Action is less “successful”?

You know who doesn’t make much money? Artists, mostly.

We’re talking about success, here. Why would I want to emulate an artist? Why not “pay my dues,” “do what it takes,” “put in my time” and “climb the ladder”?

Because, if you’re up to something new, something bigger and more meaningful than following the well-worn path to money, things, vacations and (probably) a midlife crisis, then I submit that success by anyone else’s definition is worse than meaningless. It’s distracting you from your life. And if you haven’t thought about it consciously, the bad news is that the vision of success and meaning you’re chasing is almost certainly not your own. Chase it anyway and you may become materially successful, but the worse news will come when you finally wake up and realize how much of your time you spent on money.

As Joseph Campbell said, “you must give up the life you always planned, to have the life that’s waiting for you.”

No matter your circumstances, you have the opportunity to give up your life, your plans, your ambition to become something, and be open to accepting, or channeling (be wary of “creating,” as that tends to come from ambition and ego) the definition of success that is unique to you. One that isn’t “out there” (thereby denigrating “right here”), but one that rests purely in the moment, and springs out of your unique expression within it.

As Socrates said 2,500 years ago, “the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” We all inherit the default terms of American life (success, money, winning, beauty, buy stuff), which dictate everything about us, absent intention to the contrary. If you take nothing else from this, let it be the invitation to define your own terms.

Don’t paint the vase of flowers that will make you famous, or splatter like Jackson Pollock. Don’t create the AirBnB for dogs, or the Facebook for athletes, or any other this for that bastardization. Don’t be like Mike. Ignore urges to become rich and famous, or to jump on a treadmill to get in shape (or at least understand that those urges are not your own). Instead, listen to your life (this takes practice), and then have the courage to follow where it leads with clear eyes and a full heart.

Stop working hard, getting in shape, and acting as if. Stop becoming someone who is going somewhere. Be unabashedly you, without filter, and to the detriment of all other options, and let that lead you to your life.

Such is the only real path to meaning.

“…having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive.

Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes

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