What Am I Doing with My Life? – Dealing with the Unknown
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What am I doing with my life?” I certainly have. We hear this quite a bit in our groups from our students. I was asked last week again about what to do with these thoughts and feelings when they arise, and thought I would write a bit about it.
It of course can be an overwhelming question when it arises, and I’ve found that my mindfulness practice can help me deeply with it. We may seek career counseling, advice from a mentor, or try many different things. Here’s a bit about my experience with this question and how meditation and mindfulness can help us.
My Personal Journey (So Far)
I haven’t always had a clear idea of what I would like to do with my life, and still don’t always. When I got sober at 19 I had a criminal record, a high school diploma, and a bunch of tattoos. I worked jobs that came my way, including an assistant in the real estate industry, a residential assistant at a sober living home, and a writer for a psychology website. During these times, I really did not wonder what I was going to do with my life, as I was young and happy just to be supporting myself.
In the years since, I have found myself continually returning to this question. I worked for years in the addiction treatment industry because it was an industry that was willing to hire individuals without clean backgrounds and with tattoos, but I never really loved it. I did love being present for suffering addicts, but enforcing rules I didn’t necessarily believe in was not my idea of an ideal job.
A few years ago, I began seeing a bit more clearly what I wanted with my life. As my practice took off and I fell into the role of teaching more often, I knew I wanted to work with meditation. As I worked in a position that was mostly enforcing rules and lacked any sense of intellectual stimulation or challenge, I knew I wanted to engage more mentally with my work.
I quit my “day job” to pursue my passions a few years ago. I began taking One Mind Dharma (then called The Easier Softer Way) a bit more seriously, and working in online marketing by answering Craiglist ads. Since then, I have worked with an awesome team to create One Mind Dharma into what it is today and started an SEO (search engine optimization) company. I’m able to spend my days working with meditation and dharma, and engaging my brain with the processes involved in bringing websites to the top of Google search results.
I cannot say for certain what I will do with the rest of my life, but I have learned a lot about dealing with this uncertainty and everything that comes along with it.
One of the biggest places of investigation for me surrounding this question is my sense of identity. How much of your identity is built around what you do for work? What about what you do for fun? Your spiritual/religious practice? Identity has value in moments. We connect with other people who share similar identities, find a sense of safety and understanding, and discover refuge. For me, this has been the sangha, or community of meditators. It has been my friends in the SEO and digital marketing industry.
We often take experiences and use them to form a sense of identity. A foundational Buddhist teaching is that of anatta, or not-self. Although this topic deserves its own discussion, it most simply is the idea that everything is without a stable self. We change, are fluid, and the sense of self we create is just that: created.
My work life is a huge contributor to the identity I create for myself. I identify myself as an SEO and a meditation teacher. I also use my work ethic and behavior in the workplace as a building block for identity. Of course there’s my relationship, and my identity as a husband and partner. Although these may be relatively wholesome uses of my time, it’s not entirely useful. Sometimes I get stuck in a fixed view about who I am, closing myself off to different experiences or the fluidity of life.
We also have pressure from ourselves, family, and society to be something perhaps. We’re pushed to do something specific with our lives and time, and this can impact our sense of self. We use comparison with others, with ourselves, and with our thoughts about where we “should” be. Instead of being present for our experience, we fall into the habit of self-judgement, comparison, and constant distress.
Try to notice when you are creating a sense of identity for yourself. It’s not to judge it as bad or wrong, but just notice it. Does it feel useful? What purpose does it serve? Again, remember that the goal isn’t to judge, but to notice what is happening in your experience.
Dealing with the Unknown in Life
We will always have unknowns in life. The future is quite often a mystery. Part of life is dealing with unknowns. We can find ourselves experiencing an immense amount of suffering over trying to figure out the future. This can lead to anxiety, stress, and fear. We want to control things that are often uncontrollable.
The first thing to recognize here is that we do have some power over the future. Robert T. Kiyosaki said, “Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow.” This points toward the law of karma, or cause and effect. We do have the ability to take action today to affect the future we experience. Although we cannot control every variable, we can make choices today to push ourselves toward a place that feels wholesome. When I wanted to engage my mind more, I answered online ads for digital marketing until I was able to create a legitimate business.
We can also practice meditation and begin to notice our tendency to seek to control. A concentration practice can help us to collect the mind and learn to see the experience of resting in the unknown more clearly. Body scans can help us to cultivate the ability to see more clearly when we are experiencing some suffering in the mind and body. General mindfulness meditation can train the mind to be aware and caring when discomfort arises.
Facing the unknown is one of the greatest measures of my practice that I have experienced. To rest in the unknown with some equanimity takes practice, and I certainly am not always good at it. With continual practice, we can recognize there is an unknown in our life without letting it eat us away or control our behavior.
Responding with Compassion
The truth is that this can be painful, and we don’t always have an answer. Sometimes we find ourselves working a job we don’t love, dating somebody we can’t see ourselves with forever, or living somewhere that doesn’t work well for us. These moments of realization offer fertile ground for realization and awakening. We can work on cultivating a heart and mind that respond with a gentle letting go.
We hold views about who we should be, what we should be experiencing, or even what will make us happy. When we believe these thoughts, we suffer. We hold onto ideas about ourselves and miss out on life when we hold too tightly. We get stuck on something and miss the moments of happiness and joy that arise. It’s quite unpleasant, and we often respond by judging ourselves.
Compassion meditation for ourselves can be incredibly helpful. We can work to respond with more care and kindness when we’re experiencing something unpleasant. As we cultivate compassion, we become less reactive and are able to see the situation with more clarity and wisdom. We can see that these are just thoughts. As uncomfortable as they may be, we don’t need to hook into each and every one. Instead, we can respond with a wise compassion for the discomfort we’re experiencing.
When it comes down to it, we don’t need to know the answer to what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives. We can have an idea of what we’d like for ourselves and an understanding of what brings us ease and joy, but we will never truly know what the future holds. Instead of worrying ourselves to death, we can work with this experience and learn to respond with some compassionate curiosity.