Guest Author : Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd.
In my work as a hospice physician I found that most of my patients desperately needed to talk about life and whatever meaning it holds, as they looked back from the vantage point of their last days on this planet. For many of them it was very important to know whether or not they had fulfilled a purpose through their existence here or if they were leaving behind anything by which to be remembered.
For some the search for meaning was fairly simple: they could point to their children and grandchildren as a legacy they had helped to create. But other patients felt deeply disturbed that perhaps they hadn’t really contributed anything significant to life, because they had never considered that life had meaning until that very moment, while lying on their deathbeds.
The message I have taken away from these patients is that it is far better to contemplate the meaning of life when we actually have some time left to work on the question. Joseph Campbell wrote: “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it,” emphasizing that we must put effort into creating our own meaning from this existence. Here are some keys I have discovered that are necessary in this process:
Perspective: First of all, in order to find meaning in life we must embrace the perspective that life is limited and precious. We must acknowledge the fact that we are mortal and life will end some day because the fleeting nature of life is precisely what pushes us to create meaning for ourselves. Many of my hospice patients didn’t see this fact until they were actually at the end-of-life, when time was running short. But it is important for the rest of us to wake up now, before we reach the end, even though our society encourages us to deny the reality of our mortality.
Prioritization: Once we take a proper view of life and death and accept that our time is limited, the next step is to understand our own priorities. As we age we find that our resources of both time and energy may be somewhat diminished. Therefore we must invest them wisely in those things that matter most to us. There is no room for squandering or throwing away our precious moments of life. But identifying what does matter to us requires some thought, because our values change as life progresses.
Preparation: There is no substitute for planning ahead and being ready for some of the changes of later life. While we cannot predict the exact unfolding of our own aging process, we can take some steps to make sure we are prepared. Estate planning, making a will, creating an advance directive, and appointing a healthcare proxy are a good start. Sharing our stories and our wishes for later life with our loved ones will also ensure that we are “ready” for anything that may come our way.
Practice: Finding meaning in life requires effort and, in my opinion, that effort is best devoted to some sort of daily practice. By choosing to carry out a specific activity at a regular time every day you can create mental discipline and focus, which are necessary skills in the search for meaning. A daily practice might consist of journaling, meditation, yoga, prayer, mindfulness, exercise or a combination of some of those choices. It doesn’t really matter what you practice – only that you practice with consistency and diligence. Having a daily practice helps calm anxiety and create opportunities for deeper contemplation and inner work, which will lead to a greater sense of meaning in all of life.
Presence: Living in the present moment has become a common catch phrase these days, but it is a necessary component of a life of meaning. Too much focus on the past or the future prevents you from experiencing life as it is happening right here, right now. Meaning exists only in this moment and you must be able to bring your attention to NOW in order to bring meaning to life. “Stop and smell the roses” as it has been said, for that beautiful fragrance will remind you of the simple joys of existence.
These 5 suggestions represent a place to begin as you contemplate the meaning of your own existence. But remember that life is a journey with many detours and distractions along the way. Find support and information wherever you can and stay awake and alert so you don’t miss a single moment!
Check out Dr. Wyatt’s home study course “The 7 Lessons Wisdom Path” to find out how you can find a new sense of meaning and purpose as you contemplate life, death and everything in between. This course will help you live an authentic life and provide you with the tools to develop a spiritual practice as you proceed on your own journey through “Earth University.”