Eau de Existence

This is the Age of Bucket Lists and Extreme Sports and the catch-phrase of our century is ‘Live Life to the Fullest!’  We work hard, play hard and party hard too.  Yet, despite our efforts to make every moment count, maximise each experience and push every limit, people still continue to search for that elusive something to complete their lives.

Motivational speakers, life-coaches, self-help books, religious extremism…all point to the increasing number of individuals looking for answers to a set of common questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? and What is Life anyway?

Before you get your hopes up, no, I haven’t found an ancient text or had a Divine inspiration that deciphers these mysteries.  But then I don’t believe we will ever be able to answer them completely, because each question has two aspects: the general and the specific.  Experts give us theories about the former; the latter is up to each of us to discover for ourselves.

Except that last: What is Life?  This is probably the most important of all the questions.  Only after you have a proper definition of Life can you then ask about the purpose of yours and plan how to achieve it.

Now, if you belong to the group that doesn’t care and is fine with waking up every morning, auto-piloting through your daily routine to the night, sleeping and then going through a ‘Repeat Cycle’ – with slight variations on the weekend –  then this is where you wave a white hankie and say “S’long and see you in another post. (Maybe.)”

For the rest, let’s take a little walk in our imagination to the nearest perfumery, shall we?

Just one more…
As a Muslim, attar and perfumes hold not only aesthetic value but are also part of the sunnah (recommended actions) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

However, regardless of faith, we all like the fragrant stuff.  But have you ever looked at the label when buying a new scent?  Most are classified into categories: Perfume, Parfum (de Toilette), Eau de Parfum, Eau de Toilette, Eau de Cologne.  The ratio of essential oils to alcohol determines where a scent falls with Perfume being the most concentrated and Eau de Cologne being the lightest (or most watered down).  The lighter a scent, the more of it you need and the shorter it lingers.

This made me think of the quality of things that last versus those that don’t and how much of each we need and perfume seemed a pretty good analogy for figuring out what Life really is.   (Yes, we still are talking about that.)

It occurred to me that a lot of the stuff people do to squeeze every drop out of life involves exaggeration of some sort.  The more risk involved, the more it appeals to those who equate life to thrills.  We want to climb taller mountains, scale steeper walls, drive faster cars, jump from greater heights and sail rougher seas.

Even in entertainment, the need for excitement and instant gratification is prevalent – in parties, its more music, louder beats, faster rhythms, more alcohol, bigger highs; in sports, its more challenges, greater speeds, more accomplishments, bigger records; in wealth, it’s more spending, more extravagance, more freewheeling, more luxury; in movies, its more CGI, more explosions, more fantasy, more skin…more everything really.

Wait, that’s not quite right.  It’s actually more of everything that’s either material, temporary or instant. A case of: If I can get it now, I want it.  And once I get it, I want more of it…Now.  The vicious cycle whirls each of us ‘round and ‘round at different speeds and in different intensities.

The more we do, the less satisfied we become.  When we succeed at what we set out to do, we don’t stop and say: “Now I’m done” because the it’s all about that fleeting moment of the ‘rush’ and once that passes, we’re left thirsting for more, so we set another higher benchmark.  And this is not a bad thing in itself.  Raising standards is the only way to progress, but ‘What’ we raise those standards for matters as much as the ‘How’.

Why, for example, have all the efforts towards dealing with poverty, starvation, violence, human rights or even environmental pollution barely taken off, except as movements that have a lot more talk and publicity than action on the ground?

But I digress. The point I was making is that over the past few decades, we’ve mixed up Life and life experiences so completely that we can no longer tell the difference between the two clearly and sometimes even mistake one for the other.  So how are we then understand what Life is anymore and what we’re meant to do with it?

Distilling The Essence of Life
*sniff* *sniff* Smell that? Lovely, delicate fragrance, innit?  Yup, we’re going back to the perfumes for a bit…

Almost all the products we use are created from ingredients that occur in raw form.  Human ingenuity has created a range of processes to separate a substance X from other not-X things it might be mixed up with.  If words like refining, smelting, extracting and distilling sound familiar then you know what I’m talking about.  In most cases, the term ‘removing impurities’ will come up but keep in mind the word impurity here is relative and just refers to everything not-X.

Perfumes are pretty much the same.  If you want that concentrated form that only requires a drop or two and lasts for hours, you need to extract the pure essence from its raw source and keep dilution to a minimum.  That’s exactly what we need to do with Life.

Every one of us has layers of experiences.  Sometimes we have so many, we forget the person buried under them all or we get so distracted by the layers available, we end up putting on unnecessary ones.  It’s like going into a shop to buy a sweater because it freezing outside, then getting carried away by the colours and fabrics and walking out having spent all your money on a really cool sweatshirt…sometimes to find it’s started snowing as well.  Unfortunately, some of us never even make it out of the shop again.

A lot of things we have in our lives that we think we can’t do without or believe defines who we are, are actually non-essentials we’ve picked up from environment, upbringing and community.  Our tastes, interests, activities, friends…all define how we experience life, not Life itself.

So it makes sense that if we what to know what Life is, we need to remove these ‘impurities’ (or not-Life aspects) in order to discover the extract that remains.

Let’s Play ‘Lost’

But in our version of Lost, let’s pretend we’re the only one on the island.  Each of us alone. Without all the usual things we take for granted in every day.

So arming yourself with just a little effort and a lot of brutal honesty, make a list of everything you do on a normal day and on a weekend i.e. your ‘work’ and your ‘play’.  Is you list a series of experiences, one carried out after the other without pause in between for a thought about the ‘who’ behind your choices?

The tasks you perform, the meetings you attend, the house you live in, the movies you watch, the music you listen to, the books you read, what you eat and drink, the social circles you move in, all these are temporary factors that can be altered – sometimes without warning.  They’re not part of you, they’re simply things you do based on your current circumstances, mood and tastes.

This is the most external – diluted – layer of life.  It’s ephemeral at best and that’s why it constantly changes, always competing to keep your attention just that little bit longer.  How much stable value can things that need to work that hard to attract (distract) you, add to your life and progress as a person?

Thus, the first thing to do is cancel out the biggest, loudest, most material possessions/activities on your list and pretend you can’t have them anymore.  If just the thought of your life without these things made you balk, then it’s a sad fact but you’re probably existing on the Eau de Cologne version of Life.

The next to go are the things you do based on your talents.  Are you good at a particular sport?  Pretend you can’t play it anymore.  Do you practice a particular craft?  That’s out too.  Do your talents lie in either creative arts or in scientific exploits…cross out that stuff, whether you do it as a hobby or as part of your career.

For many of us, our abilities define our sense of self, of life.  But an ability is just that – something you gained or learnt because you had an aptitude for or an interest in it.  And you could just as easily lose that ability in a number of ways…would you cease to exist?  Would you no longer live?   See? It’s not Life. It’s a life experience.

So far so good? (Does your list look as scarily struck-out as mine?) Let’s forge ahead then…

There’s a folder with certificates somewhere in all our drawers.  A shelf of cups, medals, ribbons or awards.  An account of our accomplishments from the first Kindergarten art competition we made an undecipherable scribble for to the Save The (Insert Save-worthy Cause) Project we last took part in.  Surely these things are Life?  If we support a noble cause, it defines our worth, does it not?

Achievements do form a part of our lives – to some extent.  But some people simply don’t have the chance or the ability to, even if they wanted, does that make their life less valuable?  Remember as you’re doing this exercise that you’re Lost, so really you might want to join every great cause in the world, but you can’t.  That doesn’t make you a less worthy person, is just makes you a person constrained by circumstance.  So we can cross those things out too…but perhaps with a lighter stroke, eh?

The only things I have left on my list are the people I love and the things I can do for myself without external help i.e. thinking and feeling.

Our closest companions may enrich and influence us more than anything else does.  We might feel like our lives would lose meaning and depth without them, but the harsh fact is that no matter how much you love someone, inevitably we will all be separated, if not by choice then by the unrelenting approach of death.  And so family and friends help make our life experiences more beautiful but they are also not a part of the Life we’re trying to discover.

Which leaves what’s inside: the thoughts we think with our mind and the emotions we feel with our heart.  And these are not created independently; both thoughts and emotions are dictated by something much deeper within us – by our beliefs and principles, by the nature of our soul.

You only think positive thoughts if you’re an optimist and your survival on the island may well depend on whether you look at the situation with hope or despair.  On that little piece of land where you now are, ask yourself some difficult questions:

Would you tell the truth while there if you never had to face the consequences of lying?  Would you still support the same causes if there was no one working with you and no recognition for the work?  Would you keep the island clean and clear up after yourself just as you do at home?  Would you eat with the same etiquette you display in front of friends or just forget all manners?

And the question that is really the final stage of extraction:
Would you wake up every morning with a belief that you have a purpose for being where you are and do everything with a sincere gratitude for simply being alive?

Without work and play, without family and friends, without causes and projects, without all these things to give your attention to (or distract you) anymore…what then IS the purpose of your life?  What would make you get up and live every day out to its fullest on that little island where no one can see you, benefit from your words and actions or appreciate them, where people may no longer even know whether you’re alive or not.  In that state of absolute isolation…what is your purpose and self-worth?

I believe it is only when we struggle to get the answer to that question, honestly and sincerely, that we will discover the greatest treasure that is within us: our True Self.  And once we do that, it won’t matter if we’re Lost on an island or in a crowd of thousands, we’ll never feel like something is missing.

The End is Nigh…

My favourite saying has always been this Zen one:  “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”   For years, I wondered at it and couldn’t understand what it was trying to say.  Now I know it’s not trying to say anything, it’s simply stating a fact: that Life is not about your experiences, it’s about your essence.

Because Life is just like a perfume where even the most diluted version gets its fragrance from the initial extract.  The things you do on that first surface level I mentioned? Those things are a reflection of what your true essence currently ‘smells’ like.

If your work involves gossip, get-ahead politics and a lack of dedication…these actions, no matter how you justify them, are a result of your real essence.  If fun to you involves alcohol, RLC (Rude, Lewd & Crude) content and irresponsible behaviour, then calling yourself a ‘spiritual’ person is exhibiting false Piety-on-Call.  Such spirituality is as superficial an experience as the rest of the stuff you do.

Your real substance permeates all you say and do and sensible people can detect your ‘fragrance’ from the way you walk, talk and dress; they can even tell when you change it.  The only ones who don’t catch on are those too distracted by their own experiences to realise what a stink they are raising.

In the end, the choice of the kind of person you want to be and the kind of people you want to hang out with is yours. I only hope you’ll all be at least as – if not more – particular about the Life-essence you wear as you are about your perfumes.

bint Ali