Living fully? Or living materially?

I’ve just returned from a relaxing trip to Florida, where my family and I stayed with my sister and brother-in-law for a week. They live in Orlando, and we were never a few hours away from any of our destinations (most of them were mere minutes away from their home). We spent a day at the Magic Kingdom, a day in St. Pete on the Gulf, and the remaining days lounging around Orlando at Downtown Disney or at the pool. We were all reminded how much we miss being around family, and we’re planning a return trip as early as December.

We went down on a shoestring budget, yet we never worried about running out of money. Our entire focus of this trip was about living fully and not spending money. We did not get caught up in the trap of buying a lot of souvenirs and visiting a lot of high-priced attractions because this was our “premiere” vacation destination. Instead, my wife and I remained grounded in the what this trip was all about: family and giving our children experiences to understand what living a meaningful life is all about.

And maybe that’s what I take from this trip: Living fully is not about living in the material world. At home, our children desire the material goods more out of boredom than out of any real necessity. While we were on vacation, they did not crave electronic gadgets to pass the time; instead, they focused on spending as much time as possible with their aunt and uncle. They craved experience and love, not iPods and Playstations.

All this tells me that we’re doing something right. Living fully is about the experience, especially with others. It’s not about the desperate attempt to fill our four walls with the latest inventions and gadgets that always leave us feeling an even greater desperate need to buy more.

Maybe this purchase will make me happy. . . .

No. It’s about priceless purchases of time with family and friends. To me, that’s what living fully is all about.

So I offer these five original tips to help you on your own journey toward happier living. Let me know if you are already living by any of them and, if you are, the strength you’ve gained in your journey.

1. Know where the sky begins. I was raised to reach for the stars, to believe that many, if not all, of the greatest things in life are just out of our reach, high in the sky. But I’ve realized recently that, just like the ocean begins at its first little licks on the sandy shores, our sky begins in the blades of grass at our feet. We no longer need to believe that all of our dreams are waiting for us in some far-off galaxy of stars. When we stand tall, we are already immersed in our skies, where our dreams are already within our reach. We cannot live our lives thinking that greatness begins in some great future. Greatness is here. All around you. Begin realizing your dreams, because you are already among the stars.

2. Live Small. Our lives are so busy and hectic that we need to remind ourselves to slow down and refocus on the finer aspects of what’s in front of us. When we were driving down to Florida, we enjoyed the colorful landscaping of the median areas separating the north and south directions of I-95. From a distance, the blends of oranges, reds, yellows, and whites contrasted the golden green grasses nicely. It wasn’t until we were in the Magic Kingdom where I was able to savor the beauty of the single bloom and all of its intricacies. Like an impressionistic painting, both views serve a worthwhile purpose. Stand back, and you see the beauty of the finished product. Look more closely, and you see the unique qualities of the individual colors, as if they are living a life of their own among the thousands of other dabs of colors working together to form a bigger, as-beautiful picture. Look for the small all around you: the flowers, the friends, the everything. Discovering beauty within beauty guides us to inner fulfillment, and it never costs a dime.

3. Make small commitments–and keep them. We live our lives doing our best to uphold the big commitments we’ve made, but when we find ourselves being anything less than perfect, we automatically feel as if we have somehow failed, and the pressure we (and others) put on ourselves can be catastrophic to our health and well-being. While we strive for perfection in these areas, we cannot be so harsh on ourselves that it compromises all other aspects of our living. One sure way to help us through those challenging times–and to keep us afloat the rest of the time–is to make small commitments that we know we can keep. And, upon fulfilling them, we feel better about ourselves. I keep a rolling list of 10 things to do, and at least half of the items on that list is to help others in some way. Just yesterday I learned that my childhood neighbor’s mother passed away about a month ago, and so I added to my list: Write encouraging note to Bruce and mail it. It doesn’t take much time to buy a card, write a brief encouraging note, and stick it in the mail. It’s a small commitment that I can keep that will help a friend through his grieving while keeping me immersed in fulfilling commitments. These are the things I can control. These small commitments keep me focused on achieving the small so I can continue achieving the big, even during challenging times where I might have mis-stepped a little. I look at it this way: fulfilling these little commitments is like feeling the pulse of my own beating heart; they are the reminders that, in this moment, I am alive and am very aware, and there is much to celebrate in that simple fact.

4. Establish your anchors and lifelines. We need constant reminders to slow down, savor the moment, take the time for ourselves and for others. We do this unconsciously in many ways, from choosing bumper stickers that define who we are, to putting our best friends on speed-dial or on IM so they are just a click or two away. But we need to make a more conscious effort to keep that focus, because too often, we are looking desperately for anchors or lifelines when we are at the end of our rope. We need not wait that long. In fact, we need not wait at all. My anchors are my daybooks, my cross necklace, a few books (Tao te Ching, the Bible, Walden, and others), a handful of photos, and small items that I’ve collected, both from my childhood and from my parents’ estates after they died. They are reminders of what my life is all about and what is most important. I test the strengths of these anchors nearly every day, and they never fail me, for they are rooted in love. I have lifelines extended to various people in my life for various reasons. I used to hesitate to reach out to them because I thought that it made me seem weak, or that I was becoming a burden on them with my troubles. The truth is, I now see myself as no more a burden as I view others who come to me with needs. I like the lean, the give and take we offer each other in this world. It reminds me that we are not alone, and we sometimes need a friend to just listen to us, to be there to hold our hands and comfort us until clarity comes once more. Do not be afraid to set your anchors and establish your lifelines. They are the lights in our tunnels when we feel as though our fall into the abyss is neverending. All we need to do is open our eyes, reach out our hands, and have a little faith.

5. Create experiences. We live fully by experience. We live deliberately, as Thoreau writes, to corner this thing called life and see if we have yet lived. We suck the marrow out of life by immersing ourselves in the experience and making things happen. It doesn’t have to be a 2,100-mile trip to Florida and back, where you see gators and ducks as you never imagined. It doesn’t have to be a well-designed, fully choreographed excursion to another country. While it can be any of those things, it can also be the experience we make in walking outside and studying the wild overgrowth in a once-loved butterfly garden, or a walk around the block where you find yourself waving hello to neighbors you’ve seen only in passing cars. It doesn’t even have to be a physical experience. Try something different that you’ve never even imagined yourself doing. Paint, draw, construct, build, take apart, design, write, watch. Remove yourself from the mundane and place yourself outside of your comfort zone. Immerse yourself in experiences and then talk about them. Share them with others. Or, at the very least, write about them. And then build upon them. Stretch that comfort zone, experience by experience, and be aware of what you are doing, why you are doing it, the entire time.

Lose yourself in the magnificence of the moment, and you will never look back on your life and ask, “where did the time go?” It’s far better to look into your life and realize that the time didn’t go anywhere; it’s right here, right now, and it is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful.

One thought on “Living fully? Or living materially?

  1. Another wonderful post, sorry I am so long in coming over to read it. “Living fully is about the experience”. It truly is. It is so important, and something that I have tried to really incorporate, and that is to truly experience the moment I am in. If that makes any sense. It can be so easy to be doing something and all the while thinking of or striving towards ‘the next thing’. Even reading can be that way…having a pile of books one wants to read can easily lead to tearing through one book with the goal of getting to the next. I try not to do this. I try to savor each opportunity, each get together, each family moment, each moment of entertainment. I want to get the most out of life by simply being open to getting the most out of each moment rather than trying to cram too many things into one day.

    Your advice is certainly sound. I too think it important to constantly be reminded to slow down, to savor the moment. Those reminders are not moments of self-flagellation for not doing the right thing, instead they are those lights in the darkness that help us stay on the right path. This is something I’ve even tried hard to do this summer…to enjoy it. Summer is my least favorite time of year and instead of bemoaning the fact I have embraced the time and it has been a very nice summer.


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