“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life,” wrote the mythologist Joseph Campbell. “I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive… so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” Why should this be so? In effect, we are seeking the experience of being what we already are, since we are presumably already alive. But for many of us, there is precious little rapturousness about it. We are weighed down by the cares of the world. We are made dull by dull routine. We are permanently distracted by the thousand and one distractions we seek to fight off boredom. "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" asks Emily, the young woman in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, who has died in childbirth and returns to relive a single day. She is appalled to discover that everyone is so caught up in the everyday humdrum that they fail to appreciate how precious every moment is.
The Russian mystic George Gurdjieff once observed that we are “animated automatons” who sleepwalk our way through life. Not surprisingly, many religious traditions use awakening as a metaphor for spiritual realization. Adepts, including Gurdieff himself, have devised various practices and techniques for bringing about such an awakening. Seekers distract themselves with grandiose notions about what such an awakening might entail. But, as Joseph Campbell has suggested, what people are really seeking is an experience of being what they already are. After all, any self-respecting two-year-old can show you what it is to experience the rapture of being alive.
A sure sign that we have awakened is that we are overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude for the gift of life and everything that comes with it. No matter what our circumstances may be, it’s all good, even the bad stuff. My inspiration here was my friend Ellie, who was felled by a stroke at age 35 and spent the last decades of her life in a convalescent home, almost totally immobilized. As you might imagine, she had to work through a lot of anger and bitterness about her fate. And yet in her last years she was able to say without a trace of irony that her stroke was the best thing that had ever happened to her. How was this possible? Because she had come to recognize that everything that happens to us is a lesson. And once we learn to accept it with gratitude, we are free to move on.
If we are serious about finding whatever it is we think is lacking in our lives, we could do worse than to cultivate a sense of gratitude. Gratitude won’t give us the thing we lack, but it may in time open our eyes to all that we have. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, the Psalmist advises. It’s not just that we should be grateful for what we have received. We discover when we have entered into God’s presence that it is gratitude which has opened the door.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Peter Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous