Reflecting on ‘The Power of Meaning…’ by Emily Esfahani Smith

I just finished this book by Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness. I don’t read nonfiction very often, but once in a while when I find a topic that intrigues me, curiosity pulls me in, and this book certainly did. It investigates how we can find meaning in life, on why a focus on meaning rather than happiness is so critical to our ability to thrive. The book was published recently, in 2017, so it includes all the latest research on this topic, which was definitely interesting to read about.

Our Obsession with Happiness

It’s true—happiness seems to be the goal we’re constantly aiming for in life. We make plans and buy things and pursue paths because we think it will make us happy. And for a brief moment it does. Ask anyone what they want out of life, and they will probably say “I just want to be happy.”

We use happiness to justify our actions, our means to our ends. Do what makes you happy, society says. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, America declares. We all just want to be happy!

And I get it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. But I’ve always believed that happiness isn’t the point of life. I don’t believe I was put here on this earth to be happy. Happiness to me is a fleeting emotion, and at the same time, a wonderful gift. (Also, how egocentric of us to think that life’s ultimate mission is to find our own personal happiness.) Happiness, I believe, is a by-product of how we choose to live and perceive our lives.

The Desire for Meaning

Enter Emily Esfahani Smith. This wise young author presents in her book the idea that meaning—not happiness—is what we’re all truly seeking on an innate level. And it makes sense if you think about it. Money and fame and success and all those traditional triggers for happiness don’t bring their recipients any lasting joy or fulfillment.

People live in gilded cages feeling empty and lost. Our obsession with buying more and more stuff stems from this desire to fill that void, to refuel that happiness tank that can never stay full. It can never stay full because it’s simply not the point. We’re chasing the wrong goal.

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics; when people say they want to be happy, they mean they want to feel a sense of meaning in their lives. That’s life’s big question after all, the GREAT MYSTERY: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? What is the point of it all?

To answer these questions, we must either find a source of meaning or create meaning for ourselves. Only then can we lead meaningful lives and find that sense of fulfillment.

The Pillars of Meaning

Using research in psychology and neuroscience, and insights from philosophy and literature, Smith illuminates the four pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence—that can help us lead more satisfying lives.

Each pillar has its own chapter in the book, and all throughout we’re introduced to people, both ordinary and extraordinary, who are working to build meaning in their lives using these pillars. We meet astronauts, survivors of trauma, entrepreneurs, people facing impending deaths, a zoo keeper, and everyday people trying to make sense of their lives.

The stories entwine with fascinating research and scientific findings—from how awe affects the sense of self to the strange relationship between happiness and suicide, and to the factors that make some people more resilient in the face of adversity than others.

The beauty of these pillars is that they are accessible to everyone. Both with and without religion, individuals can build up each of these pillars in their lives. They are sources of meaning that cut through every aspect of existence. ~ Emily Esfahani Smith, The Power of Meaning

I read this book for a book club, and it was interesting to hear, during our meeting, how the pillars resonated differently with each person. Not surprisingly, one of the pillars I gravitated towards was the pillar of storytelling.

Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions in human history; it’s how we connect with ourselves and others, how we make sense of the world and our place in it. This method of discovering meaning through narrative is not just about the stories we share or hear, but about the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. These stories of the self can either lift us up or oppress us, depending on the perspective we choose. There is great power in the story and it’s ability to shed light, provide context, and promote healing and understanding.

It was interesting to notice, also, how many of these pillars already exist in many aspects of my life and the lives of the people I know closely. The more I read about each one the more I made connections with how certain people in my life arrive at meaning, whether they realize it or not, through one of the pillars.

With transcendence, for example, where you connect with something larger than yourself to find meaning, I saw how my tendency to seek out nature—the peace and tranquility of forests or the overwhelming majesty of the ocean—is my way of achieving a transcendent state, to recenter myself amidst the chaos of everyday.

It’s by recognizing these pillars that we can work to cultivate them more intentionally in our lives, and thus achieve a deeper sense of meaning for who we are and how we want to live.

There’s More to Life Than Being Happy

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast, easy read, well-written and well-researched. I had never heard of Smith before but I’m glad we are now acquainted, and I’m looking forward to hearing her speak at an event next month.

Intrigued? Check out her TED Talk “There’s more to life than being happy”—and if you end up reading her book, let me know what you think!

Introverts Are Not Quiet People

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Photo by Tina Floersch

There is a difference between introverts and “quiet” people. It may be safe to say that most quiet people are introverts. BUT, not all introverts are quiet people. Introverts are often painted as these reserved quiet souls who would rather sit in a corner with a book and a blanket than talk to someone. This is not the universal truth of introversion.

It may be true that I prefer the company of a book and my dog to most people most of the time, but I do still crave and enjoy the company of other people, and—GOOD conversation. After all, we are humans before we are introverts or extroverts, and humans are social beings.

As an introvert, I’m just able to enjoy my own company more than an extrovert might be able to tolerate that same time being alone. Introverts value their alone time; we GUARD it. It’s a sort of survival mechanism. But we also value time with friends and the people that we love. We want to connect, and we seek meaningful interactions to do so.

Introverts sing on stage. We rally up crowds. We work in professions that demand performance, as teachers, lawyers, motivational speakers. We run for elected positions. We run companies and organize protests.

We are not all quiet people.

Being quiet is a personality trait, not a prerequisite for introversion.

As Erykah Badu sang, I pick my friends like I pick my fruit. If I’m going to expend my energy on something or someone, it better be worth it to me, because engaging with others takes a bit more effort. It just does. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value you, it just means my energy reserves are more easily depleted, so I have to use them more wisely. That’s my cell makeup, as an introvert.

Introverts go to networking events, but we may not go to the after-party if the event used up all our energy.

Introverts will talk to you on the phone for hours, but we may not want to talk to anyone right after we hang up, because all that mental energy needs rejuvenation.

Introverts go to parties and stay out till dawn. But we may not want to hang out the following few days or the next weekend.

Our alone time is simply our recoup time. It’s like when you work out. Your muscles are sore the next day so you need some time to rest before you go back out there.

Introverts just need time to rest.

And this alone time, or rest time, does not always involve being strictly alone. Being alone with certain people we love—that silent company that can exist between lovers, best friends, or close family members—that can also count. And it’s probably the most beautiful overlapping between introversion and extroversion. This ability to be both together and alone at the same time. It takes a special kind of relationship to be able to achieve this quiet harmonious way of being. Every introvert has at least one person in their lives that they can do this with (hopefully).

Introverts have things to say. We are not anti-social hermits. We have passions, and the people that we forge close bonds with, we love them deeply. We engage with the world, and love discovery and exploration just as much as the next person might. But we have a battery that needs tending. By taking some time out, we are not rejecting you, we are simply doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves.

Letters from Oahu, Hawaii |Part I

February 28, 2017

The Ocean and Ourselves

As I write this I’m sitting on the sharp rocky edges of an island, a six-hour plane-ride away from the closest continent. It’s the furthest away I’ve ever been from mainland, but I feel free, not isolated. Or perhaps it’s because I have only been here a few days. (Oh, the magic of novelty.)

The ocean is royalty here. The waves move in and out, methodical and hypnotic, an expression of peace and power. The ceaseless whooshing a lullaby, an orchestra, a narrative that tells the story of existence, if only we could comprehend its language. We try; we listen. It fills our senses—I am like a sea shell. Clouds kiss the horizon, reflections on the water.

The water—so much water. We were whale watching earlier, from the shore. From where we stand their tails are tiny. If we’re lucky, we see the subtle movements in the waves, the way the puffs of water spray upwards from their breaths, a reminder that we’re not so unlike them. Water and air is life for us both.

The ocean is a reminder of the breath in your heart. As the civilizations of modern man churn on, the ocean rolls on; it just is. A treasure of a billion secrets, so trust-worthy. Nothing humbles me like the ocean. Perhaps we are each one of us a teardrop of the ocean. Our veins are mini-streams and currents—trapped. And so we yearn for greatness, for the grandiose body of which we were once a part; we are constantly drawn to that which we can never hold in the small palms of our hands. The great tragedy of our yearning.

I will miss this sound. I know I will come back to it in daydreams. The breathing of the waves, like a thousand distant showers, endless exhales; they vibrate in my soul, clear out all the useless noise, wipe clean my mind’s pathways.

I think we are drawn to the ocean because we are made of water. How simple a conclusion! Seventy percent of our body is water and 100 percent of our life is dependent on water. And so we see the ocean as an extension of ourselves. Of the power we hope to someday achieve. (We have yet to conquer the ocean, and ourselves.)

When we see the ocean we recognize something in ourselves in all of creation—an alignment suddenly clicks. The answers we seek lie somewhere in the depths, we can feel them. (Are they destined to remain unknown?)

Somehow knowing they are merely there brings us peace, even if we cannot touch them, and so we watch, we listen, from the safety of the shore, from the semi-safety of our boats. We bob on the surface of life’s great mysteries and inhale the grains of salt and wind; oh majestic fear of the unknown; we wrestle with wanting to jump in, and not wanting to disturb the beast.

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5 Things I Learned from My Month as a Vegetarian

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Black bean & chickpea salad

Meatless March: A 31-Day Challenge, or Shall I Say, Lifestyle Change

A few months ago, I wrote a post about me contemplating the idea of becoming a vegetarian. While I haven’t taken that leap as of yet, I did go meatless this past month and have decided to make it an annual tradition, one that I’ve cleverly named—you guessed it—Meatless March.

Meatless March turned out to be not as difficult as I’d thought it would be. When I first began, it was more about shifting my mindset than resisting meat cravings. In fact, my meat cravings were surprisingly minimal. (There was that one time on the bus when a guy sat next to me with an oil-stained paper bag filled with fries… the smell reminded me of burgers, and, well, I had a few daydreams about eating a burger. End of confession.)

A month may not be a very long time, but it was long enough for me to reflect on my food choice tendencies. So now that Meatless March is over, post-reflection time is at hand. Here are my 5 takeaways from the month:

1. An Experience for the Palate

When you think about putting restrictions on your diet, you don’t think expansion, you think elimination. But Meatless March actually expanded my palate by encouraging me to experiment with new vegetables and ingredient combinations. I’m sure it helps that I’m in no way a picky eater and I love vegetables, but even if that’s not the case for you, going meatless can be a great way to branch out of your regular go-to foods. It will just take some additional thought and effort. Which brings me to…

2. Creative Cooking Fun

I had a ton of fun discovering new recipes and food blogs! I would have never come across this delicious West African peanut and sweet potato stew were it not for this awesome recipe list, which I would have never sought out if not for Meatless March. And because I enjoy cooking, it was a fun creative challenge coming up with new recipes or making vegetarian versions of familiar ones. Also, this eggplant lasagna is amazing.

I’ve heard that people who become vegetarian can sometimes gain weight because they end up eating more carbs to substitute the lack of meat. I made a concerted effort to not fall into this trap. I love pasta, so I could have easily forged a million different pasta recipes to get me through the month, but I ended up making pasta only twice. I actually became addicted to lentils—there are so many ways to make lentils!

As a result of these cooking adventures (and the consequent commitment to meal planning), I ended up dining out less frequently and packing lunch for work pretty consistently. So I saved money that way, in addition to saving at the grocery store since I wasn’t buying meat.

3. Mindful Eating & Living

Taking a break from eating meat made me more mindful of my food choices. When you have to be selective, you naturally have to think things through and scan for options you may not have considered before.

One of the main reasons I did Meatless March was a desire to become more aware of my eating habits. It was also part spiritual, as practicing this restraint made me appreciate food more—as well as my easy access to the plethora of food options around me. Fasting of any kind opens up windows for reflection.

We tend to live on auto-pilot most of the time, reaching for the same ingredients whenever we grocery shop, rotating the same recipes whenever we meal plan. It’s comfortable and easy to stick with the familiar. But comfortable and familiar is not how we expand our perspective.

That said, grocery shopping and meal preparation definitely required more thought. Because I’m a nerd and love learning new information, I took it a step further and actually took to looking up nutritional facts on various vegetables (curiosity for what I was eating had increased) as I thought about what to buy for the week.

And Meatless March was a great conversation starter. By talking with friends and family about what I was doing and why, I’d like to think I was shining a light on our culture’s obsession with eating way too much meat. (There’s endless information out there on how meat consumption direly affects our health and the environment, not to mention the unimaginable cruelty animals suffer in the meat industry, so I will not even open up that can of worms. That’s another post entirely.)

The point is—everything we do, every choice we make, has an effect. Too often do we turn a blind eye to those effects because we’re too afraid or can’t be bothered to face them. This experience has really made me want to know where is my food coming from?

I believe we are all connected—all living creatures, the earth, our consciousness, all of it. So I want to know where I stand in the context of the larger system. That chunk of meat in the freezer section, how did it get there? How long has it been sitting in its packaging?

I want to know what are my choices contributing to? How can I make better choices? I don’t want to be a blind consumer. I don’t want to feed an ugly beast.

4. I Eat a Lot of Cheese

c23214a0f75f661f6f12d5a1dea27e72Okay so now to lighten things up a bit: I love cheese and I have always loved cheese. 🙂 (I even love cheesy jokes—ha.) This would have been an ENTIRELY different experience, and a true challenge, if I had gone vegan instead of just meatless.

As I look back on the meals I’ve had over the course of the month, I must say… I see a lot of cheese. I’m not really sure if this has always been the case and I’ve become more aware of it because no meat cleared the way for a clearer view—or if I ate more cheesy dishes and snacks because of no meat.

I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, but cheese… cheese is a processed food VIP in my book. Still, now that I’ve observed that I probably eat more cheese than I should, I will take some steps towards moderation. (Yes, there was cheese in my dinner tonight…)

5. I Don’t Really Need to Eat Meat

I suppose my biggest takeaway is that meat doesn’t need to be on my plate in order for me to enjoy a meal. Meat to me is definitely delicious but it’s not a necessity for deliciousness. And while I admit that the last week of the month had me craving certain meat dishes, I think it was more that I was craving those dishes as a whole, as opposed to the meat specifically.

Throughout the month I rarely felt that my meals were lacking. I always felt full and fulfilled after eating. In the beginning it did take some getting used to and I did miss the substance of meat, but after a while, it felt pretty natural.

A month may not be a long enough time to make me officially “enlightened” on the subject of vegetarian living. I’m sure this blog post would look differently if I’d gone an entire year without meat. But the truth is, if you would have asked me a few years ago how I felt about vegetarianism, I would have probably told you that I didn’t understand why people did it.

But over the years, and especially now, I finally understand it in a way that I hadn’t before. To all the vegetarians and vegans out there—I respect you, and I guess I feel that my increased understanding has helped me connect with you more.

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So Now What?

Without going too deep into this, I feel I must also share that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with eating meat. But I do believe there’s something horrifically wrong with the way the meat industry operates. And this desperately and urgently needs to change. 

I don’t have any grand solutions to offer (I’m no Temple Grandin), but my own personal solution is to reduce my overall meat intake, to incorporate more vegetarian and perhaps even vegan dishes into my eating rotation.

Because at the end of the day, I enjoy food very much. I love trying new recipes and cuisines. And I love my body. And I love animals. And I love the earth and the bountiful gifts she has to offer. So moving forward, I will strive for variety when it comes to my food choices. Variety and balance and mindfulness and always—without exception—deliciousness.

So until next year’s Meatless March, stay healthy and merry… and savor your food as you chew!

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My zucchini & chickpea stew creation

The Spirit’s Strength is Infinite

My triathlon experience taught me many things last year, but the biggest lesson remains this: Persistence, dedication and hard work can take you anywhere. You just have to have the courage and will to keep going, no matter what perceived obstacles litter your path. The body may be limited in its physicality, but the spirit’s strength is infinite. Discipline is channeling that strength, and perseverance is believing in its power.

The Miracle of Mornings

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Even though waking up early can be a struggle, I’m glad I have somewhere to go to every morning. I’m glad that I’m needed, that people are expecting me, waiting for me, and happy to see me when I arrive.

Sure, I could opt to live a life of sleeping in. Of dreaming for just a little bit longer as I clutch my dog and smell her ears for just a little bit longer. I could opt to wake when I please, without urgency, and I could make showering optional (imagine the gallons of water I’d save).

But what kind of life would that be? A cyclical drudgery. An eventual restless wandering. Even larvae live with purpose.

We are creatures of habit. Some of us thrive on routine, some of us thrive on the thrill of not knowing what’s next (though really, nobody knows what’s next). But we are all creatures of habit. So I will make my new habit this:

To rise each morning purposefully and gratefully, a willing recipient to the day’s embrace, which is in no way owed to me. To recognize the miracle of mornings. The way they kiss my cheek each day, without fail, without judgement, never wanting anything in return save for gladness, as I flutter my eyes awake.

What if… I were a vegetarian?

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I’m thinking about becoming a vegetarian… possibly, maybe. I love eating chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, bison, goat, and seafood. So if I do become a vegetarian, it would be purely an act of mind over matter.

I was privileged to be raised in a household where we could afford to include these meats in our diet. And I was fortunate to have an excellent cook for a mother (from whom I draw so much of my cooking inspiration).

My mother was so good about keeping our diet balanced with plenty of vegetables, many times making veggie-only dishes for the occasional break from meat. I guess my mother was pretty fortunate too to have non-picky eaters for kids. (My brother doesn’t like onions but I’ll give him a pass…)

I’ve never questioned eating meat because… eating meat is something I’ve done all my life. I love food. How can you question something that smells and tastes so good? Besides, meat is deeply integrated in the cuisines of my heritages, so it’s a cultural experience too. Plus there are nutritional benefits.

But… now that I’ve experienced and been exposed to more of the world and lived through some pivotal years of my life, I’ve decided it’s time to reevaluate my values and ideologies on matters that I’ve always accepted as is. I think it’s good practice to reevaluate your way of life at various intervals, in an effort to live consciously. A sort of “Are you good?” “I’m good” “Okay, let’s carry on then” check-in with yourself.

The winds of life inevitably bend us, break us, or make us determined to stand our ground. So where am I determined to stand my ground? And where would I rather adapt, change, grow… based on what I know now that I may have not known before?

Deciding to become vegetarian is definitely not something I would do overnight, for a New Years resolution, or off an emotional whim. This isn’t an announcement that I’m moving in that direction (a- I’m not one for announcements and b- I have turkey chili waiting for me at home). This is merely an exercise in reflection… me sharing a topic I’ve been ruminating over recently for a number of reasons. So I welcome your thoughts… meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike.

More to come in an upcoming blog post.

Don’t Let Life Pass You By

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It’s easy to get lost in the folds of everyday. The countdown to the weekend seems to rule our lives. It’s a vicious cycle that blurs together days and weeks and months, until you forget how old you are on your birthday, and you no longer want to celebrate.

To-do lists are endless highways, as though life were a road trip, and you stay up all night just to get to where you want to be, and by day you’re too exhausted to enjoy the views. Attempts to workout or eat right or quit that habit or say the right words or commit to that perfect routine seem to follow you like a recurring daydream (or nightmare). Then you wake up one morning and realize six months have gone by (or worse — years), and you still haven’t taken the steps to accomplish all that your heart wants to do. Your passions are hanging on a hook behind your bedroom door. I’ll get to it tomorrow, you say as you make your usual exit, walk down the path of your usual routine. Because first things first: bills need to be paid, and your boss is expecting you to be somewhere on time — on their behalf.

And all the while your dog is getting older as he waits for you on the couch each day. You are getting older. The days continue to dissolve and you continue to put off calling up that friend or family member whom you haven’t seen in ages. You don’t remember what you did last weekend because every weekend looks the same, and it doesn’t matter anyway. You seem to be constantly saving for something and constantly broke. Not because you don’t have money, but because you’re worried that like time, you’ll never get back what you spend, so you tuck it away hoping something worthwhile will come along, something that will give you a good return on investment. And you’re constantly searching for that one thing that’s certain. Because better safe than sorry, right?

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I remember having what was probably my very first moment of clarity. I was sitting at the dining room table eating alone, looking across the room to the wall that held a round-faced clock. I remember staring at the second hand, focusing every thread of my being on its incessant ticking, its endless quest to move forward, to keep going. And for some reason, I remember feeling an immense sadness at the sudden, stark awareness that seconds were falling away from me. Falling away as I sat there on that table with a spoon in my hand, into a place I could never visit. It was the first time I realized that time is irretrievable.

We all have things that we want to do and things that we must do — sometimes those things align, sometimes they conflict. But no matter where those things fit in your life, I’ve learned that it’s important to prioritize what makes your heart catch fire. To do what makes you feel alive. Too many of us walk around drugged by coffee and obligations — utterly subdued into mindless routines that undo the threads of the heart by night and numb the passions of the soul by day.

Until you wake up and your skin is stale, and the pages of the novel you’d never written are sitting on your bedside table, yellowed by years of neglect. And your boss doesn’t exist in your life anymore, and you don’t remember how old you are, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Suddenly your life’s priorities involve getting to the bathroom before you let yourself go, and making your doctor’s appointments on time (they’re very busy so it’s important to be on time) because those shiny-eyed doctors with their sympathetic nods hold the answers to elongating your life (at least that’s what your mind has you believe) — though you’re unsure what you would do with your time if you did live longer. Because by that point, your best years are gone anyway (at least that’s what your mind has you believe). And dreams are for sissies anyway. Dreams are for street musicians and artist hippies and young inventors and college students who think they can change the world. Who are you to dream? Who are you?

Animals and Compassion

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Cruelty to animals is the epitome of evil to me. Cruelty to ANY being, in general, young or adult, is of course evil. But animals… they have always, since I was young, occupied a special place in my heart. (I decided against veterinarian school after I realized it involved science… and blood. Long live my liberal arts brain.)

Even after surviving a dog attack as a child, I have always loved animals. Especially dogs, funnily enough. I have always felt that animals embody the essence of innocence and of oneness with nature; they represent to me the natural balance of energy. They are untainted by vanity and ill-intention, undisturbed by ambition, pride, and desire. They just are. They only react. Their wants are tied only to survival.

Recently, I somehow came across a disgusting video of two men maliciously driving over a dog, killing him. Unfortunately, there isn’t much animal advocacy or protection of animal “rights” in the Arab world, where this happened, where animals are not often viewed through a compassionate lens. It’s not that people there hate animals or intently seek to harm them—many are working to change public perception and laws on the treatment of animals (I’ve lived in the Arab world almost all my life). It’s just that pets are not a cultural norm there, so the opportunities for people to experience animals, to interact with them, learn about them, and value and connect with them on a personal level, is close to zero. It’s lack of exposure and education around the treatment and nature of animals, not lack of heart. (Of course, like anywhere, there are bad apples… really bad apples.)

So when I read this follow-up article today on these cruel men being charged for their inhumane actions, I was surprised but elated… and filled with hope. This is a big deal for a country like Saudi Arabia, where this incident took place (and where I happened to live for many years). I’m so glad they’ve acknowledged this disturbing, ignorant behavior as evil—that they actually hunted down the culprits! I hope education around compassion for animals continues in that region and everywhere else around the world.

C2I’m not writing this post to draw gasps over this dog’s fate, criticize ignorance, or spark debates about going vegan. Rather, to simply draw attention to the fact that as fully capable human beings, we have the power and responsibility to be kind and gentle to all beings who cannot speak for themselves, both humans and animals alike. Compassion is what separates us from evil. It’s what makes us human.

Compassion is necessary for life, love, and goodness to thrive.

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Being Present in Everything You Do

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It’s been three months and life without a microwave surprisingly hasn’t been that bad. (This wasn’t some kind of personal experiment, I just haven’t gotten around to buying one since I moved.) The process of reheating food in such a conscientious way forces you to slow down and contemplate what you are about to eat. The effort becomes a ritual of patience, anticipation, and appreciation, as the aroma tickles your nose and entices your appetite. It reminds you to reflect on those daily mindless things we do in the bubble of instant gratification. In other words, it reminds you to turn off auto-pilot and live life intentionally. Not by dumping your microwave… but by being present in everything you do.