What is a good life? How can we feel happiness, pleasure, and joy without doing harm to other living beings or our world? Do we need to be vegan? Do we need to stop driving our cars? Do we need to give up air conditioning and take cold showers? Do we need to pray for peace? Should we run off to the forest and live off-grid? Or should we be in a city where the "mess" of our world is surrounding us, so that we do not forget?
These are questions that I do not have the answers to, even though I have spent the last three months trying so hard to find them. I lived on an urban farm, a rural homestead, and a Buddhist retreat center, each of which have their own understanding of what it means to live a meaningful and ethical life. They are all so different from one another, yet their core values and goals are the same. Ultimately, they want to do good for humanity, avoid harming the planet, spread love, and leave the people and their world a little bit better off than how they found it.
In exploring the different interpretations on what it means to live a meaningful life, I have come closer to answering questions that I will probably continue to ask myself my whole life — what is my purpose here? Is what I'm doing important? Is what I'm doing enough?
During my time traveling I felt full of purpose and void of meaning. I felt full of love, yet I was lacking connection. I felt fulfilled with answers yet was drowning in questions. I was confused and I still am. But for now I have a little more clarity than I had before and that is enough.
An Urban Farm
"There once lived two people who dreamed a big dream,
they wanted a better world, how extreme!
So they thought up a plan and did what anyone would.
They grew a whole farm to show the world they could.
They gathered their plants, their ducks, and their neighbors.
They sweated and tired through endless labors.
They looked out at their land and saw life grow all around.
They looked out to see community bonding over the ground.
There once lived two people who dreamed a big dream,
What made this dream different was their courage to be seen."
On just a few acres of land in the backyard of a couple's home in Boulder, Colorado, two inspiring people worked to provide fresh produce for their community. They followed their dreams of building community through Mother Earth and they believe that this is the key to building meaning, connection, and love. I saw two people, who both work full time jobs, spend all of their spare time, energy, and money to maintain their garden. They allow children from a local school to explore their land and nature, and they host community events to bring people together. Every weekend they invite community members to join them in harvesting and preparing for their Saturday morning market. And every Saturday, a member of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) volunteers to cook and bake in order to transform their farm stand into an event, rather than just another errand that needs to be done. Saturday mornings for this community is a time for coming together, meeting new friends, sharing recipes, and appreciating the land.
Seeing families, children, teenagers, and adults all come together to be a part of something bigger than themselves made my heart grow tremendously. I met young adults who found purpose in spending their weekends at the farm. I met older woman who were inspired by all of our hope and aspirations. I met curious children who frolicked through the grass and played with dancing grasshoppers. The community looked forward to this at the end of every week, and I quickly did as well. We could all come together to remember and embrace each other and the land. This was something that felt so simple and pure, but it was a rarity that I cherished.
The days and hours spent weeding, planting, pruning, and harvesting crops flew by. The work I did was full of meaning. At the end of every day, I felt that we were one day closer to a better world.
I learned with great sorrow that the farm had become unsustainable. Unless they fund-raised a crazy amount of money by the end of the year, they would not be able to keep the farm alive. It breaks my heart to know that they may not be able to continue the work that they are doing. They can no longer sustain the farm with the energy it takes to have two full time jobs, the money it takes to continue to rent the land, and the time it has taken to spread the word and reach more people.
A place that filled me with optimism has also left me with a realistic understanding that perfect dreams such as theirs do not come easy. I like to think that dreams like these only require support, community, and dedication, but they also need money, paperwork, and consumers. I was surrounded by beauty here, but within what outwardly looked the like the perfect answer lied struggle and impermanence.
Here, cars drive by the farm on the busy street behind the yard. I lived with all the comforts of a modern home just minutes away from any store I could imagine. Our consumerism culture was no secret here. I lived in a town where the overall cost of living is more than double from my hometown, meaning I was surrounded by people who had the resources and circumstances that allowed them to prioritize things such as small community agriculture. While I believe that everyone needs more opportunities to engage with their community and local land, I think that it is most important to bring those opportunities to places where sustainability and community are not the obvious choice. There is a lot of privilege in Boulder and while that does not deny that it is important to improve lives there, I imagined what a community focused farm like this might look like in St. Louis.
When I said goodbye to this farm a large part of me did not want to leave. I had gotten to know the community and my roots had just started to grow, but I went on to my next destination hoping that I would find just as much beauty in a homestead in rural Oregon and maybe I would feel that the effects of their efforts were reaching communities that needed it even more.
A Community Style Homestead
In a small town in Oregon, a group of people who dream of a better world live a life closed off from the rest of the world. They spend their days loving their farm animals, tending to the garden, and spending time with one another like family. In their small slice of peaceful separation, it is almost as if they barely exist to the outside world.
Here, a fulfilling and ethical life involves escaping. This is a place where our worldly problems don't have to be seen on a daily basis and they do their best to stay away from the chaos and not contribute to it. By refusing to contribute to consumerism, capitalism, and pollution, they believe they are doing enough.
On this homestead, I learned to love and connect to animals in a way I didn't know was possible. I discovered the personalities of each of their milk goats. Burt was a bully, Rosie had a playful soul, Phyllis was shy and felt ignored, Mavis was a teacher's pet. I got to see two playful pig sisters go from being gentle to reckless, Petunia looked up to and liked to imitate Pumpkin, and their faces lite up when their (human) mom came home from work. At first it was a bit of a paradox to me. The people here loved their animals more than anything, but they also loved their meat. It quickly became clear to me that for them, the two actually go hand in hand. By having a full appreciation and love for these animals while they were alive, they were able to have true gratitude for all of the animal products that nourished them in the kitchen. Rather than ignoring this circle of life by avoiding being a part of it, they put themselves in a place where they were part of the system.
One night my new friend knocked on my door to announce that I was invited to skin the road-killed dear that they just brought home. I think my mouth actually dropped as I immediately told her that was my worst nightmare. (Aka, I graciously declined). The next morning they ate the heart and liver of the deer for breakfast, with so much gratitude and respect for that deer's life. This life was something that would have been wasted if they, like me, refused to be a part of that system.
As a part of living off the beaten path, I lived without many of the comforts of my normal life. I slept in a tree house with no electricity as the nights often dropped below 30 degrees. I took showers outside. I peed in a bucket on my balcony at night because I was scared the coyote I saw would eat me. I pooped in compost toilets. I chopped wood and lit fires if I got cold. Going into town meant driving at least 30 minutes, which meant I went weeks without leaving the farm, without spending money, and had to consciously decide if a far drive was worth it. By living a little more simply, I was forced to stop and appreciate the small comforts and to question the importance of the amenities that I often take for granted.
What happens when the same seven people who are your neighbors also work with you, eat with you, relax with you, and go out of their way to do you favors? You become a family, a small community. Though I think only one person truly understood me, I felt loved by everyone. When a group of people decide that they are in it together, differences get set aside and you find the common humanity in everyone. I didn't quickly connect to many of the people living there, but nonetheless, I quickly became a part of their family. Now I understand the true meaning of community. It's not loving everything about everyone and it's not having common interests, it's finding commonality through our humanness.
My time here was peaceful and beautiful, but at times it also felt lonely and meaningless. I saw myself in some of the judgments I made onto my new friends who lived here. Running away, talking about the solutions to our worlds problems without action, and blissful separation from the real world. I realized that this was something I no longer wanted to be a part of. I didn't want to keep hiding in my confined bubble of joy. I needed it for a certain time in my life to get my head straight, but I found myself ready to be a part of the mess. I was ready to say goodbye to my easy and unavoidable peaceful bliss and hello to the mess. I wondered if at my next stop I would still feel as if I had run away.
A Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center
The first day I spent working here, I spend a few hours chopping onions in the kitchen to prepare lunch for a weekend retreat. I stood with my pile of onions and began to chop them into tiny pieces as quickly as I could. That was when a woman I had never seen before walked by the kitchen, stopped to look at me with concerned eyes, and asked if I could use some help. Surprised that someone paying to be here for a peaceful spiritual retreat would even think to offer to chop onions, I started to wonder why she felt so obliged.
Did I look like I needed help? I had everything under control! In fact, I was chopping quicker than anybody else here chopped vegetables! Then I realized, I wasn't actually really breathing. I mean I was, but I was not actually noticing anything going on within myself or within the work I was doing. Surrounded by people moving slowly and gracefully, I was looking like a crazy person frantically about to chop my fingers off. I put my knife down and took a deep breath in and out. When I picked up the knife again I began to chop to the rhythm of my breath. As I did, I felt a calm presence in myself. I even felt gratitude for the onions. And I began to understand part of what their goal was here — slowing down.
Tibetan Buddhism, as a religion, has many traditions, symbolism, and tangible practices. Ultimately though, in Buddhist belief, one must obtain peace within themselves in order to create a more peaceful world. This inner peace can, and should, be found in everything- chopping onions, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, picking an apple off a tree, going for a walk, doing anything and doing nothing.
There were 10 people living here who spent their days in a Buddhist meditation ceremony and working on the daily duties of the center as a small community. I couldn't help but see waste in the peaceful practices that made this place what it was and that its members had grown to love. I saw wasted potential in the time spent in meditation, in the time spent slowly getting work done, in rituals using oil lamps and beautifully decorated symbolic art. I couldn't help but wonder how many hungry people could be fed if food was bought in place of the oil burned in lamps, if the time spent in meditation was spent working to build a larger community, or if the materials it took to build fancy scrolls and paintings was used to create books. I understood though that in these rituals lied a search for inner peace.
Do we need inner peace before we can have world peace? This is something that I find myself still conflicted about. I understand why many people believe this to be true, but something about the simplicity of "inner peace" as an answer to a problem so complex makes me wince a bit. In an answer that sounds so easy, I feel that inner peace is simply a step towards understanding our interconnection to each other. I believe that this can be the most important driving force in motivating people to want to make the world a better place, thus, it is an important part of a solution, but it is not the ultimate answer. What I fear is that people might get stuck working on themselves and forget to move on to spread their inner peace to others. I am scared that in focusing on inner peace, people will be so caught up in reaching this goal that may take a lifetime to accomplish that they will never go beyond it. Inner peace might connect us to one another and feeling connection might motivate us to change the world, but we must not allow ourselves to get stuck working on only ourselves.
Here, they believe that by working towards inner peace and spreading the knowledge to achieve it, they were helping the world. While I am not Buddhist and have not practiced meditation for a while now, I found myself sitting and admiring the trees for hours at a time. It was in one of these "tree meditations," that I found myself feeling both meaningless and fulfilled. I realized that I had spent most of my past year trying to figure myself out and answer some of these questions that had been nagging at me my whole life. Yes, I have gained a little bit of inner peace, but I would not say that I can check it off my to-do list. I will be working on it forever, but for now, I needed to use my understanding of my humanity as motivation to do hard work beyond just myself.
Life in "The Mess"
I had seen the love, endless work, and passion of an urban farm. I had seen the simplicity, peace, and community of a rural homestead. And I had now gotten a glimpse of the spiritual, slow, and inward lens of a Buddhist center. In search of a sustainable solution to our chaotic world, I found that the way I was living my life was no longer sustainable. In order to live in the way that I had discovered would be most meaningful to me, I needed to grow some roots. I needed to commit to one community that I felt had a lot of work to be done, to surround myself with complications so that I do not forget about the problems, and to be with the people I love most and tend to what's closest to my heart so that I do not forget one of my biggest motivations. In exploring parts of the world that were foreign to me and more beautiful than ever, I found that where I felt I really needed to be was home.
Here, in St. Louis, I see waste all around me. Every time I go to the grocery store I see vegetables shipped from across the world, wrapped in plastic. Every time I flush the toilet I see wasted potential for something that could have become fertilizer. For every person I see ignoring the world around them by looking down at their phones, I hope that there is a person out there in awe at the shape of the clouds. For every person I see grocery shopping alone, I hope that there is a person who grew too many carrots in their backyard and is offering them to a neighbor. From all of the waste I see, I also see hope.
I came home to St. Louis to be part of the mess again. I came home to be surrounded by people I love so that I can build my own sense of community in a place that I feel many people live without the feeling of connection and strong roots.
I am following my passions, yet I don't always feel like I am making the world a better place. What does living a meaningful life mean to me now? For now, it means love and humanity. It means spending time with people I care about, spreading a smile, and feeling hopeful for change. It means asking a neighbor if they want their lawn raked, finding a local CSA to support, teaching my parents how to compost, and baking delicious food made of simple ingredients to be enjoyed for all of its intricacy. It means finding the one yellow-leaved tree in a row of buildings and in seeing life in my indoor cacti who are separated from the wind by a thick brick wall. I am doing what I can to find beauty in an environment that needs everyone to make a small change. I am trying my best to be a part of that change and that in itself is meaningful.
Being back in the mess, I remember now why it was easier for me to once choose to run away. It was simpler that way. It was prettier. Things were easier. When I hid from the problems, all of the answers were so clear right in front of me. Now, the answers sometimes feel out of reach. In the complex, the ugly, and the obstacles, I have learned to see potential. In my search for meaning, I have found love, hope, and strength. I will not give up. I will not run away. I will stay in a place that has potential for growth, I will be constantly reminded by the ugly truth that our work will never be complete, and I will allow myself to love so that I don't forget the humanness that motivates me. I will try to spread light and goodness while being lovingly entrenched in our messy messy world. For now, that will have to be enough.