Unfathomable Life

What is the meaning of a flower? Or a flea? Or the meaning of each of us for that matter?

There is no meaning to a flower – a flower just is. Science will tell us a flower is the seed bearing part of a plant. Poets share with us the whole language of flowers: flowers of love and grief spawning sonnets and stanzas for centuries. If you ask yourself the question, “What is the meaning of a flower?” and try to understand the reason why it exists you can arrive at no answer other than it just is. Perhaps a more useful question might be, “What is the potential of a flower?” With the right nutrients and conditions a flower may blossom into something quite uniquely remarkable.

My house if full of young adults who are exploring their purpose and meaning, trying to work out what it is they must do with their lives: doctor, lawyer, nurse, carpenter, copper – what’s the right use for this life and what will make it worth living. When they ask me questions about how I knew what to do with my life and how I have fulfilled my purpose I am left wondering if a more useful question we could ask ourselves is, “Where will my potential best be brought to life?” Perhaps it will be as a doctor or a carpenter, but there’s a richer vein of possibilities in considering what your potential is and where it might flourish rather than in trying to look for a purpose through a qualification.

Recently a colleague reminded of the classic book, ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho. Thanks to Audible I have been listening to it on my drives to work, being reminded of the shepherd boy, Santiago and the journey to his realisation of his Personal Legend. This got me thinking about my own Personal Legend and wondering how many of us get to live out our Personal Legends and fulfill our potential.

From the youngest age I remember wanting to be a teacher. The games I played were often based on being a pretend teacher and I would imagine classes and lessons and school assemblies and students. It might be argued that the only real job I had deep exposure to was that of teachers which might have been a strong influence. That might be true, but something in me was picking up signals that I would find happiness in teaching others.

My father wanted me to become a pharmacist and since he was footing the bills for my education I began the arduous and soul crushing task of living someone else’s dream for them. Through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events I managed to transfer my future into a qualification in liberal arts and prepared myself to become a teacher.

And then eventually I was a teacher and gradually I realised much of my teaching was superseded by all forms of discipline. Classroom management and chasing homework occupied my days more than the actual transfer of learning. My dream for myself seemed to be dissolving away – it wasn’t quite what I imagined. It didn’t make me who I hoped it would make me and I certainly didn’t feel the joy I had felt when I played ‘teacher’. How I was being as a teacher wasn’t right for me: I could feel it.

Recently my daughter, who also is studying to become a teacher, completed her first teaching practical. I watched with some anticipation – would she really like it, would it echo with her dream she has for herself, were her life clues leading her in the right direction? I want so much for her to follow her Bliss.

In Hinduism, Sat/Chit/Ananda (सच्चिदानन्द) is a compounded Sanskrit word used as an attempt to capture the nature of Ultimate Reality which is called Brahman.

Sat is Consciousness – that state of being aware of and responsive to our environment. It’s that mysterious spark that makes us who we are – the something within us that is aware of ourselves in the world. All the advances in philosophy and neuroscience still haven’t defined what consciousness is and where is comes from.

Chit stands for Being and this word tries to capture the features of reality and existence. What makes a person count as a person and in particular as that person rather than any other person? And more complex than this: what makes me who I am at this point in time the same person I once was and the ‘who I will become’ at another time despite intervening changes. It’s a mind boggling and deeply mysterious contemplation.

Ananda is Bliss that state of perfect happiness where you are oblivious of everything else – lost in perfect delight. Bliss is vast, boundless and immeasurable and Bliss happens when you find meaning in what you do, who you are and how you belong in the world. When you experience the perfect unity of your place amongst the things of life you are in Bliss.

We cannot really know Consciousness, and our minds struggle to know what Being is – it’s all an elusive mystery. But we can know our Bliss. In our life we can feel the connection with what brings us joy. We can follow the clues life gives us to take us on a remarkable journey and lead us to this beautiful spot – our unique place in the world of things.

I don’t know the meaning of flower. I’m really not sure what my purpose and meaning is here on earth. I’m not sure if I am living my Personal Legend, but I do know I get to feel Bliss more often than its ugly counterpart, Misery. Whilst I didn’t stay a traditional teacher in my job role I remain a person dedicated to encouraging others to live into their greatest potential. When I experience the moment  someone has an awakening I touch Bliss! My daughter returned from her teaching practical elated and showing all the signs of one who feels like she is on her right path.

I think I know what Hell is: it’s being deprived of the things you love and separated from your Bliss and I wouldn’t want that for anyone. I don’t know that any of us totally understands what path to follow and why we are on that path, but there is something deeply gratifying in accepting that mystery.

One of the things that’s happened to me as a result of the years I spent as a teacher is that I cannot read an article, encounter a poem or watch a program without imagining how it could be turned into a great lesson. I constantly compose comprehension questions and assign examination tasks that will allow others to demonstrate their appreciation of the article or poem.

A few weeks ago I discovered the remarkable poems of the Polish Nobel Prize winner, Wislawa Szymborska. I think her poem, ‘Utopia’ captures what it’s all about. And if I were to ask my students a question to help them demonstrate their appreciation of this poem, I would ask: “Why do you think we choose not to live on this Island called Utopia?”


Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here

with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,

sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:

the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned

and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.

Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.

Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,

and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches

turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

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  • Michelle
    November 17, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    I wish my teachers at school were more like you but I suspect they too were overcome with chasing homework and policing hallways.
    I think we are all teachers in our own way but some are just so much better at it (looking at you Cal!!).
    Thank you for being one of the good teachers Cal.

    • Cal McDonnell
      November 18, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      I like that – we are all teachers!


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