Fulfilment is what many of us seek in life, whether we describe it as a sense of meaning, purpose or spirituality; a feeling of satisfaction, achievement or success; or purely happiness, inner peace or serenity. The dictionary meaning of fulfilment is to ‘bring into actuality’ or to satisfy a situation. Fulfilment is associated with a sense of achievement or contentment with our actions, with who we are and what we value.
There are numerous guides and pathways on the way to fulfilment, many of which draw on bodies of wisdom developed by human societies over eons. Some turn to ‘old age’ religion or ‘new age’ movements. I tend to turn to philosophy which, for me, offers a rich, ancient well of guidance.
Both Eastern and Western teachings from thousands of years ago offer philosophical guides for living a fulfilled life, from the Eastern tradition of Buddhism to the Western Greek philosophical tradition. The Buddhist path to enlightenment and contentment is through understanding the nature of the mind and the constantly changing nature of reality. The path begins with mindfulness – mindful awareness of what is, here and now. Socrates’ cry that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’ highlights the Greek philosophical belief that reflection offers a path to fulfilment which is encapsulated by Aristotle as ‘eudaimonia’ or human flourishing.
Current exponents of the notions of mindfulness and flourishing can be found in psychology. Jon Kabat-Zinn draws on mindfulness in learning to develop resilience in life to deal with stress and chronic health issues. Martin Seligman, the instigator of positive psychology has moved from studying happiness to flourishing – distancing himself from the way that an industry has been formed around a self-indulgent seeking for more – happiness as consumption – or as he calls it ‘happyology’. The notion of flourishing includes contributing to others and to society through meaningful occupations as well as one’s own happiness and well-being.
Ancient philosophies have spawned other modern movements. Two from the mid twentieth century that fascinated me since my teens include Existential philosophy and Jungian Depth psychology. From Heidegger through Sartre to Camus, the essence of existentialism is the awareness that our lives are finite. The only certainty in life is that our passage through existence within the vehicles of our bodies will end one day. From this knowledge we all must face the existential crisis of freedom of choice. That is, regardless of our circumstances, we have choice over our responses and have ultimate responsibility for our actions.
It has been Jung’s theories about the challenges of the second half of life being different from those of the first that led me towards writing this reflective blog. He describes the task of the first half as forming a healthy ego to enable us to survive in the world. The task of the second half is ‘individuation’ – essentially about going beyond or transcending our ego. He describes the second half of life as offering an opportunity for us to respond to the ‘summons of our soul’ and listen to inner whisperings of our heart.
Despite differences between all these teachings – philosophies – guides for living, the older I get the more similarities I see. All talk about reflection or stepping out of the busyness of everyday life in order to find the peace, clarity and direction to make wise choices. In earlier life, all I could seem to find were momentary pauses – although they were life changing at times. As I enter this later stage, with the gift of sixty years of exploration, errors and experience behind me, and hopefully fewer external pressures on my time ahead of me, there is an exciting opportunity explore this rich landscape.
It seems to me that a balance is required in achieving fulfilment, between inner and outer life. To really flourish in older age it seems important to be doing something of meaning – that seems worthwhile or ‘matters’ in the world – whether it is our immediate life world of daily contacts with families and colleagues or, if we are lucky, the wider world. Obviously what we do varies enormously with our circumstances, health, aptitudes and relationships and the opportunities given to us within our culture.
The other part of fulfilment is looking after ourselves. Julia Cameron, in her book ‘The Artists Way’, describes ‘filling the well’ of the self. It’s difficult to be creative, to give to and nurture others unless we nurture our selves – not in the sense of indulgence – although that can be fun – but in the sense of substance for our souls. Many women, especially working mothers know the feeling of low energy, exhaustion and emptiness that comes from letting our wells run dry.
It’s not only that we need a balance, but an integration if possible. A lot of these blogs have been about my attempt to find such an integrated way of living in the last part of my life. Many women of my age are looking for a way of living that not only fulfils a sense of purpose and satisfaction in contributing to others’ lives, but nurtures us deeply, thereby allowing us to nurture others. Whether we contribute through community involvement, writing, mentoring, teaching, volunteer support, cooking or gardening, such a balanced way of living may help us to ‘feel full’, to flourish and find fulfilment in older age. I fill my own well through writing, reading, music and dancing, but my photo is of another well in my life, our pond.