Several years ago, I entered a three-week retreat, during which time I disconnected from everyone and everything. Something hugely powerful and irresistible was pulling me away from the outside world, towards an unknown inner journey of reflection, release and renewal. It was as if I had an appointment for which I was not ready. An alchemical process was going to catalyze something within me, my intuition told me, which was going to get me ready by dissolving what might be in the way, by renovating my mind and heart, and restoring my soul to wholeness. After the retreat, I would be able to enter and engage the future that was calling for a more authentic, free, and powerful self.
One day, resting on the blue couch in my lounge room, my eyes closed. Shortly after, they opened, but I was no longer in my home in Richmond; I was sitting on the banks of the Ganges river in the ancient city of Varanasi. I was at one of the several “burning ghats,” stone steps where hundreds of cremations occur every day. Bodies are placed on wooden pyres, set alight with ghee, and priests chant sacred mantras while the body burns to ashes. There I was, in some spirit, astral form, sitting quietly, watching this, taking it in.
I could feel the whole of the recently-left life of each person, not in specific ways, but in a general way, as in remembering a play I had once seen, recalling the essential drama of it, and a few highlights. I could feel the many ways in which people lived, the ways in which they gave themselves too often to things that did not really matter – to worries and concerns, to activities and aspirations, to quarrels and squabbles? How did they really matter? I also felt how quickly each body journeyed from birth, through the drama of life, to these burning cradles that were birthing them out of this world.
Some invisible guide, a kind of unseen presence, asked me, “What makes life truly worth living? Look how quickly it all ends. It’s just a day, though it seems like forty, fifty, maybe eighty years. It’s a day. What is important? What makes life worth living? What makes the difference between a well-lived life, and one squandered on petty things?”
What I discovered in this shamanic journey to a sacred city by the banks of a holy river, where they burn to ashes hundreds of human bodies every day, is that “the difference” we want to make is about a way of living. It is a choice between petty concerns, mindlessness, sadness, negativity, cynicism – and clarity, truth, meaning and purpose. And while these last words are abstract, perhaps idealistic, they are also as real as the very ground we stand upon.
I already knew that there is something written in each person’s heart, in the scripture of their soul, that is their map for an authentic life, such that if they follow it, if they follow the paths of that map, they will live a well-lived life, a significant life, a life without regret, or sadness or meanness. They will live a full, unique, joyful, exuberant life. I knew that. But now I know it more fully, as if a brighter light has been installed in each cell of my being.
I came to understand, with a kind of urgency, that making a difference is really choosing a way of living. Making a difference is not something we do, but rather a lifestyle we choose, one that flows from the words inscribed in the scripture of our heart, of our soul; and in this way of purposeful living we are a constant blessing to ourselves and to others.
We are a walking seed and spark that awakens and fires the imagination of others towards a similar way of living.
Making a difference may involve community service; it may not. The ways in which each of us will make a difference by definition and necessity will flow out from our inner being. First, we choose the difference between true and false, between authentic and inauthentic. Then, we act. Then, we make the difference that has already been made within us through our choice as to how we are going to live. In the end, making a difference is not idealistic or philosophical. It is practical, and inevitable.
I understood that the size and scope of what we do is not important. Our life may be huge and daring and world-shaking, or it may be small and quiet and unrecognized by the masses or media. What matters, what makes the difference, is the fragrance we emit, the intoxicating aura we carry, as we fulfill whatever roles we are called to by the secret that only we know, the secret revealed to us when we enter the deep and beautiful sacred place of our heart to read what is written there for us. That is what counts. That’s how we live a well-lived life.
We find the way that is ours alone. That is the way in which we can bring forth the most glorious self that is ours alone. And, paradoxically, we never go on this path alone, for we are always within the community of others who are making a difference in the same way – from the center of their spiritual universe.
This is the difference every human being wants to make: to live an authentic life of deep meaning, of significance, of connection to existence itself. When the petty preoccupations of unexamined busyness are struck down and taken apart by our deeper knowing and feeling, we become expansive and elevated as in those moments where time gives way to eternity, where self-concern gives way to a greater belonging, where things we have no words for become our constant companions and trusted friends. The difference that we all want to make is the difference we make through choice and devotion and love, by choosing an authentic life, the life only we can live: the choice between depth and surface, between significance and pettiness, between courage and fear, between possibility and cynicism, between clarity and doubt, between connection and alienation, between generosity and greed, between imagination and recitation, between creativity and repetition. It is certainly a choice between freedom and bondage, between magic and mundane.
Magic. Yes. There is great magic in choosing an authentic life. I know this is true. I can tell you this because I have experienced this directly. When we open our heart and unshutter our soul, we find unimagined things are suddenly possible. We uncover creative and expressive powers that are not from learning and experience, not from courses and certifications, but from our very nature. We suddenly feel that the blood pumping through us, circulates through every living thing; that’s how close, how joined, how similar we would become with everything else, with all of existence.
We awaken to a world that is not fixed and certain, but one that shape-shifts to fit the contours of our map, the one drawn in our heart from the beginning of time. This world, awakened by the magic within us, becomes a story waiting to be told, about a life of dimensions and levels and nuances and subtleties of music and mystery and miracle where anything is possible, where anything can happen from any place at any time without reason or cause. This is the difference that magic makes, and that we make with magic.
This difference comes from who we are, from consciously choosing to live from that deep place inside us, now wide open; from that secret being revealed for the first time, spoken and told with every word, made real and true with every step, every move, every act. Then, all our doing is a blessing.
A blessing. We become a blessing. We are a blessing. When it is our turn to be turned to ashes, and that time is coming fast for all of us, people who knew us would both mourn the loss and be wildly joyful that we lived. They would laugh and cry and spin around like mad little children too full of excitement and wonder. And those who didn’t know us might, for some inexplicable reason, stop what they are saying and doing, and feel something move deep within, as if a comet were streaking across the sky of their soul.
And we, and our enduring spirit, would be happy, very happy. Delighted. Ecstatic. Yes, because we would have chosen a well-lived life, we would have been, and made, that supreme difference.