How to Escape Despair and Bring Meaning to Your Life

How to Escape Despair and Bring Meaning to Your Life

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” – Joseph Campbell

I have lost a lot of friends in my life. Each time I came face to face with the pain of loss, I was presented with a choice. In looking back at my life, I have come to realize that the choice was always the same.

At the age of 16, for one and a half years I squandered away my existence, lost in a world of drugs. Two friends who shared this life with me are no longer alive today due to the degree to which we immersed ourselves in despair and self-destruction.

As cliche as this may sound, the truth is, almost overnight, my life changed forever. The movie “Black Hawk Down” shone a light that guided me out of the darkness. In the movie, there is a scene when two Delta snipers volunteer to put themselves in front of thousands of armed men, women and children trying to kill them in order to save the life of one of their fellow soldiers. They gave their lives for one man who is alive today because of their sacrifice.

It triggered something in me to stop living with disregard for the human community. To stop living a selfish existence and start serving something higher than myself. After reading the true story the movie was based on, I decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.

I left a life of despair, but death followed me again on my new journey. This time it came in the form of heroism and sacrifice. While serving as a vehicle commander during the war in Iraq, my friend and fellow Marine was killed by an improvised explosive device.

I wasn’t there with him. I had been traveling the world visiting my family in India when he volunteered to go to Iraq with another unit.

A part of me felt and continues to feel that had I been there with him, it would have been me instead of him. In which case, he would have been back home with his fiancé, been married by now and possibly even have a few kids.

As a result, when I finally got my chance to deploy in 2007, I promised myself that I would never let a fellow Marine die on my watch. A promise that deep down I knew I could never keep. How could I possibly impose a sense of order to the chaos of war?

Nonetheless, fortune prevailed.

Although I by no means have any claim of responsibility for the outcome, we all came home alive. But the 7 months in Iraq took it’s toll on some of us more than others. One of my friends and a junior Marine took his own life less than one year after we returned.

I was plagued by a renewed sense of guilt. I felt like I should have done more to prevent him from losing all hope about the possibility of life. But like every other encounter I experienced with death, there was nothing I could do to change the past.

Once again, I promised myself that I would do more with my life. I would make my life mean something so that others would get value from it and benefit from my experiences so they would embrace the beauty of life and live it with passion.

I searched for new ways to test my own limits. I began exploring the most hostile environments on the planet to find myself and more importantly, discover the infinite capacity of the human potential.

Today, I spend my spare time climbing mountains, diving beneath the waves, skiing across frozen icecaps and embracing the fears that lie waiting for all of us in the unforgiving unknown. The intention being to take that wisdom from a life on the edge and help others climb their own mountains or cross their own icecaps.

I have come to learn that no matter what change you want to make in life, you have to fight for it and break through the hundreds of walls that come in the way of your true destiny. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

The true measure of our lives is how we face that struggle and what we choose to do with it. For courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to persevere despite it. It is through struggle that we discover our potential. Beyond those fateful frontiers of our comfort zone we find our growth and freedom.

In the last 12 years,  every time death came into my life, I was presented with the same two choices: To embrace the struggle and create meaning beyond the boundaries of my own existence or to live for myself in the comfort zone of my own reality.

Initially, I brought meaning to my life through war. Now I bring meaning by exploring the planet. Soon I will bring meaning by working in post conflict zones with organizations like MSF.

What meaning do you bring to your life today?

To help you answer that question, follow the steps in this guide below:

7 Steps to Find the Meaning You Bring to Life

1 – Condition a Warrior Mindset

A warrior mindset is one that doesn’t blame external circumstances for anything, as I once did when I was 16. A warrior mindset asks how can I create meaning and value from this experience, no matter how challenging it may be? Victor Frankl attributes his survival during the Holocaust to his ability to create meaning to the suffering. To look beyond it and find value from it as opposed to asking the world why this was done to him.

Life is challenging, get used to it and embrace it. There can be joy in challenge if you choose it. As ultramarathoners often say, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun. Jack Canfield, in his bestselling book, “The Success Principles,” lists the very first principle as taking 100% responsibility for your life. This is the foundation from which success is built and meaning is created.

To condition this mindset, notice when you complain or blame something else for something and simply stop doing it. Instead, ask yourself, how did I create, promote or allow this event to happen? If you can’t find an answer then perhaps you were truly wronged.

Most of what happens in the world is out of our control. Victor Frankl was most certainly wronged by being subjected to the horrors of life in a concentration camp. Should that be the case with you, choose to accept the realities of the struggle and get meaning from it by asking yourself, what good can come from this? Or what value can I gain from this experience? Or how will this experience help me grow as a person? All these questions will help you condition the mindset of a warrior and let go of being a victim.

2 – Love Yourself

Success is only possible if we believe it to be. Self confidence, or what I like to call self love, gives us the strength to act in the face of struggle. The only reason I immersed myself in drugs was because I wasn’t sure of who I was as a person. Once that changed, the world was mine for the taking. So how do you build a rock solid level of confidence?

There are many ways, a few of which can be found here, but the most powerful way is to take risks. Start small. You don’t have to speak in front of 1000 people if public speaking scares you. Start with just your family, then move to toastmasters and work your way to larger and larger crowds. Each step outside your comfort zone pushes that line further out. Every inch outside builds confidence and further reinforces the inner belief that you are capable of anything and everything. Soon you will start to see that impossible exists only in the mind.

3 – Find your passion

What makes you come alive? What activity makes time stop? What brings you the most joy in life? Ask yourself these questions to find your passion. No matter what you love to do and who you love to be, there is a way to make a living doing it. Online marketing and information products create this possibility for anyone and everyone all over the world. So find your passion and go live it. Your passions are the meaning you bring to life because they are the very things that make you come alive. Consequently, it is vital to find them and become fully aware of them in order to then manifest them.

4 – Visualize yourself engaging in that activity and completing it

In May 2013, I spent one month skiing across the second largest icecap in the world in Greenland. In temperatures as low as -40 degrees, I dragged a 190 pound sled 350 miles. For months before I even set foot in Greenland, I visualized myself completing the journey. By the time I got onto the ice, success was almost guaranteed. I had already arrived at the east coast 100 hundreds times in my head.

Once you have found your passions, to start living them, first take the time every day to visualize yourself completing your goals and doing what you most love to do. What do you see? What do you hear? Most importantly, what do you feel? We are emotional creatures and everything we do is driven by emotion, so it is vital to feel the result you want to create. You can also follow the 3 step process outlined here. Once you create the vision as real in your mind and then act on what you see, you will turn success from an uncertainty to an inevitability.

5 – Burn Your Boats

When Alexander the Great arrived on Persian shores outnumbered by an overwhelming enemy presence, he ordered his men to burn their boats. He told them “either we go home in Persian ships, or we die.” With no room for retreat, his outnumbered army fought like lions and defeated the Persians. There is no force greater than necessity. Devote the entirety of your being to the life you want to create and you will create it.

On Greenland, not only did I visualize my crossing, I spent every dollar I had on it as well, so there was no way I could afford a 15-20 thousand dollar rescue of the icecap even if I wanted to leave early. There was no choice, but to put one foot in front of the other and take every step of those 350 miles. Put all of your heart and soul into your passions and you will bring meaning to every single moment of your life.

6 – Meditate on Death

Steve Jobs once said, “remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” Ancient Samurai used to believe that everyday one should meditate on the inevitable end of their existence to truly harness the power of being alive. Every time I lost someone close to me, I became more aware of my own mortality. This was further reinforced by own brushes with death. Each one of those experiences pushed me to redefine my life and give meaning to it.

Most of us live every day as if we have an eternity to turn our dreams into reality. We push our goals back to someday, but we all know that someday is never. By becoming fully present to the inevitable end of our existence, it creates a powerful force and drive within us to act on our dreams, and act on them today! One day, we will all die, but whether or not we really live until that day comes is up to us. Spend some time every day, or every week if every day is too much, imagining yourself on your death bed. In that distant day in the future, ask yourself Are you happy with the life you have lived? Does the answer satisfy you?

7 – Connect Your Passion to a Higher Purpose

Finally, and most importantly, to bring meaning to your life, it is vital to connect the dream to a higher purpose. No matter what your passions, whether they be knitting, cooking, painting, climbing, or investing, the true value of that passion is manifested through the lives you affect as a result of your work.

There are 7 billion people on the planet. The human family is a large one. By connecting your passion to someone or something greater than yourself, you become a contributing member of the human community as opposed to someone living outside of it. Only when you use your passion to serve others will you feel as if you have truly brought meaning to your existence. Serving others is in our best interest as well because it makes us stronger and gives us greater drive to achieve our dreams. Would you do anything to ensure your family is taken care of, even put your own life at risk if need be?

As Gandhi said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

What is the meaning you bring to your life? What are your passions and how you living them? We would love to hear about your journey in the comments section below.

Photo by Zach Dischner

Akshay Nanavati

Akshay Nanavati is a Marine Corps veteran of the war in Iraq, a full time adventurer exploring the most hostile environments on the planet and a trained abundance coach. He shares invaluable insights on the art of fulfillment and success on his blog about the journey from existing to living. Akshay has created a training video exclusively for The Change Blog readers called "How to create enduring change." Click here to get access to the private training video with a step by step plan for permanent transformation.

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44 Comments

  1. This is incredible Akshay! You’ve managed to bring many of the most important principles I’ve learned over the past couple years all together in one article and hit each point perfectly. Thank you for this wonderful contribution.

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    • Thank you so much Derek. It’s taken me many years myself to learn these principles. I am really glad you got value from this. I checked out your site as well and love the name: excuse proof fitness. That is awesome! Can’t wait to learn more about you and your work as well.

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  2. You have seen so much pain Akshay that I cannot imagine. It is inspiring to hear you learn from the horrors you have witnessed and use the lessons learned to move on in your life.
    I carried baggage from my past for far too long and now devote my life to helping others avoid doing the same. Why waste time keeping one foot in the past when we can have them both firmly planted in the present?
    Thank you for reminding me why we are here.

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    • Hi Joan. It has been quite a journey, but life has its ups and downs and the ups are never as good without the downs, so I try and learn from both of them.
      I love the way you said “why waste time keeping one foot in the past when we can have them both firmly planted in the present.” Couldn’t agree with you more. Our life only exists in the now.
      And thank you for what you do, I admire your perseverance to keep moving forward despite the baggage from your past and help others through your experiences. Connecting our lives to something greater than ourselves is the best way to let go of the past and move to a greater future. Thanks for the inspiration Joan.
      And I love your site’s name as well, think grow live. It all begins with the mind and that leads to growth and a life worth living. Awesome!

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      • Thanks, please keep in touch we are reading from the same script!

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  3. Thank you so much for an inspiring post. You cover points that are really relevant to where I want to be. As an artist and a Mum of two little boys I have been struggling to find the right path that will see me find my true purpose that gives meaning to my life. Feeling somewhat confused where to begin but if I start with small changes I hope the path will become clearer.

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    • Hi Julia. Wow! Firstly, I really want to acknowledge you for running your business while raising two kids. I checked out your site and love the jewelry, will definitely pass this link on to my wife. I don’t have kids yet and I am not going to lie, I am definitely nervous :) So thank you for showing me what’s possible!
      With regards to finding your true purpose, ask yourself what puts you in that place in the training video I call the Zone. For me its now diving, climbing etc. Usually what puts you in that state where time ceases to exist is a good indicator of your passion. Also ask yourself if it meets at least 3 of the 9 human needs, especially service, significance and success, those are strong driving needs. The very first step is finding out what your purpose is before you can start acting on it.
      Once you have that, burn your boats to the degree you feel is reasonable considering you have two kids, what I mean is give it your all, dont give yourself an out, but take into account the reality you have a family as well. Burning your boats is different for everyone, its just about giving 100% to plan A.
      Then take it one step at a time, success does not happen overnight, its the compound effect of small actions over time. I would love to support you in any way I can, if you need anything, please feel free to contact me!

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  4. I would like to acknowledge you Akshay, first for the humble humanity that you have in your hart and soul, taking these powerful life experience and applying them to your growth and development as a peaceful warrior. I would also like to acknowledge you for believing in a powerful message and expressing it to the entire word.

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  5. Inspiring story – kudos to you Akshay. The 7 steps are bang on. :)

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    • Thanks Stuart. Loved your strategy about writing a description of your perfect day. I have mine written down too and I practice visualizing this all the time. Thanks for your awesome work and your wisdom Stuart!

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  6. What an amazing story and process of change that you have gone through! You are truly an inspiration to others.

    The tenets that you cited in your post about meeting challenges and overcoming difficulties is something that I have lived as well and continue to help many others through my private practice and website.

    I have learned a great deal about the “warriors mindset” from many others and have culminated many of those principles into my own life ethic to which I call being a “Rhino.” I am currently working on a book and will begin using my website as a means to help as well.

    Your post gave me some great confidence and inspiration that there are others who share the very principles by which I have come to live as well.

    To me, you are a true “Rhino” in every sense of the word. That is a big compliment! Now my mission is to bring my “Rhino” ethic to others so they may understand what that means and how to live as a “Rhino” (which closely resembles what you wrote about but, with some more details).

    Thanks so much for this post and good luck on your future missions! I will be sure to check out your video and blog!

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    • Hi Chris. Thank you so much for your gracious complement. And I LOVE your name for the warrior mindset, the Rhino ethic. I really resonate with that. One of my heroes and inspirations is Jerzy Kukuczka. He was a Polish mountaineer and the second man to climb all 14 of the 8000m peaks. What was really amazing about him was that he was physically unable to aclimatize to high altitudes as quickly as most other mountaineers. Yet he would push on and struggle to reach every summit. On pure will alone, he would fight his way to the top often while climbing new, unclimbed routes and doing peaks in winter. Winter in the Himalayas on an 8000 meter peak is an extremely dangerous place to be. His climbing partners referred to him as a psychological rhinoceros for his unparalleled ability to withstand suffering. Maybe that story will serve as good marketing material for your site as well :) Considering that story and what you do as well, I am honored that you referred to me as a Rhino! I look forward to checking out your book once it is ready.

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  7. Wow. Akshay-I enjoyed every sentence of this inspiring article. The seven steps are so right on and I am glad you started with the warrior mindset. I use this mindset so much in my own life and I think of myself in this way when I go through struggles. One thing I do not do among your steps is to meditate on death. I realize I will not live forever and I think about the briefness of my life, but I do not meditate on it every day. I can see bow this will put even more urgency behind my life. I will begin to do this. Thank you for that valuable insight. I also like that you said we should connect our purpose to something bigger than ojrselves. I already do this to some extent, but here again I believe I need to think about this more specifically. Thanks Gain for this article. I will look forward to your video you prepared for us a.d checking out your blog. I will do both this weekend. Take care, my friend.

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    • Thanks a lot Bethany! Yeah, I find that the meditate on death strategy is not very common, but I find it to be very valuable. It really keeps me in check and focused to make the most out of my life. I look forward to hearing about how valuable you find it. I really like the concept behind your blog as well. It really got me thinking about how much time I am devoting to the “whitespace” in my life. Sometimes we get so busy with work and moving our dreams forward, we forget to stop and enjoy life just for the sake of enjoyment as opposed to driving forward into the future. The value of life is really in the now. Thanks for reminding me Bethany. Love what you are doing! Good luck on the marathon as well. That’s really exciting.

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  8. I’m speechless. You spoke directly inside my heart. I can’t share anything else not because I really can’t but because you have written them all down!

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    • Hi Milan. Wow! I am honored by your comment. By the way, I checked out your site and LOVE this line: “I believe if you’re good at something never be afraid to express it regardless of what people may say or think of you.” I really needed to hear this as I work on my first book. Thanks for keeping me inspired!

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  9. Wow, Akshay. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I really like your point about meditating on death. I used to question if this practice was of any use to me, but I find it extremely peaceful in that it brings focus to my life.

    Seven years ago, I changed my life for good. My husband and I started our own businesses which allowed us to work happily with each other every single day. Now we are putting our writing out in the world with the hopes that others may find that their relationships can be even better than they ever thought possible.

    I’m so glad you’re doing what you’re doing. So inspiring!

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    • Thanks Tammy! Yeah, the meditating on death practice is sometimes a tough one to really get. For me, I do the meditation in a very relaxed way, I just remind myself of my mortality constantly. I also get my meditation from actual practice. I am going cave diving in 2 weeks, which terrifies me, but I am very excited :)
      Congratulations Tammy! It is really great to hear that you and your husband managed to quit your job, live your passion and that y’all are doing it together. The fact that both of you created this life by choice is awesome!
      I really love the fun and play in your website and your writing too. Really got me thinking I want to add a bit more play in some of my future work. So next time I am featured somewhere on the internet or even on my own site and you see a lot more fun and play in my writing, you know where it came from. Thanks for the inspiration!

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      • Wow, Akshay. Thank you for the high praise. It means a lot.

        CJ and I have come a long way in the fun and play department. It seems that we had it when we got married, lost it for 10 years, and now it’s back and it has a death grip on us. Fun or else.

        What better way to live than to commit to fun each day. It isn’t in trips to the fun park or big parties. We find it in the day-to-day interactions and moments.

        We find that surrounding ourselves with people like you who are Going for It is so inspirational. Thanks again!

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  10. Akshay, thanks for this great story and the tips. I heard you get up at TTT and had the pleasure of meeting you there. It is great to see you translate your suffering into healing and help for others.

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    • Hi Pam. Thank you so much. Really appreciate the support and can’t wait to see you in TTT again in June! Hope things are going well since the last meeting!

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  11. Beautiful and poignant story, Akshay. Your story is a saga of rising to courage and heroism from despair. It seems that you have been inviting death but it has backed out every time. Hindu belief is that one can die only when he is destined to. Osho said to the effect that those who are ever conscious of death only can celebrate life.In the epic Mahabharat there is a story of Yaksha ( guardian angel of a lake at Himalayas ) posing a question to Yuddhisthir, the Pandav king, as to what is the most surprising thing in the world. Yuddhisthir replied that we see death and destruction all around but one lives in fond hope that nothing shall happen to him. Yaksha was pleased with the answer and revived his brothers who were cursed by him for defying him. Meaning comes to life when one lives for a higher purpose, be it service to others or living inspirationally, Gautam Buddha like, so that other lives also get lighted, Thanks for the inspirational post.

    Reply
    • Hi Mahavir. Thanks a lot for sharing the story from the Mahabharat. It has been a while since I have read those stories, I used to read them and watch the shows about the Mahabharat and Ramayan a lot as a kid, so thanks for the reminder. I think I am going to pick up those books again. Not sure if you know, but ironically my name, Akshay, means invincible. Hopefully that applies for the next 40-50 years at least :) As you say according to Hindu philosophy, my time will be my time and I will live fully until that time. Thanks for the complement as well Mahavir! Really glad you liked the article.

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      • Thanks Akshay,the invincible, the deathless, for your kind response. The word ‘ akshay’ actually means ‘ that which can not be destroyed i.e. lives for ever’.Physical death can come but fond memories linger .

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  12. Akshay, this is one refreshing blog. It is nice of you to have pictured every adversity you have seen & how you came out of it. You are spot on with the 7 steps, especially the first one “Condition a Warrior Mindset”. It is like saying: “Look for the brighter side in every situation”.
    Nice write up!!

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    • Thanks Pavithra. Glad you liked it. You are exactly right, conditioning the warrior mindset is about choosing to perceive every situation in an empowering way. I love how you have taken a second attempt at blogging too. The ability to push past initial failures is what the warrior mindset is all about. Really inspiring Pavithra! And I will be passing your Channa recipe to my wife as well, we both love Channa, thanks :)

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  13. Very inspiring post Akshay and certainly worth reading. I’m glad I dropped by.
    Look forward to more.
    Thank you!

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    • Thanks a ton Amy! Really appreciate the support.

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    • Amy, I also really want to acknowledge you for the incredible journey you have been through. I read your story on your site and the way you shifted your limiting beliefs, moved beyond past experiences to create an empowered future by choice. Really inspiring Amy. You are amazing, thank you!

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  14. Hi Akshay,

    Wow! You have done a marvelous job of telling your story. Your inspiring way of bridging the most painful times of your life with the ways you overcame despair brings your story to life. You give hope to many by sharing. Thank you.

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    • Hey Lorna. Thank you so much. Can’t wait to see you at TTT in June!

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  15. Ashkay, I sincerely appreciated your thoughtful connections between your losses and your renewed priority for living. People will often compliment one another at being good at one thing or another, but rarely do we encounter someone who is truly amazing at living life, their own unique brand of life. I share your passion for helping others discover the excitement and freedom that comes from living on purpose and look forward to following you!

    Reply
    • Hi Emily. Thank you so much, I am humbled by your kind words and am inspired by your desire to help others as well. I love what I do because it allows me to get to know people like yourself. I checked out your site, and congratulations on creating a life on your terms after 5 years working for someone else. That is no easy task, especially being accustomed to one way of life for 5 years! I look forward to following your work and reading more on your site as well Emily.

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  16. This a very nice and helpful article…

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  17. This was an awesome read, Akshay. The part about meditating on death… I had never thought about that before or put two and two together. I can definitely see where we all take life for granted, despite not knowing when it could all be taken away. I’ll be spending some time incorporating some of this into my life.

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    • Thanks Sean. Glad you liked it. Hope you get value out of the meditating on death practice. Let me know how it works out for you. I find it to be transformational!

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  18. Hi Akshay, thanks for sharing this post. I especially agree with Number 7 – Connect Your Passion to a Higher Purpose. If we can add value to the service of others, then our lives shall indeed be filled with meaning.

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    • My pleasure Rebecca. I agree with you completely, I think step 7 is the most important one.

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  19. Really inspiring! Thank you so much..I’m 17 years old and planning to live a meaningful life and I should start.It’s important to live everyday as we will die tomorrow and give all what you can to help others because”You’ll never be as young again, as you are right NOW.”

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    • Hi Jhonny. Wow! You are 17 and already finding your purpose to live a meaningful life. That is amazing. At 17, I was on a very different path. Don’t wait another minute Jhonny, embrace the path you were meant to be on. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  20. This is such a great article. Beautifully written! This is something that I needed to read right now too. I have “burned my boat” recently. And it can be easy to let that scare me sometimes. I have decided to get out of my comfort zone in my career path. I took a leap of faith to change directions into fulfilling my passion job and I am not looking back! Your passion in your writing really lifted me up today. Thank you!

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  21. Hi Akshay, your article remind me again. Actually, i think there are a lot of people who “pretend” to be enjoy their life, whether they’re happy or not. I found many young man (i’m 23 yrsold), neglect or dont realize there’s something wrong on their life. And that will be a time bomb on the future. (is it financial, family, drugs, wrong relationship, love, etc?).

    And after someone realized, i aggree there are 2 big choices : “To embrace the struggle and create meaning beyond the boundaries of my own existence or to live for myself in the comfort zone of my own reality / FANTASY .”

    I’m struggling for the first choice now, but what the most motivation beside my “burn my boats” decision is about death. Not about my nearer death, but about my parents life. We dont know how long will they live. How much they’ve already truly enjoy their life?. And will they live in a good harmony living until their last day? Or they must be stressed for the family live along their life? So i connect my goals to an higher purpose, not only for me, but for a kind living for the family. Thats the nuclear circle that i need to win first, before i service evenmore the others human family :)

    But one more that i aggree, which is nothing great comes easy.

    So i think the 7 tips from you have correlate each other and a good point to reflected on search a meaning for someone life.

    Anw, thank to Mr. Happy Wibowo who sent me this article on my condition right now

    Reply

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