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Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D. Headshot

Do You Know What You Really, Really Want?

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In 1999, I went to Plum Village in France to attend a weeklong mindfulness retreat for business people led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I was curious as to why this demographic might be interested in mindfulness and how mindfulness could be applied to business. It was a smaller retreat, with only about 100 people, quite a contrast to a regular Thich Nhat Hanh retreat that often attracts more than 1,000 people. Over the course of the week, we learned how to cultivate the energy of mindfulness in order to help ourselves, our family and our businesses.

I stayed in a hamlet with a group of Swiss businessmen. Later, I learned that these Swiss folks were not just ordinary businessmen. One of them was amongst the wealthiest in Switzerland -- owning all of the major Swiss television and communication companies, as well as a large supermarket chain. I came to wonder why, despite all of his money and power, this man was eagerly seeking a learning experience with Thich Nhat Hanh?

It was the billionaire's face that gave him away. He appeared tense and rarely cracked a smile. His rigid countenance reminded me that money, power and status cannot truly be conditions for happiness, nor can they define success or fulfillment.

When we chase money, fame and power as our life goals, it does not take long before we realize that these goals are constantly changing. How much is enough? In our capitalistic, materialistic and status-driven society, it is very difficult for us to declare that we have made enough money, or that we are satisfied with reaching a certain level of power and fame. If we use external comparisons to judge our success, our goals will constantly shift. There is always someone who is richer, more powerful and more influential.

Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, by Eugene O'Kelly made a deep impression on me and reassured my definition of success. O'Kelly was the CEO of KPMG, a world-renowned accounting firm. He wrote about how he spent the final 3.5 months of his life after being terminally diagnosed with rapid-growth brain cancer. He passed away before finishing the book, leaving his wife to help him complete it. A successful man who was always on the go, with more than 10,000 employees worldwide, Mr. O'Kelly discovered that what he valued most was not the money, power or status that he attained -- but his relationships, especially those with his close family. O'Kelly's striking realization was that he spent most of his life away from his family, jet-setting around the world and gaining clients and revenue for his company. We have a limited lifespan. When we are born, we are already heading toward death. Let us wake up and reflect on what is most meaningful to us. Act upon it before we die.

I found myself saying "Yes!" when I came across an article in The New York Times with the headline "No Six-Figure Pay, but Making a Difference." Some graduates are giving up six-figure jobs for five-figures, working in cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore that are not the usual magnets for college graduates. Why? They want to be able to make a difference and not just earn a living.

For me, success is about having a healthy body and mind that enable me to work, live and play mindfully from moment to moment. It is about realizing and appreciating that we are part of each other. Success is to feel grateful for all the support that I am getting from my family, work, friends, community, country and the world at large. It is about having the stamina, vitality and mental clarity to help me engage in activities that alleviate the suffering of others. Whatever I choose to do will make my heart sing, regardless of the challenges and obstacles that I might have to face. This is my definition of an authentic meaningful and successful life.

Have you ever taken the time to stop and reflect: What are you really looking for in this life? What is most meaningful to you? Is it only money, power or status? Or is there something else that is more precious to you?

Spend some time periodically getting to know your own meaning of life. What makes your heart sing? If it is money, status or power reflect upon their potentials and limitations. How much are you willing to sacrifice to have them all? Nothing is perfect or everlasting. Everything is impermanent. Everything has both a good aspect and an undesirable aspect. It is worth our while to contemplate deeply, mindfully and periodically on our own meaning of life. This way, we can be satisfied with our own pursuits, and not be molded unconsciously by the prevailing social norms. Racing toward only money, power and status is likely to leave us unfulfilled.

What does success mean to you?

For more by Lilian Cheung, D.Sc., R.D., click here.

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