No use mincing facts here: We are an extraordinary species. The plethora of ways we express our lives is as breathtaking as it is bewildering in its complexity. Astonishingly, out of the more than 7 billion human beings on Earth, you will not find any two life experiences that are the same. Yet in all this, a pattern has emerged in which one’s attitude toward life can be distilled down into just two areas. The quality of your life will unfold according to which attitude you subscribe to: Whether you view life with a small picture mentality, or whether you see (and “get”) the big picture.
The Small Picture
Imagine you are out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a pitch-black night with huge swells; fierce winds howling all around you. Alone in your small wooden rowboat, you continuously bail out water that ever-threatens to flood—and capsize—the boat. The thin veil separating life and death is becoming increasingly transparent, what is going to happen to you?
OK, OK: The picture painted above is a bleak one taken to extremes. Metaphorically, however, it illustrates just how much fear and suffering an individual can potentially go through when focused solely on the small picture. With this level of understanding, one’s life is constantly at risk of being swamped by the powerful waves of anger, fear, grief, greed, loneliness, and despair. The fear of death, of illness, of losing property and loved ones, of not having enough money, of betrayal, of not getting what you want… These are real fears. And they’re exacerbated by the belief that this life is the only one. This then leads to the feeling that, at all costs, life cannot be let go.
The powerful ocean of life, which we must all navigate, is especially tough on those who do not understand its depth, breadth, or purpose. Such a life is easily troubled when events go contrary to expectations. Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes the sea is calm and life is beautiful. Sometimes, you know, it’s not.
The Big Picture
So what does it mean to instead acknowledge the big picture of life? Let’s imagine this time that you are a passenger on a huge ocean liner. While you are sitting having a pleasant evening meal, the captain announces that a storm is coming. He advises that there is no need to be concerned, because the equipment on board has dictated the magnitude and depth of the storm. The captain announces that the ship only has to travel six more kilometers before the waves will calm: You just need to be careful when walking about. Though a storm is raging around you, you feel calm, safe, and confident that the ship will take you where you want to go.
In this example, the captain symbolically represents intellect. The size of the ship indicates the depth of your self understanding. The storm is life’s constant challenges. When the intellect understands the purpose and potential of these challenges, powerful emotions such as fear, anger, or depression are greatly subsided.
Is it really possible to live like this? The Sages, Saints, and Yogis in one voice say yes! They encourage us to carefully understand the pulse of life, to look into the reasons behind it; to understand why birth and death occurs, and to acquire knowledge of the nature of consciousness and mind, both of which determine how a life plays out. Understanding of this magnitude reveals the true significance of human life and the importance of the immortal soul, the atma. The big picture, in contrast to the small one, is liberating, exhilarating, humbling, inspiring; it empowers you to rise above the mundane. It opens your heart and mind to the fact that life truly is a remarkable journey of the spirit with great purpose.
Here are five ways that you can look at the big picture in life:
If you’re experiencing loss or tragedy, look to the hidden meaning that underlies everything.
Put aside 15 minutes daily to reflect on the beauty and significance of life. As with the four seasons of the year, life too follows a rhythm. The secret is to understand what that means. Comfort and inspiration is found in knowledge of the big picture.
If you’re a parent, encourage your children to always see life as a remarkable journey.
Remind them that their lives are full of opportunity, but don’t forget to remind them also that setbacks are sometimes necessary to inspire them to grow in character and purpose.
If you’re a student, try not to let the pressures of your daily routine swamp you.
Establishing your education and job opportunities are important, but they are only steps on the road to self-understanding. Who you are is more important than what you have and what you do.
If life is a struggle for you at present, sit quietly for a few moments each day.
Slightly deepen your breathing, and contemplate that everything is impermanent—even your circumstances. Open your heart and internally seek guidance. It will come! Life is about lessons, they are the guiding lights to improvement and awareness.
If you’re elderly and worried about the future, strengthen your faith.
Trust in the Divine, and deeply accept that the soul within your body is eternal. It will endure when the body passes away. Open your heart to this truth.
Swami Govindananda (Swamiji) is the founder of Ji Living. A New Zealander, he lived years in India learning philosophy and meditation at the deepest levels from a renowned Master. Through his Seven Steps to Self Understanding online video and meditation series at jiliving.com, he illuminates the wisdom that lies at the heart of yoga. A presenter at Wanderlust festivals and yoga studios, he embodies positive spirituality and gives inspirational insights into the significance of human life. Swamiji is known for his wisdom, his gentle, humorous nature and ability to tell great stories.