When was the last time you felt alive? Not just enjoying life, but truly alive.
I mean those moments when you feel close to bursting with energy and drive; when you’re whole body is trembling with a barely contained vitality; when you’re completely and utterly absorbed in the moment.
Be honest with yourself – it might’ve been some time ago…
‘To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.’
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE TRULY ALIVE
What actually is this state of vitality? Some attribute it to a spiritual dimension: a higher state of consciousness or spiritual compatibility in life. Others, particularly within physical disciplines, refer to its most powerful incarnation as the state of ‘flow’ – a focus that, despite extremes of fatigue and pain, makes you feel capable of anything.
The feeling of being truly alive can also be represented in moments of fulfilment and relaxation, and, among other things, joy of life and general happiness. Scientific study has identified a whole host of physiological factors that relate to these experiences - brain wave states and hormonal activity just to name a couple.
What we call or define it doesn’t really matter. All perspectives are based in the same phenomenon – experiencing life in the most natural manner, and ‘living’ to the greatest of our capacity. It’s characterised by two factors in particular:
1) LIVING IN THE MOMENT
A cliché but true. While living on the Costa Rican jungle coast a couple of summers back we thought little of the past or present, absorbed only by the day we were currently in: what needed to be done; what we needed; and what we wanted to do. Very little else was of interest or concern. Those days were some of the happiest I’ve lived yet.
Think back to a time when you were really loving life – I’d be willing to bet that you were ‘living in the present’ the majority of the time. Compare that to the mundane (perhaps current life?) – how often are you thinking about the future or looking back at the past?
2) HEIGHTENED AWARENESS
Legendary ultrarunner Scott Jurek describes a ‘sudden Zen-like clarity’ in his book Eat and Run. The feeling of being fully alive at its strongest comes with full sensory awareness. Many associate it with a sixth sense or intuition. Hunter-gatherers and others spending long periods in the wilderness are examples of this phenomenon on a more sustained level, living naturally in a heightened state of awareness and consequent vitality.
3) HAPPINESS AND/OR FULFILMENT
The feeling of fully living is closely associated with happiness. I write ‘and/or fulfilment’ because I feel many may question the happiness that comes with the pain of really pushing physical and mental boundaries. For me, and many others, it definitely translates to happiness, but I leave that up to the individual. That said, those who disagree are often those who’ve never experienced it…
The state of mind that comes with ‘feeling alive’ has a positive feedback nature. The more you get out and do the things you enjoy and that stretch you, the more motivation and energy you have to push harder and do more. The desire to live and explore fuels itself, and it always surprises me just how powerful this effect can be.
At the opposite end, if you do little and never push beyond your comfort zone, motivation and desire drops. Very quickly you find yourself not wanting to do anything at all. We’ve all been there at some time or other, and it is easy to see how, in extreme cases, depression can begin to take hold. Many studies support this idea (for example); the positive feedback loop of negativity and idleness can result in a rapid downwards spiral.
‘Don’t be scared to walk alone. Don’t be scared to like it.’
FINDING A SOURCE: FULFILMENT OF FUNDAMENTAL NEEDS
Common themes that seem to crop up time and time again in individuals we consider to be living to the full and ‘spiritually’ satisfied with life. For myself at least I can easily identify the following factors in periods of my own life that I’ve felt most alive and happy.
A state of vitality seems to evolve naturally from fulfilment of three basic human needs:
1) Pushing boundaries and exploring our capabilities: physically and mentally. Essentially living life to the full.
A desire to discover our limits and push the boundaries of what we think possible is human nature: it’s essentially the life work of top athletes and craftspeople. But the drive to excel is underlying (if often dormant!) in all of us. It extends to all areas of life: the desire to go beyond basic sufficiency creeps into anything that we’re passionate about.
2) Exposure to and engagement with the natural world.
Time outdoors has been proven repeatedly to have all sorts of health benefits. Many people are enamoured with the wilderness, unable to live without it. Whether this is you or not there’s no denying that being outdoors for long periods re-awakens a vitality that’s often lost from days inside and in cities.
3) Sociality in the real, genuine sense. Person-to-person interaction and connection.
Person-to-person interaction and connection.Competition, teamwork and time spent with others in a real context (as apposed to interaction via technology) is a huge component of fulfilment in life. Think to the last time you were out doing something with a good group of friends – I bet you weren’t thinking about anything else but the present!
‘When you stop just existing and you start living, each moment of the day comes alive with wonder and synchronicity.’
THE DISCORDANCE OF WESTERN LIFESTYLE
It’s fair to admit that the feeling of being truly alive often involves a certain degree of breaking free from societal norms and underlying principles.
Western society does present aspects and opportunities that promote fully living, and it’s definitely possible to live a fully fulfilled and ‘natural’ life within modern society. But it also has the capacity to destroy human vitality if we let it sweep us away. It’s the inevitable result of major mismatchs between our current lifestyle and human psychology.
Acknowledgement of these mismatches allows us to evaluate society outside its paradigm, and alter our lifestyle accordingly: to live on our own terms.
1) FAILURE TO SPONTANEOUSLY MEET FUNDAMENTAL NEEDS
Of the three human needs outlined above, modern westernised society meets only sociality on a daily basis, and even that is often less direct and consistent than in traditional communities. As for the other two, our society no longer demands us to challenge our limits and engage with the natural world on a day-to-day basis. We have to actively seek them out; and, in line with the feedback phenomenon above, as soon as disconnection with these principles happens, the distance quickly increases.
2) AN INDIRECT MODE OF LIVING
Modern society insulates us from the hand-to-mouth existence of our ancestors. There’s an indirectness between our day-to-day activities (often working for someone else within a virtual framework) and actual ‘living’, in the sense of survival and being alive. As a result there’s a lack stimulation and requirement for creativity, innovation and engagement in daily life. We enter a state of autopilot - mindlessly moving from one situation to the next.
Materialism adds to this. A focus on object and wealth leads to an under-appreciation of simply being alive and its inherent potential to bring enjoyment of its own accord when explored more fully.
3) PHYSIOLOGICAL MISMATCHING OF THE STRESS RESPONSE
The human stress response evolved to cope with acute fight or flight situations. In western society these have largely been replaced by longer-term, chronic stressors. These are usually psychological - the product of materialistic attitudes, time-oriented lifestyle, 9-5 jobs and a lack of free time.
Non-compatible with our stress system’s evolutionary origin, these stressors lead to prolonged elevation of the stress hormone cortisol. This long-term stress (known as Type II allostatic overload) can lead to all sorts of health issues and diseases (physical and mental), and clearly opposes feelings of fulfilment and vitality of life!
4) BIASED DEVELOPMENT
Western society, beginning with the education system, focuses very heavily on academic thought. This makes sense since it best suits the typical route to ‘success’ within the society’s framework.
But it neglects the many other equally important aspects to human existence: physicality, manual and physical skill, creativity and awareness just to name a few. In particular, we’re left with major disconnect between body and mind.
There’s huge benefit to holistic development and understanding. Exploration and harmonious integration of all areas of human existence is in my opinion an aspect of truly living, or at least an important foundation to achieve it.
‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
ACHIEVING A FULL EXISTENCE: APPROACHES TO LIFE
In my opinion the best way to achieve a state of truly feeling alive is to act on the principles above: push yourself, get outside, and interact directly with others. Here are some other ideas and prompts to explore.
1) DO SOMETHING NEW
Try something new and break out of the ruts of habit. Do things differently and get out of autopilot mode. This forces you into the present.
2) GO AGAINST THE GRAIN
Question conventional norms and thrive on being different. This alone is a powerful (and often entertaining) means to feeling truly alive, rather than just a component of an arbitrary system.
3) GET OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Face your fears - comfort is often the enemy of growth. There’s no doubt that consistently expanding your limits and capabilities (whether physical or mental) promotes a state of vitality that’s impossible to achieve in settling for your current capacity. Take advantage of the feedback phenomenon; the more you push, the stronger the desire becomes, and so too your ability to push further. Take risks; you can’t always be comfortable. After all, ‘Who dares wins’.
Call me eccentric but I like to think regularly, ‘What’s the craziest thing I could do right now?’ Even if you don’t actually do it this keeps you thinking in the right frame of mind. I’ll admit that for me the thought usually involves scaling the nearest building….
There’s a purity to engaging with skills and concepts that, at their most fundamental, involve only the human body and mind in direct relation to the world around you. This raw, though not necessarily extreme, exposure to the natural world is both humbling and fulfilling. It gives a timeless sense of belonging and freedom, unaffected by the materialism and virtual constructs that run today’s socioeconomic society.
5) ADJUST YOUR ATTITUDE
Your way of looking at life determines the entire experience. Almost any situation has the potential to be heaven or hell depending on your frame of reference. A positive attitude allows us to find opportunity where others see problems – it usually depends only on your perspective.
If you find yourself complaining about something, think: ‘Can I change it?’. Yes? – Great. Change it. No? – then deal with it and move on: complaining won’t get you anywhere.
6) DO WHAT YOU REALLY LOVE
Ultimately this is what it all comes down to. If you love what you’re doing – and I mean really love it (as in there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing, not that you love your job according to a societally-perceived job-specific measurement of enjoyment) – then you’ll feel alive and fulfilled when doing it.
Find something that you truly enjoy, gives you purpose and fits what drives you. Then cut away unnecessary baggage. If it’s not important to you or what you wish to achieve then forget it.
‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.’
Neale Donald Walsch
Living life fully is in my opinion our duty to ourselves out of respect for the incredible animal we are. We’re provided with an amazing integration of physiological and psychological machinery capable of doing and being unimaginable things.
Don’t settle for compromises in life – be the best you can be and live life to the full. This takes effort, but you wouldn’t have read this far if you didn’t possess at least a seed of the drive and dedication necessary. It’s worth it anyway.
‘The real question is not whether life exists after death. The real question is whether you are alive before death.’
I urge you to go now and do something that makes you feel fully alive.
Do something new. Do something different. Do something that scares you.
Get in touch if you have any questions or comments - it'd be great to hear from you.