My last couple of posts, on our travels through Rwanda and Uganda, were pretty serious: suffering, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, kindness, and connection are all important topics but can be rather sobering.

So it’s crucial to remember that, in the face of life’s constant trials, we all need to seek out opportunities to have fun.  To be in the moment. To enjoy life to the fullest, every chance we get, because that chance just might be our last.

In fact, there’s an important Zen koan (a short story or statement that’s meant to spark deeper insight into the true nature of reality) about this very topic. In this koan, a man is being chased by a tiger. He sees a cliff edge in sight with a vine hanging over it, so he quickly jumps onto the vine and lowers himself down, beyond the tiger’s reach. As soon as he’s safe, he starts climbing down the vine to escape – only to see another hungry tiger below, waiting for him. As he is thinking about what to do, he sees two small mice chewing on the vine, just out of his reach. Soon the vine will part and he will plummet toward the second hungry tiger. Suddenly, he notices a bright red strawberry growing on a bush out of the cliff face. Hanging onto the vine with one hand, he reaches out and grabs the strawberry. He pops it into his mouth. It is delicious, the best thing he’s ever tasted – he smiles, truly enjoying the experience in spite of his precarious circumstances.

Obviously, this koan is a metaphor for life itself: we are trapped between two existentially terrifying abysses of non-being, our lives full of suffering and certain to end in death, but there are moments along the way that are sheer bliss – if only we reach out and seize them. Paradoxically, in the face of what appears to be overwhelming bleakness and senselessness, we can find joy and meaning in the smallest, simplest things, and in doing so our experience and enjoyment of life can be so much deeper, happier, and more fulfilling. In fact, Zen Buddhists might argue, it is the only way we can find joy and meaning in this life.

Africa is almost the perfect place to experience the full joy and sadness of this paradox. Full of suffering and reminders of human frailties and the horrors we are capable of inflicting on one another, it is nonetheless full of tremendous beauty and opportunities to seek out and savor deep connections with the natural world that exist nowhere else on our planet.  Enjoyment itself seems to be selected as a heritable trait by evolution: animals do it all the time. We were mesmerized by the penguins playing in the surf at Boulders Beach just outside of Simon’s Town in South Africa – they were literally frolicking in the waves, not catching fish, not mating, not defending their nests, just enjoying diving and swimming in the crystal-clear waters. When we trekked with the mountain gorillas in Uganda, we were captivated by an older sister and younger brother play-fighting with each other, the sister tickling the brother and pulling him back down from a nearby bamboo stalk every time he tried to escape. Humans, obviously, try to enjoy our own fair share of fun, although much of the time it borders on distraction and desensitization rather than a real immersion in the moment for the sake of a deep experience of joy.

Although Africa is amazing, you don’t need to travel to an exotic destination in order to heed the lesson of that Zen koan and enjoy the small, beautiful moments that give life its meaning. As long as you don’t take yourself (or your fun-seeking) too seriously, you can structure activities to help you create meaningful moments and just enjoy life; such activities should have a few of the following characteristics:

  • They should not have a winner or a loser
  • They shouldn’t have a prize or goal
  • You should find them enjoyable and fun
  • You should try to share them with friends, family, and loved ones
  • They should make you laugh, smile, and be grateful and happy to be alive

Some examples might be hiking with friends to see a beautiful view, enjoying a delicious lunch with your significant other, or taking a moment to stop and savor a beautiful tree as you’re walking to an appointment. As you begin to structure these moments and seek them out, the opportunities to enjoy life will begin to multiply – you will naturally begin to notice (and enjoy) more of these little experiences, and it will become a daily habit for you to find the joy in the moment, no matter how serious life is.

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