What Is To Be Done With Life?

Punit Pania
7 min readDec 20, 2023

…is a rather modern question. Ancient in its origins, modern in its frequency. Philosophers and mystics have driven themselves to madness over this rather simple question. But the priests have always been sure. They are still sure, in 2023. And they impose this surety on the masses so much that even scientists in their personal lives indulge in rituals. But the philosophers continue to question. And even the odd IT employee, on a bad day. And this is a good thing. The biggest questions have never had answers and never will. But asking them keeps us grounded. Courting our ignorance makes mortality bearable. Imagine being all-knowing and then dying in a few decades.

But this question has several spin-offs pervading every aspect of our lives. From what job to do to what food to eat to whether anal is worth attempting. The pre-requisite for these questions is free time, that fleeting cousin of father time. If Einstein came up with relativity of time, Schrödinger probably came up with free time. Because it disappears the moment you begin to feel it. Mystics had free time too, they figured out most struggles in life could simply be avoided. They had a vision, a calling, an epiphany or a series of them. IT employees have project deadlines and mental breakdowns, short-circuiting them through these struggles to arrive at the same questions: what is the meaning of this life? Is there anything beyond EMIs and long weekends? But they are so entrenched in the system that they feel a flowchart will lead them to the answer. They think products and courses will make them feel better. Or perhaps a few more years of 70 hour work weeks will do it. But you can write down a note to your future self right now that even at 2X your current income you will feel just as poor and insecure. Because intellectually you will still be starving.

Despite increasing means and awareness chances that an individual of today transcends worldly woes seems even lower than before. Every last second of leisure, even those on the commode are being sucked into the black hole of videos of everything from tiny kittens to giant squids and from graphic headshots to intimate breastfeeding. The internet is Maya personified. And the Metaverse will be Maya on steroids. We are constantly upping the odds against living even a remotely peaceful life.

But distractions are not new. Society itself is just a mad aggregate of distractions. Which is why in the Indian traditions, the first step towards serious inquiry was to let go of home, family and even your own name. In fact, the family has to perform last rites of the person to signify the finality of this detachment. Seems extreme but there really is no other way.

We are all trapped in a maze of identities. Think of them as concentric circles radiating out from the ego



My Family

My Clan/Caste/Village

My Religion/god/myth/beliefs/rituals

My state/language/country/race/IPL team

These identities have to melt away along with their decades of conditioning. Many evolved people do come down to the third circle of me and my family. That by itself has enough attachments to keep you firmly in the game and at conflict with others. But most of what passes for family or parental love is really the highest form of selfishness. It is the most primordial form of selfishness, that of propagating his/her own genes. It is a natural drive of course, perhaps the most innate. But a species that can destroy itself and the entire biosphere completely will also have to transcend its drives consciously. Mothers will shield their sons even when they are proven rapists. Family is where all the deceptions and crimes start. Across the world, over half of all serious crimes — theft, murder and rape — are by family members. Most if not all causes of mental illnesses originate in the family. The point is to not undo this structure but to be aware of its shallowness. To treat your family kindly not just because they share your genes but because that is how you feel compelled to treat everybody.

As these circles of identity collapse your circle of empathy expands outwards from your immediate in-groups to finally cover all sentient beings. The last circle of I, Me & Myself is the trickiest one. Even people with the noblest goals are ultimately driven by self-engrandizement, often unconsciously. If I had made any progress at all on this front myself, I wouldn’t even feel the need to write this blog right now. But being aware of the ego as the gravitational pull behind all thoughts and actions at least keeps you from being heavy handed and clumpsy.

The final identity to drop would be name and gender. Quite a few people in the west are doing it only to assume another identity that is even more ego-driven. Being a victim never confers righteousness, a simple tragedy that even the kindest people tend to overlook. All of this is still just theory. The finest blog and the deepest music are still external. They may move you for sometime. But true flowering of the mind will only result from first hand experience. An experience so authentic that it changes your rigidities at a sub-conscious level. Sadly, only life-changing tragedies carry that power in a lay person’s life. His day-to-day is filled with such cacophony both audible and mental that he/she can’t take a single step towards peace even if they tried. Reading, seeking and therapy will make you cultured but liberation is completely DIY. So at some point, analysis must cease and practice must begin, something I have kept on a low flame but recently gave it wind — perhaps a topic for my next blog.

The more technology driven and luxurious life gets the more seeking will grow. Since our progress has always been at the cost of nature — the environment and our very own nature that we still see as somehow separate from the air we breathe. So more and more people are trying to find some higher meaning in an environment that is more and more toxic. This will only lead to further strife and disillusionment. In making our bodies comfortable we have made it impossible for the mind to be at ease. Any post-graduate degree and a few years of work experience will tell you that spirituality itself is just another product in the market. More dangerous; in fact, since normal market rules and dynamics don’t apply to it.

So self-improvement becomes the last refuge of the privileged mind looking for answers where it is really only looking for newer distractions. Despite all the spiritual discourse and poetry we can’t really escape ourselves. So the next best thing is to at least improve ourselves:









Rigorous research into how to optimize every last ounce of weight training. Even though there are no tasks left where that kind of strength is actually required. Hi-tech tests to measure brain cognition even though we use AI to write the simplest emails. Endless therapy and self-help books even though most of our good behaviour is only performative. All of it feeding into longetivity and the cult forming around it. Science has definitely increased lifespan and physical well being. But being alive and being vital are two different things. The most enlightened souls pass away early because they tread so lightly and their attachments are so delicate. A full vibrant life need not be long.

An industrial approach to enlightenment is doomed from the moment of its inception. Even if we manage to stretch this life to 200 years with supplements, interventions and organ replacement, it will just be a 100 more years of the same longings and the same misery. More than physical suffering can the mind take the extra decades of trauma and suppression? We now increasingly know how mental agony manifests as the most chronic of diseases. Like with all technological endeavours the numbers in the end will justify the tradeoffs and the suffering. But you don’t have to be a part of the madness. The most basic emotion is greed and there is no greater greed than the denial of death. It stems from the ego and even eternity won’t be enough to satisfy it. And all of this is assuming we can afford a longer life at the individual financial and environmental sustainabilty levels.

There are no real challenges or danger left so we invent new struggles to keep ourselves from getting bored. It’s all very well to say that we get to create our own meaning but once the biological challenges have been surpassed, all further attempts at humouring ourselves are inevitably self-deception. Eventually you will realize that loneliness and boredom are the same thing. You overcome either one, the petty discontents of life will melt away. And then; perhaps, you can pursue things with the eagerness of a child yet the detachment of a monk.

  • Punit Pania