Leaping Fish

Awhile ago, one of the teachers at the Buddhist center I attend mentioned a phrase that continues to echo in my mind. He talked about the idea of living, or approaching life, with “the lively vigor of a leaping fish.” What does this mean, exactly? How does one do this?

For many years, I have felt the opposite.

I have experienced bouts of depression, lack of direction, and burn out, following other people’s dreams and expectations.

And yet, since a teenager, I have felt compelled by the idea of vocation—the activity where your great joy meets the world’s great need. The action that makes your heart sing. The thing that propels you to live with the lively vigor of a leaping fish.*

Salmon Leaping Upstream

I have read a lot about these ideas and theories. About finding your passion. About letting your life speak. About identifying that which makes you whistle while you work. Whenever I interview people for work, I am continually pulled back to these ideas—of vocation, of leaping fish living—trying to tease out the glimmers visible in people’s approach to life and work. I’d like to share some of those profiles and insights here.

In my own life, I came to see that my vocation is writing—or at least that’s my great joy. But finding where that joy meets the world’s great need has been a continual process.

So far, I’ve found a need in writing for nonprofits. Such writing, mostly grant proposals, isn’t the most invigorating, at least not all the time. But it is an interesting word puzzle—to figure out, within a limited word count, how best to bring to life the important work nonprofits do. Alongside this, I have continued to write my own stuff, that which brings me an even purer sense of joy. More and more, I push myself to send it out into the world, to see if it too might meet the world’s need in any way.

At the same time, I’ve come to see in recent years that I’ve been focusing way too much on work—indoors, in front of a keyboard and screen. I have come to see that if I work less and spend more time with things of the physical world, and outside, I feel much more connected, invigorated, fully embodied. All characteristics of the leaping fish.

So I have embraced a more flexible, freelance schedule. I have started to garden. I have gone back to shopping primarily at thrift and consignment stores. (Which complements working less and also embodies my values in conservation and simple living.) I have begun to read writers who talk about a juicy, succulent, environmental way of living with less. Wanting less. The fallacy of the idea that more is better. The idea of enough.

Of course, this all feels counter-cultural, in many ways. At least the extreme to which I am sometimes tempted to take it. So I’d like to unpack these ideas, impulses, theories, experiences here, as I continue to try to emulate the leaping fish.

* I think Buddhist teaching would say that there is no cause and effect here, that this invigorated state of being is about simply opening oneself to what is, whatever it is, however it’s showing up. But Buddhist teaching also talks about “right livelihood,” which seems to be finding work that is most conducive to “the way.”

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