Meaning happens within a context and being well orientated to that context is crucial if we are to live our lives as meaningfully as possible. Let me explain what I mean.
Orientation is a function of the mind and involves awareness of three dimensions: time, place and person. People can become disorientated for various reasons including being intoxicated or when they are suffering from dementia.
Disorientation is such a key indicator for conditions such as dementia that the first two questions on the mini-mental state exam, a test frequently used by psychiatrists to screen for dementia, relate to this faculty. Firstly, what is the year / season / month / date / day? Secondly, where are we now? What country / county / hospital / floor are we in?
But we don’t need to be suffering from dementia or be intoxicated to become mildly disorientated. As we bumble along focused on the day-to-day demands of normal life, we often forget to pay attention to where we are, when it is and who we are.
As with many things in life, orientation isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon. We can be better orientated and less well orientated and it seems to me that the better orientated we are the better connected we are to our lives and the more able we are to derive meaning from them.
So in order to be better orientated to your life, ask yourself the following questions from time to time. They only take a few moments and you can do this anywhere; sitting in traffic, standing in a queue, walking along the street or eating your breakfast.
Check in with where you are. Am I inside or outside? If inside, what room am I in or what building? What part of the country? Where on earth, quite literally, am I? Imagine zooming out into space and looking down at yourself right where you are. You might also spend a moment or two thinking about where your loved ones are too. Are they nearby or far away? Are they in different countries or even different time zones and so perhaps asleep?
Now check in with when it is. What time is it? What day of the week? What season is it? What year is it? How old am I and where am I in the timescale of my life? Again you can zoom out in relation to time and imagine yourself looking at the whole course of human history and looking at where you are on this timeline.
Finally you might want to spend a few moments thinking about who you are. What is my name? What are the aspects of my identity that feel important to me? What are my values?
By doing these simple exercises we are gently orientating ourselves to where we are in the world and in our lives. It can help to ground us both in time and in space.
It can also help us get a sense of perspective, particularly when we look down at ourselves from space or consider our lives in relation to the history of the universe. Sometimes when we do this we realise that some of those things which are causing us stress in our lives aren’t really such a big deal after all. Not in the grand scheme of things anyway.