The Buddha said, “In the end only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” As I reflected on this quote, what struck me the most was the middle piece: “how gently you lived.” I understand that love is fundamental to this human experience — loving ourselves and others means being a reflection of our true nature, which is universal love and acceptance. And letting go is crucial to breaking the cycle of suffering. But the idea of living gently had me puzzled.
My greatest struggle with ancient religious and spiritual texts — whether Hindu scripture, quotes from the Buddha, or Rumi’s mystical poetry — is I always tell myself, “Well, they lived in a simpler time.” Excuses, excuses, I remind myself. Life is only as simple or complicated as we make it.
Living gently might seem unattainable for us today. We live in a world filled with nuance and complexity. The future is uncertain, and our minds are often filled with turbulence. We rarely have moments to settle down and connect with ourselves. In Western cultures in particular, perpetual busy-ness, burnout, and stress is often celebrated. And we internalize this idea from a young age that if we don’t push ourselves, then we will not achieve enough or be successful enough or that our world will fall apart.
There must be another way. We can’t be on this Earth to simply repeat the same cycles of dissatisfaction, angst, and exhaustion. Perhaps the answer lies in this concept of “living gently.”
To me, this comes in two parts:
The first is being gentle towards ourselves. This means treating ourselves with kindness, forgiving ourselves for past mistakes, and making choices that are going to contribute to future happiness and contentment. It also means removing ourselves from toxic situations that cause us cyclical suffering, anger, or sadness.
The next part is our interpersonal gentleness, in being gentle towards others. The most “gentle” people in my life, in how I interpret the word, respond to life instead of reacting. They listen actively and give people the gift of full presence. They speak slowly, softly, and with conscious intention. When others mess up, they are able to witness them with awareness and compassion instead of judgement and harsh criticism.
These two parts are deeply interconnected, because we can only meet people as fully as we have met ourselves.
In our current social media landscape and cultural context, we often want to be the loudest or most prominent voice in the room. Often times the things we are saying are trying to prove or fit in rather than a form of authentic expression — along the lines of being gentle to ourselves, they are often a self-betrayal, trying to fit ourselves into the mold we believe we will be loved and appreciated for. What would it look like to slow down, to be aware of the space we take up, and to adopt a consciousness of the words we speak and how they impact others?
To live gently, I think, boils down to one thing: conscious awareness. If we can break out of habitual subconscious patterns that cause us pain, anger, hurt, confusion, frustration, and suffering, and recondition to instead take intentional actions towards joy, love, compassion, belonging, peace of mind, contentment, and emotional balance, we are living gently. In this way, we can be the fullest expression of self, and create the highest level of good for ourselves, for our relationships, for our communities, and for the world.