Life for each of us is made up of a series of thoughts, words, and actions that occur in a space we refer to as time. It’s hard to know if there’s anything outside those thoughts, words, and actions, because all we really know is our own experience.
Most of our thoughts, words, and actions are taken up with our survival, reproduction, and family responsibilities. If there’s any time left over, we might examine the meaning of our life in relation to our community and the world at large. After that, we might explore the meaning of our life in relation to something bigger. We might look for a sense of meaning everywhere.
In search of meaning
If you can commit to “don’t know mind,” you can explore this question of whether life has meaning in a purposeful way. I believe there are three possible truths.
The first is that there is no meaning outside of our own experience, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. If there is no meaning other than the material moment, then our sense of a greater meaning is some combination of superstition and a way of coping with the existential fear of life’s certainties: We will die, we can’t control what happens to us while we’re alive, and we don’t know if there’s any purpose to our struggles and victories.
The second possibility is that there is meaning to life that is outside the immediate experience. That meaning can be completely predestined, or there can be some room for us to participate in a small or large way, depending on what you believe.
Lastly is the possibility that there isn’t inherent meaning but there is meaning that we are either co-inventing or inventing by ourselves, i.e. we’re creating the meaning as we go. Maybe we’ve been co-creating the meaning of life from the moment of the Big Bang.
Happiness within Reach
If there is no meaning, then we must be here to maximize our happiness in some way. What else would we be doing? Even if there is no meaning, you still practice generosity, pay attention to direct experience, and try to live your experience moment to moment if you want to maximize your happiness. And if there’s no meaning except to be happy, you still need to know yourself in order to be happy.
If you believe there is meaning, you seek to know the nature of that meaning and then you try to live with it as best you can by practicing generosity, examining direct experience, and living in the moment. Whether you believe in meaning or not, your practice isn’t that different.
If there is meaning and we don’t know ourselves psychologically, we consistently take missteps because we’re so unconscious of all the destructive things we do to others and ourselves. We are called to know ourselves because we want to align ourselves with that meaning, and we have to know ourselves in order to do so.
We have to beware of using our belief of meaning as an opiate—an excuse to not really show up for ourselves and do the work. If we become convinced of our own convictions we become rigid. A characteristic of established religions is their brittleness, and all of us at some point have run into that brittleness and felt its inadequacy and even its brutality.
There is also the danger of half-believing in meaning, but never really committing unless we’re scared or lonely. We take temporary comfort in the idea of greater meaning, but we don’t really live our lives as though we believe it.
If we’re co-inventing meaning together, we need to be ethical, generous, and in the moment as well because we are creating the meaning with and for our families and community.
We All Have Doubt
Each of us has a small or large voice inside that says there is no meaning. It’s there in all of us. You don’t need to get that voice to go away; instead, bring it into consciousness. Say to yourself, “This is me not believing that anything matters, but that’s just thoughts. Not believing anything matters and there’s no meaning feels like this.”
Explore beliefs and trust that however you’re leaning, it doesn’t have to change your behavior. Not only can you tolerate your sense of whatever’s true for you, you know that it may change. It gives your ego the chance to look at itself and not be afraid.
For your reflection:
- Do you know what you believe?
- Do you believe there’s meaning or do you doubt it? Or, do you believe we’re co-inventing it as we go?
- Does your behavior align with what you believe?