“What is the meaning of life?” is a wonderful question because it has no final or fixed answer. Meaning is a purely mental or conceptual experience, and so it is always changing and evolving. This can mean that the question unfolds in new and ever-changing ways. It also suggests that if there is no final answer, there might also be a way to go beyond the question itself.
There is no inherent meaning in anything. We can squeeze an orange, and juice will come out, but no meaning will ever come flowing out with the juice. We can then add meaning to the experience: “I’m taking care of myself by eating healthy” or “What a treat to have fresh juice!” but that meaning that we gave to the juice is not an inherent quality of the juice itself.
Since there is no final answer to what the meaning of any experience or life itself is, the question can go on and on and unfold in myriad ways. At first, we might look for the meaning of life in what we are taught, in books or in our culture. We might conclude that the meaning of life is to “get rich” or to “find my true love” or to “live a more spiritual life” or some other idea we get from our families, schools, or media and culture. We can spend years pursuing the meaning of life in these ways. As a result, we are likely to discover that there are many different, and often contradictory, answers to this question.
When we first realize that there is not just one answer to this question, it can be a bit disorienting. What does it mean if what my parents or my culture taught me is not the only possible answer? But then we might discover that this open-ended quality to the question means that we can choose or create our own meanings in life. This opens the door to trying on lots of different perspectives. Today the meaning of my life may be about decorating my house, but tomorrow it may be about finding inner peace. The meaning of anything is simply a belief we hold in that moment, and all belief is actually make-believe. We get to “make up” our beliefs about life and everything in it.
Even then, the question is still there: What is the meaning of life now? And what about now? And what about the new moment that is happening now? This never-ending quality of the question points to an even deeper possibility: What would life be like without the question? Do we need to believe anything about life for life to happen, or does life unfold perfectly well when we have no ideas about it? How present are we to the actual reality of our life when we have an idea about what it means or is supposed to mean compared to when we have no preconceived notions about it? Does having an idea about the meaning of life always add to the experience, or does it sometimes get in the way of completely experiencing life as it is?
There is no right or wrong way to experience our beliefs about the meaning of life. We can accept what we are taught, we can explore myriad ways of perceiving and understanding life, or we can hold all beliefs so lightly that in a particular moment we have no ideas about life and are just here experiencing the raw aliveness of the moment.
One definition of “truth” is that the truth is whatever stops the questions. This stopping can be temporary, as when we decide that the meaning of our life is to pursue our career, and we get busy doing just that, and for a while forget about the question altogether. But again, “What is the meaning of life?” is such a powerful question because all of the answers are so temporary. Eventually, even a tremendously successful career is not enough, and the question comes back, and we get involved again with searching for or creating a new answer to the question.
Perhaps the closest we come to a final “truth” is when we go beyond the search for a final answer and just live in this endless open-ended questioning with no answers, no ideas, no beliefs—just pure awareness, curiosity, joy, and wonder at all the experiences that life provides. Maybe the best answer to “What is the meaning of life?” is no answer at all. What is life itself like when we don’t know the answers to any questions? What a strange and wonderful possibility—to use the deepest and most unanswerable questions to go beyond all questions.
~Nirmala, spiritual teacher
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