Michel Bauwens: The Meaning that We Give to Life

Michel Bauwens - Belgium & Thailand.jpgExcellence Reporter: Michel, what is the meaning of life?

Michel Bauwens: What if there is no meaning to life, but the meaning that we give to it?

This conclusion is what imposed itself to me after a deep mid-life crisis when I was in my forties.

I was not a happy young man, and my first reaction was to become an activist, but it was driven largely by my despair, what Spinoza called the ‘sad passions’. When after seven years of full-time activism, I realized it was going nowhere, the conclusion imposed itself on me: if I am unhappy, and the world doesn’t change to accomodate me, then the only solution is to change myself. And so, at 23 years of age, I started an intense journey first of healing (nearly all the human potential techniques developed in California at the time were tried and tested), then, an open spiritual inquiry. Because I was still driven largely by my despair, it was a period of intense ‘participant observation’. Also, because I believe I am a fast learner, it seems I could appropriate something of value to me and my quest from the different experiences, but also quickly see its limitations in the context of my own quest. So again, I did a large sweep of different spiritual traditions, starting with the East (Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism), then going on to the Western esoteric traditions (I was a gnostic rosicrucian and a templar, had a teacher of alchemy, dabbled with Tarot cards, ..). This was one of the most interesting periods of my life, I learned to deal with many unprocessed griefs, learned to reintegrate bodily and emotional aspects, deal with others while seeing my own projections … Gradually, I became a more balanced human being, and started to feel, with all these tools that I learned to use, surely, now is the time to re-integrate society more fully and become creative.

The last thing I wanted to do was to take a three-year break to reconnect with my own, western tradition, and in my early thirties, I took three years to read philosophical classics (and interpretative texts) from the Ancient Greeks to Husserl (I was saturated at that point). Paradoxically, I found life quite meaningful, and through my acquaintance with spiritual movements, had become attuned to what I believe to be signs, but at the same time, I was not fully happy.

The reason of course is that I still felt I was living in a world of injustice and pain. Even as I had resolved many personal issues, it was not hard to see that many people were suffering, but I also believed there was not much I could do about. And hence, I started a ‘normal’ life, working for corporations, making a career, and launching a magazine, co-producing a movie (TechnoCalyps, about the impact of transhumanism and interpreting technology as a religious quest), and two internet start-ups.

In 1996-97, everything started to go wrong in short order. My father died and my mother got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, putting a huge burden on me as a only child; my second company got caught up in cash flow issues; the movie I was making got delayed through a legal conflict, and there is more I can’t really tell. But the most devastating was a relationship of which I was sure that every cell in my body was saying, ‘this is the one’, and yet it spectacularly failed to work, even as it created a very endorphine-rich period for about 18 months. The combination of the overwork, the negative events, the broken relationship, all conspired to create a major burnout with very strong physical effects, but also a loss of faith.

And then .. the miracle happened, as I was descending through the dark side of the soul, I confronted a moment of clarity about the total absurdity and lack of meaning of our life on earth. But paradoxically, realizing that I had probably another half of my life to live, it dawned on me that the only solution was to actually give it meaning myself. And for me, that meaning was crystal clear, I simply have to be a person who engages in the collective effort for a better world. And at that moment, I was transformed, all the energy that I had to put aside after leaving my youthful engagement, came back with almost mystical intensity. I went through what William James called ‘being twice-born’, in his marvelous book, Varieties of Religious Experience. An integration occured and a period of reconstruction and healing. I have never looked back.

Paradoxically though, I knew what I had to do, but not how to do it. Thus, I took on an extra well-paying job for 3 years, to create financial reserves, and took a two-year sabbatical to study the leverage points for change. I primarily read about phase transitions, i.e. how one social system evolves to another one following new logics and rule, as happened twice in the West with the advents of respectively feudalism and capitalism. Through my work, the power of networks for self-organization had also become apparent, and I witnessed how the network forms used in social movements, because an actual seed form for a new mode of production. This then was the conclusion of my sabbatical. I would focus on peer to peer dynamics as the focal point. I started writing a manifesto in 2005, opened a wiki, a blog and gradually attracted more and more people to the narrative of the P2P Foundation.. This is of course no longer my story, or about me, I am just a vehicle for the current Zeitgeist, and work as a servant leader to facilitate the emergence of what is already happening.

The very question of the meaning of life has little meaning for me today. I am fully energized and ‘fed’, through my engagement with the multitude of others who are all working concurrently to solve the major systemic issues that are generated by the current dominant system, which combines pseudo-abundance, a false sense of the infinity of the resources provided by nature, thereby destroying the biosphere; and artificial scarcity by imposing limits on human cooperation in science, technology and culture. Peer production does the opposite, so how do we get from the emergence of many grassroots communities, coordinated through global knowledge commons, to systems that can create livelihoods around this, and how can it evolve from the state of emergence, to a full social and economic system?

We don’t have all the answers, but we are working on it, and this is the ‘meaning’ of ‘my’ life. Meaning comes through engagement, and the relationships we create through it, and recognition come from our contributions to the common good.

Each of us has to find the meaning of our own life, as there is no abstract ‘meaning of life’ out there, outside of your engagements.


~Michel Bauwens, best-selling author, theorist, active writer, researcher and conference speaker on the subject of technology, culture and business innovation. Michel is the founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property.

Copyright © 2016 Excellence Reporter

2 replies »

  1. “When after seven years of full-time activism, I realized it was going nowhere (…)” and “I am fully energized and ‘fed’, through my engagement with the multitude of others who are all working concurrently to solve the major systemic issues that are generated by the current dominant system (…)”

    Changing from being an unsuccessful activist to becoming a successful activist can make your life feel meaningful. I guess it’s true that only we ourselves can give meaning to our lives, nobody else can do it for us. If we fail to give/find meaning for our lives, it follows that we’ll experience LIFE as, more or less, meaningless. Feeling alive (as I called it in another comment here) is what it’s all about.

    Finding one’s ‘true nature’ (which happens when one really feels alive) doesn’t necessary mean that one has to end up living the life of a ‘sage’ – I can imagine this sort of life not being desired by most people, myself included (watching life passing by, without participating in it anymore, might be a great way to avoid ‘pain’ and ‘heart-ship’, but if that’s the meaning of life then this makes ‘life’ look pretty superfluous).

    I love Love and all good things happening to people in real life, but I also love to watch action movies (with lots of ‘evil’ as well as ‘good’ things happening in them), so if I was a divine all-powerful being and I was to create a world, it would probably resemble the one we live in now to a great extend…


  2. Thank you for your thoughts on the subject. Your last two paragraphs sums up everything in a nutshell. I have very similar thoughts to you and agree it is individualistic.


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