Maybe you’re not particularly worried about death, but perhaps you’ve had periods where you questioned whether there was any enduring meaning in life. Maybe you asked the question: Is this all there is? Or: What is the point? This isn’t unusual, since by nature we’re programmed to seek meaning.
From the point of view of survival, it makes perfect sense that our minds would instinctively search for meaning and structure, to give us a sense of control in face of a world that would otherwise appear as dangerous and chaotic.
Isn’t this one of the prime functions of religion – to reinterpret the chaos? Along with making us feel a part of something bigger, religions give us an inspiring story to make sense of things like uncertainty and death. Equally important, it gives us comfort through rituals and codes of behavior on how to live.
Buddhism, for example, tells us that life is difficult, and that our circumstances will constantly change, leading to uncertainty and groundlessness. It tells us we will suffer because we can’t accept this life as it is. But it also tells us that we can find peace. We do this by following the Buddha’s teachings, and the path of trying to live more awake.
This is really no different than what all religions do – they are ultimately trying to gives us meaning and possible comfort in the face of uncertainty and death. But in a sense the “stories” that religions weave, even though no doubt helpful, can also be a self-deception.
As useful as it is to attempt to posit structure and meaning , we must remember that any explanation is somewhat arbitrary. In fact, it is not even an explanation; it is more a description – and only one of many possible descriptions. This is why we need to beware of falling into the false comfort of seeing religious or spiritual teachings as the objective truth.
The truth is subtle, complex and paradoxical; and thus it is basically unknowable through the conceptual mind. It’s easy to get attached to so-called spiritual truths and forget that we don’t really know. For example, we can talk about enlightenment and reduce it to some solid picture of what enlightenment is, but in so doing we couldn’t be farther from the mystery.
It’s pretty much a given that we will try to figure out what life is. We will say that life is difficult, or an opportunity. We might say that life is a gift, or a mystery. But all of these are just stories. We can posit meaning, and then try to live from that, but it’s important to keep in mind that the meaning we posit is not an absolute – rather it is a practical response to the groundlessness of a world which seems to have no inherent meaning.
This, as one author put it, is the existential dilemma – that we are beings who search for meaning and certainty in a universe that has neither.
The question of meaning can certainly be a compelling motivator. When we feel a loss of direction or little sense of purpose, we may first use the usual props – such as busyness, entertainments and distractions – to cover over the feeling of emptiness inside. When these props don’t work, we may go to therapy or come to spiritual practice, to address the experience of an inner aimlessness in our lives.
When we feel helpless and anxious about the inner chaos in our lives we naturally want to find answers to feel some sense of comfort and control. But we don’t just want an intellectual answer to the meaning of life; we also want to know what to do – how to actually live.
Here’s what it comes down to: we are wired to live, not just to think, and we need to engage in meaningful activity for the question of meaning to no longer matter.
From the point of view of Zen practice, the question: “What is the meaning of life?” is like a koan, where the practice is to sit and be present with the question itself. Not to focus on getting an answer, but to just stay with the question. To stay with the question, with the visceral experience of the anxiety and confusion of not knowing, is where the question can eventually resolve itself. It resolves itself through the doing – from sitting with the physicality of our present moment experience.
As we truly reside in this physical experience, at some point it may be like popping a balloon, where the anxiety and confusion and need to know just disappear. When this happens, the feeling that life will never be enough is no longer an issue.
This is what sitting in meditation has always been about – staying with our present moment experience. We don’t have to have an explanation for why sitting is good for us. We can say that sitting still in meditation helps settle the body and mind, but the fact is, until we sit and experience this for ourselves, no explanation will satisfy us. The satisfaction comes from the doing. The meaning comes from the activity. We can add on explanations after – that may help somewhat with our answer-seeking mind. But again, the real answer comes from how we live. In a way, all genuine spiritual practices answer the question of how to live.
~Ezra Bayda is an American figure in Zen. He is at the “forefront of the movement…to present the essential truths of Buddhism free of traditional trappings or terminology.” He presently teaches at Zen Center San Diego. He also founded the Santa Rosa Zen Group and continues to lead it, visiting several times a year.
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