I suppose that when we reflect on what is the ‘meaning of life,’ or perhaps what the significance of existence has been, we are in essence wondering what underlying, common thread has given continuity, or integrity, to our myriad, varied experiences.
The question is often answered in generic platitudes—to love well, to be kind, to follow one’s heart—which, of course, have some truth to them, but they also serve as a way to shut out darker thoughts which may well cause unease. For example, the philosopher Schopenhauer saw life as driven by dark, ravenous cravings, a Darwinian game of survival at all cost, consuming or being consumed, providing only short term relief in disposable pleasures.
Or perhaps we may wonder what it all means as a way to allay a fear that existence has no meaning, no comprehensible theme. After all, we adults are largely left brain centric, which seeks to represent all experience in words and ideas; meaning gives us a sense that everything can be solved via cognition; conversely, pointlessness is terrifying to our thought-centric minds. It is frightening to believe existence could be nonsensical; life without a clear purpose may well provoke an anxiety that we cannot figure it out; so when we wonder what ‘it’s all about’ we are wholly keeping that dread at bay.
Perhaps life may not have a meaning that we can grasp conceptually, but that doesn’t imply that it’s meaningless. The left cerebral hemisphere’s processes narrow experiences down to conceptual certainties; it is by nature connotative. The right brain, however, is open ended and metaphorical; it doesn’t represent life in concrete statements, but opens it up into endless possibilities.
Meaning cannot be stated, any more than the complexity of art or profound experiences can be accurately articulated. Whatever it means is cannot be nailed down, but rather spirals out into an endless array of associations that refuse to congeal into a coherent idea. Such an interpretation would be fluid, modifying itself the moment it started to take shape. Significance shifts in the background of thought, refusing to solidify; thankfully its a futile effort.
To live is to put aside wondering what it means; in fact it’s our un-willingness to refuse reducing the richness of life into a coherent message that keeps it worth living.
Guiding teacher of New York Dharma Punx since 2005.
Buddhist teacher with Against the stream.
Visiting teacher at Zen Center for Contemplative Studies.
Author of “Unsubscribe: Opt out of Delusion, Tune in to Truth”.
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