How often in tired, depressed moments we ask, what is the meaning of life? We only ask this question when we don’t feel there is any. When we are at peace, happy, connected, we forget to ask this question because we are busy doing what we were born to do – experiencing life.
The meaning of life must encompass, include and transcend those times when the answer to the above question is nada. The human condition, with its waves of up and down cannot be circumvented because it is essential to our textured experience of life in all its fullness from dark to light.
Purpose and meaning, intimately connected, are not handed to us on a platter. It takes some intention, effort and discipline on our part: self-questioning, introspection, meditation, reading, and the will to make our lives purposeful.
The Way to meaning has been provided to us by spiritual guides from all traditions. Foremost, they all point to the Divine that threads through us and our world. They advise us to turn towards it, attend to it, nurture it. Meaning is inextricably tied to spirituality which spans the entire spectrum of our existence, from the mundane to the exalted.
Even if you don’t believe in God, you cannot deny, when you take time to think about existence and our own presence in it, that it is awe-inspiring, mind-boggling and mysterious. This awe is supreme meaning in itself. In The World as I See It, Einstein says, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
The harshness of Einstein’s last line echoes Socrates’ words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Most of our guides exhort us to embark on the inner journey which is the main purpose of our existence: to know about the world we are expressions of by knowing about ourselves, microcosms that reflect the whole.
Learning and meaning is intimately connected. The meaning of my life is to learn. I was born into a Sikh family, and the word sikh means a disciple, someone who is passionate about learning and who lives with attention and intention. In addition to learning as much about life through books and personal experiences, I want to know more about this person I call me. There is much I will never know, but by putting this me under a microscope I can know a bit more, and intend to become kinder, free of too much judgement or expectations of others, or even myself; letting be those things and people over which I have no control; learning to love them for who they are, to love life for what it is rather than how I want it to be; being gratitude at every stage in my day, giving thanks especially for ‘bad’ days in which so much good remains; gratitude even and especially for my difficult experiences that always bestow a gift; learning to suffer as gracefully as I can, knowing that every suffering is a gift in disguise; learning, above all, to endeavor to stay in touch with the Divine residing in my heart as frequently as attention allows.
Another word for the meaning of life is trust in the incomprehensible Mystery that informs us, the Providence that amazingly, always provides. When we are in touch with it, our universe rights itself and sails smoothly on.
It is all easier said than done, but the difficulty of this challenge is meaning enough.
Meaning is never complete without love, that amorphous power that teaches us far more than our brains and intellects will ever know. Only those who love can know God, says Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs. Human love and divine love is on a continuum. ‘Whether love be from here or there, in the end it leads us yonder,” Rumi says. Learning love is one of the greatest meanings of life. Just like we use only a fraction of our brains, we use only a fraction of our hearts. Love is unfathomable and we can always go deeper.
All these are big things. Meaning is ubiquitous and filters all the way down to the quotidian. One can find it in small things: walking, cooking, eating, doing laundry. Meaning means to engage with love and devotion to every aspect of life that is given to us to engage with. I have lived by the following poem of Emerson’s:
Give all to Love
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Plans, credit and the Muse,—
Nothing refuse. . . .
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.
~Kamla K. Kapur is a critically acclaimed author, playwright and poet. Her many books reimagine myths and stories from various traditions of the East. Her new book, Rumi: Tales of the Spirit (Mandala, March 12, 2019), is available now.
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