Alan Watts: On the Meaning of Life

“The meaning of life is just to be alive.
It is so plain and so obvious and so simple.
And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic
as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

It’s pretty obvious I think that when we talk about life having or not having a meaning we’re not using quite the ordinary sense of the word meaning as the attribute of a sign. We’re not saying that we expect this natural universe to behave as if it were a collection of words signifying something other than themselves. It isn’t the point of view which we would reduce our lives in the world merely to the status of science and it’s obviously in some different sense than that, that Goethe wrote his famous lines at the end of Faust: all that is mortal or all that is perishable is but a symbol.

And so a symbol of what? What do we want to feel? What would satisfy us, as being this meaning behind this world?

It’s so often you know that we don’t follow our ideas and our desires through. Most of the things that we want very fervently are things that we’ve only half glimpsed. Our ideals are very often suggestions, hints, and we don’t know really exactly what we mean when we think about it. But there is this obscure sense in which we feel that life ought to have significance and be a symbol in at least that sense if not just so buried a symbol as a mere sign. Or it also may mean that life is meaningful; and individual feels that his life amounts to something when he belongs and fits in with the execution of some group enterprise. He feels he belongs in a plan. This too seems to give people a sense of great satisfaction.

But we have to pursue that question further — why is it that a plan, why is it that a fellowship with other people gives the sense of meaning? Does it come down perhaps to another sense of meaning that life is felt to be meaningful when one is fully satisfying one’s biological urges, including the sense of hunger, the sense of love, the sense of self-expression in activity and so on.

But then again we have to push that inquiry further. What do our biological urges really point towards? Are they just however things always projected towards a future? Its biology and its process is nothing but going on towards going on towards going on.

Or there is a fourth and more theological sense of the meaning of life. In all theistic religions at any rate the meaning of life is God himself. In other words all this world means a person. It means a heart. It means an intelligence. And the relationship of love between God and man is the meaning of the world. The sight of God is the glory of God, and so on.

But again here, there is something to be further pursued. What is it that we want in love with a person, and even a person in the sense of the Lord God? What is the content of it? What is it that we are really yearning after?

Well now if we go back to the first point, taking Goethe’s words that all that is transitory is but a symbol, and that we want to feel that all things have significance. It does seem to me that there is a sense in which we often use the word significance. Well, the word seems to be chosen quite naturally and yet at the same time it’s not quite the right word. We say for example often of music, that we feel it to be significant, when just at the same time we don’t mean that it expresses some particular kind of concretely realizable emotion and suddenly it’s not imitating the noises of nature. A program music, you know, which simply imitates something else, and it deliberately sets out to express sadness or joy or whatever, is not the kind of thing I mean. So often when one listens to the beautiful arabesque character of the Baroque composers Bach or Vivaldi, it is felt to be significant, not because it means something other than itself, but because it is so satisfying as it is, and we use then this word significance. So often in those moments when our impetuous seeking for fulfillment cools down and we give ourselves a little space to watch things as if they were worth watching. Ordinary things. And in those moments when our inner turmoil has really quietened, we find significance in things that we wouldn’t expect to find significant at all. I mean this is after all the art of those photographers who have such genius in turning the camera towards such things as peeling paint on an old door, or mud and sand and stones on a dirt road, and showing us there that if we look at it in a certain way those things are significant. But we can’t say significant of what so much as significant of themselves. Or perhaps the significance then is the quality of a state of mind in which we notice that we’re overlooking the significance of the world by our constant quest for it later.

All these languages of course quite naturally vague and imprecise, because I think the wrong word is used. And yet not entirely the wrong word because as I said it comes so naturally to us. It was Clive Bell the greatest statistician who wanted to say that all, the characteristic of art, especially the characteristic of aesthetic success in painting was the creation of significant form. Again a very vague imprecise expression. But it certainly is an attribute not only of those moments in which we are tranquil inside but also of moments of deep spiritual experience of what would be called Moksha, or Release in Hinduism or Satori in Zen. That in those moments the significance of the world seems to be the world, seems to be what is going on now, and we don’t look any further. The scheme of things seems to justify itself at every moment of its unfoldment.

I pointed out that this was particularly a characteristic of music. It’s also a characteristic of dancing. And in the sensation of belonging with one’s fellow men, in the carrying out of some significant pattern of life, which I mentioned as a second sense of the world being meaningful. Again the character of this feeling, is something that is fulfilled in itself. To dance is not to be going anywhere. When we dance in the ballroom we don’t have a destination, we’re just going around the room. And it’s in doing this, it’s in executing the pattern, in singing the music with other people, that even though this doesn’t point to anything outside itself we again get the sense of meaning.

And this is also obviously the case so often in the satisfaction of the biological urges: does one live to eat, or eat to live? I’m not at all sure about this. I’m sure I very often live to eat, because sitting around the table with people — I don’t like eating alone — and enjoying food is absolutely delightful. And we are not thinking when we do this, at least certainly I am not, that we have to eat because it’s good for us, and that we’ve got to throw something down the hatch as Henry Miller said, and swallow a dozen vitamins just because our system needs nourishment.

I remember there was an article in the consumer reports about bread. And there have been some correspondence and protests saying that the bread one bought, the white bread that one buys in the stores is perfectly inedible and lacking in nutrition and that it’s much better to eat peasant type bread. And the experts replied that our white bread is perfectly full of good nutrients and is nothing really the matter of it all. Well, I felt like saying it isn’t the matter perhaps of the bread being deficient in the essential vitamins. Bread isn’t medicine, it is food. One’s complaint against it is that it’s bad cookery, it tastes of nothing, and we do tend, don’t we, to look upon food so often for what it will do for us rather than the delight of eating it.

But if the satisfaction of biological urges is to mean anything, surely the point of these urges is not the fatuous one of mere survival of, we might say, the point of the individual is simply that he contributes to the welfare of the race. And that the point of the race is that it reproduces itself, to reproduce itself, to reproduce itself and keep going. Now that isn’t really a point at all, that’s just fatuous. Surely the race keeps going because going is great, because it’s fun. Because if it isn’t and never will be then there is no point obviously in going. I mean looking at it from the most hedonistic standpoint.

But then when we come to the question: what is fun? what is the joy of it? Again we come down to something that can’t very well be explained in the ordinary language of meaning, of leading to something else. And this I think becomes pre-eminently true if we think of it in theological language, that the meaning of life is God. In any theistic religions — What is God doing? What is the meaning of God? Why does he create the Universe? What is the content of the love of God for his creation? Well, there is the frank answer of the Hindus that the Godhead manifests the world because of Lila, which is the Sanskrit word for play. And this is likewise said in the Hebrew scriptures, or the Christian Old Testament. In the Book of Proverbs where there is a marvelous speech by the divine wisdom — Sophia, which in describing the function of the divine wisdom in the creation of the world, the world in other words as the manifestation of the wisdom of God. A wisdom uses the phrase: that in producing men and animals and all the creatures of the Earth, wisdom is playing, and it was the delight of wisdom to play before the presence of God. And when it is likewise said in the scriptures that the Lord God created the world for his pleasure. This again means in a sense for play. And certainly this seams to be what the angels in heaven are doing according to the traditional symbolic descriptions of heaven — they are as ringed around the presence of the Almighty calling out hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, through all eternity. Hallelujah may have meant something originally but as it’s used now it doesn’t mean anything, except in our own slang it’s an exclamation of nonsensical delight. And it was Dante in Paradiso who described the song of the Angels as the laughter of the Universe.

And this sense of nonsense as the theme of the Divine activity comes out also very strongly in the Book of Job. I always think that the Book of Job is the most profound book in the whole Bible. Because here is the problem of man, the righteous man, who has suffered and all his friends try to rationalize it and say: well, you must have suffered because you really had a secret sin after all and deserve the punishment of God, or because… rationalize it somehow. And when they’ve had their say the Lord God appears on the scene and says: who is this the darkness counsel with words without knowledge? And then proceeds to ask Job and his friends a series of absolutely unanswerable conundrums, pointing out all the apparent irrationality and nonsense of His creation. Why, for example He said, do I send rain upon the desert where no man is?

Most commentators on the Book of Job end with the remark that this poses the problem of suffering in the problem of evil but doesn’t really answer it. Yet in the end himself Job seems to be satisfied. He somehow surrenders to the apparent unreasonableness of the Lord God. This is not I think because Job is beaten down, that he is unduly impressed the the Royal monarchical paternalistic authority of the deity and doesn’t dare to answer back. He realizes that somehow these very questions are the answer.

I think of all the commentators of the Book of Job, a person who came closest to this point was G.K. Chesterton. He once came to the glorious remark — but it is one thing to look with amazement at a Gorgon or a Griffin, a creature who doesn’t exist, but quite another thing to look at a hippopotamus, a creature who does exist and looks as if he doesn’t. In other words this strange world with its weird forms like hippopotamus and when you look at them from a certain point of view — stones and trees and water and clouds and stars — when you look at them from a certain point of view and don’t take them for granted they are as weird as any hippopotamus or any imagination of fabulous beasts of Gorgons and Griffins and things like that. They are just plain improbable. And it is in this sense I think that they are the hallelujah as it were the nonsense song.

Why do we love nonsense? Why do we love Lewis Carroll? Why is it that all those old English songs are full of babbling choruses? Why is it that when we get up with jazz we just go booty booty boopty boo and so on and enjoy ourselves singing it. It is this participation in the essential glorious nonsense that is at the heart of the world, that isn’t going anywhere, that it’s a dance.

But it seems that only in moments of unusual insight and illumination that we get the point of this, and find that thus the true meaning of life is no meaning, that its purpose is no purpose and that its sense is nonsense. Still we want to use about it the word significant. Significant nonsense? Yes, nonsense, that is not just chaos, that is not just blathering balderdash, but that has in it rhythm, fascinating complexity, a kind of artistry. It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we get the profoundest meaning.

(transcript from the 1960 lecture)


~Alan Wilson Watts was a British-American philosopher who interpreted and popularized Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in Chislehurst, England, he moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York.

©Excellence Reporter 2019

Categories: Philosophy, Zen

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