Before we can ponder the meaning of life, we must first recognize that life is not outside of us, or something happening to us. We are life. The life we live and the life we are, are not two separate existences. When we obstruct this union, we look for the missing piece by searching externally for the solutions to problems that the life “outside of us” seems to impose.
When we conceive of life as disconnected objects the question that haunts us is, “Where is the missing piece (peace)?” That sense of incompletion drives our restlessness and discontent, and sensing there must be more, we search for the meaning of life. We do not know how to clearly formulate the question or where this question of meaning will take us, but we do know we hurt, and ending this pain drives the search. The search for meaning is an attempt to reunify, and often takes the form of a deep desire to connect with others, nature, or any other non-conceptual expression of existence.
Perhaps we have tried all the remedies our culture offers; the pursuit of pleasure, peak experiences, therapy, material and financial wealth, and self-promotion, but if we have sufficient wisdom we have to acknowledge that nothing seems to work for long. Soon we are back with this internal ache of incompletion. We may find our way to a religion that ask us to have faith and believe there is something more beyond the obvious. Though blind belief without verifiable evidence may seem suspect to some of us, we need faith to contrast our loneliness, and nothing else seems to work.
We are most comfortable seeing an object and thus verifying its existence, but in faith there is no physical proof, so we may slightly mistrust faith even as we are pulled deeply into it. If we can convince others to believe as we do, our faith can be temporarily satisfied through the sheer number of other believers. An unverified belief cannot be sustained with confidence since it is only through realized confirmation that faith evolves into self-assurance.
A few of us decide to look at the drive toward meaning and fulfillment not as something missing, but as life misperceived. The question that drives us becomes, “What am I missing that is already here?” Knowing that sensory perception is organized by our conceptual expectations, we cannot look toward the objects of the world to show us the unification we seek. But something we have been ignoring is imminently available, and that is the awareness that holds the objects created by the mind. Not the objects of sight, but what is seeing those objects. Following this line of inquiry unifies the senses and brings the stillness of fulfillment, and the question of what is the meaning of life falls gently away.
~Rodney Smith is a retired Insight Meditation Society guiding teacher and retired founding and guiding teacher of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society. A former Buddhist monk and hospice director, he has taught meditation for over 35 years and is the author of Lessons from the Dying; Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self; Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart; and Touching the Infinite: A New Perspective on the Buddha’s Four Foundation of Mindfulness.
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