Excellence Reporter: Prof. Kozak, what is the meaning of life?
Arnie Kozak: The pursuit for life’s meaning is often a refuge against its utter meaninglessness. Any certainty about life’s meaning, direction, and purpose, ranges from comforting illusion to outright delusion. God is a refuge. Soul is a refuge. Purpose is a refuge. For example, the belief that God or the universe has a predetermined purpose for each of us and our task is to find this purpose and live its truth provides comfort against existential anonymity and a sense of direction in the face of existence’s cruel chaos.
This is not only my opinion, it’s what the Buddha opined about life. He bristled against the Brahmanic notion of the atman—the essential self or soul that has been exiled from the absolute consciousness of Brahma. The brahmanic spiritual path sought to reunite atman with Brahma. The Buddha’s form of enlightenment—or awakening—though, required setting aside all metaphysical assumptions, beliefs, and hopes. That means no God, no soul, no predetermined purpose.
This may sound nihilistic and it’s not: at the very same moment there is no reason life can’t be holy, soulful, and purposeful. Life can be all these and the Buddha provided a framework for living a holy, soulful, and purposeful life focused on intelligent understanding of how the mind works, a commitment to living ethically, and a discipline of meditation—in other words, what’s known as the noble eightfold path.
The Buddha’s ideas were radical 2500 years ago and remain so today in a world still dominated by organized religion and New Age philosophies both of whom have appropriated the Buddha in ways that I doubt he’d approve of. The Buddha was—at heart—a psychologist and his insights into mind and behavior are being confirmed by evolutionary psychology and other sciences.
Whatever shape the meaning of life takes, it is more than likely going to involve self-transcendence. That is, going beyond the possessive sense of I, me, and mine to recognize that self, whatever that may be, is subject to impermanence. With no sense of stable identity—we are tasked with becoming the meaning makers ourselves and, again, more than likely, that will involve going beyond ourselves to be creative, help others, and make the world a better place.
It’s hard not to take refuge in God, soul, and purpose because of the immediate comforts they provide but the Buddha promises something more enduring than comfort—awakening to things as they are: the ceaseless flux of experience with no ultimate sense of predictability or control, with no sense of me at the center of it all. We can author a meaningful life once this panic of realizing the groundlessness of existence and the psychological homelessness that comes from rejecting metaphysics subsides.
The simple fact of being alive and breathing is the basis for meaning—we don’t need anything else. Of course, we can—and do—build on that foundation to live compassionately, generously, and creatively.
~Arnie Kozak, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. He is the author of 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, Mindfulness A-Z, The Awakened Introvert, The Everything Essentials Buddhism Book, Buddhism 101, and Timeless Truths for Modern Mindfulness. He also contributed a chapter to Pseudoscience: The Conspiracy Against Science. Arnie is a poet and artist and has been practicing yoga and meditation for thirty-five years and is dedicated to translating the Buddha’s teachings into secular and readily accessible forms.
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