Excellence Reporter: Philip, what is the meaning of life?
Philip Goldberg: This is a multileveled question. Let’s start with the ultimate level: Is there meaning inherent in life as such? Or, asked another way: Does existence itself have meaning? To this, my answer must be “I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly know. No one can know. It is beyond the human capacity for knowing.”
I don’t despair in this unknowability. I rejoice in it. I stand before it in awe, in the state the poet John Keats called “negative capability,” which he defined as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It is liberating to be certain of uncertainty and to kneel—literally or figuratively—before the Divine Intelligence that birthed and directs the mysterious cosmos.
So I answer that question with heartfelt, humble silence.
Now let’s bring it down to earth. The question is usually taken to mean, What is the meaning of human life? I find it easier to think in terms of purpose rather than meaning. Obviously, each of us is tasked with discerning our own purpose, or deriving our own meaning, from our uniquely individual circumstances, histories, and predilections—our karma if you will.
But is there a common meaning in our lives as human beings? An ultimate purpose? It would seem that the answer is a big YES. We are meant to grow, to evolve into the full expression of our inherent potential, just as acorns are programmed to grow into oak trees and caterpillars are designed to evolve into butterflies. For humans that impulse finds expression in numberless ways and manifests through learning, with each of us enrolled in an independent studies program, working our way through our own curriculum. But common to that diversity of form is the evolutionary process itself. Does it have a common direction? A universal orientation? Here I turn to the wisdom of the mystics, sages, and seers of the world’s spiritual traditions. We grow in consciousness just as we grow physically. We evolve, we learn, and eventually we ask the core questions: Who or what am I? What is my place in the cosmos? And we come—over the course of lifetimes if the Indic traditions are correct—to the realization that we are One with, not separate from, the Divine Reality that gave rise to Creation and transcends and pervades that very Creation.
And we are not just connected to the Ultimate, we are it. The essence of the Eternal is the essence of us and all that is. Our core identity is as infinite as the Infinite. Our small individual self is transient and temporary; our true Self is boundless and timeless. With that awakening, it is said, comes a peace beyond mere calmness, a fulfillment greater than commonplace satisfaction, a bliss far more substantial than everyday happiness, a wisdom vaster than plain old knowledge, and a love more holy than ordinary devotion and infinitely stronger than transient affection.
Is that the meaning of life? I can’t say, but it sure seems to be a meaning worth embracing and a purpose worth pursuing. And maybe those who attain it receive a bonus: the God’s-eye view that reveals the answer to that first question we considered, “Does existence itself have meaning?” Or not?
~Philip Goldberg has been studying the world’s spiritual traditions for more than 45 years. His newest book is Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times (Hay House). He is the author or co-author of some 25 books published in more than a dozen languages. His book American Veda was named by Huffington Post and Library Journal as one of the Top 10 Religion Books of 2010; it was followed in 2018 by the popular biography The Life of Yogananda. He blogs on Spirituality & Health and cohosts the Spirit Matters podcast.
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