Inconclusive Notes on Thinking About the Meaning of Life

Sunyata

Sunyata

I’m not tackling the whole question, only a particular word: what do we mean by “meaning”? Familiarity with words often carries an anesthetic effect, so that when we ask questions about the meaning of life, we operate as if we know what “meaning” is. I don’t. 

I see a couple possibilities. First, meaning could imply that our lives are for something larger, or greater than themselves. A meaningful life could be conceived as a node within a larger web working towards a goal or an ideal. 

This doesn’t sit too well with me, because it makes life a utilitarian affair, for something else, never for itself. This kind of thinking is what drives the consumptive capitalist engine; it dislocates our attention from the present to the future. In the same vein that Alan Watts concluded life is about doing excellent things for their own sake, conceiving of meaning as for something else somehow subordinates the question. I prefer to think of meaning as the end of the line, something that’s done for its own sake. Otherwise, we’d have to answer questions like: “why do you want to lead a meaningful life?”, which proposes both a philosophical and grammatical oddity. 


Meaning as the Absence of Anxiety

What else might we mean by ‘meaning’? Perhaps, when we imagine the idealized state of leading a ‘meaningful life’, we imagine the physiology, the actual phenomenological, psychological feeling of living without angst. We might conceive of meaning as the state where we no longer feel the impulse to ask such questions, where life is existentially satisfying enough as is, and we cease feeling that itch on the backside of our psyches. Here, meaning would be the end of philosophy in one sense, perhaps of speculative philosophy, and the start of it in another, perhaps as the living of it. Wittgenstein remarks:

“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.”


Meaning as Purpose

A third possibility is to conceive of the question as actionable. That meaning implies purpose, and purpose asks: “what should I (or we) do while here?” Meaning, then, connotes action. It’s a navigational inquiry, ultimately asking philosophy’s core question, how to live?

We’re then left at the existentialist juncture: is each individual condemned to freedom, left to create their own meaning, their own purpose? This conception rejects “a” meaning of life in favor of innumerable individual meanings. 

I’m not sure I buy this, either, though I haven’t yet worked out exactly why. A brief sketch: 


Premature Refutation of the Existentialist Idea

Meaning reaches for the highest questions of human life, for which we must begin from the lowest, deepest ground of human experience. If, with the Sartrean existentialists, we take this ‘ground of being’ as the subjective self, ego, then he’s probably right, there’s no ground to stand on, and meaning is an individual project. 

But this ground of being looks suspect. This decade’s proliferation of contemplative neuroscience brings the ‘self’ under scrutiny that cannot be shrugged off. Thomas Metzinger’s 2010 book, The Ego Tunnel, at the forefront of the interplay between meditation and neuroscience, calls attention to the “potential and depth of our experiential space”, a terrain that remains ripe for exploration. 

If the contemplative claim is that consciousness is larger than the self (which may be a butchering of that claim, feel free to help me out here), then there remains a deeper ground of being than Sartre’s subjectivity. 

Buddhist’s (among others) take this a step further. While Sartre found a nihilistic ‘emptiness’ at the ground of being, Buddhist thought calls such nihilism “the emptiness perversely clung to”. Rather, they argue the proper insights of emptiness — Sunyata — are wisdom (impermanence and anattā, no-self) and compassion (interdependence).  

In this formulation, the meaning of life is a call to action, a call to probe the inmost layers of subjective experience, to realize the emptiness that is wisdom & compassion, thus providing general principles that refute the individualist, meaning-is-whatever-you-make-it doctrine. 


Meaning as Purpose, Cont’d

Pardon the digression. Returning to the meaning of life as a navigational question — what should we do while alive — but still rejecting the existentialist notion that we’re each free to decide what we ought to do and create our own meanings (that’s led to some really dicey outcomes, historically speaking), there’s a need for some kind of transpersonal ground from which to consider ‘meaning’. 

This is why I like the sway of Buddha’s teachings. He’s simultaneously prescriptive and robust. His teaching — the dharma — allows for infinite varieties of living, while retaining focus upon a core principle. Briefly stated in the style of Alan Watts: 

“The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”

Speaking to the fluidity of this teaching, Steven Batchelor describes:

“It is no longer possible to maintain that dharma practice has remained unaltered since the time of the Buddha. It has evolved and continues to evolve distinctive forms peculiar to the conditions of the time. It has survived precisely because of its ability to respond creatively to change.”

Metzinger packages the teachings in a way more suited to the secular palate: 

“…the enormous depth of our phenomenological state-space. Because of its many dimensions, the number of possible conscious states for a human being is incredibly large. We are only rarely aware of this fact, and we haven’t really started to systematically test how we might deliberately alter our state-space so as to enhance our autonomy and increase experiential forms of self-knowledge, ideally backed by the rigour of modern-day neuroscience…We can finally see more clearly what meditation is really about: over the centuries, the main goal has always been a sustained enhancement of one’s mental autonomy.”

It may not be too great a stretch to say the Buddhist ‘meaning of life’ is to address suffering, and Metzinger’s point is that the only way to get at the roots of suffering is to cultivate mental autonomy, all else is palliative. 

Today, we talk so much about ‘finding meaning’ (a trend the chart above shows spiked in the 1950’s…curiously near the time our material livelihood began booming) that we’re perhaps becoming desensitized to the words used, and therefore to their definitions. 

I promised inconclusive notes, and I’ll deliver, save the question: how can we find something before knowing what it is? And, with Metzinger, how can we presume to know what ‘meaning’ is, before learning about the “enormous depth of our phenomenological state-space”? If meaning is an experience, then consciousness is its origin — we should study it.