Our search for meaning is a preoccupation that can push us on to great heights of achievement; but can also lead to significant existential distress and self-destruction. For many, meaning is believed to exist in abstractions. Be it identity, religion, work. Both of these require the sacrifice of the present in order to realise an idealised conception of the future. We both discover and invent meaning, constructing the mental concepts to support these inventions that we believe are necessary to sustain a life that is worthwhile.
Meaning is important, a life without a shared sense of meaning would have some dark implications for the way in which we live and treat each other. However, there is a problem that lies in the fact that meaning is often sought in abstractions. We look up and outward, over and past one another to potential signs and symbols that we believe justify or vindicate our own personal decisions. We sacrifice years of our lives toward work or ideals that we believe will one day provide us the time and space to engage with what we hold most dear, a final delivery to our imagined paradisal paradisal future – a delivery that we hope will finally reward our negation of the present.
A diversification of meaning refers to spreading what is important to us beyond just mental abstraction. Spreading it to relationships, hobbies, personal interests and physical activity. By finding a small slice of meaning in our daily activities, we can maintain mindfulness of the present, whilst also spreading the risk of having all of our spiritual eggs in one basket. By spreading this risk beyond a narrow idealism, we lower the risk of being laid low by some crisis of faith if that ideal or our conception of it sours.
Meaning is not necessarily an unalloyed good. The individual suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, is someone who has a lot of meaning in her life, however this meaning isn’t shared with anyone and so casts her out of society. The meaning in the life of the fanatic willing to kill for their cause is also palpable, but is blind to reason, or alternative points of view, leading to destruction. Meaning can sustain us and push us to become better versions of ourselves, but it can also turn back on itself and destroy the person who previously had invested so much in a narrow vision. Meaning, too narrowly focused, becomes fanaticism. By diversifying what we find meaning from, we can reduce the risk that we are stumbling blind on a path into the darkness, cutting ourselves off from the present moment and the people within it.
Meaning is important, but it becomes dangerous when it is coupled by all or nothing thinking that holds a particular ideal or vision as the only way to live a valuable life.
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
It is the comparisons we make to others that lead to inertia and self-doubt. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as ‘better’; more talented, more together, more in tune. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as somehow inferior; unworthy, deficient. Both of these are pre-judgements made on partial information, internal bias and projections onto others of who we imagine ourselves to be. Comparisons are what drive our deluded oscillations between self-doubt and self-importance.
I notice in myself that it is the comparison ‘looking down’ that has more of an immediate, reactive influence on future actions. I notice a reactivity to push away from a person or group I deem as ‘not me’. This reactivity is triggered by a delusional sense of superiority established by my brittle ego to reinforce its own self-importance. This is an instinct to separate myself, as if saying, “No, that isn’t me”, even if my participation in this group will help me to achieve the life I desire. Ultimately it is an act of self-sabotage.
In a similar, but different way, my comparison to someone I perceive as ‘better’, doesn’t necessarily pull me in that direction, but rather stops me in my tracks. It invites parts of me to replay all the reasons that I won’t be able to do the ‘thing’ that I idealise in that individual, and so prevents me from trying and possibly failing to live up to the fantasy. Both reactions are a desire for stasis, a desire to keep the fantasy in tact. This is a warped desire governed by a fear of the fantasy being lost, which in turn will reveal subsequent feelings of shame and deficiency.
The look upward, to this person I admire (or envy) is full of projections of my own desires for a certain lifestyle or vocation that I believe this person represents. If the comparison “downward” is met with a shout of “No!”, an act of separation, then it would be natural to assume that my desire and coveting of the person I am placing on a pedestal of comparison would lead to actions of identification. An identification made possible by ‘following in their footsteps’ via actions that I believe will take me to a similar place.
This is where the problem of comparison becomes glaring. My comparisons stem from the projections and identifications that are the realm of my story of self, my ego. Both the look downward and upward are like two opposing magnets holding me in a purgatory of inertia and isolation. Whilst the downward comparison separates and isolates; keeps me safe in a narrow, comfortable conception of who I am; the opposing desire for identification results in a kind of stuck-ness and despair. Despair that I am not already that which I wish myself to be. My comparison may reflect a desire for change, a looking out to what else is possible, but in reality it is a mirage of projections that keeps me in place; reinforcing and repeating my fantasy narrative of self.
It is this alluring mirage that disorients and deludes. We become like the lost person in the desert, walking toward an imagined salvation on the horizon that isn’t there. The person we admire is a culmination of an infinite number of steps that even if we could map them, would be impossible to replicate (i.e. you couldn’t return to when they were born, or the social environment that shaped them). This is not to say that we can’t be inspired by those who model what we value. However, whilst the inspiration can act as a catalyst for change, it also opens the chasm between where we are and how far we have to go. It is following this opening that we can fall into the comparisons that sabotage our desires for change.
The fantasies that we have of others represent the fantasies that we have of ourselves. Paradoxically the only way to move toward our ideal, to change, is to forget the fantasy altogether. The notion of following in someone’s footsteps implies that there are footsteps to follow. The truth is that there are no footsteps or path. The beginning of change is a realised capacity to move, the initial direction being less important as it will be corrected again and again by errors and false starts. What is necessary is a first step into the unknown. It is this lack of direction, and resulting anxiety, that leads to the inevitable temptation to indulge in the desire for clarity and certainty – desires that become expressed in our habits of comparison.
I have wished for most of my life that someone would show me the way, that there were coat-tails I could ride on. Experience time and again has shown me that this is completely at odds with my deeper desire for self-determination. To follow in someone else’s footsteps or to ride their coat-tails is to be determined by someone else’s path. Advice and reassurance may feel good at the time, but they are temporary salves for the angst that led us to initially seek them – angst to express ourselves in an authentic and original way. In the words of David Whyte:
“People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or a guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like.”
David Whyte, The Three Marriages
What he is saying here is that the development of a vocation or a style of life begins with some kind of inkling, insight, opening – a call. The root of the word vocation comes from the latin vocare which means “call” – but the call is all you get. The flash of inspiration is all you get. There is “no map into the future” beyond that. The only option after hearing this call is to leave the comparisons behind and launch from the contact point available, wherever that may be.
The existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard referred to this as a “Leap of Faith”. Faith is one of those words that is tangled up in so much religious connotation, but at base it means to ‘trust’. To trust in yourself rather than relying on the superfluous reassurances of, and meaningless comparisons to those we think we want to transform into or avoid becoming. This trusting is predicated on a kind of radical self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, so often misunderstood as passivity, but actually meaning a willingness to act on what is here now. Once the comparisons and fantasies have fallen away, we are left with who we are – and no other choice but to act accordingly.
To compare is to measure ourselves against someone else and feel either disillusioned by how we fail to measure up, or deluded by how we feel superior. In a time of almost inescapable social media platforms, which, if nothing else seem designed to prompt comparison; it can be very difficult not to fall into this habit of mind. To equate ourselves with others is to lose our own unique identity. The difficult (and radical) act is to have faith in your own conviction and embark without the map.
As the telling of a story deepens, it becomes more therapeutic. As I journal, I notice there is a quality of depth, a feeling of descent as I continue to write. As the descent continues, the practice of just writing what comes to mind becomes more therapeutic.
Is this the value of free association that Freud was originally advocating? Let the person talk until they land into a depth of feeling that speaks some significance or meaning.
Can story still be in the here and now? Story in a coaching or therapeutic relationship has often been looked down upon as a ‘resistance’, or a ‘projection’, a defence against an interlocution that might reveal unwanted truths. And yet our mythology, our novels, our poetry, our erotica, they all make you feel something vividly.
The drama of our stories – their contradictions, fantasy, horror, absurdity, lustfulness, hatred and self-centred heroism – drive our feeling. We project the dramas within onto the canvas of our novels, our poetry, our erotica; they are personal mythologies that collectively infuse the cultural narrative.
The images created in these forms and the effect they have, impact our feeling and our sense of who we are. They become not just stories but visceral exchanges that unfold our depth and realisation of the self.
The challenge for us are the nagging internal questions of “is it real?”, “does it matter?”, can I grasp it? Our desire for certainties can lead to stories that close us down, make us rigid, snuff out potential. The desire to grasp, to understand, to have some kind of final destination kills the vitality that kindled the story in the first place.
Stories are the tremor of our day-to-day experience of the world. They are the winds that whip up the oceans of our emotion and drive the clouds of thought and feeling across the sky of the mind.
If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder.
How could anything meaningful grow out of nothingness? If nothingness is the grounds for nihilism, and nihilism is the rust gradually disintegrating society, then wouldn’t an encounter with nothingness lead to the hollowing out of meaning and value?
In Zen Buddhism, nothingness can be better understood by hyphenating between the conjunction of the two words, ‘no-thing’. The Zen tradition understands nothingness as an encounter with the absolute of emptiness, a dropping away of the self-referential concepts and thoughts that make up our sense of self, our usual conscious experience. Through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of the present moment, Zen practitioners can experience the dropping away of self-consciousness, an experience described as a vast nothingness or emptiness.
Self-consciousness, the ‘I’ in the drivers seat of how we experience the world, is occupied from morning until night with the definition, categorisation and association between ‘things’ or objects in the world and their meaning. We have evolved like this for the purpose of survival – to master our environment, as well as to map out and manipulate our social worlds. Most importantly we have turned this capacity inward, onto ourselves. We have become objects for reflection and assessment, as ‘things’ in the sense of ourselves being an “I”; an object that is perceived as having experience, the ‘me’ that is constant across time. This ‘me’ that we spend so long thinking about and referring to is a classification of our mind, a classification that has emerged from the meanings we have attributed to relationships, objects and places that we encounter.
It can be reasonable to understand how an encounter with nothingness can lead to nihilism. These experiences can reinforce the emptiness of concepts and striving and as such the delusion of attributing any meaning or value to anything. If concepts and thoughts are empty constructs, ‘no-thing’, then a logical view would infer that any concepts and thought of meaning and value are also empty. This groundwork then sets the scene for a kind of cynical, spiritually destructive path for life. The famously cynical character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the famous line “everything is permitted” indicating a moral relativism. However, this world view may also express itself in a more insipid and pernicious way, leading to a general inertia and banality. A life that is unaware, distracted, uncritical, mindless – easily placated by the packaged entertainments, bullshit work and sedating pleasures of modern life.
Taking a purely logical view, this also seems to be a rational way to behave. If there is no meaning or value to be found in the nothingness, then why not just zone out and allow yourself, in the words of Kierkegaard, to be “tranquilised by the trivial?” This Philistinism, which is recognisable across any age, may grow out of this encounter with nothingness. No appreciation or interest in spirituality, the arts or culture, because of a view that none of it matters, or that none of it is real. So much of the science, business, media, and political mainstream implicitly or explicitly encourages or propagates this view. Selfish genes, the God delusion, the orthodoxy of utilitarian progress, the fashionable ideologies that attempt to replace religion with abstract frameworks of secular ‘shoulds’ are all in some way an expression of this.
These concepts are then set against each other in a never-ending ‘what-about-ism’ shouting match that serves as its own distraction and entertainment. This is now our daily experience and the vacuity some of us feel, arises out of there being no common ground to any of it. No common axiom, no Maypole to dance around. The implicit shared meaning of the village commons is increasingly discarded as valueless and now everything needs to be made explicit. This explicitness, the minutiae of having to explain every grain of detail is the chaff that is clogging the mills of our society.
What is the alternative?
The Zen concept of nothingness refers not to a black hole of meaning and value, a wasteland of being, but rather as an absolute emptiness, a formlessness and possibility embedded in being itself. Freud referred to this state as oceanic consciousness, the conscious experience before thought and concepts. This sense of emptiness is experienced as a result of our categorising, classifying, comparing “I” or “me” having dropped away. With no ‘me’, there is nothing there that can do the ‘thing-a-fying’ that carves our world into a matrix of things and associations, including our own sense of self.
The feeling of no-thingness or emptiness that results in the dissolution of the concept bound self can be the grounds for a new concept of freedom. Without the subjective “I”, there is nothing to anchor the grasping, taxonomist nature of our self. What is experienced instead is the void of pure awareness, a black hole of concepts and associations. This can be a very anxiety producing condition, the Christian Faith refers to it as the ‘dark night of the soul’, the wilderness, the desert. As mentioned this experience of emptiness can be framed as nothingness, a field of absence, but it can also be viewed as a field of presence, the presence of the implicit value and meaning of life as it is.
The philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft talks about the active absence of encountering no-thingness, or the whole of awareness. Paradoxically he refers to the awareness of the whole becoming known through the complete attention of the subjective ‘I’ with all of the parts (or things) of awareness. This is the practice of mindfulness. A broad, non-judgemental, total awareness of the myriad parts within consciousness. A mindful, open concentration on all the parts of our awareness ultimately can overwhelm and dissolve the self-referential, egoistic part of our minds, revealing the whole of being. This inexhaustible fecundity of being, shows us that we and life itself are implicitly valuable and meaningful. The tone of a sunset, the enveloping sound of rustling leaves in a forest, the Kookaburra’s laugh in the rising dawn, all these experiences are all still happening, regardless of the machinations of our self-obsessed, re-presentational thought. They do not rely on our subjective concepts to be meaningful, they are inherently meaningful for their own sake and carry on without our self-obsessed thinking.
When we realise this, when we become attuned to it, we realise the value of all life as an end-in-itself, rather than as an instrument we can leverage for a purpose we have momentarily conceptualised. Far from being the empty hole that nihilism grows out of, nothingness can be thought of as a connection with the whole of being that refreshes us and, in a Copernicus-like revolution, de-seats our sense of self as being at the centre of our conscious universe. Encountering nothingness in this way shows the inexhaustible wholeness of being, of life itself.
Holding my son is the physical embodiment of love. An inchoate agape. A grounding love as opposed to the all-consuming, erotic love that led to his conception.
Holding him at times I feel a brief melancholy as I realise he won’t be a baby forever, that he will gradually carve himself away from me. I feel this despite every new phase, every new sound, noise, facial expression being my new favourite – superseding the last.
I feel as though I am physically holding time – and that despite his reassuring weight, his smell, the rhythm of his breathing, that time is slipping through my fingers.
Not every end is the goal. The end of a melody is not its goal, and yet if a melody has not reached its end, it has not reached its goal. A parable.
What people mean, when they say that life is meaningless, or has no purpose, is that there is no goal or final end point that we are progressing toward. Taking Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” notion as the reason for having a nihilistic worldview seems to lead people toward a view of the universe as somehow also dead. The belief of an ordained purpose (God) dissolving under the march of scientific progress has left many people believing that everything is determined by an infinite chain of causality. A world of randomly colliding matter, precluding any notion of free will, or purpose. Interestingly these views both fall within a deterministic paradigm. The medieval worldview held that everything was determined by God, and our increasingly modern worldview holds that everything is determined by the random machinations of dead matter.
‘Life’ does not need to be progressing toward some final end goal in order to have meaning, or be meaningful to live. Life, moment-to-moment, is imbued with an inexhaustible well of meaning in our everyday experience. The transient apricot streaks of cloud during a spring sunset. The pattering feet of your happy child running down the hall to greet you. The feeling of warm rain, pleasantly drenching you in a summer downpour whilst you are going for a walk. This inexhaustibleness of life itself, life as it is, gives meaning to every moment of our lives and the lives of all living things around us.
Our instinct, desire or perhaps expectation for some kind of teleological end point that we are working toward or can finally rest in, is the extension and projection of the subjective narratives that form the carapace of our ego. We are creatures driven by narrative. We are an organic creature that is born, lives, breathes and eventually dies, but we also experience life as a ‘self’, a self that spans through time with a capacity to reflect on and think about, it-self. Narratives are linear threads with a past, present and future and are by nature teleological, they are working toward an end. Narratives are a story, a collection of symbols i.e. language, that allows us to maintain a constant subjective identity of who we are. This self is intersubjectively dependent on our relationships through the various stages of our social development, an intersubjectivity mediated by the exchange of symbols, the exchange of language.
The projection of this purpose-driven narrative onto metaphysical assumptions, is the extension of our own ego development and anthropomorphism onto the cosmos. However, the opposing assumption that the universe is completely dead and we are all just subject to the random meaningless-ness of causality, appears to be just another projection of a modern kind. This modern view claims there is no intrinsic purpose whatsoever to life behind the propagation of life itself. The removal of an extrinsic purpose (a deity) has been met by the subsequent removal of all intrinsic purpose.
Behind the curtain of the ego is the emptiness that lies behind our subjectivity. The emptiness of the present moment. To gaze into the abyss of this nothingness is to have these conceptions of the ego (the narratives, symbols, language) fall away into nothingness. This is what is meant by the Buddhist term of ‘no-self’. It is not to say that you don’t experience yourself as a ‘self’ or that a ‘self’ isn’t valuable for living in the world, it is to say that the self is intersubjectively construed across time by concepts of the mind. The cultivation of the present moment is thus a way to see beyond the past, present and future narratives that sustain the self, making contact with the emptiness behind the self or ego. This emptiness can be met with despair, it can be misconstrued as ‘fact’ that there is meaningless in life. But it can also be the grounds for a reframing of meaning. A meaning beyond mental concepts and self-reflective story. A meaning grounded in the everyday experience of our being-in-the-world, implicit in life as it is.
Sometimes when I am napping or day-dreaming, my mind creates little stories, similar to the kind of stories you inhale when reading a book. Visually they are a fuzzy representation of words on a page, as though I am reading and creating those words simultaneously, without any conscious control. The stories are stripped of any real colour or depth, they are more just vignettes of type and page, auto-dictating out into the dark edges of my semi-sleep. The dialogue in these stories, held by this twilight of consciousness, flows so effortlessly, but can never be caught when fully awake. Slipperier then a normal dream, these little scenes disperse as soon as my eyes open.
These twilight moments between sleep and wake have been happening more recently, a factor of the amount of time I have on my hands, an abundance that will soon be at an end. When working we spend so long aching for time, aching for the thing we don’t have, so that we can invest in activities that reflect who we ‘truly are’. How many people say, “If only I had the time I would do X,” but they never take the steps to make the time for the thing they want, and when the time does present itself, often it is wasted; shredded into pieces of confetti by Instagram, Netflix, social obligations.
I think the reason why people don’t take the action required to get what they say they want, is because time scares people. Time opens a window to the self-referential part of your mind, the part that likes to daydream, make little stories. Time allows this part of our mind to stomp around and peer over our shoulder, second-guessing every thought or action. Time provides the space for you to try something new, to make decisions and mistakes, mistakes which can foster learning, but can also diminish your own sense of competence and confidence. When time presents itself we try to fill it, as though its emptiness might let in some unknown horror, and by filling it, often we waste it. We talk of ‘doing time’ or ‘serving time’, we dread moments where our control of time is taken away from us. And so instead we scurry around in busyness, frittering away sequences of moments that could be used to cultivate a deeper sense of well-being.
I am one of those people who always preferred to be moving, busying myself as a way of deflecting a deeper psychological malaise that was illuminated by stillness. The last 12 months have been the first time where I really allowed myself to slow down, observe and smell the roses, and even then a significant part of me, that incessant voice at the back of the head, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this period of calm. It wasn’t really until I passed the halfway mark of this time away that I finally let go.
My experience of time as a result has changed. My threshold for boredom has significantly lowered as my general state of arousal/excitement has also lowered. I feel healthier, whilst also being less stressed. However, I have noticed that despite my significantly reduced levels of stimulation, my overall, subjective experience of stress hasn’t fallen that much. This has been an interesting aspect of this period, that despite all of this time available to do whatever I wish to do, the subjective experience of day-to-day stress, whilst lower, is only slightly so.
It has made me realise how much this stress reaction is just a part of me and that it requires a channel into some outward physical activity before it is redirected internally as rumination and worry. The fact that the level of stress hasn’t changed much and that it has essentially shifted its shape is a good lesson for future times of stress. That it is a part of me, that it needs to be managed by practicing techniques like mindfulness and that it isn’t going to go way by making big sweeping changes. I have also noticed at this time how being cut off from people, exacerbates this stress. My mind seems to think that it likes to be alone, which is true at times, but the truth is that I am almost always happier in and following (most) social engagements. This kind of misguided, short-term view of what I think I want, feels a bit like the reluctance of going to the gym, only to feel so much better once you have gone.
I feel as though I have been on the run for the last twelve months or so. I can see now that part of the reason for my running was a fear of the success I had enjoyed at work; fear that this would lock me into who that successful person was forever. There was a sense of guilt about this success, as though it had come too easy. In truth it was a shallow kind of success built on a wobbly foundation of gritted teeth and a blinkered focus. Whatever it was, the time for self-sabotage is over and whatever happens next, there won’t be the same freedom of time to simply cast it away. Perhaps that is what is really needed, constraint of time, so that you are freed from the worst impulses of your own ego.