Saturday, August 31, 2013

Meaning of life 4: Mind hunger

As humans we seek meaning, create meaning, use structures of meaning to enhance the experiences of life
and survive the struggles of life. In fact, the human animal needs meaning to survive, just as much as it needs food, water, shelter, and security. Even a very comfortable and pleasant life can, when experienced as meaningless, become a terrible place that suffocates the soul and grates on the mind.

And the most demeaning, desperate life can shine with the brilliance of humanity when invested with meaning. It is our minds which create the actual subjective environment in which we live our lives. The ability to find and create meaning has been one of the most enduring urges of the human mind to construct and transform our subjective lived experience.

We actually hunger for meaning; it is a sensation as real as the sense of physical hunger. The palpably felt need for meaning is not always present. We can go about living our lives quite happily without much concern for seeing meaning in it all. But there are moments – or months or years – of life which jolt us out of our comfortable habits; the ground gives way under our feet; we grasp for something to hold it all together.

Families, communities, schools, societies teach our children and young people the knowledge they need to survive. They pass on all the practical skills needed to provide oneself with sustenance, shelter, security – the basic foundations of survival. But we also teach our children, and one another, a vast amount of knowledge about how to live happily. Living happily is the goal, not just living. Our shared millennia long fascination with meaning is driven by its capacity to enhance the quality of life. It is one of the most vital attributes of our humanity.

The mind craves knowledge as much as the body craves food. Some people have a huge appetite for food, while others eat like mice. In the same way there are those with an insatiable desire for knowledge and others who can live happily with very little knowledge. Like we said earlier - everything exists in a range from slight to intense, minimal to huge, insignificant to massive.

Some people have a low drive, inclination for needing meaning. Most of us have some felt need for meaning in some aspects or at some times in our lives. But the felt need may not always be accompanied by the capacity to see, create, find meaning. When the felt need for meaning runs up against an inability to perceive meaning, the quality of life drops precipitously. Just as in other characteristics and attributes of our immensely divers human capacities, the ability to find or create meaning varies by individual. Some have a low capacity, skill, capability for creation of meaning, while others have better abilities and some are very skilled.

This is one of the attractions toward religions, philosophies, and other systems of meaning. We have preserved the meanings that have shaped and sustained our lives, our cultures, and our societies over time. These are ready-made meanings which many people can apply to their lives, giving them the brilliance and the hope that enhance the individual lived experience.

From systems of meaning to the adventures of meaning: see the next post

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Meaning of life 3: bridges of hope

Seeking /constructing meaning is what humans do. We continually examine and sort through our ever increasing mental library of observations, conceptions, knowledge, and other mental stuff to find patterns, correlations, structures of thought which give meaning to our lived experiences. Meaning confers an enhanced reality to the experiences of life.

But beyond the vividness which meaning adds to the mundane flow of life, it also has the capacity to transform grief, loss, and sorrow. The ability to see meaning in the horrible, tragic, awful events that fall on us, creates sacredness in our lives.

Suffering is the response of the mind and emotions to pain – physical, emotional, psychological, and mental. But the human capacity to create meaning from the incomprehensible, constructs a context of value which contains the suffering, elevates it to a higher level of reality.

Pain, loss, sadness, discomfort, anxiety, are simply part of the natural flow of life for both human and non-human. It cannot be avoided. In fact these experiences are an integral aspect of the ongoing evolution of consciousness.

Meanings are ideas we tie around the raw experiences of life. Ideas of courage, perseverance, and patience transform the undefined confusion of bereavement, desperation, and despair. They allow us to conceive afflictions and troubles as heroic, significant, purposeful – as meaningful. The reason we preserve these ideas is that they create meaning out of chaos.

Ideas of meaning give value to suffering, loss, and sorrow. Even when we name our suffering as “ordeals” or “trials”, these simple names give meaning to the meaningless; the pain and sadness become something to be overcome or endured. Endurance is one of the powerful ideas of meaning. It gives deep significance to the suffering which is endured; and it gives strength to the ones enduring the suffering.

Meaning allows the mind to refocus its energies away from the pain, whether our own or that of others. As social animals, the suffering of others affects our own capacity to engage with our normal flow of our life. Meaning opens the mind to envisioning accomplishment in the face of debility, purpose in the midst of collapse.

Being able to wrap our pain in the meaning of bravery, changes the experience of the suffering immensely. If we are able to put our focus on acting with endurance, or on waiting with fortitude, our minds can reach past the suffering, can make it meaningful. The creation of meaning makes possible a deeply sustaining inner strength.

The one who staunchly fights a terminal disease is creating meaning for their life and for their death. And the one who, recognizing they have reached the end, accepts their death with grace and presence, is creating meaning from their life and death. And the meaning they each create expands and gives meaning and light and truth and reality to those who love them and those who hear of them and those who struggle with their own living while dying.

Those who grapple with insurmountable obstacles, who keep their poise in impossible situations, who look for light in the darkness, are creating meaning with their lives. There is a truth to lives which overcome the forces that seek to destroy them and there is another truth in lives which collapse under the destruction with grace. And there is still meaning for those who collapse in hopelessness. It is a darker meaning, but meaning can also be found in that as well. It is not the successful attempt which creates meaning but the ability to see meaning in both success and failure that transforms life.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Meaning of life 2: lighting existence like a flame

Humans are animals who share characteristics and traits with the other animals in our mutual existence. One of the identifying characteristics of humans is that we have created a mental universe of innumerable mental forms of existence with which we are as intently involved as we are with the material world. One of the most prevalent characteristics of the human mind is that it seeks and creates meaning out of the continual flow of life which, on its own, simply exists. However, no traits, whether human or non-human, occur in the same way or to the same degree in all individuals. Fear, joy, risk-taking, rationality and the millions of other large and small characteristics found in human beings and other animals, arise and are expressed across a range from minimal to intense.

For some people the drive toward creation of meaning is extremely slight. The predominate motivating energy of a life can be focused on any number of objectives other than meaning. For some, the gratification of desires, however they conceive that, holds a far greater value than constructing meaning. For others it may be the acquisition of power or wealth or pleasure which takes precedence over meaning.

Of course, all people and animals seek pleasure. In fact the urge to create meaning is itself a form of pleasure. Those with the inner hunger for meaning derive intense delight in finding patterns which can be arranged to correspond to a set of meaningful ideas.

At the high range of the urge toward constructing meaning are those driven by an insatiable felt need to make every thing and every moment meaningful in some way. They are reluctant to proceed with any activity or project unless they can construct some meaningful context for it.

Most of us are in the middle somewhere: meaning is one of the many important qualities of a good life, good experience, good relationship, just not the only good thing. Meaning and significance amplify experienced reality; meaning confers a brilliance to life. When we add love to the experiences of sex, children, work and death, we are investing these natural aspects of life with meaning. When we augment the purely raw experience of life with ideas of beauty, truth, sacredness, we are creating meaning which exponentially increases the level of pleasure in that experience. Meaning is a quality which heightens the value of other qualities of life.

Love, truth, beauty and sacredness are qualities of spirit which we have come to recognize, identify, and seek to foster in our ongoing creation of our humanity (see blog on “Evolution of Spirit” – links in right hand column).

The idea of the sacred is not referring to religion or religious experience. The sacred is the experience of the highest and most brilliant aspect of our humanity.

The person who risks or sacrifices their life to save others is a sacred being and we treat them as such. Those who walk away from a comfortable life to live and work among the disenfranchised, destitute, marginalized, and rejected, are sacred. Artists, writers, musicians, dancers awaken in us a sense of the sacred aspect of life; show us the beauty in what we discard as “ugly;” show us the wonderful that surrounds us, unnoticed. They awaken in us a conscious awareness of the sacredness of life, of existence, and of everything; they give it meaning.

The transformation of meaning to hope in the next post.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Meaning of life 1: dual-form animal

There are some questions that seem to keep arising and sparking debate and inciting cliché quality inspirational monologues. One of those is “The Meaning of Life.” This is not an inspirational monologue, nor a debate. More of a curious ramble through the idea itself; and why it keeps coming up.

We are going to start our exploration with questions about whether meaning is something inherent to existence, something that is created or generated by human beings, or something that does not exist at all. We’re not going to answer these questions; we’re going to use them as interesting directions in which to explore the very appealing curiosity of “meaning” in life.

The existentialist school of thought in the mid 20th century suggested that meaning and significance are something we ourselves create. For them, meaning and significance are created through our individual choices; and our individual and collective humanity resides precisely in and is defined by the choices we make. We are the animals who make meaning. We take the essential meaningless flow of life and extract patterns from it, construct extensive labyrinths of thought, and conceive webs of ideas.

Just observing how we all go about life, some of us do create meaning through our choices, while others build meaning from the natural flow of life, birth, sex, children, food, work, death. The very substance of the process of life can be, for humans, deeply and powerfully meaningful.

Some generate a sense of meaning from accomplishments, some from engagement with the natural world, some from business or science or art. Each of us is unique in the combination of life's elements which we arrange in our particular life to create meaning. Some embrace an ethos which attempts to promote the essential meaninglessness of existence. Yet even that approach shapes existence with the significance of non-meaning.

We are beings who live in our minds as much as we do in the physical world. All but the most rudimentary living organisms have brains; the more evolved also have minds. We've just taken the natural order which we inherited and become totally obsessed with it until we became something radically different, a creature with a twin life: material and immaterial.

Humans are different from the non-human world not in kind but in degree. We have taken the various characteristics present in other animals and ramped them up to extraordinary levels. We have invested a huge proportion of our energy, time and focus on the construction of a nearly infinite variety of mental worlds which we inhabit, build, examine, and enjoy with the same relish that we do the material world. We are hybrid creatures; as material beings we live in and engage with the external world while as mental beings we live in and engage with the vast universe of ideas, thoughts, conceptions, theories, study, explanations, and speculation. So where does this tendency to create, find, reject meaning get us. Where do we go with it or get from it? See post #2