Monday, November 10, 2014

Contemplation on Meaning

Existence cannot be revealed in symbols, and knowledge cannot be revealed without.

Throughout human history, the search for meaning is a constant.  We ask the meaning of almost every characteristic, object, and event, from the profound to the mundane.  What is the meaning of life?  What does it mean to be a 34 year old white male in the United States in the early 21st century?  What is the meaning of the dietary information on this pint of ice cream? 

What is meaning, and where does it come from?  Meaning simply comes from us, from our own individual and collective psychology.  “Signs and signifiers can be appropriated and reappropriated in an endless chain.  Thus meaning is rarely predictable and never fixed.” –Diane Raymond,

People with theistic beliefs may protest and say that some type of fundamental meaning can come from God.  But even if that is true, and certain things have divinely granted inherent meaning, we have no access to it.  To illustrate my point, assume that the fabled Holy Grail is real, it has been found, and it has inherent meaning endowed by God.  Now assume that a Christian recognizes its meaning.  The Christian is not observing the inherent meaning of the object.  He is only observing the meaning attributed to it by his religious texts, his culture, and his own beliefs.  The fact that his meaning of it matches the inherent meaning is an arbitrary coincidence.

Now some might protest further, citing that the Grail may have supernatural properties that are empirically evident, communicating the object’s inherent meaning.  But this does not contradict my claim; it only transmutes the object of the question.  The old question, “what is the meaning of the Holy Grail?” becomes the new question, “what is the meaning of its supernatural properties?”.  Some people might believe that the supernatural properties mean divinity.  Meanwhile others, believing it is a false grail, might believe the supernatural properties mean witchcraft, conspiracy, or hoax.

We constantly create, alter, annihilate, and recreate meaning.  The human brain seems to have an overwhelming, if not compulsive, hunger to find (or create) meaning.  We endlessly create, disseminate, and consume stories of all sorts, from fairy tales to sports reporting.  We do this because narrative is the vehicle for meaning.  If you ask me, this quest for meaning is part of what it means to be human.  Along with things like survival and procreation, meaning is a fundamental driver of human activity.  Also, meaning and narrative can provide context for our suffering and give us comfort when we face obstacles and hardships.

Conversely though, I’ve been learning that, meaning and narrative are the causes of much suffering.  If a house is destroyed in a fire, does that cause me to suffer?  No.  But if that house belongs to me, then the answer changes.  I’m not upset because the house is lost  I grieve because of the meaning that I’ve attributed to that house in particular, as opposed to the thousands of other similar houses nearby.

I’m learning the practice of mindfulness, to observe things as they truly are, without the baggage of the meanings that the mind wants to attach to them.  As I do this, I keep coming back to some fundamental questions about this path and its destination.

Can we take advantage of narrative's ability to give us hope and comfort when facing adversity without creating attachment and identification (ie. without suffering the negative consequences)?

If the pursuit of meaning is a fundamental part of ‘being human’, what does it mean to let go of or see beyond meaning? 

According to many spiritual teachers, mindfulness leads to a “higher” consciousness.  But how is this higher consciousness different from a simpler animal consciousness?

Even if equanimity or englightment is achieved, I don’t think meaning ‘goes away’.  So what is it like to see meaning for what it is and still engage with it, without attachment to or identification with it?  Or to rephrase, how does one’s relationship with meaning change as one becomes enlightened?

I want to understand things on an intellectual level.  That is my natural inclination.  But it is not lost on me that these questions are likely flawed, due to the very paradox of their nature.   As Lao Tzu so eloquently put it, “The Tao that can be described is not the true Tao.”  The true Tao transcends not only language, but rational thought.   In that sense, maybe the true Tao is the ability to discern the meaning inherent in a thing, at least in the case of existence.  But if it can't be put into words, I don't think it will answer any questions.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.


  1. The English language is equipped with the words meaningful and meaningless. We should invent the word meaningfree. Positive, negative, neutral.

    1. That's an interesting thought. I understand the negative connotation of the word "meaningless". But what is the denotative difference between meaningless and meaningfree?