The Meaning of Life
This morning I thought I'd talk about the meaning of life. There's been a lot confusion about this question over the last couple of thousand years, so I thought I'd take a few minutes and clear it all up for you.
But if we're going to answer a question like, "What is the meaning of life?" we have to be clear about what it is we're asking. What kind of meaning are we looking for? What exactly does "meaning" mean anyway? Well, as Wittgenstein-Roshi taught us years ago, if you want to understand an abstraction like "meaning," you shouldn't start right off looking for some comprehensive general definition, but take a look at the particular instances of how the word is used in ordinary language. So let's take a look at a few of the uses of the word "meaning."
One use is involved in translation. If we're reading or hearing someone speak a foreign language we don't understand, we may ask what their words mean. And there's a certain analogy to the problem of the meaning of life in this example - often we may feel that life is incomprehensible, we don't understand what's happening to us; we want someone to make sense of it all for us. But in the case of translation, we're asking for some correspondence to be established between the foreign words and words in our native tongue. But this presupposes we are already familiar with a native language in which to translate the foreign one. But what could be more familiar to us than life? What do we understand better than life that we think life can be explained in terms of?
Another way we talk about meaning is when we ask the meaning of a poem or story or other work of art. Here, sometimes what we're asking for is for the intent of the author or artist in making the work. What are we supposed to think or feel or understand from reading it? And traditional Western religions have talked about life this way and spoken of a God or Creator who's intent or plan for our life is what gives it meaning. If you're convinced of the truth of one religion or another, then your question is answered. But if you're not sure which story or faith to believe in, how do you choose? What criteria can you use? Where can you stand that's more certain that the presumed certainty of revealed Truth? A more modern Western approach is to imagine that we are the narrators of our own stories and the meaning of life is nothing more than the story we ourselves choose to tell about it. We can live our life as comedy, tragedy, or a heroic quest, whatever form we choose. For some, this narrative freedom seems to convey liberty and infinite possibility, but for others it seems hopelessly arbitrary and unsettled. Again, how do you begin to choose among all the conflicting stories out there? Who's to say if one story is better than another?
One more way of talking about meaning is in terms of some function or product. Our life's meaning is found in what we accomplish or leave behind, whether an estate, a work of art, charitable deeds or our children. But anything left behind is liable to change or disappear or be forgotten. Will the meaning of my life disappear if the book I've written goes out of print fifty years after I've died? Or if the Magid line dies out ten generations from now? Has the meaning of my life retrospectively changed?
I'm sure we could all come up with more examples, but what all of these I've mentioned have in common is that they locate the meaning of life outside of life - as if meaning is something that can be added to or lacking from life. But our practice proceeds in an entirely different direction. Here we aim to experience our life from the inside. And from the inside, being our breath, our body, being just this moment, the meaning of the moment is synonymous with being the moment. When we label our thoughts, what we're really doing is practicing experiencing our thoughts as one more aspect of our self that arises moment after moment. Thought always tries to step outside of itself, out of the moment, even out of the body, as if it were an independent, disembodied observer and commentator on the passing scene. So over and over we bring our attention back inside. Just sitting. Just thinking. Just being this moment. From the inside, asking the meaning of life is like asking the meaning of a tree or the sky or the ocean. The meaning of a tree is to be tree; the meaning of the sky simply is the sky and so on. We might say that from this perspective, the meaning of what's happening is inseparable from simply what's happening. And that "what" that's happening moment after moment is all the answer there is. In the end, our question isn't answered so much as it simply drops away.
So next time someone asks you, "What is the meaning of Life?" you can answer, "Exactly! WHAT is the meaning of Life!"