Better ways to think about meaning

Maybe you have been asking yourself the question: "What does all of this actually mean?" Is there a fundamental true meaning to life?

Maybe this deep question was triggered by great loss or by having had a dream shattered despite the investment of money, time, and effort. Whichever way you arrived at this that life seems to lack inherent meaning, in this article we are going to explore how what we think about the metaphysics of meaning directly influences what feel and how we act. 

Asking a question many times implies that there must be a concrete answer. In the case of meaning any absolute statement about it is going to be inadequate in most circumstances. To start this exploration, the question has to be reframed so that we can actually find worthwhile answers. 

To answer the question, what are meaningful questions to ask about meaning, we have to look at the dynamics of meaning in our everyday experience. If we are mindful of our momentary experience, do we ever experience meaning as static? Is there a meaning that we can attribute to all moments of our experience? Or is it rather the case that meaning itself is a dynamic experience, shifting and changing with the contents in our awareness? 

The answer is yes. Meanings are not fixed. One moment we are hungry and experience the sensation of hunger as meaningful. The act of eating becomes equally meaningful in relation to that feeling. When we are no longer hungry, eating loses some of its meaning. It even becomes momentarily meaningless to us. We cannot make an absolute statement about the meaning of eating. We can only say how meaningful it is in certain situations and in relation to what else is present in our experience. 

Life itself is not a fixed entity. It's a dynamic, ever-changing process. It unfolds on a momentary basis and is a blend of sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Meaning itself is one of those changing parameters, maybe a blend of emotions and thoughts. It does not stand on its own as something separate from life. It is never an objective fact that is true throughout all of time and in regard to all circumstances. 

Therefore all absolute statements about meaning are false. Understanding this prevents you from the two most common traps in regards to meaning. Through this understanding, you avoid nihilism. Reality, as we just explored, cannot be eternally meaningless. You also avoid eternalism, because reality also does not have always the same fixed meaning. Reality is neither always meaningless, nor is it always absolutely meaningful. 

How then can we practically answer whether our lives have meaning? The answer can be found in the concepts of nebulosity and pattern. 

By going back to our direct experience we can observe, that the ever-changing sense of meaning is never really graspable. Meaning just feels nebulous. Some experience arises and brings a sense of meaning with it. Meaning exists on a spectrum. We can also observe that meaning is patterned. As in the above example, food regularly and predictably becomes more meaningful to us depending on circumstances like our feeling of hunger or how much we like the food presented to us. 

Spirituality teaches us that true insights into reality lie outside of the realm of conceptual thinking. Meaning behaves in this way too. What you want to know about meaning cannot be explained in a fixed, logical, and fully rational sentence. The question may arise as a thought, but it points to something beyond its own domain. 

To find meaning in life, practice mindfulness. Observe the presently unfolding experience and look for ways in which your mind tries to fix meaning. If you find yourself thinking in absolute terms about the meanings in your life, you will have a better experience dropping those and replacing them with accurate statements that are based in your actual experience. Instead of the statement "my life is really meaningful", you would state more accurately "my life is made up of a variety of experiences, with varying degrees of meaning that come with them". 

Why is this difference important? As hinted at above, it prevents you from holding false assumptions about reality. In the case of meaning, this can have negative outcomes. A nihilist views every experience from what seems to be a meaningless context. But this is a mental interpretation that he is putting on top of what the experience actually is. This will come with emotional states that are usually felt to be negative. 

Enlightenment is the state where all filters are removed and reality is experienced immediately.  Meaning can be one such filter. A step towards that is the acceptance that meaning is nebulous and patterned. To hold this view can feel destabilizing at first, but as it is revealed that this stance matches reality, flow follows. Finding the meaning of life paradoxically involves the dropping of the search for an absolute answer. What is required instead is the acceptance of uncertainty. 

What are the benefits of this recognition? Life is approached openly and with curiosity. Genuinely meaningful experiences are allowed and welcomed without grasping at them. Moments of lower degrees of meaning are not dreaded and no attempts to erase them from one's life are made. Resistance to what is is decreased, because there is no fixed meaning that the moment has to conform to. Instead of looking for absolute answers, one looks for patterns. Those can be very helpful in predicting certain areas of the human experience. 

In short, remember to watch out for any absolute statement your mind wants to make about meaning and instead hold the view that it is nebulous and patterned. From that view, you can expect a better match with your actual experience, which reduces frustration, increases curiosity and allows feelings of wonder to arise. 

The concepts in this article are based on David Chapman's online book: