The Meaning of Meaning (and On Beyond Religion)
If you’re happy and not worried, and absorbed in living, you’re generally not inherently concerned with the “meaning of life” question (although one might contemplate it for fun or to share with friends, like I am doing). Still, even if happy, one can have a “glimpse”, or more glimpses of reality that reveal more of the substance of Life with a capital “L”: the joy in living it, the beauty, fun, love, truth of it, and we could say that is very “meaningful”.
By “glimpse” I mean something more, or deeper than “insight”: something at the transpersonal or impersonal “level” so to speak: an awakening to an awareness of being awareness itself, the universality of consciousness. One can get a flash of seeing that one is not the body, not the mind, not anything you thought you were — that indescribable pure aware intelligence without limit — nothing that can be grasped with the mind or sensed by the senses. One of my favorite quotes is:
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
However even at the level of insight, the experience of insight, of an idea dawning in the mind, can seem very meaningful, especially if one was struggling with an issue. Out of the blue the answer comes to you. There is a certain joy and relaxation in that experience, a reassurance that all is well, and life is on your side so to speak.
On the other hand, at a psychological level, one could feel despondent and wonder “what am I doing here, what is the point?” In that case the meaning of the word “meaning” has more to do with happiness, or rather its lack thereof, than meaning per se: a feeling of lack or of missing something. At that level of awareness, in that frame of mind, one can think one needs a purpose or goal, or some thing, as a human being, other than the inherent one of being happy and at peace — that is, other than knowing one’s nature as happiness and peace, universal intelligence — knowing one’s real nature, as experienced in beauty, love, or truth.
In that state of feeling lack, or in that misunderstanding we could say, one can believe happiness will come if one reaches a goal (example, getting the dream job, or buying a house, or getting married to the perfect partner…). One can then spend time chasing the goal, only to find happiness is short-lived, and thus having to set up another carrot to chase after. Hopefully, eventually one will get an intimation that happiness is not where one thought it was — not where the society was misdirecting you to look — and start investigating sincerely in a new direction. If you’re lucky, you will start wondering who you are, what you are, what the mind is, what’s really real, and stop believing anything except what one can establish for certain or as facts oneself. Then the “meaning” question will take on a whole new dimension as it moves within. You could call that the contemplative path.
In this “inward” direction there are other pitfalls of course: one could set up goals or beliefs, for example that there is something called “enlightenment” that you need to reach, and other people have it and you don’t … and feel like you are not getting there, that these spiritual ideas are failing you, or you are failing at the whole thing.
Meaning and Communication
There is yet another meaning of the word “meaning”, which is simply to do with communication with language: the meaning of words. In a practical sense, it’s important to agree on the meaning of words so that we know we are talking about the same thing when we use a word, and aren’t talking apples and oranges. For example, in the “spiritual” realm, Buddhists often use the word “mind” to mean what those in the Advaita or non-dual traditions call “Consciousness”; Advaita vedanta or non-dual and direct path folks will say “Self” for what the Buddhists call “emptiness” or some other Buddhist term for the absolute (if they dare even name it, since the Buddhist way is to avoid conceptualization at all costs!); Furthermore, Buddhists will say “self” or “small self” for what is meant as “ego” or “separate self” in Advaita, direct path, or non-dual circles.
The Meaning of the Meaning (of Words)
Speaking of the meaning of words, I had an interesting experience in this regard. A friend who was listening to the same non-dualists teacher at the time, contacted me regarding a project. His idea was to write a dictionary, or glossary, with words to help with the understanding of this particular path or teacher, probably because the teacher, who was a master at languages and quite the autodidact, used words in a highly specific and precise way, and it was not always easy to understand. Perhaps my friend and other listeners sometimes got confused (or perhaps he wanted to establish his own meanings?). In any case, I agreed it would be an interesting and fun exercise, and I thought it could be useful for helping us all tune in and see more clearly what was being talked about. What was interesting however, was that we could not get the project off the ground because we could not agree on the meaning of words – the meaning of meaning!
In his view – perhaps because of his upbringing in a Middle Eastern religious culture, and education in science, and his passion for Kashmir Shaivism – he saw words (or at least many of them) in the spiritual traditions he was familiar with, and by extension or implication this teacher in particular, as having a fixed, or inherent, sacred meaning. And so that’s what he wanted to write down, establish, share. I however, had a very different take on the whole thing. From my background in Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism etc., and insights, I saw clearly that the meaning of words was “arbitrary” in a sense, and his view as a type of idolatry: the worship of objects. In this case the objects of consciousness were words, the sound and shape of words (written, spoken or thought in the mind), rather than external object like the sacred lingam in Indian culture (“a symbol of divine generative energy, especially a phallus or phallic object worshiped as a symbol of Shiva”).
I’ve never had any interest in sacred objects. To me, the entirety of nature and the universe, within and without, is sacred. It is identical with what we call “God”, although I feel that word has very little meaning anymore. It takes too much explaining…
As I see it, we learn to associate, as we are growing up (or as an adult learning a new language), certain sounds with certain objects of experience. This varies from culture to culture. For example in one culture, the english-speaking one I grew up in, we hear the word “dog”, and through repetition and learning begin to associate that sound with the experience of various dogs. When we are older, we learn that the image of written word is associated with the sound, and therefore image as well. In another culture, for example the Navajo one, the sound “Łééchąą’í” (don’t ask me to pronounce it!) stands for what and English speaker would call a “domesticated dog”.
“Also shortened to just łééchąą’, the Navajo word łééchąą’í refers to domesticated dogs.
Inside this word is the separate chąą’. This is a word meaning ‘excrement, feces, poop, etc.’.
This, like many other Navajo words, is intended to be an easy, yet unique, descriptor. So the entire word is saying, in not a vulgar sense, ‘the pooping pet.’ It is perhaps a remark on the relative lack of discretion on a typical dog’s part when “doing business.” ”
In Western philosophical language, we could say that sound “Łééchąą’í” has an “aboutness” that signifies a domesticated dog, or rather the image of a domesticated dog, or the idea of one (an idea being an abstracted dog-ness, a category). It’s meaning comes not just from this mechanical, psychological association we learn growing up or as an adult learner, but also from the network of other associated meanings we pick up that form one’s language and is connected with one’s worldview, as created or modified by that networks of linguistic meanings. For example we also will learn names for other animals, and that there is a category called “animals” they all belong to, and associate that with how animals are part of nature, whatever “nature” means to us, depending on our experience of the world and the language we hear and what it inspires and connect to in our minds … it all gets very complex, as you can see, once you really dig into how we learn and create meaning, and associate sounds with meaning.
The important thing to see is that it is all arbitrary in a sense: what object we associate with what sound is learned and not fixed or given by a God, and the same goes for meaning, both in particular and in general, with regard to the linguistic sphere at least. There is a quote from ACIM that captured this as a whole that is rather pertinent and beautiful:
“We give everything all the meaning it has for us.”
~ A Course in Miracles
That is a pretty all-inclusve statement! “Everything” and “all”…
This is the great mistake (or one of them) that religions make, in projecting a fixed meaning onto words (and to the world), for what is considered sacred and inalterable, and therefore come in conflict with other meanings given to words, where there is no factual basis (that is, a belief is a thought held regardless of evidence, whereas facts hold up to scrutiny, universally with noumenal facts, or with as-best-as-can-be obtained probability with relative facts). And for this great meaning, a very emotional and tribal one, there is, importantly, an identification and attachment to the meaning. Thus the religious ego has a need to maintain, hold on enforce, and kill every other meaning, and the bodies those meanings seem to come out of, not to mention burning the books of other viewpoints, so to speak (or literally).
In spiritual circles as well (in contrast with “organized religions” per se), people can become quite militant and protective of what they think they *know*, even when, ironically, it’s all about “openness”. In other words they replace an old set of beliefs with a new, upgraded set.
And when I say “spiritual” I don’t mean New Age or yoga circles, but those in tune with, or attempting to understand the great wisdom traditions (see the “Wisdom” menu on this site), or non-dual or direct path teachings and teachers, and so forth. In other words, the genuine “spiritual”, is what those wisdom traditions, the perennial philosophy, was really pointing to, and not the cherry-picked meaning of New Age or new religions, where it’s all really about self-help, and nothing to do, or very little to do with what the sages really meant. This whole subject of what I mean by “spiritual is worthy of an essay apparently, because when I use the word “spiritual” (which I am reluctant to do these days!) it means something entirely different from what folks out in the world at large (for example, especially on social media) seem to project onto me, or onto the word. To them it means “cult” or “New Age” or religious or “woo woo” in some sense. To them it has something to do the the mind ad what crazy mind things are goin on, personally in the so-called spiritual person. The number fo people on the planet that can make a meaningful distinction between “mind” and consciousness” is extremely small … which is why are are in war and destructive spirals. Ignorance (ignoring true nature) us the norm. It’s normal to be crazy. But that’s another subject…
To make matter worse, or at least more complicated for those of use looking to disentangle, bring some light to the matter, is that many in the spiritual arena take on an anti-intellectual stance, at worst as a defense for a held position or belief (a form of violence really: fascism of a psychological nature). The intellect is seen as bad or the enemy ostensibly because the goal is supposedly to stop thinking, drop the ego, see through identification with intellect and identification, and intellect is seen as being busy with or attached to something that causes trouble personally or in the world (what with evil science and tech destroying the planet, nature… another belief system about man-as-bbad and nature good, Gaia and all that…). In fact this is a misunderstanding. Intellect is the greatest tool at our disposal, potentially, for many of us, to take us as close to truth as can be gotten with the mind, using what has been called “higher reasoning”, to ascend through the realm of ideas, closer to truth. Once the mind gives out, something higher comes in.
Atmananada Krishna Menon, one of the greatest direct path sages of the 20th century saw something interesting about spiritual paths:
(but first, a definition:
Satcitananda or Sat-cit-ananda
“existence, consciousness, and bliss”
Sat – Existence “Sat is that which is incapable of being even thought of as non-existent. I alone am the one such.” (98)
Cit – Consciousness
Ananda – Bliss or Happiness )
1140. WHY DO ASPIRANTS ADOPT SUCH A VARIETY OF PATHS, ALL CALLED ‘SPIRITUAL’? (19)
It is only very few, among such practitioners, who earnestly desire ultimate liberation. Those few never fail to obtain a Karana-guru, at some stage of their spiritual search; and then they realize the Truth without any further difficulty.
The great majority desire the enjoyment of pleasures, according to their own tastes and temperaments. The most important among them are the bhaktas, mystics, idealists, nihilists, etc. They emphasize only certain aspects of the Reality and ignore the other aspects. Therefore, they experience only limited happiness, in varying degrees.
Bhaktas emphasize the ananda aspect, subordinating existence and reason. Mystics emphasize the sat and ananda aspects, subordinating reason. Idealists emphasis only the lower reason or intelligence, subordinating sat and ananda. The nihilists (kshanika-vijnyana-vadis) – standing as idealists and using intellect alone – go a bit further, but get stranded in nothingness or ‘shunya’.
But jnyanins – adopting cit as the higher reason, without subordinating either sat or ananda – prove that sat and ananda in their true nature are cit itself. The jnyanins thereby stand established in the ultimate Truth.
Of course, intellect, as machinery, as brain intelligence, is not the same as natural intelligence, often associated with the phenomenon of intuition and creativity, as pointed to in this article: https://ericplatt.com/true-intelligence/
I fact, the word “spiritual” means the opposite of what seems to be the common meaning or understanding the common assumption or implication: holding no beliefs whatsoever, and living in fact, in reality.
In other words, as I see it, words have no inherent meaning, other than at a general level, in the sense that human beings are highly sensitive to language, just as dogs are extremely sensitive to smells. We need to respect each other in that.
This all seems so obvious and basic that it hardly seems worth mentioning, but I’ve found what seems obvious to me is not at all obvious to so-called “others”… 🙂
And of course, I could always be wrong. I’m not religious at all …