Monday, May 16, 2005


What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of meaning? Is there a meaning? If there is, who decides what that meaning is? These are questions that have been pondered by philosophers for millennia, and they are some of the most important questions a human being can ask. I have also contemplated these questions, and what follows is my best attempt at some answers.

Meaning is to be found purely in existence it self, in the present moment. The word “existence,” is actually not the right word, but it is really the closest word in English to what I am trying to describe. The Chinese word “Tao,” is somewhat closer. When I use the word Tao, what I am trying to describe is the existence behind existence. If one considers how ridiculous it is that the universe should exist at all, and the impossible irreducible nature of existence (This irreducible nature I find impossible to describe. It must be understood intuitively), the Tao is the energy behind that. The Tao can be seen as both the root of meaning and the root of meaninglessness. It is almost like the cause of everything. But it is not a cause in the sense of something which precedes the universe, because the Tao is fundamentally one with the universe, in the present moment. The Tao is the laws of nature. It is not natural law based on cause and effect, but a spontaneous natural law which dances in the timeless now.

A Zen koan (Zen being the chief form of Buddhism practiced in China, heavily influenced by Taoism) tries to elucidate the matter further. A Zen master, holding up his staff and says, “If you call this a stick, you affirm; if you call this not a stick, you negate. Beyond affirmation and negation what would you call it?”

Alan Watts writes in The Joyous Cosmology about his experiences with LSD, and at the end of the book, he sums up his wisdom as follows:

"Listen, there's something I must tell. I've never, never seen it so clearly. But it doesn't matter a bit if you don't understand, because each one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don't know it. Life is basically a gesture, but no one, no thing, is making it. There is no necessity for it to happen, and none for it to go on happening. For it isn't being driven by anything; it just happens freely of itself. It's a gesture of motion, of sound, of color, and just as no one is making it, it isn't happening to anyone. There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play—exuberance which is its own end. Basically there is the gesture. Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. There is no reason whatever to explain it, for explanations are just another form of complexity, a new manifestation of life on top of life, of gestures gesturing. Pain and suffering are simply extreme forms of play, and there isn't anything in the whole universe to be afraid of because it doesn't happen to anyone! There isn't any substantial ego at all. The ego is a kind of flip, a knowing of knowing, a fearing of fearing. It's a curlicue, an extra jazz to experience, a sort of double-take or reverberation, a dithering of consciousness which is the same as anxiety.

"Of course, to say that life is just a gesture, an action without agent, recipient, or purpose, sounds much more empty and futile than joyous. But to me it seems that an ego, a substantial entity to which experience happens, is more of a minus than a plus. It is an estrangement from experience, a lack of participation. And in this moment I feel absolutely with the world, free of that chronic resistance to experience which blocks the free flowing of life and makes us move like muscle-bound dancers. But I don't have to overcome resistance. I see that resistance, ego, is just an extra vortex in the stream--part of it—and that in fact there is no actual resistance at all. There is no point from which to confront life, or stand against it (70-73)."

When Watts refers to the gesture, he is essentially referring to what I have called the Tao. This idea, that no one is making the gesture, and that it does not have to go on happening, is at the heart of the concept of the Tao. The Tao is fundamentally something which happens in the present moment, and so is not caused by anything. No law governs it. It may follow “physical laws,” but to follow laws and to be ruled by laws are two completely different things. The “laws” describe the Tao. Another point he makes is that the artificial separation between universe and self disappears in the face of the gesture. Without this separation, there can be no resistance. He expands on the notion of the Eternal Now, writing, “It is a dancing present—the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point. It leaves and arrives simultaneously, and the seed is as much the goal as the flower” (27). The last part of the quote, “the seed is as much the goal as the flower,” is the connection between meaning and the Tao or Eternal Now. When one sees that everything comes out of the present, and the divine nature, of that present, he sees that there is no need to struggle for anything outside of the present.

Daniel Kolak and Raymond Martin express a very similar theme in their essay on meaning. They argue that human beings should drop resistance, and accept the present. Further, they argue, “the way to stop struggling is to end the fragmentation that leads to resistance.” This fragmentation disappears when we look at the universe from the prospective of the eternal now. Our artificial separation from our world is eliminated. When Watts discusses ego-loss he is making this very same point. Kolak and Martin go on to stress that we should work in the present, for the present, and not for the fruits of our labors. This is an extension of “the seed is as much the goal is the flower.”

Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus expresses that same idea as the other philosophers, but from the opposite angle. Whereas Alan Watts sees meaning in everything going on in the present, Camus sees meaning in none of it. These seem to be polar opposites, and in a way they are, but they mean the same thing. Considered one way, if everything has meaning, then what is there to compare it to? That is to say, what can meaning be contrasted to, so that it can be distinguished from non-meaning? Since there is nothing to compare it to, one might as well say there is no such thing as meaning, since meaning itself becomes meaningless. Now, Camus says that life is meaningless, but at the same time, argues that we should not commit suicide. The reason for this, I think, is that he finds meaning in no-meaning. Implicitly, though he may not admit it, he grasps the connectedness of the polar opposites, and sees that a life that lacks meaning entirely is meaning enough to live. All searches for meaning will fail and it is for that very reason that it is there.

The philosophy which I have attempted to lay out is absolutely filled with paradoxes. It is, I would even say, beyond logic in the way we normally use it. Fundamentally, it is a philosophy which must be grasped intuitively. One must spend time in the Eternal Now to understand it fully. It is a feeling more than it is a fact. However, once one does begin to understand it, he sees echoes of it in the writings of many, divided both by time and culture.