Meaning, Purpose, and Arriving at Your Own Door
What if we don't need to "find" anything?
Picasso apparently had this to say about the intertwining of the concepts of “meaning” and “purpose”:
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Except, it seems this may be a misquote; the actual originator of the quote is believed to be the late American psychologist, David Viscott, who wrote in a 1993 book:
“The purpose of life is to discover your gift; The work of life is to develop it; The meaning of life is to give your gift away.”
It was rather relieving to discover that the sentiment did not originate with Picasso, from someone with such obvious gifts in talent, born into a middle class family with an academic artist as a father; it was perhaps a little too easy for the child prodigy to assume that the gift of meaning lay at everyone’s feet.
There is something incredibly patronising about assuming people need to just make meaning, particularly in the menial and exploitative economies that define our societies. If we assume everyone has a “purpose” to discover their “gift”, what about those who will never have the opportunity to do so; are we really to tell them their “purpose” on Earth is to be a 21st Century serf? These concepts become very feudal and elitist, very quickly, and reflect the musings of what Thomas Piketty termed “the Brahmin Left”, the highly educated privileged class.
I can understand how such waxy rhetoric of “the meaning of your gift” could easily become regurgitated fodder in our culture of narcissistic hyper-individualism, where everyone must be special and just needs to “find themselves” before dazzling the world with their brilliance. But what we’re really looking at, if we see the application of this rhetoric for what it is, is an indulgence of “higher Self” pursuit; the luxury of “self-actualisation”, privileged by opportunity, pursued through travel to exotic locations, and performed through a lens. If you’re not posting photos of your laptop set against a backdrop of a sunset-soaked beach, have you really found your “purpose”?
When I'm asked what in life I find meaningful, my answer is often “nothing”. If I'm asked about purpose, my answer is often, “None”. And in our culture, where hyper-individualism merges symbiotically with the cult of positivity, these answers are considered nihilistic and depressing. I think this is shortsighted; I think they are liberating from an overly nihilistic outlook, particularly nihilism directed at oneself. Because the emphasis on “meaning” and “purpose” in our culture is underpinned by a great deception: that we start from a place of being lost, and need to “find our truth”. Strip the words “meaning” and “purpose” back to their literal definitions, and all they are is a sense of objective or intention and a sense of significance, respectively. In our culture of glorified productivity, output, attainment, and wealth, however, “meaning” and “purpose” are coopted to package our vacuous materiality into some kind of worthy existence, capitalism as “self-actualisation”, a culture characterised by tech-Bro’s at Burning Man and Goop-spirituality.
The rhetoric of “meaning” and “purpose” is deliberately glossed with a shiny veneer of depth and substance, but it amounts to little more than the empty worship of a false idol. The promise of the neoliberal promised land; just keep consuming and producing, producing and consuming, and you might be able to justify it by reference to some hollow sense of higher self. What if we didn't need to “find” anything in the first place, including meaning and purpose? What if, as Jon Kabat-Zinn said:
“Every moment we are arriving at our own door. Every moment we could open it.”
What this is trying to convey is that, as Alan Watts put it, “you are already it”, i.e., the you don't need to find anything, but just to allow being to be enough, because that is all that there is. The great deception of our culture of externalised “meaning” and “purpose” is a tragic irony; that we turned away from arriving at our own door, and opening it, because our culture sent us off to “find” ourselves in a quest for extrinsic validation. We turned away from our own door, convinced we needed to find the “meaning” and “purpose” that we already had just by the very act of being. We turned away from our door because we couldn’t trust ourselves to be, nothing more. But, critically, nothing less.
From secular teachers like Kabat-Zinn and reading of primary spiritual texts, in particular Bhagavad Gītā, three related concepts - lack of attachment, equanimity, and impermanence - have provided me with mental liberation from the neoliberalised versions of “meaning” and “purpose”. The reason that I’ve found relief in these concepts is that, with my default settings, I could easily take “meaning” and “purpose” and live a life in bondage to feeding an insatiable Ego-self, never managed to satisfy its thirst, and destroying myself in the process, convinced by the narrative of the Ego-self that I offer nothing of value, amount to little more than failure, and will never do anything meaningful.
Detachment, in this context, should not be confused with indifference; but to live without attachment to outcomes, to success or failure. In attachment lies disappointment, envy, guilt, and any range of Ego-fuelled emotions that cripple our capacity to arrive at our own door. This is the crux of where the rhetoric of “meaning” and “purpose”, as they are framed in our culture, become more of a hurdle to a good life than not; because they are grounded in attachment. And this relates to suffering. Because if I am suffering at any point, I can step back from that and separate the sensations, feelings, and emotions, from me. I can sit, suffering in that moment, and in having that separation, disarm it of its power to consume me. And in that separation lies equanimity; arriving at my own door, and realising I was here all along.
And this is where impermanence, as a second limb, becomes crucial. What if I told myself that my meaning and purpose was to be a lawyer? What would have become of my sense of Self when that was no longer true for me? What if, in time, I decide I no longer want to be in nutrition? Does it mean that this was never my “meaning” and “purpose”, and that I haven't “found” myself yet? In letting go of attachment to these ideas is the freedom of impermanence, and the room to manoeuvre through life without a fixed destination. Contrast this with a concept that travels with the rhetoric of “finding” yourself in our culture; that of life as “a journey”. Similarly, this “life-as-journey” rhetoric is sufficiently truthy-sounding for it to be lapped up in our culture of superficial soundbites. But to view life as a journey is to miss the point, as Alan Watts argued:
“We’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after your death. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played. But...you didn’t let it happen.”
The root of this is our own mortality salience; our unique consciousness as a species of time, and of the reality that our own time on this rock is just an hourglass filled with sand that we watch ticking down. And while we may broadly attribute mortality salience to a concept like consciousness, in truth the part of our brain that cannot face this inevitability is the Ego-self. So to soothe our own death anxiety, we create concepts and beliefs to which we can ascribe the label of “meaning” and “purpose”, to make it seem like there was a serious purpose at the end. And we miss the point, all the way along; the point was just to be in the only moment, the only reality, available to us, to “dance while the music was being played”. But we walked, deliberately, in the opposite direction, away from our own door, away from orientating towards the Self - which just is - and into the insatiable appetite of Ego.
No attachments; if we take meaning in its literal definition - a sense of significance - then it is only in the context of living a life spent spoon-feeding the attachments of an insatiable Ego can we feel a lack of significance in ourselves. Impermanence; if we take purpose in its literal definition - a sense of objective or intention - then it is only in the context of looking at life as a journey with some destination that we can feel that any objective lies somewhere in the future, and lose sight of the only reality we have available to us, which is present. And finally, equanimity; take away those cultural contexts and we arrive at our own door; the reality that meaning and purpose are present by virtue of being.
And so the point here is not that concepts of purpose and meaning are non-existent, it is that our current cultural framework for these terms degrades them of their true substance. Life’s purpose is attained simply by the act of living; life’s meaning is simply to be. To find that place, where the basic act of being, outside of time, can be accessed, is not easy. I think this is why we take Ego-oriented concepts and dress them up in language of “meaning” and “purpose”, serving the insatiable appetite of the Ego-self and feeding it layers of identity, hoping that the next step in “our journey” - a promotion, relationship, achievement - will finally be the one that satisfies the demands of the Ego-self for fealty, that satiates “meaning” and “purpose”.
My aim is to strip back the layers of the Ego-self until, one day, my sitting quietly listening to the rustle of leaves on the wind is all the purpose that ever was for me, and ever will be. And all the meaning I could have ever wanted was there, all along, waiting for me to arrive at my own door.
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