The Meaning of Life

I would like to further expand a bit on the ideas from my post on The Holy Grail.

If we look around we can’t deny that most of us, people of the West, live in a paradise of affluence and security. We have food and shelter, friends and loved ones, time for leisure and pleasure and even the freedom to realize ourselves. Nevertheless, most of us don’t live a very fulfilling life. Somehow, it seems, that we are not truly grateful for what we have. And when see pictures of starving children in Africa and when we are truly honest to ourselves, deep down somewhere, we are a bit ashamed about it. There are those rather uncomfortable quiet moments, for example on a lazy day, when we know something is not quiet right or ‘missing’. If we allow to listen with our ears turned inside, existential questions are waiting to be answered, like:

What the heck this all about?
Why am I here?
Am I an accident in paradise?

Most of you may already be familiar with Abraham Maslow, the famous discoverer of the hierarchy of needs. In his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” he introduced the idea that once our basic needs for food, shelter and community are met we strive for intimacy with other people in the form of family and close relationships. Once this is accomplished, we are driven to gain esteem and recognition within our community. Finally, there will naturally appear an urge to realize one’s potential, which Maslow called ‘self-actualization’. Shortly before his death, though, Maslow expanded this hierarchy by another step: ‘self-transcendence’. Thus, the ultimate goal and motivation in life, according to Maslow, is to reach a trans-personal level where life is lived for the sake of the embodiment of ethics, compassion, creativity and spirituality. Self-actualization is ultimately not ‘enough’ to satisfy our deepest yearnings.
(Much to Maslows surprise he found in his research that self-actualization was not a necessary step preceding self-transcendence. Because of this ‘disorder’ in an otherwise structurally concise and elegant theory and because Maslow died before he could reach a final conclusion about his findings, ‘self-transcendence’ as the ultimate goal is somehow hardly ever included when we are taught about his hierarchy of needs.)

I find it extremely interesting that across all cultures and across all ages, humans have developed and cultivated means to induce a (self-) trance(-ndence) through enactments of rituals, studying ‘holy’ scriptures, performing and beholding forms of art or through the intake of psychedelic substances (see also my post on the Way of Bodhisattva). This confirms to me Maslows final analysis of the ultimate motivation in life.

Echoing Maslow and our cultural heritage, famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, founder of Logotherapy, posited that meaning is ultimately found in being involved in something that points away from, that is, transcends one’s self. Accordingly, meaning can be found in one of three activities or attitudes: in the service of others (similar to the idea of ‘karma yoga’), in loving somebody (similar to ‘bhakti yoga’), or, in the bearing of unavoidable suffering (similar to Nietzsches ‘amor fati’).
If you read my blog you know that I would argue that there is a fourth way. Meaning can be found in the realization that all is ‘One’ (and the same). This insight is the gateway to the preciousness of ‘this’ moment as it is. We realize that this moment is the culmination and purpose of our lives, because life lives simply for its own sake and for no other particular reason than to rejoice in itself. In this intimacy with life as it ‘is’ a sense of mystery and gratefulness brings a natural joy of being alive. In it, the very drive to seek meaning becomes irrelevant and collapses.

Having said that, let’s backtrack a bit. So, are we accidents in paradise? I would say paradise is evolving. As a species we seem to be moving along the hierarchy of needs. Since we have managed to create civilizations of peace and material abundance, we suddenly find ourselves confronted with an innate need for self-actualization and, ultimately, self-transcendence.

But what exactly is this ‘self’ that we are in need to transcend to find meaning? I see the egoic self as arising out of the reptilian parts of our brains and minds. Our ego/ self is a bundle of reactive patterns which serve the purpose to keep our organism alive. It is fueled by fear which, ultimately, leaves us in an unsatisfactory state of existential dis-ease. Because of that, we can’t ‘get no satisfaction’. We can never rest in ordinariness. We are always pushed and pulled to crave security and assurance at any cost and at any time. As long as there is fear, there is an ego/ self and there will always be a next thing to improve, control, change, get etc.

In our times of prosperity and peace, though, the services of the ego/ self are no longer of much use. It has become an impediment to our well-being because it can’t address the higher ranking human needs. It is not to blame, though, it simply wasn’t set up for this task. It indeed served its evolutionary purpose very well. After all, we are still here after all those millennia of human history, which is quite amazing if we think about it. But its about time now to go beyond our ego’s/ selves to bring some real satisfaction and fulfillment into our lives. How? By cultivating ego/ self-transcending activities and attitudes or by realizing that the fears of the ego/ self are completely unfounded since all is ‘One’. Therein lie the answers to all our nagging questions about the meaning of life.

May you understand and be free.

“To practice the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”
~Zen Master Dogen

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2 Comments on “The Meaning of Life”

  1. A wise and beautifully written post thank you. The cartoon is so apropos!

    And thanks for the link – I have reciprocated on my *blogamigos* page.
    ~ miriam louisa


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