On the difference between the meaning/purpose of life and the experience of being alive.
I remember my mind dipping into existential thoughts as far back as 2001. By that time, I was eight years old.
The reason this date is significant is that it was the year Halo: Combat Evolved was released, marking the start of one of the world’s most popular video game franchises.
My mother believed in the Christian God and would spend time telling me Bible stories as a child. So I was always aware of some vague notion of a heaven and a hell, of some realm where we go after death.
But when Halo came out, I started to have some interesting thoughts. I distinctly remember thinking, “If heaven is where God is, and you have to be good to get into heaven, will God still allow me to play violent video games like Halo?”
Such questions are common among children. Sometimes, kids endlessly pester adults for answers that don’t exist.
The thought stuck with me. I kept questioning the logic of the popular conception of God and heaven, and how that stacked up with how humans really were, how we really behaved, and what we really wanted out of life.
There may be a heaven and a hell. Hell, all the religions might be right. For all we know, we live in an endlessly recurring multiverse in which all possible manifestations of all possible worlds exist, and your soul moves between them depending on the decisions you make in whatever plane of existence you happen to be on, presently.
That doesn’t sound so bad to me, actually. In fact, that seems optimal. Why would an energy as magnificent as Creation be limited in size, shape, time, or dimension? But I digress.
My mind is quite neurotic when it comes to questions of meaning and purpose pertaining to how I should live my life, what I should strive to accomplish in life, and how I should go about trying to achieve my various goals.
Of course, as I got older, my thoughts became more complex. And with more complex thoughts on what life is all about comes more complex feelings.
This can be a very dangerous trap if you don’t know how to manage it. I don’t mean to make myself out to be someone special or more unique than anyone else, but for those who simply cannot get their mind off the existential domain of thinking, the rest of society can seem quite literally insane.
It’s hard for a person like me to understand how everyone goes about life in a seemingly unquestioning fashion. Everyone seems content with the answers they have. Life makes sense to them. There is no drive to deconstruct, deprogram, or otherwise embrace the mystery and majesty that is a fully human life.
So I’ve often asked myself, with no small amount of self-guilt, why I can’t seem to simply fall in line like everyone else. You know, figure out some bullshit meaning for life, get a regular job, start a family, have kids, yatta yatta.
The first bit of wisdom I encountered that helped me free myself from the need to have any definable worldview that makes sense to someone else came from Joseph Campbell.
I believe it’s in the Power of Myth where he was asked about the meaning of life, and he says something to the effect of, “I don’t think people are looking for a meaning or a purpose for life, they are looking for an experience of being alive.”
This is a pretty significant detail of Campbell’s philosophy. One that really started me on the path towards making sense out of an otherwise senseless world. His words simply clicked, in the same exact way that a square peg fits a square hole. Nice and neat.
Being someone fresh out of the 2016 political shit-circus, ideological speak (and therefore ideological thought) was very prevalent in my mind. And there is perhaps no greater enemy of free-thinking than overly dogmatic political ideology.
I question these days the degree to which we can have an open, fluid mind amenable to changing our beliefs if we are so concretely fixed to our political views. I wonder if the machinery of our brain is capable of being dogmatic in one domain of life, open in another.
Well anywho, Campbell gave me a clue, but it wasn’t until I discovered Alan Watts that I truly started to embrace this notion, found within certain strands of Buddhist/Eastern philosophical thought (I suppose some Western philosophers have put forth similar ideas) that life doesn’t necessarily have to have any meaning or purpose in the form of ideas or conceptions about itself.
Life simply is.
It’s right there in the term we use to define ourselves. Human being. To be means to simply exist, not to fret over what the meaning or purpose of that existence is. And I have done so much fretting. So, so, so much fretting.
Now, this is a difficult thing for Westerners to understand because we are inculcated (I really love this word, we’re gonna have to get used to it) from birth to believe in some sort of higher purpose for ourselves, some sort of program that we have to adhere to.
That can take the form of a religious view of how one should live their life, to the good ol’ standard American Dream which looks a lot like a suburban, middle-class home that’s too big to be practical, and a whole lot of useless possessions to fill it. And let’s not forget that 9–5 office job, which slowly turns us into obedient, paper-pushing slaves in an endlessly cycling chain of middle-management bureaucrats all vying with one another for that next big promotion or raise, while the CEO laughs (usually his) ass off to the bank.
And so, from the perspective of someone like myself, it really does look like a rat race. Sorry to use the tired old cliche. But cliches are oftentimes the best way of describing the situation.
Watts is an interesting thinker because he describes himself as an experientialist. The Wikipedia entry on this is quite apt:
All that really means is that his view of life came directly from the experience of his own ground of being. What it was like to be Watts, a human, here on Earth, and nothing more.
So to be an experientialist yourself, all you really have to do is build your life philosophy from the ground of your own being, your own experiences, your own thoughts, your own feelings. I think this is Philosophy 101, but some people might find it to be quite mad because once again, we live in a society in which everyone thinks someone else that’s smarter, more talented, or otherwise better than everyone else has a bunch of answers that we all need to accept, and then shove on others in the manner of some zealot.
I hate zealots. I really do. I can’t stand people who think they have some ultimate authority (beyond human fallibility) backing their actions, and therefore they feel justified in committing the most heinous acts against other human beings who simply believe something different than them. But I digress, AGAIN (I think digressions are something else we will have to get used to).
When you really get into the experientialist perspective of trying to make sense out of life, you find out that there isn’t any sense to be made at all.
Zen teachings are often used to try and describe this. What is the meaning of a flower? Of a dewdrop in the morning? Of a butterfly flapping its wings?
We could try to formulate some real try-hard make-sense theory of all this stuff, figure out all the mechanics of it, etc, etc. There is, of course, value to science and engineering, of building things, developing technologies, and all that good stuff.
But I think making peace within one’s own mind is an altogether different domain. It requires a different sort of approach towards life, a different kind of relationship with oneself.
And so I’m brought back to Campbell’s distinction between a meaning/purpose of life and an experience of being alive. I’ve come to learn that feeling alive is more important than having some ideology that I can hand you that tries to explain what life is, or what that “alive” feeling is like.
Ideologies are for people who want to parrot someone else’s answers. I don’t want to put forth any answers that get parroted. I want people to feel their own aliveness.
Will I ever succeed in helping others to come to that feeling? I don’t know. But helping other people reach that place does sound like something that could be a worthwhile meaning/purpose for my life. Hah!
See how it comes full-circle? I just wasted a bunch of your time talking about how there is no meaning/purpose of life, and here I am now telling you that bringing people to that place can, in fact, be a worthwhile purpose of life.
This [New-Age-Woo-Zen-Zen-Confetti] shit can get real circular, real fast. The trick is in understanding how to liberate oneself from needing fixed answers, fixed meanings, fixed purposes so that you feel free to create your own.
I think that’s what art is all about. Creating your own meaning. You can only have fun with that sort of thing if you reach a certain mood of playfulness, of feeling not too serious about what it all means, and comfortable drawing from your own perspective on things.
But if there’s one thing I want to stress first, it’s this. I think it’s far more important to feel genuinely alive before you go off trying to give anyone any answers for how things work, or creating any programs, or pushing any philosophy.
It’s a hard line to balance on. I still don’t quite have it down. The urge to proselytize a bunch of sweet-sounding words that helped ease my pain is strong, but I feel that the world is filled with proselytizers, and I despise proselytizers almost as much as I despise zealots.
There’s a line in a Travis Scott song that I think about a lot. “Practice oh no never preach, practice oh no never preach.” It’s from the track Astrothunder.
And so, I think I ought to take this feeling of aliveness, water it, watch it grow, and then see if I have anything to teach on the other end of that experience. Otherwise, none of it would feel authentic. But how does one learn and teach at the same time? Hell if I know.
Maybe we can figure it out together. Or maybe I’ll become just another ego-pundit too fixed to his own views. Time will tell.
It feels as if the spirituality/self-help industries are filled with snake-oil charlatans who are really good at sounding sweet and offering good soul-nurturing words but lack any sort of inner experience of this sort of thing. And that’s the last thing I want to turn into.
If there is one type of person I would easily march into combat against, it’s that kind of false guru, the fucker who profits off of and/or takes advantage of people by getting them to spiritually resonate with them, in the manner of a friend or mentor who offers something to ease your pain, but in reality is in possession of nothing more than a rotten soul looking for it’s next dopamine fix in the form of a naive, willing supply.
So I hope you can be patient with me as I descend into a more meaningless mode of living for a while. Just to see what I learn. Just to see what sort of experiences I might have, and to see whether or not those experiences are worth sharing with you.