by Michael W. Taft
“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” ~ Joseph Campbell
If you Google the phrase “meaninglessness of life,” you’ll get almost half a million hits. Quotes from great thinkers and pages from philosophy sites wrestle with the human sense that everything we humans do is for nothing and all life is absurd. The haunting lines uttered by Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle in the epic tv show True Detective captivated viewers by explicitly pointing out our collective pain at this sense of meaningless.
The promise of meditation is that it will help you to find wellbeing, but can we really have wellbeing while drowning in a sea of meaninglessness?
What Does Wellbeing Mean?
Psychologist Martin Seligman, a founder of the positive psychology movement, wrote the bestselling book Authentic Happiness about how to find happiness in life. Despite its popularity, however, Seligman later realized that happiness, which is a transient emotional state, may not be a beneficial goal of life. “Doing what makes me happy,” moment-by-moment could mean becoming a slave to every passing whim, no matter how immoral, illegal, or destructive, as long as it made you happy. Would that really be the highest quality life you could lead?
As he explains in his later book Flourishing, Seligman worked hard to revise the definition of a positive psychology goal which made more sense to an adult trying to have a good life. He created a definition of “flourishing,” PERMA, and posits these five qualities:
Positive emotions — means having at least some ability to feel joy, but also qualities such as interest, excitement, awe, and pride.
Engagement — is Seligman’s way of talking about a flow state, when we are doing things we find intrinsically interesting.
Relationships — probably the most important driver of wellbeing is having family, friends, lovers, and other people to do things with.
Meaning — feeling that what you are doing is important, worth doing, interesting, and contributes to the greater good is vital.
Accomplishments — human beings find joy in pursuing success and mastery, even if it causes some difficulty and stress.
This formulation represents a much more fully-considered and powerful view of wellbeing than the simplistic phrase “being happy.” It includes the fact that activities like raising children may not make a person “happy”—most studies show that people’s happiness is reduced while child-rearing—yet still contribute very significantly to a sense of wellbeing and having a life well-lived.
Meaning, according to Seligman, is the one factor that puts the other four into perspective and gives them a context. Without meaning, the other parts of wellbeing ring hollow. Even if the world itself is meaningless, as Joseph Campbell asserts in the quote at the beginning of this article, it is possible for us to create our own deeply-felt sense of meaning.
It’s hard to overestimate the benefit to your wellbeing of profoundly tapping into a sense that there’s something you really value in this world. The sense that—even if in the Grand Scheme of Things it’s all meaningless—there is still something that is very meaningful to you. Something that is important to you, and that you feel good about putting all your effort into. Even Rust Cohle seemed to find meaning in his cold-case hunt for a serial killer.
Meditation can do a lot to overcome this sense of meaninglessness. At its best, it can begin to infuse your life with a tangible sense of real meaning and purpose.
The key to using meditation to find meaning is to remember that emotions are not in your head, they are embodied experiences. We may think of meaning as being mental or conceptual, but it is through the feelings in your body that you discover where meaning exists for you. What tugs at your heart. What gets you excited.
If you want to try get in touch with some meaning right now, it’s fairly easy to do. Sit in meditation, relax, and get comfortable. Then bring to mind things that you found meaningful in the past. Do this one at a time, very slowly. As you think of one, search for emotional body sensations about it. Don’t be surprised if there aren’t any, or the ones that arise are not what you expected them to be. It’s extremely important not to judge whatever comes up.
Next bring to mind things that you have found meaningful recently. If you don’t know of any, think of whatever activities you’ve been spending time doing. Notice whatever emotional sensations occur surrounding each one.
There may be all sorts of different emotional sensations about any particular activity, but the one you should be on the lookout for is excitement, interest, “energy,” or joy. Again, these may be very subtle, but regardless, they signal something that is meaningful for you right now.
Once you’ve done this, what do you do with the information? Sometimes it’s enough to just know. But it can be helpful to realize that this is your emotional guidance system performing its orienting function. It’s pointing you in the direction of what matters to you. The hope is that you will then prioritize that activity, engage with it more fully, do more of it.
As you practice this more often, and act upon what you discover, you’ll find your life taking some surprising turns. Turns in the direction of greater wellbeing and a greater sense of purpose.
Meaning, as Campbell suggests, is something you create for yourself. But it’s not always so simple. It’s not as if a lightbulb appears above your head, the room fills with light, and you announce that you’ve found the reason for your existence. Instead, it’s a sensation of aliveness and purpose and a feeling of being uplifted that slowly begins to pervade your awareness, your decision making, and your life.
This is an edited excerpt from Michael’s book The Mindful Geek.
photo by Rachel