Recently I have been spending a fair amount of time exploring the question of meaning – what exactly is it and where do I find it? Why does the search for it feel like such a driving force in my life as well as the lives of those close to me? I’m turning 40 this year. Traditionally this is the time of the mid-life crisis, which essentially is a crisis of meaning. This is naturally coinciding with a rather large transition in my life. “What the hell am I doing?” and “Where do I find meaning? are constant mental companions.
I read an article this week that focused on some of the cultural shifts in the search for meaning in recent decades. The article is politically charged, however I feel the point the author makes about how the secularization of society along with the rise of individualism has contributed to this crisis:
Liberalism is an existential paradox. By unshackling humans from traditional cultural and social structures, it has freed us to pursue aspirations and experiences based on our own personal interests. This liberation has allowed many to explore a wider range of paths to meaning but it has also unrooted many from the most reliable sources of meaning. It has ushered in an era of individualism. The more people privilege an individual self (a self defined by personal attributes and interests) over an interdependent self (a self defined by cultural roles and duties), the more vulnerable they are to feeling like they don’t matter, that they lack social significance.
I see how this has been, and is still true in my own life. Even when located and rooted in a community, a spiritual teaching, a relationship or friendship that offers meaning, the mind and heart still seek for something better. The fact that we are so aware of other options diminishes the psychological security of the ones we already possess.
One of the challenges I see connected to this paradox is what appears to be a search for the most meaningful pursuits. As if meaning was an objective, quantifiable commodity. It’s not, and never will be. Society may value some pursuits or paths more than others, but fundamentally, meaning is personal and subjective. The rising intellectual dark web (IDW) star and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, claims that responsibility lies in "finding the largest burden that you can bear and bearing it.” There is some truth to this – especially for those who lack any motivation or responsibility in their lives. Yet what about those who do have responsibility already? Family, companies, students? And despite this load, are still are wondering what it is all about? In another context he says:
There is no more effective way of operating in the world than to conceptualize the highest good you can imagine and then strive to attain it. Do you really have anything better to do? If you don’t, then why would you do anything else?
This one resonates with me strongly – it reminds me of something my Zen teacher, Zentatsu Baker Roshi has spoken about on several occasions – in a lecture he asks us to imagine the most perfected human being in the world and to try to envision their qualities. Then he asks us where to find them – and obviously the audience is silent as this person doesn’t exist. The only solution, therefore, is to become that person yourself. And then he usually says “Do you have anything better to do?” Oddly similar ideas from two radically different spheres of thought.
No, I don’t actually have anything better to do. Yet now we have another question at hand – what is the highest good or person I can imagine? This where the work is. Peterson will say, don’t wait until you answer this question, your idea of the highest good will evolve and change as you pursue it. I see this is where I get caught up at times. Analysis paralysis, so to speak, again weighing the many options that this time of individualism offers, seeking to step into the most meaningful direction.
When I sit deeply with this question, my fundamental Buddhist vow of living for the benefit of all sentient beings arises. For some years now this has taken the form of becoming a spiritual teacher – guiding others in meditation and yoga. What seemed so obvious for a while now is now not so obvious. Living for the benefit of others – does this require one to be working directly in a field of service? Teaching, healthcare, therapy, etc.? I’m not so sure any more. I believe there are numerous means to benefit all beings, even if one chooses a life of greater isolation and introversion. (A topic I will explore in a future post).
That’s it for now. Please comment – I would love to begin a discussion on this topic.