Notes on a Buddhist path

The Non Meaning of Life

August 13, 2011 By | 9 Comments

The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” ~ Eric Hoffer

The other day I was savoring with a bit of pride the scenery of my present life. I felt a surprising contentment after the brass ring I thought I needed fell from my grasp last week. The bucolic vision was gauzy and dreamy, kind of like a Doris Day close up. Any imperfections had been filtered out and all that remained was the deep satisfaction that I was doing my work, embracing the mystery of life, living out the destiny of what I was put here to do. I gazed upon the vast landscape of the past behind me and relished with joy how far I’d come on my journey.

As much as I wanted to continue with my self congratulatory back slapping, something told me to turn around. My mouth dropped along with my mood when I saw the immense mountain of the future laid out before me. If where I’d come from gave me such satisfaction, why did the path ahead leave me feeling deflated and overwhelmed? What is the point of all the growth opportunity gymnastics we put ourselves through? And does any of it matter?

That brings me to The Big Question. Yep, you know the one, but this version has a bit of twist. It’s not what is the meaning of life, but is there a meaning to life?

From a Buddhist prospective the short answer is “no.”

Okay, take a deep breath and stick with me here. I know what you’re thinking (well, not really, but I can guess because this is what I thought the first time I heard this.) You mean everything I’ve done, every person I’ve loved or hated, every fight I had with my mother, my long marriage, my short screenwriting career, every dream I’ve had/sequestered/lost, winning a replica of the Tomorrowland spaceship ride as a prize on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show, every speck of minutia that has pulled me or repulsed me my entire time of existence on this planet has had absolutely no/zilch/nada purpose or meaning in my life.

Yep, that’s about right.

Meaning wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t attachment and clinging. When we label something as good or meaningful, be it work, relationship, home, events or our actions, we want more of it and don’t want to let go. Label something as bad or meaningless (and thereby giving it meaning), we want nothing to do with it and try to push it away. Manifest destiny, the westward expansion across America in the 1800’s, was based on the belief that America was “destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High — the Sacred and the True” (John L O’Sullivan, 1839). It is a piercing example of people, primarily white people, believing with all their being that they were doing the meaningful work of God by displacing millions of native inhabitants, and they clung tenaciously to that belief. The recipients of those “divine principles” held their own divine principles and clung tightly to them in the face of failing to hold back the tide of unwelcome homesteaders. Well “meaning” people on both sides of that venture. Attaching meaning to anything labels it and assigns an external judgment to circumstances that are just that, circumstances. You go on vacation to Nepal and have a chance  encounter with your best friend from grade school on a bus in Kathmandu. What does that mean? Was it serendipity or pure coincidence? You wash a glass and it shatters in your hand. Were you putting too much metaphorical pressure on yourself or holding on too tightly to a situation? You met a childhood friend. A glass broke. That was all.

The first of the Four Noble Truths tells us that “union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering….” Left to our faulty human devices we will perpetually crave a better car, a more meaningful job, escape from an empty relationship. Attachment or craving of any kind creates suffering. When we attach meaning to events or observations we’re giving our ego editing rights on the film of our life. Those edits separate us from peaceful presence and are the source of our suffering (the second Noble Truth). It is only by stepping off the screen and watching the film rather than believing we are the film that we can release our attachment to our desires. This is the third Noble Truth. Waking up to see that all of it is illusion is where the end of suffering can begin.

So, what is the meaning to life? Our only purpose in this life is to end suffering. The fourth and final Noble Truth lays out the game plan. By way of the Noble Eightfold Path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration) suffering can be extinguished. It is possible with every inhale and every exhale. Everything is impermanent. Every thing. That goes for you too, Suffering.

Image credits:  American Progress by John Gast (circa 1872); Writings of Heart by Pharmick Ratanapanyo Bhikkhu

Comments

  1. oh yeah , Babe, you got it! How lovely you write about this. We could add that everything is also an illusion and that we don’t exist except for our self perpetuating thrusting forward. What busy little bees we are.

    • Thanks Fawn for the reminder about illusion. I’ve done a bit of a revision incorporating that piece as well. Yes, buzz, buzz, buzz….

  2. Reading through your latest blog. You go girl, tell it like it is: Yeah, suffering. Yeah, impermanence. Yeah, we’re all dust in the win……. WAIT A MINUTE! You’ve got an official Mickey Mouse Club TV Show replica of the Tomorrowland spaceship ride?!?!?!? That’s true happiness right there in your hand!

    • I did!!! The Tomorrowland spaceship is long broken and gone, but I still have the Western Union Telegraph letter that arrived one evening at my childhood home to tell me I was the winner. Guess there’s still some attachment there, eh!?

Trackbacks

  1. […] week I wrote about the meaning, or more accurately, the non meaning of life. Since then I have been doing a bit of pondering about that concept and struggling with the […]

  2. […] filmmaker, musician, husband, father and generally great guy, John has answered my big questions (Is there a meaning to life?) and the not so big ones (Chocolate couldn’t be counted as dukkha, could it?) He has guided […]

  3. […] the two philosophies. Existentialists believe the individual creates meaning in life; Buddhists, not so much. Existentialists believe this is as good as it gets; Buddhists believe in nibbana, peace and the […]

  4. […] filmmaker, musician, husband, father and generally great guy, John has answered my big questions (Is there a meaning to life?) and the not so big ones (Chocolate couldn’t be counted as dukkha, could it?) He has guided […]

  5. […] 21, 2011 By Tess | Leave a Comment Last week I wrote about the meaning, or more accurately, the non meaning of life. Since then I have been doing a bit of pondering about that concept and struggling with the […]

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