Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Meaning

In the early days of psychoanalysis, finding hidden meaning was an analyst's bread and butter.  Emotional expression was pretty contained in those days and dreams, slips of the tongue and other actions often provided revealing clues to a person's inner state.  World War II, and particularly the Holocaust, triggered the Age of Anxiety, wherein the Existentialists changed the conversation about meaning.  A few, most notably Victor Frankl, wrote that the human being's ability and need to find meaning is life-saving (hinting at the wave of Humanistic psychologists to come in the sixties and seventies).  But many more felt that life is meaningless and that humans, if they need to, must conjure up their own meanings.

An echo of these somewhat contradictory views seems to continue today with some neo-Advaitins calling the New Ager's joy in synchronistic "messages" pure superstition.  But I'd like to go back to some of the questions Frankl raised.  Why is meaning important?  Why does lack of meaning in one's life sometimes cause so much pain it drives a person to therapy?

Years ago, I started to notice that transcendent experiences in myself and others carried a common theme:  every manifestation of the Absolute is meaningful.  In other words, in states of heightened awareness the world is felt to be saturated with meaning.  Not that there is hidden meaning somewhere else, but that meaningfulness is an inherent quality of creation.  Dilgo Kyhentse Rinpoche pointed to this mystery when he said that everything is a symbol but that there is no difference between the symbol and the truth itself.  No question, we love to make up stories about our experiences that carry personal meaning for us.  But if we're looking for meaningfulness, it is already shot through life itself, waiting to be seen with a clear mind.  In fact, it is usually the attachment to our personal stories that prevents us from glimpsing the mystery of life's omnipresent meaning.

If life is filled with meaningfulness, then it seems to me that nature would be designed to be sensitive to it.  Can we say that animals are responding to meaning when they run to higher ground before a tsunami?  Or a seed when it waits for precise signals from temperature and light before it begins to sprout?  Meaningfulness may create its own vocabulary, depending upon the creature.  But I like to think that we are programmed to search for meaning just exactly so that we'll keep looking beyond the human-made answers that never last.  The answers may elude us, but it is the search that makes us.

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