158. Innocence (II)
We cannot stand outside ourselves and read the book of life, so the meaning of life must remain obscure to us. We can never know; only the eyes we can never see know what it all means. Nonetheless, we can tell what decreases meaning in our lives: our lives become meaningless when we lose continuity. If I take a page of writing and cut out chunks then the whole loses its continuity and so loses its meaning; we do this in our own lives all the time, partly by individual design and partly as a result of the way we conceptualise the world.
The antidote to the meaninglessness of existence is often said to be—particularly by people in the self-help industry, such as Jordan Peterson and company—for a person to work towards a particular goal. In this line of thought, meaning comes about from making a plan and achieving the sub-goals that lead up to the final goal; perhaps you do not make it all the way to the final goal, but meaning comes from the struggle. This line of thought—and it is very much a thought—is catastrophic for a meaningful life. By concentrating all a person’s meaning in the achievement of a plan, the solution causes a person to split up and divide their life; it encourages them to dissect the continuity of their life and treat it as a mechanical process, and mechanical processes are always dead—hence the meaninglessness of factory work.
I suggest that people feel the greatest amount of meaning when they contemplate nature—when they look at lakes and trees—and when they do so with friends and family. Our natural evolutionary environment was pretty much this way; we were in contact, at base, with the continuity of the seasons—a continuity now disrupted by lights and computers and plans. Man was formed to operate in small hunting groups, and woman was formed to forage and care for children. Our lives are most meaningful in this state—an eternal state, without clock time—where the changes of nature are marked by symbols, Helios in his chariot or St. Nicholas with his coal and slipper; the symbols are personifications of the continuity of eternity.
So far as I can tell, none of this requires analysis: a term that literally means “breaking into constituent parts”—it is the opposite of symbolism, which means “throw with”. The world of industrial work is full of analysis: annual reviews, monthly targets, five-year plans, and so on. All of these objectives serve to break us from eternity, from what the psychologists call the “flow state”. The person who seeks meaning in “career progression” will never find it; they may, however, find meaning in their garden—provided it is not over-analysed, and a bird is still regarded as a messenger from the gods not a machine.
It is possible to enter the flow state in industrial work by becoming lost in a project, but to do so a person must forget goals. They must simply be the process; they must lose their ego—with its rational goals—and become their work. This is not an intellectual procedure, it is a matter of forgetting reason and sequential time. Scott Adams is quite right to observe that processes are better than goals; we must forget ourselves in the process, submit to the yoke (the literal meaning of “yoga”) and forget—just as the conscript is trained to become a part of a greater military organism. The journey is the destination; people who think about the destination are bound to meaninglessness—you are already where you need to be. Indeed, adherence to goals, following Goodhart’s Law, can lead to gross confusion and a lack of practical achievement. We need to plan, but as soon as we have made our plan we should burn it; the subconscious will handle the rest, the plan was a preparation—the reality will be something else, it will be eternity.