The meaning of meaning
When it comes to whether or not life means anything, I maintain that a meaningful life emerges from an identification with awareness or consciousness. Meaning does not derive from any activity or particular goal; you do not need to do anything for your life to have meaning—although activities such as prayer and meditation may help you to identify with consciousness. The only “goal”, vaguely defined, that we can associate with meaning is to identify with consciousness, but to identify with consciousness is not an activity or goal as such; it is a change in perspective. It is always there, but you have forgotten that it is there; and I think its recovery is different in nature from the prince who says, “The meaning of my life is to rescue a princess from a high castle tower.”
To understand why people are mixed up about meaning we must first understand that the word is not very old; it only dates back to 14th-century English, where it stood for “mind”, “thought”, “symbolise”, and “intentionality”. Hence there is an assumption that for something to mean something it must head towards a goal; e.g. the trowel is used to smooth out cement, to trowel means to smooth out cement—the meaning of a trowel is that it smooths out cement. This leads to a problem with humans because—unless we assume a creator-God—then our lives have no purpose. What it is that a man is for represents a question constantly asked in religion and philosophy; indeed, to suppose a creator-God does not necessarily answer the question—for what he wants for man in general and you in particular is not always apparent or widely agreed. Hence we arrive at the problem of “the meaning of life”.
The problem is further aggravated by science, since science debars us from the assumption that any thing has an inherent purpose; for example, if I say, “The purpose of the eye is to see,” then I would obscure its evolutionary development—since the eye developed through many mutations and cullings, sometimes more than once, and was not in any sense purposively crafted to see; the human eye may very well in fact be on its way to something other entirely. So it would seem that science destroys meaning, and this is why many people have seen the rise of science as being responsible for nihilism and meaninglessness in the world—the death of religion, itself associated with a purposeful march towards a being, somewhere out there, called God.
Yet this word “meaning” is a relatively new one, and I think our concerns over meaning vanish if we investigate its meaning; the concern that the world has no meaning vanishes once we realise meaning is not a very important concept and that what we are after when we talk about it is something else entirely. In ancient Greek, there is no direct equivalent to “meaning”—instead we find the English sense is covered by the word “dynamai” or “dynamic”. This word literally means, “I am able”; its full semantic range includes power, ability, force of war, magic, manifestation of divine power, value, worth, meaning: force of word, and square root or mathematical power. So dynamic things and people, and dynamism itself, are tied up with meaning—very powerful. Yet when we break it down like this it seems rather trivial; meaning is just about the ability to undertake an activity—and, anyway, why did the Greeks, the most philosophical people, not really have “meaning” as a distinct concept?
The answer is that what we call meaning is subsumed under what the Greeks called techne and techne must be contrasted with telos. Now, some people think that telos refers to a thing’s purpose—so surely it means the same as “meaning”? This is a slight confusion. The difference between techne and telos can be understood if you think about writing and seeing; the former is techne, whereas the latter is telos. So you can see that techne is much more like what we mean by meaning, or the Greeks themselves meant by dynamism—indeed, do we not think that our technology is dynamic?
In our world, people have become muddled up—we are a technological society, after all—and so only see techne. The meaning of life? It is to move towards a goal, it is to squirt ink just as a pen squirts ink—this is what we mean by a purposeful and meaningful life. Work out your life goals and your life will have meaning. Except it never does, not really. Why? Because we are not after meaning in this sense of ends, we are after telos—yet we do not really have telos as a concept and, worse, some people subsume or conflate meaning and telos together so that we think the goal it was created for constitutes a thing’s telos; or we struggle to work out what we were “made for”, by God or evolution. It seems insoluble; and yet people struggle for this goal. Actually, there is no goal—you have already arrived, it is just you are confused as to what you search for.
Where does telos come from? Unlike “meaning”, it is a very, very old word. In Proto-Indo-European, it derives from -kwel and this means, symbolises you might say, “move around”, “revolve”, “sojourn”, and “dwell”. In turn, it is related to the Sanskrit “cakram”, “circle” or “wheel”—in other words, telos is about the axis upon which the world revolves. Hence, in Hindooism, we find the concept of the Chakravartin—the divine ruler, one who rolls and whose wheels turn everywhere. And what is this axis upon which the world turns? Consciousness. It is the circle or wheel of perception that can be represented by a loop that changes itself as it perceives, only to perceive again.
Hence, as Jung observed, “Those who look outward, dream; those who look inward, awaken.” To reconnect to the telos does not require goals or objectives; it is to realise that you are the axis upon which creation turns, not in the egotistic sense—certainly connected to goals and objectives—but in the sense that the world is created and co-created by consciousness. People will never find what they think they mean by “meaning” in goals and objectives; in fact, these goals and objectives will obscure the telos they seek; as Heidegger observed, our dynamic and technological world conceals Being, conceals dwelling—another word, as noted above, linked to telos.
The attempt to find some entity outside our selves called “God” that has purposes for us is foolish; and, of course, people will say it cannot be scientifically supported anyway and then some will fall into nihilistic despair. However, once it is realised that this question about “meaning” is partly an artefact from the English language, you will come to see that what generates meaning—what generates symbols, for “meaning” also means “symbolise”—is, in fact, consciousness; the awareness that dwells within each man. The person who knows what the Hindoos call the atman sees no separation between Self and Other—no separation that could lead to goals and objectives. As Schopenhauer observed, this person knows Tat Tvam Asi “thou art that”; in other words, the separation between “I” and “other” is an illusion. There is only consciousness, a non-material phenomenon that is eternal.
Obviously, there is still a need for goals and objectives; yet these will never really satisfy, and when people feel existential distress or say “life seems meaningless” what they really refer to is that they have been disconnected from their telos—their soul, effectively. They need to reconnect with it, either through meditative exercises or probably something like artistic exploration. The notion that there is some entity, God, “out there” who has rational answers and goals really has nothing to do with this—it is a misconception. God is within, to know God is to reconnect with consciousness—awareness—freed from the rational, problem-solving, and goal-orientated thought that characterises almost all human activity in the contemporary West. “But what do I get out of it? What’s the point?” “No point,” answers the Buddha. “Oh, he says there’s no point to it, fuck that. Where’s your five-year plan? You need a plan, mate! Nobody does anything without a plan.” (Five-year plans have caused so much trouble and unhappiness, and yet still everywhere I see that people demand plans rather than trusting God, consciousness, to unfold in His own time).
Naturally, professional atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, conveniently amputate the Eastern religions from their discussions about religion and claim no interest in them; and they do so because they know that religious ideas reanimate if they become about what is in here and not out there. You will never find a God “out there” with a radiotelescope or with elaborate Christian theological arguments about a prospective creator-being—you will find God in here, in consciousness; it is relatively easy to do, no logical gymnastics required. This is significant because man requires more than goals and objectives to live, it is a pretty grey and bleak world if we only live by goals and objectives; we need imagination and we need to open our eyes and become more aware in every dimension possible—and it is the awareness that “means” something.