The human tendency to label – and call the label the meaning of the thing – can prevent us from experiencing the world as we find it. Insisting that the meaning of something is what we say it is is rather like shouting loudly at somebody that is trying to tell us something important and then insisting what we were shouting was their real message.
One of the most frequent reasons that people seek me out as a Mentor is that they have a growing feeling that their life is not authentically the one which they should be living. Such an apprehension can be both discomforting and destabilizing. Many come to this feeling after years of following a path that they set upon early in life. Some have been living out the designs that their parents had for them. Others have been following their peers.
When I was young, the heroes were scientists. Science was the golden pasture that all of us in the ‘advanced courses’ wanted to follow. That vision followed me from high school to university. It took me three years of undergraduate courses to begin to suspect that Chemistry, and science in general, was probably not how I wanted to spend my life. I remember envying those who felt otherwise. They had found their path in life.
I went over the side and began a journey in search of meaning. I won’t bore you with the gory details but I wandered the globe and tried all sorts of paths. I worked on Wall Street, earned a PhD, wrote books and articles, started half a dozen businesses, organized fishing trips and group cruises – just to name a few.
But something else had taken root – I mean in addition to a nomadic tendency. Early on I discovered Buddhism and, over the years, it grew into a way of looking at the world and my life in it. One day I woke up and was amazed to find that everything that I had been searching for was right there within me. My journey from here to there was simply a misunderstanding. The real journey was from here to here. With the first step on that path, the sun began to come up.
The search for meaning is one of life’s continuing journeys. The suspicion that meaning is lacking can bring on a deep dread that can haunt us all. The dreary landscape of the suspicion of no meaning can lead us to make up meaning. Buddhists call this ornamentation – the creation of bright and pretty things to enliven the world as think we find it. But the world we think we find is often a world we manufacture.
Ornaments are synthetic realities. When we attribute meaning to an event or an idea we are expressing dissatisfaction with things as we think they are. Some of these ornaments play important roles in our lives – and make them better. We believe, for instance, that time is a river flowing from then through now to the future. (Of course, it is not.) That vision of time allows us to be ‘on time’ for meetings and know when to eat, sleep and go to work. Of course, time is nothing like that – but the ornament helps us organize our life.
Other ornaments distance us – give us a false sense of security – and keep us from experiencing important truths. We imagine, for instance, that there is such a thing as our ‘self’ and then see the world in ‘self-centric’ terms. As a result, we see our self as separate from the rest of the world – isolated in the body which we call ours. This ornament can cause great melancholy and sometimes deep depression.
There is a difference between understanding and explaining
Ornaments explain – often without the requisite understanding. Understanding can free us from a reliance on ornaments.
Perhaps an example might help. Think about something you do regularly during your day. It doesn’t have to be a major thing – in fact, is will be easier if it’s something you do without thinking. Maybe it’s meditation or brushing your teeth. Perhaps doing the dishes or taking a walk. Now think about why you do it – why you began doing it and why you still do it.
I take a walk nearly every day. At first, I started walking for the exercise – the noble idea that I was doing something for my life. Treadmills bored me and their suggestions about the nature of modern life are discomforting. But walking was different. There was movement – new places to see – a world that was not virtual – unpredictable events and occasionally meeting fellow travelers along the way – I enjoy the occasional conversation with a deer, raccoon or squirrel. A while back I started to think about walking and why I walked. The conclusion I came to surprised me. Walking had no purpose – no meaning – outside of walking. The purpose of walking was walking. Walking was just that – walking.
What changed was how I thought of walking – the ornament that I had attached to it was gone. It was no longer a matter of covering five or six miles in order to exercise for a couple of hours – extend my life, strengthen my heart. Something had changed. I suspect it started when I discovered the tow path along the C&O Canal here in Washington. It is a delightful opportunity to walk through interesting countryside – with the constant seduction of side-paths through the woods and along the river. The exploration started with the part of the path nearest home but gradually extended to a park around Great Falls. There I found dozens of trails and much to explore.
I realized that there was now something different about walking. At the start, I wanted to see it as exercise – to overcome my resistance to exercising in order to exercise. The meaning of walking was exercise. I wanted walking to be something more than it was and so I turned it into an ornament and called the ornament the ‘meaning of walking’. Like everybody else, I wanted all parts of my life to have meaning – to have the things I do have meaning. I wanted to avoid meaningless. I wanted to have a story to tell about how I covered six miles yesterday and felt so good as a result. Now I realize how foolish that effort is.
Meaning is – it’s not manufactured
Pretending to live is not living authentically. Living to pretend is living to avoid living. Being present in the present is the antidote to an addiction to living with ornaments.