Page 1 Page 2
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.
We all want our lives to have meaning. The human ability to envision a time when we are no more – when we can no longer remind people we are – infects us with a dread of that time when we are no more and nobody remembers that we were here. In quiet moments we may chide ourselves for being less than we can be and for doing meaningless things. In the weak moments that follow we take to constructing ornaments.
The big ornament on this tree is a proposed ‘coherent narrative’ of some sort that we weave around the idea of our ‘self’ – a narrative in which we are separate from the rest of the universe. We tell ourselves a story of our ‘self’ and then insist that that ‘self’ has meaning. But the truth is that we don't exist as a ‘self’ with meaning but as living human beings. Any meaning beyond that is manufactured. We do not represent something else. Each of us is here in our own right. As a human being, just as with a lion or a rock, we are complete meaning without ornaments.
Maybe another example will help.
Meditation is. Neither good nor bad – easy nor hard – advanced nor beginner meditation is simply meditation. Doing meditation means meditating – not ‘improving yourself’ – nor seeking enlightenment – nor proving superiority – meditation is simply meditation. Like breathing or a bowel movement, it is sufficient to itself and no manufactured meaning makes it more than that.
This tends to be a very hard idea for many who see meditation in ornamented terms. I remember listening to a lecture on meditation during which the teacher made exactly this point. One in the audience became quite upset at the idea. “I thought that meditation was the path to enlightenment. You say that it is not a path to anywhere – just something you do. What do I get out of meditating? You seem to be saying ‘nothing’. Then why should I meditate?”
The meaning of meditation is meditating. Adding the ornament of ‘something to gain by meditating’ introduces the idea of grasping – an ornament – into the process. “I meditate to gain enlightenment” is a manufactured meaning that ‘overwrites’ the true meaning.
Nothing Else But
Like most of what we do in life, meditation isn't about anything other than meditation - meditation is simply meditation. If you try to define it in terms of something, you confuse the issue and insulate yourself from experiencing the meaning of meditation. The experience of the ornament becomes a substitute for direct experience. At that point, something destructive occurs. Meditation becomes like every other self-improvement system.
What would you have your meditation mean? Should it get you closer to god, help you ‘find yourself’, or maybe enrich your life or circumstances. You don’t need to meditate for all that. There are plenty of religions, therapists, self-help books, and programs to provide distractions from direct experience. They thrive on the idea that your life can be adjusted – brought into focus – their focus – and, thereby, filled with meaning – their meaning. It seems to me that meditation is – if nothing else – an oasis – a refuge from all of that. It is a way to drop all the ornaments and just be – just breathe – and to let meaning emerge.
If you quiet your mind, they will come
I remember sitting in a small forest clearing some years back. A warm rock in a sunny spot was too inviting to ignore. When I first sat down, there were no animals to be seen but, as I sat quietly, they began to appear - the clearing became full of life. Less is truly more. Direct experience of the present is possible only when we clear away all intervening ornaments – only when we experience it directly.
Meditation is precisely the opposite of ornamentation. It isn't repairing and adjusting - striving and wanting things to be different – it is settling into an experience of things as they are without overwriting them with our ‘editorial tendencies’. Mastering that simple idea can bring thunderous changes to your experience of living and meaning. Now meditation requires neither effort nor discipline – it is neither hard nor easy – it is as you can do it and no more. If you experience meditation – and anything else in your life – that way, you will enter the world as it is and experience the joy that replaces the guilt – guilt that ornamentation always brings.
When you meditate – meditate and nothing more. When you walk – walk and nothing more. When you live – live and nothing more. The meaning in all these is more than all the meaning you might manufacture.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V
Meditation, walking and living can be a refuge from the world of self-improvement, personal guilt and ornamentation. When everything else is something it is not, they can be simply what they are. A life of ornamentation is struggling – striving – worrying that it is not ‘just right’. Meditation, walking and living without ornaments is the effortless experience of life as it is.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,