Hey, I’ve already mentioned this but still, just in case, I should point out that I’ve finished my first book and it’s super awesome. Go check it out.
When I was small, I pondered the meaning of life. What should we do with our lives, when we don’t have to focus all our energies on survival?
As a sciencey skepticky atheist at the time, it seemed to me that there was no real meaning. We would eventually die, and nothing would ever really matter in the grand scheme of things.
The best practical answer I could come up with at the time focused on the concept of pleasure. The meaning of life, so far as I could see, was to maximise pleasure. I extended that outwards: the meaning of life was securing the maximum pleasure for all beings. That was what we must work towards.
This didn’t quite satisfy me, though, and I would spend my entire teenage life searching for answers to the gaping void I felt within me.
At some point I came to challenge my beliefs regarding the Universe, and eventually decided I believed that consciousness was a central element to the Universe. I came to feel God or Universal consciousness to some extent as a sort of presence. This made the Universe feel more alive, more meaningful, in and of itself.
It also made my exploits on Earth seem less futile. I believed that our spirits would reincarnate again and again, and would carry the evolutions and passions of one lifetime over to the next. Ultimately, we are all contributing to the development of consciousness. Every life has meaning, every life contributes to the greater whole. No life lesson, no experience, no evolution is ever truly lost.
This shift gave a whole new perspective to the idea of meaning. Though I suppose I could have developed my sense of meaning without that – and you, as a reader, can get something out of the rest of the article without sharing that viewpoint – I believe it puts everything in a place within a wider whole.
Now, my concept of meaning began to move away from “pleasure”.
I discovered that there are different kinds of pleasure. Some pleasures can ring hollow, can even be undesirable. In the same way, some not particularly pleasurable things, like productive work, bring about a sense of wellbeing. I mean, it feels right to do productive work, in its proper balance, and it feels wrong to neglect it and focus only on bodily pleasure. The reward for doing it is not exactly pleasure as such, but a sense of harmony with oneself.
I came to understand happiness, pleasure, and wellbeing as signals, not as goals in themselves. When you are feeling pleasure, that’s your mind-body-spirit telling you that what you are doing is probably positive.
Of course, the body knows sex is good for you but isn’t smart enough to tell you to avoid having sex with your worst enemy, so pleasure can only be a guide. You need to heed the signals from your entire mind-body-spirit, and not certain aspects of it in isolation.
As I understand it, meaning is expressing your true self and fulfilling the desires of your true self. This includes all of the mind-body-spirit. Sex, for instance, can be meaningful, as it is an expression of your true self, but only if you are honouring your true self on all levels, on the mind and spirit levels as well as the body level.
I believe we experience angst, and the drive to find meaning, when we neglect some part of our true self. Perhaps we are simply not aware of certain aspects of ourself, and what we need to do to be true to them. We must, therefore, discover those aspects, and learn how to honour them.
For most of us, it’s the higher level aspects of ourselves which are hardest to discover and honour. Our society doesn’t teach us much about honouring our spirits. It doesn’t even teach us much about our social needs as humans, and many live in isolation and bitterness because of that. It doesn’t teach us our need to do meaningful work, which leads many to do work resentfully and only as a means to an end.
Each level of our mind-body-spirit gives us signals. The body gives us pleasure-pain signals. The mind gives us discord-harmony signals. The spirit gives us angst-meaning signals. In a way, you could call all of these different aspects of pleasure and pain, though, pleasure and pain tend to make us think of bodily sensations. Spirit signals can be subtler, a sense of harmony or inner peace or just rightness. If you haven’t been brought up to pay attention to these signals, you might chase after bodily pleasure for years without realising that you are desperately unhappy.
I believe one thing we need to discover in ourselves is our own individual life purpose. By “life purpose” I don’t necessarily mean a purpose that lasts a whole lifetime, but a purpose for one’s life for however long it lasts.
As I mentioned, we all have an inner need to do meaningful work. I believe this is part of our nature as humans, who are social animals through and through. I believe it’s also an aspect of our spiritual natures, that is, our natures as part of the development of Universal consciousness.
I am a communicator, among other things. I have an impulse inside of me to express myself in writing and speaking. When I honour that impulse, honour who I am, I feel alive and like my life has meaning. I have built the structure of my life in general around the desire to honour that greater impulse.
Other people will have different talents and different impulses. It’s down to you to discover what they are. When you do, and when you honour those impulses, I believe you access a sense of meaning.
A life of meaning is not a hedonistic life, but it is a fulfilling life. It’s a life that feels right, and doesn’t create a sense of emptiness and angst. I think that this is the most holistic way of dealing with the matter of what to do with our lives.
By the way, if you’d like to learn how I came to have a more spiritually-oriented view of the Universe I recommend you read my article Life After Death.