In The Story That Got You Here I reviewed the developmental journey that started with your physical attachment to Mother, gave way to emotional attachment to your mother and other family members, and continued to advance with your intellectual attachment, in the form of beliefs, to the worldview of your tribe and larger culture. This step-by-step progression from the physical conditions of survival, to the emotional conditions of happiness, and gradually into the intellectual conditions of meaning reveals – or better, lays out and sets in place – the very architecture of your life as it still is today.
According to their relative values, internally speaking, the intellectual overlay of meaning is less vital than the emotional bonds of happiness, which are themselves still less so than the physical satisfactions of your need to survive. And yet, if life in the world around you should become meaningless – empty, pointless, insignificant, absurd – you will readily give up your commitments, withdraw from others, and even consider ending your own life. Why is that?
However meaningful or meaningless the world may seem to you is a function of what you are telling yourself and what others are saying about it. A critical distinction to keep in mind differentiates between the way things are (in reality) and what they mean (to you). Meaning is always “to you,” which is to say that it is a product and projection of what you think and believe about something or other, or about reality as a whole.
The meaning of the world and of your life in it is thus a global construct of the stories you are choosing to believe.
If that feels like too much responsibility, then it may help to know that you are not doing this all by yourself, but as part of an active and ongoing conversation you are having with other people. “The world,” then, should be understood as a social construction of meaning, projected out of and suspended in the unique cultural discourse of storytelling.
Again, reality is the way things really are; the world is (or technically speaking, worlds are) a mythology or web of stories that you (and others) are projecting onto reality. For lovers, the world is a garden paradise; for friends, it is an adventure land; and for enemies, the world is a battle field. This helps us see that as a construct of meaning, your world is a product and projection of the stories, conversations, and beliefs you share with others. Depending on whether your conversation partners are lovers, friends, or enemies, the world around you and your life in it will reflect the nature and quality of those relationships.
Now, I’m not sure how much of that you are ready and willing to accept.
It’s very likely that you share the widespread delusion which simply equates world and reality, the meaning of life and the mystery of being alive. Just as athletes can set aside all concerns except what are relevant and meaningful inside the competitive constructs of the game and its world (e.g., the field, track, court, rink, or pool), neither should you be expected to keep in mind a distinction that doesn’t really seem to matter in the arenas of everyday life.
But the distinction does matter, and these days more than ever.
Whereas once upon a time you could set up your world in a secluded corner of reality and carry on without ever meeting someone who tells very different stories, today the cultural real estate is shrinking and you find yourself bumping up against other worlds – in some cases worlds that are profoundly different from yours. Individuals today no longer remain inside the ethnic and mythological worlds of their ancestors, but are instead venturing out into the reality of cultural pluralism and its broad marketplace of ideas, values, lifestyles, and worldviews.
All of this growing up and moving out has primed our age for the realization that one’s world is merely a matter of perspective.
In the more distant past it took the philosophically sharp and more mystically minded among us years and decades of meditation to see this truth: that your world and reality are not the same; that one is inside your mind and the other is outside; that meaning is constructed out of the stories you tell yourself; that before the story and after the story, all around and beyond every story, is the present mystery of reality, which is perfectly meaningless.
The world is a veil of meaning suspended between your mind and reality, and it belongs to you as the product and projection of your mind. These are two things about the world you need to know. If you are interested in touching what’s really real, this insight reveals (literally pulls back the veil on) two paths for the accomplishment of your aim.
One leads beyond the tidy enclosure of your world and invites you to behold the sublime and encompassing mystery of It All – your world, my world, all worlds, the world-free zone beyond all worlds, contained and transcended by the All that is One. The “universe,” as we call it, is perfectly meaningless, transcendent of your constructions and projections: just so. It should be obvious that going beyond your world in order to engage with reality is predicated on the humble acknowledgement that your world is not the last word on what’s real.
When you die and take your world with you, reality will still be here.
The other path follows a line of descent into your mind and its library of stories, through the floor of the projection room, and farther down where nerves tingle, the breath rises and falls, and your heart beats: now * now * now. As going beyond your world puts you in touch with the universe, so going within your mind opens awareness to the ground of being.
Before we make this ground out to be some metaphysical “other realm,” beneath and essentially separate from your embodied existence, it should be said that this ground (or grounding mystery) of being is nothing other than what you are – literally “no thing” other, but rather the very power-to-be (or be-ing) that is right now manifesting as you. You are not separate from it, nor can you be.
Like a tree planted in the material ground, you have grown into yourself by that progression of attachments briefly reviewed in the first paragraph of this post: first as a physical organism seeking to survive, then as an emotional dependent and partner in relationships, and finally as an intellectual meaning-maker and world creator.
Perhaps even up to your reading of this blog post, you regarded your world as the way things really are, as the ultimate reality. You were prepared to defend your world, to die for it if necessary, to kill others on behalf of its meaning, and on darker occasions when its meaning was less obvious to you, to even kill yourself.
Now you know better, and this truth has set you free.