What’s your message? What philosophy of life – theories, beliefs, values, and aims – do you live by? Each of us has a message, a personalized interpretation of what life is about, what really matters. Some of us are more consistent in the way we put our philosophy of life into practice, and some philosophies of life are more thoughtfully composed than others. But we all have one – or I should say, each of us has one, which means that all of us taken together represent billions of different messages concerning the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, the meaning of life, and how we ought to live.
If we shift focus from individuals to societies, we can see that entire groups of people are characterized by the messages of their respective traditions. There’s a Christian message and a Buddhist message, and inside each we will find variations on the principal message: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical or Progressive Christian; Mahayana, Theravada, Zen or Pure Land Buddhist. These group-level distinctions are more numerous than you might first expect, and the variations on a message will multiply exponentially the deeper we look, until, once again, we find ourselves face-to-face with this individual Christian or that individual Buddhist (or whatever brand of message we happen to be considering).
Any message (at whatever level) can only speak out of the range of experiences informing it. No human being can hold everything inside his or her frame of reference, and even when we adopt someone else’s message into our own, we are unable to escape the limitations inherent to just having a perspective. Some cultural messages, like the religions mentioned a moment ago, claim that their perspective on reality was revealed to them by someone who did (or does) in fact comprehend everything in a limitless perspective, which is a contradiction supernaturally transcended in this case.
But you have only to study it in closer detail to discover that their so-called revealed message carries assumptions about the universe that are millenniums out of date, along with ethical values and directives that today many regard as barbaric at best. Even if their message once had the mystique of encompassing all of reality, it’s obvious now that it cannot – and didn’t back then, either.
So all of us carry messages that articulate a philosophy of life, conclusions and conjectures that orient us meaningfully in reality. My message is not exactly the same as yours by virtue of our different backgrounds, histories, situations and personalities (to use very broad categories). And neither of us holds the same philosophy of life today as we did, say, ten years ago. The slow process of maturity changes us, and along the way we come upon opportunities, suffer losses, and learn things that our former self could not have imagined or wished for.So many messages, so many different philosophies of life might inspire a more thoughtful exploration of meaning, if only we could get past the outer orbit where we all are promoting our messages as the best or only right one. But let’s say for now that we can. If there are so many variants in how human beings interpret reality and make sense of things, what can be said about the nature of meaning itself? If you have yours and I have mine, then at least we should be able to agree that meaning is more complex than our divergent messages would have us believe.
Indeed, the “meaning of life” that each of us is busy constructing is incapable of being reduced to a publishable message. There is just too much information, too many angles and perspectives, too many different ways of arranging and connecting the countless points of human experience, to break it all down into a single exhaustive philosophy of life. If we can step deeper into the complexity of what we might dare call THE human experience, we have to be willing to leave behind the either/or logic of competing messages and develop a tolerance for paradox.
It is possible that your message and mine are two legitimate spins on the meaning of life, constructed out of two distinct vantage points on the present mystery of reality and generated out of experiences that are deep-down unique according to the specific conditions that make us two different individuals. Our competing messages or philosophies of life may be irreconcilable, but perhaps all our efforts at negotiating a total agreement or eliminating our competition are fundamentally misguided. We are finally coming to understand that our ambition for one supreme and absolute message will most likely lead to our collective extinction.
Meaning, then, has to do with the haphazard and more intentionally systematic ways that human beings select from the moving stream of experience those sensations, impressions, and patterns that correspond to the apparatus of our nature as sentient beings. We “tune into” reality along frequencies matching our human needs for safety, nourishment, intimacy, identity, freedom, purpose and significance. It’s that last (and highest) need, for significance, which drives our incessant activity of meaning-making: constructing a “world” and composing a philosophy of life (our message) that will orient us meaningfully in reality.The construction of meaning begins in the act of reflecting on experience and forming a mental image that depicts it internally to the mind. As we would expect, the images which first ascend into consciousness are generated out of the primary experiences of being in the provident garden of our mother’s womb, falling out of union and pressed through a narrow passage into exile, thereafter compelled by the pang of need to find the sustenance, protection, and warm bonds of security that will ensure our survival.
The entire drama of birth is preserved in this way, as powerful archetypal impressions coded into our subconscious memory. These reflex images continue to serve as primal templates for what concerns us existentially as human beings; they are foundation for everything else we construct “higher up” in the configuration of meaning called our world. (I’ll refer the reader to the work of Stanislav Grof for more on that topic.)
Because they provide this bridge from direct and spontaneous experience into the organized construction site of our world, these reflex images are known as metaphors (from meta, across + phorein, to carry). Not to be confused with the similes and analogies by which we compare and make sense of things we know in other ways, metaphors operate as grounding for language, anchors that tie our otherwise free-floating world systems to the present mystery of reality. When they are engaged (typically at deep intuitive levels), these images draw consciousness down to its source. Rather than representing something (some thing) external to the mind, an archetypal metaphor is a “dark depiction” of our own essential ground.
And what is this ground exactly? We can’t say, for the simple reason that its reality as the ground of being is deeper than words can reach. Once the threshold between meaning and mystery is crossed, in the direct and spontaneous experience of reality, we leave meaning behind and enter the ineffable presence of being-in-the-moment. Not a being, but being-itself.This is where everything begins – not in the once-upon-a-time sense of begin, but as the timeless source of your existence in each moment. The present mystery of reality, which might also be named the Real Presence of Mystery, is evident all around you in its countless manifestations. As one of these manifestations of the present mystery, you also have the opportunity to descend through the interior of your own being, into deeper and deeper registers of contemplative experience until, releasing the last (which were really the first) forms of self-definition, awareness breaks through to … this.
We can review the long history of religion as the pouring-forth of mystery into meaning, and meaning into the numerous messages or philosophies of life encircling our planet today. With so many parties and denominations calling at us to join in agreement and have a seat in the sanctuary, more people than ever before are feeling lost in the message. So much of it leaves us baffled, but also slightly offended at the demand that we distrust ourselves and let someone else do our thinking for us.
More people now than ever are seeking to push through the mob of placards and pickets, ready even to drop their own heart-crossed creeds in the quest for a deeper truth. Because they are straining against the outflow of world construction that’s been going on for many generations, the effort and intention of these seekers is interpreted by the custodians of orthodoxy as defiance, disobedience, and rebellion. But they are not interested in anarchy. They aren’t promoting atheism or dabbling in New Age superstitions.
What they seek is Real Presence – in themselves, in their relationships and communities, in the way they live on the earth. For all I know, you may be one of them.