Living In A World Of External Meaning

We worship purposefulness – motivational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins says that ‘activity without purpose is the drain of your life’. How great it would be if only we could be purposeful the whole time, without any wasteful (and pointless) purposelessness! What a splendidly meaningful life that would be, we might think.

The only drawback here – and this is something that conveniently never occurs to us – is that all of our purposes, no matter how splendid they might seem – are ‘made up things’. Because our purposes are ‘made up things’ (and how could they be otherwise, since there are no ‘purposes’ in reality itself?) they wouldn’t be there unless we said that they were, and because they aren’t there unless we say that they are we have to keep on saying that they are. We’re caught on a hook here. This means that not only do we have to keep on struggling gamely to realise the purpose in question, we also have to struggle to keep on confirming to ourselves that our purposes are real and meaningful and worth – on this account – struggling for!

This is a kind of tortuous knot therefore – the situation is not at all as straightforward as we might have thought it to be. ‘Having a purpose’, as everyone says, gives us meaning in life. That’s why we love goals so much. That’s why we love having a plan. But the fact that we ourselves have to maintain the meaningfulness of the goal or purpose takes this meaningfulness away again. If I have to assert that something is true in order for it to be so then this renders the whole exercise is meaningless. Truth that I myself have to agree upon is not truth and meaning that I myself have to ‘make up’ is not meaning. On the contrary, it’s a game…

If we want to enjoy the ‘meaningfulness’ of the purposeful life we have therefore to play a game with ourselves. What we have to do is keep the part of the exercise whereby we ‘maintain the meaningfulness of the purpose’ secret from ourselves so that we don’t know we doing it. We ‘arrange’ for the purpose to be a purpose (because it wouldn’t be one otherwise) but we keep it quiet from ourselves that we are doing this. This might on the face of it seem to be a neat trick (and on the face of it, it is a neat trick) but the long and the short of the matter is that we are deceiving ourselves, and so no matter how much effort we put into it, this isn’t really going tos get us anywhere! Progress in the game is not real progress, after all. and what’s more, we’ve ‘made an enemy of the truth’ with this manoeuvre – there’s always going to be this ‘unwelcome awareness’ waiting in the wings and that unwelcome or refused awareness is going to cast a shadow on us, even when we seem to be at our happiest. Life can’t be lived on the basis of secrets, after all…

If there is to be meaning then it cannot be created by us, it cannot be arranged in advance through the manoeuvre of having a plan or a purpose. We may choose for this, that or the other to be meaningful and society might designate this, that that or the other to have meaning, but this isn’t real meaning. It is ‘assigned meaning’. This is ‘meaning that is imposed from without’ rather than meaning that comes, all by itself, ‘from within’. What allows meaning from within (or intrinsic meaning) to arise within us is lack of pressure, lack of control, lack of intention; when we are busy being purposeful then this is like a brick wall keeping intrinsic meaning out. If we are under pressure to ‘achieve’ the whole time then this is going to starve us of any genuine sense meaningfulness in our lives therefore. We may not notice this deficiency because extrinsic meaning (which equals ‘rules’ or ‘pressure’ or ‘compulsivity’) has substituted itself for the real thing. When compulsion is in the driver’s seat then we will be oblivious to intrinsic meaning, which is a far subtler sort of thing. It is far subtler, and it does not push itself upon us. It is not a loud blaring foghorn voice – it does not bellow at us, it does not threaten or cajole us.

So far from it being the case that purposeless activity is a drain upon us, it is – because of its non-compulsive or non-coercive nature – leaving the door open for what used to be called grace. Without grace, life is graceless (needless to say!) and purposeful/mechanical activity, even though we can’t necessarily see it to be so, is graceless. Conventional ‘wisdom’ warns us that the devil finds work for idle hands and this is, we might say, ‘the dark side of the work ethic’. The dark side of the work ethic is that what underpins our so admirable industry is the fear of what might happen if ever we were to stop! Some forms of Christian evangelicalism hold that meditation is a dangerous practice for this very reason – if we cease with all of our wall-to-wall mental busyness then we are, in effect, leaving the citadel of purposeful selfhood unguarded, and when we do that then the devil can walk right in and take over. It’s not just prayer that protects us from Satan therefore – ordinary, run-of-the-mill thinking activity does too. This however constitutes a fundamental mistrust of life itself; it is reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which is a way of looking at things which means we even have to distrust our actual nature, which is said to be tainted with this thing called ‘Original Sin’. We have been warned of this inherited curse down through the centuries and so we stay busy out of our fear, not because of the worthwhile goals that we are to attain. To relax is tantamount to sinning!

Once we start off from this standpoint it will never occur to us that what might ‘come in’ if we lower our personality defences might actually be a beneficial sort of thing, and not satanic at all, notwithstanding the famous Protestant work ethic. Kierkegaard, himself a devout Christian, tells us that idleness, of the right sort (i.e. not mere ‘self-distraction’), is the divine life itself –

Idleness, we are accustomed to say, is the root of all evil. To prevent this evil, work is recommended…. Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is truly a divine life, if one is not bored….

Our goals and purposes are our own affair – they don’t connect us with life, no matter what we might think to the contrary. When we are busy in this goal-orientated way then we are ‘preoccupied’, we are ‘closed’ with regard to anything that isn’t relevant to the goals that we have in mind. The same is true for thinking – when we are busy thinking then we’re not paying attention to anything other than our thoughts. In order to genuinely ‘attend’ – which is how we connect with reality – we have to drop our purposeful doing and thinking and this is precisely the thing that, in our rational-purposeful culture, we find so difficult to do. Somehow, doing has become so important to us that we no longer have any time for being. Saying this is not to dismiss the importance of doing, or purposeful behaviour. By grounding our doing in being it becomes more effective; the best action arises from stillness, as it is said in the East.

As Alan Watt says, when we think of the time then we have nothing to think about but our own thoughts and this very effectively disconnects us from reality. The same is true with our purposefulness: – if we are purposeful the whole time then this is actually ‘being busy for the sake of being busy’ – wall-to-wall busyness means that we never get a chance to come up for air’ and ‘check in with ourselves’ about what we are actually doing. We never refer to actual reality, in other words. It’s not our ‘purposelessness’ that’s the big danger when it comes down to it therefore but our dreadful ‘non-stop busyness’ – this is the real ‘drain’, this is the real plague. Because of the ‘insulating’ character of the goal-orientated mode (the fact that we can’t see the bigger picture when we’re focused on the details) it all too easy happens that – as we have said – we become disconnected from both reality and from our own true nature – which is ‘spontaneous’ not ‘purposeful’. We get so caught up in the ‘how’ that we lose sight of the ‘why’.

This is a phenomenon that is very prevalent in our culture, as we keep saying. It’s a contagion that we have all been infected with, to some degree or other. Extrinsic meaning is such a ‘bully’ that it never gives us any time to listen to anything else (any quieter or less forceful voices) – it gives us this task to do, then the next, and then the next after that and it never lets up. When people talk about ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’ this is what they’re talking about: the healthy way of things is when we engage in purposefulness for a specific and practical reason, and so when we’re done we can return to our natural state of stillness, or ‘purposelessness’. As we have said, who we really are is not purposeful – we don’t exist for the sake of fulfilling purposes, after all! Idleness brings us closer to the divine state of being, as Kierkegaard says. Everything has already been achieved (so to speak) and so what’s our problem? What’s got into us to be constantly seeking goals without ever a break, as if there were some sort of virtue in restlessness? Once we go down the road of overvaluing rationality and purposefulness, then this very quickly turns into the sort of thing whereby we lose track of who we really are and what life is really about. Life isn’t really about ‘anything in particular’ of course; we can however say what it’s not about though – it’s not about being purposeful for the whole time like some kind of demented machine that doesn’t know when to stop!

If we distrust ‘not being busy’ or ‘not being narrowly purposeful’ what this means is that we don’t trust our own actual nature, which is – as we just said –NOT about being busy. Who we are in our essence does NOT need to be validated by having some ‘purpose’! This is however the very nub of the matter – when we exist full-time in the Purposeful Realm then we construct an identity for ourselves that is based entirely upon ‘how well we are doing at achieving our goals’. That’s the name of the game, after all. This conditioned identity absolutely does have to be validated by purposes – without some sort of ‘purpose’ this conditioned identity very quickly finds itself in bad shape. When I see myself purely on those terms which the Purposeful Realm itself provides me with then I have to seek validation (or ‘meaning’) via my effectiveness in achieving the specified goals, arbitrary though these goals might be. The purposeful realm is a game in other words, and when you are in a game you have to play the game – there’s no choice here! There are no other options…

Not that we know we’re playing a game of course. If we knew that then we’d realise that we don’t have to play; ‘whoever plays, place freely,’ says James Carse (or something to that effect). The Purposeful Realm doesn’t let on that it’s a game; it doesn’t let on that there is any other form of existence other than this – the ‘ceaseless doing’ type of existence, the ‘mechanical activity’ type of existence, the ‘chasing goals’ type of existence. The promise of ‘being’ is always being dangled in front of our noses but that’s all it is – a promise, and an empty one at that. In this world we get to exist via our goals, via our purposes, via our roles and it’s all very competitive. We always have to point to something outside of ourselves in order to justify as being here. The reason we have to do this is because this ‘identity’ is entirely hollow – it’s not actually real and so it continually needs to be propped up or validated. If we were rest to in our true, unconditioned nature, then we would not need this pernicious self-validating activity. We wouldn’t need to look anywhere else; we wouldn’t need to look to some spurious external authority for validation. We wouldn’t need to be forever trying to ‘prove ourselves’. We are however thoroughly alienated from our true nature and so we do have to go on being purposeful. The purposeful self is the ‘substitute’ for who we really are, but it’s not a very good substitute. It’s not a very good substitute because it’s got exactly nothing going for it!







The Jinx

To be ‘unconscious’, in the psychological sense of the world, means that we absolutely can’t help seeing everything via some kind of ridiculous arbitrary viewpoint that simply isn’t true and never could be! That’s the sort of ‘jinx’ that we’re talking about here – the jinx of being made a complete fool of by our thinking, by our ‘ideas about reality’, so to speak.

 

It doesn’t matter what perceptions or understandings of the world we have therefore, they are only there because of our conditioned viewpoint. Our perceptions and understandings of the world only make sense in relation to this viewpoint – they don’t and can’t make sense in the other way. No matter what ‘serious’ tasks we might engage in, if we try to tackle them without first tackling the wooden beam that is lodged solidly in our eye-socket, we can only succeed at perpetuating our folly. ‘Perpetuating our folly’ is the best we can hope for…

 

The very idea of a ‘serious task’ becomes not-so-serious therefore – we may be taking ourselves seriously for sure but this is really just a joke that we can’t see – it’s an invisible joke, it’s a ‘joke at our own expense’! The reason this joke is at our own expense is because we are forever acting as if we have a very solid and mature grasp on things (our whole demeanour, our whole comportment says as much) whilst the truth of the matter is that we are the victims of a ridiculous deception that we have unwittingly perpetrated upon ourselves.

 

How is looking at the world from the basis of a viewpoint that isn’t true and never could be true ‘serious’? We point the finger at all sorts of so-called serious problems that are to be found in the world and which need our urgent attention but stubbornly ignore their root cause, which is our extraordinary ‘one-sided’ (as Jung would say) view of the world. We see things the way our thinking mind says we should see them, and not in any other way – the advantage in this is that we can then effectively utilise the world in the way we wish to utilise it, whilst the disadvantage is that our awareness is completely contained within the game we are playing with the result that we simply don’t know that we’re playing it.

 

Putting matters like this gives us a way of looking very precisely at our predicament in life. If our unwitting one-sidedness results in us only being able to attend to that aspect of the world which corresponds to the unconscious (or unexamined) expectations that we are invisibly encoded into our way of thinking about the world then what has essentially happened here is that we have set ourselves up as being ‘outside of life’ (or ‘apart from life’), and not just ‘apart from life’, but also against life, in opposition to life.

 

If we are completely ‘on the side of thought’ (and have no balance whatsoever within us) then there is no way that we will not be living ‘apart from life’, and ‘in opposition to life’. Not being in opposition to life is going to be a complete impossibility. Life is the Whole Thing, not just the partial or fragmentary view. Furthermore, life cannot be subdivided without ceasing to be life – when we subdivide it life just becomes an idea! We can’t say what this thing that we’re calling ‘life’ is because to say this is to put life in a compartment and to put life in a compartment is to ‘separate it from itself’. This is the whole problem in a nutshell – the whole problem is our unconscious compulsion to turn everything into a mind-created abstraction!

 

So the next question we could ask is ‘what happens when we place ourselves outside of life and in opposition to life?’ Very obviously, to do this is to incur all sorts of calamities. When we headbutt the universe, then we end up with a very sore head! When we break harmony with the Tao (even though, as Alan Watt says, this is ultimately an impossibility) then just as we are in opposition to life, life is in opposition to us and no matter how we figure it, when life itself exists in opposition to us than the one thing that we may rely on is that things are going to get pretty rough!

 

In very simple terms, when we are in this situation of being on the ‘other team’ with regard to life, then everything is going to turn against us. As Jung says our own psyche is going to turn against us. We are creating our own nemesis with everything we do.  “The more compulsive the one-sidedness, and the more untamed the libido which streams off to one side, the more daemonic it becomes” says Jung (Collected Works Vol 6). In this statement it is clear that we actually have two devils on our back here, not just the one. We have the ‘daemonic forces’ that have been called into existence by our ‘one-sidedness’ (by our ‘opposition to nature’) and we also have the compulsivity that is inherent in this one-sidedness. There is nothing to choose between these two devils – they are each as bad as the other! Compulsivity is a demon because it never gives us any peace, it goads us on forever and ever and we can never keep it satisfied, no matter how hard we may try. We are in this horrible situation where we do what we do not because we really want to (or because there is any joy in acting out ‘what we have in mind’ as Macbeth says) but because we have to. We have no choice. There is no freedom in the moment for us, only slavery to a pitiless (and quite insane) master!

 

And then if this were not bad enough, the result of us obeying the compulsivity created by our one-sidedness in this way is that we set up a force that turns against us and ultimately destroys everything that we have put so much effort into creating. We can’t win either way, therefore – we try to get some peace by placating the devil that is persecuting us from the inside (which, ultimately, we can never do because no matter how much we give it it will always want more) and we bring the devil on the outside down on our heads as a result of trying so hard to appease the demon on the inside! To say that we are ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’ is putting it far too mildly. We’re up shit creek without a paddle.

 

Needless to say, this conflicted situation creates great suffering. We try as hard as we do to enact all of our ideas, beliefs, and plans because we fervently believe this there is to be great benefit in doing so. Our rational-purposeful output matters a great deal to us – that’s why we are so very’ serious’ about it. It matters to us a great deal because we believe that we are going to set up some value in the outside world; we believe that we are going to ‘do some good,’ in other words. Our belief in the importance of our goals – whatever these might be – is however driven not by the genuine desire to ‘do good’ when we are in the grip of the thinking mind but ‘to do good by the criteria of the thinking mind’, which is not the same thing at all! ‘Doing good by criteria of the thinking mind’ simply means obeying its compulsions (or ‘doing what we are not free not to do’) – we just don’t see things this way when we are in ‘unconscious’ or ‘passively-identified’ state. We don’t see our true motivation.

 

So – as far as we are concerned ‘everything will come out all right’ just so long as we can attain our goals, and this is why they matter so much to us in the very serious way that they do. Yet, the fact that we are acting unconsciously (or one-sidedly’) guarantees that our efforts are all going to rebound on us in the most painful way; it guarantees in other words that we have set ourselves up so that the thing we see as being of the utmost importance is unfailingly going to go wrong for us, is going to backfire on us, and if this doesn’t spell ‘suffering’ then what does? The very thing that we are pinning all our hopes on is the one thing that could never work out for us. Action that comes out of one-sidedness is never going to work out for us.

 

The reason for this is of course because it is our unconscious or unexamined assumptions that are driving everything. Whenever we want to achieve we want to achieve on the basis of these unconscious assumptions and because these assumptions are completely unfounded (they can’t not be) we are heading off on ‘a journey to nowhere’ right from the very start. Thought can be a very useful guide in the pragmatic domain but it is never going to be of any service to us in the ‘absolute’ sense that we want it to be. Thought can never do us any good when used as an ‘absolute basis’ for how we are to live life! It can’t do us any good because in reality there is no such thing as ‘an absolute basis’. Life can’t be oversimplified on the basis of a theory or belief either of the religious or political or scientific variety. All theories/models/concepts/beliefs come out of the one-sidedness of the rational mind; they all come out of our ‘invisible assumptions’ and this is why they will always backfire on us.

 

We can use the rational mind to help us with the ‘little things’ in life, with the day-to-day mechanical details, but not with the big things, not the things that really matter. We can’t face life on the basis of a theory or model or belief as we have just said. To do so is an evasion of responsibility and this evasion will inevitably rebound on us! Nature unfailingly punishes unconsciousness, as Jung says. Ignorance is no excuse. Facing life on the basis of a theory/belief/model/opinion is living unconsciously (i.e. engaging on the basis of unexamined assumptions is living unconsciously) and to live life unconsciously is to be very thoroughly jinxed. We might not see it – we almost certainly won’t see it – but our ignorance doesn’t mean that the joke isn’t on us; our ignorance is why the joke is on us!