The Question of Meaning or Significance of Life: My former philosophy professor who later became my friend once bemoaned the fact that in spite of carrying the Bhagavad Gita under his arm for many years he could never ‘believe’ (in religious matters). He is a well-known scholar in Indian philosophy and tradition as well as in Western philosophy and logic. I told him that he could never believe nor make himself believe because he knew too much, meaning that the knowledge prevented him from naïvely believing in anything. The knowledge would prompt him to question and doubt any belief he might entertain. The same holds true with innocence in matters of living.
The question, “What is the meaning of life?” like questions such as “Who made God?” “What was there before everything?” is a metaphysical question. It does not lend itself to any satisfactory answer, because such questions are basically paradoxes created by our reason, which is a form of thought. For instance, suppose there is some meaning to life, say, for instance, serving God or His purposes, letting alone the question of whether there is a personal God or not, one could immediately ask the question of what is God’s purpose or why should one serve God. This questioning is endless. That’s why the question has no general answer.
In order to satisfactorily answer this question, we must ask in what contexts the question of meaning of life arises. I used to point out to my students when discussing the question of meaning of life that a five year-old just doesn’t run to his or her daddy and ask him, “Daddy, daddy, what’s the meaning of life?” We don’t ask such questions when our lives are moving on smoothly. Our lives must have run into some crisis and come to a halt before we ask such a question. As UG often said, a living man never asks the question of why he should live. You don’t ask such questions until you have lost your innocence in living. You must ‘know too much’ to get to ask such questions.
Normally, when we do things, engage in various activities of life, we don’t look for any external meaning to our actions except the goals we seek. It’s natural that when we confront various frustrations in life, particularly with regard to some significant goals, be it a girlfriend or boyfriend we wanted, or a job we seek or the ill-health that we try to recover from. In striving for our goals, we make constant assessment of our status, where we are and how far we still have to go, what we have achieved and what that ‘means’ to us, and so on, by reviewing not only our present situation, but also our life, constantly and repeatedly, and the reviewing becomes a habit. It is when we face some profound failures that we tend to review our life, assess its significance and ask if there is any meaning to the whole of our life. We have to arrive at a general idea of the whole of our life, which we didn’t have earlier, (even when as young people we constantly looked forward to our future,) before we could ask such fundamental questions about life. The questioning can land us in various forms of malaise: one might lose one’s taste for life, become bored with life, and worse, become an alcoholic or workaholic, or become addicted to achievement, or become chronically depressed or even go the limits of losing one’s will to live and of committing suicide.
The solution to the problem of meaning of life lies in the sources where it was generated, viz., in the initial frustrations regarding achieving one’s basic desires or goals. In other words, the solution to the problem is in its dissolution. If we were totally engaged in living and are not separate from it, the question of what is the meaning of life would not even arise.
Fulfillment and Frustration: Built into the activity geared toward goal-seeking are ideas of time and future. We labor under an implicit assumption that the satisfaction of each goal will somehow fulfill us. The feeling of fulfillment or the feeling that our life has been fruitful could come not only from satisfaction of goals such as money, a good family, a house, a boat, power, achievement and what not, but also from religious sources: you ardently believed in God and his grace, you feel blessed and or through your devotion and piety you feel that some day your life will be blessed or you will reach the presence of God.
When the goals are reached, when we get what we want, we do feel content and satisfied, and feel fulfilled for the moment. But the matter never ends there: the very awareness of what we have achieved turns it into a further goal, at least of preserving the status quo or continuing it in time, for we once again feel we lack it or feel uncertain about it in some other fashion (we may not have it tomorrow or there is a risk that someone or something might take it away from us, and so on). When our striving process proceeds without interruption, we normally do not tend to ask fundamental questions about living or its significance. If we happen to have religious beliefs, then as long as the beliefs are strong, they tend to give us support in tiding over our frustration: this life with its travails, for instance, might be viewed as a testing ground in which God or some other power morally and spiritually prepares us for a life of blessedness.
But when we find that the goals are not achieved and frustration is the only outcome, and when we confront several such failures, we tend to believe that our lives have been a waste and we start wondering whether life itself has any meaning. We could even lose our faith in God, particularly if the shock of frustration is too great and no amount of prayer has been answered. It is not as much that we look toward a higher meaning as wondering whether there is any meaning at all that is the crux of the issue.
The flow of life has been interrupted when we ask such questions; our naiveté and involvement in the life process have left us. When the frustrations are rather fundamental, no substitutions for the goals or simple patching will put us back on track. We have lost the taste for life. The lost belief or faith can never be regained. Is there any solution to such a problem short of getting into boredom, depression, suicide, alcohol or what not?
Once the question arises, one then asks the further question of how to become free from this separation, this alienation between ourselves and our life.
As long as we are attached to goals and something outside of us to fulfill us, frustrations are inevitable and the question of meaninglessness of life must arise, as we keep insisting that not only our desires must be satisfied, but that we must have no failures and we must be permanently happy ‘without a moment of unhappiness’. The problem of meaningless of life is intimately bound with the problem of time and our own future non-existence: for we try to fulfill ourselves only because we feel we lack all the things we desire.
If we can confront our own future non-existence (i.e. death), and emptiness, then perhaps we could see the superfluous nature of our values and goals we have been seeking all our lives. We can see then all the goals and values that have hitherto given meaning to our life are dispensable. This doesn’t mean that we do not pursue goals or have desires. Living simply requires us to. But we could see the tentativeness of goals and strive for them when one needs to and not be daunted by failures. Each thing we undertake would have value only on its own merits, but not as part of a life-project or ulterior meaning; and when we don’t succeed in our endeavor, we are flexible enough to try some more or in other ways or abandon the goal and move on to other things.
Notice that we are not talking about not having goals or not enjoying or suffering the results of our actions. Of course, we will as we currently do. Suppose we come to the realization that there is no external meaning to life, and whatever we do has to have its meaning stemming from the results of the action; and further suppose, that we realize that success and failure are equally possible outcomes of every action and that when we confront failures, we let that happen and move on to a further project, even if it is retrying the earlier project and perhaps keep working at that. If we can succeed in doing that, that means we have learned to become free from the residue of the disappointment generated from the previous failure or failures.
Each failure is an invitation to revisit our goals and assess their feasibility. Each failure is also an opportunity to become aware of our attachment to things, people or situations and question it. Each failure is also an opening to our own emptiness underneath all our goals and activities.
Then we tend to live life on its own terms, and not in terms of ulterior values we have acquired here and there.
I am not saying that there is no significance to life or meaning in life; I am saying that if you don’t ask fundamental questions about living, then each little thing we do will have its own temporary and tentative meaning. The metaphysical question of whether or not there is an ultimate, exterior meaning to life doesn’t bother us anymore, because we realize that that meaning is bound up with all the goals and values that we have so far found desirable and that our self is that meaning. The loss of that self is what we have been afraid of. Once we are free from that fear, we don’t have to look for any ulterior meaning. Life is its own meaning.
Meaning and the Self:The world we build for ourselves, the world of our meaning is our self. The self is meaning. The loss of meaning is the loss of self. Our thought process puts together repeatedly various situations and events that occur in our life from time to time and assign meaning and value to it. Then we feel elated or depressed, depending on the outcome of the evaluation. Meaning and value are assigned, however, in terms of one’s past experience; that’s the measuring rod and the backdrop against which things and events acquire meaning. The meaning we assign to our world is our meaning and it defines us.
Our feeling secure is bound up with our being able to find meaning in our lives. The mind constantly tries to impose structure on any given situation. One has to find a place for oneself in the scheme of things and see how one measures up in relation to it. Not being able to do so makes one insecure, because the situation then is seen as fraught with uncertainty and one wouldn’t know where one is.
Boredom: One of the opposites of a meaningful life is boredom. If things are not interesting or meaningful, then we are bored. We constantly labor under the opposites of ‘boring’ and ‘interesting’ when we confront situations. What’s interesting and what is not are determined, of course, on the basis of comparing the current situation, action, idea, thought, conversation or whatever, with what we have experienced in our past as more or less interesting or meaningful than this. The ability of not looking for meaning in life is the ability to confront situations not on the basis of such comparisons, but just as themselves – i.e., neither interesting nor boring. You just do them because either you have to, or that’s what’s in your way. Everything you confront has its own interest.
Loneliness: One of the consequences of meaninglessness, particularly that stemming from frustrations in love, is the problem of loneliness. Unless you are, once again, comparing the present situation as lacking something you wanted, there is no room for isolation or loneliness. The world is filled with things and people – they all keep us company. You don’t get lost in them nor do you feel isolated.
Depression: Depression is another one of the consequences. Depression is considered as a malaise. Unless it is generated from some physical condition (such as gloomy weather) or chemical imbalance, it is always in relation to something we have been missing or frustrated about. Depression is a withdrawal response. You don’t reach out any more as you were frustrated earlier. Your energies, as it were, are turned inward. And depression is inevitable as long as you are still hooked to the person or thing you have been attached to and you can’t, for some reason or other, continue to strive for it. If and when you could let the person or thing go, then depression drops itself out of you “like a handkerchief from your pocket.”
Fear and Worrying about Future: We are not only proud of our past achievements, we also worry about our future – what will happen to our money, fortunes, job, health, family, house and so on. The worry is created by the thought process which also creates our future. We constantly live in hope and yet when there is some doubt about the future outcome we worry about it. The meaning structure, i.e. the self, is constantly at risk. We feel threatened. As long as you think about your future, you must worry. The mind is constantly calculating possibilities, measuring one’s progress against them and responding to them through worry and hope. We will never be free from one (fear) without being free from the other (hope). To be able to become free from both requires an overhaul our system -- our values and cherished desires. Worry is a form of fear. We cannot be free from fear until we take it all the way to its limits and accept the worst possible outcome. If we could ever get to do that, that would generate the possible required disillusionment with our desires and goals. Thus we become free from our attachments.
In the final analysis, the question of meaning in life as a blanket question is tantamount to the preparedness to let go of one’s set of values and meanings that one has acquired in the past, and that means the same as losing one self. By facing one’s annihilation, one is able to break up this total meaning structure into pieces. Then, perhaps, one is able to live without having to have an overall meaning, each life situation or event having a meaning in its own terms: I am currently writing, for instance, because there was some occasion in my previous writing where this sort of question arose, or someone raised a question regarding this. Once I finish writing this piece, its purpose is served and I move on to other things. I don’t have to have this contribute to my overall meaning of life, nor do I have to feel disappointed if people criticize it or do not understand it or agree with it. That’s their problem, not mine. As to the question of why I write at all, the answer is simply for lack of anything better to do. It is, as a matter of fact, one among the many things I do in my day-to-day life, some necessary for living or survival and some totally gratuitous. How else could it be? I can’t, at my age, make myself believe in some artificial or religious goal and go about assigning meaning to my life on its basis. But I have no disappointment in my life either. Life is what it is. You just live as best as you can, and then you go!
I know all this sounds totally counter-commonsensical and absurd as we are all so used to living on the basis of a set of values to which we feel so committed and attached. We feel that there is no point of living without such a basis (I can hear a resounding response, “Then why live?” in my ears!) This is just one possible analysis and solution and it may or may not appeal to you.
 I wrote about this in my previous article, but it can bear some repetition in the present context.