The Doubter’s Search for Meaning

Posted on 2013 July 11


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A blogger writes: “I am obsessed with the meaning of life and in my search of truth I have not found much that is satisfying. . . . I feel that I’ve been chasing an invisible rabbit down a deep, deep hole. . . . We are all stuck in this same rat race of a maze in seeking meaning, hope and love.  Do any of them actually exist?”

A lot of pain there. I know the feeling.

I wrote back:

We make it up that life has a meaning. Or we make it up that life has no meaning. Then we torment ourselves with the contradictions inherent in our belief systems. Yet we HAVE to have an answer! (Or, if we’re depressives, we have to have a catastrophic answer, because ambiguity seems unbearable.)

The one thing nobody tries is simply to sit with the uncertainty, to roll with the pain of not knowing. That pain appears too daunting, maybe even infinite. It’s not endless, but nobody knows that until they’ve walked the entire path of it. At that point there’s an open field, so to speak — a sense of freedom, of not needing to know the answers — where we can experience, not horror, but fascination with the endless challenge of exploring the unknown.

A famous iconoclast once said, “I never met anyone who realized that life is empty and meaningless, who LIKED it.” He also said that, after we’ve spent a couple of weeks staring at that emptiness, we realize we’ve begun to look out FROM the emptiness. We become the emptiness.

Still, we’re tempted to avoid the pain of meaninglessness by inventing an attitude or a philosophy that will protect us. But it doesn’t work — ultimately, lying to ourselves never does — and we end up back where we started. When you find yourself monologuing about all this, that’s the moment to remember it’s okay to let the pain flow through you and out the other side. (The more unendurable it appears, the more freedom awaits you.) Otherwise we run away and hide behind a faith we can’t really believe in.

If we get past this, we sometimes get cocky. Don’t solidify the freedom of uncertainty with a belief about it! “It doesn’t mean anything that it doesn’t mean anything.” Be uncertain about your uncertainty. Don’t try to fix it. That would be just another instance of pain avoidance.

When in doubt, remember the Tibetan Buddhist motto: “Lean into the sharp parts.” That doesn’t mean take a knife to yourself! It means, “Accept the pain of loss and move onward.” Much of our philosophizing amounts to glorified moaning about old family wounds. When we deal with those hurts — and they can be big, requiring time to heal — our need to invent all-embracing world beliefs, simply to comfort ourselves, tends to fade away.

Finally, we can revisit our original religious training and perhaps understand those faiths for the first time.

You mention Buddhism in your background. If you haven’t yet, try the works of Alan Watts, especially “The Wisdom of Insecurity” and “The Book”. Also look into J. Krishnamurti: “You Are the World” and “The Only Revolution” and “Freedom from the Known” are good starters. He speaks eloquently on this topic, though he’s thoroughgoing and relentless and not for the faint of heart. When you’re ready for the advanced course, try U.G. Krishnamurti (the name is a coincidence), especially “The Mystique of Enlightenment”. But it’s for heavy lifters, so, to avoid metaphysical hernias, work your way up to it in stages via Watts, etc. Some of this material is available online for free; much of the rest is at your local library; all of it is at Amazon.

Also there’s a blog similar to yours right here at WordPress:  Lately it’s become less active, but poke around in the archives to hear the words of an eloquent fellow traveller.

Happy rabbit hunting!


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UPDATE: “When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kind of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.” — Robert M. Pirsig