Friday, July 25, 2008

meaning with a capital "M"

An online friend of mine recently asked an interesting question on his forums...
What gives you meaning? What makes your life meaningful?

What are the limits on meaning? What I mean is obviously we all have some sense of meaning, however private or relative. But how "high up" does your sense of the meaning of life go?
It is a question I generally try to avoid because any answer is going to be distracting and sounds presumptuous, but I really found the topic very interesting. What follows is a version of my response with some minor changes made after originally posting a reply.

There are distinctions between Meaning and meaning that are sometimes overlooked. The typical thought is that Meaning and meaning are distinguished in some sense by size. The former applies to everything and everyone and every place, while the latter is more restricted. We can call this distinction universal versus local. Since we tend to associate localized meaning with individual persons, we can modify this to universal versus personal.

These differences in the uses of the term meaning are very useful. Often meaning is associated with intent which requires a being with volition and sentience. Meaning is especially bound up with intent, but both forms are associated with such thinking, so much so that meaning is often used as a synonym for purpose. "What is the meaning of this?" (What are your motives, that is, what is the intent and purpose behind you actions?) "Does my life mean anything?" (Is there a purpose for my life?) Here meaning is being parsed from such a close affiliation with purpose, although inevitably the description of one is vital to the other. Instead meaning here in a more generic sense refers to the appreciation (which could be academic, descriptive, intuitive, etc) of a relationship between phenomena. This may or may not involve intention.

Which brings us to the next point. There is a tendency to assume that universal qualities or properties are objective (that which independent of an observer) and that individual or personal attributes may be more subjective (that which is dependent on an observer). This assumption quickly becomes problematic for discussing meaning because of the common presumption that meaning and meaning are things attributed or assigned by an observer. This generally isn't problematic for local or personal meaning, but what about universal meaning?

One solution is to suggest that there is an ultimate Observer who exists outside of conventional reality. Hence this ultimate Observer can assign Meaning. Naturally theists presume that this Observer is God, and hence what we may think of as objective reality is actually subjective in the mind of God. Another view is that we collectively create Meaning through our shared experiences. Yet this view still presumes that conscious beings are a necessary component because it is presumed that all forms of meaning depend on sentient observers? But what if we reject that presumption?

Awareness is typically seen as a synonym for consciousness, even though it has a broader meaning. At the very least awareness is limited to the phenomena we tend to refer to as biological life. Yet even that is fairly narrow. We know that particles react to other particles - they are aware in some sense of each other. There is even evidence that this awareness is non-locale, that the awareness of phenomena towards other phenomena is not always limited by distance. The problems with exploring such topics is that people tend to talk past one another, perhaps because of the spiritual and theological implications that arise. Let's instead consider the implication for an understanding of meaning.

Consider the following proposition: In order for anything to exist in the historical dimension of space/time, there has to be a minimum of two distinguished phenomena. This requires a relationship between them (this relationship is expressed in our thinking as space). If you have no relationship, you have no phenomena, and if you have no phenomena, you have no relationship. One cannot precede or exist without the other. If we have a third object, then we can have time (and with space and time we can have motion). If there were only one thing, with no differentiation, there would be nothing at all. No point of reference, no qualities or properties, no relations. No-thing. Void.

My initial assertion concerning meaning: True meaning (or Meaning) is the nature of the relationships between all phenomena. These phenomena are all interdependent, so this nature is not restricted or localized in any way. What we tend to call meaning is our attempt to appreciate (often by attempting to describe or model) such relationships. So without invoking an Observer (or a collective group of sentient observers), Meaning is inherent to (I would say fundamental to/permits) existence itself. It is neither arbitrary nor imposed. It just is.

Note that this view conflicts with positions common to atheists as much as it does with positions common to theists. For those tightly wed to a particular view, especially those allergic to any language or imagery that sounds even vaguely like spirituality or religion, this is as far as the story goes. If you are curious or bored, a brief sketch of where I take this next follows...

Borrowing some terminology from Dharmic traditions such as Buddhism (particularly those influenced by Taoist traditions such as Chan/Zen), we can talk about form (the phenomenological world, the historical realm, the space-time continuum) and emptiness (the numinous, the ahistorical or ultimate realm, the Ground of Being or source of all potential or the Tao). If we think of emptiness as (the basis for) potential, then that potential is transformed by/permits/transmits the "causes" which manifest as different expressions of form, so in a sense saying form "arises" from emptiness isn't necessarily at odds with the idea that it arises from causes, it's more of a lack of better terminology. Emptiness is still emptiness, and form is still form, and both are still different aspects of each other. Note that this uses element we saw before, such as Void of no-thing that described in pondering absolute unitive integration (a universe of only "one thing").

There are similar ideas found in Abrahamic theology which allow for fruitful comparison, such as the vertical dimension (numinous) and the horizontal dimension (phenomena). One analogy that works for both East and West is that of waves and water. If water is the ultimate realm then waves are the historical realm. Waves come into being through a series of causes and can be described with properties such as how long it has existed, direction, speed, and height, etc. But these descriptions are meaningless when applies to water (forget for the sake of analogy what we can say about the properties of water). Waves are manifestations of the water, but there is more to water than the properties of any particular wave or even any set of waves. To follow the analogy, if we want to know the water (the ultimate, the timeless, the Source and Ground of Being), we cannot ignore the waves! Similarly, if we want to truly appreciate any particular wave (phenomenon, manifestation of form, thing or object or event), we cannot forget the wave is water!

This brings us to another idea found in Hinduism as well as Abrahamic traditions (particularly Christianity) which has been dubbed panentheism. Neither dualistic or monist, but a dynamic that defies either categorization, which in Buddhism is known as "not two, not one". This resolves the tension in such traditions between the notion of "God" as transcendent and the notion of "God" as immanent. (Note: The term God is used here as that by which such traditions understand the ultimate but does not imply any particular depictions of God). If one accept the principle implied in various writing such as the Heart Sutra that form perpetually/simultaneously arises and dissolves from/out of/back into emptiness in perpetual creation (form is emptiness, emptiness is form), then the distinction between immanent and transcendent is a trick of our minds. The implication for Meaning becomes the resolution of the barriers (mental, emotional, etc) to our appreciation of our connection to and our participation as elements of Being itself. That is, removing the barriers to the direct insight of our inherent wholeness. However, this also means that there is no fixed configuration in terms of phenomena that is the final answer to "life, the universe, and everything" because existence and the interplay of form/emptiness or ultimate/phenomena is dynamic.

When sacred traditions talk about Mind or Heart, they are often referring to profound awareness. This is not standard cognitive awareness (i.e. consciousness) - it would be more like that of which such awareness is... err, well...aware. That which is the connection of all form and the actualization of emptiness. One can compare this to light and sight. In this analogy sight is our perceptual awareness of light as consciousness is our perceptual awareness of....well, what to call it, eh? If you call it Mind, Heart, Awareness, or anything else, we are naming the sound by its shadow. That's where the ineffable nature of reality-as-it-is comes in - it is no more or less than it is. Hence meaning and awareness are different sides of the same coin. Or as I sometimes say, the phrase "meaning of life" works best when we change the "of" to an "is". As for terminology, I prefer referring to matters concerned with the ultimate as "sacred" and the ultimate itself as the fullness of the sacred or "the Divine". This latter choice avoids linguistic traps concerning "person-hood" and remains gender-neutral.

Another way to say it, as the reworking of my earlier statement, is we find meaning through experiencing our wholeness by seeing the sacred in the ordinary, thus allowing us to participate in the Divine.

Recall that this participation is not limited to sentient beings. But as such we have the capacity to basically "forget" ourselves and our true nature. A dust mote doesn't need to "see the sacred in the ordinary". It can't make the error of splitting things up into such categories in the first place. It isn't confused, it doesn't need to wake up to what it is. It is a dust mote - not "just" nor "only" a dust mote.

Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi, Svaha!

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