Living In A World Of External Meaning
We worship purposefulness — motivational speaker 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 like 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!