What is the meaning of a newly hatched bird? Of a spring morning? Of laughter? Of a shower of rain?
What is the meaning of the question? In asking it, are we not looking for some kind of explanation, some underlying pattern, some context that we can put life into in order to make sense of it? There is much in life that we can explain – or think we can explain. Yet in many respects life seems unpredictable, arbitrary, even cruel: innocent people suffer and die, random events change the course of history. And regardless of all our explanations, we are faced with the central mystery of why things are the way they are and why anything exists at all. Just what are we doing here?
What is an explanation, and why do we feel the need to explain things? An explanation is an idea, isn’t it? It is a conceptual structure that we feel in some way mirrors or maps reality. The sun appears to rise in the morning because the Earth is a rotating sphere. Crops grow better in certain soils because they have a better supply of nutrients. Such explanations give us certain advantages, and hence a sense of security. The more we can explain, the less we feel at the mercy of the unknown and unpredictable. And yet for all our capacity to explain, we have created insecurity on a planetary scale.
What is reality? What is the actual thing that we are trying to explain? To say that reality is the world of trees, people, cities and atoms is to miss the point, because these words are themselves explanations. The moment we call something a ‘tree’ we are classifying it according to what we have already experienced and recognised. Hence we are imposing a conceptual structure on ‘what is’. This point may seem hair-splitting but it is crucial, because the act of naming is the point at which we lose touch with ‘what actually is’. The moment we name something we are reducing actuality to an idea.
Within the realm of thought we have built a virtual world, a version of ‘what is’ – or ‘life’ – or better still ‘the unnameable’ – compiled from memories, images, words, ideas. To an extraordinary degree, the structure and content of this virtual world determine how we look at, see and respond to life – and hence, determine how we live. We have become so lost in this virtual world that we generally accept it as being ‘what is’. Hence, for example, we spend much of our lives striving for wealth, status and security, not realising that these are only figments of our imagination. We imagine ourselves to be separate ‘selves’, with all the conflict and suffering that this brings.
Thought divides life into fragments and then tries to work out how they fit together. The resulting explanations are useful for making computers and bombs, but they don’t allow us to understand the immensity, richness and subtlety of life. On the contrary, they impede understanding. Life cannot be reduced to ‘this’ or ‘that’, to ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’, to the narrow classifications of thought.
When we ask ‘What is the meaning of life?’, perhaps what we are looking for is not an explanation but rather some kind of radical understanding, a state of wholeness or clarity in which all confusion is dispelled. Such a state cannot be ‘achieved’; it is simply there when we free ourselves of the grip of idea and open our eyes to what actually is. This state is love. When we can see clearly and act from love, then life has depth and beauty beyond any meaning our conceptual minds can ascribe to it.