The Search for Meaning


Contents List:

Introduction
Values and Experience
Death and Immortality
Liberation and Re-birth
Practical Implications

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Introduction

One thing I am sure of is that I am alive. But what does that mean?

I, like you, was born into this world with no handbook or 'directions for use'. The very fact that we have survived hitherto means that our parents or guardians must have gone to enormous trouble to take care of us during our infancy and childhood, so we must be important in some way. But what were we born for?

In The Economy of Life, I suggested that "To be alive in a physical human body means to be capable of doing something to change one's self or one's environment, i.e. to be able to work." To work means to do something that brings change about, i.e. to make a difference. This immediately raises the question of what changes I should seek to bring about in myself and in the environment I share with you and with all of creation.

Values and Experience

Before I can answer such a question, I must develop a set of values so that I may decide for myself in any given set of circumstances what I should do and what I should refrain from doing.

So my first priority (in order of fundamental importance though not necessarily in order of sequence) is to develop such a set of values. I suspect it may take a very long time to achieve complete mastery of life, but I feel impelled at least to make a start. Furthermore, I find within myself a longing for certain kinds of experience. The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to follow whatever course of action feels right at the time and reflect upon it afterwards to learn whatever I can from the experience. This learning will enable me to refine my future actions, continuing to do whatever I have found beneficial and discontinuing or modifying activities I have found painful or unsatisfactory. In other words, I can live my life as if I was conducting a series of private scientific experiments to test the validity of any natural laws (or values) which appear (from reflection) to account for any regularities I discern in my interaction with the world and which I can apply to guide my future actions.

To use a metaphor, if there is a band playing, I shall more thoroughly enjoy the experience of learning dance steps if I try to develop an ear for music and endeavour to dance in time with the current tune.

Death and Immortality

Another thing I am quite sure of (as a result of observing what happens around me and recognising that I am very like other people) is that I shall one day be 'dead'. My body will no longer be animated, and it will begin to decompose into the chemical elements of which it is constituted. So what will then have happened to me? What currently animates me and what happens to it when I 'die'?

While I am not able to give clear, cogent, logical answers to these questions, I can conceive of two possibilities: that I am merely a by-product of the body and shall be extinguished when the body dies; or that my essential 'self' is distinct from my body and 'lives on' independently of the body.

I reject the first of these possibilities because I do not feel identical with my body. When I go to sleep, I have dreams in which I seem to be mentally and physically quite active although my body (I am told) may be observed to be lying prone on the bed. When I wake up, it is as if my consciousness of identity (which I retained in my dream) is re-united with the body from which it appeared to be detached when I was asleep and 'I am my physical self again'. I therefore feel quite certain that I am not just my body.

On the other hand, I feel quite comfortable with the ancient idea that the essential 'I' is a 'soul' which inhabits my body during the interval between the body's birth and death but which is itself in some sense immortal, i.e. is somehow out of time. From the point of view of this immortal 'I', the mortal body is a 'me', i.e. an object which serves the 'I' for the time being as its instrument for interacting with the world. It is this combination of 'I' and 'me' that constitutes my 'personality' and makes me a 'person'.

Because I feel 'comfortable' with this hypothesis, I voluntarily choose to believe it and act upon it as a 'working hypothesis' unless and until I encounter some experience which I cannot reconcile with it. The longer I live without being forced to make this agonising reappraisal, the more confidence I have in the hypothesis.

No hypothesis can be positively and conclusively proven. The most we can achieve rationally is recognise inconsistencies which render an hypothesis untenable. All so-called 'positive proof' is at best a subjective assessment of balance of probabilities in the Light of experience. So it seems to me that in selecting a promising candidate for a working hypothesis, the best available criteria to apply are consistency with present experience, explanatory power, and usefulness as a guide to effective benevolent action.

Liberation and Re-birth

Even though I can't 'prove' it to the satisfaction of any sceptical third party, acceptance of the idea that I am really a soul temporally inhabiting a body immediately sets me free from many of the anxieties and fears that would otherwise legitimately fence me in. If death is not the end of me, but only of my body, I can look forward to it rather as if it were like moving house, or starting a new career, or embarking on an adventure — only more so. And that implies that I may enjoy this bodily experience to the full, knowing it is only a means to some end that, though it may not yet be altogether clear to me, is certainly not just the grave.

Having thus mentally liberated myself from the constraints of time, I find myself also freed from the constraints of space. I know I have been 'born' at least once: but why just once? Why impose such an arbitrary limitation upon myself without good reason? Why should an immortal soul not be born again and again and again, ad infinitum? And is there any reason to suppose that a soul is inevitably bound in some way to Earth? If on Earth, why not anywhere in the Cosmos — if, indeed, it makes any sense to think of the Cosmos as a 'place'? (This reflection incidentally suggests that I have little to fear even from 'aliens' from 'Space' who are themselves children of the Cosmos and who may essentially differ little from myself.)

By adopting this 'frame' of mind, my time and space horizons have expanded to infinity and I am totally free mentally. Only my attachment to a body limits my potential for action.

Practical Implications

So what is the ultimate significance of this body to which I am tied? Each of us is free to seek a personal answer, and it may be that such an appreciation is beyond our limited faculties. But it seems to me that as my body is limited in time, space, and power, I should use it in a way that pleases me but does not gratuitously offend any of the other people and creatures who share with me this limited Earthly life-space-time. And I should bear in mind that what I do today may have consequences for the future of the planet, even if only a minute segment of it, and that I may one day be re-born to experience the future effects of my past indiscretions. A practical policy for this incarnation therefore seems to be: 'Do as you would be done by, now and forever, as long and as far as you can be sure you do no harm'.

The older I get, the more certain I become that each of us is born inwardly equipped with all the incentives, resources, and critical faculties we need to improve our understanding of life, increase our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and learn to blend harmoniously with our natural environment. This includes being considerate of the needs of our human neighbours, both now and in the future, so that we may give them pleasure rather than pain.

For a better understanding of what pleases or gives offence, it is necessary to examine the contrasting phenomena of love and fear which are the subjects of further essays in the Temple series.