On the Meaning of Life

“In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” – Franz Kafka

“Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” – Joseph Campbell

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” – Vaclav Havel

Does life have a meaning? If so, what is it? What is it that gives life meaning? And… should we care?

As is obvious from the quotes above, it’s a point of contention. Some people think that they have it figured out: life’s meaning is love or death or living or whatever. Or — more accurately — they think that love or death give life meaning; but they don’t say what that meaning is. Meanwhile, Albert Camus says that looking for life’s meaning will just make you unhappy; and Vaclav Havel implies that, even if that’s true, maybe living a meaningful life is more important than being happy.

Now, I’m not an expert on life; but as a linguist, I’m an expert on meaning. I know what meaning is, how words (and other things) get their meanings, and how those meanings can change over time and be different for different people. So even if I don’t know the meaning of your life, I can tell you how to give your life meaning.

There are basically three ways in which a word can have meaning:

  1. it refers to something concrete in the world, that we physically experience (like rock or run or happiness);
  2. it refers to a metaphorical extension or abstraction of a concrete experience (like rock-solid or running for office or happy accident);
  3. it refers to a relationship between a word of category (1) or (2) (like geology, an ongoing relationship between scientists and rocks).

How does this apply to life?

Well, because life is a concrete occurrence, it automatically has meaning in sense (1). We physically experience it; and the more conscious we are of that physical experience, moment by moment, the more meaning it has. This is a core teaching of Buddhism and many other contemplative traditions. It also reflects the quote by Joseph Campbell above.

As for (2): can life gain meaning by metaphor? Life itself is not really a metaphor for anything, but certainly many events in your life gain meaning by being metaphorical. If you are Catholic, for example, then eating the Eucharist is meaningful because you’re metaphorically eating Christ’s body (well, really you are in fact eating Christ’s body, but set that distinction aside…). Or if you set up a Christmas tree, an evergreen, to represent the continuation of life even in the dead of winter; or if you wear a religious symbol as jewelry; or if you collect souveniers that remind you of people or places important to you… All of these are meaningful acts and objects because of the power of metaphor.

And (3): can the events in your life gain meaning by being in relationship with something? Sure. The simplest kind of relationship is identity or similarity: if two things are the same, or alike, then they stand in relationship. So you can give meaning to something just by repeating it. Suppose you go to the same restaurant every week for dinner; or go to the same vacation spot every year. Just by going back again (and again), you give the event more meaning.

And life itself can gain meaning by being in relationship with… something else — something outside of life. Perhaps this is what Kafka was getting at, when he said that death gives life meaning; because life obviously has a relationship with death. What the relationship is, exactly, is unclear (does death set life’s boundaries? or does life continue after death? is death a kind of life? Does it give rise to life? etc.), but the relationship is undeniable, and that fact is enough to give life some kind of meaning.

But at some level, when people say they want to know the meaning of life, what they really mean is, “Why am I here?” They want to know that their existence matters; that their presence on Earth “makes a difference”. And this “mattering” or “making a difference” is just a kind of relationship. In other words, people want to know that their life has a relationship with something — anything — outside of itself. Perhaps this is why some people are so invested in the lives and accomplishments of their children. Even if their lives are meaningless, and their children’s lives are meaningless too, if the two lives are connected — if they have some kind of relationship — then suddenly meaning, of a sort, appears.

But is that really enough? Ideally you’d like to connect your life to something that itself has tremendous meaning — like some titanic struggle, or a god who has a great hidden purpose in mind, or a never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding. If you can convince yourself that these meaningful exterior things are meaningful enough in and of themselves, and you can establish a strong enough relationship between that and your own life, then maybe your own life will have great meaning, too.

Maybe. But when I’m tempted by these thoughts, I always remember Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. – Shelley, 1818

Perhaps the Buddhists have it right after all.

Faith, Fern, and Compass


I cannot express how incredibly excited I am about this: Alison and I have started back into podcasting in a big way! We’ve got a whole new web site and a whole new name: Faith, Fern, and Compass: Nature Spirituality in the Digital Age. Instead of posting randomly whenever we get around to it, we’ve got a solid weekly schedule; and instead of focusing on pagan matters, we’re shooting for a broad range of topics all over the spectrum. This week, for example, we ask: what do bullfrogs and barred owls have in common? Can poetry save the world? Who owns an ecosystem?

Beyond that, though, we’re also offering pro memberships, which get you all sorts of extra stuff, including a whole extra episode every week, and a pro extension to all the weekly free podcasts. For example, in this week’s pro extension, we ask: what is the true meaning of Genesis, and what does it have to do with Beltane?

Faith, Fern & Compass is not just a podcast. It’s a challenge.

  • A challenge to live more gently and attentively with the fierce joy, quiet sorrow and wild love of the earth.
  • A challenge to reconnect with ourselves and with one another in a time of rapid technological progress and cultural change.
  • A challenge to honor the ancient wisdom of the past while nourishing our sacred roots in the present and looking forward to the unfurling future.

Each week, co-hosts Alison Leigh Lilly and Jeff Lilly invite you to join them as they explore the challenges of nature spirituality in the digital age through ecology, art, politics and interfaith conversation. Become part of a growing community of spiritual seekers and creative contemplatives finding guidance in the wellsprings of personal experience, soulful relationship and the dark green tones of earth-centered spiritual practice.

And that’s just the free stuff.

Becoming a Pro Member not only lets you support your favorite podcast, it also means you get access to tons of exclusive content, discounts and other benefits, including:

  • Weekend Pro Episodes – a full episode each weekend just for Pro Members
  • Extended Weekday Episodes – an extended edition of the free podcast
  • Bonus Episodes – extra episodes during seasonal breaks
  • Free Album Downloads – delivered right to your email inbox at the end of each season
  • Members-Only Newsletter – full of news and updates, discount codes and specials on up-coming companion eBooks and album packages
  • Any other cool content we create along the way!

 

So head on over and check it out, folks!

Positive Loving Kindness: Using Opposites to Banish Negativity

A few weeks ago, I posted the text and instructions for a meditation designed to find purpose and direction through cultivating loving kindness, in the grandest old Buddhist tradition. In my experience, the meditation is a great way to quiet the needy voice of the ego so that Spirit can speak, restoring the connection to your highest goals. I also noted that I’d recorded a guided version of the meditation, useful if you’d rather not memorize the whole thing ahead of time, downloadable here.

ire41But an Attentive Reader, Claire from Ireland, pointed out that there was a huge contradiction between the text of the meditation and an earlier post of mine on the proper phrasing of affirmations. In that post, I wrote about negation, vagueness, and other kinds of language that ought to be avoided when stating your intentions for Spirit. If evidence from phonosemantics is to be believed, negation (like “no”, “not”) and vagueness (“all”, “some”), and time dependencies (“will”) are completely ignored by Spirit, so that an affirmation like “I will not gain weight” changes into “I gain weight”. But Claire noticed that the text of the meditation is full of negatives, right from the very beginning:

May I be free from anger.
May I be free from sadness.
May I be free from pain.
May I be free from all suffering.

Confusing the issue further: Claire had downloaded the meditation and listened to it, and noticed that in the recording, almost all of these negative statements were replaced with positives:

May I be full of love.
May I be full of joy.
May I be full of good will.
May I be free from all suffering.

As Claire says:

In the recorded meditation … you only use one negative: May I (or they) be free from all suffering. There, the rest of the list is phrased positively. In the article, they’re about equally balanced between positive and negative. I have occasionally used a version like the one from your post since I was a teenager (i.e. on and off for over ten years), and I know from my own experience that if I’m very down and hating myself then it’s much more likely I’ll get stuck on the negative words and resonate with anger, pain and suffering than that I’ll be able to conjure a positive feeling to counter them. I haven’t used this meditation for a few years, which is why I downloaded your guide. I definitely hadn’t heard of intention-manifestation back when I was using it, so I wouldn’t have been paying any attention to how the affirmations were phrased. Today, having encountered the two different versions one after the other, and with the memory of your recent post (which really resonated with me) fresh in my mind, the difference was striking.

I totally goofed on this one!!

When I started recording the meditation, I noticed that the text I’d prepared was quite negative; I could feel the negative energy as I was speaking, sure enough! So I quickly tried to fix it. That’s what I recorded. Then later, when I was writing the article, I totally forgot about that, and just used my original text. Whoops!!

Banishing Negativity

Claire went on to muse with a great deal of insight about the best way to fix the text:

I can’t think of how to re-phrase some of the affirmations in a positive manner. What is the opposite of anger, for example? Somehow ‘peace’ feels different to me, broader somehow, than simply ‘not angry’. Similarly, one does not have to feel joy to not feel sadness — peace could cover that as well, or simply emptiness, or… Perhaps it’s necessary to identify the negatives in order to reject them? I was thinking of immediately countering each one, perhaps like this:

I love myself.
May I be free from anger.
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be free from sadness.
May I be happy.
May I be free from pain.
May my body be healthy and strong.
May I be free from all suffering.
May I be at peace.

but that feels all wrong, somehow. The four positives at the end build up a powerful feeling for me which this order doesn’t deliver. Any suggestions? I really liked the positive build-up in your recorded version, but maybe it’s good to remember what you’re trying to get rid of? It kind of corresponds to the release of fear…maybe it’s good to acknowledge that you have these negative feelings, then consciously replace them with positives? Perhaps run through the list at the start of the meditation, then focus on the positive? Maybe something like:

Anger vanishes.
Sadness vanishes.
Pain vanishes.
All suffering vanishes.

I like in particular the way Claire ties our emotional states into the communication we’re trying to make with Spirit. I think she’s right to focus on how the words make us feel — it’s much more important than their literal meaning. But I also agree that it’s important to evoke somehow the feelings you’re trying to banish, to acknowledge them and replace them. I’d argue, though, that you can do that without actually naming the emotions involved. The key is in understanding how opposites work.

The Opposite of Anger is…

Most people would say that the opposite of something — say, “X” — is “not X”, but that isn’t the case at all. The opposite of happy isn’t not-happy, it’s sad; and the distinction here is crucial. Not-happy includes all kinds of emotional states — melancholy, depressed, or angry, grumpy — or any other negative emotion. It also includes apathy, or the lack of any emotion; and it includes logic, and green, and anything else that’s not an emotion at all. But the opposite of happy isn’t any of that; it’s sad. Why? Because happy is a very simple, generic positive emotion, and its opposite needs to be a very simple, generic negative emotion. In other words, sad is just like happy except for one crucial difference.

Take another example: what’s the opposite of black? White, of course! Not any other color or shade, not music or logic or bananas or anything like that. Black is the absence of all kinds of light, and its opposite needs to be the presence of all kinds of light (ideally, all colors of light together in equal proportion). In other words, white is just like black, except for one crucial difference.

So you see how opposites work? Two things are opposite if they’re almost the same, but reversed in one essential feature. (Amazing how linguistics can come in so handy in totally unexpected places!)

So what is the opposite of anger? It really depends on what you think anger is. The American Heritage, my favorite dictionary, says it’s “a strong feeling of displeasure or hostility”; so we want something that means “a strong feeling of pleasure or non-hostility“. Joy is a pretty good candidate, but I don’t think it carries the idea of non-hostility far enough: anger is such a targeted emotion, we really need something that means “welcoming” or “taking delight in something”. The best word I know of is love.

The same exercise needs to be carried out with the other words in the meditation. I didn’t do this much analysis when I did my quick rewrite for the recording, so the phrasing could undoubtedly be improved by going through it more carefully.

Notice that doing this addresses the issue of acknowledging and banishing the bad emotion at the same time. Because you’re taking “anger” and finding out what it’s made of, and identifying an emotion that is its real opposite, you’re really targeting every part of anger and replacing it with its opposite. Contained in the word love is all the information you need to identify anger and dispell it.

Positive Loving Kindness

So below is the text of the meditation as it appears in the recording. There are still a few negative statements in it, but for the most part everything has been converted to positives. See if you can feel the difference, too.

I love myself.
May I be full of love.
May I be full of joy.
May I be full of good will.
May I be free from all suffering.
May my body be healthy and strong.
May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be happy.
May I be at peace.

I spread this loving kindness out.

I send love to those who are dear to me.
May their difficulties fall away.
May they be full of love and strength.
May they feel only joy and good will. May they be healthy and happy.
May they be at peace.

I send loving kindness to my friends and associates.
May they be full of love, peace, and joy.
May they feel compassion and goodwill. May they be healthy and happy.
May they be at peace.

I send love and kindness to all the people of the world, known and unknown, everywhere on earth.
May all on this planet be free from suffering.
May they be full of joy, goodwill, and hope.
May they be happy and at peace.

May all beings in the universe be free from suffering.
May all beings in all universes, everywhere, be free from suffering.
May they be well, and happy, and at peace.

May all beings of all kinds, in all directions, be happy and at peace.
Above and below, near and far, high and low.
All types of beings.
Humans and non-humans. Seen and unseen. May they be happy; may they be at peace.

I open my heart and receive loving kindness of all beings in return.
I let that love into my heart.

May all be well and happy.
May there be peace.

positivelovingkindness.jpg

Lughnasadh 2007: Embodiment of Sunfire

This Lughnasadh has been a quiet one for our family, but one with some very interesting revelations for me personally.

Our Family’s Lughnasadh

tolkientarotiiiOur usual mentor, Ellen Hopman, was away in Tennessee leading a large gathering, so the six of us tramped into the woods to do our own little thing. It turns out that back behind the farm where we get our summer vegetables is a stand of woods with a network of crisscrossing paths, and a lovely little brook with bridges scattered here and there along it. It was amazing to us what a sense of peace and reverence permeated these quiet woods, even though they are almost completely surrounded by developments now. At one of these bridges we sang “We are Children of the Earth” and silvered the water; then we went to the top of a hill and gave our offerings to the trees and to fire. I read a selection from the life of Lugh — the part where he’s taken from his home on earth and raised up to be a man by the King of the Sea, and how he decides to return to Ireland and free it from the yoke of the Fomorian invaders. Then we did a brief divination using Druid Animal Oracle cards, asking for guidance in our search for a home closer to the land. The general indication was that the search will take considerable cleverness and a strong warrior spirit, but that we will have help.

Then we tramped back to the farm proper and had a feast of whole wheat and oat rolls and salad. We placed a roll at the base of a birch for the local fairies, as well. Afterwards, most of the kids headed for the sandbox, but our 6-year-old second daughter, who I sometimes think has more intuition about people and relationships than the whole rest of the family put together, sought out the farmers, buttered them up properly, and secured a free cantaloupe and other random fruit. We had a lovely time.

Lugh: The Embodiment of Sunfire

Lughnasadh is Old Irish for “Lugh Gathering”, and it was a fire festival celebrated midway between the summer solstice and the fall equinox — a time of gathering together for trade and exchange of goods and ideas. As such, it wasn’t primarily a harvest festival, though according to legend it was established by Lugh, king of the gods, in tribute to his mother Tailtiu, who died readying the fields of Ireland for agriculture.

Lugh is the primary syllable of Lughnasadh, and it is similar to the name Luke and Latin lux in sound and meaning: a light, volume-filling energy is gathered with speedy, fluid motion into a grounded container — or, put more simply, embodied, flowing light.

It appears that some of my guides arranged matters so that they would be “revealed” at this time of year, when the energy of the sun is made manifest, because they are so closely tied to solar energy.

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Review of Life on Purpose

Earlier this month I was presented with the opportunity to read a new book called Life on Purpose — Six Passages to an Inspired Life, by Dr. Brad Swift. Swift’s story is an inspiring one: twenty years ago he was a successful veterinarian, with no apparent problems in his professional or personal life, but he very nearly committed suicide because of uncontrollable feelings of suffering, emptiness, and worthlessness. He was saved from the brink by a good friend, and since then his climb has been — by his own admission — slow and erratic, but inexorable. His life now is centered around his foundation, the Life on Purpose Institute, and his “Life on Purpose Process” taught by him and the coaches he has trained.

This Process is what you’ll find in this book.

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The Purpose of the Universe

In 1997 I was in graduate school, and I was coming to that dreaded point where you have to decide on a dissertation topic. I enjoyed linguistics, and there were dozens of topics I could have chosen; but whenever I asked myself, “Is THIS what I want to study the rest of my life?”, I had a sinking feeling that I was a terrible fraud, and that I was in the wrong place entirely. I didn’t know what I should be doing, but graduate school just didn’t seem right anymore. What should I be doing? What was the purpose of my schooling? What was the purpose of my life?

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The Meaning of Hand

First, let me reiterate exactly why it’s probable that the word “hand” used to mean something different.

definingPaganism11. As explained in the previous post, the word for hand in the various languages descended from Proto-Indo-European are a very mixed bag, and do not derive from a single common ancestral word. The word for hand in PIE was probably “men”, but it is “handaz” in Proto-Germanic, “manus” in Latin, “lamh” in Proto-Celtic, and “cheir(o)” in Greek. Among the Slavic languages, they stopped mentioning the hand at all — to this day, most Slavic languages have no specific term for hand; they say “arm” (or “lower arm”) instead.

2. Why wasn’t the PIE word “men” retained in its daughter languages (except Latin)? The hypothesis is that “men” was a taboo word, a word of power, and people avoided it by using euphemisms. (Specifically, it was taboo because of its association with the sun god, who was imagined to have long or heavy hands, like the rays of the sun.)

3. A euphemism is some meaningful word (or phrase) in the language which is brought in to replace a word that cannot be spoken lightly. For example, “pushing up the daisies” is a euphemism for “dead”. The euphemism already has its own meaning, but when used as a euphemism, it takes on the meaning of the taboo word. And, notably, the original meaning of the euphemism is intended to be somehow reminiscent of the taboo word. For example, “pushing up the daisies” indicates being buried underground (and hence dead).

4. Therefore, the words used for hand in the daughter languages — “handaz”, “lamh”, and “cheir(o)” — already existed in PIE and already had their own meanings before being adopted as euphemisms for PIE “men”.

So — what did “hand” (or more accurately, “handaz”) mean before it was adopted as a euphemism?

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Taboos in Proto-Indo-European

Words are potent and dangerous magic spells. Well, maybe a word like “toothpaste” isn’t particularly magical, but most words carry some power to them; and some words are so powerful that using them in casual conversation can have terrible unintended consequences. For example, there are any number of words — single, individual words with simple, uncomplicated meanings — that I could drop into this journal entry, and thereby cause half of you, dear readers, to leave and never come back. Forgive me if I don’t list out these words for you. But of course, they are words for Defecation, Reproduction, and People Not Like Me (racial/national/ethnic groups).

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