The Meaning of Meaning
- January 29, 2016
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Meaning is usually taken to be something that’s intrinsic to life. Life has meaning, we assume, though the actual meaning of life may not be so clear to us. And the meaning of meaning? Leave it to philosophers. Meaning is just not a topic that we are prone to investigate all that deeply. After, all isn’t it a given?
Given the existential condition in which we ever so briefly make an appearance (suffering to varying degrees from a case of mistaken identity on a remote speck in one of innumerable galaxies), it’s understandable that we’d look, and keep on looking, for comfort or reassurance in the explanatory dimensions of consciousness, even though our attempts to find or extract or assign meaning — whether in mundane or metaphysical contexts — ultimately only pad the cell, distracting us from the raw contingency and absolute mystery of our existence.
The notion that anything possesses — or can truly claim — intrinsic meaning remains one of our more popular assumptions. Whatever its value may be developmentally and socially, meaning basically remains a cognitive creation that can easily distract us — and, in a sense, also protect us — from the bare reality of what is happening.
And meaning itself is generally taken to be a good thing, a necessary thing. When we say that something has no meaning, we are not speaking of this as an attribute!
Meaning can provide a much needed comfort and familiarity with things — but when we don’t develop the capacity to look through meaning, to see things without an overlay of meaning, we too easily settle for explanation, letting it supplant revelation. Truly grasping the essence of something does not require any intermediaries, including meaning. Truly “getting” something is an act of radical intimacy, with nothing between us and it except sentient space, with no bridges needed except for our awakened openness — here, we don’t think about what something means or might mean, but reach below and beyond our thinking for a nonconceptual knowing of it.
Clinging to meaning strands us from the direct noncognitive knowing of things.
Just because it is easy and extremely commonplace to assume that meaning is inherent to Life does not necessarily make it so. Nor is meaning synonymous with significance. We live significance, as an organically felt sense of something mattering and directly experiencing that, from the first moments of our existence, but meaning is a mind-made and socially maintained construction that gets superimposed on and implanted into our reality once we leave our infancy, helping us to explain, file, and culturally navigate what we encounter along the byways of our various learning curves.
As we become accustomed to this, we tend to equate meaning and significance, so that what matters most to us also “means” the most to us. In this, we easily take meaning to be a given.
Life makes sense only when we stop trying to make it make sense.
That is, when we cease plastering meaning onto Life — thereby giving Life more breathing room, more space to simply be — then Life’s natural significance begins revealing itself to us. Meaning tries to explain the Mystery, whereas significance expresses and honors it.