If there is one question that seems to have no concrete answer up until now, it is the fabled “What is the meaning of all of this?”. Ages have been spent pondering upon what the meaning of life and human existence is. Yet, the only definite answer to this question so far seems to have come from Deep Thought, the supercomputer from Douglas Adams’ acclaimed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Deep Thought took 7.5 million years to calculate and check the answer to The Ultimate Question, before eventually spewing out the answer as the number 42. It further points out that the answer, 42, seems meaningless because the individuals who instructed Deep Thought did not really know what the Question was.
What does it mean?!
As hard as it may be to accept it, there is not enough concrete evidence to point towards the notion that life has an inherent meaning. However, this does not negate our ability to create a meaningful life for ourselves. Acknowledging this implicit understanding of the universe is one thing, accepting it with resignation is another. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it, knowing that we, as humans, do not have wings does not stop us from flying (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
The question arises more so often nowadays than it did before is because for centuries religions and cultures have provided us with a central purpose from which other goals emerge out of. The presence of faith in a higher power that seems to take care of everything that occurs in our everyday experiences provides a template for a narrative that helps us “make sense” of events and activities that are a part of much larger, and a much more random and haphazard ‘whole’. However, some may have started to question their faith and beliefs, and consequently felt the need to create a purpose for themselves.
Purpose can be pictured as the long-term goal that is not readily achievable, from which all other goals emerge out of. Acting with intent on these goals, consistently increasing one’s skill level germane to these tasks and activities, and channeling one’s attention towards these goals can set the foundation to turn the experience of life into a unified flow experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Harmony can be achieved among thoughts, actions, and feelings by establishing coherence between what one wants to, needs to, and must do. One of the ways to do this is via establishing priorities through mindful and detached self-reflection such that in situations where attention faces conflicting choices, one knows what course of action to take and the likelihood of entropy in consciousness can be reduced. This approach can be referred to as the contemplative one and can be seen as a direct approach towards creating order in one’s consciousness, achieving internal harmony (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
On the other hand, one can also place themselves in a context or domain of life where their identified purpose provides opportunities for action that are challenging enough, and these opportunities are such that one clearly knows where their attention needs to be invested. This activity-oriented approach is more of an indirect method of restoring order to consciousness not by resolving conflicts and contradictions between goals and desires, but by pursuing goals with such intensity that there is no more room for conflict in one’s attention. As most dichotomies in today’s world, it is important to note here that both activity, and reflection are equally important to create a unified flow experience. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “action by itself is blind, reflection impotent” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 226).
For a 15-year old dreamer wanting to know the mysteries of the universe, an identified purpose may be to figure out a way to identify signs of life outside of planet Earth. Out of this purpose emerge smaller goals such as applying to undergraduate schools to study Physics and Astronomy, working hard to land a position at NASA, conducting excessive research and pushing the frontiers of science as we know it, and one day, may be actually developing a method or an instrument that allows us to identify signs of life in the vast expanse of space. It may now be evident that a purpose lends direction to one’s existence, creating an ever-propagating sequence of events, goals, desires, and activities that is coherent, i.e. one that “makes sense”. Additionally, although the human race would undoubtedly benefit from said 15-year old’s discovery, it is worthy to note here that actually achieving the end-goal is not the decisive factor that certifies whether one’s life has been enjoyable and engaging, one free of guilt, anxieties, and regrets. Rather, it is the order being restored in one’s inner-working that weighs heavily on one’s life being “meaningful”.
This is due to the presence of a purpose, inherently directional in nature, that orders everything such as challenges and goals that emerge out of it.
Just like ordering a slice of pie at your favorite local bakery is only a part of the pie-eating experience, the challenges and goals that emerge out of one’s purpose must be acted upon with intent in order to have a life that could itself be summarized as one big optimal experience. It is the completion of these challenges and goals that provide feedback about where one stands in regards with one’s ultimate goal, or purpose. As everyday life starts to include more and more of Flow activities as goals are in parallel with one’s desires and attention is appropriately channeled into established priorities, things start to “fall into place” and life starts to become more “meaningful”. Although the question surrounding the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ is a tricky one, colloquial language reveals to us that things are ‘meaningful’ when they make ‘sense’, things make ‘sense’ when they are cohesive and coherent, with coherence heavily dependent upon ordering of information. Thus, one of the purpose of a ‘purpose’ is to orient the flow of information of everyday life into an ordered structure, lending a sense of ‘sense’ and significance to our everyday experiences.
Sometimes, it may feel like we have been carrying out roles in the world that we feel that we ought to do, because it is what others are doing, or it is the safer route to survive in contemporary times. However, if this role starts to feel inauthentic, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that it is also within our reach to create the role that we want to play for ourselves. This allows us to write our own scripts for our actions in day-to-day life in tandem with the awareness of our choices, with each action that is carried out being subjectively significant. We choose. We create. We Flow. The question is, what came first, the creator or the creation?
What you have to do!
Keeping up with the ritual of our weekly journal entries, this week we ask you to probe deeper into why you chose your chosen activity to serve as a training ground for this challenge course. What made you narrow it down to this specific activity? What was the motivation behind it? Do you have a personal history with this activity? Additionally, we ask you to find out more about your chosen activity as in-depth as can be. How did this activity come into being? What purpose does it serve? When and where did it originate from? Does it have a larger community associated with it? Who are the role models and icons related to this field? How does engaging in this activity make you feel? How could you create a similar experience for others around you? With the number of possible questions surpassing the number of possible frozen yogurt flavors, the simplest path would be to tackle the ‘Why?’ of it all one goal at a time.
Awareness Game of the Week
This week’s Awareness Game is called The Passenger (O’Connor, 2016). Think about this, what if instead of being the driver of your experience, you’re in the passenger seat simply riding the experience with someone else driving (with someone else ranging from a supreme god to a mysterious ‘nothing’).
Now imagine yourself to be riding around looking out at the world through the windows of your eyes. Imagine that all your sensations are the terrain that you’re being driven over and whatever you pass over is completely okay, as you’re just riding. Now imagine that all your thoughts and emotions are part of the terrain as well.
How does this make you feel?
Keywords: meaning, purpose, intent, intention, goals, challenges, skill, order, consciousness, significance
Ajit Mann is a Master’s Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.