Musings on Meaning Part 2: What is the Meaning of Life?

9. Musings on Meaning Part 2_ What is the Meaning of Life_ (770x409p) (1)

Key Points:

  1. None this week. This is too nuanced a subject to sum up in three succinct bullet points.
  2. So, for those of you who just read those and not the article (I’m looking at you, Nathan!) you’re out of luck for this piece. And for those who do that, I still love you all, don’t worry.

Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes

Listen to this episode on Spotify!

Wow, what a clickbait title, huh? Even for me, this one might strike you as a bit over the top. But this is a topic I’m deeply interested in, as it’s been one of humanity’s most discussed questions since our species developed the capacity to ask them.

I was inspired to finally write this piece last week, after the sad story about the kitten Tess and I rescued from the street. For those who didn’t read it, his injuries were too severe for the veterinarians to help, so he had to be put to sleep. This kitty was only a few months old, sweet and calm, innocence personified, yet his life ended before it had barely begun.

So…what was the meaning of his life?

I’m no longer egocentric enough to believe things like, “It was to serve as a reminder of how precious and fragile life is, that you should take nothing for granted.” While that may be a helpful sentiment, it seems like a pretty raw deal for the kitten. I’d like to imagine that, if given the choice, most people would rather another being not have to die simply to remind them to treasure their own worldly existence. I’m also reasonably certain that few individuals would willingly sign up to have such a role be the explicit purpose of their life.

In fact, any externally assigned meaning or purpose comes with issues. I’m going to use those two terms mostly interchangeably in this piece. So, let’s suppose the meaning of life was undisputedly one of the following:

  • To pass on your genes by having children
  • To accumulate as much material wealth as possible
  • To have as wide a variety of experiences as possible
  • To achieve true mastery in one particular discipline
  • To help as many people as possible

To be clear, I don’t believe it is any one or even a combination of those things, but for the sake of argument, let’s suppose it was.

What if whatever this official “meaning of life” is doesn’t appeal to you? To be more specific, what if the true meaning of life was to have as wide a variety of experiences as possible, but what lights you up is pursuing true mastery in a specific field? Or what if the meaning of life was to contribute to the survival of the species by having children, but you don’t want kids?

Oops. What then? Are you doomed to a tortured existence, inherently at odds with your purpose? Again, that sounds like a pretty bad deal. So no, if I may be so bold, I’m pretty sure the meaning of life isn’t any of those. As for the idea that this life is a test to prove one’s worthiness for some form of afterlife, we’ll get to that later in the piece.

Before we dive deeper, we need to take a small but important detour.

Through opposites, what’s hidden is revealed…

This is the first line of a poem by Rumi, a famous Sufi mystic of the 13th century. Here’s the full version, short but brilliant:

Through opposites

What’s hidden

Is revealed


Has no opposite

So he’s concealed

Some readers may be thinking, “Hang on, wouldn’t the Devil be considered the opposite of God?” Fair point, so it’s important we make a crucial distinction here. Sufism, the non-dual branch of Islam, has similarities to Mystical Christianity, Buddhism, Qabalah of Judaism, and Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism. In all of these belief systems, the crucial tenet is recognizing the inherent unity, inseparability, and oneness of everything. Existence is undivided, or “not two.” Hence, “non-duality.”

So in the case of Rumi’s poem, God is a synonym for “Oneness,” “The Infinite,” “Source,” “The Tao,” “The Universe,” or any other label that encompasses the shared being, everythingness, and nothingness of…everything. Yes, that was clunky, but sadly, linguistic labels start to fail here. Our brains aren’t really set up to truly comprehend “infinity” or the notion of something without an opposite, so we do the best we can with the words we have. The key point to remember is that this loving, inseparable oneness is the God Rumi refers to as having no opposite, not a man in the sky.

In fact, this message of oneness is at the core of every religion. “Love thy neighbor as you would thyself,” makes a whole lot more sense and becomes much easier when you don’t see yourself as inherently different and separate from them. Further, it is this sort of “undifferentiated” love we associate with some of the most revered religious figures in all of human history, like Jesus or The Buddha. It’s only through the unfortunate additions of politics and culture that we layer on to this message of oneness and love that the myriad problems associated with organized religion start to arise. But we’re veering off topic here, so let’s return to Rumi’s poem.

“Through opposites what’s hidden is revealed,” means that it is only through something’s antithesis that we can understand it.

Mentally conjure up your own personal idea of “the perfect weather.” Now imagine experiencing that climate every single day for your entire life. It would be impossible to label it as pleasant, because you’d have never known anything else. So, it wouldn’t be special or enjoyable, because you’d have nothing worse to which to compare it.

To make matters personal for a moment, I’ve noticed a funny quirk about many native Arizonans. Phoenix enjoys over 300 sunny days per year, the health benefits of which are hard to overstate. However, one interesting, non-physical health-focused side effect, is that many people here seem pleased to experience the occasional gray, windy, rainy day. These days are exciting because they’re different, nevermind that they’re “worse” than sunshine. The novelty makes them special, and days like this occur rarely enough that they don’t grow tiresome. Plus, they reinforce how wonderful the sunshine feels.

This need for contrast to understand is true for literally every adjective we can use to describe an experience. We can’t know pleasure without pain, delight without despair, sweet without bitter, and so on.

Okay, so what does this have to do with the meaning of life?

Well, meaning and meaninglessness are best understood in an identical, dualistically dependent way. They are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.

So, personally, I feel quite certain in saying that there is no deeper meaning of life. It is inherently meaningless. But rather than leading to some sort of nihilistic, existential despair, this is a truly wonderful conclusion. How can I say such a thing?

Well, inherent meaninglessness allows us the ultimate freedom. Each one of us gets to choose and create our own meaning. What a beautiful gift! Could anything be more incredible than that? This realization turns certain parts of life into one big playground to be explored, experienced, and enjoyed.

But first, a word of caution.

Within Zen Buddhism, this inherent meaninglessness was considered dangerous knowledge in the wrong hands. It’s why this sect heavily emphasized selfless service to others and its monks were subject to such rigid discipline. For if one internalized the idea of a meaningless life without understanding the equally important shared oneness and interconnection with everything and everyone, some version of the following would be easy to mentally justify.

“Well, if nothing has any meaning, why don’t I just kill that person and take their stuff? Why can’t I just lie, cheat, steal, and do whatever the heck I want. It doesn’t matter, right?”

Well, as I’ve mentioned in multiple pieces about the 200-hour darkness retreat I did in Mexico, my most profound realization was utterly at odds with such a line of thinking. While in deep meditation on the fourth night, it became exquisitely clear to me that an unbelievably powerful love resides within all of us, and that it is possible for anyone to come into contact with it. In fact, it’s our essence, our natural state. While in touch with this pervasive love, the idea of deliberately harming another being would be ludicrously impossible. Further, it’s only when we forget that this love is there (which is admittedly easy to do) that we are capable of harming others.

So, in order for meaninglessness to be less likely to evoke despair, this loving oneness must also be remembered and experienced. If it’s not, then we can find ourselves in trouble. And this is likely why certain religious guidelines were introduced. Interestingly, in the original Latin translation, “sin” means, “to miss the mark.” Using the inherent meaninglessness of life as an excuse to harm others, rather than to creatively express freedom, would be the ultimate example of missing the mark.

And this brings us back nicely to life as a religious test.

I don’t wish to be argumentative here, and I certainly can’t disprove that life is a sort of cosmic exam that ultimately rewards some and punishes others. However, if we return to the common thread at the core of all belief systems, the loving, interconnected oneness, it makes more sense to view commandments, rituals, and rites as pointers towards how to live a good life. The goal behind them is to help us transcend our infatuation with our egos and feel this loving connectedness more fully in our daily lives.

This can guide us to a heavenly existence here on Earth, or a hellish one if callously ignored. But in general, I take a much less pessimistic view of human nature than many who believe that without a system of extrinsic rewards and punishments, people will inevitably act like selfish assholes. We don’t need the threat of the consequences of failing a test to remember something that deep down, all of us already know. To reiterate, I have become completely convinced that loving connectedness is our default state, not violent selfishness. The latter is learned; the former is not. Studies showing that babies initially cannot distinguish themselves from their mother support this.

For people who disagree, the concept of meaninglessness as freedom I described, which we could call “loving, joyous nihilism,” probably sounds ridiculous, perhaps even horrible. And, fair enough. Freedom can be terrifying, especially if we prefer to be told what to do. It’s also comforting to create identities for ourselves and arbitrary divisions between “us” and “others,” believing thoughts that label people as “good” or “bad.”

But as I said, it’s not my intention to step on anyone’s belief system, or try to convince you that I’m “correct.” I’d simply like to offer a perspective that, while possibly disheartening at first glance, offers profound joy and freedom. With no deeper meaning, it becomes impossible for a life to be “wasted.” You can do whatever you want with yours. To that end, if I am comfortable making a statement about the meaning of life, this is as far as I’ll take it:

The meaning of life is simply to experience.

Or put another way, to be. And we’re never not being. Never not experiencing. So always, at all times, we’re embodying the truest, most profound purpose of existence. What a relief, huh?

That truth reminds me of one of my favorite Zen poems, which I’ll paraphrase here.

A bird glides effortlessly through the air

Ripples echo silently across the surface of a pond

In these there is deep meaning

But when the time comes to express it

We forget the words

Meaning requires no words to be powerful, and life requires no meaning to be beautiful. In fact, it just may be better without any.

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your take on the meaning of life? Reply to this email and let me know!


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Every Tuesday, learn about topics you might expect to see on a strength coach’s blog, like how to overcome injuries, train smarter, and become more athletic…and about topics you might be surprised to find, like mindfulness, philosophy, and leaving your ego behind.