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Purpose and Meaning

Thoughts on Purpose and Meaning

Posted on December 27, 2012

The Dancer

The days flew by remarkable in their sameness;
he ate, laughed, occasionally made love
and all the while it yawned out there before him;
the blackness, the abyss, never seen, not directly,
something lurking in the mists on the horizon
only glimpsed as a shadow in the corner of his eye.

Years went by in a blur
as he sacrificed honesty for sanity;
each smile, each tear shed, a small victory;
that the smile did not become the ghastly grimace of madness;
that the weeping had an end, did not own all his days;
these small things assured him.

His hours slipped by remarkable in their sameness;
and he seemed to move with a purpose,
to gesture with meaning as he bowed to his partners
and twirled through the changes
of this seemingly endless Pas d’ une.

Posted on November 29, 2012

As usual, I will start with a poem

A Hungry Ghost

Convinced that paradise
was for sale
he traded in the minutes of his life
for the trappings of success.

He knew the formula;
only the poor were sad;
the sad were to be pitied;
and pity is the gateway to contempt.

So, each day he donned
the heavy, happy mask
and touched the trophies
he had struggled to acquire

certain that each acquisition,
house, wife, kids, car
however small, would be the one
to transport him to paradise.

Yet each attempt brought failure 
nothing could numb the pain,
no thing fill the emptiness
nor slake his nameless thirst.

The Sources and Uses of Pointless Consumption

We are animals; animals wired by our origins to exist in small bands.  Our kind evolved through most of our two million years to function as a few individuals who are closely related.  We are preset to look for signs that anyone we encounter is “one of us”; and, because we are primarily visual creatures – it is the visual cues that we use to identify who is “us” and who is “them”.

We are thrown together in these huge cities and suburbs which force us into contact with many thousand times more people every day than we are genetically wired to handle.  It raises our anxiety and stress levels.  These are autonomic triggers of endocrine functions that cause mental and physiological reactions (emotions) in us; reactions that can not be turned off and that are extremely difficult to control.  The best we can do is learn to sublimate them which, of course, increases our level of tension and stress.

Societies continue to exist through time by educating each new generation into membership.  We start in our families, then go to “school” and “church” to learn the rules our particular society has developed.  Those rules are packaged as many things – but inside the packages is really only one thing – a set of guidelines for how to minimize our natural panic and rage at being forced into contact with all these other human creatures.

We are expected to follow our society’s rules in how we dress, how we speak, the structure of our relationships with those around us, ideas we embrace and express, how we spend our time at various stages of our lives; the list goes on and on.  All of it is taught, none of it is inherent.  That’s why there are seemingly so many variations between one society and another.

Societies must be flexible, within limits.  There is a range of “acceptable” behaviors for each rule within any one society – to accommodate the range of individual differences in ability, and disposition (“Human Nature”); but it is only a range.  There are still edges, outliers, beyond which we go at our peril.

Societies will eject, isolate, or destroy anyone who goes too far beyond their acceptable range in any one area. Individuals who are less able to handle the stresses of mass social life (for whatever reason) will be less tolerant of anyone who is too close to the borders of any range.

There was a time when societies needed many millions of people to produce the basic food and shelter necessary to keep their members alive.  This meant that people were “busy” (what we call “busi-ness”) doing essential things for the vast majority of their time on the earth and they knew they would die if they stopped.

But now, we have far more humans on this small, small rock than are needed to keep the whole thing going.  Most people in our privileged societies will not die if they do not use their time in hard labor.  So, we need to find a way to keep them all busy; we need to foster some busy-ness. If we don’t, their stress levels will rise and they will become unable to follow the rules; chaos could ensue or, at least, that’s what we fear.

Now how do you get a well fed, warm, adult to do things with their time that are meaningless and boring?  You create new hungers; make them hungry for things other than food and shelter.  You lure them with shiny objects; exploit their simian desire for “stuff”; their need for stimulation.  You tantalize and advertise until they are driven by a hunger that is not of their bodies.  You manufacture “problems”, “inadequacies”, fears; and you hold out the promise that all problems, all doubts, all dissatisfactions, have an easy, quick solution that can be had if you simply have enough money.

It is the suppressed hunger, the emptiness of pointless lives, which makes these things attractive.  It is the need to “fit in” and not be judged an “outsider” that causes people to “settle” for what everyone else has settled for.

And it is a good solution – as far as it goes. After all there is no end to the seeking after more.  No matter what you have, there is always more to acquire. It is a kind of madness; a false purpose, a way to give “meaning” to the meaningless; to fill the time between birth and death.

Posted on November 26, 2012

“Life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is one hundred percent”.
R. D. Laing

“All Life Feeds on Life”.  This is a truth that can not be denied. 

These clusters of molecules that we call “Our Selves” are just one form, one manifestation the great sea of Life adopts as it wraps this old rock Earth in its embrace. 

The forms Life adopts may change, but all the bits remain constant, as does the essential Life of it all; no matter how the soup may swirl.  The pieces break apart and recombine into all the shapes and forms we know – and many we have never encountered nor ever will encounter, since they will arise when our form no longer exists.  The possibilities are almost endless.

The only constant is the process itself; Life takes on a form, the form acquires and absorbs the surrounding forms to build and reproduce, then it is, in turn, dismantled and used to make other forms; and on and on for as long as this rock remains a favorable setting for the process.

It is a fact, this eating and being eaten.  It has no purpose and certainly has no meaning.  What we eat, and why we eat it is no more than this process in action.  All the stories we tell ourselves, all the judgments we place on various choices, all this is a vanity, part of the mad fantasy we tell ourselves and our children about “Who we are, and Why we are here”. 

Here’s a little something to make my point.

Bambi Ate Thumper

Posted on November 13, 2012

“It must be obvious… that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.”
Alan Watts

Indifference

There is no malice in the rain.
It really bears no grudge.

 in spite of low, gray skies
and precious hours that slide
down panes to puddle on the sills;

in spite of how the sticky mud
slimes shoes and stains the floor;
in spite of leaky roofs,
and flooded basements;

In spite of how we feel;

the drops are not concerned with us
they cloud, collide, and coalesce
then fatten till they fall.

The rain is not malicious.
The rain is just a fact.

 The cancer does not hate.
In spite of pain and fear
and loved ones torn in anguish;

In spite of lives ground into dust
and babies lost before they’ve grown;

In spite of how we weep;

The cells know nothing of our suffering.

Drunk on life, they grow and grow
and do it on and on until
there’s no room left for life at all

The cancer is not cruel.
The cancer is a mindless fact.

 It is indifference
that brings the most
of hurt and confusion;

the indifference of existence
to our existence;

that and the truth of who we are;
our real place in this world
we proudly claim as ours

Posted on November 8, 2012

“One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of “crap.”
Neil Postman

Narcissus

Put down that mirror
and see the truth
outside the boundary of your eyes.
Let go of useless thoughts
of “how it is” and “what it means”.
The universe exists,
indifferent, to narrow, human
dreams of order;
and will exist,
unruffled in its ceaseless change,
when all the molecules
that make our kind
are motes of dust
circling a fading star.

Posted on October 18, 2012

I want to begin this next portion of my discussion on the illusions of Purpose and Meaning with this poem.

Fundament

To speak the name of God in proper tongue
to visualize the face in proper hue
recite the proper fables
prepare the proper foods
to only mate in ways laid down by laws.

These things are all that matters, so it seems,
to justify the hatred at our core
enough to spit on children
enough to sanction murder
enough to tuck us smugly in our graves.

Whatever “needs” we have, as the animals we are, leave us open to manipulation.  I have no reason to doubt that this has been the case since we first gathered into bands and roamed out from our African cradle-land.

Those individuals among us who seek power in any form have always known, instinctively it seems, that, if they can get a grip on our animal needs, they can take control of most people. 

How many “systems” of living, whether political, religious, economic, or the latest one, health-focused are based on labeling, channeling, and controlling our wired-in needs?  The answer is easy – “all of them”.

We need to eat – so our “leaders” tell us what we can and can not eat, when to eat it, how to eat it, etc.  They label some food as “bad” and some as “good”.  They attach meaning to eating and we accept it and feel “good” or “bad” based on how we follow the dictates of that meaning.

We need to associate with others and our “leaders” tell us when we should gather, with whom, for what Purpose, and what those gatherings should Mean.  We need to feel competent, to challenge ourselves with the obstacles and opportunities of everyday life and to prove our mastery of various skills by the doing, and our leaders tell us which skills have Purpose and which do not.

We need to mate like any mammals do, and the swarm of Meanings and Purposes and rules and artificial interpretations attached to that simple, basic act far out weigh all the rest

Again, and again, people are driven to change their way of life, their homes, their associations, to focus their efforts, to build, to destroy, to hound, shun or even murder their neighbors in the name of Purposes and Meanings touted to them by their self-appointed “Leaders” whose real motives are always well hidden and never altruistic at base.

And so the lies of Purpose and Meaning do more than cloud our minds and cut us off from the moments of our lives; they make us into sheep to be fattened and herded to the pens to be sheared and even slaughtered for other men’s advantage.

In all our sad history, no situations are ever more shameful or blatant than those that occur when economic, religious, and political “Purpose” and “Meaning” collaborate and drive us to murder, rape, and destroy others.

 Market Report

I – The Opening Bell

Fear is up.
The scent is in the air.
The tang of sweat and urine
has set the hounds to whining.
Shivers ripple cowering ribs.

There’s bogeys at the borders.
It’s time for ritual cleansing.
Take icons from their cases,
carry saints and crosses
with blessings round the square.

Greed is up.
We see it in the mirror.
Bloated cars, bloated houses,
bloated bodies, blighted lives;
swallowing all within our grasp.

Like locust on the wing,
we can not fill our longing.
It’s time to join the mighty swarm
devouring all before us
to leave the earth stripped bare.

Hate is up.
The sounds are everywhere.
The snarling and the spitting,
jackals trot into the sunlight.
Spittle drips from needle teeth.

The enemy’s among us;
not one of us, but here.
It’s time to burn the books and authors;
to wave the bloody shirts and watch
the veterans bare their wounds.

Pain is up.
We feel it all the time;
the writhing and the sickness.
The trees are black with crows
disturbing midnight dreams.

The “others” are too stubborn
to own their blackest sins.
It’s time to force confessions;
to find the whips and fetters;
to save them from themselves.

 II – Analysis

This is the hour of priest and pundit.
Demagogues are in their glory.
Politics returns to pulpits.
Senators aspire to halos.

We’ve made the ritual payments;
washed the earth in virgin blood;
maimed and slaughtered strangers;
offered up the limbs and souls
of our most hopeful young.

But, still our lives and homes unravel;
still that sense that change is coming.
Now freedom seems too great a burden.
Thinking only leads to dread.

This is no time to be too different,
too black, too brown, too poor, too gay,
or, god forbid, too bright.

Posted on October 15, 2012

I am going to share some thoughts I have had on, what I call, Big Words; specifically, “Purpose” and “Meaning”.  I am well aware that these can be loaded terms and that not everyone will see them in the same light as I do.  So let me start by sharing this: 

Absolutely

“Justice” he said rolling out the word
as though there were a universal definition,
an understanding shared;
as if everyone who heard it
would agree that justice is for you
as justice is for me.

“Beauty” she said, confident we’d all see
the precise elements of beauty
that formed within her mind;
yet, by her saying, behind the eyes
of everyone who heard, a vision appeared,
each unique, each the expression of
a single, yearning heart.

“Truth” they said.  
And with that idol raised on high,
they sought to bury every thought
that did not cleave along the line
that formed the limit of their blinkered sight;
unable to embrace the myriad truths
that lay outside the comfort of their
shuttered minds.

A Vision

A while ago I had a vision – I was standing at the end of a long, dark, narrow room.  So long I could not see the other end.  A long, narrow dark wood table with two rows of old, heavy carved chairs ran down the center of the room, disappearing into the gloom at the far end.  In those chairs sat a thousand old men.

Their faces showed their emotions, they were happy, angry, bitter, foolish, ashamed.  Some were weeping, some were dozing, some were talking out loud, ranting, humming, singing, laughing.  There should have been a terrible din, but the room was curiously muffled.  None of them were talking to anyone else – all were isolated, lost in themselves in spite of being surrounded by so many others. 

Even though I could not see it, I knew there was a door in the far wall at the other end.  One by one these men would be called and pass through that door to disappear forever. The room smelled of decay and the men seemed hopeless.  Each of their actions, as they sat there waiting to die, represented the sum total of their life; all that they had managed to do with the gift of being.

As I walked down the length of the table, one old man turned to me – his face was glowing but his features were obscured.  He said “We are all like this season’s apples.  No matter how red, or ripe, or juicy or sweet we are; we will all be forgotten in the excitement, the promise, the joy of next season’s harvest”.

I knew in that instant that there was nothing to hope for, that life had no Purpose and no Meaning.

And then last week I was meditating on “Purpose” and “Meaning”.  Something started to form in my mind – a line to be crossed from fog into clarity, and then my ego-self recoiled from it like it was a hot stove!  There was something obvious and frightening there – not harmful but so revolutionary in a quiet way that it threatened everything on which I base my idea of me.

At least- I think that’s what happened.  There was something loaded, intense, about the ideas of Purpose and Meaning. 

I realized Purpose is a totally simian idea – one we have wired into our brains – it is very useful in a limited way – but it prevents us from seeing the truths right before us – like our eyes can not see all wavelengths of light and our ears can not hear all sound waves.

Meaning is the same sort of thing.  We impose meaning on events and objects – it is not “really” there except in so far as we decide it is there.

People from dramatically different environments and cultures see the same things (physical objects, events) and derive a totally different meaning from them.  We call that “superstition”.  But what we are really saying is, they do not share our definition of the meaning of those things.  People within our culture and language who do that are either artists, prophets, or deemed insane – most likely the latter

We seem to need to impose meaning and purpose on our lives and the things/events we encounter.  It is not a choice – we do it instinctively.  When we can not do it we become terrified and agitated and will kill to prevent that from happening.  Like the Taliban.  They have a different system of purpose and meaning.  We are trying to take it away from them – make it false.  They are willing to kill and die to prevent that.

The catch is – none of it is really “true”; all of them are arbitrary, learned systems – one is as good as another – because none of them is true!

Say I meet my family (parents, sibs, my own kids maybe).  We are gathered for a meal.  Likely there are many undertones of meaning (tension, resentment, disappointment, bitterness, rejection, affection, etc.) filling the room; half unspoken, but very present.

Physically, we are all truly there around the table; each of us, in the moment, a distinct cluster of chemicals and life force.  But the Meaning of us all being there – the implications to each of us, the perceived importance and the conclusions to be drawn from actions, words, and postures are all fantasies.  They appear very real to each person – but they are a kid of madness all the same.

So, how do I function once I can see the futility and arbitrariness of this situation?

The answer seems to be to know it is a game and play it as such; don’t get trapped into thinking it “matters”.  I must remember “We are all like this season’s apples.  No matter how red, or ripe, or juicy or sweet we are; we will all be forgotten in the excitement, the promise, the joy of next season’s harvest.”

If I can see both the context and my responses as manufactured, imposed; then I can rise above it. 

The struggle is that all of this is like explaining water to fish – they do not understand water because there is no existence for them without water.  It is not separate from them.  This “meaning” and “purpose” stuff is our water.  It is sustaining, but also a trap.  It can be useful in some ways – but limiting when it becomes distorted by neuroses

We are “neurotic” when we impose “meanings” onto situations that are left over from prior situations.  We interpret NOW as then – and so we never actually live NOW – we are always living in terms of something that no longer applies.

(More to follow)

Let me close with this 

The Habit of Meaning

I

The habit of meaning
inhabits the space
between the senses and
the experience of sensation.

Being and, in reflection,
being within being
itches the cortex,
disturbing its equilibrium.

The mind favors indifference
when confronted with sensation;
resorting to words to establish meaning
sacrificing experience for comfort;
obscuring sensation in the instant of identification.

II

In that instant,
the thing in its purity,
uniquely itself,
fluid and complex,
rich in associations,
a community of existence,
is safely hidden within the label.

The patterns perceived from trees;
the experience of a unique tree in time and space
the rattle of wind in leaves;
the shape etched against the sky;
spicy scent of growth and decay;
birds, insects, color, motion, height,
life in all its complex play of context,
reduced in the mind to the sound of the label “tree”

And the unique being fades into the ordered view.
This tree becomes a symbol of a tree,
a universal child’s drawing of a tree,
not this tree at all.

III

Meaning is a mirror ensuring that we see
only what we have already seen,
transforming all we see into
a reflection of ourselves,
a confirmation of our prejudices.

Experience narrows to indifference
in the moment of categorization.

In the instant of contact
the connection is broken

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