In the course of life, at various moments, many of find ourselves preoccupied with deep questions such as “What is the purpose of life?” and “What’s the meaning of it all?”
Sometimes these questions are accompanied by a sense of open curiosity, but often they’re accompanied by a sense of longing, a sense that something really important is missing, something feels empty or wrong. Otherwise- why would the question even arise?
To begin with, let’s start off with a bit of validation: Surely, there’s nothing wrong with sincerely examining our lives and contemplating ways in which they could be more purposeful, meaningful or fulfilling for us and those around us, or how we might derive deeper meaning from our engagement with the cosmos. If something important feels missing, surely there’s nothing wrong with critically examining life to find the reasons for the sense of emptiness, and attempting to alleviate it. If asking these questions results in your shifting to a more meaningful career, or repairing an estranged relationship, or reading those books you’ve been putting off, or seeking out a deeper version of personal spirituality, or deepening your friendships, then surely the entire exercise has been productive and fulfilling for you.
But aside from those productive outlets, I’d like to look at the question itself more deeply in this article- adopting a mindfulness perspective. Let’s see if we can open ourselves to some radical ideas.
Some Radical Ideas
While we’re sincerely asking these questions, what if we opened ourselves to a more radical idea- what if we are already fulfilling the purpose of life? (I mean- how long have you been at it? I’ve been at it for 35 years!)
What if we are already fulfilling the “measure of our creation”? What if we could closely attend to the feeling that “something’s missing”, and, paradoxically, find a sense of enoughness in feeling itself?- Within the raw sensations of being alive and in the lofty contemplation of such fascinating questions?
We could also open ourselves to other lines of enquiry. What is the purpose of a wolf’s life? How about a magpie? How about a jellyfish?
And what’s the purpose of non-life? What’s the purpose of the moon’s existence? How about Jupiter? Or what’s the purpose of interstellar medium- the matter and radiation that exist in the space between the star systems in a galaxy- composed of gas in ionic, atomic, and molecular form, as well as the purpose of dust and cosmic rays?
Sometimes we answer these questions by saying the purpose of these things is to “beautify and add variety to life”. But perhaps the beautification and variety, as desirable as they are, are just lovely side-effects?
Telling a Compelling Story
When we examine the question at its greatest depth, we find something even more interesting:
The purpose of life is to tell stories about the purpose of life that we find compelling
Think about the questions for a minute:
- What is the purpose of life?
- What is the meaning of it all?
What are the questions trying to do? They’re trying to find answers that would result in a particular flavour of subjective experience- the subjective experience of being satisfied or compelled by the answer. When we find an answer compelling, it seems to fill the hole, we are satisfied, and the question is put to rest. You want the answer to fulfil the question like a glove fitting snugly onto a hand. “That’s it!” you say, “That’s the purpose of life”.
Throughout the ages and throughout the world, people have come up with all sorts of answers to the questions about the purpose of life. This is the domain of religion, philosophy, literature, art, culture, etc. What’s fascinating to me is the multiplicity of the answers, and, very often, their mutual incompatibility and incongruity. For example, Mormons think the purpose of life is to prepare to meet God in an upcoming life, and prove that we’re obedient and that we’ll choose good from evil. Hindus believe that the purpose of life is to achieve the object of human truth (Purusharthas) these are dharma, kama, artha and moksha, while Scientologists believe the goal of life is to survive (perhaps the most pragmatic of them all?)
What’s generalisable about these various answers to the purpose of life is not their intellectual compatibility with each other, but that they somehow sooth the intellectual mind of the adherents of the various religions. They find the story compelling. In that sense, might this entire project of introspection be best framed as an attempt to sooth the intellectual mind? Are you trying to sooth a sad philosopher in your head by telling it the right story?
In the words of Yuval Noah Harari (Homo Deus):
“We see, then, that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money… This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.”
This Moment, Now
What if the purpose of life was for me to write this article, and you to read it?- and so now, once we’re done, the rest of it’s just a “bonus level”?
What if the purpose of life is to enjoy a good night’s sleep, have a dream or two, and sleep in on a Saturday morning?
Or lie awake at 3 AM because your mind is filled with ideas that are too big for the daytime to hold?
What if it’s to watch the winter sun cross the cloudless sky while lying in a hammock in your back yard, doing absolutely nothing for six hours?
Or listen to that trance song again for the 100th time, just because you like it?
What if it’s to listen to your friend, your spouse, or your child tell you why they’re hurting? Or to watch a single dead leaf fall from a tree in the late autumn?
What if it’s to become aware of suffering, feel compassion towards it, and feel moved to alleviate it? Or to laugh with sympathetic joy at the triumphs of your colleagues in their corporate adventures?
What if it’s to watch time heal your hurts, to laugh at farts, to be puzzled by cosmology, to be scared of losing those you love, or to be angry at injustice or vexing structure of society?
Or to find your own voice, to move past perfectionism and self-hatred. To dream, be disappointed, and dream again. Or to feel numb when it’s all gotten to be too much, and then to have sadness reboot your emotional life?
Look around you in nature. This is life fulfilling its purpose in each moment- the universe expressing itself into your senses.
Whichever story you find compelling, whichever emotions captivate your attention, it’s all just this flow- existing in real-time, in the present. Storytelling is the preoccupation of the living- it’s the substance and meaning of life- all the meaning I’ve ever experienced and all you’ll ever experience.