An Experiential Theory on the Meaning of Life

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What are we really trying to find out when we ask, “what is the meaning of life?” Does the answer ultimately matter? Does the sense of purpose make a life better lived? Or does the question actually expose an unnecessary desire to apply purpose to everything as a prerequisite for fulfillment?

If one considers the “purpose” of this life is to simply experience it, the journey becomes much more important than any destination. This is hard for us to grasp, though, because it suggests the journey should have no end, which confuses us as a goal-oriented species.

Perhaps the answer to the ultimate question is staring us in the face, only we can’t see it because it’s not the answer we’ve trained ourselves to look for. In other words, if we think of “what” as everything in this existence within our ability to experience, then a simple punctuation change reveals the answer to the question: “What is the meaning of life.”

Daydream on a flight between Kansas City and Milwaukee, Dec. 26, 2014. I don’t think I broke any new philosophical ground here, but the exercise did help me better organize my thoughts on the matter. At any rate, it was a fun way to spend an hour-long flight.

Photo above is a shot I took at Halona Beach Cove, O’ahu, Hawaii on June 20, 2014. 

 

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Finding the Value in Ritual and Ceremony

The beauty and benefit of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma

I have a new favorite perk that was recently installed in our breakroom: an ice cream vending machine. It doesn’t get much better than $1 for a Klondike bar whenever I feel like one.

Partly for the sake of my waistline, I’ve been reintroducing myself to ritual and ceremony. In this case, I’ve decided to reserve the Klondike bar for my personal celebration when we wrap up production of an issue. As I write this, I’m looking forward to the moment when this issue is sent to the printer and I’m able to sit quietly in my office for 10 minutes and enjoy the Klondike.

Going forward, I’m sure I’ll find it tempting to have an ice cream bar between deadlines, but I know that I’ll appreciate my ice cream bar a lot more if I maintain its special place in my life. It sounds silly, but it’s a simple way to make something I enjoy more meaningful.

I became reacquainted with ritual and ceremony in October 2014 when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey outside of Barcelona. We went in the evening specifically for Vespers, which features Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks who live there. It’d been a while since I’d spent time in a church, and watching the evening prayer service unfold reminded me of what I missed most about the faith of my youth: the familiarity and comfort of the liturgy, the feeling of singing in unison, and the opportunity for contemplation that being in a church provided. Above all, I remembered how those aspects of ritual and ceremony were essential in preparing my mind and body for the spiritual experience I was there to have. They served to establish my intent, clear my mind of distraction, and help me remain in the moment.

Feeling goosebumps as the monks chanted, I realized that while I’ve discarded the rigid dogmatism of my childhood faith, there’s still value to glean from applying certain aspects of ritual and ceremony to my life again. Though my definition of “God” couldn’t be much more different than the one I used growing up, my desire for a spiritual encounter with the divine is stronger than ever. When I take a walk in the woods, play music, paint a picture, dream, meditate, or float in a sensory deprivation tank, I know I’m seeking a connection with the divine. Each of those activities involves a specific, yet routine preparation that I’ve chosen to redefine as ritual. Some are as simple as changing into painting clothes or taking a shower, but no matter how banal they might be, I still find them to be effective invocations when I choose to see them that way.

For me, that’s part of the beauty of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma; the only rules are my own.

Originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Utne Reader.

Photo courtesy Keith Roper, licensed under Creative Commons.

Everything in Moderation, Especially Facebook

Ensuring that a technology designed to bring us closer together doesn’t make us strangers to each other

Several months ago, I shared my dismay at no longer being able to sit and do nothing due to a smartphone dependency. It’s been four months since that realization, and I’m happy to report that I’m finding it much easier to disconnect from the phone and plug in to the real world around me.

This recently became apparent when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. Unable to use the dataplans on our iPhones seemed at first to be an inconvenience, but quickly revealed itself to be a blessing. Our idle time waiting for the Metro or relaxing on a park bench was spent daydreaming and people-watching rather than Facebook surfing. It’s entirely possible that some of our best memories from the trip wouldn’t exist had we been able to distract ourselves with the digital universe.

For my wife, the experience really hit home. In the month since we’ve been back she’s had little desire to log into Facebook. While I’ve noticed that she still pops in occasionally, she barely scrolls through her feed before quickly losing interest. A week away not only helped her realize how much of a daily distraction it had become, but also how unfulfilling a connection it is for keeping in touch with people.

She’s aware, though, that her decision to cut Facebook out of her life may come with a cost: knowing what’s going in the lives of friends and family. While most Facebook posts simply document everyday details or massage someone’s ego, the ease with which one can share exciting news, wedding engagements, birth announcements, or any other milestone through a quick post makes it plain to see that Facebook has become the most efficient way to communicate with all of our loved ones at once. And when distance keeps people from spending real time together, there’s no denying that Facebook is often the next best thing. I’m even aware of real-life friendships that have started as a result of being introduced through Facebook.

But I also sense that for many, Facebook is becoming a substitute for keeping in “real” touch with one another. A good friend of ours recently relayed a surreal experience in which someone they were having a live conversation with referred them to their Facebook page to read the details they didn’t feel like repeating at the time. In this instance, a technology designed to bring us all closer together is actually more effective at making us strangers to each other.

While this cultural disconnect due to social media isn’t a new development, I appreciate the reminder that it’s happening; my wife’s decision to significantly cut back has led me to be more conscious of the real-life relationships I want to have and the real-life effort that’s required to do so. I think Facebook is great for sharing funny pictures, interesting articles, and inspiring information, but when “liking” someone becomes the prerequisite for knowing what to talk about with that person in real life, we’ve lost the rudder.

For those of us who remember what life was like before the digital age, achieving balance with Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. As our society becomes even more connected (and dependent) on technology, regular reality checks like the one my wife made will become even more important if we hope to maintain real connections to ourselves, each other, and the natural world we’re apart of. It’s the only way we’ll ensure that technology serves us and not the other way around.

Originally published at Utne Reader.

Photo courtesy Khalid Albaih, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Lost Art of Doing Nothing

What are we missing out on when we use our smart phones to pass idle time?

Recently, while eating lunch by myself at a local diner, I realized something that genuinely bothered me: I’m losing the ability to sit and do nothing. Where I used to be able to sit contently and simply daydream or observe my surroundings, I now feel anxious, restless, and awkward if I’m sitting alone with nothing specific for my hands or brain to do.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Looking around at the other solo diners that day, I noticed a common denominator: the smart phone. With sandwiches in one hand and thumbs scrolling through Facebook in the other, we all seemed incapable of disconnecting from our phones, even for a 15-minute lunch. That’s when it dawned on me that it’s entirely possible the most damaging effect of technology’s integration into our daily lives is that it’s replacing something many people have never thought was worth doing—sitting still and simply letting your mind wander.

As soon as I figured out what was going on, I put my phone away. But that’s when the awkwardness set in. If you want to feel out of place in a public setting these days, just start staring off into space or watching people as they walk by. Do it long enough and someone is liable to walk up and ask you if you’re feeling OK. That’s because we’re so accustomed to seeing people tethered to their smart phones—it’s the new normal. If you’re not killing time with your face fused to a screen, then you’re the weird one in the room.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice how technological connectivity is making it easier to disconnect from ourselves and each other in myriad ways. In 2013, comedian Louis C.K. shared his hatred for cell phones on Conan, and observed how we use technology these days to distract us from thinking about the depressing aspects of life. As he points out, taking on those thoughts head on is the only way to defuse them of their explosive potential.

My concern is similar to his, but with a twist. I worry that the more dependent we become on technology to help us pass idle time, the less likely we’ll be to allow our minds to wander in positive ways. It’s already become commonplace for parents to hand their kids an iPhone when they’re restless in the backseat or complaining of boredom. While I recognize the logic-enhancing and hand/eye coordination benefits of video games in young people, I can’t help but wonder how that constant stimulation is taking away opportunities for them to expand their imaginations, creativity, and overall mindfulness.

I’m noticing it in older generations, too. Just the other day, I witnessed a woman walking outside on a beautiful morning with her head down, reading a Kindle. Meanwhile, the natural beauty of her surroundings was going by unnoticed. While it’s true that she was engaging her imagination through the book, her brain was missing out on a different kind of stimulation—the kind you can only get when you allow yourself to truly appreciate the natural world we’re all apart of. And lest you think stopping to smell the roses or listening to the birds sing isn’t all that important, consider that establishing a true and lasting connection to nature may be only way we’ll be able to shake society’s general apathy toward climate change and make the real changes necessary to curb its impacts.

Which brings me to my favorite argument for why we need to spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen: how else can we encourage the cutting-edge ideas, innovations, and solutions that only seem to pop into one’s mind when it’s disengaged from a specific task and allowed to wander? I recently read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which is a fascinating rundown of the work habits of 161 of history’s greatest creative thinkers from Matisse and Mahler to Freud and Einstein. What stood out to me by the end was how many of them took time out of their busy days to take a walk or just sit and seemingly do nothing. Who knows how many world-changing ideas first made themselves apparent during those daily moments of stillness and contemplation? It suggested to me that what we consider “downtime” may actually be the access point to a higher plane of thinking—one that I’m hoping to find my way back into now that I’ve opened my eyes again to the world that exists outside of the phone in my pocket.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Utne Reader.

Photo courtesy Peronimo, licensed under Creative Commons