‘I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.’ -Umberto Eco
At some point in our lives, we ask ourselves ‘why am I here?’ Why does the cosmos, and therefore me exist? Or perhaps, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?
It’s part of our existential quest to find the truth and meaning behind our lives. What I discovered along the way change my attitude towards life.
I thought like most of us, that I needed some special knowledge about life.
I began (without noticing) this quest when I started to address my anxiety. Such a mundane question, ‘why I feel unhappy’ ballooned into a quest for meaning and the search for a good life. My anxiety morphed into an Existential crisis, quest and journey of discovery.
Instead of the question what is true it became, ‘What’s a good way to live?’ It was an important shift I didn’t fully grasp at the time.
I thought like most of us, that I needed some special knowledge about life. . I felt something was missing. An ultimate truth or fact about existence that I needed to obtain. Like a special treasure, the hero is supposed to find.
I was desperate to find out why I suffered so life any good seeker I read a lot.
I read widely on philosophy and spirituality as well as science. But despite all I had read, my questions were never answered satisfactorily.
I seemed to have fallen into the mistake of thinking I could be free from fear and doubt.
But something unexpected happened.
At some point, I gave up trying to find the big answers.The more I learned, the more I realised there’s no single understanding that’s reliable, or certain. We are doomed to ambiguity.
Then came the, eureka moment. ‘Maybe there is no answer to the question’. Then I hit me, ‘no, this is the answer’, ‘the answer is, there is no answer!!!’
I found that I didn’t need to know ‘why’ anything exists. I was now freed from the burden of trying to find it.
Such bliss, such joy I felt. I no longer had to keep trying so hard!
In popular culture, a similar moment can be found in the film Kung Fu Panda.
In his quest is to be the ‘Dragon Warrior‘, a Kung Fu Champion. Po, the wannabe hero, has to read ‘The Dragon Scroll’, the source of power.
Yet when he looks at it, there’s nothing! It’s blank! Confused he gives up.
But insight arrives from an unexpected source, his father.
To cook his secret ingredient soup his advice is there ‘there is no secret Ingredient’. There is no answer, no mystical or supernatural power to being the Dragon Warrior, there’s just you.
With that insight I could let go and on work on those things that matter to me, ignoring the futile labyrinth of ultimate meaning, truth or purpose.
The Eastern Way
Since that time I’ve studied Buddhism and Taoism to better understand what it was, I had discovered. It reminds me of what I learned from Alan Watts about the Koans of the Rinzai School of Zen.
Koans are riddles are there to engage our curiosity. They’re what’s called in Sanskrit: Upāya. A method or technique used to gain enlightenment or to teach it.
Upāya is trick or gambit that may include a falsehood or nonsense, (a ‘little white lie’), but leads to truth.
They could come out and tell you the answer, but that wouldn’t work. So they use a clever trick. They pique your curiosity and a desperate desire to find answers by giving you an impossible puzzle.
Think of it as like engaging with a child. Holding out a closed hand to a child and asking them, ‘what have I got in my hand?’ The child wants to know, but you say you won’t tell them. The kid gets all worked up demanding to know. The adult relents and opens to an empty hand.
See all that effort, all those tantrums for nothing. Because the kid thought, believed, there was something important there to be discovered.’ The secret’.
It’s teasing but in a good way. Not out of some malicious desire to see you suffer, but to help you see the source of your suffering, be creating desire and suffering.
You get caught up in trying to solve the koan. Then at some point, you give up. It’s here you find the answer they wanted you to find.
It’s called an ‘Epoche’ in the ancient Greek philosophy of Phyyronian scepticism. A suspension of judgement, a literal, ‘I don’t know.’
Not every problem has a solution, questions don’t always have answers.
It helped me realise how much of my suffering was caused by chasing after answers that didn’t exist. As if we’re trying to outsmart the cosmos.
I thought I was flawed, incomplete, worthless. That I needed to be rich, famous, powerful. I need to gather possessions, climb status, obsess over what I didn’t have. That I was a victim, that there is no meaning.
To do that I needed to know my ultimate purpose or the that of the cosmos. I needed the ‘secret to life’. Such ideas left me, intolerant, insecure, angry and so very afraid.
The Koan is a bit of reverse psychology to help us see those illusions that lead us astray. Once the illusion/deception is visible it loses a lot of its power.
But it also begs a question, ‘Why are we so caught up in finding the big answers to life?’
The implications of this insight are profound.
The Absurd and Everyday wisdom
The good life can’t be a desperate pursuit of answers that can’t be found. That doesn’t work. A lot of western philosophy, religion, and even some science is like that, chasing its tail.
Questions like, ‘Are just brains in vats? Do we have free will? What is ‘real’ (Ontology)’. Despite being a pool of interesting ideas I feel is largely a waste of time.
No way to answer these questions and no point thinking about it.These are not problems most of us ponder in our days to day lives are nor should we.
We are in many ways overthinking a problem or we have become too fixated on problems that don’t exist. The absurdity is revealed.
Consider other faiths and philosophies.
In Buddhism, you have the four noble truths
- The truth of suffering (dukkha)
- The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
- The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
- The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)
What do you notice? Not one is about how the cosmos came to be, why it exists, or what’s ‘real’. Nor does it ask for a leap of faith. The Noble Truths tell us what the problem is, we all suffer. It tells us there are causes, and there’s a solution. There’s no need for the supernatural.
In Taoism, it’s the same, the Tao is unknown.
‘The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao.’
‘The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.’Tao Te Ching Chapter 1
The word Tao translates as ‘The Way’, and these lines make a claim the cosmos has one, but we can’t ever know for certain what that is.
Eastern philosophies are far less concerned about why things are the way that they are or what lies beyond. Because they recognise that such questions are pointless, without a definitive answer.
Theirs is a more down to earth wisdom.
Our big problem is not our hustle. But we waste so much time and energy on things that don’t matter.
How on earth can we know what lies beyond appearances, beyond this reality? If we are brains in vats or not? Endless debates about reality, textual interpretation, purpose, where nothing gets resolved.
‘Why are the things the way that they are’, ‘why am I here’. You might ask why ducks quack, why stars explode or water is wet. There is no why.
We search for ultimate truth and meaning. Ideals we work so desperately hard, but it leaves us unsatisfied, anxious and exhausted. We also use it to persecute and harm others. Indeed this quest for ultimate answers seems more like a pathology.
It reveals the absurdity of our predicament. The Absurd is the subject of writer Albert Camus. In his book The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a fallen hero condemned to push a rock up a hill in the Greek hell of Tartarus, only to have it roll back down the hill again and start again (Greek heroes are often condemned in perpetual torment).
It seems of the face of it to be a pointless task. But Camus says otherwise. Sisyphus is happy because he defines his meaning. CHECK.
The absurdity of our lives is we can ask such questions but not find definitive answers ( What I call the Last Word Mentality, a quest for certainty).
That would be like The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Asking the computer Deep Thought, the ultimate question ‘Life, the Universe, Everything’, and getting back the answer, 42??!!
Is life impossible without these big answers? Or is that we just are so desperate to feel cosmically significant that we’re willing to go to absurd lengths to have answers?
Laughing at this situation, what we do to find certainty is a healthy way to deal with the apparent pointlessness of existence.
There doesn’t have to be an objective meaning or purpose to life.
Alan Watts explains life is not like that, ‘what’s the purpose of dancing?’ It’s not to get to a specific spot on the dance floor. What’s the purpose of music, to get to the end? If that were so then the fastest conductors would be the best.
Sport can be like this too, for those who like competition.
We dance to enjoy dancing, play music because we like to listen. Sunsets, art, family these are ends in of themselves. They need no other explanation or justification.
Autotelic is a term that means something that has or is its own purpose. Not given from outside or elsewhere. In the book Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven.
‘An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.’
Those who are autotelic have an ‘Internal Wellspring’ that ushers forth meaning and fulfilment.
Perhaps it comes down to habit. Some look outside because that’s how they have done so in the past. It what’s comfortable. It avoids that hard work of figuring things out yourself.
But others look inwards for answers.
Meaning comes from within. I think it arises spontaneously, not through an act of will or choice. We can be told what something means, but its significance is still up to us.
Take a painting we may know what the artist had in mind, the meaning, the message they wanted to convey. But that still doesn’t matter as much as what the observer takes from the experience. It means something or not.
We all assess the world according to our standards, and values.
We should remember we are individuals. We recognise that we have sovereignty over our own lives and choose to accept that responsibility.
Looking outside means risking an authority have power over us. That authority may or may not be reliable, benign or trustworthy.
This doesn’t mean we never look towards authorities. When we need the expertise we should ask for advice.
It just goes to show how our relationship to authorities affect how we live.
Down to earth wisdom & The good life
Letting go of my desire to live a better life paradoxically has to lead to a better life.
I’m now more focused on this reality, (the one I can be reasonably certain exists). More on practical success and happiness, learning skills connecting to people, having experiences. The living of life rather than trying to solve it.
A side effect of all this is I’m more willing to accept that there aren’t always answers or explanations.
‘Why there is something rather than nothing’ is an absurd question because it demands an answer.
We seem to expect the cosmos to provide users with answers as if contracted to do so. But we’re not at its centre and it has no obligation to satisfy our wants or needs.
So, as ignorant muggles of humanity, what ideas and philosophies can we look towards?
I’ve come across the following:
Epicureanism, Stoicism, Existentialism, Pragmatism, and the works of Michel de Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne and Francois de la Rochefoucauld, Henry David Thoreau and from the Far East, Taoism and Buddhism.
Contemplating the big questions is not a bad idea. But It’s important to live and face the reality we wake up to every day. If your house is on fire you don’t spend time asking does it really exist. Yet this is what it feels like. We’re ‘rearranging deckchairs of the titanic’, having endless conversations whilst the important work is sidelined
Philosophy shouldn’t be about some academics debating useless ideas. But should serve society and help us in our personal lives.
Come back to this world with all its confusion, chaos and suffering. To live is to ‘get your feet wet, not to stand on the shore and look.’ Nothing more needs to be added or explained.
We search for a ‘secret ingredient’ because we need to solve the problem of life. We’re constantly reminded and sold the idea that life is a race. We have to get ahead, climb the ladder, do better, get income, improve oneself, have possessions. No wonder life is stressful our minds are overactive for more of the time. We get so caught up in problem-solving and forget it’s a good life we want.
The fun of living gets slaughtered on the altar on productivity, cosmic truth and success. This is the basis of our suffering. Or to use the Sanskrit term Dukkha, translated often as suffering is more about dissatisfaction.
It’s the feeling that we don’t have enough, we’re not enough. It’s what keeps us clinging and grasping for more.
The other side to this is letting go of the race. To live and enjoy the moments because they will never come again. To fully be with a sunset, a partner, a child, nature. To walk, not to get somewhere but just to enjoy the walking.
Simple things like good food, companionship, meaningful work, beauty, and more. I call this Passionate Entanglement. To be immersed in life, so that it fills you up.
It also means facing the more difficult part of life in the same way because they are also important.
‘Truth is earthly, not heavenly.’
In trying to answer life’s big questions I learned, by accident, there was was no answer. No why ducks quack, why stars explode. We can only explain how.
With such insight, I have learned to live life more realistically, skillfully. Gone is the desperate need to find certainty in everything and arrived is a greater willingness to accept what is. Never once thinking that I’m incomplete, weak, flawed.
I don’t have to rush around so much or work so hard. I’m fine the way I am, I can be happy now. No longer do I have to feel ashamed, and I don’t always need answers to act.
I see how I was duped and why I suffered. I did not see, I did not see the illusions the falsehoods that let me stay.
I don’t have to try so hard to be perfect and worry that I never will. I’m more laid back now more accepting, less worried or afraid, more forgiving.
That’s another unexpected discovery, with such insight I’m more compassionate, to others and myself. Because the mistakes and flaws that happen are part of life, not a damning indictment of it. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all chasing after answers and meaning. The common humanity I see now means I no longer feel quite so alone.
I went up into the heavens to find the big answers to my life, not finding any I’ve come back down to earth. Only to learn the answers I seek were here all along.
I have meaning and truth in my life, I have found my own ‘why’. I found it by learning, ‘there is no secret ingredient’.