Several years ago I wrote a poem titled “Rumination.” In some manner, I sense that I am returning to that earlier poem. Pretty clearly the underlying theme of that poem was a quandary about purpose and meaning in the universe and therefore in human life. The key question is, does the universe have a purpose? If so, then life has meaning to the extent that it contributes to that purpose. If not, how could life have meaning? One attempt to answer the last question is the proposal that our meaning derives from context. In other words, we create meaning from our social context, which narrowly includes family and friends. More broadly it includes work and engagement with social networks. In short, meaning is contextual and the context is the world created by culture — the web of the world. Contextual meaning is a distraction from the larger issue. A distraction that some can lose themselves in but others find unsatisfying.
For those who find contextual meaning unsatisfying there are two basic paths that can be followed in the quest for meaning. One path is that of contemporary science. While there are scientific strays loose in the world, mainstream science declares that the universe arose out of randomness and has no purpose. Further, that the life that evolved in this random universe also arose out of randomness and has no purpose beyond perpetuating itself. Life that is intelligent and self-reflective is devoid of underlying purpose and meaning and therefore pointless. Why should such a being care whether or not a life without purpose or meaning is perpetuated? Its only possible justification is contextual, and if that is sufficient to sustain it for a few decades, then its biological programs will do their best to drive it into reproducing. Regardless, it will shortly unwind as a living community of cells and slide back into the oblivion that it arose from.
Oblivion is a fate that most such beings fear, for they recognize it as a permanent loss of awareness. Once recognized, a common antidote is denial coupled with immersion in the distraction of context. Those for whom this proves not sufficient are often observed to suffer from existential angst. Symptoms of existential angst often manifest as despair and depression or rage and violence. The former may attempt to find solace in addictions and the latter may seek release through acting-out. So, if you follow the path offered by mainstream science, you can lose yourself in the temporary world of the mind, suffer despair or embrace rage.
The second path open to the quest for meaning is spiritual in nature. One branch along this path is exoteric religion. The exoteric form of religion is the public face of the religion and is directed at the masses, e.g., Islam or Judaism. Most, if not all, exoteric religions address the issue of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, religions tend to become social institutions, and while they may provide some support for purpose and meaning, they usually end up simply becoming an option in the contextual search for meaning. All too often, they become a toxic option as evidenced by religious authoritarianism and religious terrorism. There are, however, other branches along the spiritual path. The esoteric form of religion is private, individual and typically pursued by a small minority, e.g., Sufism or Kabbalism. Often, this is a minority oppressed by the exoteric institution. In other cases, a private, individual path is pursued independently of any religion. It is primarily this latter case that holds some promise..
For those people who are on the independent, esoteric path, lineages of teachers often become more prominent than religious institutions, especially in the east, e.g., India. Transmission moves from teacher to student, where the student often becomes a teacher to other students and so on. These lineages have their roots in mystical experiences in which the experiencer comes to a direct knowing that is purely a private, personal experience. It is not something that can be given to another but it can be pointed at as a form of guidance. The delusion that anyone on this path must be careful to avoid is that of mistaking the pointing with the thing in itself.
What mystics frequently offer when willing to talk about their experiential knowing is that the universe arises from a creative, intelligent Source that serves as the ground state from which everything arises. The fundamental characteristics of this ground state are awareness and unconditional acceptance of all that is. Some of these mystics suggest that we and the physical universe exist as specialized manifestations of this Source. The purpose for the universe is to support life and the purpose of life is to support individuated states of awareness. Individuated awareness exists to interact with other states of individuated awareness within the context of physicality. The purpose of these interactions is for Source to explore its potential and to evolve in understanding of that potential. Thus, the universe has a purpose and we have a role in that purpose and therein lies our grasp on true meaning.
Following the spiritual path in search of meaning requires that one seek to directly know, through merging one’s own awareness with Source. This is a phenomenological knowing of the truth of the underlying reality that the above description is merely pointing at with words and concepts. Belief in the description and holding it to be true out of faith is falling into the delusion warned against. Such an act is how religions come to be and devolve into a mere source of contextual meaning.