Have you ever wondered about the purpose and meaning of life? Of course you have. It’s the age-old question. In times of depression and despair I would often find myself pondering this question. In fact, it’s when we are at our lowest that life seems most meaningless.
Most of us tend to ponder the meaning and purpose of life when we’re deeply unhappy. But have you ever noticed that when you’re happy and content, fully enjoying life, this question rarely arises? Think about it. A person who is genuinely happy doesn’t seem to be concerned with this mystery.
I’ve been unhappy enough times in my own life to ponder this question over and over again. And eventually it occurred to me that perhaps there is no ultimate purpose. Perhaps life has no intrinsic meaning.
We see the world as a place that is filled with beauty or with ugliness, but beauty and ugliness do not really reside outside in the external world. They reside within our minds. They are judgments created and contained solely within the mind. They are thoughts which we have about the world, dependent upon our individual perspective. A flower, after all, is just a flower. Only in the mind does it become a thing of beauty.
So in the same way, I began to recognize that meaning is not something that exists independently from the mind. It’s not something that is intrinsic to the world around us. It is something we attribute to the world and to life; something we project upon it. I’ve come to understand that, seek as we may, life does not give us meaning. Rather, we give meaning to life. And we give life meaning when we are living in love.
Yes, it’s love that gives life meaning. And of course I’m not talking about romantic love, which is fleeting, and often depends upon conditions. That isn’t genuine love, but something we mistake for love. What I am talking about is that genuine, selfless love, that gives freely without any conditions or expectations.
When we are truly living in love, we are giving selflessly of ourselves. Our actions, our relationships, our work; all becomes meaningful. Whatever we do in the mode of love—it doesn’t matter what it is–becomes infused with meaning.
The same is true in regard to purpose. Whereas meaning indicates the quality of life, purpose indicates the reason. I would often wonder what is the purpose of life? Or more specifically, what is the purpose of my life? What is it for? For what reason am I here? What reason are any of us here? Why does the universe exist?
In the same way that I had come to see that life has no meaning independent of that which we give to it, life also has no intrinsic purpose. There is no ultimate necessity for the universe or the life forms which inhabit it. What difference would it have made if none of this had come into existence? Creatures come and go in this world. Life forms arise, wither and decay. But for what end? In the pragmatic sense, life doesn’t serve an ultimate function. A planet that has life is no better off than a planet devoid of it. And if this tiny speck of a planet in this immensely vast universe were to burn up in the sun, what affect would it ultimately have on the universe as a whole?
Life in this sense is simply survival. We eat to live and live to eat. We procreate so that our offspring will carry on the cycle. But it’s just that; a cycle. Life goes on, around in circles, which means that essentially it doesn’t go anywhere. Just round and round, perpetually. So where is the purpose in that?
As with meaning, purpose is something we attribute to life. Why presume that there is an ultimate reason for the universe to exist? It just exists. It just is. But we are here, and we are a part of it. And for some reason—or perhaps for no reason at all—we demand to know the reason. Otherwise, what is our motivation?
Well, all I know is this; that only when I’m living from the heart, when I’m expressing creativity or serving others out of genuine loving kindness does my life have any sense of purpose. My motivation is love, which is something that exists far beyond reason, beyond the intellect. And love doesn’t need any reason. It just is. Without it, what is the point of anything we do?
The universe is a vast infinite space in which we find ourselves. What we do on this tiny little speck of a planet has no significant influence on the universe as a whole. We live and we die, and in between does it really matter how we lived?
When you’re lying on your deathbed, looking back, will it have mattered whether you had become a successful businessman or just a store clerk? Will it have really made any significant difference? A thousand years from now, will anyone remember? Will it have mattered whether you had even lived at all?
During bouts of depression, I would often ponder such questions. I would examine the decisions I made in my own life; particularly the mistakes and missed opportunities. And I would worry about my future. Would I ever accomplish anything? Would I ever become successful? Would I even live out my dreams? But then, did any of that really matter? If I’m just going to die someday, do I really want to spend my life regretting the past and worrying about the future?
If, ultimately, it makes no difference whether I spend this life rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, or whether I spend it pursuing my own dreams or someone else’s; if none of that ultimately matters, then why not spend what little time we have doing what we feel most inspired to do, not for the purpose of making money or becoming famous, but simply for the joy of it? Perhaps that’s the only thing that truly matters.
Why worry about whether or not you’re financially successful if you’re just going to die anyway? What does it matter? You can’t take the money with you. Why concern yourself with past mistakes if you can’t go back and change them? It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or haven’t done. It only matters what you do now, or rather how you do it. That is, are you living from a place of obligation and survival or are you living from a place of joy?
All the worry is for nothing. And if we didn’t worry, we might enjoy our lives so much more. If living up to other people’s expectations causes us to be miserable, then why are we pursuing it? We should be doing what we enjoy doing, what we are naturally inspired to express. It’s not about how much money we make. It’s about the quality of our existence. Even if we spend our lives in material poverty, if we’re living from the heart, engaged in our creative passion and sharing our gifts with others, then the quality of life is rich.
Don’t spend too much time on the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Live in such a way that the question no longer arises.