"The Meaning of Life": Our Answer (For Now)
The best answer we've found to "The Meaning of Life." So far.
We’ve been on a quest to find a no-nonsense, serious, genuine answer to “the meaning of life” (the answer to life, the universe, and everything) that has both practicality and depth.
Starting from our home base here, we asked the question: “what is the meaning of life? Then we gathered all the various answers we could find (pretty much) into one place: that’s The Quiz. Then we simplified and organized those answers by grouping them into a few basic categories here. Then we explored some flaws in those answers, or why those approaches don’t always work. Then we explored strengths in those answers to help understand why they’re so popular, despite their flaws.
The reason for all this? We want to see if there’s a way we can avoid the weaknesses in those various answers while keeping their strengths.
And now, at long last, we’re finally arriving to the wonderland we’ve been inching toward, one small step at a time.
So, what’s our answer?
What’s the best answer we’ve found so far?
After all, not answering isn’t an option. We have to do something with ourselves.
First of all, to be clear: our goal here wasn’t to be original, or innovative, or to come up with some clever, trendy new slogan that nobody’s thought of before. We already have plenty of those. The meaning of life doesn’t work like the fashion industry, or a popularity contest, or a flavor-of-the-month club.
Our goal was just to find the best answer we possibly could, period.
And the way we saw it, a good answer should address these challenges: Are there any answers that 1) answer the question of the meaning of life 2) having absorbed and digested all the various answers that have been given throughout history, while 3) avoiding the flaws we’ve spoken about, while 4) keeping their strengths?
Well, that was no small order.
It’s cost us – your trusty, faithful and ever-huggable LiveReal Agents – no small amount of sweat, tears, and blood. And the cost wasn’t merely bodily fluids. It’s also cost us a great deal of extended effort, in the form of many years of hard, existential bone-crunching, mind-breaking labor.
And we’re happily and humbly offering you the fruits of our labors here, for free. Because, well, this is just how we butter our bread.
Anyway: here, for your viewing pleasure, is the best answer we’ve found so far.
We hope you find it useful.
That's the best answer we've found so far to the question, "what is the meaning of life?"
Now, let's flesh this out a bit.
If "knowing yourself" doesn’t seem to be, at the very least, a good idea, imagine the opposite: going through life not knowing yourself. Does that seem like a good idea?
Intuitively, to most folks, going through life not knowing yourself just seems to be a bad idea. It's self-evident.
This can be a starting point or core axiom that gives us a strong foundation to build from. And it's a framework that's compatible with basically every worldview, from atheism to theism and everything in between.
But what does it mean to “know yourself”?
Well, like any good answer to the meaning of life should have, there are lots of levels to that question.
Which makes it both practical and profound, both simple and far-reaching. Exactly the kind of thing we need.
We’ve mapped out a few of those levels here.
Part of knowing yourself means just “figuring yourself out” on a mundane, practical level. What are your talents? What do you think? What do you love? What are you good at? What do you enjoy, and not? What comes naturally to you? What do you believe in? Why do you believe in it? Why do you think what you do? How do you know what you think you know? What do you want? And so on.
These are simple questions, but they often aren’t easy to answer. Discovering good answers to these entails a very practical exploration. And it’s a challenge: it takes work, effort, and courage. It’s not armchair, bull-session philosophy. It means doing something. Whether it’s done early in life or later, it’s definitely something worth doing.
But there are also deeper levels to this.
Other aspects of “knowing yourself” means knowing where you came from, where you’re going, what your nature is, who you are, what you are, what it’s all about, what the heck is going on here. It's The Big Picture. It’s answering The Big Questions.
“Knowing yourself” can provide a key remedy to the factor that makes so many other answers fail.
What makes many answers to the meaning of life fall short? Well, it’s not necessarily a problem with the answer itself. The problem, much of the time, comes through the way a certain individual approaches, understand, and applies the "answer."
Meaning, the problem isn’t necessarily that, say, “happiness” is a terrible answer to meaning. The problem happens when an alcoholic uses “it makes me happy!” as a reason to keep drinking. The problem isn’t that “do whatever you want” is inherently wrong for everyone. The problem is that some folks decide that “what they want” is to do heroin. The problem isn’t that religion as an answer to meaning doesn’t “work.” The problems there happen when certain individuals delve into religion and make a total mess of it.
And so on. Knowing yourself is key: if you really know yourself, then almost any other decent answer from that point forward can “work.” But if you don’t know yourself, then almost every answer from that point forward will probably go wrong.
But let’s dig even deeper.
To really understand what “know yourself” means, let’s look at what it really means to “know.”
To “know” isn’t always a mundane, boring thing, like "I know what 2+2 is," or “I know I like puppies.”
In the older sense of the word – in the older, Biblical sense (“scire” in Latin, “ginóskó” in Greek, יָדַע or “yada” in Hebrew (Seinfeld, anyone?) - or so the internet tells us) – “to know” meant something more like “to become intimate with.” (“Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived…”)
So really, what does it really mean to “become intimate with”? Well, it could also be described as “becoming one with.”
In other words: there’s a way that to “know yourself” also means to “become yourself.”
So now, let's revise this:
The meaning of life is to become yourself.
But what does it mean to “become yourself”?
This seems to point to something interesting about human nature: it’s not fixed. It changes. It’s dynamic, like a living thing should be.
So, there’s simply “being who you are,” as you are, right now, in this moment, and every moment. That’s one part of it.
But there’s also more to it than that. There’s also the factor of what we can become.
Which is to say: to “become yourself” means not just becoming who you are now, but also becoming what you’re capable of.
Another way to say that, to use an overused, tired, shopworn phrase, is to “reach your highest potential.”
This gives us plenty more to work on and figure out, in a practical sense. Which is to say, this gives us some general direction regarding what to do in life.
But we can keep going deeper.
What are we capable of? What is our “potential”?
That’s a big question. But let’s keep it down to earth.
The meaning of life for the acorn is to become an oak.
The meaning of life for the caterpillar is to become a butterfly.
To phrase this slightly differently. An acorn “aims at” an oak. A caterpillar “aims at” becoming a butterfly.
So, if an acorn is “aimed at” an oak, and if a caterpillar is “aimed at” a butterfly, what is a human being “aimed” at?
That’s another huge question.
Here’s the best answer we’ve found so far.
First, to clarify the question: we’re asking what the highest possibility is that a human being can become.
When we hear about “reaching our potential” these days, most folks seem to talk about getting rich, or famous, or getting higher status, or getting two hours worth of work done in one, or replacing bad habits with good ones, or becoming an astronaut instead of a battery tester, and so on.
These answers are all fine, but they aren’t what we’re looking for here.
Everything mentioned above is simply a modification to an already existing condition. You probably already have some status and money and so on. They're just talking about getting more of it. You’re already somewhat efficient – they’re just talking about making you more efficient. And so on.
But let's be honest here: eventually, those aren't enough.
Let's just look at the status game for a moment.
There's being low-status, and high-status. Being high-status means people like and respect you, being low-status means they don't. Most folks think that being high-status is better than being low status, and we'd agree.
Some folks experience low-status as painful. Fair enough. They then decide that happiness must lie in the opposite direction. They define happiness, then, using the yardstick of the status game. And sometimes, that's the only yardstick they use.
Which means that status, then, becomes their answer to the meaning of life.
Well, there seems to be an interesting thing about human nature in that certain things like status don't really satisfy us for long. We might get some, but when it gets like this, it's never enough. We always want more.
Why is that?
Because it isn't really status we're after. We're hunting the wrong animal. Which is why our search for happiness is sometimes doomed: we're looking for love in all the wrong places. Or, really, we often think we want one thing, but we actually want something entirely different.
Whether the game is wealth, status, money, security, pleasure, power, Facebook friends, Instagram followers, or yes, even fame, it's pretty much the same. They're all OK. Even pretty good, sometimes.
But they aren't "IT."
They aren't the point of it all. They don't satisfy us, ultimately. They aren't the meaning of life.
But what we’re getting at here is something completely different.
It's something of an entirely and qualitatively different order. It might be “new and different” in the sense that a blossoming flower bud is something “new and different” to a budding flower, or the way an orange is something “new and different” to an orange tree. It’s something that happens at a later stage of growth, that isn’t seen in the early stages (like the way we don’t see a fully grown apple in the first few weeks of the life of an apple tree.) It’s an emergent property of a complex system.
This brings up questions about core aspects of human nature, or psychology.
It raises the question of whether there are “hidden potentials” that are inherent in human nature. Inherent, not in any mysterious way, but simply in the sense that an oak is “hidden within” an acorn, or a butterfly is “hidden within” the caterpillar.
So, does something like this really exist?
A huge number of people throughout history – until recently – have declared that it does.
It’s something discussed by all major religions.
Maybe you believe them, or maybe not. Either way, the important might not necessarily be merely “believing” them or not. The important thing might be investigating for yourself and finding out.
Plenty of folks have been either burned or bored by what they’ve experienced of religion these days, and they’ve sometimes dismissed the lot of it. Sometimes even for good reasons. Speaking of “human potential,” we humans have the potential to do wonderful things, and we also have the potential to take wonderful things and screw them up profoundly.
But if we judge endeavors only by their worst representatives, then we’d have to reject all science, art, music, business, politics, and basically every other realm of human endeavor that we’ve ever tried. There are jerks in every field. There’s no reason to single one out and reject it without doing the same to the others.
So instead of judging the entire lot of apples based entirely on the most rotten ones, let’s do the opposite.
Let’s look at what these are aiming for.
Instead of judging an effort solely by its worst effects and representatives, let’s look at what these were aiming for. Let’s try to get at the heart of what all religions, in their most genuine and highest and best forms, are trying to get at.
All major religions point to a certain aspect of human nature that often seems hidden in plain sight.
They might use words like “soul,” “spirit,” the “Buddha nature,” the “higher self,” “conscience,” the “Self,” the “Intellect,” “nuous,” “the beyond within,” “the law written in our hearts,” the “Atman,” the “sensus divinitatis,” the “Imago Dei,” “the eye of spirit,” “the spirit of God in man,” and so on.
It’s described in many different ways, and from many different perspectives, but the basic idea is the same: the claim is that there’s a spiritual ingredient in human nature. It's like saying "there's part of a caterpillar that can transform into a butterfly." It can be a bit awkward to communicate, but the basic idea is that there’s something within human nature that’s of an order that’s beyond our typical knowledge of mundane, day-to-day experience.
The idea here is pointing toward something that can have a profound effect in very practical ways through the everyday struggles of life. It’s a genuine psychology – a science of the soul (psyche / logos) – that explores the higher dimensions of human nature. It points to an experience of life beyond fear, worry, anxiety and depression, stress and hopelessness, pain and addiction, and more. It points toward an escape from life as trapped in a meaningless, hopeless, petty, doomed existence.
And it’s often hidden in plain sight, or surrounded by a deep, wide, churning moat of misunderstandings, imitators, substitutes, consolation prizes, and imposters.
It’s not just a theory or abstract concept.
It’s something we can nurture, develop and grow. It’s not a matter here of merely believing, but experience.
Imagine you were trying to explain to a caterpillar this wild theory: that he or she was going to transform into a creature that was going to sprout huge, colorful wings that would allow it to fly.
That caterpillar would probably look at you as if you were completely insane. And he or she wouldn’t be entirely unjustified. Nothing at all in that caterpillar’s experience up to that point indicates what was about to happen. And there’s no argument you could make that would be entirely convincing. You could argue about it for years.
But ultimately, that wouldn’t really matter too much. Because the idea isn’t for caterpillar to merely believe in these wildly imaginative, theoretical creatures called “butterflies.” The important thing is making a darned cocoon and just getting up in there.
From that point, a caterpillar becomes something different. It’s not abstract theory at that point. Merely “believing” or “not believing” becomes unnecessary and obsolete at that point. It’s immediate, direct, firsthand experience.
So, what is this kind of "immediate, direct firsthand experience"?
Some folks call them “awakening” experiences.
Those from religious perspectives often refer to them as “experiences of God” or simply “spiritual experiences.” Psychology these days talks about milder forms of them: “peak experiences” or “flow” experiences.
Others might have some kind of experience, but not have a clue what the heck to call them (because the actual experience of them is so utterly unlike anything they've ever heard about.)
Others might call them experiences of “spiritual awakening,” “self-realization,” “spiritual enlightenment,” “liberation” or just “enlightenment.”
Zen calls it “satori” or “discovering your original nature.” Buddhism calls it “enlightenment” or simply becoming free from suffering. Taoism calls it “wu” or “The Ultimate Tao.” Hinduism calls it “moksha” or “samadhi.” Sufism calls it “fana.” Judeo-Christianity has many terms for this entire process, but they’ve typically been so abused and misunderstood that they often create more misunderstanding than clarity. But “the peace that surpasseth understanding” points to it. Transpersonal Psychology describes it as “the dynamic ground,” “One Taste” or any number of terms. Other terms such as metanoia, theosis, the “unio mystico,” “illumination” and so on point to it as well.
There are plenty of names for it, clearly. (Maybe a few too many.)
So much smoke probably means some kind of fire worth looking into. Like the old saying: fool’s gold only exists because there’s such a thing as real gold.
Again, there’s no shortage of nonsense in these areas.
This stuff touches nerves, for obvious reasons.
And when nerves get touched, people often get crazy. Human beings have misunderstood, misused, abused, and misrepresented all of these ideas at various points throughout history.
But what this gets at is an objective reality. Not in the sense that it’s an object (it’s not), but in the sense that it’s not merely imaginary or conceptual. It’s something several different individuals could arrive at independently. This isn’t abstract, far-fetched theory. And strictly speaking, “objective” isn’t the best word; “nonsubjective” would be better.
For skeptics, all of this might seem impossibly far-fetched and even crazy. Fair enough. Skepticism is a sign of a healthy intellectual immune system, which is a good thing. A valid, no-nonsense approach should make sense. Irrational leaps of faith aren’t what we’re after here. Sanity, clarity, validity, and sober, firsthand, hard evidence are.
Firsthand evidence is the name of the game here. Advanced math often seems crazy to folks who don’t understand it or have no sense for it. But the idea here is to learn how to do the math yourself. And then it makes perfect sense.
So that’s what all of this is pointing to.
So, to recap:
Our answer to the meaning of life is to know yourself. To know yourself really means to become yourself. To “become yourself” means to become all of yourself, which means realizing the highest potential you’re capable of.
And what is that “highest potential” you’re capable of?
Our best answer at this point: it’s what genuine spirituality and authentic religions are trying to point us toward.
It’s genuine spiritual realization.
That’s it. That’s the best answer we’ve found so far.
None of this by definition has to lead us into strange, exotic, outlandish territory.
Simply setting our course to navigate by for greater clarity, sanity, goodness, and so on – in classical terms, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – can be a North Star. It’s a compass needle that can points our investigation toward profound discoveries that lead to more profound discoveries.
Even if we don’t experience some kind of fancy, climactic, world-shattering illumination that we can write home about, we still wind up with more sanity, goodness, truth, and beauty.
And that’s not a bad thing.
So, where do we go from here?
The above is like a menu.
It’s not actual food. It’s basically a description of the food. A menu is a key step in the process, no doubt. But just reading it won’t solve a hunger problem.
We threw a bit of shade earlier on the idea of merely adopting a new slogan as an answer to the meaning of life. And we’re eat our own cooking here. Our intention here isn’t for “know yourself” or “become yourself” and so on to become a new slogan that replaces the old one, and ends there.
What this all points to is a course of action. It’s something you do. It’s a way of life. Really, it’s something we’re already doing, in a way. We’re just pointing toward doing more of it.
We picked on Joseph Campbell a bit earlier, but he really bullseyed one point when he said “I think that what we’re seeking is an experience…”
Eventually, this all leads to an experience.
The answer to this Big Question is like the answer to several others. It’s not merely a piece of data that one person can simply pass around to another. It’s not something we can just skip to the back of the book for. We have to work out the math.
The key element here is a direct experience.
An experience – even an experience of something we love that’s profound enough to make the challenges and suffering in life worth it – is the real answer. It will never be any mere piece of information that can be put into words.
So the above is like a rough map. It’s an crudely-sketched intellectual overview of terrain we’re all traveling that’s invisible, in a way, but very real.
If you’re hiking across terrain, having a map is better than not having one. But the important thing, after you have a decent map, is the hiking.
So, this is a beginning of - or a continuation of, something.
Not an ending.
Once we’ve read the menu, it’s time to move on to the meal.
The “food” that makes up this “meal” is, of course, is the experience of meaning.
Instead of trying to live on the existential diet of cotton candy and bubble gum (what the world offers us pretty often these days) we’re trying to promote an approach a bit more nourishing.
It’s a bit of a thankless task, as it’s not pushing something we can just watch, listen to, consume, swallow, snort, smoke, or buy tickets to. It’s more in the direction of an uncomfortable prod toward doing some hard thinking. Which isn’t an easy sell (or profitable.) It’s closer to the role of frazzled but devoted parents, stepping into the battle for vegetables, verses the cool aunt who is constantly offering tons of candy. The cool aunt will always be more popular.
But there’s no substitute for the hard road. But it’s a road that makes you stronger instead of weaker, healthier instead of sicker, saner instead of crazier, smarter instead of dumber. The direction we’re aiming for here is more clarity, energy, awareness, life.
The key is taking action.
To “know yourself” and “become yourself” – as you probably know – isn’t abstract or merely intellectual. It’s not navel-gazing, constantly checking your temperature, or becoming self-absorbed.
It means getting out there – and in there – and doing stuff.
If a bit of elaboration on that would help, we’ve outlined a mere 45 levels of it here, which should offer a little grist for the mill.
We’ve also gathered a few experiments you can run here. We’ve recommended a few concrete practices for inner strength here. If any of this triggers an existential crisis, then hopefully this can help you make a bit more sense of it here. Because, after all, there are risks and hazards in this (as there are for pretty much everything, including not getting into all this.) There's plenty of opportunities for self-delusion, for example - which again, brings us back again to knowing yourself. At any rate, joining a community – like LiveReal, or others – where you can interact with others who understand and support all this – can help.
Anyway, navigating by something roughly like this might just lead to some profound and illuminating discoveries.
And that might mean a heck of a lot.
This is where we are for now.
We hope you’ve found this useful.
Hopefully, in a way, you found much of the above kind of “obvious.”
If you think so, that’s good. That tells us we're on track. That’s exactly what we’ve been aiming for.
“We have now sunk to a depth
at which restatement of the obvious
is the first duty of intelligent men."
- George Orwell
Strangely enough, “the obvious” is apparently something we can sometimes lose track of or forget. And even if sometimes there’s nothing more than a reminder, well, reminders can sometimes be useful. Even necessary.
When it comes to something like the meaning of life, the answer shouldn’t be some complex, convoluted, hyper-intellectual monstrosity of mental gymnastics. It should ring true, intuitively. And hopefully, it did here.
So, as you resume your own quest to know more of yourself, and become more of yourself, and so on, we wish you fair weather and lots of chocolate.
In the meantime, our search will continue.
Questioning, testing, confirming, checking, refining, rechecking, and so on, is what we do, and we'll keep at it. We’re constantly on the lookout for even better, sharper, more incisive answers. And that will continue.
If missed a beat somewhere, or wandered off the trail and started fooling ourselves, or if there’s some great evidence we haven’t run across yet, we want to know about it.
So, we’ll searching. And we’ll keep you posted on what we find.
But wait! There’s more!
That’s not all!
(We really want you to get your money’s worth from this free information.)
If the stuff we covered above isn’t really your bowl of Cheerios, for whatever reason, there’s a slightly different angle that you might find more useful. It accomplishes much of the same thing, but by a mildly different route.
“Overcome your own suffering.”
It’s a slightly different approach.
But it parallels and overlaps a great deal of the above, and is fully compatible.
It also seems obvious. (“Isn’t everybody trying to overcome their own suffering, all the time?” Yes.) But the approach here is a different approach than many folks often seem to take.
The idea here is to embark on a quest to really look at the whole thing deeply: to work toward understanding it, explaining it, discovering the root causes for it, and eventually, overcoming it.
It’s a tall order, no doubt.
And it’s different from the “be happy!” answer to the meaning of life. There’s no unhappiness-shaming or denial of the unavoidable pain and struggles in life. It deliberately accepts that – it starts there - "life is suffering," or "we're in a fallen state" – and then works its way from that point.
And this route does have a role model.
The role model here is Buddha. The brief story: at some point, Buddha took a look around, and noticed that old age, sickness, disease and death seemed to be in the cards for himself and everyone else. He then decided he didn't really like those cards, and embarked on a quest to figure it all out.
And then, well, he figured it out.
Or at least, he said he did.
That’s the short version of the story.
Looking into the reasons for your own suffering, if all goes well and if you avoid some of the many existential potholes that are out there, eventually leads you to really figuring yourself out. Or, in other words, really knowing yourself.
Which leads to becoming yourself…
If you enjoyed this, consider joining LiveReal. Because we're working to figure it out.