The Search for Meaning in Modern Life
Every good story about a search begins with a tale. So, here’s one; it’s a tale about a magician who gave a dinner for his neighbours.
There was once a Magician who built a house near a large and prosperous village. One day he invited all the people of the village to dinner. ‘Before we eat,’ he said, ‘we have some entertainments.’
Everyone was pleased, and the Magician provided a first-class conjuring show, with rabbits coming out of hats, flags appearing from nowhere, and one thing turning into another. The people were delighted. Then the Magician asked: ‘Would you like dinner now, or more entertainments?’
Everyone called for entertainments, for they had never seen anything like it before; at home there was food, but never such excitement as this. So, the Magician changed himself into a pigeon, then into a hawk, and finally into a dragon. The people went wild with excitement.
He asked them again, and they wanted more. And they got it. Then he asked them if they wanted to eat, and they said that they did. So the Magician made them feel that they were eating, diverting their attention with a number of tricks, through his magical powers.
The imaginary eating and entertainments went on all night. When it was dawn, some of the people said, ‘We must go to work.’ So the Magician made those people imagine that they went home, got ready for work, and actually did a day’s work.
In short, whenever anyone said that he had to do something, the Magician made him think first that he was going to do it, then, that he had done it and finally that he had come back to the Magician’s house.
Finally, the Magician had woven such spells over the people of the village that they worked only for him while they thought that they were carrying on with their ordinary lives. Whenever they felt a little restless he made them think that they were back at dinner at his house, and this gave them pleasure and made them forget.
And what happened to the Magician and the people, in the end? Do you know, I cannot tell you, because he is still busily doing it, and the people are still largely under his spell.
Modern life is much like this tale – we live under a magician’s spell – and the magician is called Modernity. Modernity, especially as it emerged in western, industrialized cultures, created a system that put a spell on us. And this spell is principally promoted through our mainstream medias. Whether rationally, instinctively, or deep in our hearts, most of us know that something is not right about how human societies are managed. Human life is not yet in balance. And too many people still live in fear.
We are manipulated by our mainstream medias at unprecedented levels, and constantly fed with a controlled flow of information. This process is the old mind of humanity, still operating through control, censorship, and consumerism. In this way our contemporary societies are increasingly centered around emotion to a degree that allows people to be entertained as well as manipulated like never before. What we may be less aware of is that the human being is driven by an evolutionary energy that manifests through mental, emotional, and physical/sexual processes. This energy can be used to develop and drive us forward, or it can be hampered, blocked, and manipulated into slowing down our development. Mental, emotional, and physical/sexual energies are all necessary components of the social human being. If we take just a casual look at our mainstream media, entertainment, and social attractions/distractions we will readily see that these are the very areas which are targeted by the ‘culture of spectacle’ that is modern society.
Ancient religious-spiritual traditions have long talked about such ‘energy predators’ that are said to feed off from unstable human mental and emotional states. The early gnostic Christians referred to some of these as the Archons; various North American Indian tribes refer to Wetiko/Wendigo; Don Juan in the Carlos Castenada books refers to the Predators; and South American shamans have long talked of spirits that feed off from and fragment the vulnerable human inner state/soul.
We must wonder why it is that our modern cultures promote entertainments that manipulate and play upon excessively distorted images of mental and emotional anguish as well as exaggerated portrayals of sexuality. Furthermore, we are bombarded daily with images of death. In fact, a recent study into western media announced that the most repeated word in media is ‘death.’ Further, it revealed that in the first twelve years of a child’s life they would have been subjected to around 20,000 murders through television news and programs, films, online content, and video games. These forms of stimulation directly target a person’s mental, emotional, and physical states, which in turn hampers the operation of harmonious, developmental energies.
Modern life is increasingly a life addicted to high stimulation. Yet by its very nature it also creates anxiety. Many people are forced, or seduced, into lives that are continually stressful and busy. There is no room for the spaces, the intervals, of internal reflection. Yet similar to how music is not music without the intervals, so is life not a life without those internal spaces.
We spend our days trying to grasp at life, trying to understand it, often with ways that are not adequate. It is like trying to capture the ocean with a bucket. The ocean stands magnificently before us, and yet so many of us in modern societies are running around anxiously with empty buckets in our hands. We’ve been told that only full buckets are of any use – full buckets represent usefulness and progress.
Here is another story:
A man had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to his house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the man delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, feeling accepted and appreciated. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the man one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”
“Why?” asked the man. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts.” the pot said.
The man felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion, he said, “As we return to my house, I want you to look at the beautiful flowers along the path. It will make you feel better.”
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this made it feel a little happier. But at the end of the path, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the man for its failure.
The man said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve been watering them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to take home to my wife. With you being just the way you are, you have given beauty and meaning to me every day.”
The way we are can give us beauty and meaning every day, and yet it seems we are living in a world of decreasing meaning. Our modern systems strive for perfection – for progress and efficiency – yet there is less and less happiness.
And the situation is worse in modern western cultures where so many people are seemingly dissatisfied even when they have acquired most things to keep them happy. Perhaps a society that provides superficial comfort produces conditions that do not develop people or cause them to turn an inward gaze or to question notions of their meaning and existence. It is important that other cultures do not follow this western model of superficial consumerism.
It is unfortunate that the meaning of life is often a meaningless question to so many people. Seeking the ‘unnamable’ might sound like madness to many people, and certainly there is little place for it in modern societies that prize themselves on progress. And yet a life that seeks meaning is its own adventure. The ‘unnamable’ does not need to be named – only recognized internally. The external world is not the only reality that exists for us.
The attitude of the modern-day person to the ‘world outside’ has largely been one of hostility – we have been conquering the external world for the most part of human history, instead of mastering our own inner nature. This hostile attitude ignores the reality that all life is interdependent and that our lives are a projection of our inner realities – that is, our fears, anxieties, and insecurities become projected into the world the same as our hopes, visions, and dreams. Whatever we project externally eventually becomes our sense of reality.
We all share a collective reality, despite our cultural differences. Although it alters depending upon where we were born and in which cultures we live, the methods each modern system uses are basically the same – we are provided with beliefs, cultural references, and norms and attitudes. The writer Doris Lessing referred to this as ‘The prisons we choose to live inside.’ And within these psychological prisons many people, as well as the institutions of the modern world, have rejected the wisdom of sages, mystics, philosophers, and even the voices of creative artists. They prefer instead the superficial trappings, entertainments, and technological distractions of the consumerist marketplace. Now, I wish to be clear here – I am not anti-technology. In fact, I am a great supporter of it; but not at the expense of the human vision. Despite the technological progress of the external world, there must always be a developed interior world to observe, reflect, and to question it. Without this, the exterior life is unleashed without values. Without an interior life to seek for significance, what gives meaning to our lives?
So, what is the ‘interior life’? There are no instruction sets for how to live a human life – and we live in a world where more and more people are at a loss to know either why they live or why they die. In life we must strive to examine the human condition.
Modernity has attempted to reinterpret the human condition – to see it as an external drive for progress – and this has resulted in a separation from our need to seek an essential inner self. This modern project has sought to divorce the human being from their imperative to find meaning in existence. The human project, if we wish to call it that, can never be ‘completed’ – it is an eternal quest to always be becoming. Here is a quote I would like to share:
‘When you have found yourself you can have knowledge. Until then you can only have opinions. Opinions are based on habit and what you conceive to be convenient to you. The study of the Interior Life requires self-encounter along the way. You have not met yourself yet. The only advantage of meeting others in the meantime is that one of them may present you to yourself. Before you do that, you will possibly imagine that you have met yourself many times. But the truth is that when you do meet yourself, you come into a permanent endowment and bequest of knowledge that is like no other experience on earth.’ ~TARIQAVI
What we are truly seeking for – and what the interior life can show us – is power over ourselves: not for power over others.
The world is in need of soulful healing, not power-seeking through corruption and manipulation. The world requires healed, integrated, and balanced people; for that which we lack in ourselves we shall always find lacking in the world outside. Also, there are many external forces in the world that are trying to make us live not according to our own sense but according to dominant social narratives. We are told that we must live according to certain social narratives that generally benefit those systems that have no interest in the human soul. And when we deny ourselves such essential nutrients we find that we have a discomfort within us. People are taking increasing amounts of antidepressants, or stimulants; as well as relaxants – we take drugs to bring us up and other drugs to take us down. We are open and vulnerable to the energies of discouragement. Here is a tale about the price of discouragement:
Once the word spread that the devil was pulling out of his business and was arranging to sell-off all his tools of the trade to the highest bidder. The night of the sale all the tools were arranged for the bidders to view. What a motley crew it was! There were sinister tools of hatred, jealousy, envy, malice, treachery, plus all the other elements of evil. Yet besides these there also was an instrument that seemed harmless, a wedge-shaped instrument that appeared worn out, shabby, and yet was priced so much higher than all others. Someone asked the devil what was the name of such a poor-looking instrument.
‘Discouragement,’ answered the Devil.
‘And why is the price so high for such a non-malicious sounding instrument? asked the bidder.
‘Because,’ spoke the Devil, ‘this instrument is more useful to me than any other. I can enter the consciousness of a human being when all other ways fail me and once inside through the discouragement of that person I can do whatever I please. The instrument is worn out because I use it almost everywhere and as very few people know about this I can continue to successfully achieve my goals.’
And as the price of discouragement was so very, very high even today it remains a tool in the property of the Devil.
The price of discouragement is a price too many people are paying – and it is a high price (as the devil knows!)
It is a common situation that we tell people at work we are happy when for much of the time we are not. We buy more and more items to feel happiness within ourselves or to buy happiness in others. People in modern cultures continue to accumulate goods and possessions whilst feeling empty within. Such consumerism empties our pockets and fails to fill our souls. And not only our physical lives become crowded with belongings but our psychological spaces too. We are crowded with those belongings that have accumulated as psychological attachments: the beliefs, ideologies, nationalisms, opinions, likes, dislikes, and all the rest. We are often cluttered in our minds by belonging to this and that and all the other things that we cling to or that cling to us. And this is where some of the disruptions are, and will continue to come from, because our belongings are now breaking apart. As our social, cultural, economic, and work lives go through change and transformation – as they are currently doing – then the clinging to old ‘belongings’ will only serve to cause greater confusion and disorientation. Already it seems as if we are living in a world that is displaying increasing outward signs of craziness and psychopathic tendencies. We must ensure that the world never has more critics than visionaries, or more complainers than positive doers. We must ensure that we do not lose sight of our frameworks for meaning.
Pre-modern societies, for example, lived within their own frameworks of meaning. Not all questions had their answers, yet mysteries and the mysterious at least had a home in which they could exist. We often live today within an atmosphere of meaningless questions and contradictory answers. The pursuit of meaning is being replaced by the pursuit of progress. Progress may alleviate some of our suffering and pains, yet it shall never compensate for the lack of fulfillment we feel inside, for this requires metaphysical or transcendental nourishment. Any notion of the spiritual, or the metaphysical, is often considered not essential to our daily life, and we are taught to dismiss it. Modernity’s task was thus seen as freeing us from the illusions of transcendence. And yet the desire, or the need, for some Absolute remains deep within us and can never be totally eradicated. Perhaps it is this contradiction that lies at the heart of our contemporary distress.
Modern life also tries to eradicate, or at least hide, all sense of enigma. Yet it is precisely these enigmas that make our lives rich in wonder and awe. To attempt to abolish them is an act of great ignorance and hubris. Unanswerable questions must be embraced and not rejected. Mystery and the mysterious must be allowed a space to thrive and enthrall us. It is this sense of mystery that keeps us curious, and curiosity is one of our driving, motivating forces.
Modern societies may well praise their sophisticated intellectual culture, yet it comes at the cost of having a deteriorated spiritual culture. That which belongs to the experience of the human soul is considered not only incommunicable, but rather dangerous to communicate. In the end, life’s mysteries are kept out of sight because they cannot be fully known and thus controlled. There is a spell upon us, and we are being distracted from the essential. Here is another tale:
A lion was captured and imprisoned in a reserve where, to his surprise, he found other lions that had been there for many years, some even their whole life having been born in captivity. The newcomer soon became familiar with the activities of the other lions, and observed how they were arranged in different groups.
One group was dedicated to socializing, another to show business, whilst yet another group was focused on preserving the customs, culture and history from the time the lions were free. There were church groups and others that had attracted the literary or artistic talent. There were also revolutionaries who devoted themselves to plot against their captors and against other revolutionary groups. Occasionally, a riot broke out and one group was removed or killed all the camp guards and so that they had to be replaced by another set of guards. However, the newcomer also noticed the presence of a lion that always seemed to be asleep. He did not belong to any group and was oblivious to them all. This lion appeared to arouse both admiration and hostility from the others. One day the newcomer approached this solitary lion and asked him which group he belonged to.
‘Do not join any group,’ said the lion. ‘Those poor ones deal with everything but the essential.’
‘And what is essential?’ asked the newcomer.
‘It is essential to study the nature of the fence’
A whole society can be distracted. There is a pertinent analogy here to how, in 256AD, the Persian army took Antioch from the Roman Empire. Many of the inhabitants were attending the roman theatre and were oblivious to the enemy archers who had climbed up behind them into the stands. The actors down below had seen the enemy archers and were desperately trying to warn them with hand signals…but the audience did not understand, thinking it part of the entertainment – until it was too late. They were amused up to the point of death. Perhaps we too, in the words of social critic Neil Postman, are ‘Amusing ourselves to Death.’
Understanding Our Place In The World
The only genuine freedom is to be found by turning within ourselves. The human being is naturally an imaginative and creative creature. Reality may be harsh and painful, yet it is also the realm of so much wonder and awe. We may live our lives playing in the mud, yet our minds can reach the stars. Our science can reach into the molecule as well as penetrate into the formation of the universe. Our mystics and sages can reach into the pulsating heart of the cosmos. The human being has an inner dimension that needs to be investigated and which, in turn, is timeless.
It is my view that the role of imagination – the interpenetration of the interior world – is crucial. It is what fuses together that which is above to that which is below. It is also a channel for intuition; and it is through intuition that we get closer to the essential. The inward gaze forever attempts to reveal the role of the human being, and what makes us human. It is about trying to understand our place in the world and our shifting views of the world. And right now, we find ourselves at a crucial point in human history.
Life on this planet is undergoing a great change. There is a revolution coming as people, especially the young people, develop their ways of communication, collaboration, and a new consciousness. We are seeing examples of empathy and compassion from young people around the world, as well as innovation, creativity, and inspired motivation. I have stated before that we are shifting into an epoch where new value sets will emerge as the dominant traits.
 And some of these values are already being expressed within our younger generations. I refer to these as the ‘C’ values of Connection – Communication – Collaboration – Consciousness – Compassion. Such changes will come into our lives, yet not overnight. It is not like flicking on a light switch. I expect it will be a process where much soul-searching and the questioning of our meanings and values will have to occur beforehand. However, it is not all about violence and thuggery, despite what our mainstream news may be showing us. There is a change emerging across the planet, and this change shall arise from within, through a new understanding of the human spirit, and of our place not only in our local cultures but also within a shared, planetary home. These are critical times of transition – and of momentous importance to us.It is important to recognize that we are undergoing a shift from localized cultures into a period of becoming planetary citizens. Nationalisms will need to become secondary, or put aside altogether, as we come closer together as a global species. And this significant transition is dissolving our securities, our belief systems, and our models of reality. Everything around us is beginning to shake – and so is the earth, literally. We can no longer remain within the old narratives. We are in need of new worldviews, both as individuals as well as within our communities and societies. What we now need is genuine and sincere far-reaching vision. And in our mainstream cultures we are also lacking hope and trust, especially in our socio-political systems. What is now essential is hope and trust in humanity, and in the richness and resilience of the human spirit. We are on the cusp of a different world coming into being, and at its centre shall be the human heart and soul. There can be no genuine, lasting future if it is based solely on the exterior life – it must be driven by the values that come from the interior of the human being.
To be prepared for the future world that is now emerging before us we must adapt our thinking and our consciousness to all possibilities. What we first need is a genuine change of mind:
God decided to come down to Earth for a quick look at how creation was coming along.
God approached Earth and happened to look at a big tree full of howling monkeys. As God looked down, one of the monkeys happened to look up and saw God.
The monkey became excited and started to shout: ‘I see God…..I see God!’
None of the other monkeys paid any attention. Some thought the monkey was crazy or perhaps just a religious fanatic. They went on about their daily lives of collecting food, taking care of their young, fighting with each other, etc., etc. Not getting any attention, our monkey decided to try to get attention from God, and said:
‘God, Almighty, You are the Beneficent, the Merciful, please help me!’
In an instant, the monkey was transformed into a man living in his own human community. Everything changed, except for one thing: the monkey’s mind. The monkey immediately realized that could be a problem.
‘Well, thank you God, but what about my mind?’
‘That,’ said God, ‘you will have to change yourself.’
As in this story, we have the human form. The next step is for us to assume the responsibility for the correct level of consciousness. It is as simple and as difficult as that.
We have to accept the responsibility for our own choices and actions; and also, how we choose to respond to events. Everything begins and ends with ourselves, and anything other than this is an excuse, no matter how plausible it may seem to us. As creative, imaginative beings we invent and innovate. At the same time, we are masters at inventing our own false stories and imaginings that self-deceive. In this regard we must choose carefully where we wish to put our attention, time, and efforts. After all, when we visit a beautiful garden do we choose to sit by the roses and savour their sweet smell, or to sit amidst the weeds that prick us? It is important to gift ourselves moments of joy, for joy is an infectious energy – and it shares easily too.
It is up to us to choose those moments, events, and circumstances to engrave upon our memories and heart. It is also about choosing what things to forget. Most of the things we encounter or accumulate we would be best to give up, or give away. We should only keep the few, thus ensuring the quality and integrity of those things we keep close to us. Here is another tale:
An Arabian legend tells of two friends who were travelling through the desert and at one point they fell into disagreement about the trip whereby one of the friends slaps the other across the face.
The friend who had been slapped said nothing, only wrote in the sand: ‘Today my best friend slapped me in the face.’
Both friends continued on their journey and eventually arrived at an oasis where there were baths to refresh themselves. The friend who had been slapped jumped into the large baths yet soon found himself starting to drown. The other friend immediately jumped in after him and saved him. After recovering the first man took a pen and wrote on a stone: ‘Today my best friend saved my life.’
Intrigued, the friend asked: ‘Why is it that after I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now after saving you, you write on a stone?
Smiling, the other friend replied: ‘When a good friend offends us, we write in the sand where the wind of forgetfulness and forgiveness will be responsible for clearing it off; on the other hand, when something great happens to us, we burn it into stone in memory of the heart where no wind in the world can erase it.’
We build up and develop our own interior world by all the small things and moments we choose to engrave upon our heart, spirit, and soul. We can choose those things we wish to line our forward path with.
Choosing Our Path
We should not be afraid to talk about things of the spirit – to be present with spirit and to live with it in our everyday moments. As Bob Dylan says, those who are not busy being born are busy dying. We are representatives of the spirit, and so should seek to be present to this, without the urge for external showing-off. There is no need for acting weird or strange; to wear odd clothes or follow customs antagonistic to the culture in which we are living. We may think and feel differently, and have experiences that are beyond the accepted, normal ken. Yet to revert to odd external behavior only shows that we are unable to internalize and stabilize these experiences and energies. To all purposes, there is nothing wrong in appearing normal to the outside world. To engage with the spirit, we may have to first learn how to be still, without being bored. There are already enough active distractions in the world as it is – why add more?
It is a normal request to ask for ‘practical things.’ People want to find activities, acts, exercises, and rituals to help them along their own path of development. And the world offers many of these things, in varying degrees of genuineness, sincerity, and effectiveness. Yet sometimes being given an action to attend to belittles the process of the initial search. For me personally, I am unable to give specific remedies for the search for meaning, other than to say that a person must first experience what this longing, this need, feels like. We are catalysts for our own search for meaning, and each path is walked differently. To begin with, we must learn how to articulate this need. This will then begin the course of one’s life that will forever alter what comes after. We are compelled to trust our instincts, our intuition, and to take the appropriate response. We are not here in this life to live like ghosts amongst the phantasms of the world. We always have an internal choice, and this should not force us to surrender into the abyss of mass insanity. As the story goes,
There was once a wise and powerful king who ruled in a remote city of a far kingdom. And the king was feared for both his might and his love of wisdom. At the heart of the city was a well whose water was cool and crystalline, and all the inhabitants drank from this well, even the king and his courtiers, because there was no other well in the city. One night, while everyone was asleep, a witch entered the city and poured seven drops of a strange liquid into the well, and said:
‘From now on, anyone who drinks this water will go crazy.’
The next morning all the inhabitants drank the water from the well, except the king and his lord chamberlain, and very soon everyone went mad, as the witch had foretold. During that day, all people went through the narrow streets and public places whispering to each other:
‘The king is mad. Our king and his lord chamberlain have lost their reason. Naturally, we cannot be ruled by a mad king. We must dethrone him!’
That night, the king ordered a golden cup of water from the well to be brought to him. And when they brought the cup the king and his lord chamberlain drank heavily from it. Soon after that there was great rejoicing in that distant city of a far kingdom because the king and his lord chamberlain had regained their reason.
We must be fearless in committing to the inner path we have chosen, so long as we harm no other. The genuine inner path is a subtle one. At times it can seem as if nothing is happening – as if we are going nowhere. Perhaps the path itself is a search for no-place and no-where. And yet we can rest assured that the inner path is active in each moment, in all times. And the search for this can bring meaning to us as we engage with the modern world. Amidst the distractions and entertainments on offer it is possible to remain focused with our own internal meaningful enjoyment. And this inner joy brings with it its own sacred moments.
It will do us good to remember that life lies beyond reason, and is a sacred thing. And we should allow this sacred presence into our lives, with joy, respect, and even a little humour. After all, just a little bit of joy, respect, and humour can go a long, long way – and we have far to travel.
About the Author
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion, and Consciousness, and The Sacred Revival: Magic, Mind & Meaning in a Technological Age, available at Amazon. Visit him on the web at http://www.kingsleydennis.com/.
 See The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion & Consciousness