The Meaning of Life

There isn’t one.

Most people, I suspect, drive themselves and others crazy looking for the meaning of life. They seek it here. They seek it there. They seek that elusive meaning everywhere.  Some are so damned certain they have discovered the meaning of life that they will even try to force it on you too as the meaning and purpose of your life.

Contemporary science has come to the conclusion that life is meaningless and the cosmic drama is pointless, — an affair “full of sound and fury signifying nothing”, as Shakespeare once put it in the mouth of Macbeth. Existentialism from Dostoeyvsky and Nietzsche onwards grappled with the problem of nihilism, the “death of God”, and the absurd, which is the abyss or “Great Nothingness”.  For Nietzsche, the problem of values and value nihilism is a problem of meanings, for values are meanings.  For him the chief question following the death of God and the “stare into the abyss” is the question of the value of existence, which is a question of meaning.  Even earlier than the existentialists, the notorious “Old Man of the Mountain” had reputedly come to the conclusion that life was meaningless, therefore “nothing is forbidden; everything is permissible”.  And what is that enigmatic Book of Ecclesiastes, too, except an ode to the life’s inherent emptiness and meaninglessness? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.

The same insight into the meaningless of existence is equally rendered by Castaneda’s don Juan in a number of places in Castaneda’s record of don Juan’s teachings,

  “My acts are sincere but they are only the acts of an actor because everything I do is controlled folly. Everything I do in regard to myself and my fellow men is folly, because nothing matters.
Certain things in your life matter to you because they’re important; your acts are certainly important to you, but for me, not a single thing is important any longer, neither my acts nor the acts of any of my fellow men. I go on living though, because I have my will . Because I have tempered my will throughout my life until it’s neat and wholesome and now it doesn’t matter to me that nothing matters. My will controls the folly of my life.
Once a man learns to see he finds himself alone in the world with nothing but folly. Your acts, as well as the acts of your fellow men in general, appear to be important to you because you have learned to think they are important.
We learn to think about everything, and then we train our eyes to look as we think about the things we look at. We look at ourselves already thinking that we are important. And therefore we’ve got to feel important! But then when a man learns to see , he realizes that he can no longer think about the things he looks at, and if he cannot think about what he looks at everything becomes unimportant. Everything is equal and therefore unimportant.

We need to look with our eyes to laugh. When our eyes see , everything is so equal that nothing is funny. My laughter, as well as everything I do is real but it also is controlled folly because it is useless; it changes nothing and yet I still do it.
One must always choose the path with heart in order to be at one’s best, perhaps so one can always laugh.
You don’t understand me now because of your habit of thinking as you look and thinking as you think. By “thinking” I mean the constant idea that we have of everything in the world. Seeing dispels that habit and until you learn to see you will not really understand what I mean.
Our lot as men is to learn. I have learned to see and I tell you that nothing really matters. A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs; and then he sees and knows. He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees , that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.
You think about your acts, therefore you have to believe your acts are as important as you think they are, when in reality nothing of what one does is important. Nothing! But then if nothing really matters, as you ask me, how can I go on living? It would be simple to die; that’s what you say and believe, because you’re thinking about life, just as you’re thinking now what seeing would be like. You want me to describe it to you so you can begin to think about it, the way you do with everything else. In the case of seeing , however, thinking is not the issue at all, so I cannot tell you what it is like to see . Now you want me to describe the reasons for my controlled folly and I can only tell you that controlled folly is very much like seeing ; it is something you cannot think about.
Our lot as men is to learn and, as I’ve said, one goes to knowledge as one goes to war; with fear, with respect, aware that one is going to war, and with absolute confidence in oneself. Put your trust in yourself. There’s no emptiness in the life of a man of knowledge, everything is filled to the brim and everything is equal. For me there is no victory, or defeat, or emptiness. Everything is filled to the brim and everything is equal and my struggle is worth my while.
In order to become a man of knowledge one must be a warrior. One must strive without giving up, without a complaint, without flinching, until one sees , only to realize then that nothing matters. You’re too concerned with liking people or with being liked yourself. A man of knowledge likes, that’s all. He likes whatever or whoever he wants, but he uses his controlled folly to be unconcerned about it.
My controlled folly applies only to myself and to the acts I perform while in the company of my fellow men.”

What Ecclesiastes, the existentialists, don Juan and others are saying is that “nothing matters”. Everything is equally meaningless. Values or meanings are not simply waiting “out there” to be discovered. It is we who bestow value and meaning on existence and experience, and then pretend to discover it there.

The fundamental paradox of existence is this: the meaning of life is the creation of meaning. This is not only the core of  Nietzsche’s philosophy, but also the basis of Seth’s insistence that “you create the reality you know”.

The insight into the meaninglessness of existence — the Buddhist “empty mirror” — might bring some to the brink of suicidal despair, or even beyond the brink.  But looked at differently, it is incredibly emancipating and empowering to know that you yourself create the meaning of your life, and that this very creativity is the meaning of life.

So, ironically, existence is not meaningless at all.

“All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.” — Teachings of don Juan



14 responses to “The Meaning of Life”

  1. abdul monem says :

    In chapter 23 of the third book, verse 115 we read the following, do you think we have created you in vain and you return to us not. It is truly said that he who has no light from the source, he is blind.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The worship of that which is called variously “God”, “Allah”, “Brahma”, “Creator”, “Wakan”, “Source”, and so on is the proper, ie “responsible”, use of creative energy. Sin is the improper use of creative energy. So, don Juan is correct — acting (or deeds), rather thinking about acting, is primary.

      This kind of “action”,, though, as you say, arises from sources deep within us and which appear to us as not-self (to the egoic nature), which Seth calls the intuitive or “framework 2”, and is also what William Blake means by his use of the word “Action”.

      When Blake says “”I know of no other Christianity and of no other gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the divine arts of Imagination. Imagination, the real and external world into which we will live [sic] when these vegetable, mortal bodies are no more. The apostles knew of no other gospel”, this “Imagination” is the creative energy and is Source.

      What it means “to live in Truth” is to act from this Source. Blake calls this “impulse”. Seth calls this “spontaneity”. Life is action. It is useful to differentiate between Action and Motion in that sense, for people merely confuse these as being synonymous. Action arises from the core of us, while the egoic self is merely “moved”. The ego is the witness or respondent. It says “I was moved” by this or that. So, yes, the egoic consciousness is a “receiver” or “recipient”, but it is not the initiator, conceiver, or source of life or action. It is, nonetheless, the channel by which creative energy achieves presence, manifestation, or concretion within the physical matrix.

      You may recall in the Hebrew Bible why Jehovah brings the Deluge upon the Earth, the reason being that in mankind “the imagination of their hearts is violence continuously”, and so the thoughts of their minds was a abuse of creative energy. The universal religions teach universality of love, compassion, peace, faith not as being ends in themselves, but to ensure that the ego consciousness functions as a proper channel for the presentiation, manifestation, or epiphany of creative energy. This is sometimes called “purification” or “righteousness”, but they aren’t ends in themselves. They are means to become a clear channel for responsible realisation of the creative forces.

      One who has become such a clear or “pure” channel or agency for the creative energy to achieve realisation, presentiation, or epiphany has no need for objective displays of “worship” like prayer, going to church, etc, for his or her life is this. They have become themselves “the Way, the Truth, the Life”, as is said. This is also the Buddha’s teaching about the “raft”. Once one has reached that “other shore”, what use is it to carry around that heavy raft on one’s back?

      • abdul monem says :

        Those who have become the way ,have the responsibility to show the other the way. Realization is not only an individual endeavor ,but an endeavor that need to be turned into collective salvation. The message is not for the messenger, but for the other. I like the way you go about clarifying things. Thank you in being a good messenger.

        • abdul monem says :

          It is the divine arts of imagination is our road to realization. The source wants us to exercise our imaginative faculty. Effective imagination is the door for faithful knowledge.

  2. John L says :


    • srosesmith says :

      Since “God” is not some thing outside us, but is what we and all else are a part of — ultimately identical with — That, and since we don’t — with our limited human minds — know very much about the wholeness of all that is, it seems a little arrogant to make such a conclusion. My lights tell me there is great meaning in all this insane human-centered world that I cannot begin to comprehend while in this or any other form.

      • abdul monem says :

        God is the field in which everything thrive. He is not inside us ,nor we are part of him. He is there prior to the existence of everything. we are a buff of his breath that enable us to perceive and appreciate his wonders. Life is an opportunity to experience, either the waking up of our soul’ the buff’ to its purpose or denying it, thus creating our own dark night of our soul. The only way to him is to have the heart of a child. Beware of denying future comprehension. The universe is built on the disclosure of the truth. Be open!

      • Scott Preston says :

        No one has yet discovered a value or a meaning as something objectively “there”. In fact, the more the objective attitude is carried to its logical end, the more the “world” appears pointless, meaningless, accidental or the result of “dread chance”, as Nietzsche put it. No tree, no animal, frets about values, purposes, or the meaning of its existence.

        Idealism is, of course, the doctrine that there is an objective world of ideals, norms, values, meanings to which man’s behaviour must conform. I’ve never discovered such a world and don’t know anyone who has. But the full implications of Seth’s “you create the reality you know” leaves no room for doubt that values, meanings, purposes, goals are also creations and not designs. Seth calls this the true nature of evolution as value creation or value realisation.

        It is also the implications of don Juan’s “seeing” that nothing is more important than anything else. If nothing is more important than anything else, than it may also be the case that everything is equally important — that is, valuable or meaningful. But it is clear that whether, to the seer, the world is perceived finally as unimportant or as important is not something inherent to the world itself, but to the predilection of the seer himself or herself. To laugh or cry, to live or die become equal in infinity. Human beings often strangely believe that the eye of God or the gods is uniquely focussed upon them. “God looks into the heart”, etc. The all-seeing eye is even inscribed on the US dollar. The Greeks thought that the gods so enjoyed the spectacle of human folly that they rocked Olympus with their laughter. The consequence of this, however, is that it fills the human being with a vain sense of self-importance.

        The result of Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss” or the Great Nothingness is his conclusion “fundamentally, we experience only ourselves”. There is not much to distinguish this from “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. The Void is the Void, and is the Infinite. For one, that is death and terror itself. For another, the infinite and limitless possibility.

        • abdul monem says :

          The prophets have discovered the objective meaning, that is why there is religion, a path. Trees and animals do not fret because they know there purpose. the human is the only creature who fret about his purpose, because he was given the freedom to choose. either go with meaning or meaninglessness and that is the dilemma of the human. Life is a hard test, life is not a picnic.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    “you’re thinking now what seeing would be like.”

    Guilty as charged.

    “We learn to think about everything, and then we train our eyes to look as we think about the things we look at.”

    Guilty as charged.

    “You don’t understand me now because of your habit of thinking as you look and thinking as you think. By “thinking” I mean the constant idea that we have of everything in the world.”

    Guilty as charged.

    Just this past Thursday, I was heading back to my office when a colleague commented as he was walking by: “The thoughtful mode!” 🙂,_Auguste_Rodin.jpg&imgrefurl=,_Auguste_Rodin.jpg&h=3900&w=2613&sz=1137&tbnid=pTLmhuOWLRKMMM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=60&zoom=1&usg=__w0-y0YZRLmKdnSHiKmFJ6aK0iIs=&docid=kSetypn5bMTI0M&hl=en&sa=X&ei=kcZQUpPrMeOsigKE6IGgCg&ved=0CDwQ9QEwAw

    • srosesmith says :

      Thank you, Scott, for an eloquent and wise response that goes much further than what I put into words. It shows me that I am attached to some values — like love, and oneness with all that lives — and concepts — like Soul and Spirit.
      I’ve had glimpses before of what you’re pointing toward and am open to seeing
      more, but I’m really attached in this way!

      • Scott Preston says :

        Hi Sharon. By way of clarification, the word “value” is related to words signifying strength, power, health, well-being — something highly charged, energetically speaking. Valency. Valour, etc. Latin “valere” meant “to be well”, “to be strong”. The Latins greeted each other with “Vale!” — be well or strong. Values are, in other words, powers. This is one of the keys to understanding Nietzsche’s “will to power”.

        Therefore, the values you select as the meaning of your life are the ones that (should) enhance the power of your life and expand your sense of well-being, not the ones that limit, weaken, and diminish you, which a lot of people actually do. You know the old saying “I’m only human”, which is also the expression of a value. But weakened and diminished souls will express weakened and diminished values which do not enhance the sense of power and well-being, but do just the opposite. As some say “life is what you make it”, although the full meaning of that has become somewhat trivialised.

        • srosesmith says :

          Thank you, Scott. That’s so good : “Values are, in other words, powers.” This morning as I thought about my last response I saw its inadequacy; I realized that, of course, I haven’t been assuming that others need to have the set of values that I go by. I see that in having chosen and been committed to what I consider to be my lights, I am joined with the community of others who have seen in that way and have taught me (and in some cases have been taught by me).

        • LittleBigMan says :

          Very iluminating and enlightening. Thank you.

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