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