I remember questioning the “logistics” of Heaven as far back as 2001, when I was just eight years old.
My mother would often read to me from the Bible during my childhood, so I was familiar with all the notable stories.
Back then, it seemed like a no-brainer to me that when we died, we either went to Heaven or Hell, depending on how we lived as humans. As such, it was obvious that the “meaning” of life was to get on God’s good side so as to end up in Heaven after we died.
Interestingly enough, 2001 is the same year that Halo: Combat Evolved was released on Microsoft’s very first Xbox system, marking the start of one of the most successful video game franchises of the modern gaming era.
Thinking about how much I enjoyed playing games like Halo led me to ask some interesting questions, usually while I was waiting to fall asleep each night.
Questions like, “Does God allow you to play violent video games in Heaven?” and “If not, is Heaven a place I’d really want to spend eternity in?”
Such questions are common among children, who allow their minds to spontaneously express themselves. This is why most adults get irked when kids keep asking questions that don’t really have any answers.
Now, answers to these questions abound, of course. But I was never satisfied with what other people claimed was true. I was more interested in how what they claimed stacked up with how humans really are, how we really behave, and what we really want out of life.
I’m now 27-years-old, and I still don’t really know what to make of it all.
There may very well be a Heaven and a Hell.
I’ve often wondered if, instead of my formerly atheistic view that all the religions are wrong, they are, in fact, all right.
Maybe it depends on what we choose to believe while we’re alive.
For fans of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls franchise, there’s an obscure bit of lore that hints at the idea that when a person dies, their soul gravitates to a realm appropriate to their “aligned AE,” which was their “is-ness” or “being” while they were alive.
That doesn’t sound so bad to me.
In fact, that sounds optimal.
People these days tend to think in terms of absolutes — either there is an afterlife or there is simply nothing when we die. But in a relativistic universe, I often question if things ever really have such simple answers.
A lot of people might think that entertaining such questions is a waste of time, but I don’t think it is.
It might be because I can’t help myself, but also because, in the modern world, it’s getting harder and harder to discover a “meaning” for life that originates outside oneself.
The impetus is increasingly being placed on us — as individuals — to figure out what life’s meaning is on our own. Traditional religions are losing their ability to spiritually satiate us, and cultural authority structures are everywhere under full scrutiny.
So when it comes to figuring out what the meaning of my life is, I’ve often found myself floundering like a fish out of water.
It’s hard for me to look around and reconcile the fact that most people in society seem to have it “figured out.”
They largely live their lives — or put on the appearance anyway — free of existential worries pertaining to life, death, and the meaning of it all, whereas my mind never seems to leave the topic.
I don’t mean to make myself out to be someone special or more unique than anyone else, but for those who simply cannot get their mind off the existential domain of thinking, the rest of society can seem quite literally insane.
From my perspective, what we should be doing with our lives while we have the privilege of being on Earth should be the most urgent question that we are asking ourselves every moment of every day.
Yet the rest of the world seems hardly interested.
Judging by appearances, everyone else seems like they aren’t interested in any questions at all. They’re content with the answers they have. Life already makes sense to them. They have no drive to deconstruct, deprogram, or otherwise truly embrace and contemplate the mystery of being alive.
I don’t know if that makes everyone else “sheep” or me “neurotic.” Maybe people do think about these things more than they let on, but for reasons unknown, never really get around to talking about them.
So I’ve often asked myself, with no small amount of self-guilt, why I can’t seem to simply fall in line like everyone else. You know, figure out some bullshit meaning for life, get a regular job, start a family, have kids, yatta yatta.
The first time I remember my neurotic mind feeling somewhat at ease is when I was exposed to the works of Joseph Campbell, courtesy of a friend that I’d often talk about Star Wars with (George Lucas was friends with Campbell, whose works helped shape the Star Wars saga).
I believe it’s in the Power of Myth where he was asked about the meaning of life, and he says something to the effect of, “I don’t think people are looking for a meaning or a purpose for life, they are looking for an experience of being alive.”
This is a pretty significant detail of Campbell’s philosophy. One that really started me on the path towards making sense out of an otherwise senseless world. His words simply clicked, in the same exact way that a square peg fits a square hole. Nice and neat.
I realized in an instant that my obsession with the “meaning of it all” was preventing the realization that life is an experience, and our experience has humans are defined by our sensations: taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing, etc.
Being someone fresh out of the 2016 political shit-circus, my mind had sort of “crystallized” along ideological lines.
I thought more about the abstract realm of politics than about my own physical body — its health, its moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, and its potential for self-growth.
Campbell provided a clue that helped get me contemplating in a more body-oriented direction, but only a clue.
It wasn’t until I discovered the lectures of British philosopher Alan Watts that I truly started to embrace the notion that life doesn’t necessarily have to have any conceptions or ideas about itself.
It’s an idea prevalent in Buddhism and other strands of Eastern thought, but Western philosophers have put forth similar views as well.
According to Alan Watts (and the teachings he was inspired by), life simply is — ideas about it always fail to capture it in its true essence.
It’s right there in how we often refer to ourselves: a human being.
Now, this is a difficult thing for Westerners to understand because we are inculcated from birth to believe in some sort of higher purpose for ourselves, some sort of program that we have to subscribe to.
Religious life is one such program, as is the standard “American Dream” of obtaining a middle-class lifestyle, which generally means living in a house that’s too big to be practical and owning a whole lot of possessions that never really add any value to our life.
And let’s not forget that 9–5 office job, which slowly turns us into obedient, paper-pushing slaves in an endlessly cycling chain of middle-management bureaucrats all vying with one another for that next big promotion or raise, while the CEO laughs his ass off to the bank.
And so, from the perspective of someone like myself, it really does look like a rat race. Sorry to use the tired old cliche. But cliches are oftentimes the best way of describing the situation.
Watts is an interesting thinker because he describes himself as an experientialist. The Wikipedia entry on this is quite apt:
All that really means is that his view of life came directly from the experience of his own ground of being. What it was like to be Watts, a human, here on Earth, and nothing more.
In my view, this is the most authentic way to approach life.
I may never be able to know everything. Hell, I may never even be able to know a tiny fraction of what there is to know.
But I can sure as hell know what it feels like to be me while I’m here. And I can write about that, talk about that, and share it with others to see if there is any common ground.
To be an experientialist yourself, all you really have to do is build your life philosophy from the ground of your own being — your own experiences, your own thoughts, your own feelings.
I think this is Philosophy 101, but some people might find it to be quite mad because once again, we live in a society in which everyone thinks someone smarter, more talented, or otherwise better than everyone else already figured out the answers to life’s biggest questions.
Unfortunately, this means we often go about pushing our “answers” on other people in the manner of some zealot, instead of sitting back, chilling, and reflecting on what it means to be us.
When you really get into the experientialist perspective of trying to make sense out of life, you find out that there isn’t any sense to be made at all.
This can be quite maddening to a person who has placed all their faith in the “rational intellect” (as I once did) and its ability to figure out the “truth.”
Both Watts and Campbell have mentioned the teachings of Zen Buddhism at various points in their literature. Zen often tries to break us free from a purely “rational,” “linear” way of experiencing life so that we can get back in tune with a more immediate, present-moment mode of existence.
I’ve come to believe that making peace within one’s own mind and discovering a truly satisfying meaning of life involves getting back in touch with the senses — of walking a more experientialist path.
And this is precisely what Joseph Campbell meant when he said that we aren’t really looking for a meaning.
A meaning of life is just a bunch of words we cook up to try and talk about it with others.
But the “real” meaning of life isn’t found in words, it’s found in the sensations associated with being alive — and being human.
From my current perspective, feeling alive is much more important than discovering the proper ideology or set of words to parrot to others.
I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself to “feel alive” again. Some days, I question if I’m even succeeding.
Meditation is one technique I’ve used to get back in tune with the present moment, and the good news is, pretty much anything in life (from cooking, to exercise, to listening to music) can be turned into a meditative activity.
The more I come to feel alive again, the more I want to share that feeling with others. I don’t know that I’ll ever succeed in doing that, but that would be a satisfactory meaning — or purpose — for me.
I suppose that’s what Campbell and Watts helped me realize.
There’s something circular about all this [New-Age-Woo-Zen-Zen-Confetti] bullshit.
To discover — or rather create — the meaning of life, we have to abandon the need for it. Then, it begins to make itself known.
I think that’s what art is all about. Creating your own meaning. You can only have fun with that sort of thing if you reach a certain mood of playfulness, of feeling not too serious about what it all means, and comfortable drawing from your own perspective on things.
But if there’s one thing I want to stress first, it’s this.
It’s far more important to feel genuinely alive before you go off trying to give anyone any answers for how things work, or creating any programs, or pushing any philosophy.
If your inner feelings say one thing, but your mouth says something else, then the result is inauthenticity.
And what we want to avoid above all else is inauthenticity.
It’s perfectly okay if we contradict ourselves in the future because our feelings have changed (along with our minds). Change is a part of growth and self-improvement.
What’s not okay is pretending to feel a way that we currently don’t for the sake of putting on airs.
Honesty and authenticity will always trump being performative, even if our honesty can get us into trouble with others.
It’s a tough balancing act, don’t get me wrong.
I still haven’t figured this shit out.
By abandoning the need to have a “meaning” that I can readily share with others, it’s often felt like I have nothing to talk about at all, and therefore everything I write sometimes feels like words for the sake of words, without substance.
The urge to proselytize “wisdom” or “advice” that I’m not totally sure has worked in my own life yet is strong. And it’s funny because I despise proselytizers almost as much as I despise zealots.
There’s a line in a Travis Scott song that I think about a lot. “Practice oh no never preach, practice oh no never preach.” It’s from the track Astrothunder.
I think what practicing means — at this stage — is taking the things that make me feel alive (such as writing, cooking, and exercising), and doing more of them, seeing where they lead me as time goes on.
Maybe after I do that, I’ll feel comfortable sharing with you what I think the meaning of life is.
For now, however, I’ll dance a little bit here and a little bit there, until it once again feels like something has “clicked.”