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  • Thomas Bien

The Meaning of Life

In his poem Ars Poetica, Archibald MacLeish famously wrote that a poem should not mean but be. And much as we value the idea of finding meaning in life as opposed to living controlled by our less admirable instincts and emotions, perhaps the same thing could be said about life in general, that the purpose of life is being alive, is life itself and the living of it. The idea of meaning seems somehow too cognitive and intellectual unless it also connects with the heart. For we don’t live an abstractifed life or an exclusively intellectual one, but an actual one, one in which we don’t need to find the capacity to love “people” so much as to love the individual, flawed people in our own lives, including our very flawed and vulnerable self.

We ask about meaning when we are already cut off from the vivid experience of living itself, and in this sense the question is a symptom of our neurosis more than it is of some lofty ideal. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell pointed out, we are not so much looking for meaning as we are looking for an experience of being fully alive.

And this is where mindfulness comes in. To be fully alive means to be fully aware, appreciating the flowingness of water, the rockiness of a stone, and not so much a smile as the particular facial expression of a particular individual person in front of us in this moment.

We don’t need to be against the search for meaning. It may be, in its own way, an inevitable part of seeking to be a decent, and truly human, being. But we should never let this quest subvert the primacy of simple, direct experience.

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