Can life offer us more than the stories we tell ourselves?
On the surface, meaning-making sounds just dandy. Something to do. Someone to love. Social causes. They all seem to have a place in life. Yet, when we take a closer look, we may notice that the substrates from which we make “meaning” are actually quite distorted and limited. “Reality” as we know it may not be where meaning lies or where we can construct meaning from.
We cannot reliably make meaning from what our senses tell us: For instance, you may be convinced that you are still if you are sitting down. Yet, the earth is actually moving at approximately 1000 miles/hour. You may think the ground is flat. Yet, we know that the earth is spherical in shape. You may not be able to see light in the ultraviolet spectrum, but bats can. Similarly, snakes can see infrared light, while humans cannot.
Also, we see ourselves in mirrors as if we are intact and mostly skin and bones, when we are in fact at least 50% bacteria, and up to 60% of the adult human body is water. These are some of the facts that indicate that our senses deceive or limit us, so we cannot rely on them to make any meaning.
Implication: We need to look beyond our five senses. They are a limited source of evidence.
We are less moral than we think we are: Some argue that meaning-making is about moral fortitude. Yet research demonstrates that we all overestimate our moral superiority.
Implication: Our self assessments of our own morality is inflated. We mght benefit from looking beyond that.
Our emotions are frequently inaccurate indicators of what is actually happening: Others say that our emotions are an accurate indicator of what is worth making meaningful. Yet, there is extensive research to show that our emotions are not that much better than our perceptions at representing “reality.” While they enhance our subjective feeling of remembering, they are not reliable indicators of what objectively happened. Also,our experiences of emotions may be culturally determined and not facts per se. For instance, Japanese (compared with American) respondents more often report that they have not experienced any emotional content whatsoever, which suggests that people in these cultures less readily prioritize their emotional states.
On the basis of these observations, we might conjecture that our thinking is frequently distorted by our senses, moral compasses and emotions, and as a result, meaning-making is a fictional account of reality, or a very limited one at least.
Implications: We cannot rely on our emotions for meaning-making. We need to look beyond them.
Where do we turn if we can’t rely on our senses, morality and emotions for meaning-making? It might seem depressing to have to give up on meaning, but there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, however obscure this might seem. Outside of “meaning-making” there are at least three domains of human experience where we may find solace and excitement if we dare to venture deep within them.
The domain of the inconspicuous: Martin Heidegger was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. In his last seminar in 1973, he introduced the idea of the “inconspicuous.” By this, he was referring to phenomena that oscillate between being present and absent. More specifically, he was referring to phenomena that cannot be signified, even though we can impliitly get involved with them. They are beyond grasp, cannot be investigated, and even more subtle than “seeming” is.
You might wonder why you should turn to something so subtle to enjoy life, yet there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that there is much power in invisible subtlty. Coronavirus, for example, is negative example how the invisible can be powerful. Metaphorically, this domain of the inconspicuous is like the ultraviolet light you cannot see. It exists for a different consciousness, and when you turn toward it, you learn how to get attuned to it.
The domain of silence: Silence is a poweerful force. Some case studies have indicated that silence can increase vagal tone. Low vagal tone can be found in inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, makes people more vulnerable to stress, and makes it more difficult to regulate emotions. Silence, in raising vagal tone, may serve to combat stress-induced illnesses. As such, it can increase wellbeing.
Many spiritual traditions advocate silence. In the Mandukya Upanishad, silence is regarded as an important fourth state of consciousness after deep sleep, waking and dreaming. It is also called “consciousness without content.” In one study, cardiologist Herbert Benson reported that when subjects repeated the word “one” as a mantra, they gained access to a metaphysical reality. Other authors have demonstrated that this kind of relaxation is associated with a host of non-voluntary physiological effects, including changes in stress-related gene expression, alteration in O2/CO2 exchange, and changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways.
Silence can be heard even amidst the noise. And it can also be experienced deeply in a pause.
The domain of non-duality: Many philosophical, pharmacological and mystical traditions (e.g., Advaita Vedanta, Mahamudra, Psychedelics, Dzogchen, Kabbalah, Sufism, Gnosticism) point to the possibility that the dichotomy of subject-and-object or self-and-other may be transcended in special states of nondual awareness. Nondual awareness has been defined as “a state of consciousness that rests in the background of all conscious experiencing — a background field of awareness that is unified, immutable, and empty of mental content, yet retains a quality of cognizant bliss.” This state is said to facilitate insights about the nature of reality (beyond our illusions).
If this sounds “unreal” because you believe in the boundaries between you and the world, consider that the entire world that you see has become transformed into electrical signals in your brain. What you make of those signals is the world you will experience.
For instance, in everyday life, our mothers and fathers are represented in multiple people. That’s the way we keep the traits of the people we lose in physical reality alive. We keep the electricity alive. In a sense, non-dual awareness involves being present with “meaning” as electrical signals in the brain., resisting the temptation to makes stories from them.
Conclusion: While meaning-making at its height is a form of advanced story-telling, there is a subtle force that is silent and all pervading that we can come to know. When we are scrupulously present, and when we hear silence in noise, we will come to know, experience, and grow an awareness of nonduality that is not a philosophy or story, but a connection with a deeply-held way of being that is glorious and in some cases, physiologically potent. Practices that emphasize then inconspicuous, silence and non-duality may extend our experience of being human into new states of consciousness.