A useful metaphor for differentiating these would be a map. If you understand how to use a map, how contour lines represent height above sea level and how other symbols show lakes, forests and so on, then you appreciate the meaning of a map and can make use of one when the need arises. If you are going for a walk in strange territory and have to navigate across hills and find your way through woods, then it is extremely valuable to have a map of the area and a compass.
In such a situation, having a map serves a clear purpose, for helping you to get from A to B. If you did not understand how to use it, you might appreciate this purpose but the map would be without meaning. If you were familiar with map reading, then you would appreciate the meaning of a map of Borneo but it would serve no purpose in helping you to find your way out of the New Forest.
To put this into context in the actual topic, we might say that our purpose is to find everlasting happiness and we believe that the philosophy of Advaita provides a map of this territory. The metaphor is a good one because it reminds us that the concepts of Advaita are merely symbols in the same way as are the shapes on the map. The metaphor is a bad one in that, strictly speaking, we do not have to go anywhere in order to find happiness – we are already there. What Advaita can do, if we ‘follow’ the notional paths of the map, is to help us clear the mind of all the ignorance that prevents us from recognising this.
Thus, for example, we have entirely false notions of what things are important in life. We adorn the body with fashionable clothes, seek out exotic tastes in food, undergo surgery to maintain an artificially young appearance. We are ever seeking further promotion at work, working abnormally long hours to gain prestige and recognition… and money – with which to buy more and more material possessions to show off to friends and with which to fill our decreasing amounts of free time. We desire X and fear Y, thinking at one time that one thing is the most important aim in life and at another time that it is something quite different.
We constantly worry about what others think of us, whether we are doing the ‘right’ thing, what has happened in the past and what might happen in the future. And so on. There are many factors affecting all of this at the level of our apparent existence as individuals in this world. Genetic influences, together with those of family, education, television etc. all play a part in driving our aspirations and behaviour in a purely mechanical manner and I don’t think there is any necessity to say much about these. What we are interested in doing is understanding how Advaita can help us to accept all of this and put ourselves beyond their influence.
So the usual way of going about life is to utilise a selection of standards from the world, parents, society, science etc. to construct our sense of meaning, the map that we will use to navigate through life. The particular set that we choose is determined by our upbringing and to that extent is somewhat arbitrary. Similarly, our purpose in life also tends to be arbitrary, fixated, if at all, by the random happenings that we encounter as we blunder through life – job, spouse, children, religion and so on.
We can tolerate the occasional glitch in the coherence of our current set of meanings. If we admire someone, for example, and they do something that undermines our regard for them, we may feel aggrieved but it is unlikely to upset us for long. But if there are a series of happenings in our work, for example, that repeatedly force us to ask ourselves whether we are in the right job, there is likely to come a time when the accumulation of these incidents suddenly ‘tips the balance’, as it were, and we decide to resign or start looking for a new job. The entire ‘meaning set’ relating to the job then has to be discarded and a new set begun – a sort of ‘catastrophe’ effect if you like. A similar effect can occur within a marriage, forcing a divorce when the balance is tipped, or within a religious belief, forcing a complete re-evaluation of one’s faith.
All of this shows that meaning is simply identification with a particular set of ideas. If the set becomes untenable because of a sequence of events that raises questions and causes conflict, then it has to be discarded. This is obviously uncomfortable, especially if much of our lives revolved around them, but it has nothing to do with who we really are. Ultimately, none of this really matters.
Similarly, if we have a purpose, we are motivated and can act with discipline and sacrifice, in single-minded pursuit of it. All very positive… and allowing us to avoid confronting reality. Purposes tend to become a problem when they are thwarted. If we realise that one can no longer be achieved, we are likely to feel a failure or resentment at wasted time and effort. If we discover that one was being sought in error, that its achievement will not bring the satisfaction that was once envisaged, we may be forced to re-evaluate all of our beliefs and have to reconstruct a new sense of purpose from scratch.
Worse still, of course, is achieving a lifetime’s ambition. Because then, soon thereafter, may come the realisation that the fulfilling of this purpose has not actually made any difference to anything. Your petty concerns, pleasures and pains are found to continue exactly as before. Nothing is really any different. This is also seen in those who devote themselves entirely to their job. Their lives may ‘fall apart’ when they retire or are made redundant because they no longer perceive any purpose. Purposes, too, are only concepts in mind with which we identify – even if this purpose is Self-realisation! (Though, of course, achievement of this does not have the same effect.)
The meaning that we find in our everyday life is something that we are mentally imposing upon a presumed reality that is ultimately mistaken. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are in control of anything – it is all merely thoughts and dreams. And a sense of purpose that relies upon this world being as we perceive it to be is certain to be misguided. We can achieve nothing – we are neither doers nor enjoyers.
Whilst we believe that we are individuals living in a separate world, it is inevitable that we want to do things, have an effect, achieve something. Herein we will seek for meaning and purpose. We do not want to feel that our lives have been in vain. Even though we can appreciate that our puny presumed existence must be insignificant in the context of an infinite universe and aeons of time, still we delude ourselves that our lives can count for something.
Continue with next essay on Pleasure and Happiness.