Philosophers have been pondering the meaning of life since time immemorial, but the answer may be in the one place we never thought to look. When we ask ourselves about the meaning of life, we make two assumptions. One is that life is somehow separate from us, or that we can exist in any other state than life. The other is that there must be a meaning to existence. The true meaning of life, if such a thing can be expressed, is actually found in realizing the inherent lack of meaning, or narratives, in life. In short, it is awakening.
Every religion and spiritual tradition has some equivalent to the Buddhist notion of enlightenment. In modern times, we see enlightenment as a metaphor, not a cognitive event that can radically reshape our consciousness and relationship with the world. But enlightenment, or full awakening, is real, and it is the most important goal one can undertake.
While reading this, you may have an immediate mental reaction of defensiveness. You might assert that awakening is just a buzzword, and if it is in fact real, it’s not nearly as important as some other goals—such as having children, for example, or curing cancer.
We go about our lives trying to achieve various goals like these, often in a state of unease, unhappiness, or fear. We worry that if we don’t live up to our expectations or the expectations of others, our lives will be a failure. We will, in fact, have missed out on “what it all means.” We also have a belief that if we just tick enough boxes in our life goals list, then we’ll be happy. Truly, permanently happy.
In response to this, I urge you to consider dreams. What are dreams? They are lifelike experiences that we all traverse each and every night, whether or not we remember them. They are entire worlds and stories built up by our minds, for our minds. Within a dream, we typically have a burning sense of urgency to get something done, or to fix something, or to flee from something. We may spend the entirety of our dream preoccupied with these tasks, never once questioning the substratum that comprises the dream.
Once we realize the nature of a dream, which can be achieved randomly or through practice with lucid dreaming, the dream loses all fear. We see that it is nothing more than a convincing illusion over which we have tremendous control. And even if we lack control, we realize we can’t be harmed anyway. We are dreamers spinning stories for ourselves. Our goals in the dreams may still exist, but we pursue them freely and out of joy rather than distress.
But what if we don’t realize we’re dreaming?
If I were to approach you in a dream and tell you about the real world, which you might access through “awakening” in some form, you might think I’m insane. You would probably have the same reaction that most people have to the idea of awakening in our world. When Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, or other religious groups talk about ideas of elevated consciousness, we tend to dismiss them because we cannot imagine what they actually mean. Our own consciousness is very familiar to us, and asking us to conceive of a different sort of consciousness is like asking a fish how it feels to live on land.
I don’t mean to call our world a literal dream, or to imply that spiritual awakening moves us to a different dimension (or wakes up some alien in a virtual-reality rig). What I want to call attention to is our presumption that our world, as we currently know it, is precisely how reality is. We can live for many years without ever tasting another form of consciousness. But death, which eventually comes to all of us, will dispel our ideas of reality whether we like it or not.
There are many metaphors and analogies to describe the experience of awakening, but none of them will make much sense until you begin to taste the real deal. Only then will you start to see the calls for awakening present everywhere, in everything. Buddhists might describe these omnipresent reminders as the innate wisdom of our Buddha-nature.
Awakening does not destroy or erase any of the other worthwhile goals in our lives, such as raising children or taking care of our loved ones. The only things awakening destroys are the delusions and defilements of our own minds. When we awaken, which is to say, remove the veils between ourselves and reality, we are not moving into any new domain of life. We’re simply seeing our lives with clearer, gentler eyes. We see our lives without fear or ignorance.
So with this in mind, I see awakening as the true “goal” for life. It shows us precisely what is real and what is a waste of our precious time as human beings. On a personal level, I have never met an awakened individual who has ever grappled with the idea of meaning in life. Once awakening occurs, we inherently understand our place in “this” and what has to be done. We find unbridled joy and satisfaction in everything we do.
If you still believe I’m just talking about awakening as a concept, then keep living. Eventually you will find that you yearn for something deeper, for that missing puzzle piece in existence. Someday, someplace, you will have a taste of awakening as a real experience.
Once you do, you cannot go back.
You must go onward.