A diversity of opinion on the subject of a meaningful life.
- Some philosophers believe that we create our own meaning and it is for us to define.
- The meaning of life could be to live completely within the here and now.
- Even in the most dire and cruel of situations, humankind has found meaning in life.
What is the meaning of life? This question has been proposed in both profound and commonplace manners. It has been both sneered at and critically considered as well.
The search for the answer and the reason behind the question is open ended. Inherent within this line of questioning is the idea that there may be some significance or lack thereof to either the human condition or the universes' purpose of existence.
The following list of books can help us better grasp the question.
Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
In Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl chronicles his life in the Nazi concentration camps. The atrocities and horror of these death camps are some of the most gruesome and inhumane circumstances of the human condition in recent historical memory. As readers, we're faced with wondering if there is any point grasping for meaning in such a senseless and cruel state of existence.
Yet, Frankl doesn't dwell on any of the atrocities committed. Instead, he details the mindset of other prisoners at the time. As these prisoners faced their death and the destruction of their lives and loved ones, Frankl looks to map out his own experience in finding his reason and meaning of life through what he called "tragic-optimism."
"It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Herman Hesse's timeless novel has inspired and influenced generations of seekers and philosophers. It is a story of a wealthy Indian Brahmin who undergoes a number of cultural and spiritual paths in order to find enlightenment. Hesse combines many different world philosophies to come up with a unique vision of the spiritual journey. He draws from philosophies as diverse as Jungian psychology to Buddhism and Hinduism. Hesse seeks to surpass all ideology and transcend dogma so that his character can find true individualistic peace and bliss.
Siddhartha is both a journey for our main character and the reader themselves. It's a coming-of-age novel that has continually attracted young seekers of knowledge and wisdom.
"Words do not express thoughts very well. they always become a little different immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another."
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus
Albert Camus wrote some of the most thought-provoking and thrilling pieces of philosophical fiction in the 20th century. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus labels the world of man as absurd because it will never be able to answer any question of its meaning for existence. In this story, he poses the universe as a silent spectator to the trials and suffering of man. Camus ponders the idea of suicide and whether or not that is the only logical answer to an indifferent and absurd world that will never answer.
Now in lieu of suicide, Camus instead meditates on the idea of revolt against an absurd world, by challenging it constantly to keep it anew of experience and devoid of ennui.
Later on the essay, Camus draws a parallel of the absurd with Sisyphus, who, according to ancient Greek myths, was sentenced to roll a rock to the top of a mountain forever, only to see it roll back down again once it reached the top. Camus says that Sisyphus is aware of this fate of eternal struggle that he will always be forced to endure, but he loses none of the passion in doing so.
"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
The Book by Alan Watts
Alan Watts placed humanity's role in the universe as a central and unique expression of the entire sum of things. Watts gives us a new understanding of personal identity and the mystery of existence. Before creating The Book, Watts wondered what a book would be like that sought to answer all of the grand and great philosophical questions of life. What is this world? Why am I here? What's the meaning of life? Along the way of Watt's writing journey, emerged this gem.
With a beautiful synthesis of Eastern philosophy, Watts flows through paradox and logic in a humorous way that makes this book easy to read. Integrating modern western science and ancient Eastern maxims, this book stays relevant and refreshingly modern for a book written at the height of the counterculture mania of the 1960s.
"You have seen that the universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate "you" to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real "you" is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For "you" is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new."
Be Here Now by Ram Dass
This is the book that maps out the change and evolution of Dr. Richard Alpert into Ram Dass. Chronicling the three stages of his journey, we follow along the wild and spiritual adventure of both one man and an entire generation. Through the spiritual dealers of the East, gurus galore and the many divergent paths to enlightenment we delve into an amazing metamorphosis of man and culture.
The book covers the Harvard years of LSD and psilocybin experimentation and the dissatisfaction of intellectual life to his journey through India and to the time of his studying with Neem Karoli Baba who gave him the name Ram Dass.
Part biography and part cultural artifact, the book takes a psychedelic detour in the second section with psychedelic pictures and cartoonish imagery meant to represent and convey spiritual knowledge from seekers throughout the ages. In the third and final section of the book, Ram Dass gives us a manual of suggestions on how to live and to truly be here now.
"Early in the journey you wonder how long the journey will take and whether you will make it in this lifetime. Later you will see that where you are going is HERE and you will arrive NOW...so you stop asking."
Explore a legendary philosopher's take on how society fails to prepare us for education and progress.
- Alan Watts was an instrumental figure in the 1960s counterculture revolution.
- He believed that we put too much of a focus on intangible goals for our educational and professional careers.
- Watts believed that the whole educational enterprise is a farce compared to how we should be truly living our lives.
A prolific orator, writer and philosopher, Alan Watts was one of the first contemporary figures in the early 20th century to bring Eastern Zen philosophy and thought to a large Western audience. He was an instrumental figure in the 1960s counterculture revolution and continued to write and philosophize until his passing in 1973. His lectures and writings today seem to be seeing a resurgence in popularity.
With countless hours of his lectures sprawled online, sampled into dreamy chillwave music and the likeness of his voice even featured as an advanced A.I. in the movie Her, it seems Alan Watts still has a whole lot to tell us.
Alan Watts' advice on education is more prescient now than ever
In our current age of industrialized mass anxiety, students and educators alike are working more grueling and unproductive hours, while at the same time they're still underperforming when compared to more relaxed and productive educational systems, like those in Scandinavia.
Here is an Alan Watts pronouncement that sums up a large part of his philosophical outlook.
"If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves vanish into the abyss of death."
Taking into account some of Watts' philosophy, we can shift our views on the subject of life, learning and education through a more inspired and whimsical viewpoint.
School’s endless cycle of preparing us for what’s next
Photo: Frederick Florin/Getty
For the great majority of us, our early lives were defined by the ever-increasing grade scales we progressed through, from elementary school into middle school and so on. These were our internal ranking and status symbols as we barreled through our early life's big biological and mental changes, shifting from one well-placed rung to the next and following our teacher's orders if we wanted to keep up with the already-laid path for becoming a successful member of society.
Alan Watts found this idea a strange and unnatural progression of our early lives, and something that was indicative of a much deeper-seated issue in how we view the nature of change and reality. Watts says:
"Let's take education. What a hoax. You get a little child, you see, and you suck it into a trap and you send it to nursery school. And in nursery school you tell the child 'You are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then wow-wee, first grade is coming up, and second grade, and third grade.' You are gradually climbing the ladder towards, towards, going on towards progress. And then when it gets to end of grade school, you say 'high school, now you're really getting going.' Wrong."
Whether we consciously recognize it or not, this expectant progressive nature of reality we foster during our school years is something that becomes an undeniable fabric of the way we live and think. It sticks with us our whole lives.
We're constantly moving forward to some goal that's just out of reach—never within the now, always later or after this or that accomplishment has been reached.
Watts believed that this same logic applies to us once we leave the tiered school system. He goes on to say:
"But on towards business, you are going out into the world and you got your briefcase and your diploma. And then you go to your first sales meeting, and they say 'Now get out there and sell this stuff,' because then you are going on up the ladder in business, and maybe you will get to a good position. And you sell it and then they up your quota.
"And then finally about the year 45 you wake up one morning as vice president of the firm, and you say to yourself looking in the mirror: 'I've arrived. But I feel slightly cheated because I feel just the same as I always felt…'"
Have I arrived yet?
Jacques Hoist via Flickr
Here Alan Watts touches on a classical bit of Buddhist philosophy—the idea that there really isn't in fact anything to strive forward to and desire. Watts ties this aspect into the desire of one-upmanship in the educational system bleeding into our professional lives. This is an example of the unending ennui of materialistic pursuit in some form or the other.
Alan Watts goes on to say:
"Something is missing. I have no longer a future.' 'Uh uh' says the insurance salesman, 'I have a future for you. This policy will enable you to retire in comfort at 65, and you will be able to look forward to that.' And you are delighted. And you buy the policy and at 65 you retire thinking that this is the attainment of the goal of life, except that you have prostate trouble, false teeth and wrinkled skin.
"And you are a materialist. You are a phantom, you are an abstractionist, you are just nowhere, because you never were told, and never realized that eternity is now."
Now rather than falling into a passive nihilism (which is where Buddhist thought can lead) Alan Watts instead argues for being within the here and now. Learn for learning's sake! Eternity is now… that is to become fully part of the process—whatever it may be—and do not focus on an ever elusive end goal.
Not tying ourselves to the end result is something most people will never understand because it's counter intuitive. This ideal was a central focus of Alan Watts' philosophy.
In the opening chapter of his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, he coined the term "backwards law," of which he says:
"When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float."
This koan of his illustrates that when we put too much pressure on ourselves to meet some ideal or goal in the spectral future, we detract from the working process at hand. It will never be reached because what needs to be done isn't our central focus.
Conversely, by being completely involved in the present, those elusive goals in the future could one day come to fruition. This is where the concept gets muddled for some.
But it can be simply summed up as follows: not looking towards the future will prepare you for it.
A flawed system from the start
Alan Watts likened compulsory education to the penal system.
Alan Watts felt the educational system failed us by the very way it prepared us to look forward to the rest of our lives. An idealized version he cooked up in his head of what a great educational upbringing would look like can be gleaned from this passage:
"When we bring children into the world, we play awful games with them. Instead of saying, 'How do you do? Welcome to the human race. Now my dear, we are playing some very complicated games, and these are the rules of the game we are playing. I want you to understand them, and when you learn them when you get a little bit older you might be able to think up some better rules, but for now I want you to play by our rules.'
"Instead of being quite direct with our children, we say, 'You are here on probation, and you must understand that. Maybe when you grow up a bit you will be acceptable, but until then you should be seen and not heard. You are a mess, and you have to be educated and schooled until you are human.'"
He even likened the compulsory educational system as having heavy religious undertones.
"'Look you are here on sufferance. You are on probation. You are not a human being yet.' So people feel this right on into old age and figure that the universe is presided by this kind of awful God-the-Father parent."
Much of this still resonates with us today. Alan Watts' sage advice on education just might be the thing we need to revisit if we're to escape the monotonous reality of modern education.
There are many people who preach the supposed benefits of psychedelics, but none do it as well, nor as reliably, as these philosophers and scientists.
- The world is enjoying a bit of a psychedelic renaissance.
- The phenomenon of micro dosing, in which a fraction of a hit of LSD is taken to gain the supposed benefits without the hassle of hallucinations, is increasingly popular in Silicon Valley.
- Medical research into psychedelics of all kinds is also expanding and finding new beneficial uses for these drugs in the treatment of psychological disorders.
Scientific evidence for the benefit of drugs
With decades of prohibitions on research, the scientific evidence of the benefits of such drugs is limited. There are many people who preach the supposed benefits of the drugs, but few of them can be said to be philosophers or respected scientists. Here, we offer the experiences of a few real philosophers and scientists on the possible benefits of psychedelics.
Gerald Heard, a British author who wrote many books on science, history, and human consciousness, tried LSD earlier than most people, in the middle of the 1950s. His use and private praise of the possible application of the drug as a catalyst to create moments of near-religious insight caused many other intellectuals to give it a try, including his friend and our final entry on the list Aldous Huxley, and psychedelic research pioneer Timothy Leary. He described the drug like this: "There are the colors and the beauties, the designs, the beautiful way things appear... But that's only the beginning. Suddenly you notice that there aren't these separations. That we're not on a separate island shouting across to somebody else trying to hear what they are saying and misunderstanding. You know. You used the word yourself: empathy." This interview has also been sampled into the song 'Waking Bliss'.
Alan Watts, one pro-LSD philosopher
Alan Watts, the British philosopher best known for popularizing the ideas of Eastern philosophy to his Western audience, also experimented with LSD and other drugs. He saw them as being of use in offering "glimpses" to a greater spirituality, and in helping individuals understand their connection to the universe. He later concluded that, "If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen."
Sam Harris: Can psychedelics help you expand your mind?
Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and so-called horseman of new atheism, experimented with MDMA for the mental effects rather than the physical ones. His MDMA trip resulted in a profound understanding that he was connected to every sentient being in existence. The trip was so powerful for him that it took him years to fully be able to integrate the ideas into his intellectual life.
He also mentions, despite being an advocate of secular meditation, that while meditation is useful it might not work for everybody. This is as opposed to psychoactive drugs, which will cause some effect if taken in a large enough dose. He does temper this notion, however, and states that anything you can do with psychedelics can be done without them. He does accept that he would never have supposed such an experience would be possible without the drugs, if he had not taken them initially.
Jason Silva: We're going through a psychedelic renaissance
British philosopher Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of Brave New World, experimented with psychedelic drugs in the late 1950s. His ideas on the subject are recorded in his books The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Huxley believed that drugs such as mescaline and LSD allowed us to view the world "as is" rather than as we normally experience it—in a way more fitting for survival. He called this manner of viewing the world the "mind at large", and argued that it was a wonderful perspective that many people would benefit from.
He also argued that every culture across time has sought some kind of chemical escape from daily life. In his opinion, psychedelics were a healthier alternative to tobacco and alcohol, achieving the goals of escape alongside psychological and mystical realizations.
However, Huxley also believed that LSD should not be popularly available, but used only by "the best and brightest". He mentions at the end of his book that drugs are not enlightenment, but merely helpful for the intellectual who might be attached to words and symbols. His occasional enjoyment of drugs lasted the rest of his life; his last words were a request to his wife to be injected with LSD before dying. She obliged him.
There are, of course, other philosophers and thinkers who tried the stuff and had things to say about it. George Carlin, Richard Feynman, and Steve Jobs for example. The less philosophically inclined who still got a great deal out of their trips and were open about it include Jimi Hendrix, Ken Kesey, Cary Grant, and George Harrison.
While all these icons of art and science disagree on the benefits of those drugs being generally available to the public, or even what those benefits are, they did converge on one thing: that the mind-bending effects are good for some people.
That's not to be interpreted as blind endorsement—Sam Harris is perhaps clearest on that when he says: "This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics... these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug." As the West continues to consider the pros and cons of differing chemical substances, the testimony of some intelligent and successful people must be included in any discussion.