Many seekers of personal and spiritual growth resort to “magical thinking”. We imagine that we see deeper connections between incidents and phenomena that are seemingly not related on the immediate, surface level. In this way, we can cover up the reality that we are at times lost in the face of life’s chaos.
Regardless of whether alleged connections between incidents are genuine or not, it can be useful to ask oneself:
“What psychological need am I attempting to meet by making these connections?”
Many of us have as children experienced a degree of safety and predictability. Children often have naïve conceptions of a safe and just world, where everything in some way makes sense. Some fairytales and other cultural phenomena support such notions. In part, I think this is helpful. The child is so fragile, undeveloped, and unprotected that he or she needs to be protected against much of what is cruel in life. Many children experience their caregivers as being almost almighty. This is perhaps necessary for a period of time. However, during our upbringing, we will (hopefully) realize that the grown-ups are also struggling and have many unanswered questions.
Ideals and Unconsciousness
Children should gradually be exposed to more of the unjust aspects of reality. Otherwise, they will remain in a naïve state that makes them ill-equipped to function in the world as adults. However, if this exposure happens too early or too quickly, it may create great psychological wounds and result in unhealthy compensatory mechanisms as the child is exposed to more than it is able to integrate.
I want to stress that I’m in no way saying that good ideals are irrelevant. At one level justice, empathy, kindness, safety, etc. are wonderful ideals and real phenomena. I believe that all people, in the depth of their psychology and when they are in connection with something bigger than themselves, are connected to such qualities. The challenge is that in our everyday life, there is much unconsciousness at play – both in ourselves and in others. This requires us to also have the ability to be “street smart”. It is a great challenge to find a good balance between being true to our most deeply held values while also being able to function in the world. If we are too naïve and gullible we will easily be run over and manipulated by other people and situations. It is then easy to blame the world and see oneself as a victim. A healthier attitude would be to acknowledge that we have a responsibility for looking after our own boundaries and safety.
Cynic or Romantic?
Most of us encounter this dilemma in some way or another. Some choose to become cynical, for example, by legitimizing irresponsible behavior by claiming that “everybody else does it”. Cynics are often egoists who don’t want to give something to others because it may not be repaid. Lack of reciprocation may stir up deep psychological wounds, around experiences such as rejection or of not being seen. The other extreme is to become a “passive-aggressive romantic”. One will then cling to one’s infantile convictions from childhood and feel personally offended when the world doesn’t live up to these ideals and expectations.
The attitude that I find most healthy is to “hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst”. This represents a synthesis between the cynic and the romantic. Both extremes have healthy aspects to them, but an extreme alone can never represent the whole truth. It is by achieving a dynamic balance and interplay between the extremes that we are able to access our full intelligence. Life is dynamic, but in our safety-seeking mind, we often try to make it static. Relating consciously to life’s unpredictability can hurt so much that we would rather close our eyes.
Clash With Reality
Sometimes the unpredictability and injustice of life confront us to such an extent that it is no longer an option to keep our eyes fully closed. This hurts and we need to find ways to deal with it. As a temporary and useful band-aid, we may resort to “magical thinking”. We imagine that we see deeper connections between incidents and phenomena that are seemingly not related on the immediate, surface level. In this way, we can cover up the reality that we are at times lost in the face of life’s chaos.
We can make up explanations for why something happened that makes it easier to handle. “This is too fucked up, but it is part of a higher plan for growth on all levels, both for me and for the planet. I just have to persevere and I will eventually find myself in a paradisiacal state”. The solution to the pain or its release is thus seemingly found in the future or on another plane of existence to which we have limited access. Still, by verbally formulating and frenetically repeating this deeper connection where things ultimately make sense, it’s as if we can be in some kind of quasi-connection to this. It functions similarly to a life preserver while we’re about to drown.
Whether incidents and situations that initially appear as incomprehensible actually have a deeper meaning or not is a very big and complicated question. Some things have a deeper meaning although we can’t immediately grasp this. Some things are relatively accidental – even if the consequences of these coincidences are sometimes enormous. Even in the cases where cruel and upsetting incidents may indeed have a deeper meaning, we still need to also deal with our deeply human needs, such as the need for an authentic mourning process and the need for facing our littleness. Only then can the possible deeper connections be acknowledged on a more authentic level, not merely function as mental bandages.
A very fundamental aspect of being human is to experience both meaning and meaninglessness, wholeness and fragmentation. To claim that everything is meaningless or that everything has a meaning, are both equally ignorant.
Meaning is largely a function of our capacity for interpretation and for providing a meaningful context for the present by trying to predict future incidents. Our mind also has a deep tendency for generalization. The reality we live in is complex; our existence is comprised of thousands of different elements. In one moment we may think of our life as fantastic, and have great belief in our future possibilities. And then, just a few negative remarks or trifles can turn our view of our own life and our future prospects into the opposite.
Attempts at Permanence
Our mind is thus in an unstable and distracted state for much of the time. Our political and economic systems, as well as nature itself, have a fragility and unpredictability to them. In order to compensate for this, we may try to cling to ideas and conceptions that point to something more consistent than the ever-changing reality we are actually experiencing. Many of our belief systems—whether political, religious, or cultural—may largely be seen as attempts of creating a certain degree of order and stability in an unstable world. This has both favorable and not so favorable consequences.
Distraction and Concentration
Buddhism claims that the untrained mind is in a constant state of distraction. The mind is also characterized by generalization and a tendency toward negativity. The inclination to generalization makes us very vulnerable when faced with external fluctuations beyond our control. We may, for example, easily go from one extreme to the other, rather than maintaining an inner centering where we can relate in a balanced and intelligent manner to the complexity of what comes our way. The deeper solution to this is thus to have a concentration-practice that makes the mind more centered. In Buddhism, such practices are often referred to as shamatha or shyiné. One trains one’s capacity for consistently keeping one’s attention on a given object. The object could be pretty much anything, for example a burning candle. Each time thoughts, sensory input, emotions, or mental images take us away from the moment, we bring our attention back to the chosen object. Through persistent practice of a method like this, most of us will be able to be more resilient when faced with challenges.
Having a more stable mind does not fundamentally alter the external world, but our experience and understanding of it does change. Many of our unnecessary worries will dissipate and we will be left with the real challenges that we perhaps ought to deal with. We are then also more able to discern between what we can influence and what we would most wisely accept as it is – at least for the time being. When we have a more concentrated mind, we are also better equipped to take constructive action. We’re not as colored by our own fear and agitation. We’re more able to be receptive to others and their internal states and thus we can more easily achieve constructive dialogue with them.
A more centered mind is a very good foundation for being able to better handle the rollercoaster of life. And yet, this doesn’t necessarily solve the deeper questions about whether or not incidents have a meaning or not. Rather, we may experience that these questions are dissolved (not solved) by the realization that they are often just another form of mental content that may pull us away from our own inner centering.
Still, many of the questions around meaning are important and legitimate, but it’s more important to relate to them from a state of openness than it is to find absolute answers. Staying with the uncertainty rather than avoiding it can become a basis for exploration, dialogue, connection, and new possibilities. The assertion of absolute truths will often lead to the opposite.
New Age Explanations
Within many spiritual environments, especially within the New Age, there is a tendency to quickly explain incidents rather than consciously face what is stirred up inside when encountering them. Some people explain challenges they are facing by pointing to past lives, for example, that they are in a “karmic pattern” with a person they have a conflict with. Something that doesn’t look fair or comprehensible now might thus make sense in the context of several lives. Whether such explanations may in some instances be genuine or not isn’t something I will delve into here. I think the following questions are just as relevant:
“What happens in you right now when faced with the challenges?”
“What would happen if some things don’t actually have a deeper meaning? Would you be able to live with it? If not, how come?”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a typical American “cheerleader” statement where one is cheering on the unshakable individual. “You will make it!” The reality is that many of us face situations that are so horrible that our capacities become reduced for the rest of our lives. Does anyone not know at least one person who on their life’s journey has encountered such great challenges that they lost contact with much of their inner resources? Should we then say “you have become stronger from this”? Or should the person be allowed to retain the power of definition with regards to their own life? Perhaps such statements are often motivated by a fear of being reminded of our own fragility?
Some people become so damaged by difficult incidents that they enter deep, lasting psychiatric conditions where they don’t function. Should we then say “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Some people die by suicide or kill other people. Should we then say “This is terrible, but it’s part of a plan for the expansion of consciousness on this planet?” The incidents weren’t comprehensible based on what actually happened, but it makes sense in a very large perspective that most of us don’t live in? Does this help us in our human experience, bound in time and space? Isn’t it rather a dissociation – an escape from body, thoughts, emotions, and our very human sense of self?
Time Is Not the Answer
More time doesn’t necessarily make life more manageable. If seen from a larger time frame, present incidents may perhaps seem meaningful but they could just as well seem meaningless. Why not rather realize that for the rest of our lives, we will have to deal with both meaning and meaninglessness?
I often genuinely wish that life could be easier. At the same time, I have recognized that my quality of life improves when I deal with things as they seemingly are as opposed to drawing contrived, premature conclusions about their meaning and causal relationships. I have much greater access to my full intelligence if I can stay with the uncertainty for a while, and let potential deeper connections reveal themselves rather than make them up. Our experience of life is created in a dynamic relationship between thesis and antithesis: chaos and order, meaning and meaninglessness. The better I can “dance” with this—through a combination of discipline and surrender—the happier and more fulfilled I am.
Causality and Primitive Logic
In every situation, there are hundreds of known and unknown factors involved. The fact that two factors coincide in time and space does not mean that one caused the other. The following is an example of a primitive understanding of causal relationships: “I had many negative thoughts during the last few days, therefore I had a car accident”. Usually, this will be far too simple. It can also easily become a “child’s logic” where everything that happens revolves around oneself.
This kind of distorted understanding of causal relationships can also be found in the scientific domain. I met a psychologist who said: “Do you know what a thought is? It is just electricity in the brain”. The seeming premise is that because measurable signals in certain parts of the brain appear simultaneously with certain thoughts, the signals must therefore be “the thought itself”. This is far too simplistic. Additionally, there could exist several other parallel parameters related to the thought, which we’re not yet able to measure with the present technology. These are big questions that I think we should relate to from a more spacious frame of mind.
Owning One’s Own Cruelty
When we experience incidents as being meaningless or incomprehensible and we’re taken aback with horror, it’s often because other people—or perhaps institutions—have done something that appears insensitive, disrespectful, cruel, etc. These labels may often be very valid. At the same time, much of the shock and suffering may arise because we haven’t recognized that we have these inclinations also in ourselves – even if primarily in a latent form. If we insist on only being heart-centered, positive, accepting, etc, we will be very disturbed when facing the opposite, whether in ourselves or in the external.
Within safe contexts, I have deeply explored my own darkness, such as rage, hatred, or a wish to kill or inflict damage or suffering. I have found much peace and reconciliation through this acknowledgment and exploration. I can still be upset when I hear about cruel actions, but I start to get used to the fact that the potential for cruelty lives in all of us and that such incidents are not likely to disappear from this planet during my lifetime. It starts to settle in me that it is more constructive to take charge of my own life rather than waiting for the external world to become perfect as a prerequisite for fulfillment and meaning in my own life.
Relatively Inherent Meaning
While many “spiritual” people find magical explanations as to how everything has a meaning, many people are using “science” to explain that nothing has a meaning or purpose. It makes the most sense to me to see both extremes as dangerous and to acknowledge that life contains both meaning and meaninglessness.
If one wants to be very argumentative, one could say with a certain validity that nothing has inherent meaning or value. For example: “If I offer a hug, some people will like it and some will not like it – thus, a hug does not have inherent value.” The example is trivial, but regardless of what action or situation we choose to analyze, it will be possible to imagine a context where there is an exception. Then one may victoriously assert “nothing has inherent meaning or value”.
One could just as well focus on the opposite; many things usually have inherent value. For example, I would claim that most people on a deeper level have a need for the following:
• experiencing a degree of psychological and material security and predictability
• food, clothes, a place to live
• a need for challenges, uncertainty, and new possibilities
• a good balance between independence and belonging
• creative expression
How these needs are met varies greatly, depending on the individual, the physical environment one is located in, political and social factors, etc. It’s also likely that one may find a few people who don’t have all the above-mentioned needs. There may also be much variation in terms of which needs we emphasize the most. Regardless, our body and mind seemingly have a very strong, inherent preference for survival. One may therefore assert that survival is inherently meaningful. One may, on the other hand, use the counter-argument that the body is also capable of preparing for its own death when the time or situation requires it.
My point is that while we can seemingly identify a number of universal elements when it comes to basic human needs, these also exist in a relative context and there will be some exceptions. From this perspective, arguing for the extremes of absolute inherent meaning versus no inherent meaning is reduced to a tiresome philosophical discussion for those who have nothing better to do.
There are also many levels of meaning. Some meaning is found through thinking and by understanding phenomena through a conceptual framework. Other times, we may experience an immediately felt meaning simply from being alive, for example when walking in nature or spontaneously feeling called to dance. These experiences do not last, but they can be subjectively very important and significant.
Deep Respect For Our Need to Make Sense of Things
With this article, I don’t intend to deride or devalue the various things many people do in order to create a sense of meaning. Many of us go through a number of different stages in life where certain things appear meaningful. What may seem valuable at one stage may be relatively insignificant in another. Many of the things we believe in and are occupied with are based on illusion when viewed from the perspective of a higher level of consciousness. Yet, these activities, attitudes, and belief systems may paradoxically be important stepping stones on the path to deeper understanding. Some things are also less illusory than others; it depends on personality, perspective, and level.
We are too fragile to simply discard everything we know and realize a state beyond our limited personality. It doesn’t usually work like that. For most of us, the path toward greater psychological and spiritual realization is a gradual process where we need many different tools along the way. The Buddha supposedly said something along these lines: “If you need to cross a lake, it will be useful to have a boat. But you don’t need to carry the boat with you when you have come to the other shore”. What may be helpful for us on certain parts of our journey may later become a hindrance to going further if we can’t let go of it. An understanding of the different levels on our journey enables us to relate with more openness, flexibility, and acceptance toward differences, without simultaneously saying that everything is equally valid. This understanding is an antidote to the extremes of absolute meaning versus absolute meaninglessness.
This article has previously been published in Norwegian in the printed journal Magasinet Visjon (www.magasinetvisjon.no).
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