The Futility of the Search for Meaning

soul sm

“Incarnation is nothing more than a thought. A thousand incarnations are but a thousand thoughts. And this amazing miracle of a mirage we call the world reappears as it was before, but now you know. That’s why you usually have a good laugh, because you realize that all your struggles were made up. You conjured them up out of nothing — with a thought that was linked to another thought, that was then believed, that linked to another thought that was then believed. But never could it have been true, not for a second could it have actually existed. Not ever could you have actually suffered for a reason that was true — only through an imagination, good, bad, indifferent. The intricacies of spiritual philosophy and theologies are just a thought within Emptiness.”


First off, we need to remember that, in regard to any proposition, doctrine, principle, or belief, it is all conceptual – all of it. Those who suggest otherwise are merely conceptualizing. It is what the human brain does. Any and all meaning is dependent on various applicable conditioning factors which the brain sorts out into concepts and then superimposes on experience after the fact.

Of course, we are not the brain, but that remarkable organ does come in handy as long as we are appearing in these skin suits. Without the conceptual faculty, we’d be pretty helpless in terms of navigating the objective world. The popular strategy propounded by the various esoteric wisdom schools of “going beyond concepts” is itself a concept, and really only relevant at a specific level of spiritual endeavor in which one has exhausted the intellectual component of the search.

In the meantime, why try to escape concepts? All we need do is see them for what they are and discard them when they have served their purpose. They are props in the play on a make-believe stage — that is all. It’s only when we start to take our thoughts seriously, creating belief structures that in turn imply an actual enduring and independent self, that we run into problems.

What the truly wise do is inspect the whole mechanism, eventually recognizing that there is a space between thoughts. In that space, there is no person, no self, no meaning or lack thereof, and no requirement that there even be such fantasies of the imagination. Indeed, from that aware spaciousness, things are revealed to be just what they are, without any conceptual designations whatsoever. It’s the natural state, but it seems just the opposite for those addicted to the search for some meaning to add to it, an endeavor comparable to painting legs on a snake.

As for myself, irrespective of whatever temporary states, views, emotions, experiences, imaginations, or subtle perceptions arise in the course of life, I have never been able to separate myself from that mystical condition of being essentially clueless in regard to any and all of them. This recognition took a while to sink in, but it is frankly undeniable.

Certainly, I could usually grab a handy concept in retrospect and superimpose it on the field of chaos that passes for this human experience, and it might have even made some eccentric sense. I might have even paused in awe at the pseudo-clarity that this ingenious mind can conjure up from its impressive storehouse of self-confirming interpretations on filtered perceptions, despite the fact that a frog in a well knows nothing about the birds in the sky.

If we’re fortunate, we realize sooner rather than later that all of our cherished spiritual notions and elegant philosophical insights are essentially a big pile of steaming mush, and then we either shut up, or else, if we’re devilishly compelled, we may start scribbling poetry.

Regardless, and to the point: that famously perpetual search for meaning, so earnestly celebrated and/or pursued by the philosophers, internet gurus, and mid-life crisis enthusiasts — who said we actually needed such a ponderous thing? Did it do any of them any enduring good – the meaning makers — to have some reassuring meaning? Were they able to re-direct the fluids swishing about in their neural viaducts in such a way that simply taking another breath amounted to something more significant than a reflexive impersonal automaticity?

And what’s the harvest from that great endeavor, that noble quest for meaning? An endless circus of competing personal, religious, and political belief systems, rife with war and conflict, all beginning when we think we know something, and then convince ourselves of its unassailable import and meaning. Those who think that they know something usually tend to be contentious, especially when their assumed knowledge is challenged by a contrary “knower” with their own competing arsenal of meanings.

The truly humble ones don’t habitually find themselves in conflict, because they’ve done the due diligence necessary to ultimately recognize that they don’t know, and so they have no complaint, nothing to defend or leave home to go to war for, and certainly no presumption of attainment in the meaning-making department. As Tulku Urgyen noted: “When we realize that all the achievements of the six realms of samsara are futile, insubstantial, and meaningless, we lose our appetite for them.”

It’s only when we think we know something — that we are in possession of some particular meaning that in turn demands assertion and protection — that things get testy. We can get pretty reactive when our carefully constructed meanings are challenged, is it not so? After all, our meanings are often essential to our self-images, and despite our grafted-on spiritual idealism to the contrary, those colorful stories of fascinating “me” won’t go down without a fight (or flight)!

Granting our personal story some sense of fanciful meaning often leads to a humorless sense of self-importance, which in turn requires a lot of care and feeding. Furthermore, defending our personal sense of meaning implies taking offense at anyone who might challenge said cherished meaning, and so we set ourselves up for a life of being offended by this, that, or the other.

If somebody or some collection of somebodies is moved to bicker and fuss about whether the so-called ego is an illusion or not, whether we are going to be annihilated or ascended or not, whether one religion or political party is superior to another or not, or whether enlightenment is a many splendored thing or not, let them have at it. Really, what concern is it of ours?

Nevertheless, most of us chronically go about the business of manufacturing and modifying meanings morning, noon, and night, like little cranial factories that never shut down for the week-end so that everyone can rest, and maybe have a little meaningless fun on Saturday Night.

Moreover, when one meaning is outgrown and discarded, we are quick to find another with which to carry on the facade of security and pretense. Heaven forbid we find ourselves with a spare moment unburdened by some arbitrary and self-confirming “meaningfulness” in our lives!

On the other hand, we need not go to an extreme and make “meaning” the bad guy. If one feels the need to tote around a little meaning in their lives, they could do a lot worse than follow this excellent pointer offered by our old friend Rumi: “Nothing is meaningful except surrendering to love. Do it.”

Those who claim that the only reason for living is to get out of life as fast as possible actually have it backwards. In their amnesia, they seem to forget that this world is a stage filled with magical props, we are the actors playing all the roles, and moreover – we chose this adventure ourselves.

In the shock of human embodiment, just about everyone forgets that the reason they incarnate here in the first place is precisely to have this human experience, in whatever form it might take, and that is its meaning, its purpose — simply to be here, as it is, as we are. Nothing need be added to that, and there is no need to run off chasing some ideal of “liberation” from life when we still haven’t come to terms with who and what we are, right here and now.

Moreover, the surest way to insure that we will be returned again and again to this classroom is to harbor and fuel some notion of escaping life. Such an attitude will merely indicate that we have not yet been able to properly appreciate the gift and invitation this circumstance represents —  an opportunity to plumb our own depths and discover what kind of stuff we’re made of, when apparently left on our own in the midst of the Unknown.

For reasons as varied as there are humans, we wanted this, we came to enjoy this creative human experience, and that is enough. That is the gift — just to have this, be this, live this. Any meaning we might attribute to any of it is a product of our own choosing, fabricated from our own intention and attention. We are not victims of reality — it is we who grant reality to any and all of it.

Joseph Campbell, in “The Power of Myth”, made a good point when he wrote: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

The truly free are those who recognize that their freedom is not elsewhere, dependent upon some hopeful, imaginary future circumstance where they can at last exhale and disappear. Meaning or meaninglessness, self or not-self, liberated or bound — all such notions are for the ones who still rely on the logic, reason, and propaganda of man-made religions and philosophies to account for their appearance, and so they build and fortify their own prisons, and wage a war within themselves, because none of that truly satisfies.

After years of ambivalent effort expended on trying to figure it out, I let go of that struggle and realized that I already am and have always been — just as I am – the meaning of myself, with no need or motive to look elsewhere, or to add or subtract anything from whatever that might be.

Instead, I find that I’d rather just stand in the resonant silence of this awesome mystery, let the sky breathe through me, the wind and sun and rain pour through me, the irresistible call of love draw me into its consuming embrace— all without any demand for some contrived meaning to momentarily pacify the monkey mind.

When it comes right down to it, both meaning and any lack thereof are both flimsy fantasies of interpretation that are arbitrarily superimposed on life — dreamy smoke rings drifting through space on another Saturday Night in timelessness, dissolving in the same emptiness from which they emerged, an emptiness more beautiful, more radiant and true, than any words could say.

smoke rings

“Everybody is trying to understand the meaning of all this. You are not understanding because you have all the swaddling clothes of “I-am-this-or-that.” Remove them. The ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understand, so when we try to understand, we are only indulging in the acrobatics of mind.

Whatever spiritual things you aspire to know are all happening in this objective world, in the illusion; all your activities, material and spiritual, are in this illusion; all your activities. All this is happening in the objective world, all is dishonesty, there is no truth is this fraud.”

 ~Sri Nisargadatta


About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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37 Responses to The Futility of the Search for Meaning

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    “It is a double perspective: one understands both the conventional and ultimate without being attached to either one. This is because one sees how meaning exists by virtue of a relative opposite: meaninglessness. In the absence of meaning, there is no substantial non-meaning to cling to either. One stands nowhere like empty space. This transcended perspective is where the path of language is cut away, and actually leads to a very active bodhisattva path rather than nihilism if properly achieved. Affirmation of a negative is as problematic as affirmation of a positive. Both are views, and all views are to be abandoned.”

    ~Shakya Indrajala

  2. marcel says:

    Thanks for the good laugh Brother, especially the little ‘private’ peek
    Wei Wu Wei comes to mind,
    “Reality alone exists – and that we are. All the rest is only a dream, a dream of the One Mind, which is our mind without the ‘our’. Is it so hard to accept? Is it so difficult to assimilate and to live? ”

    It’s all good 😀

    • Bob OHearn says:

      Thank you, Brother!

      Love Wei Wu Wei — here’s my favorite quote from him:

      “The ocean moves, not because it wishes to move
      or because it knows that it is wise or good:
      it moves involuntarily, unconscious of movement.
      It is thus that you also will return to Tao,
      and when you have returned, you will not know it,
      because you yourself would have become Tao.”


  3. says:

    Thank you for your continued gifts, Bob. They are so very helpful ans I at least love them 🙂


  4. Bob OHearn says:

    Q: In all the universe is there one single thing of value?

    M: Yes, the power of love.

    ~From “I Am That”, Dialogues with Nisargadatta Maharaj

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “The world is but a show, glittering and empty. It is, and yet is not. It is there as long as I want to see it and take part in it. When I cease caring, it dissolves. It has no cause and serves no purpose. It just happens when we are absent­minded. It appears exactly as it looks, but there is no depth in it, nor meaning. Only the onlooker is real. Call him Self or Atma. To the Self the world is but a colourful show, which he enjoys as long as it lasts and forgets when it is over. Whatever happens on the stage makes him shudder in terror or roll with laughter, yet all the time he is aware that it is but a show. Without desire or fear he enjoys it, as it happens.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    The purpose of being born
    is fulfilled in the state
    between “I am”
    and “That.”

    – Lalla

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “The truly learned men do not look at any happenings in the outer world as if they are real. They have no residue of feeling that outer things are real, or that one day they will be useful. Unless one feels that worldly appearances are not true, one’s attention will turn towards them. It is only when one feels that the objective world is true, and that today or some other day, it will be useful to oneself or to others, that one is attracted to the world appearance. The one who realizes the Essence and does not have any concept that objective will be useful today or any time, is the real Jnani who is truly beneficial.”

    ~ Siddharameshwar Maharaj

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “The pathless path is the path always under our feet and since that path is always beneath us, if we miss it, how stupid!”


  9. Bob OHearn says:

    “As soon as you look at the world through an ideology you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that. … That is why people are always searching for a meaning to life… Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning. Life only makes sense when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.”

    ~Anthony de Mello

  10. Bob OHearn says:

    The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream

    “And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.”

  11. Bob OHearn says:


    There are many windows through
    which we can look out into the
    world, searching for meaning …

    … Most of us, when we ponder on the
    meaning of our existence,
    peer through but one of these
    windows onto the world.
    And even that one is often misted over
    by the breath of our finite humanity.

    We clear a tiny peephole and stare through.

    No wonder we are confused by the
    tiny fraction of a whole that we see.

    It is, after all, like trying to
    comprehend the panorama of the
    desert or the sea through
    a rolled-up newspaper.

    ~Dr. Jane Goodall

  12. Bob OHearn says:

    Our minds may believe that we need subtle and complex spiritual teachings to guide us to Reality, but we do not.

    In fact, the more complex the teaching is, the easier it is for the mind to hide from itself amidst the complexity while imagining that it is advancing toward enlightenment. But it is often only advancing in creating more and more intricate circles to walk around and around in.

    The indispensable element of any spiritual teaching does not lie in the teaching but rather in the sincerity and fearlessness of the person who applies it. Even though at times you may feel quite lost in your own foolishness, as William Blake said, “A fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

    Think of spiritual practice as a sort of “applied folly.”

    ~ Adyashanti

  13. Bob OHearn says:

    “My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life.”

    ~ Charlotte Joko Beck

  14. Bob OHearn says:

    “Listen, there’s something I must tell. I’ve never, never seen it so clearly. But it doesn’t matter a bit if you don’t understand, because each one of you is quite perfect as you are, even if you don’t know it. Life is basically a gesture, but no one, no thing, is making it. There is no necessity for it to happen, and none for it to go on happening. For it isn’t being driven by anything; it just happens freely of itself. It’s a gesture of motion, of sound, of color, and just as no one is making it, it isn’t happening to anyone. There is simply no problem of life; it is completely purposeless play – exuberance which is its own end. Basically there is the gesture. Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. There is no reason whatever to explain it, for explanations are just another form of complexity, a new manifestation of life on top of life, of gestures gesturing. Pain and suffering are simply extreme forms of play, and there isn’t anything in the whole universe to be afraid of because it doesn’t happen to anyone! There isn’t any substantial ego at all. The ego is a kind of flip, a knowing of knowing, a fearing of fearing. It’s a curlicue, an extra jazz to experience, a sort of double-take or reverberation, a dithering of consciousness which is the same as anxiety.”

    ~ Alan Watts (The Joyous Cosmology)

  15. Bob OHearn says:

    “Recently, I was asked to contribute a short piece on my take on the meaning of life. I wanted to share it here, with all of you as well. So, are you ready for the super serious answer to this all important question? Here we go:

    The meaning of life? In other words, “Why are we here”? To eat chocolate, of course! Why else?

    I know you think I’m kidding, but I’m actually not. Well…..ok, we’re also here to watch glorious sunsets, to make love with our beloved, to laugh heartily, to love fearlessly, to live life fully and with abandon, and to do all the things that bring us joy.

    So if it’s really that simple, then why are so many of us living joyless lives? I believe it’s because we make it more complicated than it needs to be. Most of us, myself included, have at one time or another, bought into beliefs that tell us we need to do more, be more, work harder, be better. We buy into the fear that we’re not good enough the way we are and we need to do whatever it takes to get ahead of everyone else because there isn’t enough to go around. So we get on this treadmill, constantly trying to get ahead of the person in front of us. Except the person in front of us is doing exactly the same thing, trying to get ahead of the person in front of them!

    Ironically, many of us are like that even in our spiritual practices, believing that spirituality needs to be pursued, and we need to work at it harder, meditate longer, or read more, to be more spiritual than the next person! Like there isn’t enough spirituality to go around! LOL! 😊

    That kind of spiritual belief is driven by fear, not love. Fear of not being spiritual enough, as opposed to a knowing that we already are spiritual beings, whether we realize it or not, and that we already are everything we are trying to attain.

    It wasn’t until I died that I understood this. I was suffering from what should have been the final stages of lymphatic cancer, when my organs shut down and I went into a coma. I was at death’s door, and the doctors told my family that I wasn’t coming back. However, while in the coma, I experienced what I would call an “awakening” – also called a “near death experience”. During this state, I realized that I had my priorities wrong and had spent a lifetime trying to be something that I’m not.

    Death made me reevaluate what is actually important in life. When we don’t realize this—that death is the ultimate leveler—our priorities are very different. But once we have a glimpse of it and actually experience it and bring that feeling back with us, we realize: Wow! All these things that I thought mattered actually have no significance on the other side! It rearranges all our priorities in life—how we live, how we deal with our emotions, everything.

    Having already faced death, I now know that spending a lifetime of always playing it safe, for example, by choosing the safest career, by pleasing people, worrying about what everyone else thinks of me, meeting everyone else’s expectations except my own, being what everyone else wanted me to be, etc. felt like a totally wasted life. I feel so blessed to have been given a second chance, because most people don’t get to come back when they learn that lesson. This time, I plan to pursue my dreams, love more, laugh more, not take life so seriously, and live fearlessly.

    Our life is our prayer. It’s our gift to the universe. We owe to ourselves and everyone around us to be happy and spread that joy around.

    Chocolates, anyone?”

    ~Anita Moorjani

  16. Bob OHearn says:

    “All meanings in samsara are just like a dream. They have no true inherent existence and arise only as the display of pure awareness. When one fails to understand appearances as merely the display of pure awareness and identifies them as arising from self, i.e. self-identifies with them, then they become the experience of samsara.”

    ~~ Yangthang Rinpoche

  17. Bob OHearn says:

    “Human life has no meaning, no reason and no choice, but we have our practice to help us understand our true self. Then, we can change no meaning to Great Meaning, which means Great Love. We can change no reason to Great Reason, which means Great Compassion. Finally we can change no choice to Great Choice, which means Great Vow and Bodhisattva Way.”

    ~Zen Master Seung Sahn

  18. Bob OHearn says:

    “The life game is to penetrate into the essence of all being and significance and to release the fragrance of that inner attainment for the guidance and benefit of others-by expressing in the world of forms, truth, love, purity, and beauty -this is the sole game which has intrinsic and absolute worth. All other happenings, incidents and attainments in themselves can have no lasting importance.”

    ~Meher Baba, from the book Discourses

  19. Bob OHearn says:

    “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning.” ~ Joseph Campbell

  20. Bob OHearn says:

    “Everybody is trying to understand the meaning of all this. . . . The ultimate point of view is that there is nothing to understand, so when we try to understand, we are only indulging in the acrobats of mind.”

    Sri Nisargadatta

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