Voices 4: VOICES OF MEANING
It is the beginning of the second meeting of the philosophical practice workshop. The participants are eager to hear what philosophical theories Linda has prepared for today.
Linda shakes her head. "If you are interested in philosophical theories, then you should go to the university and take philosophy courses."
"I am serious. In Philo-Sophia, philosophical theories are never a bottom line. They are a ladder to climb on, a step on the way. We examine them, we see their power and inner logic, and then we go beyond them. Because our goal is to be much more than any theory. Our aim is to be children of a broader reality."
Now Linda smiles, and her voice becomes lighter.
"Today," she announces, "we will philosophize by drawing. We will draw our philosophical understandings."
"Draw?" "A philosophical drawing?" "You want us to draw our ideas?"
"Sometimes a drawing can express more than words. A drawing can give voice to a different understanding inside us that comes from a different part of our being. But first let me say a few words to explain what we will be doing."
Linda explains that the topic of today's workshop will be meaningful experiences.
"Are you talking about the meaning of life?" Ruth asks.
"No, that question is too big for us. Philosophers sometimes distinguish between 'the meaning OF life' and 'meaning IN life'. The first is about life as a whole: What is the purpose of my life? What is life for? But we want to look at simple moments WITHIN life, at everyday experiences. So let's talk about meaningful actions or situations, like a meaningful conversation, or a meaningful decision, or a book that was meaningful to you."
"What do you mean by 'meaningful'?" Michael interrupts her.
"I don't want to give a definition, because I want to leave the concept open for investigation. But generally speaking, we can think about 'meaningful' as more or less synonymous with 'significant' or 'it made a difference to me', as opposed to 'trivial' or 'insignificant' or 'unimportant'. So our question today is: What makes an experience meaningful? When does a situation become significant to me?"
Linda now asks the participants to recall recent situations which they found meaningful. "Let's hear a few of them, to make sure that we are on the same wavelength."
Annette is the first to describe her experience. She tells the group about a meaningful decision she reached after many hesitations.
Phillip describes a meaningful conversation with his brother, in which they discussed some hard feelings between them.
John describes how, in the middle of a bitter argument with his girlfriend, he suddenly understood something important about himself.
Angela describes a music performance which she gave, and which was important to her.
"Very good," Linda says. "So far you have described specific examples. Can you now go deeper and try to understand WHY these situations were meaningful to you? What was it about Annette's decision that made it a meaningful moment? What made Phillip's conversation with his brother more significant than other conversations?"
"You are asking," Ruth said, "what makes a meaningful moment meaningful."
"Exactly. I'd like you to examine the experiences you chose and see what made them as meaningful as they were. But I don't want to hear your answer in words. I want you to draw it."
Linda gives each participant a sheet of paper and puts some color pencils in the middle of the circle. "Please draw the meaningful situation you have in mind, and try to express in what way it was meaningful. You can do it in an abstract drawing, in a figurative drawing, or in any way you want. But please don't write any words on the paper. Only lines and shapes."
For ten minutes the participants are busy drawing. Linda walks between them and looks at their work. When they finish, everybody gathers together.
"Phillip, your drawing caught my eye. Would you like to show it to the group?"
Phillip shows his drawing of the meaningful conversation he had had with his brother.
"These two rivers," he explains, "start at the bottom of the page, and they go towards the top of the page. They represent me and my brother. As you can see, at the bottom of the page we are distant from each other. This was the situation between us before the conversation. And here is our conversation," he points to the middle of the page where the two rivers turn towards each other. "After the conversation, as you can see in the upper part of the page, the two rivers are closer together."
"I noticed," Linda comments, "that at the bottom of the page the two rivers are turbulent, with many waves - does this represent anger?" Phillip agrees, and she continues. "Because it's interesting that after the conversation your two rivers remain just as turbulent as before. It seems that the conversation did not change your anger. Was this your experience of the conversation?"
"Hmm, interesting… I wasn't aware of this … It's true that the problems between us were not resolved. The same disagreements and anger remained."
"In other words," Linda says, "the conversation was meaningful to you not because it solved problems, but because of something else."
Phillip nods, but John interrupts him. "There's something else in your drawing: The two rivers never touch each other anywhere on the page, even during the conversation."
Phillip looks at his drawing thoughtfully. "Well, I guess you are right. My brother and I still feel distant from each other. The old tension between us still exists."
"And yet," Linda says, "you say that the conversation was meaningful. What was meaningful about it?"
"The fact that we became aware of the tension, of the differences between us, of the anger. We can no longer pretend that they don't exist."
"It sounds to me, Phillip, that you are saying that this conversation was meaningful because it made you aware of the problems between you. This is an interesting conception of meaningfulness: To be aware of the truth is meaningful. It would be good to explore this in more detail."
Then the other participants show their drawings, and similar conversations follow. At the end of the long discussion Lisa says, "Now that we have a deeper understanding of our own conceptions of meaning, let's have a look at the theories of several interesting thinkers."
CHARLES TAYLOR - MEANING AS PART OF A 'HORIZON'
A general perspective on the nature of meaning is offered by the contemporary Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. In his book "The Ethics of Authenticity" he notes that we cannot decide arbitrarily what would be significant to us. I cannot simply decide that from now on I will find meaning in drawing circles on the sand, or in copying numbers from the telephone book.
Of course, it is possible to imagine a way of life in which drawing circles on the sand is meaningful. For example, if in my worldview a circle is a symbol of perfection; if drawing a circle allows me to connect to it and to participate in perfection; if I regard perfection as the pinnacle of existence, and so on and so on - then we can understand how drawing circles on the sand might be a significant action to me.
This shows that an action can be meaningful only if it is part of a worldview - a network of beliefs and values - which gives meaning to this action. What makes an experience meaningful is that it is part of a 'horizon' that makes sense of this experience and gives it its value.
Meaning, therefore, depends not just on our subjective tastes and feelings, but also - and most importantly - on our worldview. Meaning is based on our way of understanding the world, and as such it can be discussed, questioned, and supported by reasons.
ALBERT CAMUS - TO EXPERIENCE MORE
In his "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus, the 20th century French Existentialist, asks whether life is worth living. Although we are not discussing the meaning of life but rather the meaning of specific actions within life, nevertheless a certain element in his discussion is relevant here.
For Camus, the world as we experience it is 'absurd' - devoid of meaning and values. Theories and doctrines about God, the afterlife, morality and meaning are mere speculations. The only thing we know for sure, the only thing we can rely on, is what we experience directly.
This means that it makes no sense to make a value-judgment about my actions. What matters is not whether my action is noble or vulgar, good or bad, but that it allows me to have direct experiences of life. What counts is whether the action gives me the only thing that I know exists: life-experiences. Thus, the important thing is not 'better experiences' but 'more experiences': a larger variety of experiences which I experience fully, consciously, passionately.
In short, we can say that an action is significant if it gives me new and powerful experiences, if it allows me to experience life more fully and passionately.
ERICH FROMM - OVERCOMING OUR ISOLATION
In his book "The Art of Loving" Erich Fromm, an influential humanistic psychologist, explains that our central need is to overcome our isolation. Our self-awareness makes us aware that we are separate entities, separate from nature, separate from other human beings, and separable from our loved ones because of death or other uncontrollable circumstances.
This creates in us a tremendous anxiety, which Fromm describes as the root of all anxieties. Consequently, we are constantly trying, in a variety of ways, to overcome our separateness by connecting to others and to the world. Some of these ways are destructive: conformity with the group, for example, or fusion with a nationalistic ideology, or distorted relationships of dependence and loss of self. They are destructive because through them we lose our personal freedom and identity.
But other ways of overcoming our separateness are deeply meaningful: creativity connects us to worlds beyond ourselves; true friendship and true love connect us to other people. These are meaningful experiences to the extent that they allow us to transcend our boundaries, while at the same time to preserve - and even enhance - our integrity and personal identity. In real love we actively express our capacity to give from the center of our being, thus expressing our personal potency and our individuality.
From this perspective, meaningful experiences are those in which we overcome our separateness without losing our identity. Indeed, Fromm says that one of the most meaningful and exhilarating experiences of life is when the wall between me and another person breaks down, and we feel togetherness and union.
WILLIAM JAMES - THE STRUGGLE FOR AN IDEAL
In his lecture "What makes life significant" William James, the 19-20th century American psychologist and philosopher, argues against two conceptions of meaning. On the one hand, he rejects the view that a meaningful situation is one in which our needs are satisfied. After all, when we have everything we need physically and spiritually, with no struggle or difficulty, then life is boring and empty. On the other hand, James also rejects the view, which he attributes to Tolstoy, that every struggle and hardship is necessarily meaningful. James reasons that a hardship that is not directed at any goal or ideal is pointless and dull. It is significant only if it has a purpose.
Thus, a meaningful situation is characterized by two elements: First, it contains a struggle, persistence, determination. Second, it also contains an ideal towards which the struggle is directed. James is talking here not only about dramatic struggles for glorious ideals, but also mundane struggles for better living conditions, for success at work, etc.
The inner attitude involved in such a struggle is explained in James' discussion of the will (in his series "Psychology: a briefer course"). James explains that normally all kinds of ideas in our mind activate our behavior. However, in a meaningful struggle we keep a specific idea in our mind with the effort of attention. We hold on to this idea and thus overcome our tendency to choose easier, safer, more comfortable paths. This makes our struggle heroic, and thus meaningful.
A meaningful action therefore involves a struggle of mental effort - an effort to fix our attention on an ideal, and to disregard other distracting ideas, such as those expressing doubt, fear, or laziness.
Now Linda concludes today's activity. "One reason I told you about the four theories was to help you think more deeply about your own conception of meaningful situations.
"But I also hoped that you would realize that your personal way of understanding meaning is not the only way. There are many different ways of understanding, many different 'voices of meaning' that can speak in our lives. And if you really open yourself to them, not just theoretically but personally, you will no longer take for granted your usual conception, your normal private 'theory'. In fact, you will lose confidence in any theory. Because you will realize that each of those theories is reasonable in its own way, each one makes sense, each one expresses a real 'voice' in life - and yet they are so different and often even contradictory!"
"But why do you want to confuse us like this?" Annette wonders.
"In order to realize how we take for granted our personal 'theories'. Usually we identify ourselves with them, we follow them automatically without thinking, often without awareness. As a result we are stuck in patterns of behavior, of emotion, of thinking. The little lecture I gave you was an invitation to 'listen' to other 'voices' of human reality."
"Are you suggesting," Angela asks, "that we should free ourselves from all our conceptions and patterns?"
Linda shakes her head. "I don't think we can. We are human beings, flesh and blood. There are limits to our ability to change our biological tendencies and our psychological patterns and our social programming. The point of Philosophical Practice is not to make us super-human. We are not trying to abolish our patterns of understanding, but rather to look beyond them. The point is to open in us an awareness to the larger horizons of reality. You can call it 'the additional dimension', or simply 'wisdom'."
"The additional dimension?" Michael wonders. "Additional to what?"
"Additional to our ordinary attitudes, to our usual states of mind. After all, with or without philosophy, we will continue to live our normal everyday life, with our familiar emotions and emotional patterns, with our likes and dislikes, with our old preferences and anxieties and hopes. You can call this 'the psychological dimension'. Philosophical Practice doesn't try to change this dimension."
"Are you saying," John asks, "that we shouldn't try to change ourselves for the better?"
"By all means, change yourself as much as you can, why not? It might help you to read inspirational books, or go to a psychotherapist, or do yoga and meditation. My point is that this is not the role of Philosophical Practice."
"So what's left for Philosophical Practice to do?"
"Its goal is wisdom, in other words, to develop the additional dimension. This is an awareness that is open to all the different 'theories', that listens to the many voices of reality, much beyond our limited psychological boundaries."
"It's like the eye of the hippopotamus, isn't it? The hippopotamus is under water, but its eyes peep above the water. They can see broader horizons."
Linda smiles. "Nice metaphor, John. You could also say: In one sense we remain ourselves, but on another dimension we become greater than ourselves."
"It sounds nice," Annette says. "But how do I do it in practice?"
"A good point," says Linda. "Here is a little exercise that will give us a taste of this additional dimension: During the coming week try to be aware of meaningful moments, like the ones we have discussed today. Notice the kinds of meaning that appear in those moments.
"But at the same time try to look BEYOND your usual conceptions of meaning, beyond your ordinary 'theories'. Your goal is to experience - not to analyze but to experience - those moments from the perspective of a variety of theories of meaning.
"For instance, if reading books is usually meaningful to you, then try to experience the reading from the perspective of Camus, for example, or of Fromm. Or, if normally you find significance in passionate moments, perhaps like Camus, then try to experience these moments from the perspective of what Annette or Phillip told us today. In short, try to experience your everyday moments from different perspectives."
"But can we really do this? I am afraid that after a minute I will slide back to my usual attitude."
"Of course, Phillip. On one level we will continue to experience things just as always. But in our additional awareness we will also take part in other perspectives beyond our usual 'theories'. We will be in the moment, but also beyond the moment. We will be enclosed in our usual patterns, but we will also 'hear' other voices of meaning.
"For me, this is the heart of Philosophical Practice: to realize that I am more than my familiar small self. To be in my awareness beyond the boundary of my limited psychological patterns, and to listen to the many voices of human reality."