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“Finding a purpose to life is man’s primary motivational force.” writes Dr. Victor E Frankl in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. Dr. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist endured years of horror in Nazi death camps, by finding something worthwhile to live for.

This article is about meaning.

What role does it play in our lives? Where does it come from? How do we find it? Does it change over time? Do we define it or does it define us?

I have two choices.

Choice one. Explore these questions from a variety of intellectual perspectives.

Choice two. Explore the lives of few people I know, including myself, to see how these questions on meaning and purpose have unfolded in their lives.

The people whose lives I will explore are real people. I know them. However, the dialogues, settings and names are fictional. The idea is to bring forth the meaningful essence of each person, as I have experienced them, not so much to reproduce accurate data.

Let’s hear what they have to say.

The Corporate Achiever

I met Neeta during a work assignment.

I was conducting interviews to understand the organization by meeting a few employees. It was the last interview of a tiring day. As she walked into the room, I noticed her tight fitting black trouser and plain white corporate shirt.  Hair tied in a bun and eyes tired after a long days work. We shook hands and I explained to her that there was no structure for the interview. She could start by sharing about her background and then about her work, colleagues and future aspirations. She picked the glass of water lying on the table, took a sip, and after a pause started sharing.

“I come from a small town in Gujarat. My father was a school teacher and my mother a housewife. I am the only daughter. I have two brothers, one elder and the other younger. Right since my childhood, I was a go getter. I did well in school and never let anyone take me for granted. It wasn’t easy, since men were always given preferential treatment.

I had a great desire to prove myself. I still do. It is like an aggressive energy driving me forward. For me it meant going to the city, getting a high paying job and being in a senior position of a corporation. Which I did. The first time I came to Mumbai was to study. I joined an Art school, since I was quite creative. However, I was clear that I had to get a corporate job. It is my ambition to be the head of an organization. I took up this job of heading the creative department of a publishing company. I have worked for seven years here, however I realize if I have to grow then I have to be in business development. Selling is at the forefront of any organization and if one has to grow, one needs to be able to get more business. Soon I will move to the sales team.”

“What about your relations with your colleagues and your future plans?” I inquired. “They say I am short tempered. I agree. At times I loose my temper, but then I cannot tolerate mediocrity. If there is a task that needs to be done, then it needs to be done! Sometimes my temper gets me into trouble. I am working on it. However, I do not wish to let go of my aggressive nature. Achieving my goal is essential to who I am. It gives me meaning. Eventually I would like to be the head of an organization. I know I am capable of it. ”

The Musical Banker

I met Naresh during a trek some years back. Our friendship has stood the test of time. We had a lot in common. Both came from urban middle-class families, were qualified chartered accountants and had corporate jobs that did not satisfy us, but were a means for a livelihood.  Naresh is an amiable fellow and makes friends easily. He has a passion for music. Classical music.

We met at a club. He shared that the current financial crisis may cost him his bank job.

“They are laying of people. I do not know what I will do if I lose my job. Probably take a sabbatical for two months. I don’t know if I can afford to do that.” he shared.  “But Naresh, you have been saying that to me for the past three years, and you still have your job.” I interjected, unsure whether I wanted him to lose his job to do something meaningful or retain it for the financial security it gave him.

Yes I do, but you never know. It is just a means to earn a living. I go there do my work and come back. I have been doing more or less similar work for the past seven years. Moving files and shuffling papers.” he says with his trademark humour. “The boss is a pain. But that is how we middle class people make money, pay our EMIs and take care of our families. We do our time over the week so that we can live our lives over the weekends,” he added. “What do you do on weekends?” I questioned.

“I go for my music classes. I have been practising that for the past ten years. My grandmother introduced me to it and I shall always be grateful to her for that. When I sing, I feel closest to God. It is the cornerstone of my life. At times, I attend concerts with my mother. It is a soulful experience.”  “Can’t you do something around music?” the idealist in me inquired.

“Who will pay me for it and what could I do?” he responds “Let us be practical after all the world is maintained by people like us who do 9 to 6 jobs, six days a week. No one is interested in whether you find your job meaningful or not. I do my job and that is the end of it. It is a job after all.”

The Teacher Mother

Lakshmi works as a senior executive in an education company, that has created a successful brand of franchisee schools. She has worked there for the past seventeen years. She started her career in the same company as a pre-school teacher. A chance encounter with the founder, when the company had only begun with a single pre-school.

She has a twenty three year old son Tapan, who is pursuing his graduation studies in Australia.

One pleasant morning, during one of our occasional morning walks, I ask her “What has been most meaningful in your life?” She looks at me, a little surprised at the question, unsure what to say. “I am writing an article on what different people find meaningful in their lives,” I add, hoping to elicit a response. It does.

“My most meaningful experience is of being a mother.” she responds in a voice laced with emotion.

“My son is the most precious to me. Nothing in the world is more valuable to me, than him. When he left for Australia three years back, my world came crashing down. My entire world revolved around him. Suddenly there was this huge emptiness. I could not eat for days. I spiraled into a depression. Thankfully, my friends stood by me. It was the most difficult experience of my life. Letting go of my son. It left me detached and wondering at the play of life. It gives and then it takes away. I just could not make meaning of it. My desire to find some explanation made me join astrology classes. Now I can see things from a larger perspective. Every person has his own destiny. There is not much in our hands beyond a point. That realization brings balance into my life.”

We walk silently for the next few steps.

“What about your work?” I probe further.

“When I began I was extremely passionate about what I did. I taught toddlers in pre-school. Since the organization was just beginning I did all kinds of work – clerical, marketing, training, curriculum development, even being a school principal. There is no department I have not worked in. I did not mind working late. As the company grew, we began to corporatize systems. I was moved to central office as an executive. My interaction with schools was restricted in my new role. That killed my passion. All that was meaningful for me, was taken away by my new role. The irony was that I had a better designation and a bigger salary, yet the fulfilment I got from my work diminished. It became a job. It is funny when I look back, the organization that gave me meaning, also took it away when we became successful.”

“What keeps you going then?” I ask

“I still like my work, but the passion of those initial years is missing. Once I am able to fulfill my financial responsibilities, I would like to work with underprivileged children in a non-profit organization. Not for money, just for the joy of it. That would give me new meaning.”

The Urban Seeker

This is about my journey of finding meaning and purpose in life.

Different things have been important to me at different times of my life. Yet if there is one thread that ran through all my past experiences, it was to find my calling. To be able to do work that would quench my thirst for self-expression. Interestingly that journey began after my education, when I started working.

“I have met many people who are doing things that they are not meant to be doing, yet I haven’t  come across anyone who is as divorced from his natural self and the work one does, as you are” said a friend to me once.  At that time I was working as management accountant, in the finance department of a multinational company.  She was right. I did not like my work one bit. I have no interest or aptitude for numbers, which people find hard to believe considering I qualified as a chartered accountant. I attribute it to a cocktail of poor awareness, fear of being a failure and desire for social recognition. I could further attribute it to a poor education system that rewards learning by rote, parenting that defines success by social parameters or my destiny. Having said that, yet if I were to look at it from a larger perspective, everything had its place, time and reason. What did not make sense earlier, made sense later. The fact remains all that I have learnt is from unlearning all that I had learnt, like peeling layer after layer to uncover my natural self.  Perhaps it is essential to lose yourself, before you can find yourself.

It was not an easy process though. I remember the time when I quit my high paying job, with the hope of becoming a corporate trainer. I thought then, if I had to work with people that was the only way to go about it. I remember the vulnerability of not having a job for a few months. I remember going back again to the security of a job, out of the fear of not being able to support myself. I remember the immense boredom of it, yet not knowing or having the guts to try again, after having failed once. I remember moving from finance to human resources, something unheard of. I remember the dissatisfaction and failure at being a trainer, simply because I did not believe in it and could not modulate my voice to engage my audience. And, I remember clearly sitting one day with my head in my hands, with every cell in my body crying out for self-expression, yet not knowing what it was, that I was meant to do.

The work I do now is not only an expression of who I am, it is a culmination of a long journey in finding meaning. There is no path I can point to and say it got me here. Yet one thing stands out. All that I did, that was not organic to me, dropped off one after another. Borrowed causes I call them. Every  new turn, even though scary at that instance, got me closer to what I was meant to do. What finally remained was truly mine.

There are various labels to what I do now. Organization development consultant, management consultant, human resource trainer, facilitator, coach or change catalyst. Yet the truth is all I am doing is being myself. Just as writing this article does not make me a writer. It is simply a means of self-expression. In hindsight, the journey was not of finding my calling; the journey was of finding my-self.

It feels like coming home.

***

I am unsure how these stories answer the questions on meaning and purpose in your life.

Perhaps there are no absolute answers. Each individual has to find his own answers. And his own meaning. Often the questions and meanings keep changing. What used to be the answers once, get converted into questions later.

Dr. Frankl would sometimes ask his patients. “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers he could find a guide line for their therapy: in one’s life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving. These slender threads weaved meaning into people’s lives and gave them a reason to live. What gave them meaning, gave them life.

As Nietzsche, the German philosopher says “He who has a why to live can bear with any how.”

***

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Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure it was real? What if you were unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world, and the real world?

–           Morpheus in the movie Matrix

***

What is Real?

Certain events in the past few days made me ask myself  “What is real?” Not just in an intellectual sort of way. Intensely. Deeply. Really wanting to know.

I googled it.

Came across an interesting article by Philip K Dick, a prolific science fiction writer . He says, “Each of us live in a self created universe. Place 10 people at the scene of the crime and they will all come back with 10 different views of what happened. We live inside a world of perceptions, interpretations and opinions which has nothing to do with reality.”

It captured my confusion well.

In fact, it added another one.

Whose reality is real?

If each person lives in his own private-mind-created-world, does a world inhabited by 6.8 billion people, have as many realities?  If so, whose reality is more real? Whose reality prevails when these realities bump into each other?

Power prevails.

The entity with more power prevails. The authoritative parental symbol. Family, school, corporations, political, social, religious, spiritual organizations. I depend on them for meeting my needs. The power each institution exercises differs according to the need it fulfills.

In essence, I barter my reality for the security I receive from a more powerful entity.

What happens once I have bartered my reality for security?

The reality of that institution becomes my reality. This process in simple words is called conditioning. In its stronger avatar, it is called indoctrination. In a corporation, the CEO’s reality colours the organization, the family-head influences the younger members, the Guru’s words are ultimate for his followers, and the leader’s decision prevails in politics. The remarkable thing about conditioning is – not that it occurs. The remarkable thing is that I am not aware of my own conditioning. My conditioning becomes me.

A  Christian American baby would acquire a perceiving lens, very different from a Muslim Pakistani baby. Their cultural experience creates a lens by which they view the world and create their reality. I may dislike anything with a Pakistan association, simply because I was born in India and vice-versa. It was written into my script even before I was born.

In effect, my experience of reality is conditioned. If the conditions change. Reality changes.

How we know what we know?

The universe is in a perpetual state of flux. All life is a process of change. Even inert matter – like chairs, tables, stones – are a whirl of electrons, at a sub-atomic level. The world at that level has no inherent location, physicalness or separation. There is no definite world. Only waves of probability.

Where does the material world come from?

Observation.

“Observation alters the probable world into a definite world” says quantum physics.

Everything is happening at the same time. A cosmic dance of energy. I experience this dance through the limitation of my five senses. I take a small snapshot of the world around me, add words (meaning) to my experience and create my reality. The picture I click using my sensory camera depends on the conditioned lens I am wearing. It re-affirms what I already know. I do not experience anything anew.

Irrespective of the quality of my lens, the fact is whatever I experience is real for me. The experience of a schizophrenic is as real for him, just as my experience is for me. Others may judge our reality as factual or distorted, authentic or fake. The fact is. Fact and fantasy are both real experiences.

The Scale of Reality

Is there a scale by which I can discern fact from fantasy? What creates fantasy?

The scale of reality depicted above, moves from fact on the left end towards fantasy on the right. A progressive interpretation of sensory data. The more I move towards the right end of the scale, the more I am living in thought. The more I add thoughts to my perception, more subjective is my reality. The shift is from what happened, to what happened to me. A hallucinating person imagines a reality in the absence of any external stimuli. To a certain extent, we all hallucinate. While we modify our beliefs according to social norms, a mad man follows them to the very end. My opinions, concepts, beliefs, judgements, prejudices, ideology are building blocks of my imaginary world. A personal symbolic world.

Thought fragments perception. I divide the world into a number of things. Then attribute cause and effect to these things.

The Illusion of Language

I put my hand in the fire; it burns.

This may seem like a factual statement. Is it?

I have through language broken inseparable sub-atomic reality into parts. I have created a Me, a Hand, a Fire, and a process called Burning.

Cause: Me putting hand in fire.

Effect: Burning.

In actuality, does any of this happen?

If I had a lens that could view the whole universe together, as One, I would see that events are happening simultaneously. One universal organism breathing and moving together. The me, the hand, the fire, the burning. Are all One process! I separate it using language and thought.

Similarly, events are happening inside my body simultaneously. I use language to label them into different parts. Heart, blood, body, parts. Then say. The heart pumps blood to other parts of the body. Perhaps there is no heart, no blood, no others parts and no body. It is simply one hologram functioning – on its own energy.

Says Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics “Language enslaves us by conditioning our brains to perceive a false reality. The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing defined.”

Living in Abstractions

As humans, we make abstractions all the time. An abstraction, simplifies, condenses, or symbolizes a phenomenal event in order to talk about it or think about it.

Says Alfred in his book Science and Sanity “The world is what it is. We can make all kinds of maps and models of how the world works. But the models and maps and any words one can put together can never do more than approximate the actual world or the actual phenomena being examined. The actual territory is beyond verbal description.”

For every event, we find meaning, reasons, possibilities, outcomes, judgments, concepts – becoming more abstract, personal and imaginary. Our reactions are based on the perceived meaning of an event, more than the event itself. Meanings give rise to feelings. Feelings give rise to meanings. An endless chain of meaning- feeling-meaning- feeling.  A slight itch is converted into big bleeding bruise due to constant meaning-feeling scratching.  We get lost in an ocean of words and their associated feelings. The initial phenomenal event may have affected us briefly. The perceived chain of meanings and interpretations affects us endlessly.

Is this how were meant to live?

Is there a way out of this world of abstractions?

Is it possible to have an experience free of memory and thought?

Freedom From the Known

The most fundamental fragmentation of thought is –

There is a Me and there is the World. I am separate from the world. Is this real?

Am “I” real?

The “I” is made up of the all that I know about myself from past experience and the desire to become something in the future. Built on self-concepts, ideas and beliefs. Is it real?

Perhaps the secret to what is real, lies in inquiring into this “I”? The source of all perception and experience.

Irrespective of the changing nature of my reality. Awake, dreaming or asleep. One thing remains constant.

I exist.

I Am.

Beyond concepts and sensations. This is the only reality that does not require any external proof or validation.

Perhaps the answer to discovering reality lies in exploring my own existence at the deepest core of my being. Perhaps the only qualification required to do that is a deep earnestness to know.

The truth of reality.

***

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