Instead, ask a different question.
What is the meaning of life?
Humans have probably been pondering this question since the moment we could ask it.
Why are we here?
What is our purpose?
What does it all mean?
Aren’t we all, in one way or another, seeking the answers to these very questions? And aren’t we seeking them because we feel like something is missing? Like there is a void inside of us that needs to be filled?
We often use words like meaning and fulfillment to describe the state of mind in which that void has been filled. It’s here, in this semi-mythical space, that we imagine we’d feel a deep sense of wholeness, completeness, and peace — like life is continually unfolding in the right direction.
But, what if we are confused about how to fill this void? What if life’s meaning and fulfillment cannot be obtained intellectually or through any worldly achievement? What if it’s not a formula to be discovered or an equation to be solved? What if we’re asking all the wrong questions and looking in all the wrong places?
Instead of asking, what is the meaning OF life?, what if we asked, what is the meaning IN life?
What’s the best move in chess?
I was recently listening to Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and one part, in particular, stuck with me. Frankl asks a fictional chess player, What’s the best move in chess? Naturally, the chess player has no answer because there is no one “best” move. You can only talk about what the “best” move might be when you know the given situation — when you see how the pieces are arrayed on the board. Only then can you give a worthwhile response.
Why is that?
Moment to moment, things change — the pieces on the board move, and new risks and opportunities arise. It’s in each of these moments that we weigh those risks and opportunities and then choose what to do. And it’s through our choices that we set in motion what comes next.
Perhaps, Frankl suggests, life is no different.
What if asking, What is the best move in chess? makes just as little sense as asking, What is the meaning of life? What if it, too, has no answer? What if the question is just a series of words that causes confusion and frustration because we think we need to find an answer, but we don’t?
What if what matters most in life, like in chess, is the move we make in our present circumstances? And what if meaning and fulfillment can be found in our next move, and not just in achieving our next goal?
What if meaning and fulfillment cannot be attained, but only experienced?
We often think that meaning and fulfillment are attained through our accomplishments, like completing university, getting married, receiving a promotion, publishing a book, or reaching one million followers. We think that, once we achieve these lofty aspirations, our lives will never be the same – that we’ll have reached a new level of meaning and fulfillment.
Yet, we know from experience that accomplishments like these don’t permanently change anything. After a brief “high” we return to where we started — dissatisfied and chasing the next high.
We all know this. We know that life won’t be perfect once we get the things we want — whether it’s a soul-mate, a dream job, or an absurdly large salary. But, our minds still somehow convince us to pursue those ends with dogged determination, often to the neglect of everything else.
While setting goals and striving to achieve them is obviously an important aspect of life, we need to ask, Is this cycle of boom and bust the best way to live meaningful and fulfilling lives? Perhaps there’s a better strategy — one that does not require us to wait for months or years between briefly feeling good about ourselves.
There is an unnoticed risk we assume whenever we focus too narrowly on the future. When our gaze is set too firmly on the horizon — on some aim or goal — we miss what is right in front of us, what is happening now. And, if we’re not paying attention to what’s happening now, we’re not free to enjoy it.
What if, like chess, the moment right in front of us is what matters most? What if we can find the meaning and fulfillment we’re looking for if we just pay attention?
These days, everywhere you look someone is spouting a phrase like, live in the moment, be present, be mindful, be here, live in the now. But what does this really mean?
Perhaps it means that we should find a better balance between our future goals and our present circumstances. After all, every chess player ultimately wants to win, but the desire to win doesn’t help them choose their next move. It’s their focus on the next move, and then the next, and then the next that helps them achieve their ultimate aim. What if life is more like chess than we realize?
By tearing our focus away from the future and bringing it into the present, don’t we open up the opportunity to notice things that we might be neglecting? Might we be missing out on opportunities to connect with our parents, our children, or our partners? Might we be missing out on opportunities to enjoy the sunrise, the warm breeze, or the falling snow? Might we be missing out on enjoying the exertion of exercising, writing, or painting?
We know that all these things matter. So, what if it’s our neglect of them that is making our lives feel so meaningless and unfulfilling? What if meaning and fulfillment are best found in living — in whatever you’re experiencing right now — and not in achieving?
What if asking, What is the meaning IN life? is how we begin to change our perspective about what’s important? What if this question helps us to see that meaning and fulfillment can be found in every moment, not just once we finally attain what we’ve been seeking?
How to pay attention
If we can focus our attention on the present, what we will find — to our delight and surprise — is that meaning and fulfillment are always available to us. We don’t have to wait for some future moment, we can experience them right now.
Unfortunately, we’ve spent a lifetime training our minds to look toward the future for our salvation. We need to unlearn this bad habit. We need to train our minds to pay attention, and there is no better way to do this than by practicing mindfulness meditation.
Take two minutes out of your day to sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing. You will hate it at first. You’ll think you’re wasting your time. Your mind will try to convince you that it isn’t for you. But, in time, you’ll get used to it.
Slowly, this type of training will pull your mind away from the future and into the present. And what you’ll find is that the entire world has just been waiting for you to notice it.
So, stop asking, What is the meaning of life? This question has no answer. Instead, ask, What is the meaning IN life? If you do, and if you start paying attention to the present, you will begin to see meaning and fulfillment everywhere.
Thanks for reading!