What is the Meaning of Life?
An excerpt from Jed McKenna’s “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing.”
It’s probably twenty minutes before everyone settles down. When they do, the talk gradually turns to matters that various members of the group have obviously been discussing amongst themselves. I am content to sit back, listen, and get a feel for the different personalities and how they interact with each other. Occasionally I am called upon to hand down a ruling, but I keep it brief and generally bounce it back in the form of a question. It’s all very light and easy.
At one point one of them, a pretty sincere guy named Brendan, asks me what the meaning of life is, but he tosses out the question in a casual way suggesting that he considers it unanswerable, so I let it go-
“Jed,” says one of the guys, Randy, “when you say that there is nothing to know in order to be enlightened…”
“I just can’t reconcile that with any of the world’s great teachings and religions. I mean, what about Yoga and Vedanta and Buddhism? What about Greek and German philosophers? What about Christianity and Islam and Judaism? How can there be nothing to know?” Obviously this is something he’s really struggling with. “It’s incomprehensible. It’s just too much. I can’t get a handle on it.”
There is a murmur of agreement. The questions seems to resonate with all of them.
“I know what you mean,” I reply. “The only thing to get a handle on is negation—the tearing-down process. I know you want to learn something, to embrace something, to understand. Humans are comprised of emotion and intellect, so it’s only natural to want to follow one or both of these aspects of ourselves inward to the truth, but you can’t. You could spend a thousand years with your nose in books or at the feet of masters and still be no closer to waking up from delusion. The fact is that no amount or combination of knowledge can bring about truth-realization.”
Everyone is attentive now. This is something that has concerned them all. They are seated and standing, a few are kneeling or seated in the wet grass, but they are all focused on the words like campers listening to a ghost story.
“Nor is it something you grow into or develop. It’s not an emotion or a state of consciousness. This can be a little trickier to understand until you realize that emotion and consciousness are the same thing, or, more accurately, that emotions are states of consciousness. For example, half an hour ago I came down to the fire and started talking and we all entered into a non-ordinary state of consciousness together—a sort of group euphoria. Fifteen or twenty minutes later we had all returned to ordinary consciousness. That’s an example of an altered state, not so different than being in a blinding rage or head-over-heels in love. You look back on something like that from your normal state and it seems like you were a different person. Drugs, breath work, meditation and other things can alter your state of consciousness, but self-realization—truth-realization—isn’t a state of consciousness.”
I look around at fire lit faces and see frustration. They don’t understand how it can be possible to get something that’s not within their reach—to be something they can’t become.
“You want to bring this whole thing down to the level where you can deal with it, but that’s not possible. Truth isn’t an idea or a concept. It’s not in libraries or in the words of sages. It doesn’t come in a flash of insight or a peak experience. It’s not a feeling of bliss or ecstasy. It’s not a concept to be understood or a feeling to be experienced. It’s not in your heart or your mind. It’s further.”
There’s a charge in the air. The fire is dancing, the light rain is falling, but there’s another element present as well. Everyone is on. Everyone is plugged in to the words. Everyone is very present and focused. They sense that they may be on the verge of taking an important step forward, and if all goes well, they are.
“So, you’re saying,” says Randy, “you’re saying that all religions and philosophies… See, this is where I can’t wrap my mind around it… you’re basically saying that all of man’s spiritual teachings… like none of them are…?”
He stops, not even sure how to frame the question, but I know it’s the question they all want to ask. To my ear it’s like two notes sounding together in just such a way as to suggest an entire symphony. A pattern is beginning to reveal itself and if I don’t mess it up, it could develop into something pretty cool.
“What am I saying?” I ask them. “We’re talking about lies. Important lies. Lies right at the heart of who and what we are. We’re making serious accusations. We’re committing heresy because that’s what heresy is—truth-talk in the dreamstate.”
This is the fun stuff.
“Spiritual awakening,” I continue, “is about discovering what’s true. Anything that’s not about getting to the truth must be discarded. Truth isn’t about knowing things—you already know too much. It’s about unknowing. It’s not about becoming true, it’s about unbecoming false so that all that’s left is truth. If you want to become a priest or a lama or a rabbi or a theologian, then there’s a lot to learn—tons and tons. But if you want to figure out what’s true, then it’s a whole different process and the last thing you need is more knowledge.”
I’m going to use a lot of words to say what I want to say, but ultimately I’m only saying one thing. I pace back and forth before the fire, watching the light dance on their wet, attentive faces.
“The shortest and simplest way to address Randy’s question is to say that all belief systems are just the stories we create in order to deal with the void. Ego abhors a vacuum, so everybody’s scrambling to create the illusion of something where there’s nothing. Belief systems are simply the devices we use to explain away the unthinkable horror of no-self.”
This is unfolding nicely. I sometimes have a hard time gauging response to my words because what’s completely obvious to me might be completely unbelievable to someone listening. For some of those listening, I suppose, a blanket denouncement of all of mankind’s religions and philosophies is humongous, and for some it’s old hat. For the purposes of tonight’s lesson, it’s just a stepping stone.
“Beliefs are candles that man uses to ward off the surrounding darkness. They are the charms we use to hold infinity at bay, to dispel the black cloud that hovers over every head.”
I don’t want to move on without nailing this down. They don’t have to believe me or agree with me, but I want them to keep up with me. What I’m going to say tonight isn’t really for them to understand tonight, but to take with them, and they won’t be able to do that if they drop out at this point.
“What’s going on here?” I ask. “What’s the deal? Who am I? What am I? What lies beyond? What’s the point? Those are big questions and all the religions and spiritual traditions represent our attempts to answer them. Obviously we can’t answer correctly, but that’s okay because we don’t have to, we just have to answer adequately. We don’t have to make the black cloud disappear, we just have to make it seem dark grey instead of black. Our explanations can be ninety-nine percent unsatisfying and that’s good enough because we don’t need the black cloud gone, we just need it taken down a notch.”
I stop speaking and let the words hang. No one moves. No one speaks. I know they’re silently reevaluating their own beliefs from this perspective, but now’s not the time. I proceed.
“Ever been depressed?” I ask them. “Really depressed? Like nothing means anything? Like there’s no point to anything?” I can see from their reactions that they all know what I’m talking about. “And what’s the worst thing about those dark moments? Where do they get their power?” I wait a moment so they can think about it, so they’ll recognize it when I say it. “From their undeniability, isn’t that right? From the fact that there’s no argument? When you’re in that state, don’t you know perfectly well that it’s true?”
Heads nod. A few muffled assents.
“That’s right. When you’re in that space, you know it’s not just a mood. You’re seeing something you don’t normally allow yourself to see. Your moments of blackest despair are really your most honest moments—your most lucid moments. That’s when you’re seeing without your protective lenses. That’s when you pull back the curtain and see things as they are.”
A long silence. A heavy silence. Now it’s personal. They’ve all experienced those unfiltered moments. They’ve all known the feeling of utter futility. And most importantly, they remember that at the heart of that black despair is the knowledge that that’s what’s real—everything is futile.
“Picture a hand sweeping away one of those beautiful Tibetan sand mandalas,” I say quietly.
I find my water bottle and take a drink. This still isn’t quite where this whole thing is going, but it’s definitely an important stop. I don’t want to leave to soon, or stay too long. After a few moments I break the silence.
“Anybody know any ghost stories?”
They laugh and the pall that had descended on them is somewhat dispelled.
“What about atheists?” asks Martin. “They don’t have any belief system to shield them.”
“In this context, there is no such thing as an atheist. If anything, we’re all agnostics and the only distinction between any two is one of degree. Everybody believes something, but only as much as they have to—enough to function. The cloud is still there, of course, hanging over every head, mocking every hope and dream, but thanks to our religions and philosophies, it’s somehow not totally black, just a very dark gray, and we can go on about our lives.”
“So what you’re saying is… it’s all like… I mean, everything? Everything everybody believes, it’s all just… like, lies? Like, bullshit?”
This isn’t just any question, it’s one of the biggies. This is a question that has to be asked and answered in the clearest possible terms—in the manner most likely to penetrate and stick. We’ve spent several minutes building up to it, preparing the way for it, but if I stopped now and gave a pop quiz, none of them would be quite sure what it was.
That’s the point. That’s the reason that the big questions get the big production. This isn’t a song we’re singing or a mountain we’re climbing—it’s a dream we’re unweaving. There’s absolutely no chance that we’re going to unravel a fantastically complex, multilayered tapestry in a single evening, but the thread we’re tugging on tonight can never be retightened. The fabric cannot be mended.
The bell cannot be unrung.
I let Randy’s question hang in the air for a few moments, allowing the entire line of inquiry establish itself in silence. All eyes are watching me expectantly. “What’s the wisefool gonna say?” they wonder. That’s part of the drama. They’ve heard it played the same way so many times that they have to wonder if I’m going to tapdance around the question with stock answers about respect for other people’s beliefs and the validity of all viewpoints and how there’s room for all of us. They expect politically correct evasions because that’s what they’ve always heard. But this time it’s different. I’m not answering a question, I’m confirming a suspicion.
I pause for dramatic effect.
“No belief is true. No. Belief. Is. True.”
I just leave it hanging out there for a while, letting it imprint itself on these minds so that they’ll be able to revisit it and confirm it for themselves later. This is a very big concept, but it’s going to get bigger in a minute.
The only movement is the dance of the flames and the falling spring rain. I speak only loudly enough to be heard. “All beliefs. All concepts. All thoughts. Yes, they’re all false—all bullshit. Of course they are. Not just religions and spiritual teachings, but all philosophies, all ideas, all opinions. If you’re going for the truth, you’re not taking any of them with you. Nothing that says two, not one, survives.”
That’s what I say. It rings true because it is true. It sounds a clear note that will resonate in these people’s minds until its vibration has shaken their false belief structures into heaps of rubble. I mean, how can it not? I’m not telling them something I know, I’m showing them something they know.
I take a break so everyone can do the math rather than just watch the teacher do it on the blackboard. As tempting as it may be for me to believe that I can wake people up by shaking or slapping them or by just looking deeply enough into their eyes and coaxing them out, I know that the trance they’re in can’t be so easily broken. This sort of direct assault, though, is my version of whacking them with sticks like the Zen guys do.
And now, because they still don’t really see it—
“Okay Brendan,” I say. He looks startled to be singled out.
“What’s the answer to your question?”
“I, uh, I don’t know. What question?”
“The meaning of life. Didn’t you ask me what the meaning of life was?”
“Um, well yeah, I was just, uh, joking. I didn’t really expect…um, an answer or anything.”
“Why not?” I address my comments to the whole group. “Why shouldn’t we ask what the meaning of life is? Hell, shouldn’t that be, like, the first thing we ask? Why should that of all questions be a joke? What are we, livestock? How can we do anything until that most fundamental of all questions is answered?”
No one is leaping up to answer, least of all Brendan.
“So, Brendan, if you’ll do the honors—what’s the meaning of life?”
He looks like a deer caught in the headlights, but he thinks about what’s been said here tonight and puts it together.
“There is none,” he says.
“There is no meaning. There is no meaning of life.”
Click. That’s it. That’s where this whole thing has been going. Saying that no belief is true is simply the inversion of this crisp, perfect statement—life has no meaning.
“Thank you Brendan. Very nicely done.”
And while that perfect statement may be the final destination of this evening’s lesson, it’s not the final destination of the process of self-realization. It’s just the beginning—the starting point of inquiry. Like I told Julie at the boathouse, you have to start this journey by taking stock of what you know for sure. Wishful thinking and fear-based fairy tales don’t play here.
“I’m not a priest,” I continue to the silent group. “I’m not a holy man or a guru. I have no teaching. I’m not representing any lineage or system. I’m not telling you the black cloud is okay, I’m telling it’s infinitely big and infinitely black. I’m not saying you can live with it, I’m saying that the black cloud is reality so deal with it and if it kills you, so the fuck what?”
I don’t know how they’re taking it, but for me this is the best part. This way lies freedom—the only freedom.
“No one who plans on waking up has the luxury of pretending that the cloud is okay. It’s not okay. It’s not dark grey. It’s reality—your reality—and if you want to get real, that’s where you have to go-”
“But…” says Randy.
“No buts. Listen: One millionth of one percent false is completely false. Everything in duality is false—false as in not true, not true as in bullshit. There are no exceptions. Black and white, no shades of grey. Truth is one, is non-dual, is infinite, is one-without-other. Truth is dissolution, no-self, unity. There’s nothing to say about it, nothing to feel about it, nothing to know about it. You are true or you’re a lie, as in ego-bound, as in dual, as in asleep.”
Silence. That felt good. The fabric is rent. Whatever stories at whatever degree of belief these people use to shield themselves from reality have just been structurally destabilized. The stories may survive for weeks or months or years, but their demise is now assured and the time will come when each of these people gets what they came here for—a direct confrontation with reality.
Or not. Never bet against Maya. Truth is infinitely simple, delusion is infinitely complex. There’s no over-estimating our ability to avoid making eye contact with the obvious. Maybe some of them will now scramble deeper into their stories, but for those who are here to hear, the leveling note has been sounded.
Once again, Randy asks the question they all want the answer to.
“So all beliefs are bullshit, as opposed to…like, what?”
“As opposed to facing facts. As opposed to saying ‘Fuck it. I’m going to see for myself.’ As opposed to declaring ‘Truth or Bust!’ and meaning exactly that. Truth at all costs. Truth regardless of consequence. Truth at any price.”
I slump into my chair and let everyone sit quietly with their thoughts while I sit with mine. That was a tricky thing to try to convey. Did I say it well? Did I leave out anything important? I replay it in my head and am satisfied that I made the best of a difficult but critical piece of communication. It’s a few minutes before anyone even moves around and I think I started to doze off. Eventually, the dialogue picks up again.
“Well, is it true that all religions are built upon the same foundation?” one of them, Maria, asks. “That they all contain the same truth?”
That’s a good cooling off question. The intense part is over and now I can use this as a ramp to slide us all back down onto a more mellow—dare I say?—groove.
“Oh gosh, yeah, maybe, I suppose, if you really want to stretch a point, but not in any sense that would be of practical value to someone who was trying to wake themselves up. That’s the sort of qualification I’d make if I wanted to appear open and accepting, but I would certainly never try to help anyone awaken by suggesting they make a study of world religions or spiritual teachings. I mean, I can pick up a Bible or the Koran or the Talmud or the Upanishads or the Dhammapada or any of the noteworthy spiritual texts and I—me, Jed—can decipher them within the context of truth. I can see what they say that’s of possible value, I can see what was probably valuable before sleeping minds rewrote it, and I can see what’s just nonsense. In short, I can read the great spiritual teachings of the world from the perspective of one who has made the journey and judge them based on their effectiveness as maps for others making the journey.
“Now, to answer your question in a way that might be of some value to you, I would say yeah, okay, you could say that all the major religions and great spiritual teachings have the same truth at their core, but realistically, that does not make them useful to someone who is seeking enlightenment because the useful stuff is tangled up with too much useless stuff. They say that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, but I don’t want to be the guy who has to read through it all.”
That gets a laugh. The mood is loosening up a bit. Mad, iconoclastic, nihilistic heretic guy is gone and funny, mellow, wisdom guy is back.
“You’re looking for an exact map and these great texts are thick bundles of pages covered in scribble. Yes, some of the lines in all that scribble are actually somewhat accurate, as far as they may go, but you’re not going to have any way of knowing which ones are right until you’ve made the journey yourself, by which time, of course, you’ll no longer need the map.”
Even Martin, with his strong ties to Vedic scripture, seems attentive and thoughtful.
“You’ve all heard the saying ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ Well, that means a lot more than just the mysterious arrival of gurus in a timely manner. It means that the knowledge you need will appear when you’re ready for it. The ability to open the next door is never denied, but the ability to open the door after the next is never granted. In this sense, you’ll have many, many teachers. In this sense, a passage from the Bible might be exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, but that doesn’t mean the entire Bible is the right thing all the time. Even the books and teachings I like the most I consider ninety percent useless.”
I look around at the faces and see a spectrum of comprehension ranging from near empty to near full. That’s to be expected.
“It’s all about unlocking the next door,” I continue, “and having ten thousand keys doesn’t mean a thing if none of them opens the door you’re standing in front of. ‘Teacher’ is just a word for the key you need to open the next door. After you’re enlightened, you can revisit these great books and the great teachings to your heart’s content and then they’ll no longer be mysterious or impenetrable to you, but they’ll still be of no use to you because you’ll already be enlightened, so it would really only be a recreational pursuit.”
“Then why do you have all those books in the house?” asks Rita.
Good question. Because, I’m tempted to say, a dozen new ones mysteriously appear every day.
“Most of the books inside are of no value to someone trying to wake up. I can’t think of one that I’d hand to a student and say, ‘Here, this is what you need to know.’ Worst by far are those that appear the best, like writings on Zen and Advaita. If I were to only allow useful books in the house, there’d probably only be a few dozen.”
I expect the next question to flow straight from my last statement, but they surprise me. Instead of asking which books I’d hang on to, Mary speaks up. “Then why don’t you write one?” she asks. “A book about you and Sonaya and the house and all your students?”
Everyone bursts into applause and hooting to express their approval of the idea. When they settle down, I reply.
“It’s too far out,” I say. “No one would ever believe such a thing could happen in Iowa. Hell, I hardly believe it myself.”
– Jed McKenna, “Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing.”