Utter Meaninglessness

It is dangerous to engage in mystical practice before having attained adequate ego strength to safely do so. This is an important idea that I attribute to C.G. Jung, although I can’t offer any more detailed attribution at the present time. If we scratch just below the surface of such a statement, it appears to contain a contradiction: Since mystical practice involves dismantling or casting aside our egoic constructs and defenses, it would seem that not having fully formed ego strength would just put us that much further along! Is that dangerous, or is it advantageous? Digging further, however, we can see that, since mystical practice can involve the dismantling of everything the practitioner might have assumed about the world and him or herself, there is the distinct danger of a precipitous descent into nihilism – the darkness of utter meaninglessness. Thus, I must begin this post with a warning: If you are young and without a solid sense of how you fit into this world, if you are struggling with depression and are already susceptible to life’s darkest experiences, if you are currently experiencing the symptoms of a mental illness that makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and idea, then please forego reading this post at the present time. Please wait until you have adequate strength. The rest of you need to realize that what follows is not a beautiful meadow full of bright and blossom-like thoughts. It will be more like a stroll down the darkest alley you can imagine! You have been warned…

If you’ve ever taken an introductory economics class, you likely remember something of the history of our monetary system. You know that our money used to be backed by gold. For every dollar in circulation there was a real dollar’s worth of gold sitting in a vault somewhere. Since going off of the “gold standard,” however, a dollar is worth a dollar not because it represents a dollar’s worth of gold, a dollar is worth a dollar because we all agree that it is worth a dollar. A dollar is worth a dollar by fiat.

Meaning can be like this. At first, some of the things that we do have meaning for us because, well, they have meaning – they seem to have the intrinsic value of gold. And so we make plans to achieve great things, to experience wonderful things, to obtain valuable things. When we look at things more deeply, however, when we gain greater awareness, we come to question whether some of what we do is really as meaningful as we might have thought. Perhaps “living the good life” had great meaning for you at one time, but then “the finer things in life” came to leave you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Perhaps reaching the pinnacle of your career was of utmost importance to you, but then you reached it and came to realize how very unrewarding it actually was. Perhaps you’ve turned your back on all such personal accomplishment and have devoted your life to helping people – feeding them, clothing them, healing them, teaching them, counseling them, ministering to them – but then you fell prey to the despair of realizing that more and more still need to be fed and clothed and healed and taught… You came to see humanity is an endless stream of more and more people with needs without end. The meaning that you had attributed to your work began to evaporate, and everything began to seem completely and utterly meaningless.

The provision of meaning is one of the great benefits of religion. Religion quite often provides the context within which such feelings of meaninglessness can be contained, oriented, and redirected. If our religion teaches of reincarnation, then that which is meaningless over the course of one fleetingly finite life can be seen to have meaning over the course of many lives that have an orientation towards some positive goal. If our religion teaches the existence of a heavenly afterlife, then all of the chaos and suffering and apparent meaninglessness of this life can be seen within the context of our one day returning to our Heavenly Father.

But what if the default meaning that a religion might provide has no meaning for you at all due to your inability to believe? Therein lies the great existential danger that some of us face. For the one who stumbles upon this utter meaninglessness, for the one who tries to regain equilibrium in a world without anything that is really stable to hold on to, the darkness can be darker and more disorienting than the darkest night. This is at least part of why our engagement in mystical practice can be so dangerous for one who does not yet have appropriate ego strength.

Some Buddhists don’t like to consider their meditation practice “mystical.” I won’t quibble over the word. The danger that Jung spoke of, and the one which I speak of now, exists nonetheless. To the extent that your awakening brings you into intimate contact with the impermanence of all things, you will naturally find yourself surveying your landscape for that which is of ultimate meaning. And to the extent that your glimpses of emptiness, shunyata, or no-thingness bring you to wonder of the ultimate meaning of the very practice which has brought you face to face with this emptiness, you will naturally find yourself surveying your landscape for that which is of ultimate meaning.

Someone who looks at Buddhist practice in this way will come to realize that the development of Buddhist practice was not a foregone conclusion in this world. Likewise, those who do not have the same faith as Christians do will not consider the appearance of Jesus Christ on this earth as the inevitability that a Christian might consider it to be. In other words, if life were to begin again on earth – even human life – we cannot assume that someone just like the Buddha or Jesus or whomever would appear again to be our guide and teacher. Whatever guide and teacher happens to appear will arise out of whatever biological, psychological and sociological circumstances happen to come to exist.

What then has ultimate meaning? This is the question that every mystic must be able to live with – whether answered or not. The now-deceased Zen monk, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, addressed this issue during his last formal talk as abbot of Antaiji Zen Monastery. He stated that one of the most important points of Zen practice is to “live by vow and root it deeply.” What vow? Whose vow? Did he have in mind precisely what that vow should be? Did he feel that his vow was the same vow as yours should be? Is there something which is of ultimate meaning that he presumes we are all going to vow to uphold? Live by vow and root it deeply.

And what is the vow with which I live? I have come to realize that my mind arises from the entirety of all that exists. My mind encompasses the entirety of all that exists. Everyone and all of life arises from all that exists just as “I” do. Thus, my vow is to live in harmony with all that arises in order to assist in the blossoming forth of the fullest potential of all “things.” I root this vow in the entirety of all that exists via my practice of meditation. During meditation I encounter the stillness of mind that brings me into harmony with all things. During meditation I encounter the stillness of mind that is rooted in all things. If that sounds mystical, then so be it. You’re only reading this because you’re a mystic too!

If you would like to explore some of the ideas that I touch on here within the context of Zen practice, you might want to check out Shohaku Okumura’s Living by Vow, which I reviewed in a blog post titled Book Review: Okumura's 'Living By Vow' 


Okumura, S. (2012). Living by vow: A practical introduction to eight essential Zen chants and texts. (D. Ellison, Ed.) Wisdom Publications.

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Mangrove tree by Cesar Paes Barreto via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank


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