As the year ended I called my oldest friend, Johnny. We met in the late 70s. He, fresh from college, working at a motion picture rental house in Hollywood. I too, green from college, a wannabe filmmaker, was looking for help. That was forty-six years ago. I brought Johnny up-to-date on my adventures and he did the same. Johnny grew up in Chicago, was using heroin at fourteen, carried a German Leica camera in his pocket like most carry a cell phone today. He went to film school in Los Angeles, worked his way up the studio game, became a Director of Photography. He was asked to join the American Society of Cinematographers, an esteemed professional organization that advances the science and art of cinematography. “Michael,” he shared, “I was nominated for an Emmy, and my still photography, (mostly candid street scenes in the hood), has been picked up by prestigious galleries.” His images are displayed next to Ansell Adams. “WOW,” I said. “That’s amazing. Congratulations.” “But you know,” Johnny said, “I gotta do something.” Meaning.
Our daily life is a stream of projects; getting out of bed, brushing teeth, making breakfast, each a collection of discrete movements, combining to accomplish something. Each thought and movement has Meaning. Zooming out, as Johnny’s story reveals, and we find deeper layers of meaning. First, inwardly, exploring, discovering, and expanding who or what are we, our authentic nature. And second, upon that outwardly, how this authentic nature relates to everything else; my child or wife, the neighbor, friends, society, mountains, bunnies, and the cosmos.
Meaning implies the question, “why do we do what we do?” Long ago I knew a criminal sociopath. His name was also John. He published a book on success. In the first few pages John shared what success means to a sociopath; “approval of self, approval by others, and security.” This is what gave meaning to John’s life, why he did what he did, and to him, why any other motive, such as altruism, was stupid.
When Johnny said, “Michael, I gotta do something,” I replied, “Yes, meaning gets harder as we grow. I know, I face that every day.” I shared how helping my daughter Carly, now eight, to cultivate passion, inner independence, creativity, and resilience, the ability to face the world as it is without despair, to see beauty every day, is my quest. A big challenge, I admit a really big challenge. But how lucky is that? At my age of seventy-three, facing this humongous challenge every day? Without something this meaningful, I would feel like “I gotta do something,” but not know quite what it is. That is what I mean: “meaning gets harder as we peal back the onion of our lives, revealing what is really important.”
Michael Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute, and his pal, George Leonard, writer, educator, and former editor of Look Magazine, wrote extensively about education and human potential. The meaning of life is what we make of it,” they shared. I love that, but this is only part of the story.
My definition of meaning is both inner and outer. Again, inner meaning is the continual discovery, development, and mastery of capacity, a never-ending journey. Outer meaning is far more relative, defined by meeting basic needs, the way we connect with family, neighborhood, society, culture, in a word, the environment we are planted in, and how we contribute and relate. To the sociopath, meaning is, “what I get.” Meaning to our authentic nature is “what we get” from being in this life together, which includes all of nature.” How I contribute to well-being of everything is the defining question.
Contributing to well-being is life-affirming, and life-supporting for all, including nonhumans. Viewing life as, “what’s in it for me?” is parasitic, it cripples self-development and is toxic to self and the web we are part of. In 1995, friend Howard Bloom wrote the first of many books, “The Lucifer Principle,” describing how the position one holds in the continuum from selfish greed to contributing to well-being and implicit altruism, impacts everything from social position and success to depression and even self-destruction. The “Lucifer Principle” is a self-destruct “kill-switch,” triggered biologically when we no longer believe that our contribution to the social web matters. Back to meaning.
Paradoxically, for the sociopath, he or she is the social web. Self-centered greed is empowering until the implicit toxicity so degrades everything that the ship eventually sinks, as Charles Dickens revealed to Scrooge being visited by Marley’s ghost and three others. Scrooge’s kill-switch was averted, just in time for all, including Tiny Tim, the future of humanity. That was the real meaning of the classic story.
“I could feel the wind passing through the trees, and the little ant on the blade of grass,” described Krishnamurti in his mid-twenties. “I could feel the birds, the dust, and every noise was a part of me. I was in everything, or rather everything was in me. I was supremely happy for I had Seen. Nothing could ever be the same.”
Darwin was wrong, and so too are the social and economic policies his misguided proclamations encouraged. Sitting in my living room, Ashley Montagu said, “cooperation, not competition, is nature’s design for wellbeing.” But that is not what most humans see or feel. Like John the sociopath, most see themselves fighting against almost everything. Generally conforming to the needs of others, family and culture, defines the social self, the ‘me,’ blinding our awareness of, sensitivity to, and the expression of, our authentic nature. What is it going to take to break this spell? More ghosts showing us the past and future? Injecting more poisons? Not touching our family and friends? Letting Google, CNN and Facebook, suck out what little life and vitality we have left? Dying alone, as the future ghost revealed to Scrooge?
Krishnamurti’s direct perception and insight is there, “I am in everything, or rather everything is in me,” implicit in every cell of our bodies. Our symbiotic, reciprocal and intimately entangled nature is there in every breath we take. More authentic connection, and its implicit joy, not less, with everything; loved ones, kittens, the sun, water, rain, the oceans, trees, and flowers, that is where wellness abides. The ultimate “meaning” is wellness and wholeness, being whole, holy, nurturing what is actually sacred, not simply what is imagined.
What Krishnamurti called “meditation,” is not a calming, quieting goal, or ambition. It is the silencing of conditioned thought and memory that complete attention invites, without effort or trying to achieve anything, spontaneous and complete. The ending of our habitual and reflexive conditioning, like a powerful wind, wipes the windows of perception crystal clear, and in the vibrant, intense clarity our authentic nature shines, spreading, embracing, and celebrating everything it touches. As Joseph Chilton Pearce often said, “we reap what we sew.” Let’s make it magical.