At the heart of the spiritual thirst that I’ve felt throughout my life has been a thirst for meaning. By that I mean –in the first place– a thirst for experience that fills me up with a sense of meaningfulness, experience that feels deep and rich, that makes me feel fully and gladly alive. But I also mean a thirst for answers to questions like, “How should we live our lives?” And “Where lies our greatest fulfillment?” And perhaps even more sweeping questions like, “What, ultimately is this universe we live in about?” (This last one being a question to which science says there’s no meaningful answer.)
My main approach to seeking answers to such questions has been, as befits a child of the Enlightenment as I was raised to be, to try to be faithful to the evidence and to discern the truth toward which it logically points. For such questions, the most relevant evidence has seemed to me the evidence of human experience, and in particular the evidence presented me by my own experience.
In 58 years of living, I’ve had many and diverse experiences, but it is particularly a few powerful experiences of a spiritual nature –experiences that have inspired and guided my life’s work—that have challenged me to make sense of them. One of these experiences was just this past spring, and I’d like to discuss here some valuable clues that experience seems to me to provide concerning those important spiritual questions of meaning.
But before going into what I would describe as a visionary experience, let us look more deeply into the idea of meaning as we experience it.
The Centrality of Experience
It is, indeed, the centrality of experience that I would like to underscore first. Meaningfulness is something that simply must be experienced, or what use is it? You can show the most incredible beauty to a corpse, or to a computer—but what’s the point when it doesn’t register experientially as meaningful?
What would be meaningful about hearing a Brandenburg concerto, or seeing a colorful sunset, if their beauty left us cold? We cherish having our family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, but would it have any meaning to us if it evoked no love in our hearts? Coming upon a brilliant insight might be one of our most meaningful experiences, but it would not be so if there were no exclamation point at the end of our “Eureka!”
So if we ask, “what is the meaning of our lives?” we have to be talking about something that registers inside us as meaningful, as mattering. And so we might start addressing that question by asking, “Where in our lives do we find deeply meaningful experience?”
Of course, we’re all finding meaningfulness to one degree or another all the time. We might rig up a meaning-ometer for everyone, like the focus groups do to audiences watching some politician’s speech, and we’d see that everyone is continually moving back and forth along a continuum that runs from feeling flat and without meaningfulness into the realms of deep meaning.
A Spectrum of Meaningfulness
Along that path leading out of the mundane into deeper meaning, three levels might be noted.
First is the ongoing level, the places where –on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis— one feels more rewardingly and richly alive. For someone, for example, it might be a morning ritual of taking one’s tea on the patio, looking off to where the sun is rising over the mountains, and feeling a sense that it is a blessing to be alive for a new day.
A second level is comprised of those experiences whose meaningfulness feels so powerful that at a deep level they shape the course of our lives and our view of what life is about. A life-transforming insight that frees one from destructive paterns might be an example, or perhaps an experience of intimacy that changes one’s one’s heart.
And then there is the third level. Here the depth of meaningfulness seems to go beyond extending a continuum toward simply “more.” Rather, it is experienced as opening into another realm imbued with a special feeling of sacredness. These experiences –transcendent, they might be called, or mystical—suggest that the world as we normally see it may not be all there is. (Surveys conducted in this country suggest that experiences of this sort are widespread.)
It’s Always There
One interesting thing about our experiences at all these levels, with their meaningful “this is what life’s about” feeling, is that it seems that, in some sense, those deep meanings are always there. Our ability to connect with them may come and go, but it seems that the experience is always ours for the taking.
Take for example an experience I had recently listening to the opening movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I’ve heard it a number of times. But for some reason, on this particular occasion, it touched me at a level of profundity well beyond anything I’d previously experienced. As I listened to Beethoven’s music, a visual image was conjured up in my mind—an image of “winged majesty,” an image of some beautiful divine force. I felt certain that the deeply spiritual space I entered was one that Beethoven had entered before me and then, as a great artist, had used his music to convey. Whether or not I am right about Beethoven’s vision, my point is that this new and deep response of mine was to a piece of music I’d heard many times before. The music, in some sense, always offered me such a meaningful experience, but it was only on this occasion that I entered it.
A second example goes back to the night of the birth of my first child, in 1976. I went home about dawn and, I was still aglow with the experience of meeting my new infant son and still too excited to sleep – I went and got the mail and opened up my just-arrived Newsweek magazine. There I read a story about a major disturbance in Bangkok, Thailand, in which a man had been lynched by a mob. I felt deeply disturbed by the story. The deep meaning I saw in that story was expressed in a simple and obvious statement I made to myself: “This man they killed was once somebody’s baby!” Obvious– but on this occasion, the importance of that simple notion, with it’s implication of the preciousness of each life, registered within me. The events of my night had opened my heart to recognize, at a deeper level, what the sense of meaningfulness transformed from cliché into important truth.
One more example. I regularly walk in my neighborhood, which is at the foot of a range of mountains called the Sandias. I see the Sandias all the time, even out my living room window. On this one day, I see the Sandias differently. I see their great beauty, and I’m struck with what an incredible, gorgeous planet we live on! How glorious!
It’s always there.
The ‘Eye of the Beholder’ Question
But what is it that’s always there? Is the “It” that’s always there simply the opportunity to respond in a certain way? Or is it the beauty that was always there on the mountain, waiting for me to see it?
It’s that old “eye of the beholder” question: Are the “deep meanings” just something we invent? Or, when we’re really alive, do we discover them?
Maybe if my experience of meaningfulness were more uniform, I’d be less struck by this question. But I’ve not only had my transcendent moments; I’ve also had my times of depression. And, watching the way life can be filled or drained of its sense of meaningfulness, I’ve grappled for years with this question of what kind of reality our “deep meanings” represent.
My recent visionary experience has moved me off the fence on that question. I’ve come down on the side of there actually being important values built into our reality—and what moved me was what I saw, and experienced, about what I call our pathways into deep meaning.
To introduce what I mean by these “pathways,” let me invite you to consider where you find your own most richly meaningful experiences, where you are filled with a deep sense of “Wow, this really matters”?
Have you ever felt the richness of life open up to a new level through an open-hearted connection with other people—by falling in love, or by holding in your hands your just-born child, or by looking around the Thanksgiving table at the people closest to you, or by feeling in your heart something real and heartfelt corresponding to the abstraction “the brotherhood of man”?
Have you ever been transported by an encounter with beauty? Here, for example, is is the rapturous description by the great naturalist, John Muir, of his first encounter with Yosemite: “Nearly all the upper basin of the Merced was displayed, with its sublime domes and canyons, dark upsweeping forests, and glorious array of white peaks deep in the sky, every gesture glowing, radiating beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire.” Have you experienced such rapture?
Have you ever achieved a sense of being spiritually alive by getting into the flow of your own creativity, feeling things come together, under your hands, in just the right way? Or by marveling at the fruits of the creativity of someone else—the dramatic unfolding of a narrative by Dostoyevski, for instance, or the crystalline structures in which Bach expressed his passions, or the noble human ideals embedded in a Michaelangelo sculpture?
Have you ever gained a specially glowing sense of meaning from living with integrity—from living in a way that aligns your walk with your talk, or from living from the core of of your true self?
Have you ever had an experience of transformative insight, a realization so powerful that it changed you—insight into the guts of your own life, or perhaps an insight that illuminates some important part of the complex landscape (natural, socio-cultural, historical, etc.) in which we live our lives?
Is there some other pathway that’s been especially important to you?
The Strange Convergence of the Pathways
In the world in which we live, simply calling attention to the importance of our experience of meaning is of value. So much of our attention is directed to the external trappings of our lives that it is beneficial to remember that it is inside ourselves where the quality of our experience must nourish us. But I want to take this an important step further—to what these pathways show us about those fundamental spiritual questions with which I began.
For this it’s time at last for me to tell you the story of my recent breakthrough. It is this experience that led me into thinking about these pathways, and the story begins with a surprise I experienced by traveling down that pathway that I called above “living with integrity.”
For the past couple of years, I had been focusing a lot of my life on an educational institution in which I was a teacher. It was a new career for me, and I felt fortunate to be able to enter this new adventure at a school that impressed me greatly with its quality, its dedication to humane values, and its integrity. As a rookie and a new guy, I took the stance toward the school of: “Please teach me. I respect your knowledge and experience. I’m going to try to fit in as a good team player and learn how I can best contribute.”
That was my stance for a year and a half –until the institution acted towards me that was clearly dishonorable and dishonest. I was shocked. For a brief moment, I feared I would be devastated. But what happened inside me was just the opposite: I was moved back into a deeper place in myself than the one from which I, in my ingratiating rookiehood, had been coming from. As I acted from that deeper place, I brought to my interactions with people in the institution some of the powers of my true self and deepest convictions. I spoke truth to people who had chosen, in one realm at least, to participate in falsehood. I acted from my larger, and more loving self with people who’d chosen to be their smaller, more defended selves.
As I moved from this place of deeper integrity, I noticed that something significant shifted with regard to my entire spiritual condition. My engagement with people became more open-hearted; my sense of beauty became intensified (I began hearing music, for example, like that Beethoven, at a deeper level); my connection with my wife as a lover became fuller; my capacity for insight into the vast web of interconnections of cause and effect in our incredibly complex world took became newly ignited.
I became, in other words, spiritually much more alive. And I was struck by the fact that –even though it was by moving far down one of the pathways that I had come more fully to life, spiritually– going down that one path seem to make all the others open up to me!
It seemed, indeed, as though all the paths fed each other. The more I opened my eyes to beauty, the more I opened my heart to love; the more I came from the core of my being, the more I devoted myself to the path of righteousness, the more I opened my mind to encompassing insight; the more I saw the beauty of it all…. I was reminded of something I’d noticed when I was much younger– that when I fell in love, the flowers seemed markedly more beautiful.
I felt quite intrigued by this synergy among these pathways. And then, one day, another powerful clue –embedded in the pattern of these pathways– emerged for me in starker relief.
Over the course of my life, there were two or three previous eras of my entering into a vaster and deeper spiritual place. One of these was brought about primarily by my having opened up to a deep experience of open-hearted love which sustained me through great fear. Another time the pathway into the experience involved a recognition of the sacred beauty of earth’s living systems and of the natural creature at the core of each of us. And now, on this most recent occasion, the way into this deeper place involved my following the path of integrity. *
Reflecting on these different episodes of spiritual deepening in my life, I was struck with the thought: even though they had emerged from entirely different directions, they all seemed to lead toward very nearly the same place! The pattern of my experience suggested an “all roads lead to Rome” image of the spiritual terrain. I had a feeling, in other words, that there is a vast space toward which all these pathways into deep meaning tend to converge. Not just feeding each other, but blending into one another.
I had a sense of moving toward a “heat source.” a sense of there being something spiritually radiant embedded in the fundamental level of our reality. It seems that the further one goes down any one of these pathways –beauty, or love, or integrity, or insight, etc.—the more they disclose themselves as aspects of the same thing.
Here is the core of that recent breakthrough moment of mine: I grokked what this “same thing” –the common element that united these apparently diverse pathways—might be.
What they all seem, ultimately, to be about is wholeness.
“Wholeness” is about things fitting together. It’s about interconnectedness. It is, at its core, about things be rightly ordered—in harmony, in an ideal unity. To see how “wholeness” embraces our diverse pathways into deep meaning, let’s look at a few of them.
Beauty–whether that of the rose, or of a Bach fugue—is a form of wholeness in that beauty lies in giving perfection and wholenss of form to the substance of our world.
Love–whether between lovers or friends or for all humanity—connects with wholeness in the way that the bond of love knits people together in a life-enhancing way.
Integrity –whether of the moral sort of walking one’s talk, or of the sort that’s about being true to oneself—is about a person’s being “all of a piece,” whole.
Morality –the paths of righteousness and justice—is about adhering to those principles order the human system into an optimal kind of whole.
Insight –which is about seeing connections—creates greater wholeness in our awareness by disclosing to us some new dimensions of the complex interweaving by which our world is knit together.
This pattern –the idea that our pathways to rewarding meaningfulness converge toward wholeness—could be elaborated with some depth and complexity. What emerges from this pattern is a clue of great significance about those questions I began with concerning meaning in our own lives and perhaps also in the cosmos beyond us.
Human Meanings and the Nature of our Reality
What gives us our greatest fulfillment, the pathways disclose, is the recognition and the creation of wholeness. In other words, our greatest delight lies in seeking out, and in fostering, those ideals of wholeness and perfection that underlie humanity’s enduring values and spiritual traditions. Truth, beauty, goodness –all avenues, apparently, into our experience of deep and positive meaning—are in this light not just “values” but are domains in which we find our greatest reward.
The further we go down these pathways, the more we find fulfillment, and the more we ourselves are likely to foster in our world the kind of wholeness that leads to the fulfillment of others.
But what does our deep connection with wholeness tell us of the world beyond ourselves? Science in its present form does not give us such a vision of meaningful wholeness. Is there any reason to be found here, in the evidence of the pattern of the pathways, for believing that there’s more to the cosmos in which we live than is dreamt of in our mechanistic natural philosophy?
The Sufis say that thirst is the surest evidence for the existence of water. It’s an idea I like, and I think there’s something to it. But that the fact that we seem to be creatures wired to seek wholeness does not, in itself, prove that the wholeness we seek exists as anything more than an object of our desire. Nonetheless, I do see some reasons for believing that our customary scientific maps of reality may need amending.
There seems to be an element of mystery in our deep connection with wholeness.
Generally, I look at the link between our nature and the world around us in a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective. But it’s not clear to me that this connection between our fulfillment and wholeness can be adequately explained in those terms. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is easy to see why we would be structured to get pleasure out of eating and sex—activities that are necessary for our survival. Mere mechanism can account for why, quite naturally, we find it rewarding to satisfy such necessary instinctual drives. But how about a delight in beauty?
Well, a man’s finding delight in the sight of a beautiful woman presents no problem—taking pleasure in that kind of beauty feeds desire and desire drives behavior. But can we explain, in the same way, why we get such pleasure from the beauty of a rose, or a mathematical equation, or a sonnet?
I’ve found people who have asked this question, but none who have succeeded in answering it. The only one I’ve come across who claimed to have answered it is Freud, who declared with certainty that the pleasure we take in a sunset is just a sublimation of our frustrated sexual drives, which just shows how determined that great thinker was not to recognize the spiritual dimension of our humanity.
Mere mechanism –mere reductionism of the world into mere pieces assembled into wholes by mere accident—does not seem adequate to explain all the important evidence of human experience. Intellectual honesty, it seems to me, requires even the most knowledgeable and most brilliant among us to behold our reality with a sense of awe and wonder, with a sense of mystery and maybe miracle at the very foundation of our reality. We exist! Time and space exist! Are not these, in themselves, a kind of miracle and mystery?
The biggest mystery for me -–where what I have seen really doesn’t seem to fit onto my usual map of the world—has to do that sense of a deeper whole toward which the pathways seem to be converging. In my life’s moments of intense spiritual awakening, of which one was this spring (2004), I’ve felt I’ve glimpsed something Whole that’s beyond our ken, that envelopes us, that is of great beauty and worthy of our love, that is sacred.
Although I’m somewhat mystified about what to make of this sense of wholeness, I know that it’s representative of the spiritual experiences of countless others. This deep experiential sense of a beautiful realm of wholeness runs like a shining thread through human history and individual lives across the world.
The deeper we humans go down any of these pathways, apparently, the more suffused our consciousness seems to become with this wonderful sense of a wholeness more mysterious, more wonderful, than our solely rational and naturalistic maps can capture. Recall how John Muir portrayed the landscape of Yosemite as having a “beauty that pours into our flesh and bones like heat rays from fire,” a landscape he described as covered with a “spiritual glow.”
This sense of beauty doesn’t sound like it’s just in the eye of the beholder.
In one of my own moments that went far enough down the pathways to give me gooseflesh, I experienced a “Wow!” from watching spring come up the mountain to where we then lived in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and from recalling in my mind’s eye how that forest had extended its reach toward us in our years of living there. Trying to give my stunning vision flesh in words, I wrote: “The earth here wants to create a great forest…What a beautiful and mighty living thing I saw, reclaiming its domain.”
The earth here was something more than is dreamt of in my usual natural philosophy, something more sacred and whole than is described in biology texts.
Whenever I’ve encountered a truth that felt deeply true, it has seemed infused with a spirit emanating from some deep and beautiful web of interconnectedness.
It’s a wonderful feeling, this sense of an underlying wholeness. But that very wonderfulness of that vision makes it suspect: maybe its just one more case of believing what one wants to believe, what feels good to believe.
Yes, maybe. But here’s one more clue: the kind of vital wholeness suggested by my “evidence of the pathways” corroborates what the mystics have told us. Through the centuries, and across cultures, Wholeness has been at the core of the mystics’ visions.
An Empirical Mysticism?
Perhaps the mystics might best be seen as people who have traveled down these pathways and reached the trailhead. From their extraordinary –their most rich and wonderful—experiences, they have reported experiencing a Oneness permeated with beauty and love that is –the mystics seem certain—the fundamental truth of our cosmic reality, and the key to our fulfillment.
That sense of certainty in the mystics’ testimony brings up another facet of our experiences of deep meaning. The mystic’s conviction is not, I’m convinced, mere intellectual cop-out or wishful thinking. It is, rather, a function of the special nature of the experience.
If the sense of wholeness came as just another way of seeing –like how the world looks double when we cross our eyes, or how distant night lights get all fuzzy if we focus up close—the mystic vision would not carry much weight. But the reality is that these moments command our allegiance because of their special experiential quality: they bring with them the sense of their undeniable truth! *
The further we go down any of these pathways –the deeper our love, the more mind-blowing the insight, the more inspiring the beauty—the more the experience comes to us with a self-confirming sense of its rightness and importance. Through the quality of our experience, life teaches us which moments should most command our attention and our credence.
The way this experiential quality declares the importance and truth of what those moments disclose to us reminds me of what an accupuncturist friend of mine says. She says that when she’s put the needle in precisely the right point, there’s a zing feeling, an electricity, that declares she’s found the spot.
The deeper we go down any of these pathways to deep meaning, the more we sense that we have hit some vital target, that we’ve come upon some part of the answer to the meaning of our lives that is not just something we made up, but seems rather embedded in the very body of the world. Beauty, we sense, is not just in the eye of the beholder, but is indeed given there in the mountain and the rose. The call to goodness, we may feel at special moments, derives its power from something not just arising from within the human system. And the luminous quality of these intuitions lends them a special credence– even if we cannot adequately integrate all these realizations into a wholly rational framework.
In the mystic realm, as in acupuncture, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing!” Thus it is that not only individuals, but entire cultures, have organized themselves not around the myriad mundane moments of human existence, but around those searing moments of epiphany—moments of the grokking of great wholeness—that declare, “This is what life’s about!” Whether under the Bodhi tree, or by the burning bush, or just sitting on the patio drinking one’s tea and feeling blessed to be alive—these are the guideposts by which we are wise to guide our lives.
Thus it is that, even if my own mystical glimpses comprise but a few moments scattered across my 58 years, the special experiential character of those experiences compels me to give them weight far out of proportion to their mere clock-time. This relationship between our mundane and our mystical realms of experience I imagine to be like those “Magic Eye” pictures with which our usual way of looking at our reality shows a bunch of random-looking squiggles. But then comes that moment when one’s vision shifts and suddenly the surface of the page disappears into the discovery of a new dimension of depth. Suddenly some previously unsuspected, stunning figure is revealed to be somehow embedded in the squiggles.
Accordingly, even though I cannot hold onto my perception of the whole most of the time, and even though I continue to wonder about the truth of it, I’ve committed myself to living as best I can in accordance with what my visionary moments have disclosed
My commitment to that only-sometimes glimpsed deeper dimension entails a leap of faith. But even as I leap, I am also committed to staying grounded– grounded in the empirical realities of our experience. I continue cultivating those pathways by which I’m best able to reach deep meaning. Beyond that, I’m also eager to engage with others exploring those places in life where we feel most fully and gladly alive. * Sharing our experiences along these pathways can help support us in pursuing what matters most in life. Beyond that, our explorations may bring us a deeper understanding of the big picture.
In these ways, by investigating the paths that lead to deep meaning –by mapping our experience of the sacred—we may meaningfully slake our spiritual thirst.
- (Both of these earlier breakthroughs gave rise to insights that seemed to me important, and that I then spent years developing into books, one into The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, and the other into Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive us to War.” I am hoping to harvest the fruit of this newest experience in a book tentatively entitled Mapping the Sacred: Our Pathways into the Experience of Deep Meaning.)
* The undeniability of the inexplicabale was part of the pivotal experience of my own life. It was when I got the insight that’s at the core of my first book —The Parable of the Tribes—which is about the meaning of the human story of these last 10,000 years. That moment felt not like me thinking, as usual, but like me receiving a truth from some sacred source beyond me. The idea of such revelation had no place in my rationalist framework, but such was the bone-shaking, numinous quality of the experience that I felt it would be a betrayal of something sacred for me to deny that part of the truth that my own bone-rattling experience had given me.
* If you’re interested in such engagement, you can contact me at email@example.com