I have noticed a lot of attention directed to meaning of life. Or the meaninglessness of life or for some perhaps, the meaning crisis. It is not new! This discussion, this pondering is the basis for existentialist psychology and philosophy. It has been around for a very long time. What are the elements of my life that create a feeling that life has some purpose, a reason to keep showing up and putting in the best I can bring forth.
The wisdom teachings of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, states very clearly the purpose of life is to be of benefit to others, to set this motivation every day and make decisions based on that. The only way to do that is to understand ourselves. Why? Because to help others is a really complicated problem. It is a daunting journey, hard work and full of surprise and mystery. One of the Buddhist teachers, Lama Yeshe, who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West, said that all negative karma resides in the unconscious. I thought that this was profound. Why? Because negative karma is based on negative emotions many of us know as greed, hate, revenge, envy, guilt, rage, vindictiveness, spite, malice, well, think of the seven deadly sins and you're on the right path. In a psychological framework, these are often relegated to the unconscious and act themselves out, are unknown and cause trouble. So many wisdom traditions including psychoanalysis and psychological astrology, all come to similar conclusions, but along very different paths. In other words, it seems that all true maps converge and this will be the topic of a series of blogs yet to come.
For now, back to the question of what gives life meaning. The Buddhist teachings say that life is suffering, so how do we make sense of the suffering and even transcend at least unnecessary suffering. GIVING. Now thats a good start. Take ourselves out of the picture. Now this is not to be confused with martyrdom or rescuing, saving people from themselves which is rife in our culture. This only encourages victimhood. For example, in my experience I have noticed within my family, my relationships, and clients that as women we have a very real tendency to want to make things better. Sure, of course we would, bringing children into the world, the feminine aspect is profoundly interested in this. However, it is confused with our own mostly unconscious unmet needs and clouded by a very real desire to be needed and to bring meaning into our lives. This is why the Buddhist psychology of the mind is so accurate, we have to know ourselves to be able to GIVE and BE OF USE TO OTHERS. Offer the world around us something of value, and not add to the suffering of life.
If we are interested in bringing meaning to our lives then to set healthy boundaries is absolutely the most compassionate act we can do for ourselves and others....and often the most painful. Painful because if we draw a line in the sand, others may not like it. We can put ourselves at risk of being abandoned, of being yelled at, of hurting someone, of being hurt. It can all be very scary. But to individuate, step into our potential, into our becoming we have to let go of the expectations others have of us and want us to be for them. It is not easy, but it truly is our only salvation. Sacrificing that which no longer serves our growth, or whoever doesn't want us to be the best we can be, is a very real and necessary sacrifice. It is also important to realise that allowing others to get away with abusive, manipulative behaviours does them a huge disservice. It stops them from growing and it keeps their guilty conscience playing havoc with their overall health. We all know when we have treated someone badly, its just a matter of whether we have the courage to stand up and call it out.
If we scale up, head for that which is on a trajectory of growth, then thats meaningful, because with that comes witnessing our abilities to create change for the better. That then helps to transcend our own pain and tragedies because we can see that small incremental steps done with a moral code, meaning if I get myself together, I won't hurt others, I can actually be a force for good. Now that's meaningful. For example, everything is a path to growth, especially our negative states of mind. When we feel envious of someone, it is especially good to point us to what we are lacking, to what we need to develop most in ourselves to feel fulfilled. It is a painful feeling very hard to bare, but is a beacon to guide us forward.
To watch a small child manipulate their environment to get their needs met is astounding. If left unchecked well we see where that goes, into grown adults who do the same and it's not so easy then to check it.
MEANING STARTS WITH TEASING OUT HOW WORDS ACT THEMSELVES OUT
How much of our lives are taken up with consoling, colluding, grasping, needing, being the receptors of others' states of mind and wearing them, and then it seems these can get confused with feeling empathic, being kind and compassionate, loving. Without understanding where our pathology meets our being a good person in the world, then trying to find meaning in one's life will continue be treacherous and filled with painful episodes of the same story over and over. Freud called this the repetition compulsion. Meaning "the desire to return to an earlier state of things".
To find meaning is to work out the meaning of behaviours and cultural concepts, words we all take for granted but know very little about how they function psychologically and emotionally, because our pathologies get mixed up in them. Importantly too is, how they become confused with our family of origin behaviours, patterns, and unconscious sub personalities.
Next blog for this topic!
What does this mean to leave a legacy? For me, it means what do I stand for? How do I want to be remembered? It has struck me in my own life that as time goes by and I get older, the meaning of everything changes dramatically, thank goodness! Coming to understand the legacy of my elders has compounded, particularly after my mothers death, I became so much more aware of the fact that they had all gone and I was left. I was the elder holding the torch for future generations. Yikes.
Firstly I had many layers of understanding and insight into exactly what has been left to me, which indicates that legacy is not something we understand in the moment but can actually bear itself over time, particularly when a family member dies or has a conversation with you and something comes to light that you didn't know.
I was visiting my father's cousin a few years ago whom I hadn't seen for a very long time. She told me about an aunt in our family who had spent 48 years in the Democratic Republic Of the Congo and adopted over 30 children! WOW! Ok well that's a new story, to me. I became obsessed with finding out more. Just before the pandemic I had made up my mind to go to the small township where she spent most of her life and meet my Congolese family. I had already made contact with a member of the royalty of that province who had invited me, pleased I had made contact and who himself, had be best friends with one of her adopted children!
Plans were disrupted, unfortunately. Point here is: this legacy has changed my perspective. Who else is lurking in my families with stories that help me piece together and make sense of my life? It has been an incredible process to reflect on her courage, her faith and her ability to stand for something that is much greater than herself.
"The Unconscious Can Make a Fool of You in No Time" Carl Jung.
The other than human beings and the natural world give us many clues in our interaction with unknown and unseen parts of ourselves. Recently, I had been grieving and feeling regrets, a process triggered by the death of my mother. All her side of the family were gone, and I felt a deep sense of lonliness. They were such an important part of my early life and decisions I made that were not ones I would make now, particularly in relation to looking after my old people who cared and loved me.
I felt after allowing the process to emerge and reveal itself fully, the time had come to intentionally connect with my ancestral land, my ancestors, the natural world and bring in the next phase of life. It was one week with a section of each day put aside for this in a consciously created way. It was remarkable. Why? I had honoured the regrets and past pains until that process had come to a natural conclusion. Opening an intentional space for the future to be ushered in, was truly a healing and constructive gateway to evolving afresh my next chapter. A crow wailed sorrowfully with me, kookaburras kackled above me moving me toward joy, and the full moon urged me to trust and shone a light on my dreams. This process of giving time to connect with the cycles of life, to know when it is time to feel the pain of grief and regrets but also to then bring in the new, is something we have forgotten. We have forgotten to realise that time given to these deeper aspects of life actually provide so much texture and depth to our lives, and helps us make the right decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities.
When we are deceiving ourselves, we hurt other people, because our understanding of right and wrong is based on our distorted story, which is often a long way from reality.
Early in life, I was hurt by other people’s self deception, and that lead to betrayal by people I loved who were supposed to care for me and create a safe home, and this is not uncommon, right? Early betrayals are really very traumatic and lead to adult life choices that can take us down an often, dark road. It takes hard work….and great moral effort, courage and self honesty to even consider a different path.
Telling the truth is the foundational aspect of therapy or therapeutic work of any kind, returning to childhood voluntarily with a witness, someone who can guide us out of the unconsciousness to participate in being more conscious, even though this process can be very painful, what’s the alternative? Well, in my humble experience and from working with others as a facilitator, counsellor, I can tell you the alternative is not a place you want to put effort into developing, and if we for a moment ask the question what is the purpose of this life? Then getting ourselves straightened out would seem to be the first step to at least finding that purpose, because if we continue to make choices and decisions based on our unconscious mind, the habit mind, this will place us at great risk of never finding this purpose. So, while the contents of the unconscious - the complexes and archetypal images and instinct groups - can and do disturb consciousness and even in some cases lead to serious chronic mental illnesses, the release of the unconscious through undoing repression can also lead to psychological transformation and the affirmation of life. I will give you a personal example.
Then we have an entirely different language, the languages of the Unconscious. This as I have discovered is a key ingredient in really understanding how to decipher seemingly incongruent events in life. But once we become familiar and comfortable with integrating this language, and we find the courage to follow these prompts from our unconscious, it seems to open different pathways and can bring about more integration and a sense of wholeness. Carl Jung has contributed much to this and was originally a student of Freud’s until they parted ways based on disagreements regarding in particular the role of religion and views on the unconscious. Our unconscious reveals itself to us through dreams, pains in our body, illnesses and other symbolic messages and visions, like re-occurring signs in our environment. Let’s look at these a little more closely.
The question you might be asking and a very valid one is well how do I identify the contents of my unconscious? How do I recognise that part of myself? The languages of the unconscious comes to us in different ways. Our unconscious reveals itself to us through dreams, pains in our body, illnesses and other symbolic messages and visions, other people, re-occurring events in our environment. When we allow ourselves to daydream, use active imagination, it really helps to awaken these parts of ourselves that are not transparent. Let’s look at these a little more closely in my next blog.
‘To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness.
Human beings came out of that wholeness’.
Gary Snyder, poet and author
There are informative nature based psychological templates that help to navigate this internal terrain. The map I felt drawn to was the astrological birth chart, that blueprint of our cosmic legacy that has been so poorly represented in our culture; we are not very good at providing encouragement for the inner journey of soul. Nor are we very good at paying reverence to knowledge systems that sit too much outside our rationalised ego driven frameworks. And it is these we need so much at this time.
In my studies of the early psychoanalysts, the map was clear: make the unconscious conscious. Now can be a harrowing journey, depicted in many of our stories, fairy tales, sagas, science fiction tales, and frames up this search for oneself. A very simple and well known one is Superman. Growing up on a farm with two loving simple parents, after finding him abandoned, they adopt him and he spent his life helping out on the farm ploughing fields and soon his parents realised his super strength and other powers. They encouraged him to use them for altruistic endeavours, to help his community. Soon, it became time for him to know his real identity, his real parentage and ultimately his destiny. This happened in a very dramatic way, there he was leading the life of a farm boy and then he learnt about how he crashed to earth in a time capsule!! Sound familiar? There are times in life we wake up to our own sense of who we are and what we need to do. Our parents no longer know the answers, or can intuit what we need; for our identity is being forged by something much deeper and greater than just our immediate family and parentage.
What if we viewed our work as a way to make sense of our suffering. Not as a source of suffering. If we truly saw ourselves as able to make a difference in our promise to do just that. When I consider leadership I mean helping someone else be the best version of themselves, in service to making impact in their own unique way. For me at this stage of my life, it's about eldership, not that one has to be an elder to be a leader but it is for me. Eldership is doing what counts now, that will flourish in the future, way after I am gone. And so too is leadership, creating the means for others to flourish, much like being a mentor. It is truly one of the best ways to make meaning out of life. At nearly 65 years of age, I can think of few things that are better than helping someone add to the list of people who aren't putting profit and making money ahead of finding a problem to solve (and there are plenty), finding the means to solve that problem and then keeping their promise to show up, no matter what.
For 20 years I have worked in remote communities in far north western Australia alongside Aboriginal families and organisations, we worked together to maintain and protect an ancient culture. To do this one of the ways I tried out with groups was a participatory planning tool, Stepping Stones. Not knowing if anything will work is well, a mantra in my line of work because that too is a big part of leadership. Ok let's give this a go, we don't know if it will work but we will do our best with the intention to solve a problem.
This tool worked over and over. Again and again. But the prevailing culture hasn't ever taken it up, in the way the people using it have. Which to me is ironical and deeply perplexing, given that it has clearly been something that has solved some problems. There are too many deeply entrenched habits and profoundly repetitive cycles of dominance and substantial amounts of ignorance and incompetence; someone has to be the victim in that story.