Life doesn’t come with a compass. Time doesn’t pause for us to find the way forward. How do we orient ourselves in this life?
There have been many answers to this question, many of which were given by much wiser people than I. My answer starts with the understanding that the meaning of life is not an explanation—it’s something you do, not something you think.
When I studied NLP, one of the most useful things I learned was this: The meaning of your communication is the response you get, not what you intended to convey. This is particularly true in modern life, where so much of our communication takes place in text. If I email you a joke, and you take it seriously and feel offended, did I communicate a joke? Not really. I emailed a joke. I communicated an insult.
The meaning of your communication is the response you get.
The reason this is such an important idea is not because it’s true, but because it’s useful. It gives me a chance to vary my communication until it successfully conveys my intended meaning. It changes the frame from victimhood to responsibility.
Another maxim in NLP says that you cannot not communicate. To demonstrate this, my teacher walked over and stood facing the corner of the room in the middle of a lecture. After standing there for a minute, he turned to the now confused class and asked, “Did I communicate, or not?”
You cannot not communicate.
As anyone who has ever been asked, “What’s wrong?” because they were being uncharacteristically reticent can attest: silence can speak volumes. Whether he kept lecturing, stood silently facing the corner, or walked out of the room entirely, my teacher could not avoid communicating.
Meaning is an experience. It’s something you know directly, not through words and ideas. Whether it’s the meaning of an email, or the meaning of life, words don’t reach it, they only point.
When I began formal Zen practice, my teacher presented me with a koan, a paradoxical Zen teaching parable. When asked to present my understanding, I launched into an explanation. He gently stopped me and said, “The answer to a koan is never an explanation.” He wanted me show him, not tell him. I had to become my answer, and then do something to show what I had become.
The ultimate koan for all of us is, “What is the meaning of this life?” And the answer is not an explanation. What you become is the meaning of what you do, and you cannot not do something. So what will you do? How will you orient your life?