And why I have beef with the ideas of "making meaning" and "finding purpose"
How do we “make meaning” and “find purpose” in a world like ours? A warming world, a pandemic world, a world of ecological and economic crises, a world that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own despair? I was listening to a podcast recently in which the two hosts were attempting to provide some basic guidance in the context of these uncertain times, suggesting that we “make meaning” and “find purpose,” two phrases we’ve heard a thousand times before, as a way of coping with fear, hopelessness, powerlessness. We should “make meaning”, they proposed, by being kind to and helping one another, “finding purpose” in being of service in our communities. Some part in me groaned a drawn out, agonizing groan.
What do these phrases point to? Do they direct our movements in alignment with a deep, legitimate longing for an experience that is integral to our humanness? Or do they simply provide a coping mechanism, a socially-encouraged form of escapism that insinuates our deepest fears are true?
When I hear these phrases, I hear the hyper-individualism in our society: you alone have to make meaning in your life, you alone are responsible for finding your purpose. And the subtle implication is that the people you are helping, the communities you are serving, are mere backdrops or two-dimensional helpless props in your quest.
I hear the production-oriented push of industrial society: Get ‘er done. Make it happen. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Work hard and you’ll find success and happiness.
I hear the existential dread that haunts scientific materialism: we are essentially alone in a chaotic cosmic cauldron of indifferent forces and inanimate matter with no inherent “meaning” or significance, no genuine purpose in this swirling morass. And I hear the desperation to escape the existential dread, the terrifying despair that we are nothing more than fleeting haphazard biology birthed by the marriage of genetic mutation and environmental pressures. No wonder we’re desperate. This sets us all up for some pathways to hell bulldozed by good intentions.
I think of many of us who go to serve in developing countries often ravaged by colonialism, globalization, and free trade agreements, end up doing more harm than good. In an attempt to fill a void established by a society that calls us consumers, labor, supply and demand–that has fragmented communities and reduced most opportunities for connection to economic transactions and boundaried social hours–we end up in these countries unable to hear the local people amidst the din of our own desperation. The desire to flee from our fear.
I have been - to some extent at least - this person. And I’ve been called on it. I ended up in communities doing more harm than good because I was running from emotions I couldn’t tolerate. I was out of integrity, but this sort of sociocultural framing and suggestion to “make meaning” and “find purpose” paved the way for my behavior.
What’s the alternative? What might we do instead?
From "Making" and "Finding" to "Sensing"
I propose we chuck the whole “make meaning”/“find purpose” schtick entirely. These phrases only reinforce the very worldview that leaves us feeling isolated and insignificant by forcing us to look at the issue through this modern western prism that tells us we are alone in a cold, indifferent universe.
I think what we’re looking for is relevance. We want to know that we belong to a community, not just a human one, but a much broader ecological one and even a cosmic one. We want to know that in that belonging we are intrinsically valued, appreciated, and contributing to the well-being of all of the concentric circles of communities to which we belong, generating it for both those we know and those we don’t.
So I sat with this and got curious about what might be a better phrase that points us toward that experience of real belonging. The phrase that came to me initially was “sensing our relevance”; using our senses to receive the felt experience of being connected to, intertwined with, embedded in a web of relationships, rather than striving, forcing, producing, extracting. But as I heard it over and over in my mind it quickly mutated into a phrase that I think is even closer to the truth: “sensing resonance.” These two are related, but not the same. It feels like we’re sensing resonance as a way of ultimately sensing our relevance.
Diné elder Pat McCabe recently said in a talk, “Try having a love affair from the intellect. Tell me how that goes.” She laughed heartily for good reason. I think we’ve all been here: we want to have an experience of connection, love, belonging, relevance, but the harder we try, the further away it seems to be. The more we intellectually strategize to force the experience because we’re blindly running from and chasing emotions, the less we feel it. Knowing that, maybe we have to go in the opposite direction, maybe even meeting that terrible dread, that loneliness, that desperation. Either way, we have to stop forcing it and begin to feel whatever’s here.
We’re moving from an experience of thinking, planning, manipulating, controlling to one of receiving, allowing, sensing the true nature of our experience in and around our bodies, our beings. We’re learning how to have a love affair with life and it is by being with rather than by any kind of making or striving.
But as we start where we are, we can start to sense beyond that: we also begin to sense what feels “right.” We say that phrase all the time: “Oh, that really resonates!” Colloquially, we mean there’s a felt sense of rightness to it, a sense of truth to it, even if we’re not immediately sure why. But when it happens, we know it with a clarity that is visceral. This can be as subtle as the sense that it feels “right” to step out into the grassy field outside your home in the evening as the sun sets and take in the shifting light, sounds, and temperature through your senses. Or it can be felt when reading a passage, perhaps even one in this post, where you feel tingles through your arms or a subtle burgeoning sensation through your core that feels mildly pleasant, a felt sense of “yes, this!” In fact, the practice I offer now has been the result of following resonance. It wasn’t until I was standing alone one evening in the forest near my home that it landed that the piece that had been missing was integrating this work into outdoor spaces. I felt such a strong sense of resonance, such a compelling sense of “rightness” ripple through my body, that it overshadowed any lingering doubt. Resonance is a vibration felt in the bones, tissue, fascia, rather than a thought-based narrative that attempts to order the universe based on assumptions and beliefs not rooted in reality.
Of course, it doesn’t just have to be what resonates, but what feels dissonant. If we meet that with the same degree of curiosity instead of just dismissing it outright, we can still uncover a tremendous amount of information. Like little breadcrumbs leading into the unknown, we can start to find what it is that aligns with us in a way that only we can know. There is no external authority except our own felt-sense of “yes, yes, this is… me.”
And I think that’s exactly what we’re sensing: we’re starting to realize that our “self” extends far beyond the boundaries of our own skin, starting to understand the way our “self” is more than just our individual experience, but our being as a web of relationship, an ecology within, embedded in an ecology without. And each time we sense that resonance we’re finding an aspect of “ourselves” and the way in which we are integral to the living beings all around us. We belong to each other, and our presence is essential to the function of that web.
Sensing Resonance: Knowing to What We Belong
A spider does not perceive the world in the same way that a human does. The spider, practically blind, “sees” through miniscule vibrations. And where do these vibrations come from? Through the exquisite structure of its web, each tenuous chain of microscopic “balls”, transmitting back the music of the ecosystem into the spider’s body. Sitting like the iris inside a lacy eye, the spider tugs and flexes and tightens its grip on different strings, creating an interrogative experience with web and with world. Scientists have likened this behavior to the activity of a brain itself, sifting through and reacting to stimuli. Each tug is a question, each returning vibration a reply…
This begs the question. Where is the spider’s mind? Is it inside the spider’s actual brain? Is it in its spinnerets or legs? Is it in the web itself? Brain chauvinism, as I call it, has been falling out of fashion. Research across the realms of cognitive psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, and biology, have increasingly arrived at a concept that most indigenous populations already honor: the mind doesn’t just live in the head. It extends through the body. And in the case of spiders, and humans, it can extend beyond what we classically identify as a body.
Like a spider sensing the world via the web that radiates outward from its body, we find ourselves connected to the world around us through our senses, including a somatic sense of resonance. Perhaps when we are sensing this particular kind of vibration, we are sensing what synchronizes with and enhances our unique expression as a jewel in Indra’s net, as a particular expression in the web of beings to which we belong. And, in turn, our expression supports the health and well-being of this web.
There is plenty of nuance here that is beyond both the scope of this writing and the limits of my current understanding. This is a practice that requires consistent curiosity, taking nothing for granted, learning the subtle distinctions between resonance and experiences that might feel similar. We’ll have to learn how the feeling of deeper resonance through an embodied connection to this net is not the same as feeling our conscious and unconscious biases are validated. Yet we have to know that experientially, not just conceptually.
When I think about that moment standing in the forest in which I experienced that profound resonance, I remember the state I was in: I was feeling the ground beneath my feet, noticing the subtle coursing river of sensation throughout my body, aware of the space around my body as I gazed at the trees, listened to evening birdsong, taking in the forest through my senses. I was standing there knowing I wasn’t sure what was next, aware of the subtle discomfort I felt about it while not attempting to figure out what to do. I didn’t think about it this way at the time, but now I think this was the way I was listening for resonance. Even though the idea itself wasn’t entirely new to me, it was only then that I felt such clarity and resonance around it as I was sensing into this ecological web.
With these experiences, maybe we don’t have to do anything in particular to know we matter and instead come to understand that we have significance inherently. And then maybe we realize the only thing worth doing is that which brings us an embodied joy and aliveness, that it benefits the entire web by benefiting our immediate being. Perhaps that joy and aliveness isn’t even “ours,” but the web itself singing back to us, “This is who you are. Thank you for being.”
What if questions about “meaning” and “purpose” didn’t even make sense in this context, when we slowed down enough, listened and noticed deeply enough, to know the intricate connections that we not only sense around us, but also constitute us?
And what if the knowing that comes with this experience of interbeing, as coined by Thich Nhat Hanh, shifts our perspective entirely?
What a leap from the exhausting and isolating experience of a supposedly inanimate universe that we have to cope with by striving, making, finding. What a shift when we move from a cognitive orientation to life to one of knowing through our viscera, through sensing.
In this way, we are sensing our relevance in the great community of life, the web of being, through sensing the resonance all around us, a knowing that is at once deeply private and personal as well as threaded through the entire universe. Suddenly, one day, we may look up from whatever we’re relishing and know deep in our bellies that we are exactly where we belong.