More than a decade ago in writing my philosophy of the spirit and the flesh I came to the belief that the meaning of life was to return to God, the only thing that was real, and our true home. I wrote this at the height of my deep interest in and study of mysticism, the spiritual core of all major world religions. It was also written not long after the years I spent studying British Romanticism, particularly the art and poetry of William Blake, himself a mystic, for my master’s thesis. What was central to me in this belief, and still remains so to this day, is grasping the true nature of the ego, and seeing the self in relation to others and the world with this new understanding of the ego. My perspective on the ego, or self, is rooted in Eastern philosophy and Catholicism. After infrequently returning to the mystery of life throughout the years since, I have realized I misstated the purpose of life as the meaning of life. As I see it now, the meaning of life and its purpose are not the same; they are related, but not one and the same.
Life itself will never be truly understood; this is something we must accept and let go of. It is a war we will never win. The purpose of life cannot be fathomed because life itself, which I perceive as a spiritual consciousness, an impulse toward generation and creation that also expresses itself in unwinding and decay, renewal and rebirth, is that which while in human form we cannot fully share in or become integrated with. This is the fate of humanity—to be broken and impotent before the infinite spirit of the generative force of life as it is plays and manifests itself throughout the cosmos in endless forms and acts. But the purpose of each life, while I still believe it is to find and return to God, thus uniting all humanity in a universal bond, is also to manifest our individuality, to express the infinitude of God in physical, concrete modes. The purpose of life is thus multiple and seemingly endless.
I also contend that another purpose of life, which further connects us all in one grand tapestry of singular beauty, is to help others, to do for others in myriad ways. It is this purpose that returns me to how I began this post. In our very human quest to find God we must find our true self, which is the spiritual core of our being, which is always present but obscured by our human shape and our sensual needs and wants. The Devil may not exist, but we are always doing battle with the devil that is our ego, we are always fighting the fleeting urges of the flesh, and we are always at war with the meaningless, impermanent seductions of the world that we so often, easily, and quickly surrender to. To keep the devil (the ego), the flesh, and the world from destroying us, from tearing us apart and facing the void they leave in their wake, we must understand the true nature of the ego, namely, that it is an illusion; it is something that enables our survival but separates us from other human beings, preventing us from seeing our common identity and source.
Our true nature is to be one interconnected, interdependent global community, not billions of individuals continuously pursuing our own ambitions and goals without thought as to the impact on others. I have nothing against each of us chasing our dreams and desires, but when they dehumanize another, when they take from another out of sheer greed or pleasure in one form or another, then it is in these instances that the ego becomes paramount and destructive, further opening the abyss between self and other, self and world, and the breach will be that much harder to heal.
The self of which the Hindus and Buddhists speak may be a necessary component to our self-preservation, but we cross a line when we overstep the limits to our rights and freedoms and flagrantly, shamelessly, and often violently take advantage of another or the earth for excessive profit or pleasure, our egos becoming larger than life and the lives of others becoming unimportant to us except, perhaps, where they serve our own purposes. Here is where we must learn that the self is an illusion, that we are no greater, better, or more important than any other individual, nature, or even the universe, and that our self-centered thoughts and actions drive us to ends that wreak havoc on others and the world.
If we were self-aware, understood our place among the billions of others and in the cosmos we would be more compassionate and giving beings, we would see that the self, the ego, is an illusion, and does not matter in the scheme of things when there are humans across the globe who have nothing in comparison to what we have. We would begin to open our eyes and our “I” to the world around us, and shatter the mirror we are always gazing into that perpetuates the myth of our independence and of our identity as separate and different from others, deserving of greater love, respect, and things like fame, fortune, and power than others are. We must learn to see ourselves as part of all things, not distinct from them; we must learn the virtue of self-sacrifice and enact it on a daily basis.
For me, Christ exemplified this in the extreme in the Crucifixion, and our purpose is to imitate this act by giving of ourselves to others, putting their needs and desires before our own, provided it does us no harm. To make the world a more equitable and less volatile one, we must lessen the pain, suffering, and burdens of others, and we must do this through acts of giving, compassion, and loving-kindness. Through self-sacrifice, through serving others without concern for what we will gain, we limit the power of the ego and subdue it. When we turn our intentions and our will toward doing for those in need, we prevent the self from blinding us from seeing life in its true form—an eternal spirit of connectedness and unity.
The meaning of life is a whole different question. From my perspective, life has no exact, specific meaning. If life had a single meaning, a message that we were meant to determine and learn from the act of living, then we would have discovered it by now, no? But we have failed to do so. Yet there is no loss in this, because we have pondered and questioned, we have put our beliefs as to life’s meaning into action, whether the consequences have been good or ill. Life has no singular meaning, and so this presents us with yet another aim or purpose of life—to give it meaning. We truly are meant to treat life like a blank canvas and paint it with meaning. As humans we are meant to be artists, to color the world and make manifest the infinite variety of God, for we are the infinitude of God made flesh. And we do this with the fire of the imagination and through the sacrifice that is love. In the end, life must be lived with passion, for in the dance to the music of time passion is the movement that takes us step-by-step toward equality and unity, not just with one another but with the spirit of life itself that courses through the cosmos as well as each of us.