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Finding Meaning

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”  C.G. Jung

Jung makes it clear in the statement above that we cannot live a life without meaning. Things in life do not go as well when we have no meaning. Anxiety is very present in a life without meaning. Meaning situates us within the cosmos. It provides a frame for why we are here and how we relate to the world around us. Joseph Campbell defined myth as the stories that provide meaning. We have no unifying living myth for the age in which we live. We are surrounded by a world of particulars; pieces of a world jigsaw puzzle that just don’t seem to fit together.

I actually believe this lack of meaning is the essence of our dilemma around the environment. Our destructiveness towards the world we live in is a direct result of our struggle to find meaning in life. How so? If I do not have a strong center of identity, then I will seek an anchor in many ways and places. If my tendency is to look outside of myself for this center or anchor of meaning, then my identity is integrally tied to the outer changing world. For the outer world is in a constant state of flux: political positions change, styles change, fads change, and people change. Finding some fixed point of meaning within the changing outer world is difficult.

Jung discusses how we tend to have two approaches to this quest for meaning. We can allow the outer world a large role in defining our meaning. If we choose this path, then we project the archetype of centeredness – the Self – out onto something in the world. This would be the realm of consumerism, where our identity is strongly coupled to what we own, especially compared to what others own. This is a life where our fixed point of centeredness is at the whim of marketers, political ideologies or religious credos. This approach to life places us – the ego – in a tough situation. We are suspended between the vagaries of the outer world and the inner needs of the unconscious. Freud would say our ego is in service to the superego in such a situation and Jung would agree with this. However, Jung goes further to show how this relates to a spiritual emptiness, a meaningless existence. We just can’t tolerate this type of life forever. If we are lucky, then we will reach a point where we begin to search for centeredness within. We reflect on what our life is and how we need to go deeper to find a true solid center. We need to pull back the projection of the Self and look within. For you see, the Self, even though it is projected, has never left the psyche. This is the second path described by Jung. As Jung (CW 11, par. 401) says,

“Self-reflection or – what comes to the same thing – the urge to individuation gathers together what is scattered and multifarious, and exalts it to the original form of the One…”

So, by going in and doing the work of individuation we discover an inner sense of wholeness that serves as a true fixed point for us. We no longer need to buy things, over consume or follow someone else to find meaning. Meaning is an emergent property of the individuation process.

Why do we so often choose the first path over the second? Well, for one thing, the outer world is constantly beckoning to us. There is no shortage of messages, explicit or not, that we should be a part of the consumer culture. Peer pressure and advertisements are key lures to follow the collective path of ‘meaning.’ Perhaps it is also due to what is called upon us should we choose to follow the second inner path. Jung (CW 11, par. 411) tells us that,

 “… every step forward along the path of individuation is achieved only at the cost of suffering.”

Who wants to consciously choose a path of suffering? The irony here is that if we choose the collective path, then we will ultimately end up suffering. The shiny objects in the world will not provide true meaning for us. Try as hard as possible, one day we will wake up with that old anxiety back in our life. The suffering that arises from the inner second path is a more honorable suffering. It involves sacrifices, which we may not like at first. But ultimately lead to solidity in our lives. Remember that ‘sacrifice’ derives from the word ‘sacred.’

Our existential choice in life is always present. In this moment do I choose the outer path and let the world provide me with meaning, a shifting illusion? Or, do I choose the inner second path, one that leads to deep, solid centeredness? Each moment we are presented with this choice.

In this very moment, right now, which path do you choose?

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