The meaning of life is obvious once you accept a simple fact: you are not yet fully grown. You have not reached the full potential of your life.
You might be 30 or 60 and fully physically grown. But still, there is more growth happening in you. Even as you read this. There is a part of you that is still in seed form, that has not yet broken through the ground and into the light.
What is the meaning of an acorn? Simple, right? It is to blossom into an oak tree. That is it’s purpose. It’s meaning. It’s inner form guiding it unfolding.
Doesn’t mean the acorn will become an oak tree. It might fall into the ocean. Or someone might crack it open. Or there is no rain. The meaning of the acorn guides its development when it is properly nourished. It’s meaning is it’s inner blue print, it’s form. But the form isn’t a guarantee of success. It structures how the acorn will develop when the circumstances are correct.
Hold on to this idea about the acorn. It solves the riddle of the meaning of life.
Ordinarily, discussions of the meaning of life fall into two extremes: the super-naturalists and the naturalists. Or in common parlance, the theists and the atheists. These discussions go nowhere and only confuse issues.
Super-naturalists claim that life has meaning because there is a super-natural world we are going to – heaven. And we get there through our soul, which leaves our body after we die. The meaning of life then is to get to heaven. The naturalists claim there is no such super-natural world, and there is no soul, and no heaven. Life is just as we see it in this world. This is all there is.
Super-naturalists and naturalists both forget about the acorn!
Meaning doesn’t require anything super-natural. In the acorn there isn’t a soul of the oak tree which leaves the acorn in order to become an oak tree. The soul of the acorn – if you want to talk like that – just is the form of acorn. It’s inner structure which guides its unfolding in its growth.
Any object which grows has a meaning to its life – the meaning being what it is growing into. That’s it. This doesn’t require any spooky non-natural souls.
The human analogue of the acorn is a baby. So, then, what is the meaning of life of that baby?
Well, it is to be a fully developed human being. What does that mean? No, it doesn’t mean something ableist, like that it means having two functioning legs, ears, eyes, etc. After all, the meaning of an acorn is to be an oak tree, but still there are many, many ways that an oak tree can be – some bigger, some smaller, some with more branches, some with fewer leaves, etc.
To get hooked on if a person has legs, or if they can hear or speak, is to be limited to only one dimension of human life – the body. Of course, people vary vastly in their bodily capacities: I am not Michael Jordan. But that doesn’t mean Jordan is more fully human than I am, as if I am a lower version of human compared to him.
That’s because humans have modes beyond the bodily. And no, not because of something super-natural. It’s because humans are fundamentally socio-technological beings. Humans tap into the social world of culture as part of their growth. This was the great transformation that made humans so dominant on Earth. They have collective learning. One generation makes some changes, and leaves those changes in the form of better artifacts (tools, technology), and the next generation hooks into the better artifacts and meets the world running faster than the previous generations.
Collective learning, and the pliable nature of the human brain which enables that, created modes of growth for humans which aren’t true for other forms of life. It created, beyond bodily growth, mental growth.
So the meaning of a human baby is not only to grow physically, but also mentally. But mentally how? We roughly know what a fully formed human body looks like. What does a fully formed human mind look like?
No, forget about Mozart and Einstein. That’s like Jordan all over again. Of course, Einstein is much smarter than me, just like Jordan is faster and can jump higher than me. I am now 40. I know what I know. And in some ways I can improve my mind and learn more. But this much is guaranteed – in my life I am not going to be composing symphonies like Mozart, or making new discoveries in physics.
Does that mean I am bound to be mentally limited in comparison to Einstein? That he is big, fully formed oak tree, but I am a small, less capable oak tree? No!
The kind of mental skills Einstein had are not intrinsic to all mental growth as such. They are a particular form of mental growth. A great, wonderful, beautiful form that is essential to our modern lives. But still, not essential to mental growth as such. Just as Jordan or Tom Brady’s skills are a great form of physical growth, but they are not intrinsic to physical growth as such. One is not less mature physically for not being a superior athlete.
Just as there is mental growth beyond physical growth, so too there is spiritual growth beyond mental growth.
Mental growth is not some spooky non-natural thing involves souls. It is the result of cultural learning becoming essential to humans.
Likewise, spiritual growth is not spooky, metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. It is a particular form of cultural learning.
Jordan can dunk beautifully, but he can’t compose jazz like Miles Davis. Davis can compose and play beautiful jazz – and so could greatly control sound – but he couldn’t control his emotions. Not like Christ or the Buddha could, or even as Martin Luther King or Gandhi could.
When one grows mentally, one doesn’t function on a different plane from the physical. Instead, one re-orients one’s physical being in a new way. Similarly, when one grows spiritually, one doesn’t leave the mental realm. Rather, one re-orients one’s mental being in a new way, such that one’s whole mode of being in and seeing the world changes.
That reorientation of the mental is called transcendence.
If society only had people with mental skills like Einstein and Darwin and Mozart and Davis, there would be great technological and artistic creations. But there would still be fighting and war, distrust and anger. To create a more peaceful world, there would have to be people who are able not just to excel at a particular mental activity (math, music, etc.), but who are able to root out the pain and angst within themselves so that they are walking beacons of peace and stillness.
People who are able to transform not just cultural artifacts in society (physics books, sculptures, etc.), but who are able to treat their own mind as an artifact and so change it from the root up. And who are then able to pass on that transformed consciousness to the next generation so that they are able to build on that progress. This is the spiritual story of human kind.
It is the growth happening within each person. To reach that kind of self-awareness and self-transformation. This is the main difference between you and the acorn. The acorn’s meaning unfolds without its awareness. Your meaning unfolds essentially through your awareness, and so how you guide your awareness and nurture it and take care of it is essential to your own growth.
The spiritual dimension of your being is unfolding at this moment, and at every moment of your life. It is the next stage of your consciousness, just as a sexual awakening is the next stage of teenager’s growth. Your daily consciousness is but a fraction of your overall consciousness – a mere tip of the iceberg of awareness. The unfolding towards a greater awareness of the iceberg is the inner journey beyond the outer journey of the physical body’s growth.
You might resist it, or deny it. But the growth in you continues to happen. You might love it and want it to happen faster. But the growth in you continues at its pace. Find that growth in you, and the pace at which it is happening, and you will discover the unfolding of your meaning, and the purpose of your life.
It is right there, within you, waiting to be discovered. And when you see it, it is like seeing an old friend who you knew all along you would meet again.