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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Meaning and Happiness Part 3

Here is the quandary between meaning and happiness:

If I accept the postmodern insight (which I have said in Part 2 is a retrieval of the Buddhist insight), that there is no final meaning, e.g. no ultimate truth outside the transient process of life, can I be happy? Can I be happy without meaning? Can I have meaning without happiness?

Let me summarize my argument for postmodernism:

1) In the premodern age, at the cognitive turn, homo sapiens began to use media (artificial, corporeal symbols) to deal with the environment. This was the beginning of language and culture, history and planning. This led to agriculture, civilization, religion, philosophy, and political economic order.

2) In modernity, humans realized that their symbols were artificial and transitory. But assuming the light of reason and timeless truths, they verified their symbols (models, ideas, propositions) through experiment and peer review. This culminated in the scientific and industrial revolution.

3) In postmodernity*, we are waking up to the notion that there are no timeless truths or really-real out there beyond our concepts. All reality is mediated and constructed and so we are having profound impact on our environment and each other. There are no entities, things, persons except those which we select. All is relational.

Using the language game of epistemology, homo sapiens goes from 1) naive realism or the look-see theory of knowledge where the thing is out there to be discovered, to 2) the mirror theory of knowledge which corresponds mind to reality, to 3) the social constructionist theory of knowledge where reality and mind appear in the dialogue of the human organism and its environment within a social context.

Or in other words, we 1) know through media, 2) we know we know through media, 3) we know that all we know is mediated and that there is nothing more to be known that is unmediated. No fixed, timeless truths, no certainty, no absolute unified theory, nothing permanent. Nothing is absolute, nothing is even relative. All is relational and every thing is a relation, should we choose to realize it.

This sense of contingency and transiency can be disconcerting, painful, intolerable, downright depressing. We can deny, fight, or flee this often informal sense of contingency by holding on to an absolute, a forever truth in a grand theory, a divine revelation, or a metaphysical essence. But even in flight we are forever reminded down deep in consciousness, that these are not so. The denial, flight, or fight leads to existential angst and, I would add, political oppression.

Back to the question: if there is no meaning outside the transient process of life, can we be happy? Yes, if we choose to realize (discover and construct) meaning within the transient process of life.

The mindful positive psychologist attempts to alleviate personal, existential suffering by 1) accepting the emptiness and impermanence of the self, things, and world and 2) letting go the expectation of final truth or the clinging to permanence by 3) personal and social practice, e.g. mindfulness meditation and therapy including kindness, compassion, and shared joy.

The social justice activist attempts to alleviate this suffering by 1) engaging with people in the situation, 2) helping people see the institutional habits of mind and behavior that are keeping them down and 3) acting together to change them.

These are two interwoven strategies for personal and public happiness in which we become InterBeing and build a Relational World. (So I translate Neitsche's Superman and Will to Power.) We take responsibility for drawing the lines between the points we select. We take responsibility for creating relationships and mending those that have been broken by our own illusory behavior, which Buddhists describe as greed, hatred, and ignorance, by fostering a world of kindness, compassion, and shared joy.

My Buddhist Sensei once uttered this simple thought to show me the relationship between these two strategies: "Reduce the ego to nothingness," he said indicating the practice of mindfulness that unveils the emptiness of the self. "Or expand it to embrace the universe," indicating action with others to mend and build relationships. "They are the same."


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*"postmodernity" is the word of contemporary culture. To differentiate itself from modernity, it often connotes relativity in morality, nihilism in philosophy, deception in politics, the abnegation of relationships, distrust of science, dogmatic atheism in religion. So I would prefer to use the term "transmodernity" to demonstrate a transformation without rejection of the modern and premodern. Yes, there is a facing of absurdity without ultimate truth, of a plurality of valid viewpoints, of the transience of all human products, and of a faith that holds to no beliefs. But at the same time we realize meaning in the human prospect and a calling to create a relational world which affirms the power of relationships, a balance in tension, the value of trust, the quest for knowledge, the fruitful life and sustainable happiness.

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