Pragmatism, applications, and the meaning of life
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
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When talking to people about my ideas and writings, be them friends, radio hosts, or event managers prior to a talk, I often hear the following question at the end of the conversation: 'OK, but now, how can people apply all this in practice?' In the beginning, the question struck me as very reasonable and legitimate, so I felt a little guilty and embarrassed for having to think about the answer. But as I stepped back to ponder about the motivations behind the question, a whole new avenue of insight regarding our culture opened up before me. To anticipate the conclusion of this article, and without for a moment meaning to blame or criticise anyone who has ever asked me this, I think the question reflects a generalized state of psychic imbalance in our culture; so generalized that it comes across not only as perfectly normal, but appropriate and even smart.
Ultimately, all human reality is an internal phenomenon unfolding in mind. Even if there were indeed an outside world independent of mind, all of our experiences of that world would still be entirely in mind. Without the dynamics of mind, the whole universe might as well not exist. Therefore, any interaction we may have with the 'outside world' in the form of pragmatic applications or actions ultimately only has any meaning insofar as it translates back into something unfolding in mind. For instance, as a technology marketer, if I apply a new marketing technique that leads to more revenues for my company, such result will have human reality only insofar as it is experienced in my and other people's minds. At the end of the day, it all comes back to an internal phenomenon in the medium of mind. The 'outside world' is just an intermediary step; a means to an end. Only the internal reality of mind can confer any meaning to human life.
Now, my work is an expedition into the land of understanding, whether valid or not. It seeks to address the question: 'What the heck is going on?' And understanding is already an internal reality; a gestalt unfolding in the human psyche, not in the so-called 'outside world.' As such, my own journey, which I invite others to join through my writings and talks, is already a journey in mind. It requires no 'applications' for it is not a means to an end, but addresses the end-goal directly. It enriches life (or so I hope) not in a round-about, indirect way, but by nurturing the very matrix of life itself: the psyche. Asking about the 'applications' of what I do is akin to asking how to get the bus home when you are already at home. Why did you get an education? To be able to work. Why do you work? To make money. Why do you want to make money? To buy things. Why do you want to buy things? To live and be able to have certain experiences. Yes, exactly! At the end of the day, it's all about experience; that is, what unfolds in mind. Everything else are means to arriving at experiences. And since understanding is a primary experience that frames, shapes, and colors most – if not all – other experiences, why wonder about its applications as far as people's actions in the world 'outside?' We're already dealing with the core issue; already sitting comfortably on the couch at home. So why ask about the bus?
Even after reading the above, I bet you still feel that something is off with my argument; that everything should have some kind of concrete, pragmatic application in order to have any value or meaning. There is a kind of uneasiness associated to embarking on an intellectual journey when the journey's guide tells you upfront that he doesn't care at all whether the journey will have any practical application. But fear not, you aren't alone in this feeling. It is shared by our entire Western culture; a culture that has now infected the entire world, the East included, like a virus.
The problem is that we, Westerners, project all meaning onto the outside. We stopped living the inner-life of human beings and begun living the 'outer life' of things and mechanisms. The answers to all why's must lie somewhere without and never within. I even dare venture an explanation for how this came to pass: Because of Western materialism, we believe we are finite beings who will, unavoidably, eventually cease to exist. Only the 'outside world' will endure and have continuity. As I argue in my fourth book, which I am now writing, this is nothing but a fairytale. But fairytale or not, it causes us to project all the meaning of life onto the 'outside world,' for only things that endure can have any significance. The world within, though remaining the only carrier of reality we can ever know, is seen as ephemeral and, therefore, meaningless. Such is the unsustainable imbalance of our way to relate to life. We emptied ourselves of all meaning and placed it all outside. Yet, even that 'outside world' is, ultimately, an abstraction of mind; an abstraction of the world within.
When people talk to me about my ideas and their own philosophical speculations, I sense that, intuitively and deep inside, they know that life, ultimately, is a journey in mind and nowhere else. They know that what we are talking about is already it; it's already all that matters. But towards the end of the conversation, when the enchantment of the discussion wanes and concedes ground to the analytical ego, they seek the reassurance the ego requires in terms of finding 'practical applications.' It is as though they needed to cover that ground for completeness sake, even though their intuitive minds know that everything of real importance has already been covered. They need to tick the box, like a compulsion or obsession that endures despite lacking any substance.
Life is a laboratory for exploration along only two paths: feeling (as in love and fear) and understanding. Nothing else exists but as evocative devices; 'tricks' to evoke feeling and understanding. All meaning resides in the emotions and comprehension unfolding within. While I, as a human being, also walk the path of feeling like the rest of us, my writing focuses on the path of understanding. Are there practical applications for my philosophy? Probably there are many. However, in my current phase, I can't care to elaborate on them, because I see them as means to an end that I am already tackling directly. So if you are looking for recipes, techniques, and other pragmatic procedures to apply to the world 'outside,' I am not your man. But if you think the world can only change when human beings make peace with, and nurture, their feelings while advancing their understanding of self and reality, then let's have a beer.