The Loss of Meaning in Life

Written by Damien Brohon

Damien Brohon is an artist, a teacher and an author. He has been studying and practicing Buddhism and Dzogchen for 30 years.

Blog | Culture and tradition | Daily Life Testimonials | Reflections on life

In this article “The loss of the meaning of life “, Damien Brohon talks about the feeling of the loss of the meaning of existence and the possibility of openness it offers us.

The Loss of Meaning in Life
Photo de Sam Moghadam Khamseh sur Unsplash

“ Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”[1]

“Hello happy taxpayers! as Droopy would say.

This morning I wake up with the nagging sense that the world is a place “Big enough to search in vain.” Restricted enough to prevent any leakage”[2]. There is enough space to move around and go in search of happiness, fulfillment and meaning, that turns out to be unfindable or that escapes us when we believe we have finally grasped them. And moreover, one can never leave the world, or else in a perfectly illusory and ephemeral way (games, alcohol, drugs, passions, etc.) which announces a painful return to the famous and inevitable “reality”.

Everything seems pointless to me: we repeat like automatons words whose meaning has long been lost and everyone mimes sincerity out of social necessity but without really knowing why. The great founding stories (religious, political) responsible for giving meaning to human life crumble on themselves with majestic slowness like dynamited building bars (the soundtrack of this image could be this metal riff that I am listening [3] while writing, as a loud celebration of nothingness). Withdrawal into the private, intimate sphere does not guarantee anything: misunderstandings, incommunicability will guarantee that no real contact with others is possible. To paraphrase Dante: “You who have already entered here at birth lose all hope.”[4]

By showing us the inanity of our habitual belief systems this feeling offers us the possibility of seeing in a broader and deeper way…

 

Modern culture provides us with beautiful representations of this loss of meaning in life: Baudelairian spleen, Jarry’s absurd “Ubu Roi”, the aimless wandering of Samuel Beckett’s characters, Droopy the depressed basset hound of cartoons Tex Avery, or Portishead’s melancholic trip-hop. If this feeling is so present in our culture, it is probably because it often frequents our lives, giving our days and nights that suffocating tone where all resonance[5] with the world around us seems lost.

This feeling can arise in times of crisis when what seemed secure to us is challenged (comfort of life, relationships, work, etc.); but also, interestingly, it can occur also for no particular reason, with nothing in particular to shock us, just because evreything seems to us completely vain, without the slightest meaning, like a mechanism which turns to produce nothing other than its own movement.

But… “You know what, I’m happy!” as the hilarious Droopy would say again. Indeed, the fact of experiencing this feeling is the appreciable sign that we have the latitude to reflect on the meaning or the absence of meaning in life; which would not be the case if we were only in “survival mode”.

Perhaps our spleen or sense of the absurdity of life would not matter much if a tyrannosaur descended to devour us, or if militias came to massacre our family. Moreover, this feeling of loss of meaning in life is perhaps more fruitful than we think. It has been tested by great contemplatives whether it be Saint John of the Cross with with his ordeal of “the dark night of the soul”, or Milarepa when he became aware of his misdeeds; not to mention the Buddha when he left his palace and discovered the misery of the human condition (suffering, illness, death).

By showing us the inanity of our habitual belief systems this feeling offers us the possibility of seeing in a broader and deeper way. It’s the need to find authentic meaning in our lives that expresses itself, even if in a painful way.

Photo Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash

 

 

What would the Dzogchen tradition say on this subject? It would point to the fact that we despair of finding meaning because we always conceive of it as existing outside of ourselves, as something to be found, acquired, constructed, etc., whereas everything is already there and unconditional. This is expressed in the parable of the man looking for his elephant’s footprints in the forest while at home (Patrul Rinpoche), or the story of the poor man who sleeps on treasure without knowing it (in Asanga’s Treatise on the Sublime Continuity of the Great Vehicle). This is clearly stated in the fundamental text of Dzogchen, The Small Hidden Seeds (article here) :

 

«Within the space without body, there is nothing to cure!

For what abides originally as space,

There is no crossed legs, straight back and the like!

The natural expression abides as space,

It is the basis of transformation within the space. » [6]

 

A path then opens up to see (tib. rig pa) clearly what has always been there! Thank you depression, spleen, blues, feeling of loss of meaning in life, because the “vanity of vanities everything is only vanity” guided us towards the “emptiness, everything is emptiness”, and this emptiness radiates a luminosity after which it is not necessary to languish because fully there already.

 

 

[1] In Latin “Vanity of vanities all is vanity.” in Ecclesiastes 1.2.

[2] Samuel Beckett, Le dépeupleur, Paris, Edition de Minuit, 1970, p. 7.

[3] Gnosis, Russian circles album released in 2022.

[4] In Dante Alighieri, Canto III of The Divine Comedy.

[5] On this notion, we will profitably read Résonance by Hartmut Rosa published by La Découverte.

[6] A concise commentary on this text written by Mila Khyentse is available here 

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