This is part of the ‘Ask dailyzen series’ where you ask me questions and I write a post responding to them. I don’t really claim to have straight-up “answers” but hope this will turn into a dialogue that can benefit both of us in some way.
“What is your purpose for living?” (asked by @lettucebandit)
This was the first question I received, which is appropriate, since it seems to be one of the broadest and most simply worded of philosophical problems. It’s been addressed more fully and frequently throughout history than I have the breadth of knowledge nor time to tackle here, so I’ll give a personal answer:
I stick with the assertion that there isn’t really any objective purpose. Life is a void and we fill it with our concepts of things. Emotional and psychological well-being are colored by the qualities we choose to associate with concepts. If you believe you’re in a world of shit, then that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
On the other hand, you can choose to simplify your life and remove the unnecessary. You can start anew, to an extent, and work slowly towards associating new concepts with old things. This requires training and persistence, but it’s not terribly difficult. If you build a sense of self-awareness, the self eventually begins to fade. If you get lazy and cease your practice, the self reappears with a vengeance.
Only the most serious of practitioners will achieve full ego-death, but the rest of us laymen (to varying extents) can spend a little bit of time each day temporarily peeling back the veil of self and examining what’s going on. Doing so allows us to live deliberately, calmly, and with a bit of wisdom.
My purpose for living is in this process, which is never complete. It’s the process of stripping away the unnecessary. I like the analogy of sculpture. You start with a big piece of unformed rock, and you have a goal of stripping away little pieces until something new, something human and evocative, remains. My purpose for living is to approach my life in this way, to remove the junk, mental clutter, delusion, greed, all the excess stuff that just taints the image of things.
The sculpture analogy keeps working, though. A master sculptor approaches his work slowly, chipping the smallest bit of stone away at a time. Maybe he can be sloppy when the stone is still big and unformed, but as the piece begins to require precision, he must move slowly and steady his hand. Calmness and patience are two qualities I expect to spend the rest of my life developing more fully. They are antidotes to the insanity of the contemporary condition in which we live.
Modern culture teaches us to approach the sculptor’s stone with a wrecking ball, that our “goals” (which are often delusional and damaging to ourselves and others) are just around the corner. This is all part of the modern illness, and it’s why the base assumption that life is truly meaningless is so important. You have no objective purpose here. All attachment is vanity, all desire causes pain. This is the human condition, and while there’s beauty everywhere if you know how to look for it, there is also a lot of ugliness and darkness.
The key is developing a strong awareness of the illusory nature of reality, to the point where you can transcend it somewhat. This process begins with simplification, mindfulness building, and doing activities that you are intrinsically motivated to do rather than those which are prescribed, expected, or based on material rewards. A good starting point for a meaningful life: practice meditation, declutter your world, rid yourself of attachments, and treat your body with respect.