Experience As The Gateway To Meaning

Posted by on Sep 7, 2011 in PGST Reflections | No Comments

These words are taken from Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which he wrote shortly before his death in 1961 –

“I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about. I have no definite convictions – not about anything, really. I know only that I was born and exist, and it seems to me that I have been carried along. In spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.

The world into which we are born is both brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning is a matter of temperament. If meaninglessness were absolutely preponderant, the meaningfulness of life would vanish to an increasing degree with each step in our development. But that is – or seems to me – not the case. Probably, as in all metaphysical questions, both are true: Life is – or has – meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and win the battle.”

To me, Jung’s words are a marvelous extrapolation on the theory of experience as the gateway to meaning, as opposed to the idea of experience as the attempted portal to meaning. He seems to be saying that by accepting the ALL of his life, he was left with a “solidity underlying all existence”. He does not speak of inner certitude or a blissful heart as something he achieved which then led to an experience of meaning and deep stability. This reminds me of what we often talk about in PGST sessions in regard to making friends with neurosis, ambiguous feeling and the vacillating ego, as opposed to the impossible task of emotional and psychological mastery.

I think if the ego is left in charge of meaning, it will attempt to gauge progress by the use of a brutal scorecard – “Disappointment 7, Pleasure 4 – f&^k! I’m losing the game of meaning and fulfillment!!” And “progress” seems to be the wrong approach entirely (and yet the only one the ego is capable of) to the essence of meaning. My experience is that meaning cannot be wrenched into the world through the grinding of self-will. It comes of it’s own accord, a gift of grace when one surrenders to, and fully participates in, creativity. We are, as Jung says, “incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness”, but a close examination of Jung’s life reveals, he was a man who showed up in a profound way for the adventure of his life. He answered the call. He was “carried along” by entering the creative flow and allowing meaning to manifest unbidden, as opposed to standing on the sidelines of life, telling himself he would enter the real game as soon as the intellect offered evidence of meaning. Again, when looked for, meaning is elusive and ephemeral, but when our ATTENTION IS ON OUR ACTION and we are in acceptance of our mercurial inner state, as is, then meaning often appears from a place beyond feeling and thought. It appears from a place more eternal and expansive; a place the intellect/head will never be able to secure, nail down, or master.

And because of this, when outside the realm of THE MOMENT (the only true experience), we can offer no sensory proof that meaning will always, ultimately, both rise to the surface of our lives and come to dwell in our deepest, truest self. We are instead left with “the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and win the battle.” That beautiful “anxious hope” may be the best our limited nature can muster, and yet, IN ACTION we are perhaps given glimpses of a reality that cannot be articulated with human voice, something that can be known but not expressed directly. As the poet Wallace Stevens says –

“The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.


A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.”

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