How to Find Meaning?
It seems our society is in flux, suffering from a crisis of meaning. Let's find ways to re-engage, connect the dots and tap into more meaningful conversations.
I don’t know about you, but I love it when a conversation leads to unexpected conclusions. It’s sometimes risky business ploughing into sensitive topics, even with old friends, because you never know if/when you might trigger an unwanted reaction. But, it’s exactly those frontiers we need to engage with. If we’re constantly avoiding the bigger topics, staying in the safety of banal talk and avoiding the expression of feelings and our deeper beliefs, it’s unlikely that we’ll grow. How much of your daily interactions allows for the exploration of deeper and meaningful subjects? We need to be intentional in finding and allowing the time for conversation, listening more and speaking less, detecting the patterns and connecting them into our personal story. In this way, we can make more sense of what’s happening within and around us, and along the way tap into a deep well of discretionary energy.
In the past couple of posts, I’ve talked about the way to turn your dinner parties into a more meaningful experience by curating the guests, choosing a theme and keeping the energy and conversation on track throughout the evening. I’d like now to decode a few elements that make the themed dinner party a success and that can be brought into our daily lives, if we are intentional about it.
The people count
You can forget about the theme if you don’t have the right people invited. That means finding individuals who are willing to engage. Especially in these days where so many subjects seem to be off-bounds, it can be challenging to find people who are willing to share and exchange at a deeper level on more sensitive topics. And some people just aren’t wired to participate in a bona fide two- or multi-way exchange. The other day, I was speaking with a perfectly well-mannered individual who is full of beans. He has multiple diplomas and can rattle off citations and facts with great alacrity. In our one and a half hours together, however, I probably spoke for less than 15 minutes. And at the end, without batting an eyelid, he asked to set another date in the diary for another ‘conversation.’ I didn’t mind the experience, but I reflected on my walk home how often it seems that people just want or need to be heard. On balance, it does seem that there’s not enough of an audience for all the content we want to share (to wit all the videos, images and blog posts online). This particular fellow is just not the kind of person I would invite to a dinner party, since every road leads back to Rome (and to him, in particular). In a group setting, it’s important to have a good mix of people, including those willing to set off on an exploration and others with a high emotional intelligence. But it’s important that everyone participates and that all the invitees get a just amount of airtime. Ideally, the people with whom you’re speaking are ready to share and to seek deeper more personal and meaningful connections. As we’ll explore below, meaning is found not just at an individual level, but can also be developed through the group, as a collective, reflecting the purpose for the wider community and society. The mindset of a good conversationalist is one that is at once able to contribute with gusto and yet knows how to listen actively and, at a meta level, take a step back to view how the conversation is going among the others.
The people with whom you surround yourself matter. Pay attention to the network you build. As Porter Gale described it[i], your network is your net worth.
Time is not on our side
In the vast majority of our dealings during the day, we are acutely aware of the time. Time is our constant companion, yet we don’t own it. As Oliver Burkeman so adroitly points out in his book, “Four Thousand Weeks,”[ii] we talk about ‘having time’ as if we owned it. But we don’t. Time’s our most precious resource with no option for a rewind and we need to be vigilant stewards of our time. Our days are typically filled with set moments and rendez-vous. The wake-up, school run, beginning of work, lunch time, conference call, trains to catch and, finally, bedtime… And life happens in between. In the West, there’s a certain exaggerated honor to being busy. There’s also perceived merit in being productive. In both cases, it can lead to a rather transactional approach to every interaction. You’ll hear phrases like: “I’ve got no time to waste,” or “let’s cut to the chase…” The rub is that having meaningful conversations will often require time. It’s hard (if not impossible) to impose a meaningful conversation when you only have a half-hour. You’ve no sooner begun chatting (usually with small talk) that you can instinctively feel the clock ticking down. Of course, depending on the person you are talking with, you might get somewhere meaningful, with a little more time. But something I’ve noted keenly is that the less there is a deadline, i.e. a specific time for the end, the more chance there is of having a powerful chat. For example, in my weekly podcasts, I have been using a format of up to an hour, but have been known to run over, according to how and where the conversation is going. Having an open-ended amount time does two things:
It allows us to focus on the journey, not the destination
It gives us the time to listen properly without needing to interject with our soundbites (for fear of not having the chance to express your own viewpoint).
When you look at debates in mass media, the shows are necessarily run like clockwork. As a result, the participants in a round-table debate will often just insert what they want to say rather than answer a given question, and/or they will be prone to interrupt another to impose their point of view. This is because there’s no time (or patience) for the fluff of active listening. That’s why I’ve always been impressed by podcasts such as Amit Varma’s podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, or The Joe Rogan Experience, both of which can run up to 4 hours long. When you have an indefinite ending or one that is ‘way out there,’ participants in the conversation will have the opportunity to listen, reformulate and ask further questions, rather than needing to recapture the speaker’s baton. That’s the implicit notion behind attention. We must attendere, or wait. Just as Freud said, as a therapist, that he must attend to a client, we must wait our turn and, ultimately wait until the meaning is formed. The more the time limit is vague or distant, the more likely non-direct thinking, that’s far more creative, can take place.
One of the most powerful, non-explicit elements of these themed dinner parties is the space for storytelling. If you were to do a scan of all the great TED talks, a majority of them would involve some kind of personal story. We all relate to stories, but some are more talented at storytelling per se than others. Yet, when you explore your own story, you’re probably the best person to do so! While each dinner theme provides an umbrella under which to steer the conversation away from more stultifying topics, the way we frame them is to encourage each participant to tell their story. For example, if we asked everyone to be a historical character or discuss a favorite play, we always explore why they made that particular choice. And, more often than not, therein lies a story. After we’ve all given our responses (to the themed question), questions that are worth thinking about include:
Which stories resonated most with you?
What (and why) were the most surprising stories?
What were some of the dots that you connected or patterns you spotted?
When we attend to meaningful conversations in a group, there is something magical about how meaning can emerge. Sometimes completely unrelated experiences share common facets, that can be as small as a detail or as large as the same conclusion. When you form meaning, beyond just the prosaic understanding of what’s being said, by connecting the sense of the story to your personal experience, it’s possible to feel a form of euphoria, or at least a strong bond. When the collection of individuals also feels that sense of connection, as a group, the shared sentiment is powerful.
Given the way our neo-cortex works, our brains are always looking for patterns and dots to connect. As Ray Kurzweil described in his bestselling book, “How to Create a Mind,”[iii] we are programmed to spot patterns. It’s our super-power, as human beings, to pull together meaning from a sequence of stimuli. And our second superpower is to relate those thoughts to the future. However, this preoccupation with the future (for example, awareness of a future appointment) will throw us off course from being present in the now. So, it’s important to learn to dig in on the present and put away fears of the future (and regrets of the past). It’s one of the most radical effects of psychedelics (such as ketamine, LSD, psilocybin…) to make you hyper aware of the right-here, right-now. Even without psychedelics, when we look at an inanimate object (so called as it without animus), we can breathe meaning into it when associated with other stimuli, such as a prior sighting of the same form or a relationship between its existence and another thought, event or thing. In our natural way of operating, we’ll then draw those connections into ourselves. More often than not, it will stimulate another set of thoughts that are generally egocentric. The true power lies, as a testament to our consciousness, in observing those observations. If we can give even those inanimate objects time and space, i.e. if we can attend to them, then we will allow meaning to emerge. But, insofar as our time is in constant hurry-mode, we rarely give enough recognition of that deeper meaning. Instead, we prefer to transact, tick off lists of things to do, and move the conversation onto our own agenda. We need to allow for the time to connect those dots and relate into them.
Listening without judgment
I’ve already written on the importance of listening, notably “Do you want to listen better?” When we listen to someone, there’s a natural tendency to want to relate into their account through our own prism. This leads people to think of their own stories. As a result, we can quickly end up zoning out from their story, waiting to find the moment to jump to our piece. My incitement here is to focus on purely attending to the speaker’s story, listening to their voice, observing their emotions and seeking their meaning. Reflect back what you’ve heard and ask probing questions. The big filter to watch out for is being judgmental. It’s all too easy to start critiquing someone, be it for example, their looks, posture, grammar or accent. It can be reassuring to put someone else down in your mind. However, not only will this corrupt your ability to lean into the story being told, it will affect your own ability to speak with authenticity. Your own auto-criticisms – albeit standards you might not hold up as high as when evaluating others – will crimp your honesty. I’d encourage you to take a listen to Julian Treasure’s TED talk on how to listen better. It’s got plenty of useful tips from a listening pro.
What makes meaning meaningful?
There have been different schools of thought as to what makes up meaningfulness. The Transcendentals talk about the three properties of Beauty, Truth and Goodness. Being in the presence of something beautiful is uplifting. Being truthful is a good bet. Establishing or investigating the truth is also rewarding. And doing good sounds obvious. Yet, in each case, there’s got to be nuance. I’m persuaded there is a scale of meaningfulness and that the depth of meaning will come from one’s perspective and attitude. For example, there’s certainly something far more profound about looking at a star-filled night sky versus a photo of Marilyn Monroe. Similarly, doing good sounds patently marvellous, but at what or who’s expense? Depending on how large an ego one has and how transactional one is will dictate the scale and scope of meaningfulness. As proposed in the Meaning Metre below, there is a greater sense of meaning the more the benefit is beyond the self. Many parents will know that having a family is a profoundly meaningful experience. But there’s always the possibility of bringing it back to yourself. This is the tension between being transactional (expectation of a return) versus being karmic (no expectation in return). For example, you might wish to have a child just to have your lineage carried on or to ensure that you are remembered after your death. You might make a donation to a local hospital and insist that the name of the wing be in your name. Your intentions count toward establishing a deeper meaningfulness! I believe that the more your meaning revolves around yourself, the weaker and emptier the meaning becomes over time. I believe strongly in and encourage the karmic concept of giving without expecting something in return. But of course, it's not something I do all the time with everybody. You have to be strategic about your resources. When I do create the time and space to be generous with others, it provides a sense of fulfilment that is much more profound and lasting than if everything were to rotate around me, myself and I.
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