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What is the meaning of life? What is our purpose? What happens after death? Why is there something instead of nothing? These are some of our basic existential questions. Why do we even ask these questions?
Throughout history, our constant yearning for answers to the existential questions drove – and still drives – our creation of mythologies, religions, arts, sciences, philosophies, literature, belief systems and whole worldviews. Our great literature and art arouse in us feelings of awe and wonder but also dread, and mystery surrounding these questions. We are all familiar with many of the stories and myths of heroes who go on great quests. On the surface, these narratives may be about finding a golden fleece or Odysseus finding his way home after the ten-year Trojan War or Buddha returning from a forest after many years of meditation and getting enlightened. Lurking below the surface of the literal description of facts of who went where and did what lies a deeper meaning in which we find the protagonist so often in search of answers, justice, order, and ultimately and most importantly a way to make sense – to make meaning – out of the world in which they find themselves. Robert Kegan, a Harvard psychologist, writes in The Evolving Self (1982) that "it is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making.” What Kegan is driving at is that meaning-making is a compulsion rather than something we choose. We often mold ourselves on these heroes and protagonists and aspire to be like them. We do this so that we might have a guide in helping us to make sense of the world and find meaning in our lives.
In part, we collectively have created the many stories, tales, myths, philosophies, religions, and worldviews to abate the existential dread that is liable to envelop us like a long ceaseless night when we confront these existential questions. Nietzsche described this feeling as the realization that when one "look[s] into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." His imagery is even more fitting to ponder when just recently scientists produced the first image of a black hole, which is at one and the same time the destroyer of all that comes near it and yet the same object that gives galaxies their structures.
Existential dread may turn into full-blown existential crises, but it need not necessarily do so. After all, Isaac Newton describes his own sense of facing this void in a rather joyful manner. He wrote that “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” The difference is one of perspective, meaning-making, and self-knowledge.
Today, we may have innumerably more opportunities and cognitive tools leading to many more ways of creating meaning than at any time in the past. For example, a villager who lived in the 9th century in what is today France had minimal knowledge and a limited well from which to draw. He or she was likely illiterate and could only draw upon the local customs and tales as well as his or her own experiences, which were usually geographically limited. Today, we have instant access to the whole of written and known human texts as well as the many interpretations of our histories. We carry around devices that allow us in a few short keystrokes to find instant answers to many of our daily questions. We may never be physically lost so long as we have our GPS enabled devices in-hand. When it is so easy to answer so many questions, perhaps it becomes more apparent how hard it may be to answer the existential questions. At some stage in our lives, often triggered by an event, the sense of dread begins to creep in like a late evening fog obscuring our possibilities. Instead of helping us to create more meaning, what is sometimes called the tyranny or the paradox of choice comes into play and we end up less able to pick amongst the many meaning-making options. Perhaps it is our experience of this new complexity in the world as well as the fragmentation of our daily lives, which separates and isolates us from the rest, that contribute to the existential malaise that so many of us appear to have and that appears to have been steadily increasing over the past decades.
Still, despite the increased complexity and fragmentation of our daily lives, our core stories and existential needs remain the same. Our human nature has not changed in thousands of years. We still yearn for answers, meaning, and purpose. It is likely why you are reading this text. It is why we started on the road that led us to write this text and found this institute.
What is at the heart of this demand? What lies behind these questions that we ask? And how might we find peace with our ultimate inability to answer these questions today? Can we find our purpose and live meaningful lives without finding answers to these questions?
The act of answering these questions leads to a realization of our innate existential drive. Let us repeat this so as to be as clear as possible, is it the act of answering (or attempting to answer) these questions and not necessarily the answers that we give that is the most important.
Some of the most brilliant leaders from the great lawmakers, to the philosophers, and to the most revered prophets and religious heads have sought not just expressions of but answers to our existential questions. These leaders sought to pierce behind the literary or narrative expression and sought out the core reasons behind them and sought to form a coherent and logical framework out of them. These leaders made the turn from expressing examples to systematizing and developing coherent frameworks for how we ought to live. Yet we don’t find a ‘winner take all” framework which we should expect as human nature and the existential questions have always been the same
In the process of distilling from this rich tapestry of historic and current thought, we have stumbled into a very powerful and yet a simple framework that we think will enable us to realize our full potential for flourishing.
At the root of our existential drive lives a steady core, what we call as our intensional core: loving, learning, and playing (LLP). The big existential questions to which we seek answers are our minds’ way of bringing to our attention these drives, just as thirst and hunger are our bodies’ way of bringing to our attention our need for drink or food. Similarly, loneliness is our way of feeling that we need to reconnect to the community and overcome the feeling of separation, curiosity is for us to keep learning, and imagination is to induce us to play!
Freud said there were only two things that mattered in life: “lieben und arbeiten“ (to love and to work). In the French enlightenment, the trinity of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was the beacon. For us, the new trinity for a fulfilled life is Love, learn and Play for which we believe we are hardwired.
Our key insight is that to be is to love, learn, and play (LLP). These three are our highest ideals, our most significant sources of joy, and our most evolved and deep-seated of our existential drives and most importantly also as our ultimate ends. Everything we do in life is a means to lead us toward these three or is extensional to our intensional core. Loving, learning, and playing form the basis of our individual and collective flourishing. They do this by directing our expansive mental energies towards the good and more nobler pursuits. We can love infinitely, can play infinitely, can learn infinitely, which is why these are ultimate ends. In contrast, we can’t eat infinitely or have sex infinitely.
If we look back at our lives and ponder over moments of unhappiness, dissatisfaction or a feeling of void, we will find that we were not fully engaged in LLP or we did not have each of the three in the right proportions. Unhappiness which in its extreme manifests as depression is caused by our disconnection from the things we need to “be”, i.e., to be fully engaged in LLP. We can watch a seven month old baby - all the baby wants to do, once her biological needs are met, is to Love, learn, and play. This is because we are selected to cultivate a LLP mindset. We can be rich or poor, belong to any religion or no religion, be at any stage of mental development, and the LLP mindset will enable us to fully flourish. And we don’t even have to find answers to our existential questions. In modern technological terms, we can think of the LLP mindset as an app that is compatible with all operating systems, i.e. those of all religions, all belief systems, science and self- help movements. Furthermore, realizing and opening up to the LLP mindset allows us to enhance the goals of each of the aforementioned areas and ultimately leads to us flourishing to our full potential much faster than if we were to remain ignorant and closed off from the LLP mindset.
What, then, is love? The idea of love has been of intense debate and speculation throughout history. It is the most used and abused word in human history. We often confuse love with physical relationships and thereby only allow ourselves to see one manifestation of love. We even conflate the words love and relationship.
Love is more than just being in a relationship, or lust or romantic love, although romantic love is indeed a type of love. To quote the early Christian Paul of Tarsus (5-64/7 CE), from one of his letters to his fellow early Christians at Corinth: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." Paul writing in Greek uses the word agape. The classical Greek thinkers delimitated seven types of love: eros (erotic or sexual love), philia (love of friends; friendship), storge (familial love), ludus (playful love), pragma (practical love based on duty), philautia (self-love), and the one that Paul uses agape (universal love). Here, and elsewhere, Paul is extolling the virtues and describing the character of true universal love that is a love for all. After all, we are all rooted together. When we live our lives consciously we will realize that not loving the other is the same as not loving ourselves.
Erich Fromm, the mid-20th century psychologist and philosopher, in his The Art of Loving wrote of love “as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, love is our universal yearning to find what we have been separated from.”
Across cultures, we find different ways of reasoning about these different dimensions of love. Furthermore, it appears that many cultures have been awakening to this deep universal love and have often done so independently of each other.
To love, then, is to have deep-seated compassion for the other. The highest forms of love would have us give entirely of ourselves without an expectation of reciprocity. It is often said that we do not truly know what love is until we have children. This is because, at that moment, we most vividly confront this existential and transcendental reality of love. Having children is not a prerequisite for coming to know and embrace this love, it is one truly powerful event that has the potential to push us towards this understanding. We can learn to cultivate and awaken to this possibility of love in our daily lives in other ways, which we will see in later posts.
When we are selfish, unkind, arrogant, narcissistic, angry, greedy, or vindictive, we are not loving. We are not loving in those cases because love manifests itself when we care for something other than ourselves and with no expectations of a reciprocal reward (although it will happen because of the other’s need to give in love) or relationship and in each of the aforementioned cases we place ourselves at the center. We misunderstand love in our devotion to resources and power and have often not been taught the true meaning of love. Part of the truth of love is that we can express love in all of our relationships: between individuals, between groups, societies, as the underlying value of business and political organizations in everyday activity of our personal social and economic activity. How much humanity will be better off if we all recognized the true nature of love and the second order effects of others loving us selflessly! When we finally come to realize intimately our deep interconnectedness, we will understand that by loving others we are in fact loving ourselves in the truest sense.
For the past 75 years, The Study of Adult Development, run out of Harvard, has been tracking the physical and emotional well-being of over 700 men who grew up in Boston in the 1930s and ’40s. It is one of the longest and most comprehensive longitudinal studies of its kind, closely following subjects from their late teens and early twenties all the way into their eighties and nineties. “The 75 years and 20 million dollars spent on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion,” Vaillant writes. “Happiness is love. Full stop.” St Thomas Aquinas states, “love… precedes desire and desire precedes pleasure (I a II ae q 25 a 2),” and “love is naturally the first act of the will and appetite.”
What do we mean by learning? At its most basic and profound level we see learning as a process of creating order from disorder in an attempt for meaning-making where we take the complex world that we experience and attempt to make sense of it via our very limited cognitive apparatuses. Robert Kegan views meaning-making as fundamental to understanding humans and as something that develops throughout our lives. We learn differently at different stages in our lives because we are constantly expanding our horizons, our conceptual frameworks and cognitive tools. A child who is at an early stage of mental development can't see beyond itself, while someone at the highest stage of mental development sees the complete interconnectedness of life and every black and white as different shades of gray.
To learn means for us to acquire new information that changes us. Learning is needed because we must move through the world and update our knowledge to be able to better interact with the world in the future. In this way, learning is fundamentally a process of growth and change. We cannot be the same after we learned something as we were before we learned that something. Gathering information about ourselves, about the environment, and about how we relate to others are the dimensions of learning.
Learning is integral to what it means to be alive and appears to be a fundamental part of reality. One way in which we can distinguish between that which is living and that which is not living is if it has the ability to learn or not. A stone, a grain of sand, even a star cannot learn. There is no means in these inanimate objects, no matter how complex or massive, by which they can be said to learn. Instead, these inanimate objects are entirely beholden to what is known as entropy. Following the second law of thermodynamics, these objects will move irreversibly towards ever greater disorder. Life, on the other hand, fights against entropy and disorder. The great physicist Erwin Schrödinger described this property of life as "negative entropy", which is the ability to turn disorder into order. Learning, in this view, then is the means to take disorder and turn it into order.
Another aspect of learning is to recognize that we have limited cognitive resources and reality is infinite relative to our endowments. Learning is to be aware of our ignorance and how it can detract us from our purpose. As the classic adage goes, “The more I know, the more I know what I don’t know.” In this way, we can see that the purpose of all learning is to be fully conscious of learning. True learning brings humility, gratitude, appreciation of the beauty of diversity, and interconnectedness of life.
Learning is also to be able to see things as they are (and aren’t). It is not just extracting meaning from them, because meaning may be right or wrong. For example, we see a table and view and experience it as a solid object. Our current understanding of physics tells us that the table is not solid in the ordinary layperson understanding of what it means to be solid. Instead, the table is 99% empty space and composed of billions of individual atoms that are in constant motion (which we cannot see). The table itself is also continually changing at the microscopic level. As light (photons) hit it, electrons are given off in what is known as the photoelectric effect for which Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize.
Returning to Newton, who we saw above viewed learning as play, when we are able to realize our LLP we can start to be fully conscious of learning. This can lead to living life consciously and a state where learning is like breathing.
Learning is not an isolated or individual enterprise. It is through learning and sharing with others that we have evolved and accumulated so much knowledge and yet we want to learn even more. Learning is the urge in each of us through which evolution carries its march forward!
Although learning is so fundamental to us, we are often supremely bad at it. A recent psychology article spotlights this fact by showing that individuals routinely reject the option of testing their prior beliefs, which we all ought to do.
T.H White captures much of what we are trying to express with these thoughts: “You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
What do we mean by play? Play is an intrinsically self-motivated behavior. It is not coerced or forced and is observed across many different species. It is an act or set of actions that are done for their own sake. Play has no other ends than itself. Scientists across disciplines have been coming to study and realize how important play is in terms of development (shaping our brains) as well as its role in creativity, innovation, and health.
Think back to when we were children and played so freely and often. What was the purpose of the thousands of different games that we made up? What was the purpose of building forts and going on treasure hunts seeking some long-lost booty hidden in our neighborhoods? Why did we run around playing tag? It was all because the activity was itself intrinsically motivating and fulfilling. We laughed and cheered and lived in those moments because in those moments we felt alive. No wonder it was and still is so hard for parents to wrest their children away from play to return to the other world. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche ultimately likened the truly awoken spirit as one that is akin to a child. Someone, Nietzche thought, who was truly free would come to every moment and experience as if it was the first time always remaining in joyous awe of our existence.
Gordon Burghardt, a professor at The University of Tennessee, who studies animal behavior has defined five criteria to distinguish play from other behaviors. For Burghardt, for something to play it must not be fully functional. That is, the action is not purely utilitarian. Instead, the action is often repeated and starts spontaneously from an inward generated design, not as a reaction to some outside stimulus. The action is also quite often missing a final act, such as with play fighting there is no killing or injury at the end. Finally, play only occurs when the organism is in a relaxed state, which is why we observe zoo animals in more play than their wild counterparts. Play is a deep drive in us, but it also appears to be a general drive of all (or at least a great many) organisms. Some recent research has even theorized that play is essential to more efficient learning strategies. Quoting from Stuart Brown’s book Play “It [play] is about learning to harness a force that has been built into us through millions of years of evolution, a force that allows us to both discover our most essential selves and enlarge our world. We are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play.”
We can even see play at work in terms of learning strategies when we look at innovations, inventions, and creativity. In a TED talk by the science writer Steven Johnson we learn the fascinating history of how the modern computer may have started with a flute and find out that, contrary to Thomas Edison, necessity may not be the mother of innovation. As Johnson points out, some of the most transformative ideas and technologies, like the computer, didn't emerge out of necessity at all but instead from the strange delight of play. The flute was invented by our ancestors who started to learn about vibrations from using it. These first observations would then go on to lead to the creation of organs, push levers piano, and the harpsichord. In other words, playing with forces of nature to understand its mysteries results in many ideas that lead to innovation.
How does this all tie into flourishing? What does LLP have to do with flourishing? We must first consider what it means to flourish.
To flourish means to grow and blossom into our full potential. Our ability to flourish is necessarily a combination of circumstances (context) and our potential. We can see this when we consider the flower metaphor. The word flower and flourishing share a common root word and that is likely no accident. There are linguistic commonalities between these two concepts in other cultures too. In Hinduism, the puja, a prayer, is often known as the "flower act." A rose may bloom in a well-tended garden but may also be able to blossom in concrete. The lotus flower found particular value as a symbol in Buddhism because of its lifecycle starting out in the muck and mud to ultimately bloom into one of the most beautiful flowers. Just as with the lotus flower that pushes its ways through the mud to realize its ultimate ends, we too seek to realize our ultimate purpose, which is to flourish and we believe that the best way to do this is to consciously come to know, understand, and maximize our core, our roots, and our drive towards loving, learning, and playing.
Just like a flower to fully bloom requires sunlight, air, and water so we need LLP to fully flourish. We know that to fully flourish we must follow our innate drive of loving, learning, and playing. Approaching everything we engage in life with an LLP mindset is the key to living a fulfilled life and flourishing to our full potential
While we have our lodestar in LLP mindset, the path forward has yet to be fully illuminated. Our exhaustive review of a vast amount of literature spanning the sciences and humanities clearly showed this to us. We will devote a future blog to this.
Over the forthcoming posts, we will examine and see examples of the two major obstacles that prevent us from engaging in our LLP drive and flourishing. We will introduce the phenomenon of Means Ends Inversion (MEI), and Means crowding out ends (MCOE), which is the key obstacle to our flourishing. We will also investigate and see examples of MEI/MCOE and how we all fall victim to turning means, even when they are quite useful, into ends and how this perverts our LLP drive and hinders our ultimate goal of flourishing. The simplest example of MEI is money. Money is necessary as means to fulfill many needs. But as we grow up in our socialized world, maximizing money becomes our main goal and life passes us by in our chase of money.
Means and ends debate is not new. Philosophers like John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes had all given us the same message: to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.” However, we see MEI happening much more forcefully at the level of individual, organizations, and countries as our life is getting enriched but more complex. More so this phenomenon is happening without us being aware of it
The key to overcoming MEI/MCOE is to be aware that we experience reality through our minds. We are the only species that have significant excess mental energy over and above that which is required to fulfil our basic biological needs. This excess energy must be put to use and we do so by using this excess mental energy in asking and trying to answer the existential questions. Yet our minds have limited cognitive capabilities compared to the infinite reality that is all around us (e.g., we see only a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum). On top of it we are subjected to several cognitive and psychological biases such as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor information that supports what we already believe.
In addition to our limited cognitive abilities, our inherent biases, we are also subjected to dominant false narratives, which are those stories that we collectively tell ourselves about ourselves, our history, and how the world works that turn out not to be true. For example, we glorify the pursuit of our selfish interests under a narrative that doing so will lead to the overall good for society. We are led to believe in the virtues of rugged individualism instead of seeing the reality of interconnectedness of all life. Another false narrative arises out of the misinterpretation of Darwin’s use of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to mean that we individuals are constantly in a knockdown fight with the other. We will show many more examples of operating false narratives in subsequent posts.
These dominant false narratives become a strong component of the socialized self that we layer over our authentic self in the process of growing up. As the voice of our socially constructed self starts dominating over the voice of our authentic self, we start to make wrong choices that drive us into MEI/MCOE. We will also look to ways to avoid the obstacles. We will see that the key is to live consciously and not compulsively. As we live consciously we can see the interconnectedness of all that there is, appreciate and embrace diversity, and see the other with love and compassion rather than fear and envy. Our judgement will be substituted by compassion, hate will transform into love, and selfishness into altruism.
We will see examples of how others have been able to do this as well as investigate some recent developments in psychology and neuroscience that will give us a better understanding and hopefully new means to live consciously.
Finally, we will also see that that the LLP mindset acts as if radiating outwards from ourselves.
This is perhaps the easiest to see with respect to love. We naturally start off with caring more about ourselves and those most closely related to us. As we progress in awakening our LLP mindset our concern grows ever outward from family and friends, to community, to our nation, to the world, and ultimately to the entire cosmos. As Mother Theresa said -we draw the circle of family too narrow. Expanding our circle of love as we expand our awareness is the key to living a meaningful life
The same pattern holds for the other two components of LLP: learn and play.
We begin by learning about ourselves - how to crawl, to walk, to speak, and so on. Our learning progresses outwards as well so that we learn about the external world and the social world until we reach the stage of learning that all is one and interconnected and all the insights that follow.
Our play naturally also starts with ourselves and the immediate physical gratification. Again, this spreads outward so that our play evolves and becomes not just physical, but also intellectual, creative, emotional, and spiritual.
Finally, we would like to leave you with what we consider to be one of the most inspirational quotations of the past century. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic Jesuit priest, who wrote extensively about the future of humanity once wrote that: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” We believe that by adopting the LLP mindset we will be well on our way to realizing this future.
For more about LLP, read our other blog articles here or visit us at https://medium.com/@universalenlightenmentforum
Akhil Gupta is the founder director of Universal Enlightenment & Flourishing. He spent five years at Harvard University as a Senior fellow/Guest. He was the chairman of Blackstone India from 2005 to 2014. He is on the Advisory Board of Stanford Business School, the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, and the Advisory Board of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Initiative. He is at work on two books: one on Human Flourishing, and another on common themes across religions.