Meaningfulness Itself

by Tom Veatch


Meaning is a relationship between the thing that means something, and the something else that it means. A word has a meaning, like the word "tree" and those tall plants that it helps you to talk about. "Tree" "means" those plants. The word is one thing, and the meaning is another. One is in your mouth, and the other in the forest. These two things have no overlap, nothing actually in common, except an association by convention. Yet users of a language think they are communicating the one when they communicate the other, and by convention, everyone agrees. There is this systematic ambiguity, a swappability, between the one and the other, which is useful in thinking and communicating. It lets us think about the one while we are talking using the other. It helps us to get on the same page by just moving our mouths.

So when I hear this word "Meaning", as in "the meaning of life", I think, wow, there's something actual, over here, that is a person's life, and something that it is systematically ambiguously swappable for it, the meaning that that life means, over there. That's what "meaning" means.

Really, can't we just call BS on that? I mean, if your life isn't valuable on its own terms, are you really satisfied with it being valuable because it is swappable with something else that's not within your life? I'd rather have a life where the value is a part of the life, than a life where the value is outside of, separate from, merely symbolically or transactionally related to the life in my life. Shouldn't life itself contain its own reward, in which case it's not a relationship between non-overlapping things. Shouldn't we aim for heaven on earth? So no, I'm not too excited by the idea of a meaningful life, it seems like a cheat, like the cheat perpetrated on believers when the religion says they'll get their reward in heaven. Live and suffer, for the meaning, the value you get for it, will be somewhere else.

On the other hand, it's valid, too. For yes, people do sacrifice their lives in trade, a soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers, a mother sacrifices her youth and vigor milked out to a husk by her children, a father grinds away at his trade until his body finally fails, giving sacrifice for the needs of his family, and these transactions represent a meaning relationship between that which is given (life) and that which is received (happy knowledge of life preserved, sustained, nurtured), and justifies the gift -- in the view of the committed giver.

Still, isn't it a happier trade if meaningfulness exists within life rather than outside it? Perhaps the transaction for a reward in heaven was the best a feudal peasant could get during the Dark Ages out of a life that is "nasty, brutish, and short". But perhaps separating meaning into signifier and signified just cracks open the walnut, opens a conceptual direction toward the tastier nutmeat, a merged meaningfulness, a deeper deconstruction of meaningfulness within life.

The "sense" of meaningfulness might be the self-justifying emotion of certain experiences, as contrasted with those in which the predominant sense is of self-criticism: some kind of, "You could do better than that", type of “feeling“ (obviously that is a thought not a feeling, but the moral hierarchy implied rests on some kind of brute preference which must be considered emotional). Are such feelings different from hedonism?

Having a sense of meaningfulness does help people to organize their lives and to merge activity with feeling self-actualized, which is generally in both respects a benefit to them and to society. Fair enough. But I do want to go deeper and see what is in this feeling of meaningfulness that sometimes permeates activities, programs of achievement, relationships, or lives. It is valued by those who experience it; there's obviously something valuable there. So what are its outlines, its limitations, and what might it point toward, higher than itself?


My argument is that meaningfulness can be understood as transactional and in transaction for the experience of inner surrender. It is all about what might be called transactional transcendence.

So, meaning in a hug, for example, might be the combined knowledge of a past of long miserable separation and in its face this current acknowledgement of value and experience of trust. It's the transaction, the redemption of A for B, that in the hug one discovers the long misery has a sort of happy ending, or perhaps a reinterpretation as a true path toward trustful, loving connection, toward release.

A Jordan Peterson might counter-argue that dopamine doesn't require alienation, and that the flow state, which is characterized by dopamine, is itself directly meaningful. But that's just what I'm saying: that is an inner-surrender state.

"Meaningfulness" seems to include the sense of goldilocks challenge level, not too hard to make progress so you start criticizing yourself, not too easy so you can think about your progress aside from making it. In both cases inner surrender escapes and the sense of meaningfulness with it.

Meaningfulness in the dopaminergic sense seems to be an awareness of progress toward the valued goal, in an activity that takes all your attention, such that then you can't be outside of your activity, inwardly spending your energy judging yourself.

Right. So let's think about people judging themselves, and the kinds of circumstances in which they will permit themselves not to.

Transcendent emotion

Transactional relaxation is where an incremental release of one's own emotional down-regulation is self-tolerated, self-allowed, entered into, as a relief or release, but only when the satisfactory transaction is locked in. This provides a regulated path to emotional non-down-regulation. If that's not completely oxymoronic, which ultimately it indeed is.

This is the nature of transcendent emotion:

You watch and evaluate within your judgement zone, you maintain self-attribution of the roles of judge, quality-assessor, measurer, and person with emotional self-control and typically agency. You occasionally, very occasionally, encounter a new personal best percept on your metric of value, say it's the best X you've seen so far. Receiving this best-of-all experiences, you could break out of your measuring mind and stop the counting of it for the discounting of it, maybe, because this is the best seen so far and you can finally have a half of a moment to just experience it, or maybe you'll immediately raise the bar for what counts as satisfactory, or only if this one is dramatically, feature by feature, above the best previously seen, you may actually carry out some transactional relaxation finally, and let go, let yourself stop downregulating, and suddenly experience the moment, the glorious beauty of the thing in itself, the emotionally powerful flows of non-downregulated emotion. For example, victorious laughter, or tears.

Transcendent emotion can be gingerly approached in this way -- if you must stay close to an awareness of your quality metrics and role as judge. "Transcendent" means this case is outside the range of what you've seen so far, and so your emotional tracking goes outside the regulated boundary, and your transcendent observation is allowed to be matched by your transcendent emotion.

Emotion matches thought so tightly here and elsewhere. Let's call that EMT.

But someday you might reassess and consider that your goal might not be to hold on to your control metrics and maybe, once in a increasingly rare while, have a tiny bit of experience of transcendent emotion; rather, the goal is to abandon the constant, controlling behaviors and to become free of the activities of being the judge who measures quality and other self-attributions, so that you can have continuous and unlimited emotional flow, without any cause at all. From that day the light may always shine. That would be unconditional, or non-transactional, transcendence.

Transactional relaxation, transactional emotional disinhibition, transactional transcendence, is a concept I've been muddling about with and it seems there are a number of phenomena which come under this heading.

Transcendence In Mud

I was recently looking for an example of Satire to take for analysis in a lecture on Humor Theory, and came across a comment by a redoubtable socialist atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who basically was pointing out how religion exacerbates sectarian violence.

So, well, yes, indeed, quite so, and why, because ideology supports the fight. If you woke up tomorrow and didn't have the same ideology, the frame for the fight, you would wonder why -- because after all it is so disgusting and terrible and pointless -- and stop.

Why then religious commitment? Why so committed after your (or the other fellow's) conversion experience? Peak emotion is rather featureless in terms of specific thoughts, but since we are a bit hard to persuade to enter, often it leaves some memory of an idea that occurred near, around or juxtaposed to it, and by that association is smeared by the transcendence of the emotional experience, when it's intense, and you're looking for something meaningful for your shitty life to mean, well evidently right there is the meaning, and there next to it is the idea, and you can go take that and run, and if your character is brimming with the need to dominate or even destroy others, hey there you can figure out a way right there in your hand, kill that fellow who doesn't see the connection, or has his or her own connection. Seems to happen all the time, intense seemingly unconditioned experience isn't incompatible with drawing unconditional conclusions of moral thought, and thus with social intolerance.

The problem after a great peak emotional experience in meditation or religious song or a still moment in nature when some idea has a flash in your mind, and might have in a part of its emotional evocation resonated with the yearning heart seeking to expand and to operate its primary inner operation namely to love and love, well you might open to love looking at that inner-surrender-inducing, i.e. that beautiful, that blond or skinny or whatever attribute A kind of an X but then turn that into a moral judgement of, in short, the anti-religiousness of non-blond or non-skinny or non-whatever, non-A X's. The flight up toward emotional liberation is toward emotional oneness, but might have been any of those forms of oneness or applications of inner surrender.

Like, take beauty for example, get some beauty, then instead of how it opened the heart at the beginning now you come back to your grumpy self and maybe you look back for a lesson to keep, from it, which your grumpy self can hold on to, and well, guess what it can certainly harden the heart, too, because the habits of duality are hard to drop, and if you did have a moment's relief basking in the perception of a beautiful sun it doesn't mean your duality based habits won't take charge immediately upon return from the peak state, and say, Ah, that was A and now (and THEREFORE!!, since you have returned from your surrendered state, now using your intellectual oomph to support this) you have to assert the Negativity of Non-A. This instinct is pretty universal and very sticky, very hard to be rid of even for a moment, that's why it takes a peak transcendent experience to release it for a moment. There are how many billions of us but it takes two thousand years and a few Jesus Christs or Buddhas or an enlightened master in a remote corner of the world to have so much of that experience as to be able to actually maintain it long enough to speak from the voice of inner surrender, to have a microphone and not be overcome by ego and moral judgement, to drink the nectar of inner surrender continuously and reliably and be able to express compassionately and learnably from different perspectives for different people's learning styles so that they might be able to appreciate, words that will bring them there instead of toward sectarian hatred and denial of the humanity of those who disagree and mass murder outside our religiously defined clan. So basically we need to take humility as our guidepost and not blather on in some authoritative lecture about the ideology that our dreamstate began to build as we woke up with all our id impulses reawakening with us after a peak moment in meditation, to write down and worship the rest of our lives as the morality we should bequeath to our children. Humility, children. You can know a wise person by their discipline in the practice of humility.

I should know, having watched in person or by hearsay the evolution of a religion from an individual to a crowd to a chanting group to a world-wide cult to a rule-bound religion. The rule-bound tough-minded (STJ's in Myers Briggs sense) folks stay in it and gradually predominate as the wild and loose explorers have moved on. They think, well, repetition of the same words is probably a good lesson in itself, let's not question the originality of the content creators. They think, ah, great, as the rigidity, specificity, and number of the rules of the organization increase, this is a good sign because we do really like to know what's the right thing to do, and to carefully watch and judge and clarify and even educate and enforce, these are things which we feel make us better, make our institution better, which make us relax. We can all feel better that we know something right and true, something to rest in for our own emotional peace of mind. And the whole thing becomes a morass of titles and bureaucracy and committees to appoint co-heads of a welcoming department just so that everyone can think they have a role and a name and a place of acceptance in the joint story of the group. Very soothing. Very regulated, judged, moralized over. (Beware: it's also a great opportunity to think and feel that I am better than those other folks.)

That's where it tends towards. The openness of First Teacher who didn't publicly declare a single successor or leave an institution behind him, evolved slowly but surely into the departmental instruction manuals of Third Teacher's 501(c)(3) Foundation. Rigidity as a spiritual practice. Morality as, well, it's the best we can do for now, it'll have to do as a substitute for divine release, for the freedom of non-down-regulatedness. The more it needs to be packaged, sold, made uniform for all to experience it everywhere, the harder to keep the divine essence. Not impossible, but I'm super glad that I met Second Teacher in person, and learned as much as I could about First Teacher.

That sounds like a critique of a religious organization. But I better critique myself. As a seeker, also an aspiring, you might say, pompous, intellectual who wants to find the deep truth to share with all the world so as to justify my own miserable existence, certainly that's true, I sought regularly to find something to bring back from my elevated experiences of meditation and of what Second Teacher and Third Teacher taught in the Intensives and Annual Messages and Friday night programs that I sincerely dove into and had amazing experiences in.

First month in India (2/1982) in the meditation "cave" I thought five minutes had passed when a pause in a heated mental sentence was followed by the rest of that sentence, less heated, after which was noticed, my legs felt funny. I got up to discover it was an hour and a half later. So 90 minutes had passed during a pause in the middle of a sentence, a sentence which my conscious mind maintained the cognitive coherence and intentional purpose to be able to complete that same sentence, 90 minutes later, after a pause of pure emptiness of awareness. What happened? Where was I during that pause? Well that's a powerful lesson, that the candles and the photographs on the table and the stillness of the room were able to encourage some part of me to take over, abruptly and without communication to the sentence-forming mind, for long enough for the legs to turn stiff and more than an hour to pass. Maybe what I think I'm doing isn't what's actually going on. I provide no moral to the story, but consider it a story worth contemplation.

Well I intended that paragraph to be a story with a moral, whereby spiritually immature Tom brings back some learnings or gleanings from the other side but still acts all pompous about it. But I guess I do actually like that story even now, and so it's a bad example of the point I wanted to make, that a taste of oneness doesn't always bring the wisdom to explain it well. Instead then, let me just reference the difference between Darshan Notes versus Notes from a forehead on the ground, where the second is a reduced edit taken directly from the first, leaving out a lot of noise and inaccessibility. So yes, I'd say basically that the accessibility of the result is much increased by the editing process from the source notes. Transcendence has the unfortunate quality that as we try to bring it back to our future selves or to others, we touch it with our muddy hands and it can reflect the mud as much as the transcendence it was intended to capture.

Let's have an example. When Jesus said this is my body, eat it in remembrance of me, this is my blood, drink it in remembrance of me, I think he was a Hindu monist (believing all is one) a.k.a. pantheist (believing all is divine) asserting that indeed and of course, here, All is One, and as you can emotionally consider the divine entering into you and becoming you by means of what I, Jesus, (in this interpretation) consider divine, my own body and blood and being, so I encourage you to take the solace and the spiritual lesson of oneness from these concrete and accessible forms. Well that little gift, that lesson, turns, over time, into the burning of heretics in the time of Luther and the Reformation, those who disbelieve in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, well of course it is still bread and still wine when you swallow but emotionally you can take the lesson of imbibing emotional oneness with the being of the divine teacher, you can take that from anything, certainly also from those presents. So but doesn't Transcendence become Muddy when we, ignorant, rule-bound dualists use it for moral judgement, to separate the good from the evil, and to justify the punishment and retribution against evil? Yes, very muddy. The intolerant ones are the sinners, here. Reference Veatch's Razor in Theory of Bliss. Continued discipline in the practice of humility might minimize the mud.


So we find when trapped in our habits of moral thinking that transcendence is slathered over by the mud on our hands, producing still-moralistic thoughts that have value, have a seeming meaningfulness through their apparent connection with something higher, yet may be anti-social and egotistical; one form of this mud is for those moral-emotional-judgement habits to postpone and keep apart from us that transcendence by making it transactional. You only allow yourself transcendence subject to achieving this goal, this level, this moral status. Even then, perhaps, not much. For release may not comport with comportment, and the extrinsically motivated require comportment to be valued highest and first.
Liz: look, silly, maybe you can get to something meaningful by achieving success on your meaningful path toward inner surrender, but I don't get it the way you say it.

Tom: No, dear, you have it backwards. Meaningfulness gets its meaningfulness by being a path to inner surrender. If your path takes you to, or at least toward, inner surrender, then you may call it a meaningful path. That's where meaningfulness comes from. My point is that meaningfulness is a derived, rather than a simple, concept.

So try some inner surrender, without any transaction, without achieving anything, just let yourself go a little. Maybe you won't actually turn into a dysregulated virago or a sociopath. (If you've read this far, I think it's unlikely.) Maybe you'll have some bliss, now, or even any time. I think that's the lesson to be brought back from those peak experiences, that you don't have to wait. So, don't wait. Yes, now, inner surrender now, yes now!

       If not then, then Now.

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Copyright © 2000-2021, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: June 12, 2020. T in Mud, 11/14/2020. Posted June 13, 2021.