Discovering what is real, true and profoundly meaningful


What Is Real? The Authentic Ontological Essence of Being

Michael Shaun Conaway
Publishing Editor
August 7th, 2023

What is your essence? What is our human essence? This is one of the fundamental questions that we can ask ourselves, one that has tormented philosophers and theologians throughout history. While there is no definitive answer, seeking one is still important. In this age many of us are resigned to a meaningless life, as it has been impressed upon us that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. Douglas Adams made this into the cornerstone joke of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, where Deep Thought, an incredibly intelligent super AI the size of a planet, spent 7.5 million years calculating the answer (to life, the universe and everything) which turned out as 42.

Nihilism is the philosophical perspective that holds that life has no intrinsic meaning. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, is most often associated with nihilism although he actually warned against it rather than promoting it. It’s now some kind of dividing line in popular culture with traditionalists holding that there is a higher purpose fighting those who cynically point out how messed up and devoid of purpose our society seems to be. The cynics can at least laugh about their plight as they have their answer — 42.

The biggest problem with cynicism is that it most often comes with its low rent twin, resignation. Things suck and there’s nothing I can do about it. I might as well binge eight seasons of House for the third time. Combining resignation with nihilism, you get something along the lines of, nothing matters, so of course I can’t do anything about it.

Let’s do something about it by picking the intellectual lock of nihilism.

The lock pick we need is one simple word, intrinsic, inherent and fundamental. In this case life has no inherent and fundamental meaning. In plain speech, life doesn’t come with a built in meaning. From a creative point of view this is a point of celebration. If there is no inherent meaning to life then I am free to create all of the meaning that I want for myself in this life. This has a certain power to it. And it fits with the individualistic perspective of the west. I am me and I have the power to give things meaning in life.

While I wouldn’t argue against that, it comes with a whole world of context. First any meaning we give to life, likely comes from some already existing idea of what life means. We are then giving meaning to life amongst a selection of meanings. These meanings come in a few distinct flavors, traditional religious meanings, capitalist meanings, liberal democratic meanings, scientific meanings, conscious meanings, working class meanings, American meanings, European meanings, African meanings etc. Just like our genetic lineage we all come with a built in meaning lineage.

Beyond there being a background of already existing meanings for life, there is still something unsatisfying about meaning being so dependent on worldview.

I ache for meaning that transcends nihilism.

Looking back down my own lineage to India and Buddhism to Sunyata, emptiness. Here we find that all forms lack inerrant existence, reminiscent of nihilism’s lack of meaning, yet in emptiness there is a quality that is the awakened mind or buddha nature. More on that in a moment. Lacking inerrant existence is not the same as lacking meaning. That a form is empty of independent existence does not deny existence. This renders the idea of independent meaning moot. If there is any meaning at all, it must be meaning for everything at times.

If at this point your brain is a bit tied up in knots, its understandable. Let’s lay out the cruxes in the inquiry like this.

There is no inherent meaning in the universe.There is no inherent existence of forms (things including you or I).This means simultaneously that there is no reality and no lack of reality.In this emptiness there is a quality of the awakened mind.

In the Mahayana Buddhist conceptualization of realty, the awakened mind is the source of your consciousness, of your thoughts. This leads to a possibility that while there is no meaning to the universe, nor any independent existence, there is a quality of consciousness — the awakened mind. I have to stop here and note that this consciousness is not the small ego consciousness that Decartes spoke about in his cogito sum ergo, I think therefore I am. Rather there is no “I” in this equation — no independent existence. Side note, Descartes really dropped the ball when he was skeptical of everything but his own independent “I”.

The end of this line of reasoning is a universe that is indeed strange. It exists not in parts, nor in a separate whole. It has no meaning, no outcome or result indicated. And it has a quality of consciousness.

There it is, emptiness transcends nihilism. Ok philosopher, what do I do with that?

The answer is everything. We now have a thread to pull upon to create a new narrative of the universe. Let me lay that out for you by going back to the beginning or at least our conception of the beginning. 13.8 billion years ago, give or take a billion, existence as we know it started. It takes about 10 billion years for life to show up in our corner of the universe, Earth. Then most of the rest of the history of the universe to produce sentient beings, or roughly 2.5 million years ago.

Then about 165 years ago Darwin helped us become aware of evolution, and by extension our own evolution. As my friend Barbara Marx Hubbard would say with a sparkle in her eyes, “We are the first generation who are aware of our own evolution, that are aware that we are affecting our own evolution.”

This is a scintillating idea, evolution waking up to become aware of its own evolution.

Yet in light of Sunyata, empty of intrinsic existence it doesn’t really add up. You see something existing in time different from what existed before would have independent existence. If it exists now and did not exist before then it would have independent existence. There is a way out of this game of existential twister. There is no independent existence in time. No before and no after that exists independently. Now this one should be easy to get. If I never existed before then I cannot exist now. If I am not going to exist in the future, in any form including a corpse, then I cannot exist now.

Bravo if you are still with me because we have reached the end of this inquiry, all that is left to do is unwrap what we have uncovered.

All that exists is all that exists now and throughout all time. All that exists, exists without independence. Anything at all time is interdependent on every other thing at all time — they are all one without being one separate from anything that exists or does not exist. This is a continuity throughout all spacetime. And this continuous everything has the quality of the awakened mind.

Evolution does not have to become aware of evolution as it has always been and will always be. Consciousness did not appear in the universe as a force of evolution. It is the context of evolution from the first flaring forth to the last whisper of the aging universe.

While there is no intrinsic meaning to the universe, there is also no lack of meaning.

While there is no intrinsic existence in the universe, there is no lack of existence.

The context for all of this is the awakened mind, consciousness itself, with no beginning and no end. Bodhi Svaha, so it blessedly is.

In the meantime, we’ll be looking for PROOF of a thriving future for humanity.

The Generative Futurist
Editor PROOF

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Proof 58 – Discovering what is real, true and profoundly meaningful

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PROOF is a digital magazine published by NOW and the Generative Futures Initiative.  The mission of the magazine is to shine a light on people, organisations and ideas that stand as Proof of a Thriving Future.