When Life Seems Pointless
How to escape the mental trap of meaninglessness.
Posted November 26, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
A song I like to listen to reminds me in its lyrics that in 5 billion years the Andromeda galaxy will smash into our own.
I’ve seen on a TV show that in 1.75 billion years, our sun will be too weak to sustain life on earth, and 3-5 billion years later it will become a red giant, expanding to the orbit of the earth and devouring the planet.
A science magazine I enjoy tells me that either there is enough dark matter for the universe to collapse back into an infinitely dense pea, or that there isn’t and the universe will expand infinitely and eventually become completely dark and devoid of all forms of energy.
Does any of that sound very meaningful to you?
It doesn’t to me. Nor to my children. My 14-year-old started asking me about things like this when he was freakin' 9. Welcome to the modern world.
How to Deal With Meaninglessness
What do you do with such knowledge? Mental logic seemingly demands that we argue our way out of meaninglessness in order to find meaning, but that’s a trap.
“Cognitive fusion” is the process of allowing verbal/symbolic knowledge to dominate over the rest of our psychology at the expense of other useful forms of input. The problem-solving mind hides cognitive fusion from view because that is its modus operandi. What the mind “knows” it knows literally. And staying inside literal knowing is just another name for the domination of verbal knowledge over the whole of who we are.
You can’t argue your way out of fusion, because that very argument is an example of fusion. Trying to do it will only produce con–fusion.
There is a counterintuitive way forward, however. It is based on methods I teach in my new book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.
It starts with turning toward meaninglessness, so we can confront it head-on.
When we glimpse thoughts of meaninglessness and run from them, we give them extraordinary power over our lives. In effect, our own avoidant actions define thoughts of meaninglessness as important in the first place. Our own avoidance has transformed a thought into a thing that can run or even ruin our lives.
Instead, we need to inhale meaninglessness. We need to eat it whole–as it is (or even more precisely, as the whole of us experiences it to be), not as what it says it is.
You can do that without hiding facts from view; you can do that without denial. In fact, in the modern world of science and technology that is the only way to do it.
In order to create modern minds for the modern world, we need to take that core thought and bring it into the light of consciousness, so we can look at it.
Life is meaningless.
Say it out loud, with spaces between the words. Life ... is ... meaningless.
Be careful—by asking you to look at it (not from it!), your mind will claim I’m trying to convince you of something. Bull. I’m doing no such thing. I’m asking you to look at your own thoughts. I’m asking you to look at your own thoughts as thoughts.
All human beings have these thoughts and usually it leads to subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to mentally run away, not knowing that every step feeds the scary monster you’re running from.
Instead, let’s allow this thought to be a thought.
Life is meaningless.
Say the thought slowly again, but this time extend each word, the slower the better. Liiiiiiiiifffffeeee ……. iiiiiissssss ……. mmmeeeeaaaaannnninnnngggglllleeeeessssss.
Say it again, even slower. Now do it again.
Now sing it to the tune of Happy Birthday. Actually do it. I’m serious. Try it. Take your time (all stanzas!). Try it again.
Now say the word “meaningless” rapidly out loud for 30 seconds fitting about 30 to 40 statements of that word into the time period.
Now say it in the voice of your favorite cartoon character several times.
Now say it in the voice of your least favorite politician several times.
Any of the other classic ACT defusion methods can be used. There are hundreds but I describe a bunch of them on my website.
As you begin to see this thought as a thought, a possibility begins to open up. I can point to that possibility with this question: If it were up to you (and it is), what intrinsic qualities would you choose to put into your actions over the next day … and is it really true that this thought is preventing you from doing exactly that, now?
A thought? Really?
Chosen meaning sits initially unseen just on the other side of fused meaninglessness. When you let go of that useless fusion with meaninglessness, it is like turning a light on. The experience of meaning suddenly is everywhere. You see it. You feel it. You know it.
When we choose to love, those we love matter to us. When we choose to show compassion toward others, their well-being becomes important. When we choose to care, life has a purpose.
Chosen values are mental Kryptonite to meaninglessness.
How do you choose your values?
I cover that in my new book too … but I’ll also address that in my next post.
A hint: It takes a leap. A leap of self-fidelity.