Practicing and Cultivating Meaning.

In a culture of instant gratification and dismissive replacement maintaining a sense of meaningfulness is crucial for our wellbeing.

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The concept of something being meaningful has been getting a bad rap for a while now. It’s become viewed as synonymous with weighty, restrictive, and obsessive. Or it swings the other way and is viewed as the new-agey rhetoric of neo-Zen types who take a moment to give thanks for their wheatgrass juice. Either way imbuing something with meaning gets perceived as ruining it by weighing it down to feel important or falsely elevating it in an attempt to seem enlightened.

Genuine meaning isn’t about either of those things. Imbuing something with meaning isn’t about altering it or ourselves, it’s about connecting. Connecting with it and with ourselves. When something resonates with a core aspect or value within us we connect with it, it takes on a level of symbolic importance. It becomes meaningful.

As much as we need touch and human connection in our lives, and we do, we also need to have things which hold a sense of meaning. We need to have things which matter to us, which have importance. They play a major role not only in how we perceive and connect to the world around us but, even more importantly, how we perceive and connect with ourselves by acting as compasses of priority guiding us towards purpose.

Our choices are guided by our senses of priority and importance. We form those priorities based on the things which matter to us, on our meaningful connections. Without those connections we are sailing without a rudder playing a game devoid of stakes.

So if meaning plays such a crucial role in our connection to the world, our navigation through it, and our connection to ourselves how has it become dismissed as a form of ruinous buzz-kill baggage?

Our push-button plastic disposable pursuit of instant pleasure gratification is a primary culprit. Feeling good feels good but it is not enough to nourish or sustainable us. A dopamine rush is lovely but does not meaning create. Genuine meaning is not at the mercy of novelty’s brief shelf-life because it can’t be found simply by chasing after what’s ‘next’ or ‘newest’.

The technological advancements and evolutions happening around us are moving with incredible velocity and have interconnected us granting access to information in unprecedented ways. What they are also doing, however, is leaning us towards instant and disposable gratification which is great for a consumer based economic model but not so much for our sustainable mental and emotional health.

Our cultural press to get ‘the latest version’ and to ‘stream it in real time’ is pushing both our practices and our language away from the conscious search for, and exploration of, genuine meaning. We need meaning. Even if we are ignoring it, our hearts and minds will try to find meaning wherever they can. Unfortunately, like most of our social and physical connections, the substitutes are increasingly more virtual, removed, isolating, and not built to support that kind of core need. Nor are they even really interested in the job in the first place.

One place where people have long turned in their search for meaning is the world of religion, a completely valid space if a bit vulnerable to distortion. Aspects of religious practice can be extremely meaningful, for many people their faith in a higher power carries profound personal meaning. Where overly hierarchical and dogmatic religions can get themselves into trouble is in fixating on a message of obedience to the rules of doctrine being the sole source of meaning.

Fear of potential punishment for disobedience can have a powerful impact but genuine meaning is found through personal resonance and connection not punitive dictates. Religions the world over are founded and built upon ideologies and principles of intention which offer perspective and guidance but the more dogmatic they become the more they fixate on adherence to the particulars of ritual practice and specific prescriptions for behavior. The practice becomes the meaning rather than a method for seeking and connecting with it.

It must be offered and imbued by the individual. Dictated meanings are a form of control and command which not only fail to offer genuine meaning but also open the door to the danger of the obeisance and subservience to the symbol being transferred to anyone carrying it. And there is all too much history documenting how destructively wrong that path can go.

Due both to that ongoing history and to the unsustainability of mandated meaning we are seeing more and more of a shift away from hierarchical Western religious structure and towards more Eastern ideologies. Away from strictly religious faith towards more individuated spirituality. Organized religion is not gone, nor is it inherently evil. It is just that in the absence of genuine personal meaning religious practices will always devolve into arguments over what is right or wrong rather than seeking and exploring what is meaningful.

Consciously or not we are culturally noticing our spiritual malnourishment and are expanding our search for meaning into more individualistic approaches, away from restrictive dictates and the extremism of those who don’t understand the shift and are simply doubling down on the doctrine which feels familiar and understandable. It is a promising shift in thinking and perspective just not one which will find much nourishment in social media platforms.

So how do we cultivate genuine meaning in our lives? How do we find things to imbue with meaning in ways which will enrich our lives and nourish our souls? We don’t have to become Zen masters or banish frivolity. We simply need to get comfortable with the idea and practice of meaning in our daily lives. And make sure it is genuine meaning we are dealing with.

Start Small

A sense of meaning may be a primal need but seeking and cultivating it is a skill. And like all skills we need practice in order to develop it. Before we tackle life-mission level core values we need to develop the sensitivities, language, and habits of being comfortable and fluent with meaning. So start on the small, moment by moment scale.

And the feeling can take any form. It doesn’t have to be an exercise in tranquility or enlightenment. A TV show can be meaningful because of the types of stories it tells and how those stories make us feel. Music can be meaningful because the lyrics speak to us, the tone and mood of the voice evokes us, or the simple act of listening provides us with time to ourselves and thus some peace of mind.

Even a brief one-time-only experiences can be intensely meaningful, as long as it sparks a connection. Sometimes those types of connections are easier to achieve because there is less architecture of expectation or social obligation. Just ask anyone who has backpacked for any significant amount of time.

Take notice of the things in your life which make you feel then develop the practice of making space for them. Nurture and explore the feelings they inspire. Are there common themes among them? Are there patterns to when and how you gravitate towards them? Figuring out which parts of you they are resonating with can lead to a clearer picture of that part of yourself and eventually to yourself as a whole.

Meaning is Personal

Meaning is first and foremost personal. What matters to you, what resonates with you, will not necessarily matter to someone else. It is obviously possible to have meanings in common with others, if we are able to differ we can also agree, but at its core foundation meaning is an expression of personal connection and feeling.

This means that it is yours to discover and experience. No one can tell you what matters to you, though there are plenty of people who delight in trying to do so, and it is not something which can be faked. It is either there or it’s not. You can take guidance and suggestion from others but when it comes right down to it true meaning is yours and yours alone, thus it is yours to discover and determine.

Again there are plenty of people more than happy to dictate where meaning should or should not be found but that speaks more to a lack of true understanding of their own genuine meanings than anything else. It can be incredibly painful when our sense of meaning ends up at odds with the world around us but that does not render that meaning any less valid or genuine, regardless of what those zealous folks might decry.

Look to the things in your life which draw your attention, dedication, and inspiration. TV shows, music, walking outdoors, reading, sitting in a quiet corner with a cup of tea, crafting, travel, spending time with particular people or doing particular things, focus on how they make you feel and which part of you they speak to. Not only will this help guide you to further explorations but it will deepen your connection those things which are already resonating.

Focus On The Meaning

It can be all too easy to get sidetracked by fixating on the ‘thing’ and not on the meaning it connects us to. A certain singer’s music can resonate with us in a truly meaningful way but, not unlike therapeutic transference, we can end up obsessing over the person elevating them to an idol in our hearts and minds instead of recognizing and appreciating it is the way their music makes us feel which resonates.

That being said who we are drawn and attracted to most certainly has meaning. We humans have a need to connect, bond, and partner. Who we are drawn to speaks to how we envision ourselves as partners. What kind of bond do we seek? What kind of contribution to a partnership do we wish to make? What kind of contribution do we wish to receive? We just need to ensure it is an actual person we are being drawn to and not just an idea of them we have conjured in our own minds, or merely a pheromonal dopamine-rush sort of thing. Feeling good feels good but…

Meaning Does Not Have To Be Set And Fixed

Just as we are constantly growing and changing so too will the things which matter to us. Our core basic values hold fairly firm throughout our lives but that is not to say we are not capable of change, or of being profoundly changed by the world around us. Sometimes meanings can change entirely and completely, sometimes they will shift slightly in levels of importance. Those things which were life and death important during our teens aren’t usually quite so critical in our thirties, usually.

Some of the meaningful connections we have will be for learning purposes. Once we have learned what we need to the potency of the connection can decrease or fade altogether. There will be times when the reality of something we build towards ends up not matching up with the expectation thus providing less meaning than anticipated. And it is also possible for the object which originally inspired the connection to change in some way which decreases or dissipates its resonance with us.

If our connection to something weakens that doesn’t mean we have done something wrong, that there is something wrong with us, nor does it take anything away from the meaning it once held. It is simply a sign of change occurring indicating we need to do further exploring and perhaps seek new potential sources of connection.

We need meaning and connection, to the world around us and to ourselves. We need meaning to anchor us, to give us a sense of self and of purpose and it can only be found by allowing things to matter to us, by exploring and examining what inspires connection, and by embracing our need and right to value things simply because we do.

Finding and nurturing meaningfulness in our lives is not about elevating things to the level of symbolic idols. It’s about deepening our connections to, and appreciation of, ourselves which then deepens our connection to, and appreciation of, the world around us.

Written by

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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