I’m a meaning-guy. I like meaning(s). This doesn’t make me special. It’s just something I’ve come to know about myself.
As I reflect back on the last couple of months (years?) I see in my writing, and therefore my life, that meaning has become something of a means and an end. Meaning-making is how we get to meaning-living and isn’t the whole point to live a life of meaning?
Today I listened to an episode of Jack Kornfield’s podcast, Heart Wisdom, that reminded me of a deeply held belief: that there’s something beyond meaning. Typically I listen to Jack Kornfield so I can glean from Jack’s wisdom. Today I found myself learning not only from Jack, but from another teacher: Frank Ostaseski. Over the course of about 75 minutes these two teachers engaged in a rich discussion that was, ostensibly, about death. Here’s what I heard and in hearing was reminded. And here’s a link to the podcast before I forget.
Frank Ostaseski, who I was unfamiliar with, is the founder of Zen Hospice and the author of The Five Invitations. Though well acquainted with hospice and therefore, death, he spoke openly about his own experience with acute illness and how this challenged his hospice work. During that part of the conversation he explained that, as he approached his own death he would of course want skilled doctors and nurses overseeing his care and managing his pain. But, and here’s what really struck me, he said he’d also want to have around him people that are comfortable in a “territory of meaning.” When I heard that phrase, “territory of meaning” I instantly wrote it down (difficult because I was driving). I wrote it down because I love meaning and the phrase resonated with me. But he didn’t stop there. He explained that he would also want someone to be present with him in the vast realm beyond meaning, in the mystery. And when I heard him say that, I was reminded of my deep and abiding respect for and inclination toward mystery. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, it’s been awhile since I’ve taken a look at mystery.
What I heard in Frank Ostaseski’s words was a kind of landscape of human experience. One level is that of knowledge and action– the level of doctors, nurses, and case workers. It’s a kind of technical level. Another level, which he calls the territory of meaning, is less about knowledge and more about wisdom. It’s less about action and more about presence. And finally, beyond meaning, is the realm of mystery. It seems to me that this realm is even beyond wisdom. An old Jewish teaching (of which I am now reminded) says that the adornment of wisdom is humility. What could be more true when encountering the greatest mysteries than an awesome sense of humility?
One of the joys of driving my daughter to and from the school at which I work every day is that I don’t have much time for podcasts. But when I do have a few minutes, I am always rewarded when I listen to Heart Wisdom. And to Frank Ostaseski I would simply say, thank you.