John Porter
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 6, 2002

During the next few minutes I will share some of my thoughts about what it means to be human. I offer my insights, as one searcher to another, in the hope it will stir some things in your heart and mind.

In the simplest terms and from an evolutionary perspective, we might say that the meaning or purpose of human life is to be born, use the resources provided by the planet to survive and to reproduce, and eventually die. But when we observe human life it is obvious that there is a whole lot more going on than that. How do you account for picnics, football, marbles, churches, sculpture, poetry, politics, Christmas, books, clocks, horse races, prayer, sliding boards, stamp collecting, surfing and a thousand other things that bring joy to life and make it rewarding?

But surely there is more to life than simply doing what we enjoy. The notion of the capital T H E meaning of life is more fascinating, somehow, at least to me. What an adventure to seek "out there" for life's true meaning in a sort of cosmic scavenger hunt, wandering through the night with a flashlight and bag, knocking on doors, seeking odd bits that will form a key to somehow unlock the gates of meaning.

There is an interesting little Buddhist book titled That Which You are Seeking is Causing You to Seek. While the title nearly says it all, I offer one quotation:

"What we are looking for is causing us to look. That's why we need not go anywhere, do anything, learn more, figure it out, worry about going wrong. We need only stop, sit down, be still, and pay attention."

So who are we really, and why are we here? And does it make any difference anyway? My curiosity pulls me along on this search, not for the things on the surface that each of us deals with day by day, but the hidden things that are difficult to uncover and more difficult to fathom; the things that we cannot explain in logical terms, the mysteries which we only dimly perceive in the crevices of life and which may link us to some greater whole.

Toby Johnson is his book, The Myth of the Great Secret, describes a fine dinner in the company of good friends. The feelings are warm and comfortable. In a lull in the conversation one of the guests leans across the table and says softly to you;

"Listen, let me tell you a secret..." And he will tell you . . . that the rest of them are actors who have been hired to entertain you and to play out your life before you. He will tell you that you are different from all the others, for they are only surfaces, projections of your own thoughts and feelings; that they conspire to be the universe for you; and that they seldom, very seldom, ever let you in on the secret. And he will tell you, with a conspiratorial tone in his voice, that he is taking a liberty with you and, for a moment, stepping out of character to tell you who you really are.

So how do we get past our tendency to see our own reflection in the search for meaning? I tried the yellow pages for Meaning, Consulting Services. But I found no listing between Mausoleums and Measuring Machines. Too bad. Half way between death and logic seems a good place for it.

Many find what we might call transcendental meaning by following an authority; a religious leader or a book like the Bible or Koran. Any of these provides a source of insight and understanding but to use them as an authority is problematic. Opinions differ. So we must choose which authority and as soon as we do that we set our self up as an authority. Some try to avoid this conundrum by saying, "My authority is right because he/she/it is divinely inspired." When you hear this, I'd say run for the door.

Meditation and prayer offer another avenue. Human beings have followed these paths for thousands of years to uncover or align with the subtle, implied meanings of life that we may miss in our everyday lives.

Many find meaning in poetry, painting, music or other arts, either as a means of self expression or through their appreciation. These media provide a means of powerfully expressing those things that are beyond ordinary discourse and understanding.

Psycho-therapy, with its emphasis on the unconscious aspects of the human psyche provides a means of seeing what is behind the veil.

Many look for and find meaning in the natural world. I remember my father saying many times from the pulpit that the beauty, intricacies and complexities of the physical world were the best argument for a Creator.

The need to find meaning often occurs as we pass through life's big events; births, deaths and other things that knock us off balance like the happenings of September 11. In 1981, about a year after our son James' death at age twenty, Jackie and I traveled by camper from our home in Vancouver, B.C. back to the Midwest where we both grew up, then southwest to Los Angeles, and back home to Canada. En route we visited most of our close relatives and many old friends. Our son's death was a tragic blow and we were trying to find its meaning.

At each stop on we asked our hosts, "What would you say is the meaning of life?" We found that the answers fell roughly into three categories.

"The meaning of life is love." About a third of the replies expressed this sentiment or something similar. These answers almost always came quickly, seeming to require no reflection. "The meaning of life is love." Just like that.

Another third gave more-or-less conventional religious replies. For example, "The meaning of life is to worship God and follow His commandments."

There were variations. One quoted the Nicene Creed, adopted in 325 A.D. by a great church council. My Uncle Marion, a minister, said, "Like Job, we are here being tested by God. Whether we succeed or fail is a matter of faith." Uncle Marion did not suffer from boils like Job - to my knowledge. But he did have a bad case of painful shingles. Maybe that influenced his answer.

The remaining answers included a number of different ideas. The most common was, "Life has no meaning." Several said, "Life has no meaning, per se. It only has the meaning that we bring to it."

But in my Uncle Lee's case, "Life has no meaning" hid something deeper. Lee, then in his eighties, grew up in Pearl, Illinois on the Illinois River. He loved to hunt and fish. But he had grown old and unable to take to the fields. His answer "Life has no meaning" held a bitter edge.

That evening in his living room I examined a framed, faded photograph on his wall. It showed a group of people standing in front of an old farmhouse. Four or five dogs lay at their feet in the dust. I took them to be hounds of some sort. I pointed to the picture and asked Lee, "Who is this?"

To my surprise, he named the dogs, "Old Blue, Boomer, Scooter ..." I've forgotten the rest.

Intrigued, I asked if they were coon hounds. "No, fox hounds."

I was surprised again. I thought fox hounds were small dogs like those that appear in English movies These looked like blood hounds, big, dark dogs with long ears and mournful faces.

I asked, "How do you hunt foxes with fox hounds?"

He answered, "You get several friends and a bunch of hounds, then drive out in the country in the evening and turn the dogs loose. After a while they catch the scent of a fox and take off."

That sounded exciting. I said, "I suppose that you take off after the hounds and go crashing through the woods until they bring the fox to bay."

"No," Lee said. "You don't follow the dogs. You go to the top of a nearby hill and build a fire; maybe have something warm to drink."

Build a fire? Why would they do that? I seemed to be two jumps behind in this conversation. "Well," I said. "I suppose that eventually the dogs catch the fox. Do you go find them then?"

Lee replied, "Oh the dogs hardly ever catch the fox. Sometimes the dogs would run so far we couldn't even hear them any more."

I seemed to have slipped to three jumps behind. "If you are not trying to catch the fox, why in the world do you go fox hunting?"

With a smile that suggested that everyone should know the answer, Lee supplied it. "The purpose of fox hunting is to listen to the music of the dogs. Sometimes we would sit by the fire until dawn listening to those wonderful sounds."

He told me the dogs had a sound for everything, a cold trail, no trail at all, getting close to the fox, and running the fox to ground. Each dog voiced its own particular note. You could tell which one was doing what. And Lee demonstrated for me; yipping, barking, yelping and baying right there in his living room.

So here was the nub of it. The meaning of life (at least a meaning) for Lee was "listening to the music of the dogs." Listening to the music of the dogs. I was very touched.

It had a different meaning for his wife, my Aunt Eunice. She said, "Sometimes those darn dogs and their howling would keep Mother and me up all night. Then in the morning some man would come around, hat in hand, and say, 'Miss Porter, I don't suppose you heard our dogs last night. We just plain lost them.' As far as I was concerned, I hoped they were in the next county!" Thus meaning is an intensely personal thing.

Joseph Campbell, in a conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, could have been thinking about Lee's music when he answered a question about the meaning of life.

People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have some resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about...

An important event in my search for meaning occurred during a week‑long, personal growth seminar in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The structure of the week involved cycling between personal work done alone, and recounting that work in a small group, in a quiet, meditative atmosphere.

For my contemplative work I found a table and bench in a small grassy clearing, surrounded by giant fir trees, oaks and madrone, where I worked alone. On the third afternoon I had an experience - or more aptly perhaps - an experience had me that changed my life. I find it difficult to describe, but you will recognize it if you've had similar happenings.

I sat in a sort of dreamy space, gazing at the sunshine filtering through the trees, listening to the buzz of insects, feeling a faint breeze, smelling the forest. My thinking brain idled as my senses soaked up my surroundings. After a few minutes or an hour - time was of little consequence - the intense beauty of the woods seeped deeply into my being and pervaded my psyche in what seemed to me an intentional act. The purpose of this beauty seemed to be to eliminate our separateness. For a few minutes we were no longer "me" and "it," but profoundly "we." The trees and breeze and sunshine and I were an inseparable Oneness.

With this feeling, all sense of fear and alienation dropped away and the scene fairly glowed with meaning. It was as if a veil had been lifted and I was experiencing the world in its luminous wholeness.

Later I returned to my group, walking alone up a road through the darkening woods. Normally I would have had some fear about what I could not see in the darkness but the feeling of connectedness remained and I was unafraid. An hour later when I tried to describe the experience to the others I was so overcome with awe that I could not talk without shaking and weeping. Even today, some twenty years later, I still feel a strong emotional response.

What can I reasonably infer from this event, what a psychologist might call a peak experience? What might it say about the meaning of life?

First, I know of no explanation in normal, sensory reality that sheds much light. Recent work on the brain has isolated areas that seem to be involved in these peak experiences, but that only begs the question. The event obviously involved my senses but seemed to sneak under the radar of logical thinking.

Second, I felt some sort of intentionality. The beauty I was in the midst of seemed to have its own purpose; to strike down any alienation between me and my surroundings. There seemed to be some mediating presence that swept away the gap between me and the world around me. The Buddhist book may be correct; "That which you are seeking is causing you to seek." It may be our own, deep sense of wholeness that draws us in to this space when circumstances are right.

Finally, I realized I am connected to the world around me in a deep, intimate way that goes beyond thinking, beyond cause and effect.

The seminar played out its days and I returned home, but there was no way I could ignore that sense of connectedness to the world. True, I often forget it. Also true, I cannot live in that space much of the time. But since that summer afternoon in the forest I have found the confines of the sensory world too constricting and cannot ignore my feeling of oneness with the world and its creatures.

For millions of years we humans have peered into the darkness beyond the fire and wondered about our place in the universe.

My mind was being called beyond the everyday world. And that was, I saw, the point . . . to induce openness of mind and to inspire wonder. It doesn't matter whether what inspires wonder is true or not, only that it is effective.

For me, this wonder is a powerful clue to our connection with the Universe; it reminds us of who we are, as part of the Cosmos.

So on dark, quiet nights, sitting by the fire under the stars, I peer intently into the dark woods, tell my story to my companions and marvel at the connectedness of the universe and the mysteries yet to explore. And in the silence I listen closely for the music of distant dogs.

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