I was brought up to have meaning. My life had to have meaning, and my first duty was to discover this meaning. My Western upbringing demanded this. Who are you? Why are you here? Those were the questions of meaning I was duty bound to set off to answer. Assuredly, any failure to discover the meaning of my life, would be a tragedy beyond measure.
I have come to realize that meaning is a very Western preoccupation.
In Eastern thought, there is only being.
However, to my good fortune, my Eastern upbringing gave me an answer, Be. I find it interesting that one side starts with the questions of meaning while the other with an answer to meaning. The Western philosophy has long striven to find the answer to the meaning of the individual. I have come to realize that meaning is a very Western preoccupation. In Eastern thought, there is only being. Being as meaning. The trick of course is how to be. And just being, without all the stuff we collect and drag with us, without our preconceptions and misconceptions, without our judgements and prejudices, without the comfort of our illusions - should be simple but of course, it isn't. We are addicted to being the centre of our world. And besides being a conceit, it is surely an illusion. The East has an answer to how we can be: see things as they are.
People ensure me that without meaning my life will be, well, meaningless! I infer from this that they mean my life will be futile, of no account and so on. I have a feeling that no matter how much meaning I may pile on my life's plate, on the vast cosmic time scale, my life will fall short of reaching any meaningful mark. After all, when measured against what the scientists aptly refer to as 'deep time', it is impossible for anything or anyone to matter. Strangely, I don't mind that in the slightest. The universe is the great leveler: we are all equal. It seems that the period of time in which a universe can support life - the age of stars - is but an instant of its entire life span. And that time is now.
Being an instant of an instant, of an instant of yet another instant doesn't leave me depressed or meaningless. It leaves me with a deep sense of privilege to exist at all, not to mention a deep sense of connection with the things on this planet that exist with me in this briefest fraction of time. As Professor Cox says, We are the cosmos made conscious of itself. A fleeting burst.
When I am not over-awed by the figures that deep time is measured in and what it all represents, I can sometimes extend that connection to the furthest edges of our expanding universe. There, at its edge, I gaze across an expanse of time I cannot begin to imagine; an expanse so vast I can scarcely believe let alone comprehend that I am a part of all this, if only for an instant.
And in my wonder, I find meaning.
Shui-lyn White is an artist and print maker living in Cape Town.