There is a story I like about the controversial spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. He was sitting in his favourite Parisian Cafe when a rich English aristocrat approached him and offered him £1000 if he could show her the meaning of life.
He took up her challenge and invited a local prostitute to join his table. He offered her some of the cake he was eating and told her a fantastic story: he was in fact an alien and the cake she was eating had been transported to earth from his home planet. Upon asking her if she was enjoying his otherworldly delicacy, she replied that it was just an almond cake.
Gurdjieff suddenly turned to the aristocrat and announced “That is the meaning of life!” Feeling embarrassed and confused the Lady quickly left, but was rumoured to have returned later and paid Gurdjieff his prize money in full.
What was Gurdjieff pointing to with this stunt? Here is one way to approach it.
We tend to believe that the world is given just as it is. That it’s simply there regardless of what we think about it. For most of us the world is completely objective, existing by itself, whether we experience it or not.
It may come as a surprise then to realise that actually, there is no objective world which we all experience. There is only ever “our world” and that is entirely dependent upon how we view it, understand it and relate to it. We never experience the world as it actually is but rather as we are in each moment, and this always depends upon the lens of our own biological, cultural and personal conditioning.
There is no “world”.
There is only “my world”.
One person views the world as a dangerous and chaotic place, another sees it as beautiful, loving and ever-fresh. Gurdjieff sees a rare alien delicacy whereas the prostitute sees only almond cake.
In fact the cake is a rare alien delicacy; its existence is wholly dependent upon a random collision of other fleeting phenomena; the existence of the earth, the fact that the big bang happened, and the arising of an individual consciouness to perceive the taste of the cake in the first place.
Every moment is miraculous. It’s our over familiarisation with things which leads us to forget how impossible and otherworldly everything really is.
So what is the meaning of life?
There isn’t one. Or rather, it’s not as simple as identifying one single meaning. There are as many meanings to life as there are people experiencing it. And those meanings shift and change, open and contract over time. Our lives used to mean one thing and now they mean another. They will no doubt mean something quite different in the moments before our death.
Life is not an objective lump which we all see equally, but a rorschach picture to be interpreted. There is no such thing as a separate world, independent from the person experiencing it.
And this world of ours is made from, and conditioned by, the very consciousness which perceives it.
If we take away the universe where is your mind?
If we take away your mind where is the universe?
To begin to change the ways in which we view life, the cake, the chair, the birth, the death, the sun and planets, the universe and atoms, is to change how we live.
And we can do this purposefully. Rather than living from a cluster of accidental and often dysfunctional perspectives, we can cultivate ways of seeing which open up our experience of the world, and our place within it.
Rather than viewing ourselves and others as separate from the trees, sky, animals and stars, we can realise our basic fundamental interconnection and inter-dependence, not as a fuzzy belief but as a fundamental living reality.
But it’s not simply that the more positive our view of the world, the more positive it feels. It’s deeper than that.
The fact that our minds and the world rely on each other for their existance means that neither stand alone. By putting aside our learnt knowledge and becoming aware of our direct experience we see that we cannot actually find something called a “mind” apart from our experience of an outer world.
And likewise we cannot find an “outer world” apart from the mind which perceives it.
Even if we were to find a genuine external world, it would instantly become an inner-world upon contact.
There is no outer and inner. There is no duality. The two are one movement, one dance, one flow.
Life is a dynamic interplay with itself, and it also includes the felt sense of actually being a separate independent self. The ego with its sense of individuality is not then something to kill or dissolve – it is not an error or an obstacle to spiritual awakening – but another expression of universal intelligence.
It just doesn’t exist in the way we think it does (i.e. “separate”).
Gurdjieff’s stunt shows us that the meaning of life can only ever be a personal meaning: an overlay onto raw seamless experience. And that is good news because we are free to choose and cultivate the most useful, life-affirming, liberating perspectives we can create.
The question is, why don’t we?
This universe is not drawing us towards some ultimate concrete answer which we will all agree upon, but expressing itself as 8 billion flavours of answer, right here and now. Life is creative, rebellious and ever-fresh and can be perceived in an infinite number of ways.
Just like Gurdjieff’s Almond cake.