What is the Meaning of Life
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ï»¿WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE? Program 152 Mystical Experiences by Ernest O’Neill
What is the meaning of life? That’s the subject we’re discussing this time on this program each day. We’ve got to the point where we’re looking at some of the attempts that all of us probably at some time in our lives have made at trying to find out the meaning of life. Most of us, of course, have tried some kind of what we would call religious or higher experience. Many of us are convinced that there certainly is some kind of Supreme Being.
That’s the only way you can describe the order and design that we see in the universe, and the obvious order and design of our own bodies and our own minds. So we feel that what we ought to try to do is to contact that Supreme Being in some way. We’ve been talking about the attempts we all have made at different times in our lives to do that. One of the most popular ways is, of course, to enter in to some kind of what we call mystical experience.
What we have been saying is that the real explanation of life, the true explanation that has been given by that remarkable individual who lived in the first century of our era, that remarkable explanation that has been looked upon down through the years as the one complete satisfactory explanation of the meaning of life is the one that you find in that old collection of books called in Greek “Ta Biblia” — or which has become translated into the word Bible.
The explanation given there helps us to understand why so many of us are frustrated with our mystical experiences. That explanation of reality that is given by that man Jesus of Nazareth makes it clear to us that our Creator made us for one purpose: so that we could enjoy His friendship and so that He could enjoy our friendship. That’s why He made us in His own image. That is, He made us with the same capacities as He has.
What we looked at, you remember, was the fact that He made us on three levels…three levels of experience, or three levels of existence, or three levels of perception. Just as He has, in a sense, a spiritual body by which He can be perceived, so He gave us a physical body. Then He breathed into us His own spirit, the spirit of His own life, the thing that gives life to everything in the universe. He breathed that into us. Those two elements combine and produce a third element known as the soul, the psychological part of us. That’s actually what gives us our uniqueness.
So often men are called in the Bible “souls”. We talk even in popular jargon about a ship going down with so many souls on board. Humanity has come to be identified with the unique element that it possesses: the soul. In other words, the angels have spirits and animals have bodies, but only a man has a spirit, a soul and a body. A soul is often the part of us that we think contacts God. Of course, it doesn’t. The spirit is what contacts God. But we often try to raise our soul experiences to the “nth” degree, hoping that somehow we will achieve oneness with the Supreme Being behind the universe.
We are doomed, of course, to continual failure and frustration because the soul (the emotional and mental part of us) is the self-conscious part of us. It’s the part of us by which we perceive our own inner experiences. It’s the part of us that is self-critical. It’s the part of us that makes medics say that our brain cells are the only part of us that can think about themselves. The brain cells of animals can’t think about themselves. Our brain cells can think about themselves. In other words, our soul is the part of us that looks in and enables us to be conscious of what we are thinking or what we are feeling.
Of course, the mistake that many of us make is we think that somehow through the exercises of the soul we will perceive the reality behind the universe. We will somehow be able to contact the Supreme Being behind the universe. We never do. All we enter into is mystical experience. Now the heart of a mystical experience is that it is preoccupied usually with its own personal perception of reality.
I suppose true mysticism is actually a correct perception of God. But most of us don’t engage in true mysticism at all. Most of us engage in what we call a mystical experience, but what ends up being a preoccupation with our perception of God. For most of us our attempts at mysticism have been involved in whether we had what we call a good prayer time or not. Or whether we had a good time of meditation.
It’s that kind of experience that C. S. Lewis talked about when he was at boarding school. He said he used to pray at night. Then he would ask himself if he really realized that prayer. By that he meant whether he experienced that prayer as really and as vividly as he had experienced it the night before. He said eventually he stopped praying, because it became such a burden and such a slavery and such a labor to him. He drove himself crazy trying to look in to see if he actually realized the prayer.
You remember how he explains it in that partial biography [Surprised by Joy]. He said he at last realized in later life that when he looked in to see whether he had realized that prayer or not, he had ceased to pray. The heart of worship is utter preoccupation with the Supreme Being. It’s the sense that Thomas had, you remember, in the New Testament, when he saw Jesus was actually risen from the dead. He bowed down and he said, “My Lord and my God”. It kind of makes you speechless.
It fills you with a sense of what Rudolf Otto called, you remember, the sense of the holy or the numinous, the sense of awe. The moment you look in to see whether you have that sense of awe or not, you have ceased to worship. As C. S. Lewis puts it, what he was in fact looking at was the mental track of the worship that he had been involved in; in other words the memory left in his mind of the worship that he had just been experiencing. But he pointed out that it is impossible to look in and see yourself worship. The moment you look in you have ceased to worship. It’s impossible to do it.
Many of us are involved in that kind of mystical experience, which we think is a direct perception of the Supreme Being behind the universe. It is in reality an exercise of self-consciousness. That explains why great numbers of us in our teenage years and in our later years experienced frustration in our attempts to contact God. We’ve been preoccupied with our own mystical experience of God, rather than preoccupied with God.
Of course, we can never contact God through our souls. Our soul is simply the self-conscious part of us. It’s the part of us that is conscious of self. It explains why we are often so frustrated with even the good music that we experience in church or the beautiful singing, or the magnificent liturgy. We get a certain satisfaction from those things, but not deep full satisfaction that we get alone from communication with God Himself, and which is done, of course, through our spirit.
Now the interesting thing about us men and women is that our souls themselves can be governed by either one part of us or the other part of us. Our soul, our mind and emotions and will are actually just equipment; they are apparatus that we have. They are by themselves neutral. They have to be driven either by one part of us or by the other. They have to be driven by our bodies or they have to be driven by our spirits.
That was the question that God put to us, or the choice that He left with us. He said, “Now I have made you like Me. I have given you the capacities that I have. But you must choose whether you’re going to live like me, in which case you will receive from me my inner attributes as well as my outward capabilities. You must choose if you want to live like me, and in trust of me, or whether you want to live on your own, independent
of me. Let’s talk more about that tomorrow.