Tag Archives: meaning

understanding meaning

recently, i have had numerous little conversation bits on twitter about meaning and meaning making. rather than expound on my ideas here, i’d like to invite you to reflect on the questions below and/or the words of others who have thought about the topic. maybe you’ll come up with your own questions. maybe we can begin a conversation.

  • have you ever wondered, “what is the meaning of life?” if so, what specifically are you talking/thinking about or perhaps hoping for when you ask that question?
  • what does it signify when someone says, “his death was meaningless”?
  • “meaningful” is another word. i just saw that i used it in at least 20 entries. do you use that word? what are you trying to express with it?
  • does a tree have meaning?
  • how does the concept of “meaning” fit into your approach to spirituality? to creativity?
  • when you look at the thoughts on meaning and meaning making below, could we have used other words/ideas/concepts instead of “meaning”?

here are some things other people have said:

meaning-making is a bridge from the negative emotion caused by negative life events to positive emotion through cognitive restructuring. (by mary-frances o’connor in a paper making meaning of life events: theory, evidence, and research directions for an alternative model.)

stephen downes, a fellow canadian, has an interesting article on the topic. an excerpt:

in the roughest sense, ‘meaning making’ is the placing of perceptions or information within the context of a perspective, point of view, or world view. in other words, the ‘making meaning’ of something is to show or to understand how that something assists or contributes to one’s understanding of the world.

beyond that rough outline, the topic of ‘making meaning’ is fraught with dispute and conflicting accounts of ‘meaning’.

the term ‘meaning’ is of semantic origin. the word ‘meaning’ traditionally applied to words. the idea of ‘meaning’ is that one thing – the word, or the ‘sign’ – stands for, or represents, something else – the ‘signification’ …

but the meaning of a word (or sentence) may extend beyond what the words directly refer to. frege captures this idea by distinguishing between ‘sense’ and ‘reference’. other writers speak of the distinction between ‘denotation’ (ie., what a word ‘denotes’, or refers to) and ‘connotation’ (ie., what a word makes you think about, or what a word is associated with). such a distinction is necessary to understand metaphor. ‘the early bird captures the worm’ is either meaningless or [possibly] false when understood strictly by reference, but understood as a metaphor, may well be true.

in either case, there is presumed to be a strong correlation between what a word means and the state of affairs in the world. the idea is that, without a corresponding state of affairs, a word is, literally, meaningless. this opens the way, substantially, to a way of understanding the world, by understanding how we describe the world.

then, interestingly, there is something on a mental health site in new zealand that talks about creativity (interesting because i’m interested in both topics)

meaning-making is the construction of ‘comprehension’ from an individual’s experience. this may be the discovery of completely new core constructs or the reframing of current ideas. it requires an engagement with people, places, ideas or things, to create an ‘internal’ space in which an energetic information exchange can occur. this is what enables the individual to grasp an understanding of the unity between their ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. in the ‘space’ that creative process provides, one recognises themselves as this is reflected back by the image/word/sound they have made, and so comprehension expands.

futuredirected looks at it this way:

perhaps what we are really looking for is completion ” the recognition that the universe is exactly as it should be. there’s nothing wrong with it. we created this way, and if it should have been created some other way, we would have created it that way. but we didn’t. we created it this way.

when you are complete with life, and always already complete, then you are free from the burden of surviving. you have the freedom to create intentionally. your life as you now know it will end, but in its ending there would be no sorrow or tragedy. you would have had a life well lived and it will have been lived completely. new life would appear in your wake. the world you created would go on, always in the context of you. only by giving up the need to survive, in favor of being complete can one attain true survival.

life has no innate meaning, but it does have purpose, and the purpose of life is completion. this isn’t the answer. it’s not even the truth. it is simply a place to stand.

and here something that i think is quite representative of the place of “meaning” in buddhism – in this case, the meaning of sitting meditation (zazen)

our normal western minds would say, “ok, let me just try to figure this thing out, let me try to figure out what the meaning of this “looking at a wall” has for my life, let me just figure out the significance of this and then i will know its meaning. so let me just think about this for awhile.”

NO!

sit down! shut up! look at the wall!

finally, here are all the different interpretations of “meaning” on wikipedia.

ok, now over to you!

poetry, meaning and ‘arse dribble’

today, i’d like to serve you up – arse dribble! that’s what stephen fry calls experimental poetry.

don’t worry, there’s more on the menu.

jim murdoch over at the truth about lies has a good post on poetry and meaning, where he lays out two styles of experimental poetry – ‘decoder ring’ and ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. i’ve picked a few words off his post, and will give you examples of my poetry – i have one from each category he discusses.

jim: ‘decoder ring’ poems are fine up to a point. my wife writes them all the time, usually about me and i never get them. of course, when she tells me what the poem is about it’s obvious but no one else would have a clue to the poem’s ‘true’ meaning. that does not mean the poem is necessarily meaningless to them. they will impose their own meaning on it.

my poem:

ha’aha’a: humility.
beyond this and that,
above servitude,
below arrogance
not higher not lower –
just that:
here i am.
naked.
let the winds blow …
ha’aha’a.

here’s the decoder ring (i’ve written a whole book of decoder rings here, by the way)

these are words of aspiration. i aspire for them to be words of description, i aspire for this to be the truth: that i am indeed humble, equal, in no need for clothes that hide who i am, meeting the winds of what-is as they come.

i don’t know if i’ll ever get there – but i can reach for it. as i am reaching, i leave a trace, i leave crumbs like hansel and gretel, and together, these crumbs are a poem.

or: the poem is part of the path that leads to

ha’aha’a: humility

footnote: ha’aha’a is hawaiian for humility. when the spirit of aloha is explained, ha’aha’a has a place: A – akahi (tenderness); L – lokahi (unity, harmony, oneness); O – olu’olu (kindness, being pleasant and agreeable); H – ha’aha’a (humility); A – ahonui (patience and perseverance)

back to jim.

now, an ’emperor’s new clothes’ poem is another thing entirely. it is where you are presented with an arrangement of words on a page and are told, “this is a poem – make of it what you will,” whereupon you are left to your own devices. now, you can look stupid and say, “i don’t get this,” or you can hold you hands up and go, “this is simply wonderful!” to cover your embarrassment. i think too many of us are unwilling to play the role of the wee boy who shouts out, “hey, the emperor’s got no clothes on,” for fear of ridicule. we assume that the poem has a solution.

here’s one i dug up from sometime in 2005, and i have to tell you i don’t really know whether there even is an emperor

it’s all still better when
the crap stops
or the crab stops
running sideways
rouge
baton rouge
roller coaster baton
crab rouge stop
when all the crabs
stop over in baton
rouge when it’s over
it’ll better be over

and jim:

which brings me to the term ‘experimental poetry’ a one-size-fits-all expression which can be used to excuse the author no matter what, if i might quote stephen fry here, “arse dribble” is served up to us in the name of poetry. i have no problem with poets experimenting. i encourage it. i do it myself. i think it is essential. in the best scientific tradition that is how we learn; we have a crack at it and see what happens.

so here’s an example of arse dribble. i had completely forgotten about it. i rather like it:

i have a candle on my left of hand.
i have a candle on my left of amber-on-black that
beshadows itself from light –
candle not reach it for angle will not allow.

candlefire tip so light and bright and white on also-white
waxcandle. transluces many things. though
a-many questions beg: reaches it me, my inner
brainlight?

my inner brainlight as it lies these latter days
under a clog cloud of furry, heavy fog
drogged by itselves and other shrumpy co-oms and panions.

no-ony-bod will ever stand under the tree of this beminion.
no tressy croog will sot beneath or over shullden hexmons.

berwong sut yoot.

i have a candle on my hand that’s left of me.
that screen that sits bestaring me in yellow-black
can see not candle while it angles wrong.

bright fire stares at me, my eyes, my cheeks, my brows and lips
bright candle cuddle fire.
in midnight. while that brain of mine unsure is whether
it long have wait until it drinketh light.

(okay, i have to decode one thing for those of you who haven’t used computers before the internet: first monitor screens came only in green-on-black; the next great evolution was amber-on-black!)

jim: as far as i can tell, there are two kinds of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poetry.

here’s a poem that’s a song

take the braces off your legs
come sister, take the braces off your legs
tear the rags off your skin, sister, tear the rags off your skin
take them off and dance

take the shackles off your hands
come sister, take the shackles off your hands
tear the black glasses off your eyes, sister, tear the black glasses off your eyes
take them off and sing

take the irons off your feet
come sister, take the irons off your feet
tear the noose off from your neck, sister, tear the noose off from your neck
take them off and dance and sing

dance, sister, dance, be the wind
sing, sister, sing, be the moon and sun
let those chains and shackles be the instruments
that celebrate your freedom

dance, sister, dance, sing, dance

let me stand by and see you
dance, sister, dance, sing, dance
let me see you celebrate your freedom

and one final word from jim:

why can’t you just say what you mean?” is another good question. sometimes i do, sometimes however it’s easier to write about one thing when you’re really talking about something else. that’s nothing unique to poetry. i had a girlfriend once who used to let me know she was menstruating by using the colourful euphemism: “the painter’s arrived.” we use picturesque language all the time. we very rarely call a spade a spade.

here i call a spade a spade. or a tomcat a tomcat. it’s all pretty straightforward. or is it?

wet camelia leaves
glitter under the street lamps.
a tomcat runs home.