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.”


sit down! shut up! look at the wall!

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

ok, now over to you!


  1. The meaning of a thing is whatever it causes you to DO.

    If you do not act upon a thing it means nothing to you, no matter how much you say it means to you.

    Haiti. Dolphins. Rain forests. The homeless. Do these words mean anything to you in light of the definition above?

    To say, “I do what I can” and do only check-writing should appall you. Are you really only a money-transfer machine, an ATM that spits cash when someone pushes the right buttons?

    No; of course you’re more than that. You can do more than that. So you’re NOT doing all you can. Stop kidding yourself.

    All Haiti, dolphins, rain forests, and the homeless mean to you is the effort it takes to write a check, if that’s all you do. And that’s OK.

    You don’t have get all excited about things just because others get excited and tell you to get excited too. You don’t have to say you find meaning in what others approve; unless, of course, approval is what’s really meaningful to you.

    Just be honest about it with yourself and others.

  2. I like what Stephen Downes stated. I view meaning as what importance and how it fits into our perspective on life and what it represents to us. When I did crisis intervention, one of the things that was taught was to find out what the meaning of the event or problem was to the person.
    .-= ClinicallyClueless´s last blog ..Haiti: Hatred and Heartache =-.

  3. @barkingunicorn – “the meaning of a thing is whatever it causes you to DO.” well, what can i say, i like that. it even has a fancy name: affordance. and then i wonder again, why call it meaning? rather than asking, “what does your father’s wedding to a new bride mean to you?” – why not say, “how does this affect you?”, or “do you need to talk about what to do when you feel uncomfortable in their new home?” is the word “meaning” useful in this connection?

    “if you do not act upon a thing it means nothing to you, no matter how much you say it means to you.” – well, i don’t know. i’m a big believer in benevolent non-involvement. for example, as a wife, keeping my mouth shut has often been a good thing to do. btw, it looks like you are using the word “meaning” as a substitute for “caring” here. interesting.
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..i have a dream – about mental health =-.

  4. If keeping one’s mouth shut requires effort/work, then you are doing something. Whatever you have to keep your mout shut about has meaning to you.

    Yes, “it’s meaningless to me” and “I don’t care about it” are interchangeable in one sense: how could you possibly care about what you don’t understand?

    “I don’t understand him, but he’s my so I care about him,” you say. But you don’t care about him. You care about your mental construct of “whatever”. THAT is what has meaning to you. Unless a thing means something to you, you cannot care about it.

    So the prerequisite to doing anything about/for one who you claim to care about is to understand him/her… accept what he/she really is in place of your mental consstruct of “whatever”… banish your delusions.

    Then you can clear-headedly decided whether he/she is worth doing anything about; that is, whether the real person has any meaning to you.

  5. @barkingunicorn if caring is an action word, not an “i kinda like/lust for this person” word, then i think accepting would be good but is it a prerequisite? i don’t know. you’re sitting there thirsty and i give you a drink. that’s an instance of caring. does accepting come into the equation?

    and are understanding and meaning the same? i don’t want to throw out these socks; my mother made them (i.e. one could say they are imbued with meaning). does that imply that i understand the socks? the fibre? the way they were made?
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..i have a dream – about mental health =-.

  6. @clinically clueless – you say “when i did crisis intervention, one of the things that was taught was to find out what the meaning of the event or problem was to the person.” and that you view meaning as”importance and how it fits into our perspective on life and what it represents to us”. this is probably what i would most easily see as “meaning.” but then the question remains, why is “meaning” a better word than the words you used (importance, perspective, representation)?
    .-= isabella mori (@moritherapy)´s last blog ..i have a dream – about mental health =-.

  7. “if caring is an action word, not an “i kinda like/lust for this person” word,”

    There is no caring without action, dear.

    ” then i think accepting would be good but is it a prerequisite?”

    Only if you want to care about the real person or thing, and not about your delusions concerning it.

    By “delusions” I mean not only qualities or characteristics that you perceive in a thing but which no one else perceives. I also mean your unfulfilled desires that the thing be something other than exactly what it, he, or she is.

    “I love you, but…”

    “This would be perfect if…”

    “are understanding and meaning the same?”

    No. What you understand has meaning.

    Your attachment to the socks does not mean they are “imbued with meaning.” It means that you are conditioned to keep what your mother makes for you whether you want it or not. A child, of any age, who does so earns social approval. One who throws away the socks her mother made for her earns social disapproval, no matter how uselessly worn out the socks are.

    Of course, there’s no one around to disapprove if you throw out the socks – except you. You hold yourself in bondage to this conditioning.

    The quest for meaning is a quest for attachments to things. Why seek meaning except to find something for which you will toil and struggle, suffer and die in order to keep it as it is, or to make it manifest if it does not yet exist?

    Attachment gives rise to suffering, because everything always changes and so nothing can be yours.

    “He who wherever he goes is attached to no person and to no place (or thing) by ties of flesh; who accepts good and evil alike, neither welcoming the one nor shrinking from the other — take it that such a one has attained Perfection.” — Bhagavad-Gita

  8. You know, reading this really made me think. For me, meaning is similar to purpose. Does my life have a purpose, a significance. When we feel something is meaningless, it’s without a purpose or message. I like the first quote about meaning being a bridge from negative emotions and events to positive emotions.

    I notice that the author didn’t say positive eventss. I think that’s significant because we can’t change the past. If we live in the past all of the time, it will be difficult to find the meaning in life. There have been some terrible things that have happened to me which I cannot change, but what I choose to do and think about them can change them into meaningful events for me. Maybe I’m able to help someone else, or see a greater good, maybe I don’t know why something happened, but I see the power in the bridge to a better outlook.
    .-= Nickie´s last blog ..All aboard for the Nickie’s Nook tour =-.

  9. What is distinctive about the term ‘meaning’ in relation to other synonyms. There probably isn’t any element that doesn’t have another word for it.

    And there are different ways of doing definitions too (operational – it is what you do – vs etiology – the linguistic origin etc).

    For me the distinctive thing about meaning is that it has to do with the fit between me and my situation and is big enough to take in all of me. But, English being what it is, there are lots of synonyms.

    I like Viktor Frankl’s idea that there isn’t a meaning to life, there is though the meaning of my life. For me: connecting deeply with others.

    His death was meaningless – probably means something like random/senseless – not fitting his/her own narrative.

    Does a tree have meaning? People include it in their narratives/sense of life. Is a tree conscious of itself in some articulate way? No.

    For me meaning/purpose/values are in the dimension of our life called ‘spirit’. Linear rationality and emotion don’t give these.

    There is much to say about the various views given – too long for a comment. Phrases can have meaning without reference to the world ‘out there’; my favourite is from an e e cummings poem, “not even the rain has such small hands”.

  10. I am loving your blog. Great content and very informative.

    We could use something like this for people in San Diego.

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