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Script of presentation about meaning in life forum, experience of meaning in life, and related literature

What is the experience of meaning in life? Why did the author create the meaning in life forum? What happened in the Forum? What did the author learn? What literature relates to the experience of meaning in life and the experience of nothingness?

Added by colin #442 on 2005-04-16. Last modified 2008-03-05 09:03. Originally created 2005-04-16. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World
Topics: personal, philosophy, spirit
: graduate school

This will be cleaned up eventually.

Other resources related to this presentation are here.

Colin Leath    2005-04-16
Meaning in life forum presentation
That was to give you an idea of what the Meaning in Life forum was like.
Before I talk about this research I want to advertise *two* visions that I have.

One is that: [on overhead]

A dialog along the lines of “Where are we going as a people and what is my part in it?” becomes active and widespread.

My other vision is that:

More people spend more time listening to the silence and to those who listen to the silence. The silence shall speak through more minds.

Returning to the experience of meaning in life, I have three important points to make:

First, (1) Working on big questions can lead to rewarding personal and social change.

Second, (2) The experience of meaning in life can be described most simply as having things to look forward to.

Third, (3) Some people, in order to go on living, need to perceive that their lives are a part of something that is larger and longer-lasting than their bodies, that they think is good, or at least benign.

The question I want to leave you with today is:

"How do we, on all levels, from the scale of the globe to the inside of our selves, create environments that are most conducive to meaningful experience?"

On this point I have two suggestions:

One is that: 
(1) Meaningful environments are responsive.

The other is that:
(2) Meaningful environments contain variety.

As one example, a specific way we are making our environments more meaningful is that

(1)  More and more communities are creating more places for people, and eliminating space for cars.


Now, if I, nine years ago, were sitting in this audience, I would have one question. And that is, "How can I start feeling again? And what is the point in feeling?"

I will ask my younger self "How is it that you could stop feeling, when once I'm sure you did?"


["Faith" is a fine invention/
when gentlemen can see,
But microscopes are prudent
in an emergency.]

I blame aspects of the culture or lack of culture I grew up in.

I was and had and had done everything it seemed to say I should.
Yet I no longer knew what I should do
and I was running out of things to go after
that I believed would be worthwhile.

Almost all that I had left then was my question,
which became more and more insistent,
and with this I could destroy
even experiences and activities
I knew and felt to be good
by asking why and how, even then,
instead of just appreciating them.

A solution I eventually came to
was that *reason is a tool*
to be used for the purpose of having good experience.

That is not the end of my difficulties though,
because I can imagine the future and remember the past,
and with all of this I try to do
what we do reflexively with these three points:


What do you see?

You see something more than three dots, most likely.

And I try to understand the present moment as part of a greater whole.

And unless I have a compelling vision for the whole of my life, or at least the next few years, months, and weeks I find it difficult, even now, to focus on intermediate activities I know to be important.

To illustrate the problem here are two of my drawings at the time:

[who] ["who(where) are you?
"what do you feel(see)
"I am lost,
"And you are hope.]

[time scream]

One possibility I had not yet exhausted was that an intimate relationship with a woman and that relationships with others in general would give me meaning.

And I began to look for other people who wanted to ask the same questions. Here is a flyer I posted around campus:


Here is a background I made for another flyer:

[be together]

And I found some people!

I later registered an official student organization called "the *being* group" with the following two purposes:

  The purpose of this group is to discuss and create experience.

  A secondary purpose of this group is to increase the amount of time people enjoy being alive. It is believed this can be accomplished by encouraging individuals to actively and openly question what is the best way to live.

I want to emphasize that my intention was also to create an environment where questions could be asked without any answer being presupposed or encouraged to be accepted over another.

The Meaning in Life forum was basically the *being* group, but given a particular focus of inquiry-- the experience of meaning in life--
and a more formal structure.

I wanted to be able to say to the world that just by following this particular meeting format, and without the interference of professionals, that not only would the participants love it, but their well-being and experience of meaning in life would be significantly and lastingly improved.

The planned structure of the forum was as follows:

The forum consists of eight participants meeting for two hours each week for eight weeks.
By the eighth meeting of the forum, participants will develop and present a paper--written to their specifications--detailing their current understanding of the question of meaning in life.

For the first 3 weeks of the Forum, participants will work on the question of meaning in life using their past and present experience, without reading the work of others.

In the second 3 weeks, participants will begin to consult the work of others.

Every session but the last will follow the same format:

For the first 45 minutes of the session, participants will talk with 1 other participant.

For the next 45 minutes, each participant will talk to the whole group for five minutes about what she has been thinking about and working on during the meeting and in the previous week.

The meeting will conclude with a whole group discussion
focused on synthesizing what has been discussed during the meeting and on defining new directions and questions to explore before the next meeting.

In the final session, participants will have 10 minutes to present their paper to the group.

My role in all of this was to do little more than help the forum keep on schedule.

1:30 - 5:00

I planned the forum this way for the following reasons:

o First: if the each meeting wasn't fun the participants would not keep coming.

To reduce domination of the forum by talkative members, much of the forum would be conversation with just one other person, and there would be designated time for the whole group to hear from each member.

Few environments are more meaningful and responsive than an intimate conversation with a friend, and I hoped to foster that kind of feeling.

o Second: [VISUAL] This diagram relates what I thought the experience of meaning in life was at the time
to the focus of the forum structure
on encouraging a group questioning process over any particular content.

I thought that persons with the greatest meaning in life
will be those who
feel that they have the *understanding*
of how to live in their environment,
regardless of what might come up,
in such a way that they will always be able to find value in living.

(explaining the diagram)

If you're unhappy,

you look about for how to improve your situation or to keep things from getting worse

you develop ideas about possible courses of action

you implement your plan and find out if it works or not.

If your plan works, you add it to your ideas about how to live,

and your confidence about being able to continue to find meaning in life regardless of what might come up improves.

o Third: Writing papers and giving presentations are activities I had found help me to learn the most.

o Fourth: Looking to the work of others only after the half-way point emphasizes the questioning process over any particular content.

o Fifth: The effect of forum participation would be quantitatively evaluated using questionnaires and by comparison to a control group. This would give me a better idea of the effect of the forum.

1:30 - 6:30

I will use this chart to illustrate what happened:

[the attendance chart]

It shows attendance. These are their scores on a quick self-rating on a 1-10 scale of how happy they are at the beginning and end of each meeting.

Of note is that:

o Only two of the eight participants attended all of the meetings.

o after the first meeting the participants changed the meeting structure to be one long large-group discussion.

o The least happy participants were least likely to keep attending.

o Only two participants presented something at the final meeting.

One participant made a 90-minute tape of excerpts from songs which to her represent aspects of meaning in life and gave us copies.
Another wrote a note to each of us sharing "A few reasons why you are wonderful."

What I got most out of the forum occurred after one of the participants suggested we work on the following question for the next meeting: "What are the most meaningful experiences you've had in your life? …in the past year? …the past month? …the past week? …today?"

When the next meeting came the difference between me and the three generally happy participants was obvious. The most ebullient participant could go on and on... and on.

From that, I altered how I thought of the experience of meaning in life. It is not so much about one's confidence in a rational framework of understanding we develop as we get older, but one's raw, immediate, emotional attachment to expected future events.

I developed several questions to assess this conceptualization of meaning in life:

Are there things you look forward to?

Are there a lot of things you look forward to?

How much do you look forward to the things you most look forward to?

How often will you be able to do the things you most look forward to?

1:30 - 8:00

When I finished the papers on this project I put away my microscope and the statistics and focused on how I personally reacted to different experiences, paying close attention to what excited me and what sapped me. Now I'm here. Let's listen to some others:

Kurt Vonnegut wrote the following:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”


That’s one favor I’ve asked of you.

Now I’ve got another one, a show of hands. How many of you have had a teacher at any point in your entire education who made you happier to be alive, prouder to be alive than you had previously believed possible? Now please say the name of that teacher out loud to someone sitting or standing near you.

OK? All done? “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”


N.C. Wyeth, the artist and father of Andrew Wyeth, felt that emotion, association, and memory are the most valuable part of life. “Anything less than total emotional involvement in work and in play is a denial of human life itself”, he said. Once he wrote proudly of his children, “...they show an ability that will always give them a foundation reason why it is worthwhile to live, and secondly as they weave the textures of their lives, the background of their memories will give them untold pleasures, and perhaps the basis upon which they can build an important life work.” He stressed the importance of the “sensing of new impressions and memory of old ones”. He felt it was valuable “to obtain the utmost of pleasure and inspiration from the simplest and homeliest events of life around you” because “the limitless ocean itself, the mountains and valleys of the world are of no greater importance in appearance or significance”. N.C. Wyeth wanted his children to be homesick when they left, and they were.   

:55 - 9:30

Jeremy Rifkin writes the following in "the European Dream":

"How do we experience life if continually surrounded by death and consumed with the thought of death?"

"By choosing deep re-participation with nature, by stewarding the many relationships that nurture life, we surround ourselves with a life-affirming environment. We are constantly reminded of the intrinsic value of life by every empathetic experience we pursue." :24

Finally, I want to mention some writers I have found who describe their experience of meaninglessness, of nothingness, or their existential crisis, in their work.

One of the most famous is Leo Tolstoy's "A confession".

Of the British romantic and Victorian writers we have at least the following:

Lord Byron addresses it in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage". He does not appear to resolve it.

John Stuart Mill writes in great detail about it and about how he resolved it in Chapter 5 of his autobiography. Reading Wordsworth helped him get out of it.

William Wordsworth writes about it in his "Prelude," and resolves in the end that

"what we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how."

In Thomas Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus", the chapters "The Everlasting No", "The Centre of Indifference", and "The Everlasting Yea" address the problem and his resolution.

Herman Melville may be portraying the crisis, without resolution, from the outside in his story "Bartleby the Scrivener".

In Spanish Literature,

  Miguel de Unamuno in his short novel "San Manuel Bueno, Mártir" portrays it and a sort of resolution of it in two characters. The title character loses his belief in the afterlife, never regains it, and in the end is made a saint for his good and miraculous works.  
  The author suggests that many of the greatest saints shared this disbelief, but from their enormous empathy for the suffering of their people supported the faith of the people. 

To step into religious studies, Huston Smith, in "The World's Religions" sort of touches in passing on the existential crisis in his chapters on Hinduism, and Buddhism. But it may be that people in those cultures have been working in the terrain beyond the crisis for so long that they do not get stuck in it even when confronted with science.

I know of only one description by a woman of the existential crisis—it is in the first draft of my paper on the experience of meaning in life. Among published authors, the work of Kate Chopin and Sylvia Plath may be places to look. Please let me know if you know of female authors who have written about this kind of crisis.

The last thing I want to say--and to change the topic--is that if you want to help me in my carfree activism and are free to spend time in Balboa Park on Sunday May First, please give me your contact information on the clipboard at the table over there.

If you have questions I won't take them now, this is what I'll do:
for links to:
   o the papers I wrote
       (if you read these, your questions may be answered)
   o answers of questions you ask me by email or written note
    o a copy of the script of this presentation.
  o A list of women I'm told of who describe the experience of meaninglessness
3:23 - 13:00
The next presentation must start in X minutes. Thank you!

Colin Leath <>    

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