The meaning of action

A few days ago, I spent a couple of hours in a little forest with a friend. There was no sign of civilization – no buildings, no cars, no mechanical noises, not even other human beings. We saw trees all around, tall grasses – lush from the recent rains, the sun glaring at us, an antelope watchfully observing us from a distance, an insect softly buzzing in the bush nearby. We are in 2011 AD, but I thought to myself that this scene could be from 2000 BC, or 20,000 BC, or 2,00,000 BC, or even 2 million BC. Scientists tell us that man, in his earliest form, first appeared on earth 2 million years ago, a time span that is hard to imagine. In the forest, perhaps there was nothing that was marked by the notions of civilization, development, or technology that man has built up since then.

Skardu, North Pakistan. Of all things, perhaps what can be least associated with a particular time is virgin nature

Skardu, North Pakistan. Of all things, perhaps what can be least associated with a particular time is virgin nature

Surely, in this long history, other men and women have sat in the middle of nature, with the sun shining on their faces, admiring the beauty around them. Like my friend and me, they too had their worries about the future as also the happiness of having an understanding friend by their side. Yet, all these emotions seem so insignificant when one imagines oneself to be only one human being with a few decades to live, in a history of 2 million years of the human race.

Even these 2 million years are little when seen in the context of the life span of the Earth. The astronomer Carl Sagan once said that if the life span of the Earth until the present is imagined as a year, human life emerges at 11:59 PM on the 31st of December. The Earth has existed for 6 billion years and the universe, in its current version, for 14 billion. We do not know if there were other universes before this one.

These are objective, humbling facts which make one ask, what is the significance of my actions? What value do my often overwhelming concerns about work, studies and family have? In a way, to consider one’s actions important is absurd. Yet, one has to act. One cannot escape the consciousness of being a being that can reflect, choose to act in a particular way, and be aware of that action. We intuitively feel that what we do is important, and we cannot live life absentmindedly, perhaps like a plant or an ant do.

A central element of Acem Meditation is action or volition. Why repeat the meditation sound? On a physical level, it may induce the ‘relaxation response’. On a psychological level, it may induce opening up to feelings we have been putting aside. On yet another level, it may reflect our basic attitude towards the experience of life, as life is given to us from the outside and as it manifests within us. The simple repetition may reflect what is important to us in life and make our values more apparent to ourselves than they usually are.

What is the significance of our actions is if we take the perspective of the unimaginably large scales of time and space of the universe? This is a question whose answer eludes me. At other times in my meditation history, the answer has been clearer, while at yet other times, the question did not even occur to me. Perhaps meditation is yet another tool to reflect on this question and evolve an answer that is always new and changing, and never the same. It may evoke a sense of wonder, awe and humility at the mysteries of existence, which probably can never be answered totally.

7 Comments

  1. Trygve

    Thanks for an interesting post Kaif. As i read it, the main question in your article could be rephrased (and exaggerated): Considering the vastness of the universe and the tinyness of the life of a man, why do anything at all? The world will hardly notice a difference. Lots of people are probably asking themselves this question from time to time. Another thought came into my mind when I read your post: How come that the question of our own significance is so important to us? Maybe it is an important force driving us to actually act? On the other hand, putting to much emphasis on the question of one significance in the world could also be a factor limiting the degree to which we act, or at least how we act. In the field of performing music, a general advice given by some teachers is to focus on the task at hand instead of beeing to much concerned with its effects. A conductor of an orchestra, beeing asked by one of the musicians how they should think or feel when playing a particular section of a piece, simply answered: “Don’t think, just play”. Not a wise thing to try to do in all situations, but the answer still has some truth in it I think. Perhaps also when it comes to meditation?

  2. Kaif

    Thanks Trygve for the interesting comment! One may add that perhaps it is not possible to be inactive, except when one is in dreamless sleep. If one is not acting on the physical level, activity is going on at the psychological level. I doubt if one can choose to just not act on either of these levels and perhaps the same applies to meditation as well (most of the time). Maybe the question is more of choosing between different kinds of actions rather than not acting.

    Why is the question of our own significance so important to us? I guess it is often emotional reasons that make us ask philosophical questions. And you are right, these may limit us – just like getting involved with the spontaneous activity in meditation may inhibit the effortless repetition of the sound.

    I relate to the orchestra conductor’s answer: don’t think, just play. That also seems to be partly the way the meditation sound should be repeated. At the same time, the presupposition is that one knows what one is to play, both in an orchestra and in life in general.

  3. There’s some similarity between this post and the previous one by Elisabeth, talking about the repetition of the meditation sound as something that brings her “home”. Your venture into virgin nature is also a travel back “home” – beyond or behind all the hustle-and-bustle of modern life and the pressures that never seem to end. The paradox is that while nature confronts us with our own insignificance, it also provides us with a sense of deep meaning. It’s as if the wish to be significant is one of the things that keeps us from this deeper meaning. Have a good time in Sydney!

  4. Kaif

    Yes, the time spent in nature and the thoughts that arose there certainly give a sense of calm and quiet which feels more comfortable and safe than the hustle bustle of daily life. I don’t know if it really provides a sense of deep meaning though, or merely points towards it in a vague manner. And since I am not in Sydney, I will pass on your wishes to Elisabeth :).

  5. Karan Sewani

    Nice post kaif, i particularly liked your comment “One may add that perhaps it is not possible to be inactive, Maybe the question is more of choosing between different kinds of actions rather than not acting.”

  6. Kaif

    Thanks Karan. I got that from the Bhagavadgita!

  7. To meditate in nature is very precious in my eyes.
    I felt its healing effect when I lived on the countryside a year ago.
    That was also when I started a little Youtube channel
    to bring the beautiful sounds of nature into the living rooms of the big and
    noisy cities:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/LongingForNature

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