The inexpressibles

Sunday, April 6, 2008

I got an e-mail from a friend who said she thought about me during a conversation she had with another friend the day before. They were talking about the meaning of life and its purpose and she wrote to me asking for my take on it. I promptly replied that an immediate, simple answer to the meaning-of-life question is, “It’s up to you.” But I also said that the rest are best tackled over coffee and a long conversation that I’d be happy to have with her.

It got me thinking before I went to sleep last night, and for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts on the meaning and purpose of life.

These are the big questions that have and will continue to baffle us from time to time. In Zen lore, they are referred to as “the inexpressibles.” Other questions of the type are, “Is there life after death?”; “Where does the soul go when the body dies?”; “Is the world eternal or non-eternal?”; and “Is the world finite or infinite?” Some people will say that such questions are a waste of time but I contend that these are not merely scholarly questions philosophers and sophists like to ruminate over. At some point in our lives, they all beg us to have a go at them.

Sometimes, these questions can creep quietly into your mind on a quiet night under starlit skies, or in a defining moment, like when someone you love dies. Their presence can elicit a sweetness, a long heaving sigh, or a poignancy that reverberates throughout your being. And of course, they leave you pondering!

At other times, though, these questions can seem very rude, intruding into your life at a bad time — like say, during a long streak of misfortunes and downturns. And instead of whispering or gently insinuating their presence, they snarl and gnash at you in an in-your-face kind of way, leaving you disturbed, shocked and angry, and yes, pondering uncomfortably while cursing the same dark night as you beg for comforting assurances and answers.

The “inexpressibles” are, of course, not easy to answer. In fact, to answer them, you must leave the arena of words and enter the world of stillness and silence. Some mystics even say that the answers to these questions, even if we assume one can find answers, are beyond what words can convey. Words in these realms are limited, if not deceiving. Nonetheless, the answers are there, and the mystics claim they are transmitted to us via intuition and feeling.

And while no one can give definitive, one-size-fits-all answers to these questions, each person must ask them during the course of his or her life. In fact, none of us can resist asking them not just once but many times throughout life and exploring the answers that may appear. And the moment we do, we knock on the door of the great mysteries. The nature of such mysteries is to beckon and each time we succumb, we are sucked into a vortex and stretched beyond what we know of our own existence and all of life’s correlative meanings as we think we know them. That’s just how everything has been wired.

When you repeatedly ask with openness and earnestness, you sometimes can get answers to the inexpressibles. But the answers are only as good as who, where and what you are at the time you ask them. You may even get different answers at other times. And yes, the answers are non-transmittable or cannot be shared. At least not in the same way you have experienced them. You may pass on to others the answers as you received them — through words and concepts — but they can at best merely describe the shadow of those answers.

To successfully describe anything is to do so by recognizing and comparing it to its opposite. The problem is, the inexpressibles, as ultimate questions, suggest a territory that does not have opposites. Songwriter Bob Dylan asked lesser but similar questions and, as we know, the only answers he got were cryptically “blowing in the wind.”

To put it more mundanely, the answers to the inexpressibles are similar to the ones we get when we ask gossips about the source of all the muck they dish out. Predictably, they say, “Secret!”

But how is it that something so important cannot be shared?

I am of two minds on this. One reason, to my mind, is because the inexpressibles suggest the idea that they are the only real, ultimate things in this world. Outside of the inexpressibles are the relative things we live with, things that have definite historical beginnings and will perish in the end, such as our lives, careers, dramas, ambitions, attachments, possessions, etc. And what value are they if they are not permanent and real?

The other reason lies in the fact that getting to the real answers posed by the inexpressibles cannot help but lead us to experience Oneness. As in experiences like satori, kensho in Zen, or enlightenment, one loses oneself completely. Time and space become irrelevant. There is no me or you, or anything else. No inside versus outside. All differentiation and categorizing stop. There is only One.

I know that even the fact that I talk about Oneness is already problematic. Why? Because, strangely enough, even the word “Oneness” is inadequate since every word implies its opposite — in the case of Oneness, the fragmented and differentiated many. But Oneness has no opposite. And if there is no opposite, there is nothing to experience as different. So, in the end, there is really literally nothing that can be said about it.

But folly and wisdom in this case are not just inseparable twins; they are persistent ones (or twos) and they are aiming at the same thing. It does not matter that we literally cannot share answers to the inexpressibles. We still cannot help but attempt to ask the questions and share what we get. That’s the way it is. Such is the craziness and majestic paradox of being alive.

If it seems like an existential conundrum, it definitely is. In the end, there is no answer to the ultimate questions. Ken Wilber, in his own attempt to answer them, concludes that the only real answer is, “One must awaken.” And each one must do this for him or herself.

* * *

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The next TCU Workshop will be held on May 12-16, and May 19, 7 to 9 p.m., at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, Quezon City. The total session cost is P5,000.

* * *

Write me at for a syllabus or call 426-5375 or +63916-8554303 for a syllabus or with any other queries!

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12 years ago

oh. I have been thinking on this sporadically lately, and i’ve been attempting to escape the thoughts – just like when i was twelve and thinking about death, the afterlife, and what if i weren’t ever a part of the universe. i think i couldn’t handle it then, so i escaped the thoughts. But now, even when i do try to push them aside, i think the “call” to dwell on them (which i often find scary), is persistently tugging, tugging, tugging…

Craig Peihopa
12 years ago

An interesting and contemplative post Jim. I have pondered the question on more occasions than I can recall, and have concluded that it means different things to me at different times and yes, it is up to me.
Welcome back good sir.

Louise Lewis
12 years ago

A ‘meaning of life’ Google Search served up your post late tonight. And since I love reading other’s thoughts on the subject, I just had to stop by and tell you that I really enjoyed your post. Did I like it because I agreed with it? No existential conundrum here; the answer is simply: Yes.

After spending the past five years of interviewing folks on this very subject (and publishing their words), I still very much enjoy exploring the question …actually, experiencing the question. Like the saying goes, it’s the journey not the destination that is half the fun (for me).

Your wonderfully written post has added another leg to my (mental) journey. And for that, I thank you.

As my simple way of ‘giving back’, I’d like to offer you (and all who read this) a free gift copy of my book. No strings attached…really. Just e-mail your request from my website.

I look forward to snooping around your site and reading more of your words.

take care,
Louise Lewis, Author
No Experts Needed: The Meanning of Life According to You!
Always Follow Spirit!

12 years ago

I once told a friend to look at life thru a child’s eyes…simple yet full of zest and enthusiasm. They enjoy the simplest things, a raindrop, a fallen leaf, a seashell, a short walk, and just the mere blowing of the wind can make them laugh. Their “why’s” and “how come” questions can make an adult look deeper into oneself and realize that indeed it is the simplest things in life that we failed to look at and enjoy life more. Children are so resilient and pure that sometimes I envy their honesty and sincerity….and when I have those moments of questioning life and life’s meaning, I simply look at a child and see how they laugh and how they cry…and how they love life…and then I move on. So I told this intellectual friend of mine to try to stop dissecting the bible and other philosophical materials, and for a short moment to enjoy the air he breaths, the simple sunshine, and to hold a child’s hand….maybe then he could get a glimpse of the meaning of life thru a child’s eyes.

12 years ago

A scientific approach to answering that ultimate question “What is the meaning of life” yields a rather ugly answer:

There is none.

Life it seems is just another complex but evolved structure for dissipating energy. We generate and dissipate energy by oxidising nutrients and expending carbon dioxide and use the energy created to perform various living functions (including the brainwaves required to contemplate the meaning of life).

An example of a non-living energy-dissipating structure is the sun. The sun and the stars in the same way generate and dissipate energy by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium atoms via a thermonuclear reaction releasing the energy everything one earth depends on.

In principle, we are no different from other structures — complex AND simple — that convert fuel into energy. This energy then goes on to stir up other events in the universe (such as the condensation of matter into, say, planets and the fuelling of the various chemical processes that ultimately resulted in the creation of life and its evolution into complex forms such as us in some of those planets).

We are no different from the sun. The energy we generate is used to develop ideas with our brains some of which are used to create the machines which also are, themselves, energy-dissipating structures. Cars burn petrochemicals, expend carbon dioxide/monoxide and transport some of us to our workplaces where some of us think up more wonderous structures for dissipating energy.

Ultimately though, the Law of Conservation of Energy dictates that all the energy of the universe will eventually be used up. There is no such thing as a 100% efficient engine and therefore all energy ultimately gets dissipated uselessly and irreversibly into space.

That’s pretty much the way the cookie crumbs.

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12 years ago

This is a very informative post which deserves to be stickied somewhere.

I am in agreement with you that the meaning of life is us to answer.

It’s a very personal self-discovery that hounds us a lot of the time. Some are fortunate to know their purpose as early as their 20s but some go about their lives mulling over it.

But I guess it’s one of those perks about human life in general, how we’re there’s always novelty in our lives and how we’re always in the search of our meaning.

My .02

12 years ago

toni– I go through months when I am intensely interested in such questions that I can hardly think of anything else.

craig–it is amazing that even if it is up[ to us, it can be such a hard call at times, and yes, it does change meaning periodically.

louise–Thank you for your book. I shall be reading it this weekend! I am happy you stumbled on my site.

ann–yes, the less ‘cerebral’ we are, the more we have access to it and so your suggestion is great.

benigno–Try reading ken wilber’s all quadrant approach to questions of this type. What you posted is a one quadrant answer–the scientific.

askgreg–to be human is to be pulled by mystery and attempt to wrestle with it to get an answer.

12 years ago

seriously sir, it’s one of those things i really would prefer not to think about…haha i guess it’s the hard questions part of living, but i think we can’t really escape it without dire consequences. so here i am universe. buti na lang merong blog nyo sir though, otherwise i’d be even more in the dark than usual. hahaha

12 years ago

Was just surfing from one blog into another when i came into yours. Been a great fan of apo since I grew up with my father playing your music all the time too!

Until now, I still could not find my own answer to that question not because I do not think of it but what scares me is the thought that i may be living my life regretfully and without purpose…

Nevertheless, life is a blessing or a curse to the holder and it’s up to us how we see and live with it ^^

12 years ago

By the way sir, I hope it is okay if I add your link into my blogroll…


[…] I just scanned through one of Jim Paredes’ entries. I didn’t read the entire thing simply because I understand it too well and reading […]

12 years ago

hello mr. jim!
i have been an avid fan since the day my mom and dad introduced me to APO music. May I add your blog to my blogroll? It would be an honor 🙂

also, i do feel that i’m at a crossroad and that there continue to be so many questions unanswered. at times i feel tired and restless. I just tell myself that things will eventually fall into place. I may not get the answers to my questions now, but at some point they will come, i guess…