Not-knowing our way through the meaning crisis

In the last few years, I have been exploring what some call the meaning crisis. There are many ways to conceive of this crisis but at its core is the collapse of our ability to make sense of our lives. In a way, this crisis is a natural by-product of our imbalanced ways of thinking and living. 

Two phenomenal books that speak to this imbalance are “The Master & His Emissary’ by Iain McGhilchrist and “The Ascent of Humanity” by Charles Eisenstein. Both of them point to humanity’s increasing propensity to quantify, objectify and manipulate reality. As McGhilchrist points out these ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting in the world are predominantly mediated by the left hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere divides reality into separate parts and categories while the right hemisphere holds the world together as a meaningful and interconnected whole. Mcghilchrist presents extensive evidence showing that we are increasingly seeing the world through the left hemisphere’s discriminatory eyes while neglecting the right hemisphere’s holistic vision. 

Eisenstein never mentions anything about left brain dominant thinking but it is clear that what he calls the “Myth of Ascent” is built on this way of orienting to reality. The myth of ascent is established by two tenets: science will grant us complete understanding and technology will grant us complete control. This drive for understanding and control has brought us many beneficial technologies that have enriched and improved the quality of our lives but our inability to mediate it is proving to be detrimental. 

This way of orienting to reality also gave rise to capitalism – an economic system that has contributed to innovation and massive value creation. Unfortunately, capitalism also spawned the advertising industry which brainwashes the masses into thinking their happiness is dependent on material acquisition. Some products or services genuinely improve the quality of our lives but many don’t. Nonetheless, capitalism is not a mistake. It was a once necessary and important part of our society’s development but it is now starting to run its course. Its contribution to excessive inequality and environmental damage is becoming harder to ignore. Love it or hate it, capitalism is built on debt and scarcity so it is bound to collapse. 

Left-brain dominant, extractive, and capitalistic thinking are an inevitable part of our history. At one point in time, we needed to orient to reality in this way but now we need to transcend it. We have leaned into the polarities of knowing, controlling, and differentiating for too long. We must now lean into not-knowing, surrendering, and integrating. We must come to embrace the paradoxical nature of reality. The more we learn the less we know. The more we cling to control the more chaotic things get. What we resist persists. Uncertainty is the only certainty we have in life. 

To circle back around the meaning crisis is in part a product of our addiction to knowing and making sense. Ironically, with the emergence of the meaning crisis came the birth of countless sense-making initiatives and communities. These movements gave us more intricate tools for ordering, organizing, and “making sense” of reality but did they help us embrace being in the unknown? Maybe what is needed is a greater capacity for not-knowing. Maybe if we relax our sense-making for a second we can embrace the nonsensical quality of reality. Maybe we can learn to play with paradox for longer before collapsing into certainty.

As the iconic and revolutionary rapper Tupac once said You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.” Everything doesn’t need to be figured out, fixed, and put together. Some things need to fall apart. None of this is to say that we should stop sense-making or using left-brain thinking. These words are simply a call to rebalance the power of these polarities.

Our resistance to not-knowing comes from our fear of death. As long as we conceive of ourselves as separate entities moving through space and time then death will continue to be this inevitable and dreadful scenario that awaits us all. As long as we continue playing the finite game of survival, we will try to get as much pleasure and comfort before we turn into dust. In the process, we will hurt others and the environment which is the same as hurting ourselves. The only way we can come to embrace death is through a deep transformation in our experience of who we are. Paradoxically, that requires stepping into not-knowing. 

I have attempted to frame at least part of the problem of the Meaning crisis but its resolution lies outside this article. Nothing that I have written here will get you into unknowing. Language is a left-brain dominant process so reading and writing do little to rebalance our lopsided way of living. The meaning crisis isn’t a mistake; it is an assignment. It calls us to honestly looks at our patterns and gifts us with powerful inquiries. Which polarities have we come to overprioritize? What are we addicted to? What are we allergic to? Who do we think we are? & Who are we really?