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What is meaning?

'Meaning' is the significance we ascribe to phenomena. It does not exist in its own right. We create meaning through our interpretation of reality. The way in which we see things determines meaning.
Our beliefs, values, education, culture and intelligence all contribute to meaning. This makes meaning ambiguous and relative.
Two people could encounter the same phenomenon and attribute it with an entirely different meaning to one another.


What is intended by somebody is subject to interpretation. Motives can only be imagined, they cannot be known - people lie, they mislead, they withhold...
Even the clearest statement with the most unequivocal use of language is subject to misunderstanding because it is based upon assumptions. Wars happen over meaning.


Significance is about highlighting the feature we wish to draw attention to. Typically, people attribute significance relative to their own personal values and interests.
For example: two people look at the same scene and both interpret the event differently. How come?
The significance of the event is subject to individual background, how much attention is being paid, meaning and perspective.

Meaning has its limits

People have speculated on the meaning of life for millennia; but the question is an inherent contradiction. Any answer can only exist within the context and framework of life, and therefore be partial.
The question is fundamentally flawed because it assumes a common definition of 'meaning' when meaning itself is beyond definition. What do you mean by 'meaning'?


Our upbringing, cultural values and education are instrumental in building our way of thinking.
Whilst the configuration of each individual's value system may be considered unique, the component parts are not; for they have arisen from a common cultural experience: the past.
All context assumes a past experience. Whether you are political, religious, competitive or anarchic, all of those perceptions are a consequence of the past.
They are a response to something that has already happened.


The meaning of something is interpreted relative to what we already know. We attribute significance to phenomena based upon the past.
Knowledge comes from the past; it is the foundation of our perceptual experience.


Events affect us in different ways. The effect of phenomena is relative to the individual. Consider:

Your friend swears at you and you grin in return. A stranger swears at you and you feel upset.
Although the two events are not identical, the message communicated is superficially the same - abuse is being expressed.
We may accept abuse from a friend believing it to be in good humour, whilst a stranger is different because the context is unknown.

The messages are changed by our interpretation of the event and this determines the effect.


Your perspective changes everything. This is why Taoism and Zen seek to whittle away at the 'self' in the hope of producing an unbiased interaction with the real.


Ambiguity is the source of tremendous fun, mischief and problems. Meaning is inherently ambiguous. Its very nature precludes this possibility; meaning is protean and relative.
Why are so many tai chi schools performing a different art? They all see it differently and value different things.


Clarity is also relative to meaning. As clear as you may believe yourself to be, you must allow for the listener, for the reader. They may find a wildly different meaning to you.
The Tai Chi Classics are far from definitive; the treatise suggest favourable qualities but seldom elaborate upon the means. Understanding can only be found through the exploration of the art.
Essentially, the task of any student is to re-invent the art, re-discover it afresh.
Can you afford to accept what somebody else thinks, knowing that their understanding of the meaning cannot be the only one?


When you are planning to provide a message, it is important to break it down into constituent parts and explain each thoroughly. Make no assumptions concerning prior knowledge or experience.
This helps to provide a background context. Unfortunately, this is not always feasible and in some cases, prior knowledge may exist.
If you can offer a select facet for study, the focus is clearer and there is less room for interpretation. Meaning can be uncovered within a limited sphere and the various possibilities explored.
The difficult then lies with the re-integration of the component with the whole.


Even if you imagine that you have a clear purpose, this will be underscored by a variety of unspoken considerations and assumed values. Few things are distinct, sharp and clear - we do not act in isolation.
Consider a photograph. There is nearly always a background. The focus of the picture is not independent of that background; they exist together as one.
It is useful to remember that everything in life is connected to everything else and that meaning cannot be separated from context.


Meditation is a condition of seeing that arises from the removal of the 'self'. When you no longer think, you do not differentiate between this and that, self and other, here and there, then and now...
Meaning is no longer relevant because the phenomena is not being interpreted.

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Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023