For about seven years, I lived in one of the more untamed parts of Northern Arizona, an hour northeast of Flagstaff. I would enter Sunset Crater National Monument and then drive for another 12 miles to finally access the five-mile winding, dirt road that led to my secluded home.
This was the farthest from the trappings of civilization that I had ever lived. And once the sun set, it felt farther still, especially during the winter months. The evenings were long and dark, and I was often alone.
On nights when the moon was new, I would bundle up in my heaviest coat and step out into the relentless, icy wind to view the stars. Being that far from civilization’s constant, luminous glare was like having a front row seat for the universe’s unimaginably vast and glorious light show.
Back then, the Milky Way’s perpetual spill of golden radiance across the dark sky became one of my most potent teachers. I learned that it is truly impossible to comprehend infinity or to understand its absolute meaning.
I tried and tried on those shivery evenings to fill my sight with the entirety of the universe, opening my eyes as wide as I could. But I just couldn’t do it. There was no way I could take it all in. And with the acknowledgement of that impossibility came the realization that if I can’t comprehend the entirety of the universe, then I can’t hope to comprehend the deepest meaning of life, at least in a way I could put into words.
The universe is just too damn big for its meaning—and therefore life’s meaning—to be realized and understood by my puny, self-centered ego-brain. This was the essence of the teaching from that never-ending, star-filled sky.
Unfortunately, the impossibility of comprehending the entirety of the universe doesn’t stop many of us from proclaiming ultimate truths about existence and then using these “truths” as a means of manipulation and control over others.
The end game of this folly is always the same: those who manipulate others by claiming knowledge of absolute truth (whether they actually believe it themselves or not), as well as those who are manipulated (believing the claim), consistently end up imprisoned by their stories of unconditional certainty. They perpetuate the “we’re right and you’re wrong” duality.
This has long been the cause for much of the suffering in the world.
Many wisdom teachers have suggested that true freedom can be found by letting go of attachment to those stories proclaiming absolute knowledge or truth. We can experience an incredible lifting of the spirit by embracing the realization that it’s impossible to intellectually understand the ultimate nature and meaning of life.
A more fluid approach to life, like a surfer cruising a wave, can be cultivated through the recognition that we can’t know infinity.
So how do we navigate the turbulent waves of life and the universe without being able to realize their ultimate meaning? We just need to find a good map, something that can show us a potential way to go. And a worthy map is one that can provide life-affirming directions for moving forward.
I find that a worthwhile mythological story, or teaching tale, can offer skillful methods for living in harmony with the mysterious and infinite vastness that is our source, as well as aligning ourselves with the natural laws of our planetary home. Whether ancient stories, such as the Bhagavad Gita, or more modern ones, such as Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, these tales can provide us with ways to focus our intention on living an inspired life, without the imposition of absolutes.
Just beware of mistaking the map for the actual territory, as the eminent scholar Alfred Korzybski advised. We have to remember that the universe cannot be contained within any mythology; at best, it can only be hinted at. And these hints are what make mythologies and teaching tales valuable.
With a good map, we can find a path that fills our hearts.
We can engage in meaningful projects and endeavors despite our not knowing the ultimate truth of existence.
We can still act and move from a sense of purpose, passion, and deeper importance.
We can discover satisfaction, connection, and love, despite not knowing the ultimate truth of existence.
The skill is in holding our maps lightly and knowing when to mindfully put them down within the presence of a given moment.
The fluidity gained by dropping our certainties about the deeper meaning of life feels like a healthy expansion and, I believe, is the next step in our evolutionary unfolding.
But we must use great discernment when choosing our maps. We live in an age of limitless information, much of it drivel. For every worthwhile map out there, there are probably hundreds of ego-driven, self-aggrandizing teachings.
So, choose wisely. And don’t be afraid to choose again if your chosen map doesn’t work out.
Author: Tod Evans
Image: Alex Iby/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Emily Bartran
Social Editor: Taia Butler