As far as I can tell there is only one truth. The one truth is that all meaning is made up. Religious ideas, political ideas, psychological models—all made up. Our brains are meaning making machines. Put an image in front of me and I’ll make meaning of it. I’ll interpret it based on what I already know.
And when something happens that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before, I’ll stump myself. I’ll be at a momentary loss until I can categorize, label, identify—all of which are ways of making meaning.
Recently, working with my clients, I’ve been shining a brighter light on this idea that meaning is made up. And I impress and excite myself as I witness people freeing themselves of so much mental clutter.
The most typical response that I hear is:
“This means that I can change the meaning of whatever I’m perceiving.” And, yes, that’s true. You can change the meaning of what you’re perceiving.
Let’s say that your partner lied to you about something, but he comes forward a week later and admits he lied. You can look at this as a disaster, realizing that if your partner is willing to lie to you about one thing, maybe he’ll lie to you about other things. And worst of all, even if you ask him if he’s lying to you, you can’t believe his answer because he’s lied to you before. This is a real mess and potentially something that you never recover from. Suspicion grows and trust is never reestablished.
Or . . . you might realize that your partner coming forward and telling you he lied is a remarkable opening on his part. He is actually taking responsibility for his inappropriate behavior. This could be the turning point in the relationship. This could be a chance to relate in a more genuine way and by appreciating his honesty you reinforce his new behavior. You stay in the moment, the moment in which he is being honest and revealing and you choose not to punish him for having lied to you.
What’s the difference in these two stories. Which one is the truth? The one truth? Neither of them. They’re both made up. So, yes, you can change the meaning of any event that happens in your life. And this is probably the place to begin practicing. If you disturb yourself with some meaning you make, change the meaning and see what happens. Just try it . . .
One specific way to change the meaning in human interactions is to look through the eyes of the other person. Listen to them and believe them. Just this simple act is likely to help you create new meaning. It’s a powerful technique that I use with my wife, Hannah. Whatever she tells me, I believe her. After all, she’s a very honest person, so why argue? Why not stop and allow myself to experience events through her eyes? This is a great way to recognize the malleability of meaning.
Then, the next step—and this is the one that I find so extraordinary—doesn’t require me to change the meaning, simply to recognize that the meaning I’m making is made up.
It’s all made up.
We each make up meaning of everything that happens all day long. Even if we understand this idea on some intellectual level, the chances are that we don’t live with this knowledge in the forefront of our minds. What would happen if we did?
I can tell you what’s happening for me as I live this way. Then you can try it for yourself and see what happens for you.
As I fully recognize that all meaning is made up I deeply relax myself and become present. I experience non-attachment. After all, why be attached to stuff when you realize it’s entirely made up?
I am living more and more in the space that exists between the stimulus and my response. This is one of my favorite quotes:
Between the stimulus and the response there’s a space, and in that space is our power and our freedom.
Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search For Meaning said that. And I think it is the most helpful idea I’ve ever heard—but remember, even it’s made up.
One key thing to consider is whether or not the meaning you make up is helpful—to you. Are you helping yourself with the way that you make meaning? If you are, stick with it. If you aren’t, change the meaning you make to something that is helpful, constructive, productive, comforting, motivating, clarifying . . .
This is part of what happens during our Live Conscious retreats, people learn a different way to make meaning. So many of us grow up learning that human interactions are based on the model of a perpetrator and victim, or a winner and a loser, but Live Conscious offers a completely different way to understand human interactions. When we learn this different way of making meaning we stop being reactive and taking things personally.
Some ways of making meaning are healthier than others.
Finally, I want to reiterate my other key point, which for me is even more freeing. Sometimes I don’t need to change the meaning that I’m making, only to realize that the meaning I make is made up. That’s the real source of leverage. Whatever I’m thinking that is causing me to suffer—it’s based on some story I’m telling myself.
When I realize that the story—the meaning I’ve assigned to something is made up—I can more easily let it go. So if I’m driving myself crazy with some compulsive thought, or if I’m triggering myself with some story, as soon as I remember that what I’m telling myself is made up—I let go. In a previous article I refer to this as Poofing!
And, I want to be clear that “letting go” is not the same as repressing. I’ll explain the difference between “letting go” and repressing in part II of this article.
Do you want to “let go”?
This approach that I’m sharing with you is very effective if you want to experience balance and tranquility. If you’re a person who loves the highs, maybe you even enjoy the emotional roller coaster ride, letting go and non-attachment may not appeal to you. Is tranquility better than emotional drama? That all depends on how you make up meaning.
Live Conscious offers me many pearls, but two that I find most useful are:
- A new way of making meaning that helps me step out of the perpetrator/victim model.
- Awareness that all the meaning I make is made up, like a story, and I am the storyteller.
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One of the most succinct and PRACTICAL blogs I yet have to read.
What I love about your information is that they are the ultimate extension to the Buddha’s original idea of trying his school of thought in your daily activities and determining for yourself it’s adequacy.
YOUR blog is not simply a ramble of “sound good” ideas, but relevant tools like a Swiss army knife.
Thank you both for sharing.
I like the elegance of the idea, The One Truth, but what about reality and what actually happens…..????
One sister says to me that our other sister beat me up once upon a time!! She is making up her own meaning???? I say it never happened, I am making up my meaning??? But what actually happened??
Do I not know from my own sanity and the reality of my own body experience that I was not beaten up?
Angela, thanks for writing and asking such a valuable question.
I think that it is necessary to acknowledge what actually happens in our lives—if we know. For example, “I was in a car accident and ever since then I’ve been afraid to get in a car.” Acknowledging the fact that I was in a car accident is helpful. Then I can look at how I make meaning of that event. Maybe I can change the way I make meaning, maybe not.
But there are some things we don’t know about, like did your sister beat you up once upon a time. Does it matter? If she did, how would you make meaning of that? How else might you might meaning of that? You see, you can make meaning of it in many ways.
Same thing is true if she didn’t beat you up. How do you make meaning of that and the fact that your other sister has a different recollection?
What way can you make meaning of all of this that would be helpful? And, what if you just accept that you’ll never know and you let it go and focus on how you want to relate with your sisters today?
Please share more if you’d like to.
Dear Jake, thank you for your interesting comments on my question.
I believe that I do know that the beating never happened how would I
Ever forget “my fingernails being broken& thorn” as P recalls.
P is using her recollection of events to harm our younger sister J.
I think I could let it go if this was not the case.
My problem is that I now struggle to relate at all to my sister P.
How can I make any meaning at all with her when my reality or truth is so radically opposite to hers.
Angela, from my perspective you are making meaning when you say, “P is using her recollection of events to harm our younger sister.” Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows what your younger sister will do with this information. Hopefully, she hears both sides of the story, P’s and yours.
What if you stopped arguing about this and just accept that you have different recollections? What if you ask P to accept what you say is true for you?
Maybe the meaning you choose to make is to stop giving P so much power in your life. I’m not saying you should do that. I’m only saying it is one way to make meaning.
How can you make meaning of this entire thing in a way that will be constructive? It is possible.
sooooo, rather then leaving the reader to interpret their own “reality” maybe add the twist that, instead of all ideas being “made up” say rather that all interpretation of real events are our own interpretation of our perception of said events, and that the way we interpret them will affect our emotions, either positively or negatively, so that for tranquil emotions, we can reinterpret actual events in a way that does not cause disturbance to our emotional state? whadya think?
Sounds good to me, Tony. I might add that all interpretations of “real events” AND all interpretations of our own thoughts, reactions, moods, and attitudes are based on our perceptions of them.
Ok Jake, they are estranged for two years now, I would prefer harmony in the family, our mother is 80 yrs old. I guess I can just decide that their relationship is their own responsibility and keep my door open with both. I have always thought that there were some absolute truths but if we make up our own meaning all the time, dose it not make the truth more fluid too????
If your mother is 80, then I assume all the kids are adults. Why not let each one take responsibility for themselves?
No . . . no absolute truths. As circumstances change—as we get older and hopefully wiser—the “truth” changes. Allowing ourselves to be fluid allows our lives to flow.
Notice how you feel with this new perspective. You sound a bit more relaxed to me.
From my heart, thank you. You may have given me an answer to a lifetime quest. I have been searching for peace and tranquility and have only been able to find it in moments, like while reading the Bible or when I get very still in my mind and body or looking into the face of my parents , my child or grandchild. If I am able ( focused enough) to live life in understanding that all meaning is made up, and to accept or change the meaning? If I can do this? Even though I suffer from mental illness (big IF!) Then because of God and his abundant blessings and the gift of your article ….. I may be able to find my smile again? Rejoin my life again? To find my joy again? WOW! I believe that this could be Gods purpose for me? IF ONLY?
Peggy Sue . . . I wonder if you would help yourself by letting go of a label like “mental illness”? Generally, I find labels to be limiting.
I hope you do find your smile again.
I have only been to my new primary care doctor 2 times and she told me to stop using terms like mental issues or mental health problems and to say it is what it is , a disease called ( mental illness) how else would I be able to refer to it for such purposes as talking to my different doctors who need to know my history?
I’ve only been diagnosed with all the labels within SMI sense 2012. Pryor to my breakedown I was living full and rewarding life of family, friends, adventures and my dream job. It is my wish to begin again to rebuild such a life.
I would like to know about your retreats in the future hoping to find a way to attend at some point, money and travel my issue at this time?
Can you advise me on ways to begin learning how to practice your approach? I would like to change my now moments.
Peggy Sue, I recommend being specific when you talk to your doctors. Explain your symptoms and invite them to look at you as a unique person, not a simple label. I realize that the label is kind of like short-hand, which is convenient. But when possible, I encourage you to paint a fuller story of yourself.
Having had a full and rewarding life previously should make it easier to recreate that for yourself.
If you want to get started exploring Reology I encourage you to keep reading our various articles and blogs . . . we have about 300 of them.
And then you might consider reading my book, ReRight Your Life, which you can find on this site or on Amazon.
And find people in your life who see you as healthy and treat you that way.
Jake, my thanks.
Ralph, you pegged it. Much of my own suffering arose from hurt feelings from taking things personally, as if people consciously meant to hurt me. They don’t, and even if they did, they don’t. They’re just acting out of some constructed reality that has nearly nothing to do with me, while I in my constructed reality perceive it as personal. We’re all doing the best we can, considering we’re all asleep at the wheel most of the time. Mindfulness meditation is an escape into the reality of now.
Dorothy, I’m not sure if you meant to respond to Ralph, who commented on the article, or me—the author of the article . . . but I’m responding to you.
Yes, I agree we each act out of our constructed realities. But, I don’t actually agree that we’re all doing the best we can. I think we can make a greater effort to wake ourselves up and be more intentional during the little time we have on earth. That’s why I do the work I do, hoping that some people will use the tools of Reology to “do better.”
I previously wrote a blog about this idea that people do the best they can. If you’re interested you’ll find it here: https://liveconscious.com/2013/05/whats-good-enough/
Thanks for your comments,
It’s all made up? Maybe “meaning and interpretations” are, but not the laws of nature, at least on earth. Gravity is on earth. You’re either pregnant or not. I’m saying this to clarify that you’re not encouraging magical new age thinking.
Charles, thank you for clarifying this point. No . . . we’re not encouraging magical thinking. You might even download our article, “Magical Thinking,” to see that we suggest caution when it comes to magical thinking.
Yes, gravity and pregnancy are quite real. I appreciate both of them. Car accidents, pain and cancer are also quite real. Our focus is on how people assign meaning to all things.
There is a popular notion that says, “We create our own realities.” Some people think that they create everything that happens in their lives. That’s not what we are saying. We believe that some things happen—outside of our control or influence—but still, we assign meaning to them.
Instead of saying “we create our reality,” we say, “we make up the meaning of our reality.”
Instead of saying, “we are responsible for everything that happens in our lives,” we say, “we are responsible for how we respond to everything that happens in our lives.
Again, thanks for encouraging me to clarify these distinctions.
I think a lot of this is really misleading stuff, and is a far cry – even opposite to what Frankl said. Frankl actually said there IS a real meaning, and we have to find it. Not ‘we make up our meaning for whatever suits us, or feels better’. No, we have to listen carefully and always seek THE true meaning of any given situation, to find what life is asking of us.
I know you’re not necessarily claiming to adhere to Frankl, but his view I find is better for the world and more hopeful.
Very good, I’m only back at adult education. We are studying V. F (Victor Frankl) and Adler at the moment.
Hi River, thanks for your comment. I hope what we’re saying isn’t misleading.
The Frankl quote I reference is about creating space between the stimulus and our response. In this area I think we’re well aligned with his words and intentions.
As far as finding the THE true meaning, this is where we may be saying something different. People fight wars over THE true meaning. We’re encouraging people to recognize that their meaning is subjective, which hopefully helps them be less attached to it and more capable of considering other points of view.
And we are not suggesting that people make up meaning solely for the sake of feeling better. If you view Reology in its full form you’ll see that we are encouraging people to make meaning that helps them behave maturely, take other people into consideration, and make a positive contribution in the world. I may not have addressed this adequately in this one article, but these important details reside throughout our website and in our other articles.
Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
Thanks for your reply, it demonstrates that you are acting on the principles of your beliefs, as you responded to my criticism with dialogue. Some people I’ve met online get offended if you say anything less than admiring!
I think this concept of truth as a personal invention is very current and ‘post modern’
I understand what you’re saying – that its hugely important that to question oneself and have the gap between stimulus and response.
However, the danger is that how you say this about ‘all meanings being invented’ can leach power from the much needed stance of responsibility.
Frankl also said we should be ‘half sure and wholehearted’.
Its not exactly true to say that people fight wars over the TRUE MEANING. They fight wars because they have become dehumanised, and project ‘bad’ ‘enemy’ onto the ‘enemy’ – (who is not an enemy, but a potential ally, and another human being), Their beliefs about ‘truths’ is the excuse rather than the reason.
e.g. the ISIS people seem to be generally motivated by a psychopathic principle: Their actual motivation is to hurt, to create horror, and to get attention and power by that means. The beliefs are secondary to that. They want and need an external enemy, whether its an ancient statue or a human being. If they were really into their beliefs they would be doing something different.
If someone is being abused, it is not really a matter of perception, it is a matter of moral stance. Whether we seek to respond as best we can to what the situation demands of us. .
Its been good for me to dialogue with you, so thanks for facilitating this.
River . . . I’m laughing because our conversation is a perfect example, in me, of how we each make our own meaning of things. From my point of view, the idea that we each assign our own meaning to things results in me taking greater responsibility, not less. This is what Reology is all about: self responsibility.
But, I see your point that meaning can also be made in such a way as to avoid being responsible. That’s certainly not our intention. But thanks for pointing it out.
As to being ‘half sure,’ that has been a result for me in realizing that I make up my own meaning. I don’t hold on too tightly.
As to why people fight wars . . . I’m only ‘half sure,’ but I’m sure that it’s painful and less than what we are capable of.
I hope I never suggested or implied that a person being abused is just a perception. Things happen—bad things—then I have some choice in how I make meaning of those things, which will influence how I respond.
I too have enjoyed our dialogue. Thank you.