Meaning is an association of what is now with what once was...
Take a look at any object in your immediate environment: say, you are looking at a "so-called" (I'll explain the "so-called" parenthetical in a few moments) cup. Say, I picked it up from your desk and asked: "What is this?" You'd say: "A cup." And I'd say: "No, what is this?" After a moment of bemusement, you might offer: "A mug?" And I - with the best of the poker faces - would stay firm: "No, what is this?" After a pause and/or after a little friendly prodding from me, you might suggest: "A container for liquids?" To welcome the emerging looseness of your associations, I'd kick the door of your mind with a more clue-like question: "Yes... What else could this object be?" With this prompt, you'd likely fire off a series of ideas: "A paper-weight, a weapon if you throw it, a small hand-held shovel..."
So here we are: what used to be a cup now has acquired some additional meanings, by virtue of re-association...
Where am I going with this? Okay: let me reiterate the thesis: meaning is an association. When, as kids, we first encounter a new object, we ask: "Mom/Dad, what is this?" "It's a fork," Mom/Dad programs our mind... "And this (fill in the blank)?" Mom/Dad: "This is (fill in the blank)."
Meaning is a process of filling in the blanks of the mind... with words... that trigger other words... that trigger more words... As we grow and acquire language, we, in essence, acquire a baggage of associations that weighs us down as we try to skate the thin ice of presence.
Vladimir Nabokov, in Transparent Things, writes: "When we concentrate on a material object <...> the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want to stay at the exact level of the moment."
Nabokov, the great Russian-English novelist, whose own style is so ingeniously laden with association-rich detail, here, both de-constructs his own style and defines Zen: "A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film."
Nabokov's advice is straight from Buddhism: to stay in the moment, we must somehow avoid weighing down "what is" with our pre-conceived notions of "what it means."
As we encounter reality, we continuously make meaning, i.e. we associate "what is" with "what it means." In so doing, we continuously confuse the Present for the Past. "Oh," we think with quickly fading interest, "this is a fork" as we look at a "so-called" (I'll explain the "so-called" parenthetical in a few moments) fork.
Nabokov proclaims: "Transparent things, through which the past shines!"
Yes: the Present is Transparent. If seen as such, not through the lens of past associations, it has the proverbial clarity of enlightenment. But how elusive this way of seeing, or rather not seeing! How thin this ice of Presence!
Meaning is an artifact of the Past, not the actual fact of the Present. Things that we have not yet encountered have no meaning to us. And when we encounter something new, we are understandably startled. The more we live, the more reality we manage to label with words of meaning, the heavier is the baggage of our associations. And as we progress in time, we lose the spontaneity of the response: we've seen it all, nothing's new, everything has been already categorized...
So, instead of seeing reality as it is, we see a "so-called" reality - a reality that we so called, a reality of our own associations, a reflection of our subjective life experience, documented in the narrative of choice. Language constructs perception: first, the word, then, the perceived reality.
If we call this This "this," so it becomes "so-called."
Case in point: the ones of us who have avoided the correctional side of society (whether it is on the side of an inmate or a prison guard) look at a so-called fork, we see a utensil, rather a weapon because for us this object has come to mean exactly that. An inmate or a prison guard looks at the very same fork, and sees an opportunity or a threat, respectively, i.e. a very different reality...
But in reality, we are all imprisoned in our "so-called" realities of habitual interpretation. Buddhism, particularly, Zen Buddhism, offers a way out of this prison: non-discursive thought. Mindfulness - as a practice - can be understood as interpretive silence: witness but don't label, witness but don't describe, witness what is as it is, avoid the lens of the past associations.
As such, mindfulness is a form of meaninglessness. And that is its existential meaning!
Seeing the reality as is, not through the distorting prism of past associations, allows us the invigorating encounter with the novelty of Now: after all, this moment that you almost dismissed as something that you've already seen, is entirely unprecedented. This Now is, in fact, the only news!
To Nabokov, skimming the Present without sinking into the Past is a miracle that befits only the most experienced: "Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish" (if I may add) under the weight of past associations.
Pavel Somov, Ph.D.