Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thoughts on Semiotics and Meditation

"nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so"

Recently I've been learning about meditation and mindfulness in one of my classes and semiotics and cultural studies in the other, and sometimes the information I learn from one makes me look at the information I learn from the other in a new light. In this case, my mind has connected some points from the basic concepts of semiotics and the non-striving meditation we've been taught, and I'd like to share some of the thoughts it brought up for me. These are just some musings - I do not claim to be right about them, I am not an expert on semiotics, semiosis or meditation, I just want to share some of the ideas that came to mind as I learned about these subjects.


First, I will begin with the basics of semiotics; there are signs or signifiers (things that reference other things), and their significations or referents (those things which are represented by the signs/signifiers).

To help explain my point, I ask you to imagine a rose. A rose, on its own, is just a flowering plant, a living organism with no inherent meaning. However, there are a lot of significations that roses can have: they can be symbols of love and passion, danger and beauty, secrecy, they can be given as a gift to show congratulations or affection, and much more. 

So a rose can signify many things, and yet the rose in and of itself does not mean any of them - it is we that attach these significations to the rose. So it could be said that there are two different roses that exist -  the symbolic rose that exists in our culture and our minds that signifies many things besides itself, and the rose that is only what it is: a living organism that simply lives and dies and exists.

Meditation, as it seems to me, has to do with concepts that are similar to those dealt with in semiotics. Playing with ideas that I have learned in my mindfulness course, it could be said that we normally go about our days as living signifiers and symbols, and our actions, bodies, thoughts, words and lives are constantly interpreted and judged by both ourselves and others. In doing so, we often get wrapped up in our own perceptions and interpretations and often forget that we are not just what we seem to mean.

We, like the rose, both exist in the context of what we signify, but also outside of it, as simple living and dying organisms. Meditation in certain forms and contexts can help people to get in touch with the meaningfulness that comes with detaching from having to mean anything. It can let one slip away from the cycles of constant evaluation and interpretation and judgment, into the state of just being and experiencing what that is like, moment to moment.

While thinking about this, I was reminded of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", and the whole bit about the earth being created as a giant computer to answer the question "what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything". For me, looking at the question in terms of what I've talked about here, then life - the entire existence of everything in the universe - as the totality of, well, everything - is comprised of all signs and symbols and texts and anything else you can think of. Therefore, it has an infinite amount of significations - everything means and signifies everything and anything.

However, taking the interpretation of living things such as us out of the question, as I talked about with the rose, then the totality of life and existence has no inherent meaning: it just exists.

Going even further along that path of thinking, the answer to "Life, the Universe and Everything", is "anything, everything and nothing at all". They represent anything that any one individual could perceive them to mean, everything that anyone could ever perceive them to mean, and yet they inherently mean nothing at all, for in and of itself life, the universe and everything just are.

I think that meditation and mindfulness can help one to realize, as we are all parts of life, the universe and everything, that we also just exist, and it can let us get in touch with the experience of that existence. You can think at times that you are good or bad or pretty or ugly or smart or dumb, but in the end you, and your life, have whatever significance that you let them have, and yet at the same time they don't inherently signify anything at all.

So I don't know if I'm being at all clear with this, or if I'm just rambling incoherently. If I am, please forgive me. If anyone else has any thoughts or input to share on all this, I'd be more than happy to hear them.

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