The Case for Meaning and Faith. ~ Rachael Cleghorn

Via on Mar 16, 2011
Photo: Jose Angel Castro

Me and Mankind vs. Mother Nature

This piece is intended to be thought-provoking, healing, and to direct attention towards the importance (and conscious choice we can make) of finding meaning in life and having faith, even in spite of Mother Nature’s tendency to throw a wrench at us and change everything. Try to bear with me as it might get wordy and please share your thoughts at the end. You’ll want to read it in its entirety because it includes ideas of violence, war, sex, drugs and rock and roll.

But first, a tongue-twisting poem as a prologue:

What Does it Mean: The Meaning of Meaning

Meaning meant something to me before it meant what it now means. Whatever it meant then must have been meaningful, right? I mean, if meaning really means what I think it means, then it means meaning is meaningful.

If A means B and B means C, then A must mean C. For example, if nothing means anything and anything means everything, then nothing means everything too.

Viktor Frankl, author of the meaningful book Man’s Search for Meaning, meant to help others find meaning after losing all sense of meaning in a mean WWII concentration camp. His understanding of meaning gave meaning to the meaninglessness he observed. The meaning of his life was to help others find meaning in their own lives so that life would mean something meaningful. What he also meant is that humans must mean to mean well because why would we mean to be mean if meaning meant something meaningful?

I think Inigo Montoya means to mean something along the same lines when he said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  He wasn’t being mean. In fact, I know he means well, if you know what I mean.

What I guess I mean is that meaning has to mean something but whatever it means now doesn’t have to be what it meant before. But, it does mean something and it is meaningful.

Opening Remarks

I have a case to present that meaning means everything and that even faith can be a rational choice. I’m arguing this case against

Photo: Jose Angel Castro

Mother Nature because I think that meaning and faith are entirely human creations, tools that we can use to understand life and live more peacefully. I also feel it is my duty to life as a conscious human being to represent and defend the cause. In fact, I’m taking up this cause because I believe that finding meaning to life is perhaps the single most important problem that is inevitably posed to each and every one of us. Therefore, it’s a big one.

You see, I believe this to be a just, worthy cause because my impression is that meaning is underrepresented. It isn’t something that most of us have to frequently think about, yet it is something that is of vital importance to us all.

For many, family and love are granted sources of meaning and even the purpose of life. That is a perfectly acceptable form of meaning, but what about all of those lost souls walking around out there that have no family, or even community, often through no fault of their own?

What happens when you lose the people or things that give the most meaning to your life?

Imagine yourself in a position of not having anyone or losing everything. I am certain that at such times, questions of meaning and purpose have profound meaning and purpose.

I’m aligning forces with mankind on this case because as you should already be able to tell by the listed defendant, this is a pretty tough topic and I need some support. That said, since survival is a form of beating Mother Nature (or at least taming her for the time being), then as long as I am alive, I win. Consequently, as long as mankind lives, we all win.

Ultimately, I think the case for meaning and faith comes down to just that: survival. (I’m talking in terms of short-term individual well-being as well as long-term species survival here.)

Background

There are a number of assumptions that one has to make to understand where I am coming from and where it is that I am trying to go with this. I will spell those assumptions out for you and let’s call them my own “truths”:

  • I don’t know (as in, I cannot say with absolute and undeniable certainty) if there is a God or a Higher Power.
  • I don’t even know if there is a Spirit (a term we in yoga-land are all too familiar with).
  • That said, I still (sometimes) feel a connection to something greater than myself.
  • The only thing that I can say that I know about that connection is that it is a part of me and the only label I can give to that connection is to call it the “self” or even my “will to live”.
  • My “self” or “will to live” is only one small piece of a giant puzzle of a larger species, called mankind.
  • Mankind is one equal human race and given the above, we must answer to each other.
  • Here is a cherry for the top just to ruffle some feathers: thus far, I have seen and felt more evidence to make me believe that mankind is just a biological species that, due to forces of natural selection, happened to evolve a consciousness (or awareness) of itself and the world.
  • That said, I still have sometimes felt that that consciousness is external to me and bigger than just my own. (I say this because it always happens that when I realize something that I had never previously understood, I always discover that many others have already figured the same thing out long before me. Curses.)

The summary of these truths are as follows: I do not adhere to any particular, non-secular, theistic, soul-saving faith.

The problem with these “truths” is that they are full of uncertainty. I just don’t know. And, when you just don’t know, and when you know that you just don’t know, the door opens to a number of very unsettling questions and even more unsettling potential answers that I call fears.

That and my own life experiences have led me to understand that not having faith, well, it can be destabilizing and ultimately, destructive, one could even say annihilating.

To test these hypotheses and move away from crippling fear of the unknown, let’s take those questions and answers to the extremes.

Test #1: There is no Greater Purpose

Let’s first explore the option that there is no God. In fact, let’s take the existence or non-existence of God to imply the existence or non-existence of a higher purpose. Along the same lines, assuming there is no greater purpose, then the only reasonable purpose I can come up with is that we are just here “to be”.

If that is the case, then so be it, but can you really blame me for wanting more than to just “be”? Isn’t there a difference, even if it’s merely subjective and short-lived, between “being” joyful or in despair, at peace or at war? Can’t we follow “to be” with something else? Something that works in our collective favor? Say, “to be of service to each other” perhaps?

Test #2: There is no Meaning

So, let’s take it further: if there is no purpose, then that means nothing means anything, that there is no meaning. Yes, it’s extreme, but stay with me and you’ll understand why the contemplation of such extremes are necessary.

If it is true that there is no greater purpose or meaning to life, then doesn’t that explain the reasoning (or what I would actually call non-reasoning) behind violence, injustice, evil, war, harming others and annihilation in the world? After all, if my actions or even inactions have no meaning, then I can hurt anyone or do anything “good” or “bad” and it will not matter nor will I pay any consequence for those actions.

It would mean that we are talking about life in stark terms of survival of the fittest (and perhaps meanest). I can’t help but think it would also mean that we are doomed to a future of war, violence, bloodshed and pain.

Result of Test: No purpose and no meaning in the short-run leads to justifiable cause for all things bad and in the long-run leads to individual demise and premature species extinction.

Bingo! I think I’m on to something: I found a logical reason for meaning.

If we can see the absence of meaning as the cause of what I consider to be “bad” things (that would include apocalypse), then by

Photo: Jose Angel Castro

using the same logic, we can deduce that the opposite could also be true. Finding meaning to life and thereby believing in others, believing our actions have meaning and create meaningful impacts, showing compassion and acting in good-will, this can lead us to personal and collective peace, one could even say eternal salvation.

Since we’re talking extremes here, let’s even call it species survival. We can’t really survive as a species if we blow each other up or destroy all our earthly resources with no regard for long-term sustainability, right? Why would we cause anyone or the planet any harm if we knew that it had meaning?

Why would anyone wage war against one another if the meaning of the human journey is understood collectively as such?

If we believed in a higher purpose and meaning to life, and that includes all life, there would be no logical reason for war or harm and we would have the incentive to cooperate peacefully.

The Power to Choose

The way I see it, if I were to believe that everything that I do and am has meaning and that there is a higher purpose, then the world suddenly seems hopeful, good, and it gives me the potential to be at peace with the violence, tragedies, accidents, illnesses, untimely deaths, and injustices that I encounter. It also gives me the potential to be happy.

Not only that, but that very thing (meaning and purpose) is what grants me the power to choose, the power to make a difference and the power to will for change and for peace.

Why? Because it matters and has meaning.

A Reason for Faith

It comes down to this: I must make a conscious and reasoned choice to believe that there is meaning and that there is a purpose, even if I can’t say what that is and in complete disregard of whether it is “true” or not. In fact, it can’t even matter to me whether it is true or not. Hmmmm, isn’t that what I already understand faith to mean? Hold on?! All stop! Did I just reason my way to faith (in meaning—just so we are clear here) too?!

The Reason Meaning Means Everything

The reason that meaning means everything is that the alternative, and this is the crucial part of the argument, a world with no meaning, has already been shown to lead to apocalypse. And ultimately, I find—in fact, I absolutely know—that a world with no meaning is ultimately unbearable and not a place that I, Rachael Cleghorn, can “be.”

Therefore, regardless of whether anything really “means” anything at all, I must choose for it to mean something and I must choose to have faith, if I am to be or live (and hope for others to be and live) in a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.

Perhaps my yoga practice hasn’t evolved enough to make me at ease with the uncertainties life presents to us, but I know that I cannot currently function or make any meaningful contribution to society without finding an answer to explain some of the harshest ways of the world.

Therefore, contemplating the extremes has provided me, someone without a given faith, with a logical reason for meaning and faith in meaning. The implication is also that that this applies whether or not God or Spirit  exists. (I’ve got to keep my bases covered after all.)

What Does it Mean?

If you’re still with me, the next question you might have is, ok, so let’s say there is a purpose for mankind and there is meaning to life. What, then, are we supposed to do with that awareness or consciousness?

If we explore the idea that there is a higher purpose for mankind and that there is meaning to life and to every action, every inaction, every accident, every death, every tragedy, every love, every loss, even every evil (etc.), then the end result is that we must become highly responsible individuals to ourselves, to each other and to the planet.

I think legendary psychiatrist Victor Frankl was articulating the same idea when he said,

“Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Logotherapy—Therapy Through Finding Meaning

In fact, before I conclude, it would be a serious oversight to discuss my thoughts on meaning and not mention more on Victor Frankl. If you’ve ever needed a brilliant, scientific and very human perspective on meaning, then he is your (our) man. Victor Frankl founded an entirely new realm of psychiatric and existential therapy called logotherapy, the practice of healing through finding meaning.

Unlike Freud who spent his life arguing that Man was searching for pleasure or Adler who says Man is searching for power, Frankl’s more holistic and healing school of thought is that sure, Man may seek those things, but really, at the core of it all, Man is ultimately searching for meaning. (Note here, I too am a part of the complex and often confusing species called Man.)

The basic tenets of logotherapy, via Wikipedia, are as follows:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  • Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  • We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Frankl’s perspective is more than unique because he survived something that robbed him and millions of others of any sense of meaning to life: the holocaust. Check out his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, if you have any interest whatsoever in meaning or are trying to understand tragedy, loss, violence, evil, illness or senselessness in your own life.

Concluding Remarks

Going back to the original argument, I have to completely dismiss whatever case Mother Nature makes because I feel that her side of the story doesn’t mean anything. You could also say that it is my duty as a living species to represent my own interests regardless of whatever case She presents anyhow.

That said, all hail Mother Nature, she is still the source; I just happen to respectfully disagree with her on a few important ideas that mean something to me, a tiny conscious soul floating around in the puzzling gumbo of mankind.

I know that, in the end, She will win and that we are all just dust in the wind. But can’t I at least try to make my own effort to prolong my journey as long as possible and in a way that I think will make everyone have a more meaningful, happier and peaceful experience of life and of their own life?

As such, I’m bound and determined to will for there to be meaning to life and for there to be meaning to my own life and to your life because to me, meaning and faith come down to survival.

Both have everything to do with mankind (and only mankind) and are perhaps the most basic and conscious tools we can use to prolong our own survival as a conscious biological species and united human race. That unification, however, will never happen if we cannot spread ideas of equality and work towards a common purpose or have faith that there is meaning to life and to our choices.

What say ye, fellow judged jury of non-judgers?

Before you decide, check out this video of Victor Frankl speaking in 1972 about why we should believe in meaning and in each other, calling it the most important gift we can give to each other:

YouTube Preview Image

“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we see him as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be; […] Presupposing a spark of meaning [in one's life and actions] elicits man capable of reaching what he in principle is capable of becoming.”

~ Victor Frankl

Oh yeah, and since I promised sex and rock and roll, here is what I believe to be the perfect yin-yang-sexy-explosive-artistic interpretation of much of what I wrote in words here and besides, it means something:
YouTube Preview Image

Rachael Cleghorn is a massage therapist, writer, returned college student of the life sciences and aspiring yogini practicing, working and “being of service” in Los Angeles. She has absolute and clear faith in the healing power of yoga and massage. If you live in Los Angeles and are looking for a well-trained massage therapist who is aware of yogi-body needs and intentions, contact her via her website: HealThySelfBodywork.com or her yoga blog healthyselfblog.com. Namaste.
Photo: Jose Angel Castro

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4 Responses to “The Case for Meaning and Faith. ~ Rachael Cleghorn”

  1. With you all the way, Rachael. My favorite single line Yoga saying is:

    If You Can't Beat the Universe, Join it

    Yoga's ultimate answer to meaning is the Bhagavad Gita, which I think is entirely consistent with your conclusions above. See Gita in a Nutshell.

    Also deeply relevant:
    The Dalai Lama and the Purpose of Life
    “God” or “Reason” — Is There Really Any Difference?
    The Meaning of Life–Who Cares?

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. TamingAuthor says:

    Wonder if we tend to stop too soon. In all faith practices we seek to know, and this seeking is rewarded. We can come to know the supernatural aspects of our existence. Too often we stop along the path to ponder our current uncertainty, rather than simply moving ahead with the practice, whatever that may be. One finds this in Buddhism, and also in Christianity. There is knowledge, albeit supernatural knowledge, to be gained and yet we pull up short. We see this especially in Buddhism where current "teachers" work hard to assure us the Buddha did not really mean what he said—all that stuff is just metaphor and hyperbole. But those who move ahead find some delightful surprises. Wonder if the struggle with meaning is not equivalent to stopping on the bridge and pondering the drop rather than simply proceeding to the other side.

  4. ancestralauthor says:

    How insulting and juvenile for "poppymomma" to write such a distasteful diatribe on Rachael's logical and elegantly written piece on meaning, purpose and faith. She is obviously a woman of integrity who is being completely honest about her philosophy. It is not only written with candor, but with quite a bit of amusing intellectual humor …. which is refreshing!
    I do understand that an article like this may go over the heads of quite a few people (like poppymama) who have no philosophical understanding or grasp of the profound existential challenges and choices we must make on a daily basis to maintain our own integrity and have some compassion and virtue.

    We should thank Rachael for her deep thought-provoking writing, warm compassion, and enlivening sense of humor!

    I hope she writes some more articles for Elephant Journal as well as other websites where deep thinking is not frowned upon.

    Keep up the good work Rachael!

    —-G

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