Meaning in Mind
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
Deep at the heart of the human psyche lies a G-d-sized need for meaning. Relating to reality as fundamentally material with value tacked on to fill the evolutionary need of sentimental humans who cannot find legitimate reason to live otherwise leaves us with a devastating void. The quintessential “search for meaning” is a quest for transcendence in experience, an understanding that if this is all there is then there isn’t much at all, and ultimately without meaning we are easy prey to a cavernous depression of the worst kind. Too often, adults grow up and learn to bury this need beneath layers of materialism and externalities, but many a millennial – and even some adults who haven’t yet given up – finds himself still searching for something. Chassidus grants us a lifeline by teaching us that G-d is a true, volitional Being Who created us and all of reality because we are meaningful to Him in spite of His own infinitude and needlessness, and that the reality of this truth extends infinitely beyond our need for meaning. The difficulty lies in integrating this perspective to the level of our experience so that it permeates every part of our lives with meaning. This is in fact the objective of Chabad Chassidus and is referred to as the process of sholom, wholeness and integration.
II. The Problem of Meaning
There is a pervasive sense that nothing really matters in the grand scheme of history. And really, even if anything did, of what worth would that be? All this world seems to be is a well-oiled machine that just keeps cycling through generations of randomness and chaos as it spins on into infinity. Some will turn to the philosophy of Friederich Nietzsche as the answer to the nihilism: create your own reality and ascribe to it value. To many of us, though, this just sounds like giving up. If the only value to your life is the value you ascribe it, of what value is anything at all? What makes value valuable? Nietzschean philosophy seems only to affirm the apperception that there is no higher meaning and that there is no value to anything beyond what you yourself ascribe it. This seems too artificial. The circularity of it is depressing: we need more.
The true answer to this is G-d. To feel like there is meaning to life requires an immanent sense that a very real and present G-d cares about our world. He cannot be a G-d we have created only to fill our void; this G-d must be Someone Who exists independent of our need for Him – and yet in order for Him not to seem distant and unrelatable (which would ultimately reverse the personal meaning we would find in Him) we need to feel His care for and investment in us. This is the perspective of Chassidus: that G-d is Somebody infinitely removed from matters both petty and great, Who simultaneously cares about connecting to us on an essential and experiential level.
The core issue here is in the way we think of reality. Whether or not we profess to believe in G-d, it is common in the Western world to have a sense of reality as unconnected to any sort of higher power. The way we learn science, history, and math as well as simply the way we make decisions implies that we have direct control over the immediate elements of our lives and that the course of history is and always has been governed by natural causes. There is hardly anything that cannot be explained by science or common sense, and from this we infer that, whether or not there is a G-d, He certainly isn’t here in any immediate sense.
The task now is to undo the years of subtle mental subterfuge that taught us that not only is there no meaning to life but that there cannot be, and learn to assimilate a more nuanced way of thinking. The objective is to gain an internalized sense for G-d’s immanent care and presence without compromising on the appreciation of His infinitude. When we realize the value He ascribes to our lives we’ll be able to experience life as meaningful. The method is through learning Chassidus. Understanding how following the Chassidic model of study makes ideas real to us will aid us in finding ultimate meaning. This is discussed in Chapter Three of Tanya, in Likutei Sichos Vol. 25, Parshas Vayeitzei, and in Vol. 04, Parshas Mattos. There will also be some reference to ideas discussed in the second chapter of Tanya and in Derech Mitzvosecha, the mitzvah of Eved Ivri.
III. The Method
The first thing to realize is that our issue cannot be resolved through knowledge alone – there is an attitude shift we need to make. You can prove the existence of G-d all you want, but it is something else that makes His existence actually a meaningful reality in your life. What we need here is referred to in Chassidic parlance as bittul. Bittul in general denotes a humbling of the self; its more specific translation can vary depending on the context. The kind of bittul necessary to acclimate yourself to a new perspective on G-d is an intellectual humility and an openness to the truth of the idea – faith, if you will, that even if you cannot yet appreciate it through the eyes of reason, it is a true reality. This is the intellectual stage of chochmah, the directed openness that precedes and guides the analysis and reason that follows.
Imagine a dedicated student before a wise and knowledgeable professor. This student has sat and studied under the tutelage of this professor for months, perhaps years, and has come to understand the depth and breadth of his teacher’s knowledge and intelligence. Consider the student’s attitude when the teacher says something totally out of left field – an opinion, let’s say, that to the student seems to contradict the basics of everything he believes in. Rather than dismiss the professor’s opinion entirely, the student understands that it is not coming from any sort of intellectual oversight, and in fact there is probably a great deal of insight in this seemingly odd statement. The attitude of the student here is one of trust and receptiveness. This is the bittul necessary to cause an internal shift in perspective.
Another illustration of this would be in the attitude upon hearing a riddle. When you hear a riddle, you trust that there is an answer to it and that you have all the information necessary to find that answer. You know the requirements that the answer must satisfy, so you have a clear sense for how the answer must look in the end. If it is a good riddle, your intuitive answer is probably not the correct one – yet you continue seeking an answer that will satisfy the question. What you have here is mental bittul, or chochmah: trust that there is a correct answer and a sense for the shape of the answer, or the requirements it must satisfy.
For our issue described above, this bittul would express itself as a commitment to finding the meaning that we trust exists and an understanding of the requirements this worldview must satisfy. These requirements are those described above: belief in a G-d Whose presence is immanent but Whose transcendence remains uncompromised.
What this means is that for the sake of committing ourselves to the truth of this new perspective, we will need to forsake others. We need to actively ignore and reject, for the time being, the voices of other perspectives we may find more intuitive. The idea that G-d doesn’t have any invested interest in our reality without compromising His infinitude is simply false. We will revisit these perspectives later, but for now we need to treat them as if they do not exist and singlemindedly pursue this as the only truth.
The next step is the one known as binah. In this, the analytic faculty of the mind, ideas are explored to their deepest and challenged to bring out their resistance. This is key, by the way – when challenging an idea we trust, we don’t do so to break it down but because we trust that it is not defeated by the issues our minds come up with. Its truth is stronger than that. This is the influence of the chochmah stage over binah, and this is why chochmah must precede binah.
Binah is the analytical mind. It’s where we interact with ideas, relate them to each other, ask questions about them and learn their language. Here is where we revisit the perspectives we resolved to ignore earlier, and use them to challenge the new understanding we are trying to assimilate. This kind of engagement with ideas when it follows the chochmah-commitment to their truth does give you a sense of these ideas as real. If we learn about G-d’s infinitude, His investment in and care for our reality, and how these ideas do not contradict each other, while understanding that these are the truth, slowly we’ll be able to integrate this into our mind and experience.
The third step is called da’as. Because of our commitment to the idea (chochmah) we revisit the analysis (binah) and begin to relate it to our personal lives. Generalities translate into personal specifics. We focus on the idea, obsess over it, and connect to it emotionally. Here is where the idea becomes meaningful, and G-d becomes real. Here is where we not only overcome the meaninglessness it seemed we could not escape but begin to appreciate how G-d is present in our personal lives, and how the meaning of our reality is deeper than we could ever imagine.
We skipped something, though, and this is critical. For all this talk about trusting in the truth of the idea, how do we know which ideas are actually worth trusting? What or whom are we trusting and why does this deserve our trust? What if it actually is fallible? Is it not the mark of authentic intellectual study to be open to the fallacy of even our own ideas?
For this you need a Rebbe. Chassidus teaches us that the soul of a Jew is a believer with firm conviction in the truth of G-d. Indeed the Jewish soul is a part of G-d and it knows there is a G-d as a child knows he has parents – not in his mind because he reasoned he must have come from somewhere, but deeper, in his identity. But for this to be meaningful to the conscious mind, you need to see and have a connection with an individual who is transparent to G-d, somebody who lives the truth of the idea that G-d is infinitely powerful while being immediately present. Somebody who shows by his very being the care that G-d has for our world. You cannot commit to understanding the truth of an idea without first believing in its truth, and you cannot believe in the truth of an idea you do not experience as true in any sense. The Rebbe as G-d’s representative in reality is the one who brings out of a Jew his deep-rooted belief in G-d as a more immediate and personal reality that he can then concretize through the process of binah. His influence empowers you to reach deep into your soul and unearth what was there before even you were, a core identity, the axiom of the self. We need only to still our minds to hear the faith he reminds us is our birthright so that it can permeate our lives and our minds as well. Only once you have a sense of the Rebbe, his presence and his truth, can Chassidus really carry meaning for you.
This is what it means to learn. To be open to Chassidus such that it assimilates into your consciousness and G-d becomes the basic fabric of your worldview requires an attitude much more directed and specific than a general openness to whatever makes sense. You need to have a binding conviction in the truth of the Rebbe as a person, as a G-dly person, a sense that whatever he says is truth and warrants great personal dedication. When somebody’s word carries that much weight, everything he says – every question he poses, every idea he references – becomes worthy of deepest exploration. When you are committed to the Rebbe’s truth, intellect can not only cease being an obstacle to G-d’s presence in your life, but transforms into a tool in the ever-continuing quest of life to align G-d with the meaning of our lives.
What we learn is this: we need to be aware, first, of what is missing in our current worldview. This creates the context for us to understand what a superior worldview would look like. In order to commit ourselves to the truth of what we seek, we connect to a Rebbe, somebody who expresses the truth of G-dliness. Then in learning Chassidus and finding the answer, we are able to connect to it as real.
IV. Some tips for assimilating new perspectives and changing the meaning of our lives:
- Clearly define the perspective you would like to change and commit to the truth of the new understanding.
- Learn about it. Don’t be afraid to invest personally in the learning, to relate the ideas to your life, to fall in love with Chassidus.
- Don’t limit the ideas you learn to their application to you. Don’t limit the value of Chassidus to your love of it.
- Keep a log. Start off with describing where you are at now in terms of perspective and where you would like to be. Document the process through your learning, experience, interactions with people, questions, answers, confusion, resolution, etc. Besides for being fascinating to look back at afterward, rereading can often give you new insight into what direction to take going forward. Sometimes, you get stuck, and you realize you’ve been here before and now need to reintegrate the conclusion you came to then. Sometimes you realize you never actually dealt with the issue and you need to get back on the track you’ve fallen off of. Sometimes you need to switch tracks entirely.
- Understand that it won’t happen in a day. It is a lifelong process to consciously undo what experience has taught to our subconscious. Let it be a process.
V. The Takeaway
This is a journey to give us a sense of G-d as more of a personal reality, and the thrust here is incredibly alive. When we let G-d in we open the door wide to meaning in every part of our lives. There is meaning in everything, because everything is here by Divine design. G-d values the individual reality and existence of every stone and every thought and every struggle, and when we feel that it allows us to experience the joy in living. Every experience is an opportunity to bring Him home again. When G-d becomes the meaning of our lives, when His truth permeates our minds and our worldview, when connecting to Him through even the trivialities of our days becomes truly what we live for, we become more alive than we ever thought possible.