The Meaning of Meaninglessness
I remember having a conversation with my Uncle Howard when I was about twelve years old. He was one of the few people in my life who would engage me in conversation about spirituality when I was growing up. I had been explaining some idea which I can’t remember now and in the course of my talking I had made several references to the “meaning of life”. “Wait a minute wait a minute” he interrupted, “life has meaning?”
I was stopped in my tracks. I said, “What do you mean? Isn’t that what this is all about? How could you ask that?” I couldn’t believe that this religious man who was having a religious conversation with me was questioning whether life had meaning.
Eventually I came to see that “meaninglessness” has at least two very different “meanings”. The first and more common meaning has to do with the disappointment we feel when we are searching for meaning and we can’t find it. People suffer and their minds want to find some meaning in the suffering so they can feel encouraged and hopeful. Or, people feel that life itself is missing something and they search for meaning. One of the places they search is religion and spirituality- perhaps meaning can be found. That’s what I was doing in my younger years- I felt there was something more to life than I had been taught, some deeper meaning. Uncle Howard knocked that down: “Life has meaning?”
But there is another meaning of meaninglessness that is completely different. To get it, let’s look a little more closely at what “meaning” is all about. “Meaning” is when one thing refers to another thing. The word “couch” means something. It refers to that thing I sit on. But what is the meaning of sitting on the couch? It’s meaning is to fulfill a purpose- the purpose of rest and comfort. But what is the meaning of rest and comfort? There is no meaning- we’ve come to the end of the meaning train. Rest and comfort are just for their own sake, because I like to rest and feel comfortable- that’s all.
Now, you might disagree on religious grounds. You might say, no, rest does have a meaning. It is to allow your body to recharge itself so that you can go and do good in the world. In that case, the meaning of rest is to do good in the world. But what is the meaning of doing good in the world? Okay, you might say its meaning is to be an expression of love. But what is the meaning of love? Aha! You’ve gotten to the end again. Love does not need any meaning because it is good in and of itself. Love is the thing that other things mean; love itself is beyond meaning. So if Uncle Howard comes along and says that love is meaningless (or beauty or truth or whatever), that is not an insult- it is actually a wonderful complement. It is pointing out that which is beyond the meanings that our thinking minds assign to things. It is pointing out something ultimate- something that fulfills our deepest needs, not something that merely leads to something else.
The lights of Hanukah do have meaning. They are symbols. To some they may mean hope, to some endurance, to some consciousness- take your pick. But whatever they “mean”, the things they mean are themselves meaningless; they are for their own sake. And that is the power of ritual in general- by symbolizing something Ultimate, they invite us to move beyond the mind with its meanings and move directly into communion with That which transcends meaning.
You can in fact do this any time. You can do this now. Simply bring yourself to what is happening in this moment and let go of the activity of the mind and the meaning it assigns things. Is there a desire within you to find meaning? Is there a longing for something? Bring yourself even to this- bring yourself entirely to whatever you are feeling- be it longing, rage, desire, terror, love, amazement, boredom, whatever. When you do, you may begin to glimpse that inner Light hinted at by the lights of Hanukah and Shabbat that seem to shine from Beingness Itself, healing and illuminating those who open to It. In this Light, the mind no longer needs to know the “meaning of life” because that which life means is That which you are, That which Everything Is!
Blessings of peace, illumination, realization and liberation on this sweet Shabbat Hanukah to you all!
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