“My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
And if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.
My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
At the outset of his legendary interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell remarked: “One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit.” The main way we try to talk about spiritual matters in mainstream culture nowadays is through the concept of “meaning.” The hunger for something called meaning is a surely a sign that something is missing in the culture, but it’s also a sign of how inarticulate we are in moral, religious, and spiritual dimensions of life. As David Brooks pithily put it:
“The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?
“Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”
At this point, meaning is just more happiness. To paraphrase Nietzsche, man does not pursue meaning; only the American does that.
From the Daoist perspective, the main problem with meaning is that it’s a concept—too mental, too abstract, too heady. Western culture has brought us many benefits, but the Greek and especially modern Enlightenments have bequeathed to us a tendency toward abstraction that borders on neurosis. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it’s also true that the unlived life is not worth examining—and that the over-examined life is not really lived. Kierkegaard said that life is lived forward and understood backward; meaning is born in hindsight, midwifed through reflection. The danger with meaning is that if you seek it out, you’ll never find it. It would be like walking forward while looking backward and expecting to get where you want to go.
The meaning-industrial complex rests on a false premise: that the world is not enough. Once we have accepted that the world is a wasteland, that meaning is something we project onto it like a film onto a blank screen, the game is up. Meaning is not hard to find, but impossible to avoid. Like God’s grace, you have to try really hard to escape it, and the hard thing is seeing that you are trying—that the problem is not with the world, but with your vision.
Stop looking for meaning, and you’ll find it everywhere you look.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”