The Enigma of the Search, by David Appelbaum

Arthur Siegel ‘Untitled’, from the Series ‘In Search of Myself’ 1951, printed c. 1950s

Arthur Siegel ‘Untitled’, from the Series ‘In Search of Myself’ 1951, printed c. 1950s

‘How can we live without the unknown before us?’ —Rene Char

1. Every search begins in poverty. Something is needed. Something is lacking. But knowledge is too poor to know what, so a search also begins in not knowing.

A search is too poor to complete, and is incomplete at every step of the way. In fact, it exists only in beginning, as beginning. Its beginning is always imminent. To initiate, to be an initiate, one acknowledges the impoverishment of knowing as well as the need to begin. When a search fails to begin anew, it has forgotten that poverty is not a condition to be cured, but one to be respected, valued, and endured.

To think about failure is not to pin it on one who searches, as if the inadequacy were with its seeker. It is to ask a more penetrating questions: what is meant when we speak about the unknown. If it is truly unknown, how does it relate to meaning?

There are obvious traps. The enigma calls us, sphinx-like, not to answer blithely. The unknown is not the ‘not yet known’ whose fact will be added to a reserve when discovered. Neither is it the ‘absolutely unknowable’ that refuses itself to all expression. The unknown names exactly what is at stake in a search—to let the unknown be unknown. How meaning relates to preserving the unknown, under cover or unveiled, must be by unconventional means.

2. To let meaning be unknown. This is a potent thought. It indicates a step back from a deep attachment to the status quo. We grasp reality through pictures of it. We hold the representation to be the thing, as if a photo of an apple could be eaten for dinner. If the grasp is relaxed, what then? This is an entry point of fear. Yet meaning itself can bear meaning only by suspending itself, placing itself in brackets, remaining outside itself like a phantom—there but not there, since to be lacking is its sign. A strange meaning, one that signifies by being absent. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, the king, it walks at midnight, the time when night is deepest, and calls to one’s forgetfulness, one’s ‘almost blunted purpose.’ When meaning has been emptied of itself, it summons us directly through an organ buried within the organic fold of our body, conscience. Then and only then can there be a direct response, a perception of reality.

3. The moment of direct contact opens to a truth inaccessible by other means. It is the reality of the Self, the I AM, that brings the influence that one seeks. It is the experience of a life come alive. It is recognition of the vibration of life, the élan vital.

Within the search for meaning is a need, sometimes deeply felt. How to live a life as it is meant to be lived: fully, totally. The embrace requires responding creatively to what takes place. In wake of the need—an organic, even instinctive, impulse—there are brief flashes of a palpable vivacity, an energy balanced, free, and tranquil. Then, experience has the freshness of a deep breath of air. It hints at an unfolding novelty, a newness that has never before appeared in the world. One is sensitive to another way of living. The event is accompanied by an awareness that delicately registers the state of the environment, outer and inner, and brightens the impression by letting it be felt.

To want more of the ample intelligence is natural. Although the need is inborn (albeit covered over), the means to address it are largely forgotten. Perhaps they have been assigned to the dendrites of our culture; perhaps the knowledge—Great Knowledge—secrets itself and has been preserved in enclaves hidden across the planet.

4. The flashes of meaning are gifted, on a no-strings-attached basis. They are unconditional, that is, from a higher level whose energies embody balance and harmony. They arrive by their own initiative. We can welcome or rebuff them (or both), but we cannot avoid them.

We all know instinctively of the ‘primordial perfection of being’ that we already possess. That there is nothing to be done except to embrace the fact discloses a general outline of the search for meaning.

‘In my beginning is my end,’ says the poet. In the statement of the life of the Great Year, birth and death are on adjoining days. One could end by saying that all meaning flows from that indistinct horizon where the primal opposites, Thanatos and Eros, meet. It is from the crack between the two worlds that meaning issues in a double stream. One devolves into a store of ready-made knowledge regarding the everyday world. The second escapes all knowing, troubles it, and by its disruption awakens our conscience, our innate comprehension of the human place in reality.

Our humanity lies at that crossroads. One road declares the world secure by virtue of human knowledge. The other recalls the question of the search: what are we here for, really?

5. Thus the search becomes sensitive to the dictates of truth. Truth, however, has its own ways of appearing, toward which one must be wary. Jane Yolen, the storyteller, recounts how once a seeker sought Truth. The seeker scoured the earth, enduring countless hardships and sacrificed her lifetime resources. Finally, her ardor was rewarded and on an uninhabited coastline, she climbed to the summit where Truth dwelled. Truth was an ugly crone, stooped, with scant hair and few teeth. When she spoke, however, the atmosphere turned radiant with intelligence. The seeker stayed many years to study with her and gained much wisdom. Finally she felt the need to return home. As she paid a last homage, she asked Truth if there was a message for the world. Truth said, tell people that I am beautiful.

This is a potent idea. It takes a thought of Heraclitus—that nature loves to hide—and gives it another twist. Truth is a simulation: this means that what it is and how it appears diverge. Truth isn’t transparent. The absence of transparency means that we must question our account of the search and question without ceasing. Truth has declared itself a spectacle, a simulacrum. Put another way, our very search for a something called ‘truth’ is likely to be off-base until we are guided by one who has already met her face to face, our Self.

6. Is there really a way for us on which to travel in search with good intention? Is there something like a method for uncovering meaning? Certainly, we hear of ways, prayer, contemplation, good works, extreme physical endurance. Allied with the common conception of a way is that it has an end point to be realized through personal striving: enlightenment, nirvana, satori, an understanding heart. Here we come to a unique demand vis a vis the seeker, namely, the ability to surrender the image of the way as a road that leads to great treasure. The very existence of a way is unknown. A way is a mystery. As soon as we fix on a way, the way, the spirit of search—the ongoing struggle with the impulse to add to the store of knowledge—is lost. If there is a way, it concerns this very moment and only that. To accept its invitation to enter into timeless reality unknowingly, and to place all value on the direct impression, together express the meaning of ‘a way.’ The welcoming gesture is precisely the act of spiritualizing meaning. To think that meaning is ‘out there,’ an object to be sought, is to slough the responsibility entailed in searching and to misconceive the role of the seeker. It is to give over to a passivity difficult to overcome, an avoidance. Meaning is actualized in our willingness to face the task of creation ex nihilo. In this manner, through our search, we are sons and daughters of the Creator, who take part in the order of cosmic events as co-creators of the universe. ♦