Having vs Doing vs Being and the Meaning of Life
I am reading a book by Irvin Yalom on existential therapy and this is a chapter dealing with the meaning of life. Meaninglessness is one of the fundamental existential problems and many people struggle with questions like “what meaning is there in life?”. Yalom observes that the “quest for meaning” can be a culturally constructed phenomenon. He quotes Viktor Frankl, a famous existential psychologist, who said that “no humans can always achieve, always create. But to go in the right direction, not having achieved, but achieving, not arriving at the inn but walking towards the inn, not resting in the laurels, but moving towards the laurels, putting one’s talents to the most constructive, productive and creative use - that is perhaps the only sense of life”.
But is indeed “achievement” and "accomplishment" a self-evident category of life meaning? Yalom asks: “Is striving, achieving, or progressing part of existence, part of the deepest layers of human motivation? Most assuredly no… Other contemporary cultures take issue not only with an achievement-oriented sense of life purpose, but with the very concept of “purpose of life”. One of the most articulate spokesmen for an alternate view is D. T. Suzuki, the Zen master. In an extraordinarily luminous essay, Suzuki illustrates two opposing postures to life by comparing two poems. The first, a seventeenth-century haiku by Basho, reads:
When I look carefully
I see the Nazuma blooming
By the hedge!
The second, a verse by Tennyson reads:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;-
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand.
Little Flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all
I should know what God and manis.
In the haiku Basho simply observes carefully a Nazuma (an inconspicuous, unpretentious, almost negligible plant) blooming by the hedge. The haiku conveys (though Suzuki tells us, its subtlety is lost in translation) a tender, humble, close, and harmonious relationship to nature. Basho is quiet; he feels much but gently allows his last two syllables (called a "Kana" in Japanese and appropriately rendered in English by an exclamation point) to convey what he feels.
Tennyson is eloquent and active. He plucks the flower, he tears it away from nature "root and all" (which means that the plant must die) and inspects it closely (as though to dissect it). Tennyson attempts to analyze and to understand the flower; he stands away from it in a scientifically objective fashion. He uses the flower to know something else. He transforms his meeting with the flower into knowledge and, ultimately, into power.
Suzuki suggests that this contrast illustrates Western and Eastern attitudes toward nature and, by implication, toward life. The Westerner is analytical and objective and attempts to understand nature by dissecting and then subjugating and exploiting it. The Oriental is subjective, integrative, totalizing, and he attempts not to analyze and harness nature but to experience and harmonize with it. The contrast, then, is between a searching-action mode and a harmonizing-union one, and often is phrased in terms of "doing" versus "being." (Yalom, 1980, pp.467-468)
It’s interesting that Erich Fromm uses the same two poems for illustration of another duality - “having” versus “being”. He sees in Tennison’s poem the illustration of the “having mode” where Tennison can be happy only when he owns the flower, he is not content with mere experience of its beauty. According to Fromm, the majority of people in the contemporary culture live in the “having mode” whereby they try to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction via owning - things, people, intangible things like reputation, status, etc. “In the being mode of existence, we must identify two forms of being. One is in contrast to having, and means aliveness and authentic relatedness to the world. The other form of being is in contrast to appearing and refers to the true nature, the true reality, of a person or a thing in contrast to deceptive appearances as exemplified in the etymology of being” (Fromm, 1976, p. 24.)
Back to Existential psychology, to show how achievement and accomplishment is a cultural construct, Yalom goes on to provide a historical overview of human attitude towards work and “achievement”, how the contemplation was the most valued activity in early Christianity and how the Renaissance changes the relationship with nature where a man assumed an active stance toward the world. He explores the impact of religion, of ideas of John Calvin and Puritan tradition that ingrained into the psychology of western man the values of sacrifice, hard work, ambition, and social position.
Yalom notes that “the belief that life is incomplete without goal fulfillment is not so much a tragic existential fact of life as it is a Western myth, a cultural artifact. The Eastern world never assumes that there is a “point” to life, that there is a problem to be solved, instead, life is a mystery to be lived.” (Yalom, 1980, p.470)
I thought about this observation in the context of yoga. We often are enchanted by yoga because it gives us the experience of just being there. This experience, awareness of being alive in here and now - does not require any justification, any goal. Its value is inherent in the experience itself. But then something happens and we slowly fit our yoga practice into our usual cultural framework - we start justifying our need for practice because it makes us healthy, or because we can make a cool pose and post it on Instagram, or become a yoga teacher, etc. etc. While these goals may be good aspirations per se, they are good as long as we have not reduced the experience of presence, of being in the moment, to the mere instrument of “achieving” something else.
Once we “objectify” our practice in such a way (use it to achieve some other goal), the magic is gone!
Yalom, Irvin (1980) Existential Psychotherapy. Basic Books.
Fromm, Erich (1976) To Have Or to Be? New York, Harper and Row.