Discovering the unknown

Hannah Hooper reflects on the search for meaning, amidst a so-called meaning crisis in these shared transitional times. Must the search be such a solitary one? As we navigate the unknown, discovering our selves, can we be led by interconnectedness toward a different kind of meaning, one that is grounded in community, in each other? Hannah weaves together the work of Joanna Macy and George Prochnik, and insights from contemporary Druidism, in this reflection.

'Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting - over and over announcing your place in the family of things.'

Mary Oliver, excerpt from "Wild Geese"

Each week I either walk or run. I don't bring my headphones, as I don't want the distraction. I listen to the sounds of the birds amongst the canopy of barren trees - it's deep winter, and the days are short and cold. Today, the sky was blanketed with a thin cover of clouds; through a break in the clouds, the setting afternoon sun was able to pour its golden light onto the treetops. A golden fog fell over the pathways and forests. When I witness moments like this in nature, I feel connected to the sacredness that the Earth inhabits. I source a lot of meaning and purpose from this connection with nature. In many ways, I've been searching for meaning for a very long time, after years of feeling unrooted from a sense of purpose, and a connection to something beyond myself.

As we navigate the complexities of society, we are confronted with various crises that challenge our sense of purpose and meaning. The mental health crisis, climate crisis, and economic crisis are just a few examples of the overwhelming concerns that weigh on our collective consciousness. These crises are not isolated incidents, but rather symptoms of a broader crisis of meaning that permeates our existence.

John Vervaeke, in his exploration of the meaning crisis, suggests that the root cause of these crises lies in the severance of healthy sources of meaning. Our connection to community, family, healthy relationships, and the mystical aspects of life has been eroded over time. This disconnection leaves us adrift, unanchored amongst the chaos.

In the face of these challenges, we often turn to external sources in search of meaning. Social media, celebrity culture, and material wealth become substitutes for the deeper fulfilment that comes from authentic connections and a sense of belonging. However, these substitutes prove to be empty and fleeting, leaving us yearning for something more substantial.

In her essay, "Enter the Bardo", Joanna Macy shares the importance of facing the unknown of the poly-crisis through the practice of Buddhism. We are currently dangling in space, over a precipice - where economic and climate collapse feels within terrifying, tangible reach. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a space or gap between known worlds is called a bardo. It is frightening, but also a place of potential transformation:

'As you enter the bardo, there facing you is the Buddha Akshobhya. His element is Water. He is holding a mirror, for his gift is Mirror Wisdom, reflecting everything just as it is. And the teaching of Akshobhya’s mirror is this: Do not look away. Do not avert your gaze. Do not turn aside. This teaching clearly calls for radical attention and total acceptance.'

In her lifelong work, named aptly, The Work That Reconnects, Macy helps us come to terms with the suffering of the world; rather than turning away from such despair, she asks us to lean into it. Through this leaning in, we welcome more compassion for the world and our more than human kin. But, to lean in with 'radical attention and total acceptance' requires a certain amount of faith.

This leads me to the question: Is faith necessary to find meaning in contemporary society? And does this faith have to be religious or spiritual? Honestly, I feel like I can't answer these questions in just one essay, or even in my lifetime. However, I will attempt to briefly address them.

In contemporary culture and life, as mentioned above, we are experiencing a deprivation of meaning. As we move more towards secular societies, we are also preventing ourselves from finding deeper meaning in our everyday lives. Where religion helped fill this void of meaning; we are now left flailing for answers to the unknown.

We seek spirituality and faith to provide us with meaning but also answers. However, what if the unknown was the springboard for developing a new kind of 'faith' in the unfolding of our lives?

George Prochnik shares in his essay: 'We long for certainty. Society ingrains the wish, and our fear of it not being answered can feed upon itself until the ground beneath our feet dissolves. Religious faith rushes in to fill that yearning, like water descending a sheer incline until all emptiness is gone and some final equilibrium is reached. Insecurity plays the role of gravity in the realm of spirituality, drawing us toward belief, the promise of a haven where that force no longer operates: free fall replaced by an encompassing embrace…There is a different, more subterranean tradition of theological solace predicated on restoring—not optimism, but a sense of the unknown. The first step toward creating some way out of our dilemma may involve allowing our sense of certainty itself to unravel.'

When I read these words, I felt an immediate resonance. What if we allowed this certainty to unravel, and have faith in the unravelling and the not knowing - perhaps we have more than we need within ourselves to stay afloat? As Prochnik explains, ‘This doesn’t mean succumbing to a fatuous denial of dire present-day realities, but rather restoring a sense of amplitude to all the time we’ve not yet lived through.'

As we re-evaluate our secular societies, many folks are turning to nature to source their meaning and a deeper connection with the living world - this connection to nature provides spiritual meaning to their day-to-day lives. When we gaze at a mountain ignited by the rising sun; traverse ancient woodland, covered in moss of emerald green; or swim in the vastness of the sea, we experience a sense of awe. It's this awe, which for many, is a connection to something far greater than themselves. Amongst the natural world, we find a deeper meaning: rooted in interdependence and connection with the more-than-human world.

Turning to the connection between the spiritual and the natural world is Druidism. Lucy Jones shares in "The Druid Renaissance", 'Druidry, the ancient religion of Britain and Ireland, has evolved through various iterations over the centuries and, without a sacred text or much source material, it can be elusive to describe. It isn’t a belief system, as such. Different Druids believe different things. For some it is a religion, for others, a way of life. There are no set teachings on the afterlife (although most Druids probably do believe in reincarnation). There isn’t a heaven or a hell. Some Druids are monotheistic, others are duotheistic or polytheistic. There are Druids who are Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, animists, atheists. The one element that draws followers together is a love of nature.'

This revival in contemporary Druidism signals society’s calls to find meaning, yet also its transition to more openness and fluidity to move with contemporary times. I think meaning is essential, especially as we live during a time of crises and chaos. In our quest for meaning, we often find ourselves exploring the depths of our individual experiences and perspectives. The source of meaning is a deeply personal journey, unique to each individual. It is a subjective and nuanced exploration.

While the search for meaning may be a solitary endeavour, there is a profound realisation that emerges when we shift our focus from individualism to collective care. In this transition, we begin to recognise the interconnectedness of our lives and the significance of our actions within a larger context.

As we navigate the complexities of our times, it is essential to recognise that the search for meaning is an ongoing journey, but also a collective one. It is a process of self-discovery, collective care, and embracing the unknown. By shifting our focus from individualism to interconnectedness, we can find a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. In this interconnectedness, we discover that true meaning is not found in isolation, but in the collective care and shared experiences that enrich our lives.


Hannah Hooper

Hannah Hooper is a writer, activist, and creative based in the UK.

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