Our Quest for Happiness and Meaning

Posted by David Steindl-Rast on 7/1/20 7:00 AM

Our Quest for Happiness and Meaning | Photo by Jeremy Perkins on UnsplashHappiness and a meaningful life are inseparable. You may know people who appear to have whatever good fortune can give and are nevertheless desperately unhappy. And there are others who in the midst of raw misery are deeply at peace and—well, genuinely happy. See if you can find where the difference lies. When we go deep enough, we find that the happy ones have found the one thing which the others are lacking: meaning in life. But we should not call meaning a “thing.” It is, in fact, the one reality in our life which is nothing.

Nor should we say that someone has found meaning, as if, once found, meaning could be safely kept for darker days. Meaning must be constantly received, like the light to which we must open our eyes here and now, if we want to see. An image can help us see how meaning can be nothing, or “no thing.” We point, in the West, to a vase or an ash tray and ask: “What is this?” No matter how manifold the answers we receive, they will generally conceive of the thing as a certain material formed in a particular way: glass pressed or blown into a certain shape, clay shaped on a potter’s wheel, fired and glazed. Of course.

It never occurs to us that someone’s bent of mind could be so different that the answer centers with the same directness on the empty space of our vase or dish. Surprise. “Empty space? Is that all?”

Well, of course, the emptiness has to be defined by this shape or that. But this is less important. What really matters is the emptiness of the vessel. Isn’t this what makes it a vessel? We must admit it, strange as this approach may seem to us; as strange as the “sound of no-sound,” to which it is closely related.


Silence too, in this sense, is not the absence of word or sound. It is not characterized by absence but by presence, a presence too great for words. When we have some little joy or pain we are apt to talk about it.

When joy or pain grows strong we rejoice or cry. But when bliss or suffering become overpowering—we are silent. Any encounter with mystery is hidden in silence. Mystery is not an empty emptiness but the incomprehensible Presence that touches us and renders us speechless as it imparts to us meaning. Only by the tension between word and silence is meaning upheld. (Both “word” and “silence” are taken here in the most comprehensive sense, as two dimensions of all reality.)

The moment we relax this tension meaning escapes us: the moment we break the tension meaning is broken. Failing to see the distinction between word and silence—a distinction greater and more basic than any other—would mean relaxing the tension. Yet, pushing the distinction to the point of separation would break the tension. The point is that silence and word are distinguished as well as united by the third dimension of meaning we discussed earlier: that of understanding.


How Do We Understand?

I would say, by allowing the word to lead us into silence until we truly hear the silence in and through the word. But more concretely, how does understanding come about in a dialogue? A true dialogue is more than an exchange of words: the “more” consists in an exchange of silence. This is where understanding comes in. For true understanding it is necessary that the silence within me should come to word and so reach out to you until it touches not only your ear and your brain but your heart, your still point, the core of silence within you.

Thus, understanding is communication of silence, with silence, in and through the word. As soon as we reestablish understanding in its proper place, we have gained a new horizon within which to view the relationship of Christian spirituality to Buddhism and Hinduism.

If we can accept that our quest for ultimate meaning is the tap root of all spirituality, and if it is true that Word, Silence, and understanding together constitute the sphere of meaning, we can see the possibility that three different traditions within humanity’s quest may focus each on a different one of these three dimensions of meaning.

Of course, we are not speaking of three watertight compartments but of dimensions which, though distinguishable, can never be separated from one another. Yet, we have seen that in our own tradition the focus on the Word is so strong that Silence and understanding are almost crowded out of our field of vision: We have to make an effort to rediscover their proper place.

Thus we should be able to appreciate that in other traditions Silence or understanding may hold a place of preeminence comparable to the one which the Word holds in our own. If we now consult the data of comparative religion, we find verified what at first sight would seem too good to be true. Jews, Christians, and Muslims find ultimate meaning in the Word.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Buddhists (as we have already briefly indicated) find that ultimate meaning in Silence, in the emptiness which is fullness, in the nothing that gives meaning to everything. In turn, understanding, which yokes together Word and Silence, is then the central preoccupation of Hinduism.

Admittedly, this sketchy scheme allows for about as much detail as a stamp-size map of the world. The obvious danger is oversimplification. And yet there are advantages to a reduction of scale. For one thing, we shall be less apt to overlook the forest for the trees.

Hinduism, for instance, is so vast and varied a jungle of religions and philosophies that one cannot blame anyone who despairs of finding a unifying principle behind it all. Yet, if there is one, it is the ever-repeated insight that God manifest is God unmanifest, and God unmanifest is God manifest.

This is understanding in our sense, understanding that the Word is Silence—Silence comes to itself in the Word; understanding that the Silence is Word—Word brought home. “God manifest is God unmanifest” is the Hindu parallel to Jesus’s word: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Word and Silence are one and it is in and through the Spirit of Understanding that they are one. Hindus have spent five thousand years or more cultivating, not a theology of the Holy Spirit (theology belongs to the realm of the Logos, the Word), but what must take the place of theology when the Spirit is accorded the place which the Word holds in our approach.

Truly Universal, Truly Catholic

Should this not give us hope that future encounters with Hinduism may tap new springs in the depth of our Christian heritage? In a similar way, Buddhism concentrates on a dimension which belongs to the Word but has been somewhat neglected in Christian tradition. In what would correspond to a theology of the Father (since theology can only be about the Father), Silence would have to replace the medium of the Word.

Maybe Buddhists could teach us something in this field. When Buddhists speak of a door, they do not mean primarily frame, leaf, and hinges, as we do, but the empty space. When Christ says, “I am the door” (John 10:9) we are free to take this in the Western-Christian or in the Buddhist sense.

Why should the latter be less Christian?

It would fall short of the truth to claim that the great traditions of spirituality are complementary. In fact, it would be wrong to think that they could add up, as it were, to “the real thing.” They are “the real thing” each one of them. They are not complementary but inter-dimensional. Each contains each, though with the greatest possible differences in accentuation. Each is, therefore, unique. Each is, in its own way, superior. And what of the Christian claim to universality?

Rightly understood, this is not some sort of colonial imperative: it points toward inner horizons. It makes demands of us Christians, not of others, challenging us to rediscover again and again the neglected dimensions of our own tradition, so as to become truly universal, truly catholic.

Not some theory, but our own experience must be the key to an understanding of the spiritual traditions with which we are confronted. For, if our search for meaning in life is the root of spirituality, and happiness is its fruit, we should be able to gain access to all its forms from the vantage point of our own familiar and very personal moments of happiness.

The Way of Silence: Engaging the Sacred in Daily Life

Topics: happiness, the way of silence, david steindl-rast