Seeking Meaning

Writing and sharing thoughts publicly is a new thing for me. I'm only starting to manage the minor heart attacks I get when I do it.

Over the past 6 months I've shared some ideas, and I've been overcome by the response from friends, family and even people I haven't met. These responses have encouraged me to keep writing, when I have something to say. 

And while they fuel me, they also censor me. I honor your eyes and ears so much. I feel immense gratitude for every Like on Facebook. I'm humbled every time someone reaches out in response. Truly, this process of sharing my thoughts has been an experience that's changed my interactions with almost everyone I know; it's awarded me a type of connection I didn't really understand was a possibility.

So I think a lot about what to write next. Most of the time I don't feel I have an idea, or the words, profound enough to share. But nonetheless I keep mulling ideas. They live in my head. I try to use the yoga room to share them sometimes, but it's the rare class that I can move the words from my heart out through my mouth. 

This is one that's been top of mind for some time now but which lacked direction until today. I've felt a formless energy behind it. But I haven't had a message I felt warranted the ear of my reader.

In light of recent tragedies I now have some context, and I feel compelled to write. 

These tragedies happen again and again and we ask Why. And in part, in small part, I think I know why. 


I don't regret anything about my life. I believe that everything, objectively "good" or "bad", has happened for a reason and is an indispensable part of my story. I'm healthy and happy, so I know that this perspective is a privilege. I hope to maintain it through harder times.

If there is one thing I do regret though, one thing I do think has held me back, it's all the time I spent avoiding meaning.

We live in a skeptical world. Regardless of what people say, we too often treat people as guilty before proven innocent. At the risk of feeling foolish we want to know exactly how and why and when and etc. before we'll believe an effing thing.

I spent a long time living like this. I dulled any feeling of optimism, or magic, or enchantment I couldn't explain. I defaulted to disbelief over faith in anything unknown. I believed strictly in coincidence over connection. I chose to be rational over inspirational. As a defense, when I couldn't understand, I found sarcasm in everything. Everything was standalone, no two events amounted to any meaning.

For some reason, I was sort of rewarded for this attitude.

The guys I dated fed it. I could pretend I didn't care about them, or life, and they came at me with emotions stronger than my apathy. Where they pledged love I pledged a roll of my eyes. But they stayed, so I kept on. (Not all of them, though. Someone I liked once called me aloof and went on his way, and that may well be what first ignited this whole contemplation.)

Friends, teachers, adults rewarded me too. They responded to my unemotional behavior by calling me "mature" or "professional".

But what happened here with my "maturity" was that I numbed it all. Instead of letting feelings do what they do and affect me, I filtered everything. If I couldn't immediately understand exactly how something could come to be true, I cast doubt upon it.

I met "I love you" with "Why?" All. the. time.

In some circles my default-to-skeptical attitude is extreme. But in most, especially here in our country, it is not. I'm not alone in this — I see people all around me do it. We've created a way to walk the perimeter of things that happen to us, to skirt lots of life.

And this is why I think our society has been able to endure ridiculous tragedy after tragedy.

Rather than assume meaning behind any of these events, first we question. 

In the space of that pause, we allow life to go on.

So heavily rooted in science, math and technology, in our world we "investigate" for an equation that will make sense of each tragedy. We don't really find it, but when we don't find it, we also don't do anything.

There is no logic behind a Sandy Hook or a Philando Castile. We know this. But we're so used to seeking logic over meaning that we search for it incessantly, automatically, when we're faced with these situations.

I just stopped writing for a few minutes to read a NYT article about Philando Castile. The very last sentence proves my point:

“It’s critically important to remember, despite the graphic nature of the video, that there is still a great deal we don’t know about what happened in this incident and why.”

Is it critically important that we do that? While we do that, nothing else gets done. 

So my thought process is this: What if we defaulted to meaning? What if we automatically made the connection between a kid suffering and taking a gun into school, and a generation of people going sort of insane? What if we finally believed that one of these terrible tragedies was meant to tell us something, meant to change the course of history — that each of these events wasn't only a standalone atrocity, but also part of a message. 

If that were our approach, wouldn't we immediately make some change? Heed this message from the universe. Get some help for people who are suffering. Get rid of the insanity of guns. At the very very least, get the right people in the right roles with the right training. That seems logical.

If we began to see meaning in everything, would we get out of this holding pattern where we search for reason and change nothing? 

The Necessity of Practice

To act this way automatically, in the heat of situations like we're in now, takes practice. We can't expect to pull out our best behavior when times are hardest. It has to be automatic, knee-jerk. 

The other day I was in a kind of stressful situation where I thought I might not make it to work on time. Twenty students were signed up to take my class at 8:15pm in the city, and at 3pm I was at the beach and the trains started announcing delays. 

My mind raced and my body reacted. I started to get nervous, visibly so. But what happened next surprised me, delighted me, saved me. Without any control over it, my body started to take extremely deep and calming breaths. Every inhale took four or five seconds. Every exhale was even longer and cast a wave of calm over me. 

This was a totally unintentional reaction. It was automatic. It kicked into gear because that's what I've trained my body to do. Day in and day out I choose to breathe this way when I'm on my mat in yoga class, and when I was faced with a situation where I couldn't make the choice, I defaulted.

It's in this way that our collective approach can change — if we start practicing seeing meaning, making connections, all the time.

What does that look like? It looks like each of us becoming a bit more reflective. Looking for small signs from the universe, and taking them as direction. Accepting things we might not be able to explain. Drawing connections between people and events. Believing that every person, every interaction, shows up in your life to teach you something. Treating everything and everyone as small parts of a very large system. 

I really see it as a choice: to live believing there is meaning in everything, or to live filtered by rationality. (Where did we even learn this?) We only live this life once. After our one shot, we don't have to answer to anyone about which way we chose. We don't have to fear embarrassment if the way we chose was the wrong way. So why wouldn't we choose to live believing that there is meaning in everything? Why wouldn't we invite all the connection, even some magic into our psyche? 

On an individual level, the more meaning in our lives the more purpose we have. On a societal level, the more meaning in our lives the more progress we make.

Joanna Cohen