The Quest For Meaning

Joy Mills

This article was originally published in The Theosophist, March 1981.

No cry is more plaintive or more persistent, no cry more heart-rending or difficult to answer than the simple plea, ‘Why?’ Even as children beginning the exploration of the world about us, we seek to know why things are as they are: why is water wet? why does fire burn? why do trees grow upwards and not down? An endless series of questions each one beginning with ‘Why?’ marks our entry into awareness of ourselves and our world, of people, events and things.

Growth from childhood into maturity only changes the object of our inquiry; the question remains essentially the same. We demand meaning, not simply a knowledge of how things operate or what things are, and this imperative demand for meaning pushes us relentlessly forward to explore the unknown territory of life itself. For all the ‘whys’ we have asked—why did this happen to me? why did my friend have to die? why is there so much injustice in the world?—all the ‘whys’ we can ever ask, are finally resolved into one imperious question: ‘What is the meaning of life?’

That question, forged in the fires of our suffering and our heart-ache, of our pains and struggles, shaped by our expectations, aspirations and dreams, leads us forth on a most singular adventure after understanding—an adventure towards wisdom and enlightenment, towards the kind of experience that is genuinely numinous in its transformative character because it enables us at the end of our quest to say, ‘I know.’

The journey of life is essentially the quest for meaning and the experience of meaning seems granted to us only in becoming conscious of new knowledge. So it is that the metaphysical task of man lies in a continual expansion of consciousness, and our destiny, as individuals, is to push outwards the boundaries of self-awareness even when the process involves pain and suffering or demands a ruthless and honest confrontation with ourselves. According to Carl Jung, ‘Because of the self’s drive toward realization, life appears as a task of the highest order, and therein lies the possibility of interpreting its meaning, which does not exclude the possibility of defeat.’ For even when we momentarily fail in the quest—and failure is only temporary so long as we do not cease the quest—our very defeat marks a further advance on the road to full self-awareness and self-realization.

For Jung, the meaning of life lay in the realization of the self, by which he meant the realization of the divine in man. Perhaps that, after all, may be the best, or at least the easiest, way in which to express the end of the quest for it sums up all the religious traditions, while at the same time it points to the fact that the journey and the goal lie in the here and now of everyday existence.

The Heroic Journey

In the words of The Secret Doctrine, the quest for meaning is ‘the martyrdom of self-conscious existence’, in which we must, by our own efforts, win through to our immortality, achieving the goal of Self-realization while in incarnation. This is no easy task and consequently it has always been depicted in myth and legend, in scripture and in sacred literature, as a heroic journey in which every man is the hero of his own story, however unheroic he may appear to himself or to others.

The retellings of the ancient tale of man’s quest for meaning are so numerous that one can turn to any culture or any tradition and find some version of the epic. Yet we continue to search, and today the search has seemed to take on a certain desperation for we feel that the world, as we have known it, is rapidly crumbling while the threat of a nuclear holocaust is ever more imminent. As a consequence of our desperation, we feel there must be short cuts to our goal, that almost anyone who promises to endow existence with meaning must be on the right track and that all we need to do is to follow blindly. Unfortunately, the psychic and spiritual wrecks which strew the paths that are thus taken do not always seem sufficient warning to the newer questioner. Perhaps it would be well to heed the words of the well-known mountain climber, Edward Whymper:

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste: look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

Every chronicle depicting the age-old search gives the same advice, and nowhere in the western tradition has the lesson been presented with greater urgency or more convincing example than in the numerous retellings of the quest for the Holy Grail. The power and beauty of the Grail legends, intertwined as many of them are with the Arthurian stories, still stir the heart and mind of many whose normal, mundane lives appear dreary and fruitless.

Quest For The Grail

Somewhere, we feel, Camelot and Avalon must exist; some day, we hope, all humanity will sit together at the Table Round, in peace and harmony of purpose. These very words, conjuring up dreams of a time and a place when a Golden Age will dawn again, break through the hard empirical crust of our vaunted rational minds to awaken within us the possibility of another kind of existence, a life lived more fully, more meaningfully, more richly, and we are drawn outwards, as was Parsifal, from the forest of our knowing to seek the ‘King who can make knigths’, and to find the Castle of the Grail.

For the Grail itself symbolizes meaning, that vessel which is the container of wisdom, for which men seek throughout the world, and the quest for meaning, then, is the search for the Grail. The ‘King who can make knights’, whom Parsifal first set out to find, is that Immortal Atman—the One Self—as well as the Great Initiator who, once seen, forever after claims our allegiance. So every man begins the journey as did Parsifal the simple fool, naive, unknowing, pure. Along the way he meets with every temptation, disguised as dragon, giant, demon and witch, or as fire, water, earth and air; he is befriended by lovely maiden or wise old man; he experiences the terrors of the night of despair and at dawn he glimpses anew the vision of his own certain triumph. At the end of the journey he enters the heavenly city, the Castle of the Grail. There he perceives the unveiled light, the holy wisdom, and thus becomes an enlightened one, a saviour of the world.

In the Galahad version of the Grail legend, one hundred and fifty knights undertook the quest but only three were blessed with Galahad’s continued presence, and Galahad alone—the perfect knight, the truly initiated one—is judged worthy to see the mysteries within the holy vessel and to look on the ineffable. Students of theosophical literature will recognize here a multiplicity of symbols: Galahad and the three who accompany him to the journey’s end are perhaps the four Kumaras, bringing light, intelligence and wisdom to a new cycle in the evolutionary process; Galahad, the avatar promised in so many traditions as coming when there is ‘decay of righteousness’ and when the world faces a new crisis of the spirit; Galahad and his companions overcoming every trial and difficulty to join the ranks of those ‘just men made perfect’ who are the Brotherhood of Adepts, the Masters of Wisdom and Compassion.

Arthurian Symbols

For basic to the story of the Grail quest is the magnificent concept that there exists a mystery-race of King Adepts who take incarnation periodically in order to aid mankind in its long journey toward the sacred place where meaning is discovered. So it is said that, just as every Mason learns to direct his steps from West to East, the Adept-Kings of the mysterious Grail race journeyed eastward with the Grail. But, from time to time, one or another of that mystery-race may journey Westward with the Grail of Wisdom to awaken in men a knowledge of their forgotten birthright. Such, indeed, was the case when the Theosophical Society was founded, and through it is given the ageless wisdom which alone imparts meaning to existence. It testifies to the fact that there is a Path to the Castle of the Grail and that the stages on the way are as clearly marked today as they ever were; and it sounds the warning that the travelling demands nothing less than all we have and are. The brave in heart, willing to walk that way, must say as did Parsifal, ‘Go I will, cost what it may.’

Let us, then, examine this eternal quest, using some features of the Grail legends to serve as guides along the way. Every archetypal symbol of these legends lies within man himself: the Waste Land is the field of personal incarnation when the ‘King’ or Atman is ‘wounded’ because of our non-recognition of his existence; the Sword is a symbol of Manas; the Lance, a symbol of the intuitive, direct perception—these are all elements of our own nature, symbolic of faculties to be awakened or aspects of ourselves to be experienced and made conscious. Each participant in the drama of the Grail quest, whether called Parsifal or Merlin, Guinevere or Gawain, is within us now, for, as the American Poet Walt Whitman once wrote, we ‘contain multitudes’. As we read the legend we may see ourselves as Bors the plodder, subject to the temptations of the intellect, faced with a moral dilemma, the choice between conflicting duties, and yet able to make a reasoned decision to continue on the quest. Or we may find in ourselves the figure of Lancelot, needing continuous help, stumbling again and again on the way through the valley of humiliation, the dead weight of our past dragging us down, and yet ever full of good intentions to reform.

Or we may be Gawain, brave, magnanimous, staunchest of friends, the first to leap to his feet when the quest is announced, but somehow failing to understand its nature, taking counsel of wise men and, at the same time, excusing his inability to follow the advice he is given. And within us, too, is Galahad, chaste and pure in aspiration, following the single path to the vision of the Grail, ever tender in his relations with others, perfect in virtue, patient with the failings of his companions, and with an aura that draws all to him, inspiring each to be his best as he moves toward his goal.

So it is for each one to decide whether he will hasten his quest, seeking meaning as for the Grail of Wisdom, or whether, ignorant of his true purpose, he chooses to play about in the magic garden of Klingsor, content with the enchantments of the illusory and psychic realms. The legend of the Grail quest reminds us that we alone can save the world, and that only in saving others do we save ourselves. For the ‘Heavenly Man’ as the archetypal pattern, alone imparts meaningfulness to the world, or rather meaning is exhibited only through man as the self-conscious being he is meant to be. Wagner, in the finale of his magnificent retelling of the ancient legend of Parsifal, phrased it:

Miracle of highest grace
Redemption for the Redeemer.

One True Adventure

Today, as in all periods of history, man is called to awaken from his sleep of non-knowing, to cease his dreaming of psychic visions, and to set forth upon the quest of his own humanity, the one true adventure that leads him to become, in due time, a Grail-King, one of the race of King-Adepts who are truly the saviours and guardians of the world, an Inner Brotherhood whose work continues from age to age silently building the fane of imperishable thought. This is the meaning of our existence; this the Holy Grail on whose quest we venture forth.

To set out on this immortal adventure demands, indeed, a certain bravery of the soul, a courage which is willing to face every circumstance with equanimity. As Carl Jung once said, ‘he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if once he saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing.’ Wagner’s music-drama, Parsifal, opens with the words: ‘Brave, and slowly wise: this I hail my hero.’ In our very bravery, we must be content to grow ‘slowly wise’ and yet, like Parsifal, be willing to leave the security of our mother’s home in the forest.

So rich in symbolism is the story that we cannot examine all its elements; yet we must note that when Parsifal sets forth, he does not even know his own name. We, also, at the beginning of our journey, are unaware of the true name of the Self; yet we are called outwards from a primitive state of consciousness in which we have lived close to the instinctual life symbolized by the plant and animal life of the forest. The restricted horizon of a forest indicates also that we have lived in a condition of limitation from which we must now break free; the forest also represents those collective social values which have dominated our existence and from which we must now venture forth to discover our individual worth as free-thinking, free-choosing beings. Parsifal, like Arjuna, is a symbol of modern man before whom is laid the colossal task of becoming human; the task of choice, based on wisdom, the need to know his own name or to realize his totality.

As we examine the work required of us, one of the words that is frequently met with in describing the journey is the apparently simple word ‘adventure’. Usually this term is used to denote an exciting and somewhat dangerous undertaking. It is interesting to observe, however, that in several versions of the Grail legend, the term appears to represent a key factor in the quest itself. In the Parsifal version, for example, the hero is told, ‘Go where adventure leads you’, while in other versions nearly every chapter of the story begins with a statement that now the ‘adventure’ of one or another of the seekers will be presented. Gawain, one of the boldest of the knights to take up the quest, but whose ineptitude for the spiritual life leads him to futile bloodshed because of his failure to heed the advice of the wise men, remains perpetually astonished at his own inability to meet with any worth while adventures.

The Starting Point

Actually the term ‘adventure’, as used in the Grail legends, derives from the French, and indicates that our search must proceed in accordance with two fundamental principles well known in Eastern philosophy as dharma and karma. For example, in the Grail legends, to accept an adventure meant simply to acceptance of a challenge which, resulting from one’s own past, was inherent in one’s own nature. So to ‘go where adventure leads’ symbolized the willingness to obey the inner directive to act in accordance with the pattern established by one’s own past, and also to fulfil one’s true mission, or dharma. In this respect, the legend records the difficulties encountered when one individual attempts to follow the adventure of another, reminding us sharply that ‘Better one’s own duty, though destitute of merit, than the duty of another, well discharged.’ This is not always an easy lesson to learn, yet in the quest for meaning we can only proceed in accordance with our own karma-dharma complex, following our own adventure.

This means, also, that we must start where we are—a fact beautifully symbolized in all the Grail legends. When Galahad appears at the court of King Arthur, he addresses the knights of the Round Table: ‘I came because I must, for this is to be the starting-point for all who would join fellowship in the Quest of the Holy Grail.’ So speaks the eternal Self to the personality: the starting point is here in physical incarnation, equipped with what we have, however inadequately prepared to face the rigours of the search. And if we think the road will be an easy one and the goal one to be swiftly achieved, we may well remember Arthur’s words: ‘I am well aware that of those who leave my court when the hour comes, all will not return: on the contrary, many will fall in this Quest, and success will not come so swiftly as you think.’

The Voice of the Silence counsels the aspirant: ‘Have patience, candidate, as one who fears no failure, courts no success.’

Those who heard the call of Galahad, (whose name, it has been said, is one of the mystical designations of Christ) rose from the Round Table, symbol of the world and its collective consciousness, and ‘each one went the way upon which he had decided, and they set out into the forest at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest.’

The road is a lonely one and it is forged through the thickets of the personality which must be cleared away if the ‘vision splendid’ is to be attained. Commenting on the commencement of the journey, the eminent student of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, has written: ‘each, entering of his own volition, leaving behind the known good company of Arthur’s towered court, would experience the unknown pathless forest in his own heroic way. … Today, the walls and towers of the culture-world that then were in the building are dissolving; and whereas heroes then set forth of their own will from the known to the unknown, we, today, willy-nilly, must enter the forest… and, like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us.’

Wandering From The Path

For those who can, as Campbell has put it, ‘contrive to live within the fold of a traditional mythology of some kind’, the established systems of thought in religion and culture are quite sufficient. The search for meaning is not yet for them, since they are content with second-hand knowledge handed down by priest or guru. But there are others (and we ourselves may be of their company) for whom the protective tradition is no longer adequate to meet an expanding awareness, and who must therefore walk out—again to use Campbell’s words—into ‘the unchartered forest night, where the terrible wind of God blows directly on the questing undefended soul…’ The tangled ways may, at times, confuse and bewilder, and we may often go astray down blind alleys of our own false searching, beguiled by sense experience, englamoured by psychic displays that we mistake for the genuinely mystical moment of knowing. But we must advance, saying with Parsifal, ‘Go I will, cost what it may.’

The search—the quest for meaning—lies before us, that adventure which is compounded of both karma and dharma. The German philosopher, Schopenhauer, perceived this very clearly when he wrote: ‘Everyone, during the course of his lifetime, becomes aware of certain events that, on the one hand, bear the mark of a moral or inner necessity, because of their especially decisive importance to him and yet, on the other hand, have clearly the character of outward, wholly accidental, chance. The frequent occurrence of such events may lead gradually to the notion, which often becomes a conviction, that the life course of the individual, confused as it may seem, is an essential whole, having within itself a certain self-consistent, definite direction, and a certain instructive meaning—no less than the best thought-out of epics.’

It is for this reason (because in one sense our lives themselves are hero-stories with their successes and failures), that we can find in legend and myth the paradigms of our own human experiences in a depth dimension. Just as the legends recount the perils on the way (usually in exaggerated form), so we may find in our daily lives the semblance of those conflicts, difficulties and problems, even when we do not recognize the same elements within them. A fact that emerges from all this is that the peril or problem in every instance is precisely in accordance with the nature of the hero; similarly, each difficulty we face is commensurate with our own destiny, both as a result of past actions (karma) and in preparation for our future work (dharma). If we examine closely any one of the great adventures of the Grail heroes we will see, magnified as on a cinema screen, some small adventure of our own.

Perhaps no hero in those stories represents us better than the aspiring, well-meaning Lancelot, confronted again and again by a certain paralysis of will. Loving overmuch his sovereign’s queen, representing his desire for physical and psychic experience, Lancelot yet repeatedly resolves to reform himself. Full of self-reproach when he is shown, as in a dream, the effects of his actions, he laments: ‘I have gone to my death down that wide road which at the outset seems so smooth and honeyed and is the portal and the path of sin. The devil showed me the sweets and the honey, but he hid from my eyes the everlasting woe that lies in store for him who treads that road to its end.’

Failure On The Way

Lancelot who, again and again, finds himself back in the forest from which he had thought to emerge—thrown back, into a condition in which he excuses his failures as actions that are no different from other men’s—is still given aid on the way. He knows all too well his own weaknesses; as the legend records: ‘For there, where he had thought to find all joy and honour and worldly acclaim, in the adventures of the Holy Grail, he had reaped only failure and its bitter gall.’ In his extremity he cries out, as each of us may well do when we honestly confront our natures: ‘Ah, God, my sin and the wickedness of my life now stand revealed. Now I see that above all else my weakness has been my undoing. For when I should have mended my ways, then did the enemy destroy me, blinding me so effectually that I could not discern the things of God. Nor should I marvel that I am purblind… for, more than any other, I have given myself to lust and to the depravity of this world.’

The language may be exaggerated in its self-reproach, but we may see, as in a mirror, our own failures and weaknesses as we are drawn by desire, prejudice, passion, and even simple expedience, into a way of life that is not wholly consonant with our own ideals.

Yet we are never left without assistance, for humanity has always had its Teachers, and there is still that race of King-Adepts who are the guardians of the Grail, the Eternal Wisdom. To Lancelot, one of that race, disguised as a hermit, spoke: ‘Just as you may see a man wander at times from his path when he falls asleep and retrace his steps at once on waking, so also is it with the sinner who falls asleep… and veers from the right path; he too returns to his path.’

We must, indeed, come awake and give our attention to the journey we have undertaken. As the hermit reminds Lancelot: ‘Should your heart not be entire, I do not recommend you to pursue this Quest… for this is no Quest for earthly things, but those of heaven.’

Such advice is reminiscent of the words of another Master-Teacher, that we must come out of our world into theirs, that we must be single of vision, aspiring with a wholeness of heart and mind, willing to leave the broad plains of ordinary existence to ascend the mountain of the spirit where the vision of the Grail is granted the hero soul.

In the Parsifal version of the Grail legend, one further step is required: the hero must return from the mysterious adventure, for now he has the power to bestow boons on his fellow-men. The ultimate boon is said to be the inauguration of a new age of the human spirit, an era sustained by self-responsible individuals acting not in accordance with collective values but in terms of ever-expanding conscious realization of that moral imperative which Plato termed the Good. Such a step reminds us that we have a responsibility not only for ourselves but for the world; if we have been vouchsafed the vision splendid we have an obligation to become bearers of that vision, transmitters of the wisdom, to all who are still struggling on the upward path. We must awaken those who still slumber, assist those who are only coming awake, extend the hand of sympathy and courage to all who falter as we ourselves once did.

For us, as for Lancelot, it is a slow ascent, and we often become impatient with the process. We come to many a fork in the road and, sometimes taking the wrong turning, we must retrace our steps and set out again with renewed courage. ‘Cost what it may’, the quest for meaning must be undertaken. The twentieth century poet, T. S. Eliot, expressed the attitude that must characterize us:

For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realized;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying.

The word ‘try’ recurs frequently in letters to the President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, H. S. Olcott, letters which bear the signatures of Adept-Teachers who took an interest in the founding of this movement. And in the words of that memorable classic, The Voice of the Silence, given us by Colonel Olcott’s great colleague, H.P.B.: ‘If thou has tried and failed, O dauntless fighter, yet lose not courage; fight on and to the charge return again, and yet again … Remember, thou that fightest for man’s liberation, each failure is success, and each sincere attempt wins its reward in time.’

No Turning Back

Once we have embarked on the quest for meaning, there can be no turning back. The Grail legends represent that quest as a call, the eternal summons of the Self to the self, of the monad to the individuality, of the individuality to the personality, of immortal soul (so often disguised as a maiden in distress) to the incarnate man (the knight in all his armour). It is a call to the heights as well as a call to the depths within us. The King, whether Arthur presiding over his Round Table or the Fisher King or the Maimed King, is that Immortal Self—the one Atman—who sends forth his knights errant (representations of himself in the fields of manifestation) into the forests of incarnate experience to seek the Gnosis, the Grail, which is meaning in its fullness. The summons to the great adventure comes to each of us and there is then that solitary journey to fulfilment, that lonely, dangerous quest, which is the only way to an individual life; there is the One Path to be taken which alone leads to the realm of the Adept-Teachers of humankind.

Treasure Hard To Attain

Our task today is the same as it has always been—the task prefigured in myth and legend, in scripture and in the lives of the world’s saints and saviours, humanity’s noblest men and women. The Gnostic Sophia, whether called Kundry or Oregluse or by some other name, spellbound by illusion, entrapped in the magic garden of the world’s unknowing, must be set free to work in the world as the wisdom which can carry man into a new era of sanity, an age of brotherhood and peace. As always, it is through amor, divine, eternal love and compassion, that Sophia is freed, joined with the eternal godhead, Theos, to become that Theosophia of which modern Theosophy is representative in the world today. As one of the ancient Upanishads puts it: ‘The Atman can only be known by the Atman, by him who has chosen the Atman.’

The Grail is not to be identified with some vessel known to history nor is it to be seen as a purely Western symbol. It is but another name for that ‘treasure hard to attain’ which is Theosophy itself, the forgotten truth whose very nature defies delimitation and whose full definition can only be exhibited in a life that is wholly given in service because one has encountered, in their total numinosity, the abiding principles of the Wisdom. It is the cup from which one must drink deeply in order to be restored to one’s true nature, for it contains the Wisdom which alone imparts ultimate meaning to life and which must be assimilated and made our own if it is to become meaningful in existence.

Although the philosopher Nietzsche would have denied the spiritual implication of his own words, he may have expressed it best when he wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra: ‘That the Great Man should be able to appear and dwell among you again, again, and again, that is the sense of all your efforts here on earth. That there should ever and again be men among you able to elevate you to your heights: that is the prize for which you strive. For it is only through the occasional coming to light of such human beings that your own existence can be justified…. And if you are not yourself a great exception, well then be a small one at least, and so you will foster on earth that holy fire from which genius may arise.’

The ‘holy fire’ is that which enkindles among all peoples that genuine brotherhood which is truly the ‘genius’ of humanity.

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Joy Mills is a former International Vice-President of The Theosophical Society and former National President of its American and Australian Sections. For over sixty years she was an international lecturer for the TS, having spoken in many countries. She is also a former Director of the Krotona School of Theosophy, Ojai, California. She is the author of a number of books.