I recently came across a fascinating (to me) quote by Lady Gaga: “I want women — and men — to feel empowered by a deeper and more psychotic part of themselves. The part they’re always trying desperately to hide. I want that to become something that they cherish.” Now, while I certainly have no issue with the idea of people working toward feeling empowered by a “deeper” side of themselves — an art which at this point in history is about as common as butter-churning — I have to wonder why she wants to encourage psychosis, essentially a loss of contact with reality. While I do believe that a great many people already spend enormous time, toil and treasure actively engaged in divorcing themselves from reality, I also believe that they are rewarded with pain, anger and fear for those efforts. At the end of the day, I suspect that Ms. Gaga and myself actually want the same things for people, but that part of what she is offering boils down to a counterfeit version of the seven essential categories of what every member of the human race truly wants.
I began to discover these seven things as a student in a yeshiva (Jewish college) directly opposite the Western Wall in the late ’90s. It was a high traffic area and it was not uncommon for tourists and visitors to pop in and take in the great view from our balcony. Periodically, this led to philosophical discourse between the yeshiva folk and our various and sundry visitors. Once in a while, juicy theological debates resulted.
One day I found myself well-seated to eavesdrop on one such exchange between a black-hatted, Rasputin-length-bearded rabbi and a young, secular Israeli soldier. After bantering around the meaning of life for a while, the rabbi asked the soldier what, exactly, it was that the soldier wanted out of life. “Well,” rejoined the soldier, “to be honest, I’m basically looking for … sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Great!” shouted the rabbi, “I totally agree.” Surprised (and somewhat more warmed to the conversation) the soldier pressed the rabbi to explain. “Well,” asked the rabbi, “what exactly is it that you like about drugs?”
“It’s the feeling of being beyond your boundaries — of connecting to something bigger than yourself.”
“Ahh, so you’re looking for connection and transcendence?” asked the rabbi.
“Hmmm, I guess so,” said the soldier. “I never thought about it like that.”
“And what is it that you like about rock ‘n’ roll?”
“It’s the power conveyed through the music and the incredible unity of the crowd. I get it rabbi, you’ll say that what I really want is the power and unity, and that the music is just a vehicle to get there, right?”
Right indeed. In the last 15 years, I have asked hundreds of people to describe their “most spiritual experience,” or if they didn’t have one, their “happiest” one, and then to put a one word adjective to it. People chose events like; the birth of a child, witnessing a beautiful sunset or other natural phenomena, a cherished musical performance or a confession of love. Frequently, these experiences were accompanied by what some described as a sense of “being in the zone” or a state of “flow” — where life suddenly appeared to them as wonderful, correct and harmonious and life’s challenges seemed proportional, surmountable and “OK.” Most people that I have met have had at least some fleeting moment like this and everyone who was there loved it. What I discovered is that a) everyone badly wants these experiences and in fact they are the root motivators of all of our actions, b) people frequently don’t know how to consciously produce them on their own and therefore c) are susceptible to the pursuit of faux versions of the things they really want, and d) what they most want out of life is: love, harmony, unity, peace, transcendence (the feeling of being beyond one’s limitations and boundaries), joy and understanding. There may be one more or one less, but many other categories reduce to one of these seven.
The interesting thing about these ideas — the things we most desperately want out of life — is that they are all functions of mind, and though socio-biologists may twist themselves into (Gordian) Knots trying to explain how these experiences are really also part of the evolutionary process, it’s clear that the human species can eat, live and reproduce just fine in the complete absence of them. You can sire hordes of offspring without being happy and consume copious amounts of food without feeling understood. So where do these desires come from? A theological perspective would suggest that an authentic experience of love is wholly unrelated to brain-state or chemistry and is instead an experience of another, higher dimension. (For a fascinating discussion on the lack of connection between brain-state and the human experience see Thomas Nagel’s new book on the subject “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.”) People intuitively desire that non-corporeal world and its gifts but tend to get caught up in lower, temporal refractions of these transcendent states. Thus people can easily confuse lust and infatuation for love, coercion for unity, and so on.
This gratifying state of being need not be serendipitous and in fact can occur in the most (and least) fortuitous junctures in our lives. Here is one striking example taken from Viktor Frankl’s experience as an inmate in Auschwitz:
“Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’”
If someone is capable of accessing the transcendent states of joy and love under the harshest type of duress, then surely you and I, with our comparatively less challenging circumstances, could learn to recognize, embrace and live these beautiful concepts. Ultimately, what we most need (and want) is more reality, not less, and the concomitant recognition that the true nature of that reality is one that is infused with limitless, joy-inducing good.