Nicolae Tanase: Corinne, what is the meaning of life?
Corinne Trang: “What is the meaning of life?” is a question with as many answers as there are people, religions, and philosophies, and the answers may change as we enter different conditions and stages of our lives.
The controversial philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s point of view was, in essence, that there is no version of the “meaning of life” that is not skewed to reflect that which selfishly benefits us as the humans who concocted it. Any universal “truth” that proposes an ethical system based solely on our needs immediately falls on its face: it is simply self-interest dressed up as morality. In his view, the meaning of life is whatever we want it to be.
Then we have any number of philosophical and religious texts that talk about work (responsibility), love, and community, these meant as guideposts while we evaluate “doing the right thing.” But other than that, moral values can differ profoundly from person to person and culture to culture. In other words, if we are honest, we need to consider Spinoza’s skepticism as a framework.
So, given that, who are we, and what is our purpose? Engaging in action that is geared toward the betterment of all seems appropriate and the sensible thing to do. Yet, our ego and greed often get in the way, and we do what is meaningful to us directly and individually. We are programmed to want, to need, to grasp, and to fear. We often start a sentence with “I.” Essentially, we are taught by example to be selfish, not truly knowing the meaning of giving, because with it comes the expectation that we should receive something in return. We feel entitled, and all too deserving. Our parents negotiate with us early on: “If you do this, you’ll get this.” We learn this behavior and pass it on to future generations without thinking about the ramifications. Unconditional giving and loving, though thrown about loosely in everything from casual conversation to religious dogma, is by and large unknown to us.
We love to plan, to dream about that perfect life—whatever that is—and it is often tied-up in our desires, insecurities, and inability to face reality. We go through life in denial, pointing the finger everywhere but ourselves. We are more likely to blame our misery, failures and struggles on someone or something else, than where it actually stems: ourselves.
If we are unhappy, we may cling to others, asking them to figure things out for us, as if they know us better than we know ourselves. We like to push our responsibilities onto others because it’s easier, or we may just crave attention. We are needy, desperate beings. Yet we will take credit for everything that we perceive is going right. For that, we suddenly become highly independent for each successful endeavor we experience. Or, as the late Medieval play notes, “[man] thy name is both Folly and Shame.”
For all the negative and positive outcomes thrown at us, we continuously plan for the future while forgetting to live in the present, not taking in the beauty of what “now” has to offer. Imagine a world where everyone stays present, appreciating what is happening in that instant, not dwelling in the past, not trying to anxiously figure out the future, hanging on to life by a thread. We fight letting go, the natural cycle of life, and our inevitable death; all this because we forget to live in the here and now.
As a holistic health and nutrition counselor, I develop food meditations as a way to help others slow down the pace enough to break down and understand their behavioral patterns. We often turn to food for comfort. But food doesn’t fix problems—anymore than buying a new shirt does. Food, however, can be a conduit that brings us back to center. When we connect with each and every ingredient, how it looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells, only then, do we “get lost” in the pleasure of eating. When we sit at the table, truly enjoying something as simple as a bowl of noodles, we can become one with the noodles and the act of eating itself, awakening our senses, embracing that very moment, and fully surrendering and being absorbed by it. Eating is a basic instinct that is essential to living. We need to take the time to feel every bite beyond the initial contact, and in doing so remember that feel-good energy we can then pass on to others. The trick to having a meaningful life is to go deeper, taking pleasure in the moment and feeling genuinely satisfied, rather than racing ahead wanting or looking for more.
Freud said that making love is as natural as eating, and both allow us to get beyond our rational selves. Enjoying a meal or a partner can be similarly fulfilling, exploring them slowly and rhythmically, consciously noticing every curve, scent, taste and sound. We are here to create harmoniously. We are naturally curious. We are part of something bigger than we can grasp. The evident correlation between behavioral patterns at the table and in the bedroom more or less determines who we are in the grand scheme of things. In other words, are we fully engaged?
More often than not, we eat on the run. We have multiple conversations going on, sitting across the table from a friend, but texting or emailing at the same time, and shoving food in our mouths without ever tasting it. We have become insatiable consumers behaving unconsciously on a daily basis. And, with all the brainpower in the world developing high-tech living, we now also drive while talking and texting, disregarding self-imposed dangers and that of those around us on roads shared by all.
We have become desensitized, and we see over again the results of this now all too common “disease” called “mindless living” in the fast lane.
In hoping to understand the meaning of life, we have to assess the situation as we have currently designed it. In this race, the rat race, we don’t have time to peel back the layers and feel deeply. We’re just going through the motions and scratching the surface, and for many, it’s good enough. Is this the new and improved meaning of life? Good enough? Where is it that we are rushing to exactly? We do not know. One thing is for sure is that nothing is permanent, life being the greatest example of impermanence, and the very reason we cling to people and things.
It takes a lifetime to break free of habits that take decades to develop from the time we are born into “perfect” beings taking that first breath, until mid-life when we, often through some kind of trauma, start to re-examine who we are, what we’ve done, and how we got here.
But because breaking patterns requires us to look in the mirror and face the ugly truth, we will not reconsider the meaning of life until something threatens our very existence and hovers over us: an accident, a disease, a divorce, the loss of income, a death, anything that drastically alters our physical, mental and emotional state. Only then will we contemplate the meaning of life, though not without first asking ourselves, “Why me?” Selfish-centeredness is always more or less there, this time becoming a pathway in our pursuit for the meaning of life, in an effort to change for the better while considering others and our shared environment. All of the sudden we become “real,” as if we weren’t before.
What is the meaning of life? For everyone, it is different depending on where we are physically, mentally and emotionally at any given time. One would hope, however, that it is about universal wellbeing, finding ways to co-exist and evolve as painlessly as possible, with love, consideration and respect for one another. To learn how to get up, we must first experience falling—individually, so that we may participate in the fabric of life as a collective, as best we can, and given who we truly are.
~Corinne Trang is an award-winning author, chef, consultant, holistic health and nutrition counselor integrating conscious eating, yoga and meditation in her teachings. For over 20 years, she has researched and lectured on eastern food philosophies and practices as a healing art. Dubbed the “Julia Child of Asian Cuisine” by the Washington Post, Corinne is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier (NY Chapter) and her most recently published book and 2013 Nautilus Award-winning is “Asian Flavors Diabetes Cookbook” (ADA, 2012). Her other books include “Noodles Every Day” (2009) “Curry Cuisine” (2007), “The Asian Grill” (2006), “A Food Lover’s Companion: Vietnamese” (2006)
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