The Structure of Existence – Unplugged
— Samach-Vav Part 13 —
Can we integrate transcendence into our material lives? Do we have to leave our personalities behind as we reach for higher truths? How do we fuse form and function in our personal lives?
These and other questions are explored in this week’s installment of Samach-Vav – the fundamental discourse delivered a century ago – which begins to discuss the nature of the containers, following a lengthy discussion on the nature of light.
One of the fascinating developments in the last century has been the convergence of form and function. The expression “form follows function” – which was first made popular by architect Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924) – has become the driving credo in the world of architecture and design.
Simply put, design is not just superficial decoration of a given object or application, but an extension and expression of the intended purpose and inner meaning of the object. Design should reflect and flow from the message, and not be an end onto itself. Designers, who don’t understand the function of the object they are designing or are distracted by their own creativity, even if they may be great artists, will create forms that will not do justice and support the object. A tea cup is designed to hold a liquid, not the other way around.
Frank Lloyd Wright, who was mentored by Sullivan, went as far as to say (in 1908):
“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
Nature is our best teacher. All forms in nature are shaped to serve their functions. For example, fish swim in the sea in an oblong shape to minimize the friction with water.
Today this all may seem obvious and logical. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when people compartmentalized content and design, and at times even saw function following form. Even today the issue has not been completely resolved.
Indeed, on a personal note ask yourself the question: What drives your life choices – function or form? Do you first begin with a deeper purpose and then find the appropriate form of expression, or do circumstances drive your life? Does your inner life define your outer life or the other way around?
Do we shape our environment or does our environment shape us? Do you choose what to watch, read and experience, or do the existing sources of information – in our schools, media and entertainment industries – determine what we should absorb?
We are thus faced with a paradox – but hey, what else is new? We are designing products, websites and other applications with the rule of “form follows function,” while we are still living in so many ways in a world in which “function follows form”…
To help resolve this dilemma – as well as truly appreciate the convergence of form and function – let us travel back to the root of all form and function: Containers and lights, in the language of the mystics.
Lights and containers are the Kabbalistic/Chassidic way of describing the essential nature of existence. Everything in life is made up of two dimensions, light and container: An inside and an outside, product and package, soul and body, energy and expression, purpose and structure – function and form.
Light (function) is the driving force that defines the purpose and objective of life. Light reflects its source, and as such is a selfless channel of the Divine Essence, the inner reality of all that exists (as discussed in previous articles). The container manifests this experience in the defined parameters of existence, allowing us to absorb the (higher reality reflected in the) light and not to be overwhelmed or annihilated by it. The light (the soul) introduces transcendence into life; the containers (the body) ground the experience. Containers without light will remain locked in mundane monotony; light without containers will not be integrated into the structure of life.
Now the question is this: Is transcendence experienced only on the “light” level (and the “container” is there only to contain the experience), or also on the “container” level? In other words: How close are the “lights” and “containers” or are they two completely different realities?
Coming from Passover, this question can be phrased as follows: Following Passover, when we experience a higher Divine light that gives us the power to experience transcendence and free ourselves from our constraints, the question is what happens next? Can we maintain the inspiration in our day to day lives? Can we continue to experience freedom even after the Passover high? Can we carry over transcendence from the lights to the containers – from the world of spirit into the world of matter?
Accordingly, after elaborating on the nature of light, this week’s installment of Samach-Vav – the Rebbe Rashab’s magnum opus delivered a century ago – moves over to a discussion on the nature of the containers.
Samach-Vav explains, that not only light but also the containers (of Atzilut) reflect higher levels of the Divine. Not only the spirit but also the structure of existence is rooted in the Source. Like an architect’s plan, the Divine will encompasses all the details of the structure of existence. So the actualized structure is only revealing that which was contained in the plan.
Usually transcendence is seen as a spiritual experience. This week’s Samach-Vav discourse tells us that transcendence can also be experienced on the container level. The purpose of existence (function) can be experienced not only by the soul but also by the body and our material lives – by the structure of existence.
The implication of this is that form and function are not two distant realities. Not just function but also form reflects a higher vision. Thus, the interface between medium and message can be a seamless one.
The fusion of light and container, function and form manifests in all aspects of life. Every type of perfection, beauty and harmony is essentially a state in which the energy and its container flow through each other. Incoherence is a state when the form and the function are inconsistent. The product within is beautiful, but the package is not.
All good communication is the ability to fuse an ideas and its expression. The package is consistent with what lays within. A good business plan is about a concept that has sound tools to implement the vision.
Health means a sound soul inside a sound body – a state in which the body and all its parts serve as unclogged channels to the life energy.
It’s not only how much you are ready to give or love, but whether it can be contained. Parents naturally love their children, but the most difficult aspect of love is ensuring that it can be contained and absorbed by the recipient. Rain that floods the fields destroys them; rain drops ensure that the earth can absorb the moisture.
This does not mean to say that the containers are equal to the lights. Obviously the light reaches deeper into the Source, than does the container, being that light reflects its source (as explained in Samach-Vav). The containers (form) are meant to follow the light (function), not the other way around. But the containers too reflect a more sublime source. They are not just a decorative prop, but part and parcel of the purpose of existence, rooted in its source.
So what would Samach-Vav say about Marshal McLuhan’s statement that “the medium is the message?” Not quite. The message is always more powerful than the medium. Indeed, equating the two would be like saying that “you are what you look like.” Yet, that doesn’t mean to say that the medium is just an addendum. The medium is a very real part of expressing the light’s message.
All this is also consistent with the theme in these week’s Torah portions: Following the book of Exodus, which reflects the progressive growth of light from the Exodus to Sinai to building the Temple – the actual work begins in the third book of Leviticus, which opens up with the service in the Temple – the purpose of all life:
“A person will offer of himself an offering to G-d.”
And this offering to G-d consists of first offering our souls, but then also offering our bodies – our material containers.
[Mind you, the containers referred to here are about the structure of the life of the tzaddik (a soul of Atzilut) – whose soul (light) and body (container) are both reflective of higher dimensions of the Divine. Yet, this empowers us all, even souls that are immersed in material life, to connect with the Divine].
Two years before Frank Lloyd Wright said “Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union” the Rebbe Rashab outlined the spiritual blueprint how to achieve this union.
We live in a world which increasingly is experiencing the convergence of spirit and matter, function and form. Our final frontier is the challenge to experience this convergence in our personal lives. To do this we must connect to our inner function and define the purpose of our lives. Then, we can create the form that will reflect our function.