Some more thoughts about the path part. 5
– a personal testimony
– the heart of suffering
– to be and then not to be
– why is meaning impossible if everything ends?
Perhaps I should have started this series of meditations with this simple point: I believe I vividly and accurately remember the moment I first became aware of death. That is, I have a memory of when I first became aware of the meaning and implication of the ghost that haunts our future. Perhaps it’s an accurate reminiscence, perhaps something reconstructed after the fact, a dream, a reverie, a synthesis of more than one event? Whatever its origins, I can find it in the centre of my memory. I don’t remember what triggered this catastrophic discovery. I do remember I was a young child (four, five, six?) playing outside by myself and for some reason started to think about how someday my pet hamster would die, our cats would die, our dog would die, and the same would happen to my parents, and cousins and friends. And then some day I would die. And that wouldn’t be at all like sleep regardless of what people said. Because when I slept I woke up but when I was dead… I would vanish, the world would disappear forever.
I was overwhelmed with horror as the implications penetrated to regions I rarely glimpsed, shaking me more deeply than anything I had previously known. I stood totally overwhelmed by grief and horror. It was unimaginable. No matter what happened, or what I did, I would lose everyone I cared about. Then in the end I would lose myself and everything forever.
I ran into the basement of our house and threw myself on a couch where I cried as only a child can with tears and mucous pouring down my face. I remember the uncontrollable sobbing, and trying to hide my head in a pillow, and not much more. At some point I must have stopped totally exhausted. Of course, to function those fears and sensations need to be tamped down, forgotten, buried deeper, hidden away. But they continue to act, and in fact become the basis for all action, the fundamental climate, the knot of suffering at the heart of human action. Everything, all action and thought becomes driven then by the need to not be present to one’s own (and hence others’) finitude. Do you remember that moment? I believe it is a perhaps universal revelation, and certainly one almost universally forgotten and buried (pun semi-intended) away as deeply as possible.
Heidegger said the refusal to have death present resulted in an inauthentic life, he wasn’t alone in holding this kind of position. Doesn’t Gurdjieff come to a similar conclusion? No wonder the Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that all life is suffering. In his Historiological Discussions (Complete Works Vol.1) Silo references Abenhazen (Abu Muhammed Ali bin Ahmad bin Said Ibn Hazm) who wrote that all human activity is a distraction. So my interests, passions, hopes, your ups and downs, the rise and fall of civilizations, all appear as just ways of not to having to look at that abyss of non-meaning. As Silo writes: “There is no passion, idea, or human deed that is not linked to the abyss “ (Internal Landscape 1:4)
But this revelation is not the exclusive property of philosophers and great thinkers, I believe that it’s something on which every child stumbles. Necessarily and inevitably everyone undergoes a similar experience, whether barely glimpsed or more fully grasped. That shattering realization of finitude is a simple correlate of understanding death for the first time. And just as certainly as there is that first moment of comprehension, one learns, almost simultaneously that this is the great secret, the final taboo. It is the something everyone learns not to speak about, it’s every monster that lurks ready to spring. One sound, one wrong word and it might awaken.
My experience seems to correspond with what I have observed in little children. At a certain point (4 years old, 6 years old, give or take a year or two?) perhaps triggered by the death of a grandparent, or a pet a child reflects that this one died, and they heard that one had died, and at some point their parents will die (at which thought most children, being practically minded, seem to urgently want to know who then will care for them). They ask what is death and are perhaps told it’s like a well deserved rest, or it’s like sleep, or a trip to heaven. The point however isn’t the well meaning answers but rather that this child has started to question and reflect on the fundamental questions: Who am I? Where am I going? At some point those reflections reach a critical point. The consequences are inevitable; everyone I know and care for will die, and then everything, including me will vanish.
What’s the first thing you did this morning? Why did you do it? For example, before opening my eyes I tried to catch the dissipating fragments of my dreams so I might review them. Then, I spent a moment thinking about the aspect of the principle I’m working on this week, and I considered how that might inform my “tone” for the day. Then I got up and went to pee. All of those things had meaning because of what they led to, because of what came next. In this case if I continue to follow the links in the chain of my actions I suppose they’d eventually lead me here. But always if I ask why I did any particular thing it’s because it pointed to something beyond itself, to the next moment and the demands or possibilities of what is yet to come.
Without that “yet-to-come” or “yet-to be-done” there is no meaning. And since for everything, and everyone there is an end how can there be meaning? I’m planning to do a number of things today. But if I realized that I would not live beyond the next few hours most of them would immediately lose their meaning. Others apparently retain some importance for me but I suspect much of that is simply inertia, fear, and really just a final trick to even now ward off the certainty of my imminent demise. And it is not just then, at some future moment when I die that the meaning of my actions vanishes. Rather everything unravels backwards from that vanished future. That is, if meaning is lost at that last moment, then it is lost the moment before, the hour before, the day before, and so back to this very moment. If there is non-meaning at the end there is non-meaning all along. Instead of meaning there’s only been the distraction, the spell I cast on myself to hide reality and mortality in my restless dreaming.
Pretty gloomy stuff. No wonder people say such thoughts are unwholesome or morbid. And no wonder existentialists don’t get invited to dinner (just joking, Camus was considered great company and a bon vivant). And let’s keep in mind that every stick has two ends, and things may not be as bad as they seem. In fact they may not be bad at all. Earlier I quoted a phrase from Silo about the abyss of non-meaning. Here it is again, but in more complete form: “There is no passion, idea, or human deed that is not linked to the abyss. Therefore, let us turn to the only thing that deserves our attention: the abyss and that which overcomes it.” The Internal Landscape 1:4)