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Monday, November 17, 2014

Enlightenment vs. Proust – and Other Oppositions

Don’t allow events to leave impressions inside of you. -      Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself (New Harbinger/Noetic, 2007) 
Singer’s following sentence in the book reads, “If you find yourself thinking about them later on, just let go.” I’m reading these sentences early on Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after putting up a long post on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (well, Swann’s Way, the first volume of RTP), and while much of what I’m reading in Singer’s book is a message coming to me at exactly the right time, just when I needed it, I can’t help pausing over certain bits and asking, Really? I mean, had Proust been enlightened throughout his entire life, we would not have his work at all, would we? Some people (and you know who you are, S.C.!) might think that a good thing, but others of us can imagine only deprivation, had Proust never written.

Singer’s basic message is that we human beings are all psychologically paralyzed by fear, by what we perceive as threats to our ability to control the world of our experience. We react by constructing what we think are protections, but those self-protective reactions actually function as walls requiring constant, vigilant monitoring, and thus we become our own prisoners. This is undeniable for most of us, I think, and I don’t fault the author for repeating his message in different form from page to page and chapter to chapter. I for one certainly need the repetition. It isn’t by hearing or reading this message once that I’ll see how to relax my guard and stop trying to control situations that threaten my sense of psychological well-being!
You will get to a point in your growth where you understand that if you protect yourself, you will never be free. It’s that simple. Because you’re scared, you have locked yourself within your house and pulled down all the shades. Now it’s dark and you want to feel the sunlight, but you can’t. It’s impossible. If you close and protect yourself, you are locking this scared, insecure person within your heart. You will never be free that way.
In our household, we refer to the constant, endless, sleepless chewing over of unresolved issues or fears for the future as “squirrel-caging.” It goes nowhere but around and around and around. It’s wildly counter-productive, and it’s painful, too – paradoxically, since its psychological object is to defend against pain. Let go of those thoughts? Escape the squirrel cage? Good idea!

Of social situations, Singer writes:
When you approach the edges [of the cage you have built to protect yourself] you feel insecurity, jealousy, fear, or self-consciousness. You pull back, and if you are like most people, you stop trying. Spirituality begins when you decide that you’ll never stop trying.
This can be interpreted also, I think, to say that “Freedom begins...” or “Growth begins....” Leave behind insecurity, jealousy, fear, and the kind of self-consciousness that stands in the way of forward movement and growth? Yes, I would like to do that, and this book has given me some tools with which to begin the task.

One thing I can’t help wondering, though, is where justice fits into all this.

Obviously, an acquaintance who hurts my feelings by failing to failing to grant me the attention I desire or feel I deserve is not doing me an “injustice,” and such an interpretation is clearly one I need to let go of, to let pass through me and evaporate in thin air, rather than clinging to it pointlessly. But what of true injustices that exist not only elsewhere on the globe, in far distant countries, but within our own communities? And what of very real and important issues threatening the future of the earth for generations to come? None of this, as far as I can see, is addressed  from the high spiritual ground of detachment and spiritual enlightenment. Seeing the world as nothing but energy and determining to “let it all go” – I can’t help thinking that while this might a sanity-saving strategy for people who feel absolutely powerless (cultural origins of religions and philosophies are always worth paying attention to: where did the idea of enlightenment arise, and what were the social circumstances surrounding it?), it can also be a convenient abdication of social responsibility on the part of materially comfortable, physically and politically safe Westerners whose only experiences of fear have been psychological and self-generated.

The emphasis on achieving endless, uninterrupted happiness strikes me as not only unrealistic but even a repulsive goal, given certain very real and horrible human (but inhumane) situations.
If they starve you and put you in solitary confinement, just have fun being like Gandhi. No matter what happens, just enjoy the life that comes to you.
When I reached these sentences, I wanted to ask the author: What if you’re not put in solitary confinement but thrown in among violent criminals and gang-raped, are you supposed to “have fun” with that? If not only your house but all your family are blown to smithereens by incendiary bombs, are you supposed to “have fun” with that? To my mind, this admonition to “have fun” with whatever happens is a slap in the face to those who suffer not through negative self-talk but through the violence of others. I would also argue that neither Jesus nor Gandhi nor Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced “nonresistance.” What they practiced and taught was “nonviolent resistance,” which is entirely different and which does address issues of justice.

And if everything in existence and process were already as it should be, what would be the point of changing even ourselves?

As a philosopher, argumentation is part of who I am, and critical thinking is not something I want to give up. While I can see that putting energy into defending my own poor little psyche is clearly a waste of time, I cannot and do not want to say the same of putting energy into opposing injustice, violence, and destruction of the natural world. “We must cultivate our gardens,” Candide says gently at the end of Voltaire’s tale. Indeed. Inconsequential as our tiny planet is in the midst of interstellar space (an image the book repeatedly asks us to contemplate), it is our only home, the nurturing environment in which our flesh and blood evolved, and it requires our active care.

Then there is art, and there is memory. Without memory, there is no art, and probably without art only very short-lived memories.

Our intrepid Ulysses group’s Fearless Leader feels that immortality consists in being remembered and that he, both as a lover of music and as a musician, participates in the immortality of Beethoven. In the same way, all of us who loved and read Swann’s Way may be said (if you accept our FL’s view) to participate in the immortality of Proust. What a privilege! To walk, in imagination, along that blossoming hawthorn hedge and tarry alongside the beautiful waterlilies in the private park of the Guermantes way! To feel in our own hearts, as we call up magical place names in our own lives, an echo of what the name ‘Balbec’ meant to young Marcel! I know that for several of my readers far from Leelanau County on this cold November morning, ‘Leelanau’ itself is one of those magic names.

“Don’t allow events to leave impressions inside of you”? Be empty of memories? Those beloved images of the past? Wouldn’t that truly be to lose time, to lose one’s very life?

I would be overjoyed to escape my foolish psychic walls but never to give up justice, art, and memory.

Doubtless, veteran seekers after enlightenment will tell me I’ve misinterpreted and misrepresented the practice. I’m open to that possibility. But I also reflect that no religion or philosophy or system of thought ever devised by mankind was completely free of contradiction, so even within my interpretation I can choose to embrace the contradiction in the idea of enlightenment, and I can let go of what I want to lose while holding onto what I value. It may not be everyone’s way, but it is mine, and I am free to choose.

The book, anyway, is worth reading and a potential springboard for wide-ranging discussion. I’d love to be a fly on the wall, listening to what other people would say!


trudy carpenter said...

I am now even more devastated that I missed the discussion of Swann's Way. And I have no intention of having fun with that devastation.

Karen Casebeer said...

Oh my, these corn field images are gorgeous. The last one with the rows showing a dusting of snow is my favorite. It makes me wonder, however, whether all the corn was harvested before the snows came.

P. J. Grath said...

Another friend sent me an e-mail, saying in part: "As I read I thought of the years I lived in the inner city ... where there is always an undercurrent of fear. I also thought of people who build a fortress with religion and belief in a god of their own construction." That reminded me of my own time in Cincinnati and in Paris, France, where I used plenty of caution (e.g., not going out walking alone after dark) but, in part because I exercised caution, was able to feel comfortable rather than fearful in a big, strange city.

Trudy, we missed you, too! You always have valuable insights and probing questions. We would no doubt have stayed more focused with you at the table!

Karen, your question about corn harvest is that no, it is not all harvested. The very wet fall weather postponed harvest, and now -- SNOW! We'll be watching to see what happens next and when.