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Source: The Aberree, Volume 7, Issue 5, September 1960
Modern Philosophy's Main Dish Is Despair, With Boredom, Anxiety, Dread Added for Zest
There is a story of a police officer who tried to persuade a supersalesman to abandon an attempt at suicide. After a little discussion, they both jumped in the river. If I had a discussion with Jean Paul Sartre, the originator of Existentialism, there would be no doubt about the outcome, I should finish up in complete despair, thus joining the third Earl Russell, Bertrand Russell, who stated in his urbane way that he rests securely "on a foundation of unyielding despair." At least, I might ...
It is characteristic of modern philosophy that its main dish is despair, with little items "on the side" like boredom, dread, and anxiety, to give zest to the meal. Men have reasoned about the mystery of existence until all avenues have been explored and now are reduced to studying words themselves, what we mean when we say something, what meaning itself means. We seem to have arrived at the very end of one era and the beginning of something entirely new – that is, if we are able to keep our fingers off the rocket-button.
According to Sartre, we just "surge up in the world" equipped with a mind. We are absolutely free, condemned to be free and entirely responsible for ourselves. There are no standards, there is nothing to depend upon in ourselves or outside. We have to make constant decisions and all we can ask ourselves is, "What would happen if everyone did so?" Often there is no solution even in that consideration.
If someone says God "speaks" to him, Sartre will say: "That is what he says. How do you know it isn't the devil, or that you are only imagining things. There is no proof whatever either for you or anyone else. There is no proof of anything."
There are other Existentialists like Kierkegaard who say the only way out of this unsatisfactory situation is belief in God. Faith, however, is not something that everybody has and Sartre certainly has no use for it. Kierkegaard seems to have been a frustrated man and never in good health. He died at 42 of a vague malady which he himself told the doctors was really psychological. Nevertheless, let us say one thing, blessed are they that believe!
As the word "Existentialism" shows, we are in very deep waters. We are concerned with what it means just to "be." The very conception of "being" is the problem. Why even should "being" be?
Leaving such little problems on one side, it is a fact that many persons who think at all put everything in one box labeled "being." Naturally this suggests the opposite to them – that is, non being – nothing, vacancy, the void, etc. However, where is nothing? Obviously nowhere! Then we have no problem there.
It does not occur to such persons – and there is no reason why it should since they are bound up in their own ideas – that the opposite to "being" might be something more, not less, than we normally know.
Sartre assumes that subjectivity is final, perhaps ignoring our consciousness of subjectivity, the conscious aspect of thinking, unless he lumps that too in the same category of "subjective." He is entitled to do so, because Consciousness is itself an evasive and puzzling phenomenon, quite indescribable, but always concerned with some thought or perception.
Experimenters have tried to produce a state where all the five senses are as empty as possible, where there are no perceptions. In such a state the mind runs wild and hallucinates. The yogis, however, try to suppress both thoughts and perceptions, having a sound notion that there is a Consciousness all to itself, a Consciousness of itself, which can be so reached.
There is, and it is wonderful. It is the beatific vision. However, if one had this experience, one would only be happy in the short time it lasted and back to the old despair the rest of the time. Besides, Sartre would say it is only subjective anyway and subconscious as well.
Vivekananda expressed a wish to be able to remain in this state all day, but Ramakrishna said he was foolish because there was a state higher than this.
Since, as Whitman says, he thinks he could "turn and live with animals" because they are "so placid and self-contained" and do not "sweat and whine about their condition," there must be some factor in us which produces such a condition which the animals do not have. It is of course the self or consciousness, politely called ego. Ego cannot usually endure himself without distractions for five minutes, but the idea of ceasing is utterly abhorrent to him. He is always in conflict. He insists on deciding, but deciding is a constant problem to him.
The Buddha had an answer for this problem long ago. "There is, O disciples, an unborn, not become, not compounded, not constructed. If there were not this, no escape could be seen here from that which is born, become, compounded, constructed." (Udana, VIII 1-3.)
St. Augustine said the same thing: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."
It would seem we are back at Kierkegaard's solution, faith in God. However there is this difference: We know that this "unborn" entity exists and where it is to be found. It is the "Consciousness of itself," the "Consciousness which knows itself," and it is not the mystical vision which comes in a partly conscious flash, but the "higher state" that Ramakrishna referred to. It is a fully conscious state; a mind in the state that you, my reader, have as you read this, critically, but a mind filled with clear understanding.
Such understanding comes suddenly, by itself, as suddenly as when you see the point of a joke. Altho it comes of itself and cannot be arrived at as the culmination of a thinking process, nevertheless it is preceded by "work" aimed at weakening the insensate and dogged opposition of ego, who resists his own release. Just as the edge of the hand can be hardened in the Japanese method of karate, so ego's hypersensitivity can be gradually reduced by practice.
We are not aiming to destroy ego – that is ridiculous while we live – but only to get him into a state where he can for a moment drop his defenses, abandon his last control, and be open for what may come. Normally, a person would often die first, which is rather paradoxal since then he would lose ego altogether.
Even Sartre could do this "work," but it is far more amusing and remunerative to be the famous playwright, novelist, and writer of despair.
Jesus said these things are revealed to the simple, but hidden from clever men. It would almost seem as tho there is a point of no return, a state of complete inaccessibility. I had almost reached it myself, but was rescued by a near-miracle that I didn't deserve. I doubt if the "me" that exists now would have been successful with the "me" that existed then, if you see what I mean.
I was a real smart aleck and needed shock tactics. All I need now is a big bass drum and I would be "testifying to conversion." Well, I think "conversion" could well describe this, as also does the Japanese word "satori," the Chinese "wu" (fourth tone), the Sanskrit "moksha" or "mukta," and the simple word that I prefer, "awakening," or the term often used, "realization."
The reader can mentally run over a few famous religious personalities, psychotherapists, and intellectuals in general who are "buffered" by adulation, by constant solicitation, by their secretaries and assistants, by their pride. These are the boys and girls "least likely to succeed."
Both the mind and the self are wonderful entities and can be splendid servants, altho bad when convinced they are masters. Ultimately all will be well, very well, but many persons, even those with every material comfort, will continue to find life a matter of boredom, anxiety, dread, and despair, when a little smartness and discrimination would induce them to experiment with the way out. When the student is ready, the master appears. But people are not to blame, it is the way things are.
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Also by Alfred Pulyan: Letters from a Zen Master, Or Why You're Still Suffering