Hubert Benoit
Zen and the Psychology of Transformation
The Supreme Doctrine

Chapter 16


We can enlarge more thoroughly the preceding studies by envisaging the whole of conscious affectivity, that is the whole of the inner phenomena by means of which we experience pleasure or pain in contact with the outer world. Since these two poles, pleasure and pain, correspond with the qualitative variations of a single thing, my consciousness of being-distinct, it will simplify our exposition to speak for the most part of the painful variations. What will be valid for the painful will be valid also for the pleasurable.

First of all it appears that there are two sorts of sensibility, physical (physical pain) and psychic ('moral' suffering). I cannot confuse the pain which an abscess gives me with that given me by the death of someone I love. These two sensibilities seem to correspond with the gross part of me (the somatic), and with my subtle part (or psychic). The physical sensibility comprises sensations, agreeable or disagreeable; the psychic sensibility comprises sentiments, also agreeable or disagreeable. In practical psychology I necessarily make a clear-cut difference between these two domains of sensibility.

But this duality of soma and psyche only indicates two aspects of a single thing, my psycho-somatic organism; there are therein merely two aspects (distinct only to the outside observer) of this creature which I call 'Self', of this microcosm, synthetic and single, which is a particular manifestation of the Absolute Principle. If I hold, on edge, a sheet of cardboard in front of my left eye, my left eye sees this sheet as a straight line while my right sees it as a surface; but the sheet of cardboard is the same; in one sense it is both a line and a surface; in another it is neither line nor surface; in any case it is only a single sheet of cardboard.

If soma and psyche are thus two aspects of a single thing, the physical and psychic sensibilities are also necessarily two aspects of a single sensibility. Under two aspects there is in reality only one organism; in the same way under two aspects there is in reality only one sensibility.

Since I now conceive a unity of nature under the different aspects of my sensation and my sentiment, I am tempted to conclude that one only of these aspects is real, the other being illusory. First of all, for example, I am going to try to reduce all my sensible phenomena to sensation. There are only, I shall assume, sensations; physical pain is a sensation which affects my soma to a partial extent, in so far as it is an aggregate of organs. Moral suffering is a sensation which affects my soma in its entirety, in so far as it is a totality, through the medium of the global image that I have of myself. But this ingenious attempt breaks down. If I can envisage my soma as an aggregate of organs, that is only an aspect artificially isolated by my analysis in abstracting the conciliatory principle which totalises this aggregate. The concept of an aggregate is not able to define my soma. On the other hand, if I can envisage my soma as a totality, that again is only by an analytical artifice; my soma only exists by virtue of its connexions with the rest of the cosmos, as a particle of the cosmic whole. The concept of totality is not able to define my soma. Since I fail to conceive my soma with precision I cannot take it as a criterion of a unique sensibility which is only made up of sensations.

After the failure of this 'materialistic' attempt I yield to the temptation of trying the opposite, the 'spiritual'. There are only, I shall assume this time, sentiments; there is no physical pain since I can perceive nothing disagreeable except by means of my brain, by means of a representative mental image; every unpleasant impression is ultimately psychic; therefore there is only 'moral' suffering. But if I failed just now to conceive my soma as a fixed entity to serve me as a criterion, I fail now—and in a sense still more absolutely—to conceive the world of my mental images as a fixed entity; if I was not able to define myself by my soma I am not more able to define myself by my psyche.

I fail then to reduce my sensibility to one of its two aspects, as I failed to reduce my psycho-somatic organism to one of its two aspects. I am at once soma and psyche, and I am at the same time neither soma nor psyche. My sensibility is at once physical and psychic, and it is at the same time neither the one nor the other. When it is a question of my psycho-somatic organism I arrive at the concept of the Self or Absolute Principle in so far as it manifests in me; and this concept resolves the dualism of soma and psyche. But how to reduce the dualism of my sensibility? What then is my sensibility in reality under its two aspects? Since I did not succeed in seeing my unique sensibility residing in my gross aspect (my organs) nor in my subtle aspect (my images), where then does it reside?

The study of sensibility, when it started from the distinction between soma and psyche, started badly; it started from an artificial discrimination and it is not surprising therefore that it was not able to arrive at any result. I am going to take it up again in another way, in a way which concerns my physical sensibility as much as my psychic.

Instead of studying the manifestations of sensibility at the end of their development we are going to study this development itself; to that end let us start with a very banal experience. One day I feel, in my arm, a rheumatic pain of moderate intensity; a friend comes to see me, engages me in a conversation that interests me, then leaves me. After my friend has gone, I feel my pain and realise that I had ceased to feel it during the conversation; and I tell myself that my pain was certainly always there during the conversation; it was there but I did not feel it because my attention was distracted from it. If, instead of a rheumatic pain I experience some moral suffering of moderate intensity, as a result of a vexation which saddened me before the visit of my friend, the same phenomenon can arise. The distinction to be drawn here is no longer between two sorts of sufferings developed, but between two stages of development of the suffering whether this suffering be somatic or psychic. What was happening while my attention was distracted? Can I really think that my pain was there but that I was not conscious of it? Certainly not; I cannot state that a pain 'is there' if I do not feel any pain. I am nevertheless not mistaken in thinking that there persisted, during my distraction, something or other which afterwards gave me back my suffering. But what then? I am led to establish a distinction which will explain my experience; it is the distinction between the painful excitation and the mental consciousness of the pain. While I was distracted the painful excitation persisted but the consciousness of the pain ceased. This distinction once established, I see how I can recover correctly the distinction between soma and psyche; for the painful excitation is a somatic phenomenon whereas the consciousness of pain is a psychic phenomenon. And the two attempts, 'materialistic' and 'spiritual', which failed a moment ago, are now going to turn into something that is valid. The painful excitation is a phenomenon which effects the soma, either partially in so far as it is an aggregate of organs (physical painful excitation) or totally in so far as it is a totality (painful excitation called 'psychic', touching the totality of the soma by means of the global image that I have of myself). The painful excitation can reach me either in passing by my gross aspect (plane of sensation), or in passing by my subtle aspect (plane of images or of sentiment). So, on the side of the pole 'painful excitation', our materialistic thesis is applicable; it is always my soma which is painfully excited in part or in whole. If we go on now to the pole 'consciousness of pain' our 'spiritual' thesis is applicable: it is always my mind which is conscious of the pain, whether the painful excitation has affected my soma in part or in whole.

Let us now envisage these two poles 'painful excitation' and 'consciousness of pain' by asking ourselves in which of these the pain resides. The difficulties begin again: in fact I cannot make the pain reside in the painful excitation alone without consciousness of the pain; but neither can I conceive a pain which is pure consciousness, without painful excitation. Where then does the pain really reside? This question in its 'spatial' expression, is the form in which is translated, according to our space-time perspective, the question 'What is the reality of pain?' or, still better, 'What is the cause of the pain?' since the cause is the reality of the effect. The painful excitation is causal in relation to my consciousness of the pain; my mind is affected because my soma is affected. But the affection of my soma is itself the effect of a cause. This cause is not the outer world as one might suppose at first sight. Indeed the affection of my soma is reaction to the action of the outer world; if the action of the outer world can be called the immediate cause it cannot be called the efficient cause. The efficient or real cause of the reaction of my soma is in my soma itself, not outside it; it is in my vital principle, in the source of all my manifestation, that is to say in the Absolute Principle in so far as it manifests in me. We find then, in the genesis of conscious pain, three stages: the Absolute Principle first; next my somatic aspect which, activated by the Absolute Principle, develops what we have called 'painful excitation'; finally my subtle aspect which, prompted by the painful excitation, develops the consciousness of pain. The Absolute Principle corresponds to the fundamental Unconscious; the painful excitation corresponds to the 'subconscious' (my suffering, during my distraction, was subconscious); the consciousness of pain corresponds to the conscious.

We see then that pain, in its ensemble, is an uninterrupted flux of energy which disintegrates from the universal centre towards the individual periphery. Reality, or the primary cause, of all this phenomenal current resides in the fundamental Unconscious. In other words the reality of conscious suffering is unconscious. That is to say that we deceive ourselves in seeing our conscious developed sensibility as an entity which is self-sufficient and in relation to which we can correctly direct our life.

One could say: 'No doubt our sensible phenomena, like all phenomena, are not Absolute Reality; at least they are relative reality which is that of Manifestation.' But it is not so at all, for this disintegration of energy which is an effective phenomenon passes from infinity to zero without stopping, without integrating itself at any moment in a form. My organs are a relative reality because they are an integration, in a gross form, of the original energy. My mental images have a relative reality because they are the integration, in a subtle form, of the original energy. But my pleasures, my pains, my joys, my sorrows, are not integrations in forms, either gross or subtle. The painful affection of my soma has a gross form; the painful mental affection which replies to it has a subtle form. The gross manifestation of my pain has a form and its subtle manifestation also has a form; but my pain itself, thus doubly manifested, is in-formal, as in-formal as the Absolute Principle which is its only reality. Let us not be surprised then that we can never, owing to lack of form, seize our suffering itself; we have said above that every effort to seize a sadness only resulted in seizing sad images, and that the sadness itself escaped us. But it is the same where a physical pain is concerned. When I have a pain in my arm and I attempt to seize my pain, I only succeed in seizing, in an active perception, my suffering arm and not its pain; that escapes my capture. It can capture me but I cannot capture it.

These notions will become clearer if we get at them by means of a different approach. My painful somatic reaction to the excitation from the outside world, a reaction which then conditions my consciousness of the pain, only occurs in virtue of the 'need to exist' which is in me. This defence-mechanism supposes that my existence ought to be defended; it implies that that which menaces my existence menaces me. But I only feel myself to be menaced by that which menaces my organism in the degree in which I identify myself exclusively with my organism. On account of this identification the intemporal will 'to be' which is one of the attributes of the fundamental 'Being' is represented in my organism by the will to persevere in existence, by the need to live. The illusory confusion between the Self and the Ego (otherwise, my exclusive identification with my organism or, again, my belief in the absolute reality of my phenomenal existence), gives to the outer world the power to make my energy well up from its source and deliver it to the disintegration of the pain. If I were not ignorant, if I did not identify myself with my organism, if I were capable of saying, like Socrates, 'My enemies can kill me but they cannot do me harm', then I would not feel that which menaces my organism as a real menace to Myself; I would not suffer. I would perceive that my organism is menaced, would recognise that the red-hot iron which burns me burns me, and I could then withdraw myself from this contact if my rational will was to live. But I would not suffer, I would not submit to any inner pressure in order to defend my life; I would choose in full liberty to defend or not to defend my life according to circumstances. I could preserve myself, I would not be constrained, by suffering, to do it.

All affectivity is founded on ignorance, on the implicit illusory beliefs which represent in me the sleep of my Faith in the unique Reality, the sleep of the Cosmic Mind. My perception of the aggressive excitation of the outer world is not illusory, for it informs me correctly about the phenomena which attack my organism. But the affective character, agreeable or disagreeable, of my perception is illusory because it is founded on illusory beliefs. I do not deceive myself in considering that which touches me as being favourable or unfavourable to my existence; but I deceive myself in considering it as 'good' or 'bad', in considering it with affectivity. The sensation of being burned is not a delusion, but the pain of the burn is. My perceptions are correct in so far as they inform me, they are illusory in so far as they affect me. Between my Absolute Principle which 'is' and my organism which 'exists', between my noumenon and my phenomena, my affectivity neither is nor exists. Every affective phenomenon is the interpretive deformation, through ignorance, of non-affective phenomena. All my affectivity is an interpretive delirium resulting from illusory beliefs. My real Self is inaffective.

Besides, at every moment, at the same time as I am affectively sensible to such and such a thing I remain insensible to all the rest of the universe. But as long as my Faith is not entirely awakened, in satori, my attention allows itself to be captured by my fallacious affectivity and turns away from my inaffectivity.

The inner work leaves things in this state, it lets the attention wander towards the affective pseudo-phenomena. But it does more than let it go passively in this direction, it actively pushes it that way. Where I was captured by something incomprehensible, and where this fact of being captured was expressed by suffering, I now project my active attention in order to seize that which seized me, that which I called my suffering. Now that my understanding has neutralised my fear I have the courage to turn round, in a spirit of investigation, towards these hypothetical flames that my flight had stirred up. This inner effort to capture what was seeking to capture me causes my suffering to lose hold; it is thus that we should understand the Zen concept of 'Letting Go'. This inner gesture frees the energy which was tied up, dissolves what was coagulated; it installs me in an anaesthesia which is not just absence of affectivity, but Not-Feeling, the motionless principle of all the affective movements. In destroying affective partiality it prepares the breaking forth of satori; it cures the 'malady of the spirit', this malady which consists, according to Zen, in 'opposing that which we like to that which we do not like'.

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