“What matters above all else is the attitude we take towards suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves. … man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I feel beat up by the future.
I know the ecological sciences as well as I know anything, still when I encounter a blunt articulation of our ecological future by someone I trust, such as the one published last week by Michael Greer, it comes as a body blow. The tragedy of die-off is something my mind cannot really grasp but my body seems to respond to. I am old enough that the fear of nuclear war once saturate my body. There was a time it joined all the other fears I had about the future, including my own mortality, and simply became unbearable. I learned the hard way there is just no room for that much fear.
We are so enamored with our conceptual minds it is rare to quite them down enough to feel what the body is actually experiencing but when we do we find it has a wisdom all its own, a wisdom not couched in conceptual thought but more raw and direct. It is a wisdom of, shall we say, our genetics perceiving time and space events through us. Right now the body message throughout the world includes all those aspects of pollution we have been discussing, both mental and physical. It picks up the poisons in the physical world of elemental air, water and food even as it processes the hubris, greed and selfishness of the corporation dominated social world. Within its nervous system it is not fooled by the ceaseless chatter of the ego’s shallow thoughts.
Our bodies are strange to us. They are subjective matter in its most paradoxical form and one in which we have a very personal stake. At some level each of us cannot ignore the mystery of thinking meat. It is the only material object we can access from the inside. When we pierce this experience with our awareness as far as it is possible to go what we find is that the element of subjective awareness is more fundamental to its experience then the abstractions of mind and matter in complete isolation to one another. This was Bishop Berkeley’s great insight, that experience is primary.
“Each of us has this inner knowledge of only one such body, and it is by virtue of this that we are individuals. This material object here, and this one alone, I can know with a direct, non-sensory, non-intellectual knowledge from within: everything else in the universe I can know only from without, via the representations of sense and intellect, which are themselves functions of physical organs which are parts of this body of mine – which means that my knowledge of all other bodies is gained from the standpoint of this one and its position in time and space. This individuation, and the fact that all knowing is only for an individual (not to mention the fact that there is a dichotomy between knowing and being, such that we do not even know what we are) – these things lie very near the heart of life’s mystery. ‘Everyone can be only one thing, whereas he can know everything else, and it is this very limitation that really creates the need for philosophy.'”
Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer quoting from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation
We fear suffering. You do. I do. If the most precious thing in all the universe, say the one and only son of God if your metaphysical predilections run that way, were to also need to suffer, would that make bearing your own cross a bit easier? For centuries peoples of the west believed it did. Our grandmothers and grandfathers looked to a corpus on a cross and found therein some measure of strength and solace. Why?
I submit it is because the body in crucifixion is experiencing suffering that has a purpose. In the context of the metaphysic in which the crucifixion takes place that act is understood to be a necessary one; Christ died to save sinners, or as I would put it, to save the ignorant from needing to act out the existential facts being revealed in quite so dramatically bloody fashion. The act became a metaphor, a spiritual signal.
Life entails suffering; this is the truth, the first ennobling truth. There is no escaping it, try as we might. It is easy for awareness to go shooting off to the stars when things get to be too much. It is a sign of spiritual maturity to be able to stay with pain, to hang on the cross with both eyes open. As creatures evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain, powerful scripts within drive us to desperately seek a final solution to the problem of pain; a final answer to the riddle of an existence capable of the sweetest heights of love and wonder yet so susceptible to devastating heartbreak. What the wisdom traditions offer us, if we are willing to accept their teaching, is that even the most excruciating pain imaginable is bearable if it has meaning, if it will help someone else.
It might be easy to characterize our Prozac Nation as one in which we expect a pill for everything; a quick fix for all depression and sadness to get us right back on that shiny tinsel path of consumer lifestyles but I don’t read the data that way. I think our Prozac Nation is suffering an immense lack of meaning. Having achieved a certain minimum required for our physical and social well-being we failed to learn and teach a culture of contentment. The nonstop messages of malcontent – your not quite rich enough, famous enough, powerful enough, smart enough, good enough, handsome or beautiful enough – have left us psychically hollow. In pursuit of goals of self-fulfillment we have lost touch with the power of self-transcendence; we no longer find it easy to live for something or someone greater than ourselves.
Viktor Frankl survived the death camps of World War II only to find out when set free by the allies that most of his family had been killed. He went on to reflect upon his experience in the camps, particularly what separated those who found a will to live from those who could not in such circumstances. He developed his observations into a psychological healing modality known as logotherapy: logos less like the Word of Christian theology (Dr. Frankl was Jewish) but more as the ancient Greeks used the term to indicate that which is ordered and rational, in a word, meaningful.
In his most well known work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he relays the following story which both resonates very deeply with me personally and also captures the essence of logotherapy. An elderly man lost his beloved wife some years earlier. He was still struggling every day to make it without her presence. Dr. Frankl asked him how she would feel if he had died first, to which the elderly man quickly replied, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered.” So, Dr. Frankl pointed out, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” The man, Frankl reports, silently shook his hand and calmly left. Nothing had changed: his wife was still dead, the house still empty, but a measure of something greater than suffering had been revealed, changing the elderly man’s attitude.
What Viktor Frankl proposed was that human beings have a will to meaning as powerful as our will to survive. We have a deep desire to believe our lives have purpose. The wasteland of consumerism pretends owning things is meaningful in itself, as a sort of last ditch effort to deal with the modernity in which, as Frankl noted, “No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition [any longer] tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do.”
When the will to meaning is thwarted it can become a will to power as Nietzsche and Aldrian psychology teach, including its most primitive form, the will for money. Another possibility when the will to meaning is thwarted is the Freudian will to pleasure. This is why sexual escapades so often accompany bouts with this “existential vacuum.” This “existential vacuum” is also known as the Sunday neurosis or holiday blues that hit us when the business of the week recedes and we are left staring at the lack of meaningful content in our lives. Frankl saw juvenile delinquency and alcoholism as reactions to this vacuum and I would add those sensitive to the ecological message of the times are also at risk of experiencing similar needs to numb or lash out if their lives are not physically embodying some form of fight against the ongoing poisoning and a nurturance of healing for the earth herself.
This week I am going to give the last word to Antero Alli, author of Angel Tech. In an earlier post I shared the cover of this book as an illustration of the robot and the angel which can be a useful metaphor for teaching us to recognize all the people we encounter are the walking wounded. While I would not recommend the book for everyone, it is more like an Rx that if you need it you have already likely been given it, the heart of it consists of a set of sermons given to ‘souls in Chapel Perilous’ which capture some of what is involved in the western esoteric traditions when the rubber hits the road. The last sermon deals with the crucifixion metaphor but before we can appreciate what he has to teach it is important to recall what the robot is all about.
The robot stands for the character armor with which our egos build their defensive walls. It consists of habitual tensions in our muscle systems and other rigidities within our physiology. The child abused badly enough, for example, does not have the soft flexibility required to accept love from others because the canalizations of imprints have left scars throughout the body / mind complex. But there is another aspect to the robot metaphor that speaks to the intellectual tenor of our times which Frankl has expressed well:
“First of all, there is a danger inherent in the teaching of man’s ‘nothingbutness,’ the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes him a robot, not a human being.
To be sure, a human being is a finite being, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”
Snippets overheard from the sermon on the crucifixion: “The function of human limitations are in their articulation of the time-space coordinates essential for manifesting spiritual intent… When the great soul Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross in her human form as a man, she did so to convert her death into a metaphor for the rest of humanity. The primary intent behind the crucifixion is astoundingly simple. It has been completely overlooked due to the human forms’ immense capacity for fear, guilt and hatred, all of which has complicated and twisted a rather sweet and elegant message. This is not to offend those of this congregation who are still enraptured by its unfathomable depth and meaning… for that is here to. It’s just that the utter simplicity of the soul Christ requires, perhaps, a bit more elucidation…
You are all crucified to the cross of your human forms. The grace of your evolution requires you to give in completely to every limitation until your entire being commits itself to penetrating its human form. There can be no holding back and no hesitation. The direction is through the center and out the other side, courageously, with all three eyes open.”