Assailed by the ocean breeze, the boy walked on, following the worn track through the trees and toward the beach. At the waterfront he gazed into the water and lost himself in its volume. Still, he could not help but wish curses upon those who had wronged him. He kicked at small stones, feeling bitterness and suffering the injustice of it all. In his mind he tore his tormentors down; they were forced to acknowledge their wrong-doing; that his essence was more pure, more worthy than theirs could ever be.
These were childish thoughts, he knew, but they granted him a temporary feeling of power. He continued on the path onwards and upwards to a rocky peak above the waves. There he sat cross legged on a stone ledge and looked out to the horizon. He let the open space clear his mind, allowing the rhythmic beating of the waves eroding his sense of self. He focused inwardly and slowed his breath; he opened himself up to let the winds ring inside. As the sun warmed his body, the earth cooled his soul.
Up there on the peak the boy let his self dissolve.
At this point words become unnecessary – worse, they are useless; inherently false; clumsy, unwieldy objects that fundamentally fail to capture the essence of the moment.
The boy rested; allowed himself to be restored. Soon he would walk down the path once more to the absurdity of the world.
I’ve been a little bit quiet of late; work, post-graduate study and music have been taking up a lot of my time. I thought I’d quickly let you know what I’ve been working on.
I’m developing a summary-of and reflection-on Carl Jung‘s autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections‘ in the hope that I can communicate some of the wisdom and exceptional ideas he developed over the course of his life.
It’s a considerable task, but one I feel is particularly important. Jung was a fascinating individual who had the incredible insight to link the psychology of the ego and the unconscious with eastern philosophy and spirituality. His work is still exceedingly relevant to people dabbling in eastern philosophy/religion today.
I’m really hoping I can do this project justice – so if you don’t hear much out of me for a while, you’ll know why.
Ideally I’d like to follow this up with some reflections/highlights of some of Hermann Hesse‘s work on philosophy, art and psychology.
White Noise is my first experience with Don DeLillo’s work. Over the past 12 months I’d heard his name uttered many times – usually coupled with some recognition that he is one of the most important fiction authors in recent decades.
From the moment I began reading White Noise it was apparent that DeLillo is a supremely gifted author; his metaphors are sublime, his prose smooth and easy to read. His most commendable skill seems to be his ability to perfectly capture human frailty in simple, everyday scenes. In White Noise the narrator supplies a seemingly endless supply of observations on human behaviour; how shallow appearances and subtle symbols instill confidence in social institutions; how a family looks to each other for emotional reassurance in a million trivial games of power and dominance; how cultural identity and meaning are maintained every day through our most insignificant gestures.
As an illustration I’ll outline on passage I found particularly memorable. In this scene the narrator Jack and fellow lecturer Murray take a tourist trip to see ‘the most photographed barn in America’. The significance of this barn appears to be entirely circular; it is famous because it is so often photographed, and it is photographed because it is famous. This absurd passage follows:
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with camera left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They’re taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
There are dozens of moments like this in White Noise, where post-modern / Foucauldian concepts are bound with anthropological observation and presented in a humorous deadpan style that often reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis (it would appear as though Ellis is indebted to DeLillo’s style). Unfortunately a novel is not built on keen observation and creative metaphor alone. White Noise is divided into three parts; I almost abandoned the book towards the end of the first part, simply because nothing seemed to happen. In fact nothing of consequence seems to happen in the first 150 or so pages; we are merely subjected to a continuous stream of miniscule observations; of beautiful insights into human intimacy; of the slow and steady development of characters (DeLillo’s ability to give life to his characters is also excellent) — but there is seemingly no overarching “plot” at such.
Things certainly “happen” in the second and third parts, but at the book’s conclusion I still did not feel I had completed a novel. DeLillo’s writing stalks along at the same steady pace for over 300 pages, drawing a smile or a chuckle with regularity, but seemingly refusing to deliver a major story arc or significant plot development. The cute-ness of his style seemingly prevents any moments of heightened drama. I finished White Noise lacking a sense of closure, and with mixed feelings.
As a commentary on human frailty – particularly fear of death – this was a pleasure to read – but as a fiction novel I felt a little deflated and left wanting more. Perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention (skimming summaries of his other work certainly seems to indicate he is a man who throws off the standard convention of a linear novel), but I am left undecided and lukewarm.
DeLillo possesses piercing insight but I am still undecided as to his status as a novelist. There is a reasonable chance that I will return to more of his work in the future; perhaps that will put me in a position to better comment on his intentions and approach.
I can comfortably conceive of my life as battle against The Joyless. I see them in droves; faces bloated, posture weak and hanging, constantly braying and complaining. They formulate the view that life is just one continuous plot against them; they believe they are denied what is rightfully theirs, but, lacking the energy and power to change their paths, they resign themselves to wallowing in despair.
They are The Defeated; humans who sing a warbling eulogy to their lives at every waking moment; their eyes glazed and hollow, colour and light drawn from them. These beings drain the lives of those around them. They stumble around without direction, a vacant look on their faces. Show them images from the birth of a star; the most beautiful galaxies in the universe and they would merely shrug their shoulders and resume shovelling greasy food into their faces.
They are the grazers; a mass of misery who are bent on inflicting their state on others through their social discourse. They are trapped in the well-worn lines of their thought; unthinkable they ever might displace their point of view with empathy of understanding – even momentarily. They can only dwell in their own apathetic sense of dissatisfaction, lacking the awareness to resolve the issues from which these feelings stem.
Given enough time their misery becomes all they know; their sadness becomes so banal, so commonplace that it begins to bore and sicken them – yet still they cannot escape! These are the people who pray for disaster; for car crashes; for tsunamis; for a demonstration of nature’s raw power; for war – if for nothing more than entertainment and as some absurd justification for their own melancholy mood.
I would give anything to ensure that I do not end up a passionless husk of a human secretly hoping for death but lacking the courage or conviction to end things. I see them in shopping centres and airports and pubs; these bloated and swollen men, looking hopefully and dejectedly about for someone to talk at. They want you to listen as they recall their past glories, then pull you down into their misery as they explain their fall from grace. They want you down in the gutter with them; to comprehend the sneers and conspiracies set against them. They had no choice; they surely could not have lived any other way. They are victims of circumstance; the game was rigged from the outset; they were played a bad hand.
My deepest sadness would be to become one of them; lonely, sad, deflated, completely dehydrated of any passion for life. I refuse to become one of them. My secret fear propels my onward to embrace life and love; to poetry and music; to friends and family. I pack my life to the brim in a ravenous search for meaning and contentment. Even if this state is ultimately unattainable and this search becomes the steady undercurrent of my time on this earth, then I feel those years will certainly not be wasted — but to resign yourself, to give in, to too soon anticipate a return to dust? That is surely the deepest loss for one still living.
We live and writhe inside our own minds,
Dreaming, souls ablaze, our eyes dilute and blur.
We awake to find ourselves gazing inward;
Searching the structure of cells, at our chemical essence
Charged with electric light,
Hoping to uncover some secret that
Would grant us a spark to burn beyond time;
To carry our heat forever onward
Through the void and into eternity;
To some knowledge that we are not
Abandoned and left to wither away
With the dust and the ash,
To be reduced and swallowed by
The grinding machinery of the earth;
That we are more than our raw material;
More than a chance assemblage of
Atomic particles, that our transitory
Forms live on, somewhere, somehow.
But who are we to challenge the slumber
Of our silent gods? Who are we to
Escape the pull of gravity, to demand
The birth of a star so that we might feed from
It’s light and bask forever, elated
By a beauty that suspends
Our hearts in silver skies above?
Of these things we dream in our deepest sleep;
In the nights which we can perceive
The resonance within us; the echoes
Of the ancients, the secrets of our
Animal lineage; the voices of trees and stone
That even now pulse within the depthless ravines
Of the spirit, whispering in our ears
Our shared past and inevitable end.
With all our being we seek resolution,
Our yearning alone enough to disassemble our form.
We must recognise our true nature and
Allow it to burn within our souls.
We must feed our lives with celestial fire;
Surrender to the oblivion of the eternal vibration
Which envelopes us; that can tear us apart
To know this, and love this;
To share this with another and spend
Each night basking in the light of stars,
Enraptured, lovingly sharing the heat,
Dedicating our lives to reverence,
Blissful, intoxicated with life; -
This is all that fills my waking heart;
This is the true orientation of my soul.
This wish fills my nights; both those of sleeplessness,
As well as those of peace.
Some days I am blessed with warmth; my soul radiates hues of magenta and burnt orange. I walk along rows of jasmine with the sun on my skin. My heart might flutter across sweet peaks or soar upon gusts of cool, crisp air. These are moments in which all the universe resolves itself; in which I am elated by the pure contentment of being.
If these days could only be captured, I would be forever enraptured.
But other days the expanse of the sky overhead seems to close in; my skin feels no warmth, and no scent can wake me from my misery. Inside I feel a dull ache, tormented by unattainable joy. This absence becomes all-consuming; my vision turns to grey. Life is now discord; an aberration. My misery becomes a mire, and if I am not mindful I can slip deeper still into the dark fire.
I watch my breath and still my mind. Inwardly I speak; let these days pass. Let another dawn come.
As of late I have been plagued by emotional turmoil. I’ve had a sense of being cut adrift to oscillate between poles of elation and depression; and I have been increasingly frustrated by my failure to work through these oscillations. I have tried to remain conscience of the changes in my mental state so I might observe the duration and depth of each swing; an attempt to identify patterns and overall trends that might provide some insight into my condition. I awake some days soaring, my spirits in the highest realm, filled with beaming gratitude for even being alive. Other days however, I am pulled down into depression and defeat, and wallow there.
I am largely a stranger to depression; it is not something I experience often. What I have found most troubling about this period is that my writing and my thoughts have largely failed to reach the high planes of philosophy where they once regularly did. (I consider that philosophic detachment to be the highest, most rewarding and most desirable state I can attain). It is though, aside from a supremely memorable exception, I have been too engrossed in the direct world of my emotions to achieve the level of cool detachment and mental clarity required to reach this state. To have such a long period lacking in philosophic contemplation is uncharacteristic of me.
I have therefore been looking for tools, ideas and practices that might help defuse my negative emotional states (anxiety, depression), and set me on more beneficial and enjoyable mindsets. Yesterday, while enjoying a coffee and my morning read, I had a minor epiphany that may have provided me with a much-needed key.
But first, a preface.
Why and when is philosophy useful to an individual?
When we read philosophy we are essentially coaxing our minds to comprehend an alternate perspective. This perspective might be highly personal, or it might be a collective conceptual perspective built up over years of development.
While philosophising professionally, or for the sake of academia might be enjoyable, I believe that philosophy is of most value when what we are reading resonates deeply with our own life; when our reading provides us with practical tools to help us live our lives better, more fully and more contently. When we can relate deeply to another’s perspective, we can walk the cow-paths of their thought, taking notes to familiarise ourselves with the route. Given enough time and reflection, we can begin to construct mental scaffolding using their words. Over more time still, we can begin to accrue enough scaffolding to build bridges between concepts and schools of thought; perhaps ultimately developing new, unifying concepts and lashing once separate pockets of wisdom together.
I have had this experience with philosophy often – it is exactly why I keep returning to it. At various times a mind-expanding concept has come out of scientific rationalism (our beloved New Atheists), cosmology, mysticism, psychedelia, Carl Jung’s psychology (particularly mythology, dream interpretation and the collective unconscious), Hermann Hesse’s philosophy, Colin Wilson’s conception of nihilism, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, post-modernism, and Wade Davis’ anthropology — but now it is Alan Watt’s explanation of the nature of Zen that has become my latest useful framework.
What is Zen?
I have been living with a real problem that demands a practical solution (depression, anxiety); and I believe that by regular adoption of the perspective of Zen (perhaps coupled with meditation) I can escape powerlessness in the face of these emotional states.
I’ll quote in passing the passage I scrawled in my notebook when the epiphany hit:
Perhaps what I need to focus on is my understanding of the basic principle of Zen; harmony with existence (and other beings; the chain of causation; our sense of existential powerlessness). My sense of anxiety seems to be rooted in childish self-doubt and anticipation. Is this not a clear instance of ill-spent energy; a wasteful psychological habit that drains my life and puts stress in my jaw? And is it not unnecessary?
When I observe these problems from a perspective of Zen, my anxiety is rendered inconsequential and erroneous. Fighting against inevitability or reality simply becomes childish in this light – an aberration that should be replaced by what I have long regarded my basic philosophic principles; humility-towards and acceptance-of existence.
At its simplest Zen is a framework that aims to allow an individual to move with the flow of life and change in the universe. It breeds an awareness and acceptance of the Eternal Becoming (the “constantly changing apocalypse” that Aldous Huxley observed on mescaline). It is a state of humility, receptivity and awareness.
Zen shares an interesting root with nihilism; both are essentially responses to the realisation that we are ultimately powerless and inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe – but where nihilism turns to despair and inaction, Zen transitions into life-affirmation. Zen recognises that a response of despair is little but a selfish demand of the ego, and that that is the root of the problem (not our powerlessness, but our ego’s deluded demand to be powerful), for the ego does not represent the whole of our selves. Nihilists, however, allow their ego to be locked in a death-struggle against this inevitability, and in the process achieve little but suffering, stress and anxiety. If this fighting is prolonged, they can invite neurosis and mental instability.
In place of the ego’s desire to control and dominate existence, Zen speaks of cultivating acceptance; of surrender; of harmony with the eternal chain of causation. The ultimate goal is an eternal awakening; a state of perpetual and acute consciousness of the entire universe; being tuned-in to the flow and gracefully moving with it. (The paradox is that while this is a sublime level of personal detachment, it is through this consciousness of eternity that you can also discover much about the true nature of yourself)
The fork between Zen and nihilism rests in yet another ego-delusion; the absurd misconception that we are somehow separate from (and not of) the universe. Even the most basic understanding of the natural world would show that this is not true; that we, animals ourselves, are the product of evolution; that we are comprised of atoms (obviously part of the universe) that have been recycled and reused many times before creating our form, and will be recycled many times more in the future. When we consider the almost impossible time-scale of the universe, it doesn’t take a whole lot of pondering to realise that we are exceedingly transitory – an infinitesimal speck in the grander scheme of the universal flow of matter and the eternal chain of causation.
Once we are cleansed of this delusion that we are somehow strangers in the universe (“here on sufferance or probation”), we begin to understand that we are very much an intrinsic part of it. Our own forms are not fixed or static – we are a process; we grow, we change, we age, we decay – and we are but a small process in a much larger, and infinitely more complex process. We should strive to be aware of this fact. Once we become truly conscious of this idea, the result is a feeling of eternal gratitude, peace, and humility.
If you read the literature of the great religions, time and time again you come across descriptions of what is usually referred to as “spiritual experience.” You will find that in all the various traditions this modality of spiritual experience seems to be the same, whether it occurs in the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East, the Hindu world of Asia, or the Buddhist world. In each culture it is quite definitely the same experience, and it is characterised by the transcendence of individuality and by a sensation of being one with the total energy of the universe.
- Alan Watts, What Is Zen?
(I could segue here into a discussion of the nature of duality and the cross-over between Zen, the accounts of mystics and the use of psychedelics, but I think we’ve tackled more than enough for the time being)
Sure… and how is this useful in defusing depression?
When I conduct thought-experiments with this perspective I find it renders the small waves of my life (such as my recent bouts of depression) as completely inconsequential – not to mention thoroughly short-sighted and self-absorbed. It has the effect of pulling back my point of view so that I can observe impossibly larger tides – and in this contemplation of the universal my small defeats and sadness have their sting removed. Zen acts as a reminder of the appropriate state of being; humility and gratitude; acceptance without anticipation; calm.
My end-goal, of course, is to move far deeper into these frameworks to undercover more useful ideas – but for now my small epiphany as to the practical application of this realisation is more than enough to share and enjoy.
If you’ve read this far I hope this has been in some small way of use or interest.
My mouth is bitter with the salt of all human things.
I taste our failings; our broken dreams; our yearning and our falls.
We fail more than we know.
We destroy more than we ever show.
We are miserable, grasping, spluttering for air,
And we choke on the poisons we ourselves have let free.
Consumed with contempt, my mind screams.
Banality surrounds me.
Civilisation swallows me.
Let it take me whole.
Let it be done.
But this waiting, it torments me,
Kicking at my heart, mocking my soul.
It cuts me down with ocean breeze;
Batters me with rays of the sun;
Allows me to think that for a minute I have won,
That I will rise up and face the day,
And manage too, to live through the night
- Then the long fall to the dirt;
Humiliation at the hands of the mocking earth.
Let it take me whole.
Let it be over and done.
Give me my final defeat
And let me stifled voice rest free.
I wish you misery.
I wish you a hard death.
I hope when your time comes to die
You die with a sneer and a smile;
Hating the stones, the trees, the dirt, the earth;
Your mouth bitter with the salt of all human things;
Burnt by the sun, frayed by the winds,
Gaunt with starvation,
Hollow-eyed with renunciation,
Hailing curses to the sky for the vultures circling above;
A thin, solitary jackal,
A ragged specter,
A cruel joke,
Fighting the pull of the void with your last breath,
And failing, finally, falling in.
At night we rest in open air
Drinking from the light of distant stars,
We cleanse our souls in giants glow
Burning still from eons past.
We listen, perfectly still,
To the forest carry every sound,
Gathering with it warmth of wood,
Damped by the underground,
Silenced, finally, by the
Canopy and heavy air overhead,
We stare into the skies.
As a thin veil moves across
The face of the moon,
My mind begins to wander.
I retreat deeper into myself,
Venturing with the clouds,
Moving inwards with the waves,
I find an illuminated pool
Streaked silver with starlight.
I form an insignificant stream
And draw from the monolith.
In moods likes these we open up
And let the winds ring inside of us;
We drive ourselves into the earth
To feel the resonance of the soil
And be intoxicated by the bloom.
In other times, in nights of the frozen earth,
We fear still the distant cry of wild jaws
And the pitiless freeze of the winter months.
We sing to warm ourselves
So the cold snap might spare our hearts.
I awaken from this vision
With smoke and ash in my lungs.
Returning from the void, silently
We walk from the forest.
Magenta streaks the sky.
We drive on, fearful of the blaze.