Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Reflections: Be It Resolved That...

I have but slight enthusiasm for making New Year’s Resolutions. I believe that resolutions should be made as needed, and whenever one is mentally prepared to make them work. This year, however, my physical condition has made this time the right time, so I’ve been giving it some thought.

I noted in a previous post that as the extreme pain I had been enduring, due to a back injury complicated by sciatica, began to subside, I experienced an unexpected psychological deflation: “The strange thing about it, though, is that there is almost a let-down setting in. …I'm now left intellectually flat. Nothing much has greatly interested me since the pain abated.”

Along with slowly regaining my emotional equilibrium, I continue to ponder the psychological state that I’ve been experiencing . I had noted that: “When one is fighting a lot of pain, 24/7, one is never bored. One may be frustrated, and even a little bit frightened, but one is not depressed. In moments of crisis there is no room for depression.” Remembering that Simone Weil had written of the positive spiritual uses of affliction, I thought that I might gain some insight there. In the section on “Affliction” in Gravity and Grace, she writes:

Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality.
But to suffer while preserving our consciousness of reality is better. To suffer without being submerged in the nightmare.

I don’t mean to aggrandize my own recent pain by suggesting that it has entailed anything like what Simone Weil means by “affliction” in its broadest sense. Affliction is much more than physical pain; but pain is part of it. And, from what Weil has written, it can be understood that the positive aspect of severe pain is that it shocks one awake; it keeps one in the moment.

This insight concerning being “shocked awake” brought to mind the teachings of George Gurdjieff, whose philosophy I had first encountered near the end of my college career. I have known Gurdjieff’s philosophy primarily as presented by his disciple, P.D. Ouspensky, in two books entitled In Search of the Miraculous and The Fourth Way. The Wikipedia article on Gurdjieff (linked above) states:

In his teaching Gurdjieff gave a distinct meaning to various ancient texts such as the Bible and many religious prayers. He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning in addition to those commonly attributed to them. "Sleep not"; "Awake, for you know not the hour"; "The Kingdom of Heaven is Within"...are examples of biblical statements that point to a psychological teaching whose essence has been forgotten.

Gurdjieff taught people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. According to his teaching, this inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform a man into what Gurdjieff believed he ought to be.

This concept that “sleep” is the normal state of human consciousness is central to Gurdjieff’s teachings. Much of his method involves training his students to awaken, and to stay awake, in order to practice a “self-remembering” that will allow them a kind of salvation. The Wikipedia article on Ouspensky (also linked above) provides the following excerpts on that theme, from In Search of the Miraculous:

Gurdjieff: "A man does not see the real world. The real world is hidden from him by the wall of imagination. He lives in sleep. He is asleep.

Only by beginning to remember himself does a man really awaken. And then all surrounding life acquires for him a different aspect. He sees that it is the life of sleeping people, a life in sleep. All that men say, all that they do, they say and do in sleep.

How can one awaken? How can one escape this sleep? These questions are the most important, the most vital that can ever confront a man."

Putting this all together, I came to the conclusion that there is a positive aspect to severe pain, in that it shocks one awake; it keeps one in the moment and remembering oneself. It turns out that being in the moment is better than being “out of it”—being asleep, in the Gurdjieffian sense. Even though that moment is literally painful, it is a moment of heightened consciousness, and is, therefore, paradoxically (as noted in the Weil quote above) akin to joy. Thus—I’ve come to believe—the unexpected let-down when the pain subsides: it is the feeling of drifting back into the chronic ennui of involuntary sleep.

So, my resolutions for the New Year are two: The first is never again to take for granted, or without gratitude, the simple ability to walk across a room; the second is to try to stay awake, to remember myself, and, in so doing, hope to benefit from more frequent infusions of joy.