Thursday, March 29, 2012

Laundry and Mortality

As I finish my fifth load of laundry (there are only two of us living in this house!) I reflect on the following:

In face of death, we have three choices: To try to distract ourselves with idle entertainment, quotidian cares and petty concerns (which is what most people do); or to submit to the reality of death, to allow it to fixate and overwhelm us, and to fall into despair (which some do); or to try to discover that which does not die in ourselves - that which endures. Now the last is done most commonly by those who adhere to conventional religion, at least to the extent that they subscribe to one or another concept of God and of salvation. And while this pursuit undoubtedly offers some consolation, it does not, to my mind, represent the truth.

This religious track inevitably leads, as I have said, to contradiction and disillusionment for anyone who can think past its concepts to its conclusions. Ultimately, in my experience at least, the path of conceptual religion (which is itself a contradictory notion), leaves the believer bereft of any sense of will, any power of self-determination, and any hope for survival of death. The idea of a God who is little more than an extension of Santa Claus - an old man who lives "up there," who speaks our language, concerns himself with our daily affairs and oversees our lives, rewarding us for good behavior and withholding reward for bad, is a juvenile, hollow thing. Likewise, the concept of heaven, an ethereal chamber wherein we will live in a gauzy state of suspended youth, doting on ourselves and our good fortune and enjoying some form of eternal pleasantry, is a pointless answer to the question of the meaning of life and the possibility of survival.

And so we are left with three possible outcomes to the problem of mortality: Ignore it until the moment when, in panic and uncertainty, we succumb; collapse under its suffocating weight and admit the meaningless of our lives; or carve out for ourselves, each in his own time and fashion, some answer to the questions: Why do we live, What meaning does life possess, and What happens after we die?

I have attempted all three, and as I grow older, it seems to me that the third course is the only one that offers hope and dignity. But it also requires a great dedication of thought and a good amount of self-knowledge and courage. To stand alone against the inevitable extinction of one's life is, as the existentialists said, the greatest test of a human being. To overcome the fear of hopelessness, to withstand the weight of despair, and to find some source of solace and purposefulness is at once the greatest challenge and the most pressing demand an individual can confront.

Yet confront it we must if we are not to be destroyed by death. In his story 'The Death of Ivan Iliych,' Tolstoy's character comes to the terrifying reflection: 'Death is all that there is; and death ought not to exist.' It was this denuding insight that led Tolstoy to his own desperate self-realization. Out of the experience of confronting his own mortality, which he and all other mystical thinkers have undergone, he was reborn.

But as what, and to what? As a man freed from the fear of death? I do not think so. I think Tolstoy was involved in an unceasing race against mortality which provoked in him both enormous labor and enormous suspicion. Having lived with him and studied his life and work for forty years, I am convinced that he never truly solved the problem of death - his own death. And, as all of us will, ultimately he succumbed, though more in hope than in fear.

Tolstoy in death was, I think, no more enlightened than was Tolstoy in life. The difference between him and the rest of us was a monumental intellect coupled with a rare gift for self-expression. I say rare and not unique, since it was equaled by that of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Bach, Leonardo and Michelangelo. Yet no more in them than in Tolstoy do I find a resolution of the problem, and an answer which can satisfy humanity at large. In the end, each man, each artist, struggled with his own mortality; though of them all, only Beethoven, I think, came close to the truth about the perplex.

That truth, it seems to me more and more, lies in what Kazantzakis called the need to transform flesh into spirit. That process is, of course, the essence of Buddhism, and for my own part, I find myself drawn more and more to its spirit, not of nihilism but of self-negation. The first is surrender, the second, a struggle. We are born into flesh, which means into death, and our salvation lies, not in any church or doctrine, but in our individual ability to free ourselves from flesh and so from death - in our power to transform flesh into spirit.

Those who do not understand that life is essentially spiritual (not religious, but spiritual) are, I think, condemned to death by their own minds. But those who can at least glimpse the true nature of existence - that that nature transcends our own and possesses its own vitality and destiny - may escape the fate which awaits every person born of woman. Yet, what is the nature of this nature which consumes and surpasses us? What is this spiritual reality?

To this point in my thinking, I had made the distinction between flesh and an animating force which resides in everything that lives. (It is for this reason, for example, that I have tended to move away from the killing and consuming of any living creature.) The concatenation or intersection of the corporeal and the non-corporeal I have said gives rise in us to consciousness. Thus, I have seen consciousness as the product of organic life, its characteristic phenomenon, at least in sentient, that is, self-reflecting beings.

Now, however, my thinking is beginning to change. I am questioning whether my model has been misconstrued. It seems to me now that, rather than being the product of sentient life, consciousness may itself be the force which animates life. In other words, consciousness is the animating force which I had posited in my attempt to explain the peculiar nature of self-aware beings. What if consciousness is itself the animating force, and human consciousness merely a reflection of it, limited by corporeal existence? What if there are not three components to organic life: flesh, spirit, and consciousness? What if there are only two: the corporeal and consciousness? What if consciousness is the animating force; what if it is spirit? What if it is that reality which I have characterized as that which men speak of when they speak of God?

If that is so, the implications are far-reaching. Every individual person, then, is a reflection of pure consciousness, and is, theoretically, capable of purifying and rarefying his being to the point where he can attain nearly to consciousness itself. Does this not raise the possibility of survival of death? Understood in this way, would it not be possible for every human being to view death as a retrograde movement toward that which is his or her true nature? Would death then not become a form of liberation - a liberation of our true selves? And does not immortality consist in our embracing once again the pure consciousness which is our progenitor and our birthright?

What survives, then, is what we truly are - pure consciousness. We see now as through a glass darkly, but then, we face ourselves. It is not God that we seek beyond death, but our veritable nature, which we can glimpse even here and now in our moments of greatest exultation, as in the birth of our children, or the ecstasy of love, or moments of artistic transport, especially in music.

In those exalted experiences, perhaps, we can see what it is that survives, because it resides within ourselves. It is that consciousness which we call God or love or simply happiness. But ultimately and essentially, it is what we are, what we are made of, what we are destined to recover through the experience of death. Mortality, in this light, appears as rediscovery. Death is our destiny in the sense that it restores us to that which we truly are, whether we can see it through this veil of life or not.

I will continue to muse about these questions in future. But now I must confront the pressing question of the moment: fabric softener or not.