Chapter 2 - Consciousness: The Way Out of Pain
The Power of Now - Kickoff Essay
by Marshall Sontag (marshallsontag -at- yahoo.com)
Chapter 2 - Consciousness: The Way Out of Pain
Evaluating the ideas in The Power of Now requires a certain context that, as a recovering Objectivaholic, was somewhat alien to me. Much of what he says would easily be dismissed by many orthodox Objectivists as mysticism, emotionalism, subjectivism, intrinsicism and collectivism; at this point, their vocabulary would be exhausted and they'd have no choice but to withdraw sanction -- but I digress. It requires a certain kind of attitude of complete honesty and openness in which you try your hardest to understand something (so long as you perceive some value in it, of course). After letting go of a lot of misconceptions regarding whether I really understood much of what I thought I did, I have since been trying earnestly to cultivate this attitude and The Power of Now has been a fantastic catalyst towards that goal. The specifics of how I applied this attitude will be discussed in the analysis part of my essay. With that said, let me jump right into Chapter 2: "Consciousness: The Way Out of Pain."
The focus of this chapter is the elimination of pain -- the emotional pain that Eckhart describes in the first chapter as "resentment, hatred, self-pity, guilt, anger, depression, jealousy and so on, even the slightest irritation." This pain that one experiences in any given moment is caused by identifying with one's mind and is "always some form of non-acceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is." Through mind-identification, this resistance to the present moment takes form as judgment in terms of thought and is accompanied by its emotional concomitant, negativity, which is the experience of pain. The more "the unobserved mind runs your life," the more we resist the present moment through judgment and negativity and the more pain we feel.
Eckhart states that this experience of pain is a result of letting your mind run your life by identifying with it and then it subsequently resisting the present moment; But the question remains: Why would your mind seek to resist the present moment? "Because it cannot function and remain in control without time, which is past and future, so it perceives the timeless Now as threatening. Time and mind are in fact inseparable." According to Eckhart, your mind has "desires" of its own and wishes to control you, but can only do so by removing your focus from the present moment and placing it in the past and future, for only the present moment holds for you the ability to realize the truth of your true nature: your state of connectedness with being.
What is Eckhart's solution to this self-inflicted pain? "Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have… Always say 'yes' to the present moment." When you accept the present moment as it is, resistance to or denial of it becomes impossible and your mind loses its grip on you.
Sometimes, though, we don't like what the present moment contains; perhaps something is irritating you or perhaps the present moment is absolutely intolerable -- surely we are justified in judging it as such and being upset about it, right? No cigar, says Eckhart. "Observe how the mind labels [the present moment] and how this labeling process, this continuous sitting in judgment, creates pain and unhappiness." The only thing making the present moment so intolerable is our own unconscious resistance to it, the only obstacle to inner peace being the identification we have with our minds. When you disidentify from your mind and instead watch it, you "step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be... Accept -- then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it." This acceptance of the present moment -- this allowing the present moment to be -- is the way out of pain.
The pain we do experience starts to accumulate and amasses into what Eckhart calls the pain-body which he describes as "a negative energy field that occupies your mind and body" and consists of the pain you have accumulated throughout your life, including the pain experienced in childhood. Like the mind, but perhaps in a different sense, the pain-body is also given a life of it's own. "The pain-body wants to survive, just like every other entity in existence, and it can only survive if it gets you to unconsciously identify with it."
How does the pain-body survive? By feeding on more pain, of course! "Once the pain-body has taken you over, you want more pain… You want to inflict pain, or you want to suffer pain, or both. There isn't really much difference between the two." When identified with the pain-body, you create painful situations and you sustain them, and in doing so allow the pain-body to thrive within you -- that is, until you shine the bright spotlight of consciousness onto the pain-body and disidentify from it. This process of becoming fully conscious, becoming the watcher of your mind and honoring the present moment results in a "higher dimension of consciousness" that Eckhart calls "presence."
As I mentioned previously, the ideas in The Power of Now ostensibly seem very incompatible with Objectivism, so a certain measure of gentleness and patience is required when trying to integrate them. If we are too haphazard in our approach, we may end up with something like the product of a rushed jigsaw puzzle, with pieces improperly jammed together in an incoherent fashion. One thing a person has to remember when attempting such a daunting task is that the majority of what Eckhart expounds consists primarily of psychological principles. Perhaps you might encounter what initially seems mystical to you and may feel compelled to dismiss it as such, but in doing so you risk discarding a legitimate and potentially valuable principle. I realized this a few months ago when I first started studying Eastern philosophy after several years of disdain for what I perceived as primitive irrational whim-worshipping hippy nonsense. I've since had a dramatic paradigm shift and have come to discover that the less expedient I am to judge the ideas, the more likely I am to find ounces of truth in them, even if it sometimes requires trimming away the fat. I still encounter certain facets of Eckhart that seem strangely mystical and I still acknowledge that, but I give him the benefit of the doubt and suspend my judgment, just like I did when learning a lot of Rand's ideas that I didn't initially understand. Armed now with an arsenal of appropriate questions, I am going to take on the insidious pain-body.
This chapter is primarily about the source of psychological pain being the denial of or resistance to the present moment, and that the mind's "continuous sitting in judgment" is the culprit. What initially strikes me here is his denunciation of judgment as being the source of pain. As an Objectivist, I've learned the propriety of, and even necessity for, proper judgment in regards to all aspects of my life. In "Fact and Value," Leonard Peikoff states that "every fact bears on the choice to live, every truth necessarily entails a value-judgment." He then elaborates:
"As Ayn Rand states the point in 'The Objectivist Ethics': 'Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every "is" implies an "ought." Evaluation, accordingly, is not a compartmentalized function applicable only to some aspects of man's life or of reality; if one chooses to live and to be objective, a process of evaluation is coextensive with and implicit in every act of cognition."
If we are to assume as correct Leonard Peikoff's interpretation of Ayn Rand, then in every act of awareness or in every fact that we perceive, there ought to be an evaluation that proceeds it. Or, in Ayn Rand's formulation, "one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one's own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly." If man's life is to be the standard of value that forms the foundation of a proper code of morality, meaning if we are to live a proper life, it is crucial that we evaluate every fact as being for our life or against it -- Right? Maybe not.
Several months ago, in a post on the same subject, Damian M. asked us to consider "what life would be like if we were to follow Leonard Peikoff's advice." While I think his supposition was intended as a rhetorical device or a thought experiment, he may have, perhaps unwittingly, been very close to the truth. This phenomenon of "continuous sitting in judgment" that Eckhart adamantly discourages seems to be the same state of consciousness that Peikoff and Rand are advocating we exercise in every waking moment of our lives. Speaking from experience, I believe Lenny and Rand to be wrong in their assessment and Eckhart's formulation to be correct -- the more attention I devote to judging what the present moment contains, the more negativity I generate and the more difficult it is for me to actually enjoy myself.
A certain measure of judgment is still required to live a healthy and enjoyable life, and it doesn't seem like Eckhart denies this. What he disapproves of is the compulsive judgment that our minds engage in, the automated habitual tendency to judge anything and everything that we experience. This is what I believe Eckhart to mean when he speaks of the mind as having a life of its own -- years of reinforcement have forged a complex yet illusory self that has its own wishes, desires, beliefs and goals. When we identify with this intricate system of patterns, habits and associations, it becomes us -- the mind has taken us over. What then follows, so long as we remain unconsciously identified, is a constant process of evaluation and subsequent negativity.
It is not difficult to realize in our own lives how we unconsciously and automatically create such pain for ourselves. For example, if I am awakened by a barking dog in the middle of the night, here are some things that might cross my mind: "I wish that thing would shut up! Why doesn't its owner discipline him, he's such a @#$%&-ing prick! I'll never get to sleep now! If I weren't a property rights-respecting Objectivist, I'd kill the stupid mutt!" and so on. If I then burn my turkey bacon in the microwave (or imitation soy bacon for you vegetarians), this too would most likely incur a series of angry thoughts and negative emotions. Before you know it, I'd be shouting vile obscenities at traffic lights, droplets of water falling from the sky and small children crossing the street on their way to school. At this point, I will most likely be looking forward to this day being over, or the weekend or the vacation I have coming up. As you probably can see, our constant resistance to each moment creates an overwhelming amount of displeasure and suffering. We constantly dwell on the past and focus incessantly on the future, and this process creates unnecessary pain in our lives.
This pain, however, doesn't dissolve the moment we stop feeling it. According to Eckhart, it "merges with the pain from the past, which was already there, and becomes lodged in your mind and body." This is where things get strange, as Eckhart identifies the emotional pain-body, an "invisible entity" that consists of negative "trapped life-energy." Here, compartmentalization becomes a bit more difficult, as we are faced with the idea that something else lives on inside of us, as well as concepts like "life-energy." What exact entity it is that Eckhart is referring to, I am still quite unsure of, and here is where I say it seems a bit mystical. However, there are many facets of the pain-body I can validate in my own experience, so I'll hold off on that judgment.
According to Eckhart, this "pain-body" takes us over through mind-identification, and then pursues its own survival by creating painful situations, and then feeding on the pain. Sounds like gobbledygook, but can you see elements of this in your own life? Many times I have identified with an intense negativity and subsequently tried to hurt someone else emotionally or dwelled in my own self-pity. In these moments, it seems that I am hell-bent on creating some kind of pain, either for myself or for others. The moment I become fully conscious of this phenomenon, when I become "present," this pursuit of pain ceases. Perhaps then, there is some sort of validity to this pain-body, but an entity on its own? Does Eckhart wish to imply the existence of some kind of inner Freudian conflict of distinct mental entities?
I believe the pain-body to be the most difficult idea of Eckhart's to wrap my mind around, and perhaps he would tell me that is my problem. The validity I find in his ideas is not found in his words themselves or in my conceptual understanding of them, but in my own experience of them. I definitely recognize that mind-identification creates pain, and I have seen elements of the pain-body in my own behavior, but how do you experience something like the existence of trapped life-energy? How would I go about validating that?
I hope these questions, and many others that I have, will be answered in the weeks to come. I know there is a great deal to be gained from Eckhart's teachings, and I foresee a radical improvement, not only in the quality of my life, but in others as well. Each moment that we experience will be more enjoyable. Every day that we live will be more fulfilling. We will be more in touch with the joyful and radiant experience of being. We will be more.