“Believe me! The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.”— Friedrich Nietzsche
Summary: In the pages that follow, you will encounter the seven most dangerous insights:
1. The Conservation of Suffering Principle
2. Existential Groundlessness
5. The Antinomies
6. The Dark Side
Are these insights really dangerous? Suffice it to say that if you know what’s good for you, you won’t read any further. Instead, you’ll pour yourself a nice strong drink and forget that you ever saw this essay. But I suspect that you’re about to confirm the adage that “fools rush in, where angles fear to tread.” Bon voyage!
The deepest insights are also the most dangerous, for they call into question our fundamental assumptions about life. They don’t teach us anything new. Rather, they reveal the hollowness of our hopes, ideas, concepts, and beliefs. Instead of helping us to fulfill our dreams, they awaken us from our dreams. They don’t promote our self improvement or “growth.” Rather, they precipitate something akin to death and transfiguration. Finally, they don’t make us feel good about ourselves. On the contrary, they’re more likely to make us sick to our stomach.
For example, most of us assume that — given enough hard word and some luck — we can achieve happiness and fulfillment. Certainly, we can improve our lot in life. And yet, we find ourselves perplexed over why the proportion of good times and bad times always seems to remain fairly constant, no matter what changes we make in our lives. If we become perplexed enough to investigate this phenomenon, we discover that the quest for happiness and fulfillment is riddled with contradiction.
We are no longer the same after such insights. We become, to paraphrase the title of a film, the man who knows too much, unable to return to who we were and to our familiar life. Nor do we know, just yet, how to navigate within our new world. That in between state is psychologically disorienting. No one would face such hardships, were it not for the fact that these insights are pathways into life’s depths, where joyful wisdom can be found. The potential rewards are worth the dangers of the journey.
There is, of course, an immense difference between reading about these profound insights and actually having them. All the same, reading and seeking understanding can plant the seeds for future epiphanies, even if they take ten or twenty years to sprout. On the other hand, the alchemy of insight can occur immediately. It all depends on whether one’s life experiences are able to confirm the truth of these insights.
But life experience, although necessary, is not sufficient. A person must be inwardly ready and ripe for insight. This ripeness only occurs for those who have been honest with themselves, who have not turned away from the truth of what life has revealed. The rate at which ripening occurs varies from person to person. There are, for example, people who need to have been married as many times as Elizabeth Taylor, for doubts to arise as to the promise of romantic relationships.
There exists, though, another danger, and a more likely one. Ironically, it is that nothing will happen. Those who have been to college have learned to keep their ideas at a safe distance from their personal lives. That is why our minds grow sharper, but our emotions remain just as dark, four years later. For real transformative knowing to occur, a different type of thinking is required. We must think not abstractly, but existentially, which means with our entire life on the line. The Buddhists say that we must learn to think with our guts, rather than just with our head. After exploring these insights, we’ll suggest what we can do to allow these insights to work as catalysts.
Now here is the curious thing: once an insight has struck, one would think that there could be no turning back. It’s very common, though, for people to flee what they’ve just seen. Drinking oneself to oblivion is a common means. But the effort to forget often assumes subtler, but equally desperate, forms. Any pursuit — from overeating to romance to politics — can be a hideout from the truth of human existence.
Thus, while a devastating insight can upset our psychological stability and perhaps be traumatic, the flight from the insight can itself be physically, morally, and spiritually deleterious. Indeed, the flight from such insights is often more dangerous than the insights themselves. Goethe clearly knew the dangers of profound philosophical insights, for he said, “Any growth in consciousness, without a corresponding growth in self-control, is pernicious.” That is why it is essential, for those who pursue wisdom, to live a life that can sustain them along the path to self-knowledge. Goethe spoke of the need for self-control. Other virtues are also important. After discussing these seven dangerous insights, we’ll explore practices that can give us strength and sustain us on our journey.
If these philosophical insights are dangerous, why pursue them? First of all, they may already be there, lurking on the periphery of our consciousness. Their ghostly presence periodically appears to us for a frightening second, and then disappears into the darkness of unawareness. It is far better to turn around and face the insights that have been haunting us, dreadful though they may seem.
Jacob wrestled the angel. Similarly, if we survive our wrestling match with these insights, they will confer on us their blessings. What sort of blessings? Those who embark on this perilous journey — depending on how far they get — will be blessed, to varying degrees, with self-knowledge, self-realization, freedom, inner peace, as well as mind-blowing wonder, amazement, and awe before the astonishing mystery of existence.
What follows now are the seven most dangerous insights. They are presented in no particular order. If there is sufficient interest, the author may expand on this essay, to create a larger work.
The Conservation of Suffering Principle
The belief in a happier tomorrow is what makes our present woes endurable. That belief might be contingent upon anything, from a new car to a new career, from a new relationship to a new world. Sometimes, we imagine that a certain event will make us free — such as graduation, the weekend, or retirement. But, whatever the anticipated improvement to our circumstances may be, when it finally arrives, there’s inevitably a letdown, for whatever we really hoped for did not come to pass.
Most people, after each letdown, find new objects of desire. Very few people begin to suspect that there’s something suspicious going on. Far fewer become perplexed enough to inquire into the nature of desire, to ask, as did Epictetus: “What is it about life that there is always something missing?” Were they to do so, they would be afforded a glimpse behind the Veil of Maya, to see that delusive shape-shifter known as human suffering.
Due to its plasticity, or shape-shifting abilities, suffering bears a curious resemblance to matter, for it can neither be created nor destroyed. Efforts to eradicate it only succeed in changing its form. We free ourselves from anxiety, but now feel bored. We are no longer lonely, but now suffer from conflicts with others. Within these transformations, the magnitude of suffering remains constant. Consequently, no matter what we do to find fulfillment, we still find that our world is “out of joint,” that something is lacking. These changes are guided by what might be called “The Conservation of Suffering Principle.”
If someone were asked why he was unhappy and he answered, “Because I lost my farm,” or “Because my dog died,” such a response would be quite reasonable. If he then declared, “It didn’t have to happen!” he would still be right. But he would also be naive, because his focus would only be on his suffering’s immediate cause. He would have failed to consider its ultimate cause.
The immediate cause of our dissatisfaction is always something in particular, and the fact that it happened may be purely accidental. But the fact that we suffer at all — apart from the particular form that our suffering may take — is not accidental. If it is not a lost farm, or a dead dog, it must, out of necessity, be other things, equally negative, that plague us.
What is source of this dark necessity? It consists in the fact that within us there is a lack, or emptiness. Just as nature abhors a void, so it is that the void within must be filled with suffering. Schopenhauer observes that when one big problem is gone from our life, another one will immediately replaces it. Sometimes a large problem gets replaced with a number of smaller ones. But, the quantity of suffering remains constant.
The reason why we are never satisfied is that our images of happiness are poor surrogates for that obscure, true object of desire. What, then, do we really want? That’s a long story. But here are two short answers. Plato, in the Symposium, suggests that behind all of our many desires is the desire for the Form of the Good, which is an image of the absolute, of the world understood in its totality. The answer that Hindu and Buddhist mystics give is that what we really desire is Self-realization. Plato and the eastern mystics are essentially saying the same thing: life is really about the Self, or the Absolute, seeking to know itself. Paradoxically, it can only do so through us, but we are standing in its way. Furthermore, the Self needs all gradations of desire to see itself. That’s all well and good; the difficult thing is to actually see it.
Even apart from Self-realization, the reward for penetrating insight into the conservation of suffering is a certain emotional clarity and peace, coupled with a sense of wonder about human existence. Insight into the conservation of suffering is certainly mindboggling enough to stop us in our tracks, but it is the least dangerous of these seven insights. (I have written more on this principle in a separate essay. I have also explored this principle, in the context of relationships, in Awakening with the Enemy.)
Everyone’s life is founded on a set of unexamined metaphysical assumptions. We have, for example, assumptions about the nature of reality, life’s purpose, and the meaning of suffering. They constitute our worldview. We also have assumptions of a social and political nature. Finally, we have a more personal set of assumptions, which include ideas about who we are and how life should be lived.
It’s rare that we become conscious of our assumptions, for introspection is difficult and can be emotionally trying. The only time when we are sufficiently motivated to turn inward is when we become seriously perplexed by life. Then, we seek to understand how we got to where we are. A person might come to realize, for example: “No wonder I haven’t any good friends. I always assume that everything is about me.” If we bring a hidden assumption to the light of consciousness, it ceases to function as a guiding principle for our life. The flow of our life energies has been interrupted and we are in crisis.
When our basic assumptions about life fall into doubt, it leaves us without a ground, center, foundation, meaning, or organizing principle to focus our energies. Imagine that you’re the cartoon character called Wile E. Coyote. You run off a cliff, in pursuit of the roadrunner. You’re doing OK, until you dare to look down and notice that you’re not standing on anything. Then, you go plunging into the abyss! That’s what it’s like to realize that you have no foundation for your existence. After having glimpsed that scary truth, many people will then seek to obliterate it from their awareness.
Sometimes, in the ordinary course of life, we may find ourselves asking the type of existential questions that cause us to realize that we do not have a ground for our existence. For example, a young woman decides to pursue a career as a lawyer. After four years of college and three of law school, and passing the Bar Exam, she is ready to practice. But she begins to question of the significance and purpose of her career. Whatever meaning being a lawyer might have once had for her is gone. Ironically, sometimes only after the “how” question (in this instance: how to get the law degree) has been addressed, does the “why” question” (why be a lawyer) emerge.
She could, as often happens, view her work as a means to making money, so that she can do what she really enjoys, playing golf, traveling, or some other such activity. Or, if she is a more authentic person, she may suffer an existential crisis. People often desperately pursue distractions, so as to hide from the vertiginous perception that their life is without a ground.
Suffering of any sort, if it becomes great enough, can often perplex us enough to raise questions about life. Even those who are philosophically phlegmatic seek, at times, an explanation or justification for suffering. The effort to make sense of how God — who we assume to be just — could allow us to suffer as we do, is called “theodicy.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said that “There is a providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I.E., all that happens to us is not simply accidental or arbitrary. On the contrary, it is meaningful.
But the notion of providence implies that God is all-powerful, infinite, absolute, omnipotent, and omniscient. For how else could God be implicated in the fall of a sparrow? One implication is that if God is omniscient, then there is no free will, for He already knows what we are going to do. Consequently, there would also be no ground for morality. After all, how could we be held accountable for our acts, if we are not free, by virtue of everything in life being predestined?
Furthermore, we want to believe that God is good. God must be good, for if He is a malevolent and capricious tyrant, then there is no ultimate justice, and life is meaningless. But here is the problem, if God is absolute, then He is also the author of all of the evil that exists. In that case, God is no different than the gods of ancient Greece, i.e., all-powerful, but neither good nor just, and all that befalls us in life is meaningless.
The other alternative is to limit the power of God. In that case, God is not the author of the evil that exists in the universe. But, if God is not all-powerful, there is not “a providence in the fall of a sparrow.” On the contrary, it would mean that what happens to us is accidental, meaningless, and absurd. There are, of course, all sorts of twists and turns, within theodicy. The truth of the matter is that suffering can neither be explained nor justified. This is not to say that we cannot rely on religious faith, but faith cannot satisfy the hunger of human reason to make sense of it all.
The realization that we cannot find an intelligible connection between our individual life and that which is eternal and absolute has a number of consequences. For one thing, it means that our life does not have an ultimate ground or center. The result is metaphysical vertigo. If most people do not encounter this dizzying perception, it is because they never look down to notice that they have no ground. More specifically, they take what is not an ultimate ground to be an ultimate ground.
If, in the proceeding example, we had asked the student about the purpose of her life, she might have said, “to be a lawyer.” That would have served as her first principle, or ultimate ground. It would have been that which organized her activities and focused her life energies. But if we then asked her why she want wants to be a lawyer, she would realize — if she was honest with herself, and open to philosophical inquiry — that becoming a lawyer cannot be an ultimate ground, but needs to be related to that which is ultimate. In truth she does not have an ultimate ground.
Furthermore, people distract their mind — with everything from important life projects to various trivial pursuits — so as not to notice that their life is without an ultimate ground, purpose, and meaning. To ask questions about life’s meaning and purpose is to tamper with our metaphysical underpinnings. Such inquiry is risky business.
One of the delusions of youth is that we are free to choose the direction of our life. In an obvious sense, we are free to make decisions. But it takes a certain amount of living to perceive that the force of fate was guiding those decisions. This discovery is not contingent on the degree of success or failure that we has thus far achieved. All the same, the thwarting of our goals and the perception of failure is far more likely to lead us to conclude that the actual course of our life belies our youthful belief in freedom. Thus, the tragic vision of life — as Whitehead states, in Science and the Modern World — is not about bad things happening. The tragic vision is really about fate. Our inability to prevent bad things happening merely confirms the existence fate.
What really is fate? The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “A man’s character is his fate.” I.E., just being who we are is our fate. Apropos is the film Ground Hog Day (1993). Its protagonist, a cynical and unhappy newscaster, played by Bill Murray, finds that he is living the same day over again. That is really a metaphor for the discovery of fate. After all, if we remain the same person, then everyday will essentially be, more of less, the same. What seems different will be but a variation on a theme.
We are the same person, in so far as we subscribe to the same set of assumptions about life. Intuiting this identity causes us to feel heavy and trapped. Many people, in midlife, are burdened by that sense. The youthful belief in freedom has been replaced with the feeling of bondage. Often, people will attribute their sense of bondage to the situation that they have created for themselves — the job, the house, the mortgage, etc. But, the true bondage, which we may see in our more lucid moments, is to none other than oneself! This is a disturbing insight. The danger is that we could become despondent. It is ironic, then, that in youth we pray that we can have the opportunity to be ourselves. But, when a man realizes that none other than himself traps him, he then prays that he may be free of himself.
Even knowledge of our fate is not sufficient to prevent it. After all, King Oedipus is actually told, by the oracle, that he would murder his father and sleep with his mother. He is horrified. But in fleeing his fate, he ends up fulfilling his fate. Similarly, the baby boomer, “me generation,” of the 1960s rejected their parents’ material values. They particularly despised big government bureaucracies. There were, back then, plenty of oracles predicting that the hippies would end up like their parents.
The oracles’ prophesies have come to pass, for the 1960s generation is thoroughly materialistic, even more so than their parents, who still retain certain religious values. Furthermore, the 1960s generation’s embrace of big government is moving America toward socialism. Like Oedipus, they have murdered the father. I.E., they have rejected patriarchal, Judeo-Christian values. And like Oedipus, they have married the mother. I.E., in championing a government that promises to take care of everybody — at the expense of individual initiative — they have placed their sympathies with matriarchal values. But, whereas Oedipus was horrified by what he had done, the baby boomers’ lack of memory renders them ignorant of what they have done. Where memory is lacking, fate reigns unchallenged and selfhood remains an unrealized possibility.
We had said that knowledge of one’s fate is not enough to prevent it. And yet, the antidote to fate really is self-knowledge. The problem is that for knowledge to be efficacious, it must penetrate our very being. The path to freedom lies not just in intuiting, but in seeing, with great clarity, the hidden identity that underlies everything about us, i.e., the unconscious set of assumptions that constitute our worldview, or way of seeing life. We must see its operation everywhere — from the foods we eat to the job we do to our inner conflicts.
Were we to begin to gain this clarity, we would initially feel even more trapped. It’s not that we are more trapped; it’s just that we notice it a lot more extensively. But, if we do gain enough clarity, we can begin to perform actions outside the narrow parameters of our character. In so far as we can illuminate our character, it is no longer our fate. Thus self-knowledge really is the route to freedom, and what initially was a dark insight, can become the door to our inner liberation.
Many people go through life viewing death as an abstraction, as something that happens to other people. That is how Ivan Ilyich — the protagonist of Tolstoy’s novelette The Death of Ivan Ilyich — experienced death, until he became seriously ill. The awareness of death usually comes as a serious of shocking realizations that one is a mortal being. Such moments can begin early on, even in childhood. But they are followed by forgetfulness again. The awareness of one’s morality, although an obvious fact of life, is also an important insight for each person.
Most of the time, the realization of one’s mortality may comes as a shock, but not as one that is dangerous to the system. On the contrary, it is very sobering, placing the concerns of our life into their proper perspective. Compared to death, getting dumped by our sweetheart, losing our job, and even having our house burn down, seems not quite so tragic. And, compared to death, life’s lesser kicks an pricks — from obnoxious salespeople to neighbors who neglect to clean up after their dogs — seem rather trivial.
It is the flight from the awareness of death that is far more likely to be dangerous. For it is when we forget our mortality that the stresses and strains of everyday life get blown out of proportion. Taking everything too seriously, we become miserable and exhausted. Now here is the curious thing about human beings: after having come to the sobering realization that they are mortal, they then proceed to forget that they are! Even after having narrowly escaped death the day before, most people soon return to their state of forgetfulness. As T.S. Eliot said: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” That is why almost every religion seeks to correct the weaknesses of human nature, by encouraging its followers meditate on death.
There is another aspect of mortality that is also important here: not only will we die, so will the society, nation, or world that we presently inhabit. Even if it be in a thousand years, it will eventually come to pass. This brings us back to the question of ground, meaning, and purpose. We commonly seek to transcend the finitude of our life by thinking that what we do will somehow contribute to the future. People, in other words, justify the suffering they experience and the sacrifices for the world that will come about. But, the end of the world that we know breaks the chain of meaning.
In truth, though, it rarely takes a thousand years for the chain of meaning to be broken. After a lifetime of struggle, the South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar concluded, “Those who have served the cause of revolution have plowed the sea.” Whether it’s creating a revolution or a business or children, nothing that is created can forever withstand the ravages of time.
Bolivar, at the end, experienced bitterness. But that need not be the only response to the perception of life’s transiency. We could also experience the heights of sublimity. As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest:
“And like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
How, then, can we move from the sense of frustration, futility, and bitterness, to a sense of the sublime? A clue can be found in our linear sense of time. We, therefore, assume that we personally, as well as our civilization, should be headed somewhere. Thus, when all of our strife and struggle does not bring about the millennium, but ends with ruination, we despair. Our present struggles then seem meaningless. The Hindus, by contrast, have a circular notion of time. Worlds come and they go. It may all come to nothing, but it is not meaningless, nor is it meaningful, as we usually understand the word. This is because the perception of life as a cosmic dream and as divine play is beyond the category of meaning. Thus, to cure the fallout from the insight that life is transient, a deeper insight is required. It is often the case that the cure for an insight is an even deeper one.
Imagine that, at birth, each of us is given the same puzzle to solve, something like Rubik’s Cube. We are told that if we can solve the puzzle we can achieve happiness and fulfillment. So everything that we do in life is essentially an effort to solve the puzzle. What we are not told, though, is that this puzzle, called life, is impossible to solve. The reason why it is impossible to solve is that the requirements selfhood are in contradiction to each other, such that if we satisfy one requirement, we must fail to satisfy another.
For example, a lot of effort consists in making our world safer, for we all desire security. But, we also desire adventure. Too much security, and we feel bored. Too much adventure, and we wish to back home again. Obviously, security and adventure are opposites and contradictory requirements. Modern life consists of various attempts to adjudicate these requirements. There are, for instance, theme parks created to give people a sense of adventure, but without any real danger. And many people get their fix of virtual adventure by watching TV shows. Of course, these are poor surrogates for the real thing, for we know that there isn’t any real risk involved, and so boredom soon returns. We shall explore just a few more instances of contradiction. Actually, “antinomy” is the more precise word here, for an antinomy is a contradiction that cannot be resolved by removing one of its terms. That is why we have entitled this section “the antinomies.”
The reason why we seek to be in a relationship is because we realize that we cannot embody opposite requirements for selfhood, try as we may. For example, most people see the need to be responsible, focused, centered, and goal-directed. But, we also wish to be carefree. One common solution consists in being responsible on the weekdays and carefree on the weekends. Apparently, the effort to balance these requirements within our week is not sufficient. That is where relationships enter the scene.
In a relationship, we implicitly agree to embody one set of qualities, while our partner implicitly agrees to embody the opposite qualities. That is why opposites attract. But, what inevitably happens is that both people in a relationship want their own side to be superior to the other. Thus, the person who agrees to be the responsible one criticizes the one who is carefree: “You can’t even balance a checkbook. Now I have to deal with your overdraft!” But the carefree one might criticize the responsible one for being too stiff and serious all of the time: “All you even talk about is work and money. You’re never any fun!” In truth, the person in a relationship would like his or her partner to embody contradictory qualities, and at the same time. If, by analogy, our sweetheart asks us, while driving, to turn left, we can do that. And we can turn right. But, if our sweetheart says” “If you love me, you’ll drive left and right at the same time,” that request cannot be completed.
In truth, life is riddled with contradiction. There is, for example the contradiction between our plans and what actually happens, due to the unforeseen. That discrepancy is the underlying premise of both tragedies and comedies. According to Kierkegaard, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “The tragic and the comic are the same in so far as both are based on contradiction, but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical the painless contradiction.” For example, we see Jackie Gleason, in the classic TV series, The Honeymooners, making plans, and everything happening to upset those plans.
Everyone must intuit that life is riddled with contradiction or else they would not seek comic relief. But there is vast difference between intuiting that life is a contradictory enterprise and clearly understanding it to be so. The latter is a devastating insight, for it points to the hopelessness of our efforts to be in the world. For the person who does come upon this insight comedy is all the more valuable.
But neither tragedy nor comedy is the last word, for the effort to attain deeper insight into this contradictory project we call human existence is a rather curious route out of Plato’s Cave and into the sunlight. Stated another way, it is the path from ordinary unconscious life to existential clarity and despair to Eastern wisdom, the great awakening, and to a realm that lies beyond those opposites that are at the root of contradiction.
The Dark Side
There are two related insights here. The first is about the darkness within. C.G. Jung referred to each person’s unacknowledged dark side as “the shadow.” Those who fail to recognize their shadow project their sins on to other people. It is, indeed, very common for a person to blame someone else for what is really his own fault. People do it, and entire nations do it with other nations.
The acknowledgement of our dark side is often the product of trials and tribulations, often occurring over the course of many years. It can sometimes be a shattering experience. Often, it is a necessary preparation for other major insights. After all, if we can survive an encounter with the shadow, then we have the requisite strength to survive the other dangerous insights as well.
There is no standard procedure for recognizing the shadow, other than to accept the verdict of life experience. Living long enough, we are able to detect patterns, particularly in the interpersonal realm. In other words, if our life history continues to repeat itself, we may then suspect that, as Pogo says: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” An extreme example of people who deny their shadow are those that go through life nurturing a grievance over one thing or another. On the other hand, we must also know when our problems really are due to the ill will of other people. It often takes honesty, coupled with a discriminating mind, to know which is which.
The second insight has to do with the nature of evil itself. Some theorists, such as M. Scott Peck, distinguish those who are sinful, from those who are evil. Peck, in The People of the Lie (1998) contends that evil people know quite well that they sin, but feel no compunction about it. While most people are sinful, or egotistical, to varying degrees, very few posses the level of malevolence characteristic of those who are evil.
Martin Buber, on the other hand, had argued that there are really two varieties of evil. What Peck regards as sin — or what is commonly referred to as egotism — Buber regarded as the first form of evil. Buber, in his book Good and Evil (1953) called it the evil of indecision, for it derives from a person becoming lost in a swirl of life possibilities. The person of this sort lacks focus and direction in his life.
Buber contends that there exists, though, a second type of evil, the evil of decision. It is akin to Pecks notion that the truly malevolent person has chosen to be so. And it corresponds to what had Kant referred to as “radical evil.” While very few people are radically evil, there exists enough of them, such that sooner or latter everyone is bound to have an encounter with such an individual. (Of course, when an evil person becomes the leader of a nation, a great many people become witness to evil.)
No doubt, the notion of radical evil is troubling. That is partly why there have been varying efforts to explain it away, by reducing evil either to human stupidity or to mental disease or to poor behavior stemming from poor upbringing, etc. Even Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil,” although thought provoking, is reductionistic.
Those who deny the existence of evil — either by means of reductionistic explanations or simply outright — sometimes do so out of naiveté. But their denial most often stems from a failure of nerve. They hide behind the supercilious claim that they subscribe to a “nuanced morality,” or some other form of moral relativism. That one’s nerve would fail in the presence of evil is understandable, for the existence of evil flies in the face of rational understanding. Like any encounter with the irrational, or the uncanny, the encounter with evil can be disorienting, dizzying, and nauseating.
Some theorists have described evil as a mystery, and indeed it is, to a large extent. But if it is a mystery, how then can we have insight into it? First of all, there are insights to be had; indeed we have just explored some of them. But, apart form the valuable theoretical distinctions in regard to the nature of evil, and apart from the encounter with our shadow, the mere recognition that evil exists is itself an important insight into human reality. Whatever evil may be, the encounter with it, and the concomitant acknowledgement that it exists, reveals that the world a more frightening place and than we had imagined. It awakens us from the Utopian fantasy that we can have peace in our time. It also reveals that the world is a more mysterious place than one had imagined. There lies the insight.
We shall add that even more perplexing than the mystery of evil is the mystery of good. After all, evil does make a certain intuitive sense, for we see people, all the time, pursuing their own self-interest, just as we pursue our own. But the idea of sacrificing one’s self-interest, and maybe even one’s life, to help another person is far more inexplicable than the existence of evil. It seems to emerge from another realm. There are important insights to be had about goodness. But such insights are uplifting, and are not dangerous, which is why we shall not be exploring them here. Well, maybe they are dangerous, in so far as they inspire, and awaken in us the hero.
In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “…there are men who die without — save for brief and terrifying flashes of illumination — ever having suspected that the Other is.” Aren’t most of us aware of the existence of others? Obviously, in some sense, we are. But, Sartre believes that there is a very important sense in which we normally are unaware. In what sense, then, are we typically unaware of the existence of other people?
Egotism, for example, is an attitude in which we are minimally aware of other people, for they are nothing more than a means to an end. The egotist divides other into three groups. There are:
A. Those whom the egotist believes can help him to achieve his goals, be it happiness, success or worldly power.
B. Those whom he views as obstacles to his goals.
C. The rest of humanity, who occupy a neutral position.
There is a scene, from a comic film, that illustrates this attitude of mind. There is a lively party going on, and a man and woman, apparently in love, spot each other from opposite ends of the room where the party is being held. As romantic music plays, they run towards each other with their arms open, ready to embrace. But, as they’re run, they’re accidentally knocking over everyone and everything that is in their path. People, platters of food, and all else go flying. This sort of romance has rightly been called a folly a deux, for the two parties are neither aware of themselves, nor each other, nor of the rest of the world.
But there is a deeper sense to Sartre’s statement. Typically, we not only view other people, but the world itself, through a kind of self-enclosed bubble. I.E., we see everything through the prism of our preconceived ideas, concepts, and worldviews. Consequently, we believe that other people are not that different than we are. It comforts us to think that.
The Jungian psychologist, M. Esther Harding, in The I and the Not I (Bollingen, 1973), argues that most people are so enclosed in their Umwelt, or world of self-relevance, that even their notion of helping each other remains locked within that self-enclosed bubble. As Harding states:
…one judges everyone else by one’s standard and from one’s own standpoint. The universality of this condition is even reflected in the moral injunction to do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. For actually it is at least possible that the “other” would prefer something quite different from yourself. (I once hear a woman say, “I have learned to let people enjoy themselves in their own way.”) (p. 25)
Thus, it is not just the egotist who is unaware of other people. Even our good-natured efforts to do a good turn to our fellow beings often backfires, when we do not recognize how different their tastes and values can be from our own.
There can come a time, though, when those whom we thought we knew very well, friends and family, no longer look familiar. Rather, they appear as strangers, as profoundly alien to us. Sartre calls such moments “brief and terrifying flashes of illumination.” The terror is that of the uncanny, the perception of that which is beyond all the categories of our understanding. Here, then, is a dangerous insight. It is dangerous because once a crack has appeared in our self-enclosed bubble, it threatens to grow and to make the entire world appear to be unfamiliar. Then we are truly “a stranger in strange land.” If such moments are brief, as Sartre says, it is because there is some sort of mechanism — a kind of internal circuit breaker — that shuts down our awareness, resealing the crack in the bubble, before the perception of the unfamiliar becomes too dangerous.
Over the centuries, the various spiritual disciplines have created thousands of practices. They are designed to help people to endure and to progress along the arduous path of knowledge. The best practices are custom-designed for each spiritual seeker. But there are practices that would be of value to anyone pursuing these seven dangerous insights. We have already mentioned the practice of remembering death. I.E., it consists of viewing the concerns of everyday life from the vantage point of death. Here are a few more that are recommended:
1. Illuminating the Everyday
2. Awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily feelings
3. Awareness of Routines
4. A Stabilizing Activity
5. Letting go of excess seriousness
The first, illuminating the everyday, constitutes much of the real work in any spiritual pursuit. Practices two and three have to do with breaking the chain of habit. They are designed, in other words, to free us from clinging to who we were, after we have changed. Practices four and five are designed to sustain us amidst the difficulties of spiritual practice. They are designed for stability, and to relieve us of some of the stresses and heaviness that can emerge along the journey.
Illuminating the Everyday
This practice involves illuminating the symbolic dimension of our everyday life, including our interests, activities, and desires. Even a quotidian activity like eating is replete with symbolic meanings. Unless we were to clarify the symbolic dimension of our life, we would experience a painful discrepancy between our emotions and the life of spirit. This is a large topic and it would require separate essays to explore the deeper symbolic meaning of everyday life. The clue to knowing that there is a symbolic meaning at the root of our interest in an activity is not being able to explain our interest in the activity on a practical level. In any case, it is a good idea to keep a journal, to record one’s observations and analysis of our desires, interests, and activities.
Awareness of thoughts, emotions, and bodily
Those who seek wisdom do not just want knowledge. They want a transformed life. The problem is that even after we have had these seven insights, we may still find ourselves falling back into outworn ways of experiencing the world. We might find ourselves with the same old feelings and thoughts. To have these return, after we thought — by virtue of our insights — that they were gone, is a real source of suffering. What makes it so painful is that we are experiencing what we no longer believe in, but cannot stop doing so. In other words, we find ourselves prisoners of our outmoded habits.
The Buddhists recommend mindfulness. A lot there meditation practices involve watching feelings and thoughts arise. The thing to do is to watch them arise without going along with them. It is difficult to watch the restless mind while meditating. It is more difficult to watch it while in the world, in the midst of our everyday activities. Oftentimes, we shall want to trace back a particular feeling or thought to the particular philosophical assumptions at their root. Doing so will increase our wakefulness and centeredness. In essence, what emerges is a sense of our true identity, as a free awareness, apart from feelings and thoughts. This is a very liberating feeling. But it takes a lot of practice, to cultivate mindfulness in this way.
This is also where the body enters the equation. Apart from thoughts and emotions, there are bodily feelings. These are all too familiar tensions of all sorts. They could be anywhere — in our backs, arms, legs, and so on. These tensions have the power to hold us to who we were. Thus, if we hope to no longer be the person whom we were, these tensions must be let go of. Here, again, mindfulness is essential. In practicing, we might observe that certain feelings and thoughts are connected to certain bodily feeling. Thus, if these bodily feelings are let go of, the emotions and thoughts will go too.
Awareness of Routines
Routines also fall under the general category of habits. They keep us feeling, thinking, and acting as the person we no longer really are. Routines can include, for example, anything from taking the same route home every evening from work to eating the same foods to having the same type of conversations with our friends. The thing to do, then, is to take a different route home from work, teat different foods, and to have a different sort of conversation with friends.
It is important, though, not to seek to break the chains of habits without first spending time with the seven dangerous insights. For unless there is real insight on our part, just engaging in these practices will be akin to behaviorism. In that case, the practices will not be effective in changing who we are and how we experience life. There is a good chapter on letting go of routines in Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan (Washington Square, 1991)
A Stabilizing Activity
There are occasions when we might find the fallout from spiritual practice — such as disorientation, anxiety, and heaviness — to be too much to take. What often does the trick is a stabilizing activity of some sort. It could be anything from gardening to playing the piano to jogging. Such and activity has the power to guard us from the winds of inner change. The key here is being able to rest, without regressing.
Letting Go of Excess Seriousness
There is a danger that those who explore the seven deadly insights will become too emotionally heavy. After all, the road to wisdom is not a walk in the park. This practice, then, consists in letting go of excess seriousness. We might utilize comic media — such as humorous TV show, films, and standup comics — to help rid us of excess seriousness. There is a danger, though, that these media could become a crutch. It is far better to simply not take oneself and the world too seriously. What is really required is an attitudinal shift, from serious to light-hearted. That shift takes work. If such efforts are rarely undertaken, it is because the notion that we must work to become lighthearted does not sit well with people. It’s much easier to turn on the TV, or to utilize a similar such drug.
The ability to laugh amidst one’s difficulties indicates that one is not a slave to the world and its meanings, but a free man. It requires a certain fighting spirit not to allow the world, and its terrible seriousness, to intimidate us into losing our smile. It takes practice not to take the world too seriously. In any case, the cultivation of the comic spirit can provide a necessary inner balance, when pursuing the seven dangerous insights.
We had referred to these seven dangerous insights as pathways into life’s depths. They can also be viewed as rites of passage, the fruit of which is an expanded vision of reality. They can lead to yet other insights, to those that can be characterized as mystical. There can, therefore, be a happy ending to this dangerous journey. But, even apart from how far along the path one gets, to travel along that path is feel fully alive.