21 March 2011

Ought

I used practice a particular form of prayer for some time. I think it comes from Theophan the Recluse, but I am no longer sure of that. The basis of the practice is to contemplate a condition in which you are owed nothing by anyone in any way. Because of our modern nature we tend to first think of this in terms of commercial debt. To us the 'literal' sense of being owed has to do with money and debt. In my experience this is a useful surface, but does not really get to the underlying condition.

Consider the word 'ought.' What does this word mean to you? 'We ought to do this.' 'They ought to do/have/be something.' 'It ought to be this way or that way.' 'Ought' is a past tense form of the verb 'to owe.' 'Should' has a similar meaning and related origin. One possible consequence of this is that anywhere we have a complaint - in any moment of suffering - we are experiencing a moment of feeling we are owed something. In any moment of offense or conflict we are likely to have some frame of being owed something, though it may not occur for us in this way.

Before we go any further, there are two ways not to use this contemplation, from my point of view. I would not recommend using it on others, in order to assert that someone else is not owed something, etc. Oddly, this usually takes the form of something like "you shouldn't be some way, feel some way, or do this or that, etc." You see the difficulty I am sure. It is really only appropriate when applied to oneself. Additionally, I would not recommend applying such a contemplation to the question of whether you owe anyone anything. This is worth contemplating, but in my experience, not from the point of view of asserting that you do not owe anyone anything. Considered fully, we owe everything. We have had no hand in our own creation or existence. We are not beating our own heart in any direct way in any moment. We are not breathing ourselves most of the time. We imagine that we think our own thoughts and have our own feelings, take our own actions, but all of this is unclear. Even very simple, rudimentary investigations into this reveal it is not at all like what we might assume to be the case, regardless of what theories we might have about it. This contemplation of 'ought' is not a defense against the interconnected nature of our reality or the constructed nature of our self perception.

The only way to really consider it is to undertake such a contemplation. In order to undertake such a contemplation it is necessary to identify all the places in one's life where we might feel we are owed something. In order to do that we must contemplate moments of feeling offended, being embarrassed, having lost something, feeling wronged, etc. I was consistently in this reflection for several years and I have not found it necessary to engage in this for some years now. The current moment is one in which it feels to me appropriate to remember and enact such a reflection. I am not suggesting this for someone else in some way. I am, as is often the case, reflecting on my own state and process, such as it is, even though I may use the language of "we," "you" or "one." I am always simply speaking something about my own model and enactment.

I have found myself increasingly intolerant of what seems to me the mass insanity of our enactment on the planet at this moment. Sometimes this expresses itself as my frustration, or sorrow with some assumed other enacting something they should not enact. I am also aware of my own participation in such enactments. Even as I distance myself, perhaps through some moment of negation (I am not that), I am participating and feel the reflection of the intolerance in, on and about myself. This is only part of it of course. I also feel as if I 'should' be treated some other way, by some imagined other. Sometimes I imagine that such an other should listen to me about something. If they do listen I feel they should change.

Why 'should' they? Why 'ought' they listen to me or change in any way? What is my belief about this? What is it based on? If I find myself making arguments about such a proposition, why am I doing that? Perhaps I feel I have not been treated with sufficient dignity, respect or affection. Perhaps I feel I am owed such respect. I might feel that if I were actually 'important' in some persons life that I would see particular formalized signs of that and come to expect those, as if owed... as if it ought to be that way. I might have some transactional equation in mind where I have 'earned' such treatment and am therefore 'owed' such treatment, according to my models about such treatment, whether implicit or explicit in nature. The (pretended) implicit expectation is particularly useful for maintaining my bastion of offended self-righteousness.

Here is another thing not to do with this contemplation. It is not a matter of asserting that I should not feel that anyone owes me anything. You see the difficulty with that no doubt. It is not a moral matter.

In my own view we are still at the surface of such a contemplation. We pass through the transactions of money and behavior. What sort of things might we find at the bottom of such a contemplation? What expectations are we holding most dearly and implicitly. What is our basic condition?

On the one hand we have a kind of absolute impermanence. This is conditionally occurring in any moment as the endless sweep of change and changing patterns, seemingly coming into and going out of existence, from the limited perspective of our point of view. This would be fine if we did not care... but we do care. We love and we become confused about that. The matter of loving becomes a matter of 'ought.' The matter of impermanence becomes a violation.

Consider that. In the case of love as an expression of being, is anything owed? Ought anything to be a certain way? Is return or expectation of return part of that? Often our love becomes formalized in some way. We associate some form or process with love and come to believe that it is integral to and even necessary for love to be present. Love becomes a dependency based mechanistic transaction. Our attention then goes to the insistence on the presence or continued existence of that form, whether it is some set of conditions, the apparent form of a beloved, the 'object' of our love and attention, a process, sensation or experience. If the nature of the formal is that it is always changing, how is that going to work out? When it does not 'work out' according to our insistence on such forms, how are we in that moment? We try to solve it as if it were a problem to be solved. We apply reason, emotion, manipulation, force, etc., etc. This includes less obvious forms of self manipulation such as depression, in which we become an object to ourselves. We seek consolation in the face of our suffering, which is itself arising in the context of such desire and seeking. Often, the form we have associated with or insisted upon as love is itself a form of consolation in the face of an apparently unsolvable dilemma.

Ultimately, beyond such machinations, emotionality and defense we are heartbroken. Heartbreak is very different than suffering. Much suffering is the result of our resistance to heartbreak. Our condition is simply heartbreaking. We love. We are in a condition of impermanence. All forms we might associate with love go out of existence.

The contemplation of 'ought' then becomes a contemplation of where we feel we are owed some expression of permanence or love. If this or that does not happen according to this or that form, does it then mean we are unloved? Are we owed love? Are we owed permanence, any assurance about any continuity beyond the forgotten immediate? As with all such contemplations (e.g. karma yoga, unconditional positive regard, etc.) I am typically not graced with some moment of absolute liberation in the face of my own condition or the notion of being owed. I live in a condition of feeling owed this and that. I expect the next moment. I expect certain behaviors from people. I have expectations about the 'laws of nature.' I am also clear that all of that is unwarranted expectation that is strategically convenient and useful to me. This is not particularly 'helpful' and does not immediately lessen my insistence upon such expectation. The contemplation is then one of really coming to terms with where I feel I am owed. This often begins with a contemplation of my own moments of feeling offended, unloved, or separate. As a whole this feeling has characteristics for me. There is a pattern and source of such patterning. I contemplate the specifics and account for or release those as I am able. That is of some importance, but the specifics are part of a much larger enactment. In the contemplation I can intuit something about that enactment as a whole. There is a particular disposition to such a feeling of offense. There is a particular flavor to the attachment to my own (arbitrary) expectations. That 'system' of enacted offense, betrayal, separation, etc. has a structure and a strategic intent. In its severe moments this 'system' seems to exhaust my entire frame of self. The enactment becomes me. I am this enactment. I am self identified as such. Likely, I am either righteous, despairing or both in that moment of exhaustive self-identification as the enactment of a separate and offended self that is owed very much indeed.

The collapse of such a system is simultaneous in the moment of fully witnessing it. This is witnessing, not as some distant objective observer, but rather witnessing as a fully accepting participant and actor. This acceptance is a state. It is a state in which the whole is seen and felt fully, with no need to alter anything about it in any way. This is distinct from resignation or despair, in which we may feel a need, but no agency. The crisis that occurs when this system collapses is felt as heartbreak. The moment of such an enacted self going out of existence is felt, for me, as heartbreak. Within this is contained elation. The heart breaks open. The callouses arising from our defense against and resistance to impermanence are sloughed off. This is distinct from sorrow, anger, or despair though of course these are felt. Heartbreak, in this sense, is not primarily an emotional state or enactment. Clearly it is not cognitive. In the moments of such emotion, or resistance and suppression of such emotion, exhausting the frame of our reality we are still completely and utterly in the grip of the offense and self-identified as such. That moment is not heartbreak, though it can be heartbreaking. From this point of view, heartbreak is an ecstatic event. With respect to the historically grieved self, going out of existence, we are suddenly outside of our self. We have ceased that particular enactment of 'ought' in that moment.

We expect to not be heartbroken. We are owed that aren't we? A contemplation of this sort is not useful in any normal sense. It is not meant itself to be consoling in any way. Homer describes the anger of Achilles as smoke sweet honey from the comb. This contemplation reveals where we are clinging to what we are owed. The emotional and cognitive landscape of that becomes transparent if we will look. In the moment of that transparency we are offered a choice. Often we strategically delete this choice. Partaking of the smoke sweet honey, whether it is anger or despair, keeps in place our sense of separate self. The act of placing our attention on the offense keeps in place our enacted ego.

Other times in that moment of choice or crisis we are able to release any sense of being owed. Sometimes not. Sometimes this is immediate and utterly transformational in an apparently lasting way. The particular dance of that offense remains for us intact, but we no longer animate the steps in our life. When thoroughly seen in this way the fa├žade of that dance no longer serves its purpose, though we may find we are still possessed of an appetite for the smoke sweet honey from the comb satisfied by an animation of such a dance.

Sometimes we must return to this moment again and again over time. We are presented with choice, but simply cannot, or will not take it. We are immersed, though we do not recognize it as such. Emergence feels to us like an unfamiliar death to be avoided. Perhaps we are afraid, self-identified in our dependencies or rebellion. Perhaps we are in a condition where our survival seems to be intimately connected to the animation of this dance. The smoke sweet honey seems our only source of food. The conditions and even particular individuals in our life may seem to require and constantly be demanding that we animate this particular dance. In some particular instance of offense this can take years to dissolve and in that time the offense can serve as the defining context for our lives.

Our life itself is offensive. We die. We may have some consoling account or belief in place about our condition of impermanence. We have this because it is offensive. I am not saying that such beliefs are false or that we should not have them, or anything remotely like that. The sense of separate self is an enactment, not a given condition. In dying that enactment ceases. The contemplation of our own impermanence and what we feel we are owed in the face of that does not make it go away. It does not offer consolation. It is heartbreaking. Such heartbreak is a sane and appropriate state, given our condition. This does not mean that it is something to be sought, or lauded in a way that brings more attention to the dance of a separate self.

Such a contemplation is not useful. It will not make you better. It will not develop you. It will not help in any way whatsoever. Ultimately it is a contemplation of death and dying, not from some morbid point of view, though it can seem so. It is not a dramatization of death and dying. It is not a dramatization of suffering and impermanence. It is not a dramatization of heartbreak or any state as such in any way whatsoever. Such a contemplation transparently reveals, if only for some moment, the structures and arising of life and the enactment of a separate self within that animation. It is revelatory in nature, showing us the nature of the prior condition in which we are immersed and from which we emerge. That condition is one of interconnectedness and unity as a pre-existing state and condition of reality. The heart, broken open, becomes a window into that. From within such a moment, it is not meaningful. It is not meaningful and that lack of meaning is itself not meaningful.

That moment is liberating. The heart is liberated, even as it is broken open. The broken heart is not fragmented. It is open, whole, in that moment, which is all moments, remembered and recognized as such or not.

Suppose one has even a moment of such revelation, by whatever means. In that moment the functional self, with respect to the offense, simply goes out of existence. There is residue of all sorts, but the fundamental structure and enactment ceases to exist. It ceases to stand out against some background, which is what 'existence' means. That enacted, offended self is no longer distinct or separate. This is itself a dilemma. Suppose we experience something like that? That enacted self was useful to us. If nothing else our particular complaint and offense were useful to us. We could pursue what we were owed. It gave us something to do, presumably something important and meaningful to us, at any rate. Now what? The overwhelming tendency is to fill such space immediately and thoroughly, usually with fundamentally the same structures, altered sufficiently that we can imagine we are doing something else. This moment of revealed liberation initially seems to us a void. It occurs for us as the absence of something. We seek to fill such a void in some way. We may linger in this 'black box' for an extended time, without realizing that such lingering is itself also an enactment, and one in which we feel we are owed something.

If for even a moment we can be still, accepting even that moment of apparent void and nothingness, without any sense of being owed or that it ought to be a different way, we discover that it is already full. Nothing need be added in any way. It is not an absence, but rather it is a presence. We still may have the question, "what to do?" but the place or being from which that question is asked is quite different and a different sort of answer may arise. The question itself may fundamentally transform, if a question is present at all.

Of course this is all much worse than useless to say. Saying such things is likely to stimulate forms of agreement and disagreement in the some imagined reader. I am not asking for nor inviting that, though you are welcome to it. The very great danger is that someone might read this and feel I am saying something about what they 'ought' to do, feel, say or do. I am not. I am not even the 'source' of the things I am saying. I have been considering the sense of being owed with respect to writing here as well.

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