This e-mail begins back in Sitges, where we last left off…
This weekend, my last in Sitges, is the festival of Sant Joan. The streets are entirely full of tourists, in every shape and color. The number of young children is surprising. They have blocked off sections of the street and “painted” them using flowers, dried grass, dirt, etc. There are all different patterns. On one street a line of giant ladybugs marches along in frozen procession, perhaps awaiting some fairy to grant them life and resume the music of the march. Other streets have huge flowers painted, faces, or just geometric designs.
It is truly hard to believe that I have been here for only three weeks. I can find no frame of reference by which to believe it. Every sense tells me that three months have gone by, and I remember the plane flight here only as a receding memory. I’ve taken three week vacations before, but this is like a visit to a parallel dimension, where time passes at one-third the rate, and every moment is filled with possibilities.
When I think that my vacation is not even one-third complete, that there remains more than double the time I’ve spent so far to peruse the Italian landscape – I don’t know what to say. All vacations should have this feeling. Having no destination helps, coming to rest rather than be active helps – activity comes of itself after enough time – and allowing the rest of the world to take care of itself for a while, without feeling guilty to be apart from it: perhaps this is the most significant factor of all.
I’m not sure if it’s the length of time, either. If I learned this vacation were ending on Tuesday, a whole other part of me would rejoice: the part that has things it wants to do back home. In a way it has both been too much time, and not enough.
There is a secret in all this, somewhere. I can sense it now that I wonder about it. This past week has seen every day filled with different kinds of emotional torment – for different reasons – the heat and humidity have prevented sleep, the babies next door keep me awake when the heat does not, a rib has cracked in my lower back… and yet I can write only of a radiant joy that makes me glad of all of it. They are my life. They are the product of my choices and life’s response to them. What I experience now has the sense of a work of art, and my will is the brush. Even though I make mistakes as I go along, failing at many things I attempt, succeeding at others: beneath it all is the feeling that what I am seeing, and the fact of my sight, is a gift of unaccountable proportions. Wherever I look, upon dust or sea, my eyes see gold.
After the festival I walked to the port of Barcelona to board the cruise-liner headed to Genoa. It was not raining, but because of the misty I imagined it was:
The day is wet today. The clouds hang together like sodden pulp waiting for the transition to smooth paper. The sea is agitated by the rain, furrowing its brow into a haze of white streaks that slosh together. The rain is invisible to sight, but too visible to the skin, even through closed windows – for as I watch the interface between sky and sea, already I feel clammy inside, picking at my shirt to undo the impression that everything is sticking to me. It is not cold; but this is worse, confusing the senses further on a day when the world seems to slowly merge into an uniform mist.
Then the sky cracks open! showing a world of brilliant, golden light; as if the sun stood immediately opposite the sky, bearing down on it with such pressure that at times the filmy grey would crack, and split open for just a moment. Yet after that brief flash, the dim, motley sky oozes shut again, snapping together with such a roaring crash that it shakes the storm itself, pounding into my chest with the echoes of a battle in heaven.
In Atlas Shrugged I’ve found the one sentence that I felt the whole book was trying to say, from the first ten pages to the last. It is this sentence that expresses the connection to Zen and everything else I’ve been thinking:
… every form of happiness is one, every desire is driven by the same motor – by our love for a single value1, for the highest potentiality of our own existence – and every achievement is an expression of it.
And now I am in Florence, home of the Rennaisance! The first person I met was a friendly woman who spoke German, so we conversed on the ride to Pisa and she told me some of the basic things I needed to know. I’ve also found that pretty much everyone understands me when I speak Spanish, and that “mercantile” Italian is not so different so that I can’t understand it just fine.
I have found there are many virtues to not planning ahead, if you have the time. For one, you can discover the lay of the land and the relative prices of the things. For example, I found that the cheapest room available was 30? – basically a room with a white, soft altar, upon which I was poached in my own sweat and offered up to the mosquito gods. The second room was 50?, a much smaller room with white walls – very nice if one must take up the gauntlet of Mosquito Hunter – and a fan, one of the most blessed inventions of the human mind – outside of evaporative cooling (which is also the principle behind the air conditioner, it just recycles its water supply using a compressor motor). The next place is also 50?, already reserved, where I will remain for the rest of my stay. It is in a quiet area just next to the Boboli gardens – across the street, actually – a three star hotel for the same price as the one star I’m writing from at this moment. That is just one of the virtues of remaining planless, although give yourself at least a week, so that you have a few days to get your bearings.
Another virtue is that I can spend a whole day, from past noon until sundown, engaged in nothing other than trying to lose myself among unfamiliar, back-alley streets, and gradually finding my way back again. At the point when you don’t know the time, the day, where you are, or what you did last – and don’t care in the least to be informed – you have rested.
Tonight, after a week of heat that leaves one feeling like a stranded amphibian, nether fully of lake or land, but passing through the moist air perpetually damp, reaching out for mosquitos with a tired hand rather than a long and sticky tongue – after this we are prepared for a night of supernal breezes, zephyrs like the breath of a lover whose spirit is the wind itself. The heat has made us pilgrims, and this night is our shrine. With eyes half-shut, both in pleasure, as from the drying, blessed wind, each faces his object of devotion: The knowledge of what it is to find comfort after such endurance. The wind is our sigh; we need no other. It carries me past the feeling, the relief, the inward stretching like a cat in perfect stupor on a perfect day, it carries me away into dreams where no heat, no sweat, no salty beard ever was. It returns me to a joy of being alive, and shows all pain for its real intent: To come to know such exquisite sense of joy, as on an evening where nothing more than the wind, invisible, insubstantial, has caught at the fabric of my soul, has lifted it from all consciousness of matter or mind, and has brought me to this place where Beauty herself waits on a throne of moon silver, breathing soft, cooling words, “My child, welcome home.”
One of the outcomes of recent thought is that other people no longer bother me. That is, they still do things that provoke anger, even outrage, but it is what they do that upsets me, not them themselves.
For example, if I sit down in a beautiful outdoor cafe, and the person next to me starts a cell phone conversation in a loud voice, my immediate response is to be disturbed. This draws my attention, and the next thought is, “What do I want to do about it?” As soon as I ask that I see three options: Ask him to stop or leave, leave myself, or accept it. Often I do accept it, but because I’ve chosen to, I accept responsibility for its existing in my world, and remarkably, it ceases to bother me. If I had wanted it to stop, I would have made it stop, one way or another. By not choosing to stop it, I discover that my desire is now to let it remain, and suddenly the “ownership” of the fact, if you will, transfers to me. And so my world is what I choose to make of it.
This has been true so far of noisy neighbors, sweaty nights, biting mosquitos – everything, in fact. And when I want to act, I do, without the hesitation I used to experience. This would all be mere thought, if not for the fact that I sit, trying to sleep, while the person next door is flipping channels, and the noise has no “owner” anymore; even though a human caused the sound, it is now just noise. By taking responsibility for my life, everything reverts back to me, and I look only to myself now if I want to know why things are the way they are. With that, I am able to fall asleep peacefully, with or without the television blaring. My love of freedom has reached its logical conclusion: the love of the freedom of others. I want them to choose as they wish, even if what they choose I may decide to fight against. As a human, I can only respect them; as for their action, I respond to it as I choose.
This is the where the ego fits in: When we regard ourselves as above and apart from others, so that we cease to respect their humanity and their freedom, and demand that they act according to our wishes rather than their own. This impulse, and what drives it, is the ego; not the pride of potential we feel when we contemplate our powers and what we can do. That is the pride of, “Thinkest thou thyself to be only a puny form, when within thee the universe is folded?” Cheng-Tzu’s analogy makes sense now, where he describes being hit by a boat twice while fishing, once with a man in it, the second time without, and how different his reaction was to the same actual event, because a driver was present the first time. When we live, free and responsible for our life, it does not matter if there is a driver in the boat or not: it is the event we respond to, not the person who created the event. Sometimes our response will refer back to its author – to ask him to stop – but what we ask is how we, ourselves, will respond, and not to make demands on how we wish others to be. Freedom opens up the world, while the ego wishes to limit it to a narrow band, in which no one is actually free, and the only events that can occur are the events it wishes to occur.
Since the driver of the other boat who hit us already made his choice, he does not enter into our reaction. Only if we expect someone to conform to our will, rather than his own, can we be angry at him for acting contrary to our wishes. And hence, taking things personally is the very heart of the ego. If we wish the universe to conform to our desire, I think it is impossible for us to know to what degree we are free from the desires of others. For the way we act toward the world is, in essence, the sign of our attitude toward ourselves.
In sum: To be conscious is the undertake the responsibility of consciousness: to accept that all that one sees or knows demands a response, and that doing nothing is also a willful response, an acceptance of whatever follows from inaction. Otherwise, if one attempts to delude himself that this is not the nature of awareness, he is forced into laboring to support that lie. It would be like attempting to see, without really knowing what one has seen, while still wishing to enjoy the experience of sight.
And now to close with a brief essay, after typing which I will find a place to eat thin-sliced prosciutto and drink cappuccino – a positively divine beverage, here in these parts.
“See with thine own eyes, and not through the eyes of others.”
When a choice is before me, I look at it and at my preferred response, and I ask myself, “Is it right?” To find an answer I refer to my moral code, and if it is right – or not wrong – then I ask whether I desire the consequences more than some other option. This is just, and justice is complete when I have met and accepted those consequences.
However, if I face a choice, and choose a response, and then try to look at it through the eyes of everyone around me, my choice will not be based on what I know or believe is right, but on what will not offend those around me or what might please them. This is unjust, in that it refers choice to public sentiment, not morality – and thus is often in conflict with it. Since such consequences are so difficult to know in advance, ultimately one pursues, not the choice he thinks is right in his own eyes, but the one he thinks is least harmful in the eyes of others. Since this always implies a possible conflict with morality – and the attendant pain of being conscious of doing wrong – it leads to a cessation of unnecessary or unsanctioned action, and a tendency to dissociate one’s self from one’s actions, such that one claims a certain thing “couldn’t be helped”, or that it was “just not practical”.
Once this social engine is underway, an equilibrium is reached where the population feels satisfied enough to continue, but must not examine that satisfaction too closely. Youth instinctively rebel against this state of affairs, and are called idealists in opposition of the real. And if one arises who acts to remove the veil of this group conspiracy against morality, he will be penalized – not for speaking the truth, but for “corrupting the society”. The society has reached such a state of mutual compromise that any disruptive act is viewed as destructive, no matter its purpose. This is the real essence of an unjust society: that its preservation and feeling of well-being becomes the ideal, a goal utterly separate from any moral consideration.
When philosophers recognize this who are willing to participate in the self-deception, they usually become casuists, rewriting history and social ethics to make the “public welfare”, and other group concepts, seem more significant, while painting the individual and his right to choose as egotistical, evil, and ultimately irrelevant to what society is trying to achieve – or even opposed to it, which is often exactly the case.
There then arises a new class of guardians within the group, who do not seek the interests of justice, but to preserve the state of the group. If possible, they would keep this state constant, unchanging – but this is never possible. These guardians will refer to the casuist interpretation of ethics, coming to view “the unity of the group”, and harmony, and lack of disruption as the highest goal. “Don’t rock the boat.” If an individual discovers that a hard choice must be made because it is the moral choice, these defenders will portray him as a dangerous individual, an enemy of society, and act to end his influence.
These defenders, so conspicuously abetting the communal dream into which society has fallen, are willingly granted resources by the society to defend its state. These defenders have alternately been politicians, clergy, and sometimes kings – though since kings are capable of independent action, there have been kings willing to disrupt their commonwealth on moral grounds.
As the power of these defenders grows, the society becomes more secure in its impassive state from internal disruption. As it does so, the influence of individuals declines, for many reasons both personal and social. At the same time, the society starts to decay, as any prolonged aversion to justice will. The human spirit, in the end, cannot tolerate it, and the society can no longer thrive as it did in the beginning. More and more it will try to improve its state at the cost of initiative – thinking that its decline is due to the worsening qualities of its members – but this will only hasten the fall, until the society as a whole begins to welcome immorality in order to cease feeling its secret guilt, and escape from the ugliness of their life for a while.
If, into this milieu, there appear a hero who easily and resolutely exposes this society to itself – and this is not hard to achieve, but exceedingly hard to do – it will kill or exile him in very short order, more from horror at its own condition than from hatred of the hero. In fact, it secretly loves the hero, and in time this love will show itself and they will honor him as one of their best. It is the sudden horror of discovery, the desperate need to escape it, and the indignation of the defenders, that results in the quick action against the hero, who does nothing more than honor justice and point out the contradictions of the society.
I find it hard to explain, otherwise, why beings of such quality should meet with so fierce a negative reaction. Strong emotions require a great deal of energy. Saying merely that they “offended the established powers”, or violated tradition, or upset the status quo: none of these explain why everyone, from high to low, would feel such intense, violent passions as to long for their death. If mediocrity is really their enemy (the enemy of the heroes), how did the mediocre suddenly become such eager combatants? If the status quo is the enemy, what goes more against the status quo than sudden battle? If the rulers were afraid of losing their power, how to explain the universally belligerent response of those who had no power to lose, and who typically disliked the rulers whose power they worked to provide?
I think that as justice is one of the most significant of all virtues, and the crown of the human spirit, it is learning that one has betrayed this virtue that prompts the immediate intention to silence whomever has made it obvious. It is the contorted soul, living in opposition to the moral requirements of its own life, condemning itself secretly in its inmost heart, and actively suppressing any awareness of this self-hatred – it is such a soul, having fallen to the state a bat inured to the darkness, now disgusted by the light, and disgusted at itself for having turned away from the light – this is the soul who, though the laziest and comfort-driven of all people, will charge instantly to the call of battle when some stainless soul arrives to summon it back to the path of justice, even though this is the one true longing of that stricken soul’s life.
To avoid this corruption of society through acceptance of any standard other than our own mind, we must disregard the sentiments of others when asking ourselves which is the right way to act. However much this may seem “destructive to proper society” – and the degree of this will depend on the corruption of that society – such a reliance upon one’s own eyes, rather than the eyes of others, will ensure the health of one’s society far better than any other measure, and foster a public which may proudly stride into the future, because it knows – by its own moral code – that it has done well, and will continue to do so.