As much as I've enjoyed exploring various approaches to religion, mysticism, philosophy, and spirituality during most of my 74 years of living (hey, I learned to read at a young age, and even comic books contain implicit philosophy), sometimes I feel that it's time to end my searching and simply attend to the life that's easy to find, because it's right in front of me.
Recently I got back to Question Everything, the book of essays from the New York Times philosophy series. The first essay I read was both philosophical and anti-philosophical, Phillip S. Garrity's "Gratitude: In Sickness and Health." Garrity starts by writing about dental work.
I remember staring up at the ceiling from the dentist's chair as a child and wondering with genuine perplexity, "How am I here again?" It seemed as if I had awakened there, wholly present to the undeniable reality of a cavity filling or tooth pulling. The days that had passed between dental visits were nothing more than a dreamlike filler.
Only in the chair did real life flare back into being, the drill keeping me relentlessly awake to the present moment. In the grip of pain, a tinge of anger would arise. How had I let all those carefree days slip past me in what felt like an instant?
I spent a great deal of mental energy in my adolescence tryin to capture that dreamlike filler, to perpetually feel what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the "non-toothache" that I unknowingly walked around with most days. It was an exercise in imaginatively conjuring pain in order to appreciate its absence.
That reminded me of the book about a modern take on Stoicism I've written about recently. The author encourages negative visualization, a Stoic practice where you imagine losing something you care about -- your job, your spouse, your child, your health -- to better appreciate what you do have.
Setbacks, from this Stoic perspective, are to be viewed as tests sent by the Stoic gods, who don't have to be real in order to make this practice effective. All that's needed is an attitude that places an experience of a setback within the frame of a challenging test rather than a disturbing problem.
Garrity then talks about how, at twenty-four, he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive bone cancer.
The ability to walk, to keep food down, to defecate without electric pain were no longer mundane givens, but miraculous gifts. In their absence, the vibrancy of illness burned brightly.... But as my health returned, the vibrancy did fade.
Now almost five years in remission, I notice myself falling back into that same pattern of trying to harness the vibrancy of illness, of forcing myself back into the dentist's chair to avoid my failure to feel the non-toothache. I am learning, however slowly, that maintaining that level of mental stamina, that fever pitch of experience, is less a recipe for enlightenment, and more for exhaustion.
Which gets me to the part of the essay that struck me most strongly. These passages echo how I'm coming to feel about taking spiritual pursuits too seriously, instead of living life more directly and simply.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes our experience as a perpetual transitioning between unreflective consciousness, "living-in-the-world," and reflective consciousness, "thinking-about-the-world."
Gratitude seems to necessitate a certain abstraction away from that direct experience. Paradoxically, our capacity for gratitude is simultaneously enhanced and frustrated as we strive to attain it.
Perhaps, then, there is an important difference between reflecting on wellness and experiencing wellness. My habitual understanding of gratitude had me forcefully lodging myself into the realm of reflective consciousness, pulling me away from living-in-the-world.
I was constantly making an inventory of my wellness, too busy counting the coins to ever spend them.
Gratitude, in the experiential sense, requires that we wade back into the current of unreflective consciousness, which, to the egocentric mind, can easily feel like an annihilation of consciousness altogether. Yet, Sartre says that action that is unreflective isn't necessarily unconscious.
There is something Zen about this, the actor disappearing into the action. It is the way of the artist in the act of creative expression, the musician in the flow of performance. But, in most of us, it is a loss of self -- and the sense of competency that comes with it.
...I am left with one thing: my ordinary, present self who is as empty-handed as he was the day before diagnosis -- no better equipped for the ensuing battles of life, no better shielded from pain he will yet face. And it is not just heroic pain.
It is the hurt of parking tickets, the ache of commuting, the grief of deadening routine -- small pains to which I was immune while they were eclipsed by cancer. But that moon has since passed.
And yet, that isn't reason for despair. It's strangely consoling to be reminded of my failure, to remember that my efforts to be prepared for epic loss were mostly in vain. I wasn't ready then, and yet, I got through it. I won't be ready next time, but I have reason (and experience) to believe that I will get through it again.
If there is any sage in me, he says I must accept the vulnerability of letting the pain fade, of allowing the wounds to heal. Even in the wake of grave illness -- or more unsettlingly, in anticipation of it -- we must risk falling back asleep in wellness.