Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit Priest who said ‘life is both wonderful and awful’. His unconventional outlook was heavily criticized by the Vatican, but it didn’t stop him pursuing his own path. That life is both wonderful and awful is something we all experience, and I’d like to suggest that we should rise above this duality of experience, simply because it causes us much pain.
We naturally tend to seek pleasure, because pleasure is life affirming – food, shelter, companionship, family, approval, a warm sunny day. All this things are non-threatening – usually anyway. And since our primary animal driver is the desire to survive, and pleasure is nothing but the reinforcement of this drive, so we find survival enhancing things pleasurable. It’s our programming by nature, and we cannot usually escape it. On the other hand, anything that threatens our survival creates pain – poor health, lack of money, loneliness, disapproval – and so on. Again this is our programming. Nature needs us to seek life affirming situations, because it is in her interest that we survive and breed. Any species that was not driven in this way, would obviously not survive and would become extinct. And so the whole dynamic is self-selective.
So let’s take two extremes of experience. You spend a warm sunny day with a new partner, have lunch at a wonderful restaurant, and walk along a stretch of beach holding hands. Or, you visit your doctor and are told you have a terminal, incurable cancer, and only have a few months to live. Without doubt, we would all prefer the first circumstance, because our programming for survival would be well satisfied – food for the body, accommodating weather, and a potential mate for procreation. The second situation is catastrophic for the survival instinct, and so we feel intense pain.
Now we could list any number of favorable and unfavorable circumstances that might arise, and always we are gauging them against our survival prospects. So as de Mello suggests, life is both wonderful and awful. And this survival drive colors everything we touch. Beauty is often nothing more than something that is life affirming. A lush valley with thickly forested mountain slopes is life affirming. A heavily deformed fetus is life denying. As a result we see the first as beautiful and the second as ugly. And as it says in the Tao te Ching – once you have said something is beautiful you have immediately created ugliness. Here there is a clue to living a more balanced life.
We need to move beyond the duality that the survival instinct creates within us – encapsulated in the notion that life affirming things are good, and life diminishing things are bad. This means embracing everything in life, from the grotesque to the sublime. Of course nothing is grotesque or sublime in itself, these emotions and judgements simply come about because we judge things from our own survival point of view. Seeing a deformed fetus does not directly affect our own survival, but it reminds us of death and vastly diminished survival prospects.
So instead of running away from the grotesque, can we embrace it? And instead of clamoring for the sublime, can we be indifferent to it? Such a move would be directly against nature, and if we want peace and joy, this is the way we have to go. I have no doubt that most people who read this will quickly move on, because such a work requires considerable effort. But you wouldn’t expect that peace and joy would come easily.
The philosopher Spinoza has some things to say about this. In the appendix to part one of his master work, The Ethics, he says the following:
… why are there so many imperfections in nature? such, for instance, as things corrupt to the point of putridity, loathsome deformity, confusion, evil, sin, &c. But these reasoners are, as I have said, easily confuted, for the perfection of things is to be reckoned only from their own nature and power; things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie American Beauty, where Ricky Fitts, called ‘mental boy’ by one of the other characters, is videoing the body of a dead bird lying on the grass. Someone asks him why he would do that, and he responds that he is videoing it because it is beautiful. He happens to be the only sane character in the whole movie – all the other characters living in deep denial. For him the grotesque and the sublime are no longer distinguishable – some would call him enlightened.
Many spiritual practices today are neurotically centered on the pleasant and beautiful. When deformity and ugliness comes into the life of the people follow these practices, they are even less capable of dealing with it, and as such become deniers of life’s reality, with the neurosis and deep unhappiness that such a thing creates.
What this means in practice is that we need to start bringing the chaotic and deformed into our life. This is painful, because the survival mentality does not want to see things that imply diminished survival. We actually don’t need to try and see the pleasant and beautiful, because we are naturally programmed to do that anyway, and it is the asymmetry of this drive that creates subconscious dread of the grotesque, deformed and dead within us.
Gurdjieff, the 20th century spiritual teacher recommends that we contemplate our own death as often, and with as much intensity, as we can. We should also familiarize ourselves with the cruelty and savagery of nature, with chaos, with the ways man destroys himself and nature. But we should also allow the so called beautiful and pleasant to come into our life. We need a balance, because life is a balance of these things. In the end we need to play with all of this, but that is a state that does not come easily, and will only come after struggles and suffering. To play with beauty and the ugly simply means we have seen that they are both imposters, simply created by our own biased perspective on what is affirming for us, or what is diminishing.
For those who feel we can rise above the unpleasant, but keep the pleasant, I have news for you. It’s never going to happen, and if that is what you want, then you should sign up for any of the hundreds of spiritual schools that promise some form of unending happiness. You will almost certainly end up with an unending neurosis.