Just a cursory look at the dominant ‘spiritual,’ self-help, philosophical and religious doctrines suggests a greed for existence and an abhorrence of non-existence. Most meditation practices are geared toward greater clarity and intensity of consciousness and are in essence, just another form of materialism – if I make some particular effort I can get more of the thing I am striving to gain. Self-help books tend to emphasize a ‘happier’ life, and through various affirmations, a person can convince themselves they feel differently from how they really feel. This sort of thing is very dangerous – neurosis is a given, and worse as the difference between reality and imagination widens.
Without laboring the point, we can summarize various approaches to life in the following way:
- Spiritual work – hopes for more consciousness, a happier life, and possibly immortality.
- Self-help – hopes for more comfortable life, greater affluence and all the life affirming things.
- Philosophies – with some notable exceptions (Schopenhauer, Cioran etc) most theories attempt to convince us that God exists, that there is order in the universe, and that rationalism helps us deal more efficiently with life.
- Religions – bringers of comfort, in the sense that uncertainties are addressed, suffering is given a purpose and promises of life after the death of the body.
It seems we are all desperate to affirm our significance and acquire more of this thing called existence – at just about any price. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, there is another side to the reality coin – and it is called non-existence. Our existence (and life) bias is relatively easy to understand. Since we are a product of nature, we inherit the survival instinct – the desire to persist in our existence. It drives pretty much everything, and so it should not be so surprising to find it driving so called spiritual, religious and philosophical matters. In reality, there is nothing particularly elevated about activities which are primarily concerned with a longer and more pleasurable life. Dedicating oneself to making money will do this, and will probably be more efficient at delivering the goods.
When we come to consider non-existence, it all becomes more difficult. There have been almost no thinkers who have enlightened us on this topic. Buddhism is perhaps the most useful with its statement that all of our misery comes from the wish to exist. Fortunately, most of us experience some level of non-existence every night, in deep dreamless sleep. And this does highlight the point that non-existence is synonymous with unconsciousness. This, in turn, is a property of the subject. Stuff may still exist, as our bodies do during dreamless sleep, but if the subject is denied objects then there is no consciousness.
To balance the scales, and to offset our frantic obsession with existence, it is worth recognizing that periods of non-existence (unconsciousness) are also precious. This is a duality, and it seems likely that behind this there is neither existence nor non-existence. However, a life that is just pushed along by the will-to-life, and invests wholly in existence will be inherently neurotic, avoiding the inconvenient fact that existence (and consciousness) seem to come to an end at some point.
Various exercises can help restore the balance between consciousness and unconsciousness (existence and non-existence). A simple breathing meditation that focuses on the out-breath and particularly the pause at the end of the out-breath is useful. The Death or Corpse pose in yoga is also useful if, while letting the body relax, we meditate upon our extinction. Most people would not choose to do these things, but they do create more balance.