Lesson 18 Living and Existing
Existence is ordinarily understood as something of which there can be an experience. The rose in the vase “exists”, it is there, near my hand, it radiates its existence in my perception of it, it gives itself in its delicate shape and fragrance. In this sense it exists for me, in the awareness I may have of it. Yet it also has a place in the order of things and in the order of Nature. To the growing child we say: “no, Santa Claus does not exist” and it is disappointed; it had believed in the existence of Father Christmas.
However, we cannot put everything in the same basket. As a human being I do not exist in the same manner as does a thing, and the sole reference to my place in nature is not enough to give me the meaning of my existence. Of course one could say that existing is merely being alive, yet can existence be reduced to living? Is not the word ‘living’ restricted to denoting a purely basic existence, the existence of an animal, which effectively is alive in the biological sense? Yet is it even aware that it exists? Would I have the feeling that I exist if I were content with merely “living”?
A. The experience of Absurdity
1) Let us try to carefully question our own experience of existing, as well as our feeling of not existing. Let us suppose that I am sitting on a bench in a park. There I am, sitting on the bench. In front of me is a row of well-trimmed trees. A dog walks by and some pigeons land on stones in the park. The trees, the dog, the pigeons and the stones exist. Yet I notice a difference between what is inert, like the gravel, and what is alive and moving, like the birds. The stone exists in a certain form. Strollers’ feet polish the gravel. It preserves its existence in a certain form as against a perpetual degradation; it maintains its cohesion. The stone perseveres in its Being in a very basic manner. I would not say that it is living. The tree has a richer existence because it has within itself a principle of growth. The bird also exists, not only with a principle of cohesion and biological development, but also with a capacity for motion and a rudimentary form of thought. It is alive. It too tends to its own preservation. There is nothing in Nature which does not seek to persevere in its Being.
Here we have to be careful with the meaning we give to words. I can say that the stone exists, I cannot say that it is alive; on the contrary I can say of the bird that it exists and that it is alive. The word living can only be understood in a biological sense; this is what first comes to mind, that is we reduce life to the phenomenon of being alive. Yet living also has another sense. Life is also what manifests to itself in the experience of consciousness. I cannot judge of what the bird is experiencing, but I know from experience that I am alive in the sense that I endure my own self in everything I experience. Life’s fullness, such as I may sometimes experience it, is a fullness of awakening and a fullness of consciousness, it is not primarily a biochemical mechanism. Our understanding of the word exist is primarily on basis of experience. This is legitimate as long as we remember that this word does not then pertain to biology, but rather to a phenomenological approach to Life. However, if existence is what we experience, what we experience is different from our mere mental representation of Life. Existence is not a mere concept; it is Reality itself.
2) And here a difficulty arises. Is it enough for us to exist in order to know what it actually means to exist? Nothing could be less certain and this is what Sartre wants to show in Nausea. The trees of the garden are there, “there are” the pigeons, the running dog, the root of the chestnut tree. All this “exists” there, in front of me, but why? I have no idea. It arises there in front of me and only afterwards can I find a meaning to it. Existence stands out before my eyes before any knowledge I could have of it. In terms of Sartre’s existentialism, existence precedes essence. The status of the existent is to be thrown there under the influence of so heavy a gravity that it becomes oppressive. The root of the chestnut tree “exists” without my being given any reason for its existence. Yet what does it mean to say that something “exists” without “reason”? It is absurd. Hence for Sartre the first feeling existence provokes in us is its absurdity. Existence surges over there, thrown like wastepaper in the basket, without my understanding any of it. It is only once I have endured this tumbling down that is existence, “gluing to everything like jam”, that I can give it any meaning. That tree “serves to decorate”, these pigeons adhere to this natural canvas to delight the garden, this dog is looking for its master. I can find a reason why all this exists here and now, rather than nothing. Did I not project a meaning on things they would just appear as a sudden spurt void of sense; this void of sense can only yield revulsion, nausea: all these things thrown over there, it is indecent, obscene, revolting. Right from the start they are pointless: they are massive, heavy, no one knows why, for no reason.
“A moment ago I was in the park. The root of the chestnut tree dug into the ground, just beneath my bench. I no longer recalled that it was a root. Words had fainted away and with them the meaning of things, their use, the feeble points of reference that men had traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping somewhat, my head hanging, alone in front of this black and knotty mass, utterly crude and frightening. And then I had this illumination.
It took my breath away. Never before these last few days had I felt what it means to “exist”. I was one of the others, like one of those people who stroll on the beach in their summer clothes. Like them I was thinking: “the sea is green; that white point over there is a sea-gull”, but I did not feel that it existed (…).
I was there, frozen and immobile, plunged in a dreadful ecstasy. Yet at the very heart of this ecstasy something novel had appeared; I understood the Nausea, I possessed it. In fact I did not express my discovery. But I believe that now I would find it easy to put into words. What is essential is contingence. I mean that existence is not necessity.”
Mark well: existence has no necessary justification. This means that after all there is no reason for this or that to exist in this way rather than otherwise. This park could have been a wasteland. This dog might not have existed. These pigeons could have been shot. And myself in all this? Am I different from everything else? No. I too am in a state of dereliction, I too have been thrown here without asking for it, without knowing why, without knowing what I am. I am like all these things, my existence comes before my essence. This means also that I have no predetermined essence that is there ready for use. I am not born with some user’s guide how to exist. I was dumped in the world like a parcel, ignorant and distraught. My life is absurd, as is all existing, since as a matter of fact, everything is contingent, nothing exists necessarily. Given this I must give a meaning and give myself one. This is Sartre’s justification of commitment. Existence, taken as such, if absurd must be given a prescription of meaning. As an intentional consciousness I achieve this prescription through my projects. A project enables the projection of meaning. A project makes it that I am not just here, like a jam pot on the shelf, but that I am here in view of something or even better: a project is above all construed for someone. A project is not a superficial desire. A project involves another person in the elaboration of a common world. A project takes you beyond the absurdity of life. If I, a void and destitute existence, can project myself mentally, then I can give myself reasons to exist with respect to others. I give myself meaning by assigning myself a role in this absurd world. Effectively my freedom must not be left to its own devices, lest it should crumble at the contact with absurdity. It has to commit itself to something or other, otherwise it will drown.
Yet the other person is in the same boat as me, just as void and lost. This guy, the café waiter outside acts a part, he plays the role of café waiter. He takes himself to be a waiter. Yet this is a lie, he is like me, an empty freedom which gives itself a role to play in order to feel itself exist in an empty world. This is life’s comedy. For man, to exist is to mimic a social role. Because basically we are nothing, we need to escape emptiness, we need to be something, and we fulfil that need at the service of others. Others help me existing, they reflect the meaning I have given myself. We weave our world out of mutual projections. The waiter is happy to earn consideration in his role as a waiter. It gives him importance, a meaning in the eyes of other people. Were he to lose his job tomorrow, he would suffer from a loss of meaning. He would no longer be anything. (…) His existence would cease to have a meaning and he would once again feel anxiety. Depriving him of his function is to deprive him of his role, of his sense of being, refer him back to what he is, an empty freedom in an absurd world. This explains why Sartre believes that I can never get in touch with another person’s “interiority”. Interiority is a myth. Other people, like myself, are goatskins filled with air, changing masks. They have no more necessary being than I do myself. Were it possible for me to enter the consciousness of another person, I would immediately be cast out, over there, into some object or other. Were I to enter the consciousness of this waiter I would be thrown out into the gesture of some customer asking for his bill. One never encounters anything other than characters, one encounters only exteriority in the form of the projection in a given role. And Sartre likens intimacy to the noise of a guzzling sink! All the same other people help sustain my existence since my project includes them, since they are a part of all projects, of all commitments. It is together that we can give meaning to this absurd existence and construe it. In this manner I create myself and other people are also co-creators of what I am.
B. Existing passionately, existing uneasily.
We cannot accept this kind of theory uncritically. Neither can we dismiss Sartre on the basis of some sort of psychologism, regard his discourse as that of a sick person, someone suffering from anxiety and reject him on those grounds.
We have to understand. It may seem quite strange to select an experience which is a loss of meaning of existence precisely in order to characterise the meaning of existence. In the same author, it is just as odd as selecting the conflict, which is the failure of communication, as the primary sense of human relations. Yet this loss is itself full of meaning as loss. The loss of meaning is a loss of self, a loss of assertion, a loss of self-confidence. It is weakness. What happens when the mind becomes weak, when therefore life becomes weak? Existence seems to crumble. It is as if everything around me simply fell apart. My fingers slip along the surface of things, and I can no longer hold on to anything, I fall, I burst into anguish, things, objects, even people cease to have a meaning for me. If my existence is void of meaning, so is everything else. I ask myself: “What is the point?” In the end, everything leaves me indifferent, disgusted. There is no need to look very far for the prototype of this form of experience: it is the experience of depression, which helps us understand and endure the breakdown of the meaning of existence in absurdity.
However we must understand what depression implies existentially. Daily vigilance maintains a pressure, a tension, demands, it is always governed by a must-be: “Beware! You must do this, you must do that, you will have to do this, you will have to do that. Mind tomorrow. You have to become someone”: this is the social pressure taking place in psychological time. I am filled with desires of all sorts that pull me in direction of the future and install me in waiting. The future is calling me and its call makes my present unimportant and reality dull. This is psychological time, and therefore desire, which enables me to make a projection towards an elsewhere. It is desire, which in projection puts forward the shadow of a possible meaning. I bet my whole life on a single desire and then…here is a blatant failure, a disappointment, and all my representations crumble and lose their meaning. I am left disappointed, empty. The fullness of anticipation is followed by the emptiness of depression. And then when, following a disappointment, the Force of Life withdraws, a state of weakness emerges and then I begin to think: “what is the point?”, “none of this has any meaning”, “had I been different”, “Had life been otherwise…alas, I am no more than I am!”. The intellect judges and considers this existence which experiences itself as “superfluous”. Thinking that I want to be otherwise is manifesting weakness. This thought is weak, has its root in weakness and expresses itself as weakness: all interest in life is withdrawn and existence loses its meaning. Psychological time enhances weakness through giving a pseudo-reality to some elsewhere and otherwise, as opposed to here and now.
It is only when Life coincides with itself within us at the present moment, without the slightest distance, that it knows the blossoming of Strength and Meaning. The total donation of the fullness of Life is available as long as I don’t take a distance from Life itself. Then only is Life lived to the fullest, and it is then an ever-renewed interest in the World. It becomes a motiveless Passion, a Passion which is a pure interest in what is there, a constantly renewed marvelling at all that is. This state of mind is not governed by a sense of void; on the contrary a sense of fullness permeates it that thinking cannot alter. A passionate Life is its own centre of interest, it is the passion of Being for its own existence. It finds its meaning in itself, in its own expansion. Emptiness is the fruit of life restricting its field of interest; this is due to thinking activity projecting its own meaning into the future in the form of a limited object. Worst of all is that when thus projected in time, if I don’t dare to anticipate from fear of disappointment, the one thing remaining to me is some kind of distraction to occupy my thoughts and fill time. If the only thing I am interested in is soccer games, then obviously the rest of the time life is uninteresting and therefore meaningless. The meaning of existing has shrunk to the size of a single object, and the consequence is that most of the time I am bored. I then conclude that in the end life is all about eating and sleeping! As one young TV-watcher put it in an enquiry: “TV prevents me from getting bored. It is a way to kill time…nothing in life interests me. TV makes me forget that I have no goal”. When life is nothing other than an escape, it is no longer a gift to itself, it no longer makes any appeal to its own inner potentiality; thus passive, it loses its creativity. And nothing can satisfy it any longer since it has undertaken to get rid of itself.
It is only when I give myself wholeheartedly to every moment that I have the feeling that Life is an adventure full of meaning. The by-products of Thought, such as “desire” or “commitment” are not enough to express Life’s inherent tendency to its own expansion and meaning. The mind commits itself to a certain presence to Being, but this one remains limited because it partakes in the ek-static temporality of existence. Thought only coincides with itself in the brief embrace of a desire, the embrace of a provisional satisfaction, and then the endless quest for an object continues. The total Presence, the full Presence to here and now, the motiveless Passion, pertain to neither thought nor desire. Only a full attention to here and now gives Life its due plenitude, one that is not the expression of a desire, and which is given prior to any desire or project, in a flawless awakening to the present. Life’s fullness is therefore given only when psychological time and its endless ek-stasis are bracketed. The feeling that existence has plenitude is there only when one is wholly given to the present. Without consciousness’ full donation of itself to what is, life only accidentally acquires a meaning, those few times when desire encounters reality; the rest of the time life is pointless. It is the misery of life, with no reason to live. Disenchanted by everything, one ends up lost in the clouds of one’s fantasies, getting off the ground just once in a while on those rare occasions when reality deigns to grant us a little gratification. Measured by the stick of thought, the world is a desert and here and now a long calvary to be endured in between the few small rewards that life will be kind enough to give us. A wandering.
Nevertheless, being available to ourselves is not beyond our reach. It is not beyond us to be open to what is. There are no instructions as how to govern this openness. It is its own home. No cause compels it, because it has no given form. If therefore we are looking for a way in which to recover Meaning, this way can only be within ourselves, beyond time and distance. We are both the obstacle and the path. So what are we to do? A sincere interest in knowledge would be of help. This is the kind of interest that Plato found in wonderment in front of Being, as the birthplace of philosophy. To marvel is to keep an open mind, it is to be alert to here and now. To marvel is to meet with the miracle of the Manifestation of what is. It is to renew the surge of intelligence towards Being. There is a long way from the experience of Being as wonderment we find in Greek philosophy, and the feeling of absurdity of contemporary existentialism. How strange. How can Being at once be experienced as void of meaning and as overflowing with it? It is openness to what is which governs the encounter with existence.
Yet can this conversion of one’s outlook be commanded? Is there any way in which one could provoke the sort of mutation of consciousness which would liberate Meaning? Can I find this state of openness which consists in receiving the meaning of Being, a reception which is more than just giving to each thing the meaning prescribed to it by desire? Is it possible to live a life which is an uninterrupted revelation of meaning? As long as we shall not have found this openness, we shall effectively have to continue seeking for meaning in our mental projections, in the projections of our expectations. The Plenitude of Life will then be a dream only. Or rather we shall be condemned to seeking this dream in the projection of our desires, without ever meeting it in the flesh. In any case, this question is vertical. It hits us head on and no one could ever resolve it in some system or in ready-made formulas, and above all not in our stead. No one can exist in my place! No one other than myself can meet the love of Life which gives the abundance of meaning. All I can do is to try at least to understand how the absurdity of life comes about in the mind fabricating it, and perhaps when I see this absurdity I shall suddenly grasp the sense of the plenitude of life.
C. The Feeling of Existence.
Nevertheless there are particular moments when existence presents itself to us with a particular depth, vertical experiences in which the plenitude of existence manifests. An astonishing example of this can be found in a passage in Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Can there be a sentiment of being which does not owe anything to psychological pathos, a kind of râsa, a flavour full of the feeling that one exists?
1) Rousseau discovers it
while contemplating Nature by the
“As evening fell I descended from the heights of the island and was happy to sit down by the lake, on the shore, in some hidden refuge; there the sound of the waves and the stirring of the water, arresting my senses and emptying my soul of all unrest, plunged it in a delicious reverie in which a night I had not noticed would often surprise me. The ebb and flow of this water, its occasionally bulging sound, which relentlessly hit my ears and eyes, added to the inner movements the reverie doused in me and sufficed to make me feel my existence with delight, without any need to think about it. From time to time a few brief reflections on the instability of things in this world would arise, of which the surface of the water offered an image; soon however these fleeting impressions would vanish in the uniformity of the continuous movement that was rocking me”.
Contemplating Nature does not demand mental work. It does not breed projections. It does not feed desire. That which is as the totality of Nature has its abode in a peaceful present and does not know the perpetual pull of consciousness towards the future, the temporal agitation of desire, hope and fear, the duality of I-am/I-have-to-be that makes one already look for what isn’t there. That which is breathes Being in a quietude that reconciles all contraries and erases duality. But the quietude immanent in Being is transmitted to the collected mind, not the distracted one. The lake gives itself in a hush, and this hush, when heard, enters in Harmony with the Self of he who listens. What is contemplation? It is the momentary abolishing of separation, of the duality between subject and object. It is to enter in harmony with Being. And in this recovered Harmony, there is a resonance between the inner and the outer. In contemplation the process of duality comes to an end. Consciousness is established in the state of yoga, union. Contemplation opens up as ends the dispersion of thought in the swarming of its ordinary concerns. The perception of the continuous noise of the waves does not promote this because it displaces the attention from the hold of its own agitation towards the harmonic motion of Nature. Changes in Nature do not involve any hold, they flourish in a let-be that imposes nothing, demands nothing, but is content with being. The transition from an attention in the grips of thought to one in tune with what is, is not intellectual or conceptual; it is sensitive and takes place at the level of feeling. Reducing thoughts’ restlessness entails a let-go in which consciousness becomes level with what is. Even better, this agreement is already there at the level of feeling, even if in the stream of temporality of vigilance we are not normally aware of it. The opening up of consciousness is enough to make it manifest again. An open window does not create the fresh breeze, but it is important that it be open to let it in. The feeling of being, a scent of existence that does not appear to come from anywhere in particular, does in reality manifest without a cause. It is not a projection, a mood of the mind, an intellectual reason. It does not even contain an awareness of the self because the feeling of being transcends moods of the mind. There is pure Being and the gift of it in the I am, a donation which comes before the appearance of the redundant statement ‘me’. What is extraordinary in this text by Rousseau is the connection he makes between the feeling of existing and happiness. He gives it to us to understand that the pursuit of a satisfaction in time is an illusion and that true happiness is in the awareness of being here and now.
2) In other words, total Presence is already there under the crackle of our thoughts. The gift of silence is the dawn of presence at the heart of the feeling of the Self. Presence is not originally a reflection of the intellect grasping its own self-representation. The belief according to which the Presence would be the result of a reflective awareness rests on a misrepresentation of the original self-referral status of pure consciousness. The I am does not require any reflective athletics in order to radiate its own being, it is the Invisible Presence through which everything else is reflected and made manifest. In terms of the Vedanta, this is the value of the Sat, pure Being, which radiates from its own pure presence to itself. In vigilance the accent is laid on the object, on thought and on my thought; I think an object and simultaneously I give myself the reality of the thinker. This is vigilance, which comes with an effort to go out of itself towards things, with a tension-towards the world of life and action, and not with presence. To be there is nothing that I have to do. The haunting having-to-be, the non-conformity of oneself to an ideal, generates division, and this division places us with respect to ourselves beneath all expectation. That belongs to psychological time, to vigilance only, to the domain of having and not to the kingdom of being. It is not awakened consciousness. Self-awareness is pure sentiment of Being, with no value pertaining to the judgement of the ego. But the ego in the waking state easily believes itself to be the true subject because it identifies its own mental activity to the awareness of being. Yet self-awareness gives itself to itself “without making the effort to think”, because in representation thought is a secondary presence and not the original Presence. It is like a bird flying through the sky of being, it passes by, unfolding duration in representation. One thought passes by, then another one and so on. Thought does not create Being, it represents it. Thought does not create the Self, it unfolds on the background of pure subjectivity which is prior to thought and its offspring, the ego. Thought is like the ego’s endless rolling on the motionless ground of the Self.
One has not paid enough attention to the depth of Rousseau’s text on this matter. True, his interprÉtation is at odds with our Cartesian convictions which, equating consciousness with thought, does not recognize any other existence than the thinking mind. If the I am, as being, transcends all thinking activity, this means that over and above the thinker who is reflecting, there is the Witness of this reflection. When the silence of what is becomes very lively, then the awakening to the object becomes Awakening to the Self, and in this state, the “weak and brief reflections” remain on the surface, and lose their power to precipitate consciousness into the mentality of the waking state. The “impressions” therefore remain “light” and “erase” themselves, because left to themselves, beyond the hold of vigilance, thoughts spontaneously move towards their goal.
With the feeling of Being, the value of Sat is also given that value of Chit, Consciousness, placed in the state of Awakening. Diving into the depth of Being, or even like here, approaching it, is nothing like falling into the stupor of sleep with its characteristic heaviness and tamasic inertia. In deep sleep thoughts disappear as well, but to the benefit of unconsciousness, of ignorance of the Self. The Awakening is also a calm, yet without loss of awareness. The Awakening is a consciousness which, freed from the despotism of hazy thoughts, raises the intelligence to its highest acuity, the very point where its is also pure sensitivity and pure intuition. In contemporary Vedânta, the formula often repeated in these circumstances is pure awareness, which means pure awakening, flawless lucidity, full consciousness of whatever manifests outside and inside oneself. Pure consciousness is the same thing as clarity of the self, it is this clarity void of any object, and without the added stupor of unconsciousness; it is Consciousness awake to itself. Yet of course, understanding that the Self is awake in Silence demands that we break with intellectualism. Because of our experience of vigilance we are so accustomed to “occupy” our thought with some object or other that we believe all awareness requires is to deal a little more dexterously than usually with that object. We believe that a higher consciousness is either the idoliser of concept’s speculative takeoff towards the Ideas, or the existential concern for the world of he who feels lacerated by reality.
The Awakening is neither a flight of the Thought, nor a worried concern filled with anguish. Awakening is in essence infinitely more simple than all the wily complexity of mental representations, or all this pathos of ours gone Metaphysics. But Simplicity does not interest the intellectual ego, accustomed to juggling with the complexity of its ideas. Tied to its representations, the mind turns away from what is. And the ego, grappling with its thoughts, centred on itself, anxious to become more, is very intellectual. The ego is the mind’s agent. How would it be up to apprehending the conscious luminosity it proceeds from, when it is reflecting the light of presence and sheds it on the objects of thought? The original luminosity of the I am is not taken from the reflexivity of thought, but precedes it. The domain of the object of thought is, with respect to the self, non-consciousness, or only a borrowed consciousness, that is the consciousness-of-something. The field of the Subject is the field of a consciousness which, as subject, does never become non-consciousness, but is in its very essence conscious-of-itself.
Of course it is easy to object to Rousseau: all this is very well, but one cannot spend one’s life staring at a lake in order to feel the plenitude of existence! Yet what tells us that the plenitude of existence is not given now?
Existing is not merely living, let alone surviving; to content oneself with living does not fill one’s existence. We ordinarily think that for existence to have a meaning it has to feel a commitment. Commitment gives time a psychological consistence in a future which is the realisation of the ego. The ego’s making plans and projects structure its duration. However the meaning of existence is not fulfilled in the project. Effectively a project is an ek-static condition of consciousness.
If commitment is an expansion of the self, then it must be more than a lifeline for a feeble and vanishing life. It must be borne by a Presence to oneself. Presence to the Self contains the plenitude of Being and this plenitude owes nothing to time. The feeling of being is its own fulfilment.
Existing is not only living and even less so surviving; confining oneself to living does not fulfil the meaning of existence. We normally think that for existence to acquire meaning it has to feel some kind of commitment. To psychological time commitment gives a consistence in future which is the continuity of the ego. The ego plans, projects and structures its duration. Yet the meaning of existence is not fulfilled in a project. In fact a project is an ek-static condition of consciousness. The meaning of life is not in its temporal ek-stasis. The experience of absurdity is not an experience of existence but of inexistence, a brushing against Vacuity retaining only its negativity. Even a commitment that is meant to give sense is not enough; commitment as an artifice is not the meaning of Existence. Commitment must be more than the lifeline of a feeble and insufficient life; it must be an expansion of the self. It must be borne by the presence to the self.
The Presence to oneself contains the plenitude of Being and this plenitude owes nothing to time. The feeling to be contains in itself its own plenitude. It is in this sense that Rousseau’s experience is a genuine feeling of existence. However what then seems obvious is that the essence does not succeed existence but is given together with existence. The essence is the Self’s self-revelation. If the meaning of my existence is not given as a user’s handbook, this is precisely because existence reveals itself to itself. Life unfolds to itself to the extent that it is lived in absolute coincidence with itself.
dialogue : questions and answers
Home © Philosophy and spirituality, 2004, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarinna Lamm