Thursday, August 17, 2006


In his novel We, Zamyatin brings forward yet another profound idea around the concept of desire. The One State announces the availability of the "Operation" that will finally cure all inhabitants of that most insidious of reason-inhibiting diseases—imagination. The announcement is accompanied by the mocking, twisted logic of the beautiful I-330, who connects desire with imagination, that now everyone will be truly happy. Since desire is at the root of unhappiness, she reasons, eliminating desire, will eliminate unhappiness.

Although this idea was spoken mockingly, it is most intriguing as it seems to resonate quite strongly with Buddhist philosophy and the 4 Noble Truths. According to Buddhist philosophy, there is the truth of suffering, there is a singular cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, and there is the Noble 8-fold path that leads to the end of suffering. But of particular interest is the second Noble Truth summarized as tanha in the ancient Pali language, often translated as "craving" or "desire." In this translation, the second Noble Truth states that "craving" or "desire" is the cause of suffering.

But is it really craving or desire that is the cause of suffering? What about natural animal desires such as for food or water, shelter, sleep, or even love? Should we eliminate desires in order to achieve true happiness as I-330 mockingly indicates and the Buddhist scriptures appear to advocate? Is this even possible? Reflecting upon this, it appears all we can really do is develop an awareness of the sensation of craving or desire as it arises in all circumstances. And then, interpose a question between the desire and the impulsive fulfillment of the desire: "Is this skilful?" Those desires to which we can answer in the affirmative are fulfilled, while those to which we answer in the negative remain unfulfilled. This begs the questions: why would we want to do such a thing, and what is "skilful"? Well, this would gradually move us from a place of unconscious reaction to one of conscious action; and "skilful" refers to anything that moves us in the direction of expanded consciousness or awareness.

What really appears to be at the root of suffering, then, is this unconscious, habitual, impulsive response to desires. Perhaps a more modern translation of the ancient Pali word tanha might be "habit" or "conditioning." It is these processes that plunge the mind into unconsciousness, impulsive reaction, thereby further strengthening conditioning or habit formation. And from here there develops an increasing attachment to the conditioned response for a given stimulus—a kind of subtle expectation that demands fulfillment, or dissatisfaction and unhappiness result. Or put another way, a sense of satisfaction arises when one experiences completion of an expected pattern, or intense dissatisfaction if realization of the full pattern is disturbed.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Out of Control

What's the matter with me? I have lost the rudder. The motor soars, the aero quivers and rushes at full speed, but there is no rudder, no controls, and I don't know where I'm flying: down—to crash into the ground in a moment, or up—into the sun, into the flames...

— D-503 (from Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel, We)

Discovery of the "Soul"

In his book We, Zamyatin does a masterful job of conveying the painful process the main character D-503 undergoes as he discovers he has a "soul." In this process there is a repeated swinging of the pendulum from confusion and delusion, to clarity and reason. A set of extremely powerful beliefs, with which the egoic mind had deeply identified itself through conditioning and circumstance, begin to give way and crumble. And with the falling away of these conceptual structures there is the attendant belief that the ego or sense of "self" will also cease to exist. I am reminded of the excellent quote by Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, "Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within us."

But the egoic mind is uncooperative of its own demise, and so there is a flurry of activity to shore up resources, barricade and prevent the ego's dissolution. There is a deep need to explain, justify, and defend—awash in a mood of impending doom. And this freneticism lends itself to a certain failure in reason, and the consequent birth of profound delusion, where everything that happens becomes living proof of the conspiracy against oneself. Where one cannot draw a breath without knowing it is part of the plot. D-503's continually shifting perceptions lend a certain surreal quality to his reality, where he is unsure of what is real and what is illusion.

On a parallel note, it seems that every society suffers from the same predicament of egoic enslavement of reason, will, soul, imagination. It is only the particulars that vary. And so it seems that the true measure of a society is the extent to which it provides suitable structures to aid its members in the supreme task of extricating oneself from the heavy yoke of the ego.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Unfreedom and Happiness

In Zamyatin's novel We, the main character D-503 in his conditioned state of mind, speaks of the happiness that comes from unfreedom—allowing the state to control and care for all. An odd twist of meaning, but perhaps what is really meant here is a kind of security. A superficial security-happiness that manifests well below the threshold of knowledge and understanding, a happiness that is born out of ignorance and social conditioning. But what of other kinds of happiness? A truer form that manifests only when preceded by the development of will, or put another way, the freeing of will. A will that allows human beings not to be enslaved to their lower reptilian (i.e., base-brain) or animal natures. A will that is not a form of Victorian repression but rather inner strength, fortitude and courage. A will that allows all experience as it naturally arises, and simultaneously shields the individual from being overwhelmed by desires, passions and intense longing. This, it seems, is the true freedom, the freedom that allows one not to be enslaved by any experience, any state of being, whilst fully allowing and embracing what is.

Dystopia and the Structure of Society

Reading Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We sparks some interesting ideas on the nature of consciousness in its relation to rule, leadership, and the structure of society. There is some cognitive dissonance surrounding the main character's glowing description of what he clearly believes to be an utopian society, but which the reader, on the other hand, clearly perceives to be dystopian. A sense of concern arises as we consider the parallels of such a realistic dystopian society with an idealistic utopian one. In an utopian society, beneficial acts are performed through an act of free will on the part of the individual, with a clear understanding of how individual acts affect the whole. In a dystopia, these "beneficial" acts are forced upon the masses, are void of consideration and free will, and thereby lose their transformative value. The individual is no longer required to understand why, or why not, but instead submits themselves blindly to a "beneficial" rule, thereby halting their evolution towards consciousness.

While the intentions of the One State may be benevolent, it is misguided due to the lack of understanding of the nature of mind, and its progressions from less to more enlightened states. It seems very reasonable to speculate that this evolution must occur in stages, a mirror of natural processes. But what the One State has accomplished is forced all its members into an undistinguished congealed mass with catastrophic consequences. The state has usurped and supplanted the idea of Universal Mind—perfection, with One State—pseudo-perfection, or rather, false perfection, a tawdry mimic of the True and Real. Even if the One State is correct in its vision of an advanced society and its requisites, forcing individuals to conform creates dystopia. In other words, the ends do not justify the means: the "how" is inextricably linked with the end result.

How can we reconcile this view with the equally valid view of providing some order and structure to society in order to prevent injustice, and general chaos? It seems the only solution, from the perspective of government, is a minimum of intervention—just enough to prevent less evolved individuals or groups from harming or exploiting one another. A kind of surrender to the natural snail-paced evolution of man. Does this mean that those in positions of power who also possess an abnormally clear inner vision should refrain from acting? Certainly not. But the key is in non-forcing, and a certain non-attachment to ones goals and ideals. Then everything becomes possible.