The Idiot: A Story on the Insufficiency of Love
A Brief Analysis of The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The Idiot in the book refers to Prince Myschkin, an epileptic orphan who returns to Russia in his mid-twenties after spending years in the mountains in Switzerland where a doctor had been attempting to cure him of his epilepsy. The opening of the book is precipitated by the Prince's return to Russia, where we find out in the course of the book that he has inherited a substantial fortune from a distant relative. In calling upon another distant relative, Lizaveta Yepanchin, he becomes embroiled in the drama of Saint Petersburg society.
The principle device that drives the plot, however, is the character of the Prince himself. He is repeatedly called an idiot by other characters in the book because of his innocence, naivit, and guileless good nature. He speaks his mind, he takes other people at their word, he sees the best in people, and he acts in a spirit of trust even towards those who have repeatedly broken that trust. Dostoyevsky imagined the Prince, as a character, as a man who by nature embodies the Christian ideals of love. In the book, he correspondingly exerts a powerful force on those around him. He attracts through curiosity, of course, but he also acts as a mirror for the qualities of the other characters. They either seek to support him or to take advantage of his "idiocy". Events, crises, and resolutions constellate around him.
This overlaps with the other driving force behind the plot. A bewitchingly beautiful, enigmatic, and seductive woman - Nastasya Filipovna - is also constellating forces and characters around her as she is set to decide who she will marry. In a very real sense, Filipovna is a devouress - able to manipulate and drive men to desperate and mad acts. Competing for her attentions are several other characters in the book, including the hostile brother/shadow figure Parfyon Rogozhin. The two forces of nature, Nastasya and Myschkin, dance around each other for the first half of the book, until they collide at a party in which Nastasya is to reveal which man she has chosen to marry. Seeing the good in her, the Prince - revealing himself to be the heir to a large fortune - also reveals himself to be in love with her. He sees the suffering she has borne, and with the goodness of his heart, can perhaps contain the devouress in his pure love. He asks her to marry him, she accepts, and the party becomes jubilant.
In a simpler book, that would be the end of the story. At first ecstatic and hopeful, her fears get the better of her. She then rejects Prince Myschkin and runs off instead with Rogozhin, who has paid her 100,000 rubles to choose him.
Over the course of the rest of the book, we see Nastasya Filipovna stringing Rogozhin along, with Myschkin pursuing her as in wait for when she decides she is worthy of redemption. Meanwhile, Myschkin and Aglaia Yepanchin, daughter of his distant relative Lizaveta Yepanchin, realize and admit their love for one another. Aglaia, as stormy as Nastasya Filipovna, is light to Nastasya's dark. With a privileged upbringing, she has not seen Nastasya's suffering. But she is bold and hungry for life, and as the Anima figure she acts as a counterbalancing figure to the Prince, as well as to Nastasya who functions as a sort of shadow-Anima. Nastasya Filipovna supports their relations, feeling that she cannot drag the Prince into hell with her and even feeling affection for Aglaia. At the moment when the Prince is to propose marriage to Aglaia, however, the storm fronts collide and break in a three-way meeting between the Prince, Aglaia, and Nastasya. In a nasty fight between the two women, the Prince goes to comfort Nastasya. The action insinuates, and is interpreted by Aglaia, as his choosing Nastasya over her.
She leaves. Nastasya and the Prince become engaged, and Nastasya abandons the Prince at the altar and returns to Rogozhin. Prince Myschkin tracks her down for the final time. Rogozhin - who had previously attempted to murder Myschkin - has killed Nastasya, rather than lose her again. Her death is too much for both of them. Rogozhin is stripped of his inheritence and sent to Siberia. Myschkin has another epilectic attack that returns him permanently to a state of child-like idiocy. Aglaia runs off with a Polish "count" and is promptly abandoned by him, penniless and disgraced.
Some questions that arise point to issues of human nature that can never be satisfactorily resolved. E.g. why did Nastasya feel so unworthy of Myschkin's love? Why did she feel she was so worthless that her proper situation was as a harlot, a temptress, and a seductress?
Rather, I want to focus on the character of the Prince. The story is a tragedy. In reading it, I presume that my desire to see at least the Prince and Aglaia (after Nastasya rejects Prince Myschkin) achieving happiness, union, and resolution is universal among readers. Why this union was not so, and could not be so, is the subject of this brief investigation. And worse, it is not even a proper tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the lovers at least leads to a broader reconciliation and resolution in the world, with the two feuding families deciding to live in peace. The price of their feud was too high. The world learns at the expense of the protagonists. In The Idiot, this broader re-ordering and resolution does not occur. Myschkin is reduced to truly being an idiot, Aglaia is disgraced and has ruined her life, Nastasya is dead, and Rogozhin is sent to Siberia. Aglaia's family, which features prominently in the book, is presumably reeling from the loss of their favored daughter, but the broader impact of the events on the family and on the other characters in the book is not particularly explored. The various characters constellated about the protagonists are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and go on with business as usual. This lack of integration is symbolized by Myschkin's loss of conscious faculties via his epileptic attacks, three of which occur during the course of the book. The final one - when he sees Nastasya dead -seems to be permanently damaging. These attacks will figure heavily into this analysis. But the inability of the constellated, secondary characters to absorb the events and manifest a resolution point to the fundamental problem with Myschkin's character.
Myschkin is treated by other characters as an idiot, but because Myschkin possesses full consciousness of what is happening to him, he can't properly be called one. He sees and understands that others are trying to take advantage of him, or gossip about him, or treat him as a non-entity. Only, he pretty generally does little about it. In the later part of the book, when he has his fortune, a group of ne'er-do-wells conspire with a false claim to gain a small fortune of their own from the Prince. Rudely barging into his home, they demand (in front of the Prince's friends no less) that he pay them what is due. Despite the entreaties of his friends to throw them out, Prince Myschkin admits that he wants to pay them. Only when the falsity of their claim is fully exposed do the rogues desist, more out of a sense of humiliation that in spite of their being ousted the Prince still wants to pay them money.
Why is this? Sensitive, thoughtful, honest to a fault, and good-natured, Myschkin exemplifies the Christian ideal of loving one's neighbor. And, for the first half of the book, these qualities make Myschkin an attractive hero figure. After people realize he is not an idiot, but rather a rare specimen of human goodness, his guileless good nature seems like it is enough to renew and revivify the lives of Nastasya and the Yepanchin family. Yet the writing is already on the wall, as it were. Until the party where he meets Nastasya, he is swept along by events to the party itself. His marriage proposal, coming out of the blue, is his one positive action. It is a redemptive act for him, taking positive steps towards a more active engagement with the world. Nastasya's rejection could have been the impetus for growth into a more developed person, one with more agency over his own life. Instead, he continues to allow himself to be dragged along, incapable of saying, "No," "enough," or "this is what cannot be." As a result, he is a surprisingly passive character. Things happen to him. In the interim in the two parts of the book, since receiving his fortune, he did little except follow Nastasya around in the vague hope that something might come of it, and to be there for her when she runs away from Rogozhin. And all the while he becomes embittered and jaded. He can't change and escape the cycle of entrapment and bitterness he is in, because change would imply positive action, something to move towards, which implies cutting up the world into Bad, Good, Better and Worse, into wrongs to be righted, insufficiencies to be addressed, and undone tasks to be done.This is something he is incapable of doing.
Myschkin cannot make any meaningful choices on his own, because that would imply assigning value. And assigning value means saying that some things are better than others, and that clear and purposeful action be taken to secure the more valuable choices. Something which is impossible for someone who is so highly open to the world that they essentially have no will or agency of their own. Anyone or anything can make a valid claim on Prince Myschkin's time, resources, money, and energy because he has no mechanism for sifting through what is in front of him. Hence, he is unable to decide between Aglaia and Nastasya, and at least four lives are ruined. He is open to the world and to others at the expense of his own personal boundaries and cohesion as a discrete psychic entity. Openness is antithetical to the act of valuation, positive segmentation of the world, and meaningful action. This does not mean the two cannot co-exist, but the one must be tempered by the other. There is a synthesis of the two that must emerge. Myschkin has the openness, the Christian love, but he lacks another positive virtue or guiding principle in his life to synthesize this with. He is all innocence and no thrust. He lacks a principle by which he can actively grapple with the world and, in doing so, shape himself. All power and no love is tyranny or psychopathy, but all love and no power is not automatically morality. Was it moral to enable Nastasya's descent into hell? Was it moral to lead Aglaia along, only to reject her for Nastasya?
Myschkin is clearly meant to embody a certain aspect of Christ, who went to his death with full consciousness of his fate and therefore of the depths of human savagery and cruelty. That can only be because Christ knew what he stood for and what it was worth. Myschkin, while not an idiot, was reduced to being one because he lacked consciousness of the shadows of human nature. His epileptic attacks occur during moments when that savagery comes out in others - at a party when he is being socially humiliated, when he is about to be attacked with a knife, and when he sees Nastasya dead. Because he can only see the best in others, he cannot see the evil in them (or in himself for that matter). He cannot keep anyone, himself included, out of Hell, because he cannot admit to its existence. He has no reason to, because anything is infinitely understandable and valid and thus anything is permissible. Because he cannot face evil and give it a name, he loses his mind.
Dostoyevsky, as I understand it, set out to write about someone who is inherently good-natured. That is, they do not have to learn how to be good. In the story, this asserts itself in the fact that Myschkin is an orphan. The implication is perhaps that he needed nothing from parents since he had it all within him from the beginning. Yet especially the Father represents not only the earthly father that raises the son as an embedded member of the community, but also the Heavenly Father, that is the ideal, the end towards which one dedicates their life. This is the principle that could balance Love and Openness, and create a whole person. This, I think, explains why Myschkin could not learn to balance his character or change his ways over the course of his adventure. He has no embeddedness, no structure or hierarchy of values, no North Star by which to orient himself. Without this, people spin out into the extremes of either nihilism and roguishness or, as Myschkin does, into apathy and dissociation. Indeed, we never hear of a goal or aim of the Prince's besides being introduced to the Yepanchins at the very beginning of the book, and later vaguely chasing after Nastasya.
I say all this having been incredibly inspired by the example of the Prince, particularly in the first part of the story leading up to the party where he initially proposes to Nastasya. But the story is ultimately a tragedy. To be able to consciously take on the highest suffering, as Prince Myschkin attempted to do with Nastasya, you need to be strong, insanely strong, or else the world disintegrates into chaos. To be strong requires taking a stand and exerting ones will onto the world. Heroic strength is power tempered with love, empathy, and compassion. But his shadow figures, Rogozhin and Nastasya, remain unintegrated and meet a gruesome end. His anima figure, the innocent but hungry-for-life Aglaia who acts as a foil to his passivity and resignation, is corrupted as the result of his unwillingness to take a stand. He is estranged from the Yepanchin family in general, which should have been his adoptive family. Psychologically, his mental breakdown is inevitable, and in fact has already occurred as the characters representing the various aspects of his personality are violently destroyed.
He is not strong enough to peer into the darkness and rescue the princess, so he stays a perpetual prince rather than succeeding to the kingdom.
Language is the beginning and the end of the human experience. It is perhaps the beginning of our awareness and consciousness. Our language corresponds to the ways we experience and how we express ourselves. Language is expression and is reflective of our experience. Because language is to communicate something to someone else, it implies community and social bonds. Because our language is reflective of our community and our experience, language is a mirror for our identity, for our sense of belonging. To be able to communicate something is to have consciousness and awareness of that thing, and therefore to have power in one’s community. Our shared language and the conversations we have through it is our sense of culture.
In gaining awareness of ever more profound patterns of relating and resolving tensions, we are able to increasingly manipulate them for our ends. Because this ability to affect our will upon the world is tied to inner transformation, the process leading to mastery in engagement with the world is the same process leading to self-knowledge and self-reliance.
It’s important to note that in the context of an emergent system, selfishness and selflessness is a false dichotomy. Indeed, to think in terms of selfishness and selflessness is to be trapped in dualistic, centralized, either/or thinking. We are all various degrees of selfish and selfless at various times or in various contexts. There is also such a thing as selfish selflessness and selfless selfishness. It all depends on the observer, the relationship, and the context. What we should universally abhor, instead of some arbitrary idea of selfishness, is manipulation and coercion. When we lie, mislead, manipulate, and coerce, we deny the other the opportunity to make a free choice about whether to move towards us or move away from us. True community based on free associations can only be built on honesty. Even a selfishly made invitation, as opposed to a manipulation, is a noble thing, for it speaks to the other person as a Man or a Woman rather than as a thing to be manipulated. To invite is to exercise our freedom to move towards, and to invite the invitee to exercise their freedom as well. Invitations are humanizing, whereas coercion is dehumanizing, even if we flee from it, for in doing so we must move away from relationships and into a state of exile. To invite freedom and connection with self and with others in our communities is to create points of departure, it is to invite others to explore their own roles and selves.
All language, expression, and movement towards goodness is movement towards community. This springs from our nature as human beings. Our free will must therefore be devoted to rebuilding community and restructuring our institutions to support, rather than impede, our movement.
We are defined by our relationships, as these form a two-way feedback system between us and our context. It stands to reason that our deepest, most long-lasting, and most prevalent relationships are what most define us: our community. But as part of that web of relationships, we also affect others in that web. We contribute to the emergent pattern of that community. Touch a strand and the web vibrates. We evolved to function this way. Yet many of us drift through life with only a simulacrum of community at best. We cannot go back in time, nor should we want to. But we can craft our own, new forms of community, that look forward rather than backwards, yet that are true communities that empower and satisfy us holistically rather than isolating us as modern “community-building” technology tends to do.
Why do we pity people who lack consciousness?
Why do we look up to people who are more aware?
Another way to put it: no one cares if I kill an ant. Killing another human being, however, is in most contexts an unforgivable crime in modern society. This seems to be a function of our existence as conscious, aware beings. When someone dies, we mourn the lost opportunities, the life they could have lived, the moments they could have experienced and shared- with us, and with others. These are products of our consciousness, our awareness of our fundamental separation. Consciousness implies the ability to experience beauty and goodness, yes, but also the suffering of separation, loss, anxiety, death. Suffering is one of the few things we can be sure of in life. Why people commit suicide is not the question, but rather why more people don't.
Objectively, we can say that if one consciousness is not respected, then none can be respected. If I destroy the integrity of a consciousness, then I forfeit my right to be safe from having my consciousness violated. This is an argument Sartre makes, that the values implicit in any action are by definition universal value judgments. What is good for me must be good for all.
Another staple of existentialist thought, particularly De Beauvoir, is that we need others to affirm who we are. I can only be as free, for example, as the people around me are. To be aware, or conscious, we need others to be aware and conscious. This also explains the inherent value of consciousness and the revulsion we feel when its integrity is violated. After all, recall that a staple of conflict is a concerted and universal dehumanization of the enemy in the minds of a society or community. They are not just the enemy, they are devils, Huns, monkeys, alien, subhuman.
We pulled ourselves out of the mud by our bootstraps, together as a species. We are our relationships, and our relationships are our vehicle for expanding awareness. Briefly, the capacity for language is a prime example. No other, no language, no corresponding expansion of awareness. Jeremy Rifken wrote the book The Empathic Civilization describing the intricate relationship between expanding human consciousness and ever-more complex forms of relating. When we criticize our society, we would do well to criticize it with this in mind. The world we have built is not only responsible for who we are, it is quite literally all our consciousnesses mutually externalized and shared. Without other awarenesses, we would be nothing. We would be as the beasts, which we both revile and revere. We are stuck in this mess because of the other, and we stay in this mess because of the other. We, and our fates, are quite literally bound together.
The more we can recognize and act complicitly with other consciousnesses, the more our own can grow. We will always be of the mud, and to it we shall return, but together, we can find the beauty in that.
Simplistically but accurately, all we are, and indeed all any living thing is, is a complex feedback loop driven by contextually-applied instinct. Our loop may be more complex than that of other organisms we know of, certainly complex enough to have gained a degree of self-consciousness, but it is a simple system at its core. Our sensory functions, both external and internal, create feedback that our organism uses to course-correct as it seeks to pursue its goals. These goals can be broadly divided in two, corresponding to the two types of instincts we have: the instinct to move away from things valued as bad, and to move towards things valued as good.
We know now that trauma is tension stored in the body that the organism has not yet dissipated. Yet we feel tension all the time. Our relationship to this tension is the key to understanding how the body learns and ultimately where the phenomenon of free will comes from.
Take the simple example of when we're feeling tension while we work. The brow is furrowed and creased, our posture in hunched and closed, and we feel frustrated. We're frustrated in comparison to an unobtained end. Having an end is not bad. We have to have an end to be able to move through the world. The gap between where we are and where we want to be creates tension, which is fuel for movement. If there's no tension, there's no impulse, and there's no movement. We would simply have no way of valuing and prioritizing the possibilities before us, and valuing implies ends. Yet by internalizing this tension too much, or holding on to it too tightly, we're actually unable to effectively move towards that end. When we're tense, frustrated, and angry, we often can't see solutions that are right in front of us. Perhaps you've had the experience of being frustrated and unable to solve a problem, and taking a short break. When you come back the solution simply comes together. The tension is always there, but our relationship to it has changed. We've relaxed into the tension rather than embodying or expressing the tension. Feeling the tension rather than relaxing into it traps us in stale energy from however long ago, prohibiting us from updating our model of what is going on or even simply feeling into the moment. It would be like a modern ship trying to sail with 15th century charts. When tension is stored in us, it's because in some way we're trapped outside of the present moment. Trauma, after all, is tension trapped in our bodies that we can't dissipate. And stored tension from our past, that is to say trauma, keeps us trapped in the state we were in at that time, always acting out those patterns rather than reacting with a more contextually-relevant expression. We can be relaxed yet alert, even in tense situations. This is the basis of learning and mastery in any field, moving from instinctual (and less effective responses) to more effective instinctual responses and ultimately the ability to intuit, in the moment, the optimal course of action. When we're relaxed, we're paradoxically not trying to force anything to happen, which frees us to act in the moment. Hence a physiological basis for a practical definition of free will.
From this we can understand that a particular mapping of tension across the canvas of the body associates certain physical responses, the circumstances that cause them, our action, and the consequences of those actions. The tension is how we learn. We know that a large percent of our neuronal matter outside of our brain is dedicated to sensing our internal state, our proprioceptive sense. We also know that our organism is a powerful associative learner. As the saying goes, "neurons that fire together, wire together." So for each experience, particularly powerful ones, some sort of neuronal "groove" is worn in and wired to associate external circumstances, internal states, and the organism's reaction. This explains how we learn from experience. The tension mapping in each moment creates neuronal associations between situations, actions, and outcomes. The stronger the tension, the more deeply it is felt, and the longer it is felt, the stronger the associations created in the neuronal network. When we "feel" that particular tension again as corresponding to a certain mapping, our body automatically knows what to do, without needing to think about it. That is how we're able to react so quickly to complex circumstances, because we're constantly being reminded of the tensions our organism has wired into itself.
An interesting etymological coincidence is found in the origin of the word to remember. I wrote above that our organism is constantly remembering the tension states that have been wired into it by our experience. Remember comes from the Latin membrum (itself from the Proto-Indo-European mems meaning flesh or meat) meaning limb or member of the human body. To re-member then is to put back together our members and quite literally re-create the embodied state we were in at the time of that memory as a function of tension mapped across our body. Certainly you can recall a powerful memory that is so vivid you cannot help but feel the same emotions and tensions all over again.
And in certain situations we want to fall back on old patterns to keep us safe. When we see an object flying at us, our bodies keep us safe by instinctually moving out of the way. Constantly playing out old patterns, however, is not an effective strategy for living. It is stagnation and recession of being. When we are relaxed and not embodying any tension, on the other hand, we are signaling to our organism that we can be open, learn, and react to the unfolding moment, rather than operating on an outdated model from however long ago, thus wiring over (though never completely erasing) old tension and reaction associations.
A common metaphor seen in mystic thought, philosophy, and all the way to self-help literature is the idea of returning to the state of being a child. Awareness and consciousness does not retrograde, at least not without permanent damage to the organism. Innocence lost cannot be regained except through tragedy. No, to be a child is not a metaphor for the state of innocence of non-awareness, but rather for the state of being where no tension was stored, and thus no preprogrammed responses and associations were needed, existed, or used. Instead, the organism was able to react to each unfolding moment, treating each one as a new phenomenon, partners in its unveiling. To be free.
So our subconscious patterns are stored in the neuronal grooves worn in by the distributed associations of tension and experience. In that way, our subconscious is distributed across our entire physiology. And when we relax into tension rather than embodying it gives us choice where previously we had none. We're overriding the programmed responses associated with the tension-detecting and associating neuronal network. Awareness literally is curative. Synchronized awareness, I should say, awareness in the present moment of what is unfolding around us.
It is interesting to consider how amputation or paralysis affects the distributed subconscious. We certainly wouldn't say that an amputee or paralyzed person is less complete psychically than someone who is not. The tension sensing is distributed across the entire body, so any neuronal networks lost are "backed up" in other parts of the body. It is a holographic system. In a hologram, any part contains the plans for the whole. If the whole is compromised, the system can be restored from any remaining part, no matter how small. A simple analogy might be how even if the film studio's archives were burned, the torrent system is a kind of illegal distributed archive that would be much harder to eradicate. Every single computer would have to be wiped, which would be the collapse of the whole system. The system would essentially be dead at that point. We can see this distributed tension and relaxation sensing in certain practices. Foot massages can trigger tension and relaxation in other parts of the body, for example, and in Tantra different parts of the penis and vagina correspond to tension and relaxation in the macroscopic human organism.
The acorn doesn't contain the tree, just the generative instructions for it, from which the tree can unfold. Every part of our organism is a generative microcosm for the macrocosmic whole. Nothing needs to be planned out, like with the acorn. It's unfolding. It's emergence. Dévoilement, unveiling, as De Beauvoir put it. The oak is there all along in the acorn, but it's also not. In the moment of unveiling, there's the ambiguity between the oak that is there and the oak that isn't. This explains why free will exists in the human organism. Consciousness is the witness, the observer. Consciousness isn't there to control. It observes and reframes, it witnesses. Camus wrote that to witness, is the only way we have to rebel against the injustice of death. Death is unjust because we are given consciousness against our will, and with death each of us must fall back into unconsciousness. It is tragic. To witness, his act of rebellion, is to utilize our period of consciousness to its utmost. It is also what frees us in the moment from unconsciousness as acting out old tension reactions. We relax into the tension rather than attempting to control it or fight it. When we directly fight something, we stiffen its resistance. The harder we fight, the harder it becomes. With awareness, we can instead witness and refuse to become the tension that exists. Our relationship to it has changed. We dissipate the tension in our own bodies which frees ourselves from our subconscious tension/reaction associations. In the act of observation of unveiling in the present moment, we have the opportunity to swerve. We relax into choice and freedom. Sartre said that to conceptualize an alternative is to be free. What he doesn't explain is that it's an embodied conceptualization, in the moment of unveiling, of the alternatives our level of awareness (or relaxation into tension) gives us. This is ultimately the mechanism for learning and transformation.
There are a couple points worth clarifying here. It is easy to think we can ignore certain tensions in our lives. Ultimately, we can’t skip over or ignore tension. The tension is painful for the organism precisely because there’s a message to us there from our bodies: that the pain must be resolved in some way. To disconnect from it would be like emergency services disconnecting their phone lines and pretending that everything is okay simply because they're not getting any calls. It might seem like it from their end , but outside the world still burns. Of course, the resolution to the tension could very well be removing yourself from that situation. This could be a first step. But at the same time, this movement away from remains incomplete until there is also something to move towards. At any rate, there is typically a definite sense of peeling back specific layers of tension and in a specific order. Regardless, feeling tension is our bodies’ way of knowing what is most pressing to solve. It is a call to rewrite our engrained tension-mappings and ultimately update ourselves in the face of new information and move towards a more relevant mode of being through personal transformation. If the situation were easy, we would feel no tension but also have no meaningful choice to make. We would be on autopilot, grow bored, and ultimately slide into disconnection.
Relaxation in and of itself is also not specifically the aim. We can easily relax while disconnecting from tension, essentially ignoring it. It may feel like it disappears, but it still lies beneath the surface. Perhaps this explains the popularity of mindless television or movie watching. It allows us to relax while effectively ignoring the issues and tensions we've embodied during the day. But it also provides no effective resolution to those tensions. Take the colloquial phrase “to unplug” in front of the television or computer, even. Why do we feel the need to do that? What are we escaping from? To gain any real momentum in our homeostatic movement, we must seek to relax into the tension, in connection with it. The difference perhaps lies in a sense of surrendering to it, reconciling your organism to it, a sense of wanting to coexist with it. The harder we want it to go away at any cost, the deeper it becomes buried. And ultimately what we lack and what we need is more time in the saddle with that tension. Time sitting in the tension in our lives is the main component we lack to fuel transformation in our lives.
That said, there exists a class of what I’ll call beacon experiences, from how a friend of mine described them. They may be related to so-called peak experiences, but whereas calling them a peak experience implies a sense of completeness and “this is as good as it gets,” a beacon experience is very clearly pointing the way to a future stage of growth. In fact, these are experiences that give you an embodied feeling of what it would be like to step into a whole new realm of being, completely bypassing the normal tension associations in the body. You’ll inevitably slide back towards your former state of being, but with an embodied taste of what you are moving towards, of what lies over the next mountain range. If properly integrated, because you’ve been there once, getting there again is easier. It feels doable because you’ve lived it. Ayahuasca journeys and perhaps some other psychedelics are famous for this. Certain therapies and practices that focus on liberating personal expression can also provide beacon experiences. And perhaps this is responsible for the famous phenomenon of workshop attendees who are exceedingly motivated for two weeks, only to later slide back into old habits.
We know that 99% of what we do is governed by completely subconscious patterns of behavior. Despite our typical way of thinking about our free will, we simply cannot micromanage our actions and behaviors in the way that we think we can when we think of ourselves as free agents, as supreme commanders of our bodies. Free will is quite obviously a function of awareness. If we are not aware of something, we cannot act in relationship to it. The more we pay attention to the little things, the more we lose awareness of the bigger situation and context. So to bring laser-awareness to one increasingly smaller phenomenon and be able to manipulate it with precise control is to miss out on all the rest of the phenomena unfolding around us, and the will we could exert upon it. Sometimes that is useful. While I am writing this, I do not want to be overly aware of everything around me. Yet too fine a focus as well and I cannot write. For example, if I think about the actual mechanics of typing, I impede my own ability to type. I cannot synchronize my awareness with this unfolding page, which is the level of awareness I want to stay at. But I cannot force that to happen. I can only create the right circumstances for it to unfold. I sit in front of the computer, staring at the page, in a quiet or safe corner and as I synchronize with this manuscript the words emerge, almost of their own accord. What comes out is a function of the work that went into my experience previously, not what I am doing per se in the moment. This is actually quite liberating. It removes the pressure of performance in the moment, facilitating relaxation and counterintuitively giving us greater choice and efficacy in the moment- because we're not acting from tension. If I am playing in a concert, no amount of micromanaging my fingers on the instrument can compensate for a lack of practice. It is the practice that allows us to sink to the level of the performance, piece, creation, or experience rather than occupying the level of mechanics. When we mistake micromanagement of our actions with efficacy, we become rigid. We get tunnel vision, losing focus of the larger phenomenon we need to sit in. We get in our own way. By impeding on the domain of expertise of our own bodies, which is the mechanics of doing, we wind up in conflict with ourselves. There is a negative value judgement towards ourselves implied there, that we do not trust ourselves to do what we know how to do, and correspondingly we block our own flow of life force into the world. The more we are in conflict with ourselves, the less effectively we can show up in the world, whether that is through general malaise and lack of motivation or emergent secondary drives that deteriorate the value of our relationships: unnecessary violence, disregard for others, and narcissism, among other traits.
If finer control as exerted by free will in the form of undue micromanagement of our body mechanics is inversely proportional to the efficacy of our total ability to interact with the world, then we can draw our next vital conclusion. Free will only makes sense in the broad stroke of affirmation or renunciation. Do we affirm a given context or situation, or do we renounce it? Do we affirm an internal impulsion through contextually-relevant expression, or do we renounce it and close ourselves off? What values do we affirm in the expression of that life-force? At any level of awareness, when we focus on the mechanics we lose our ability to be in rapport with the phenomenon interacting with us. Yet even in small or everyday phenomena or situations, like what to say in a conversation, our options at the level of that relationship are rather limited because our choices are always circumscribed by our relationship unfolding in the moment with it. We only have a gut sense, for example, of the general sense of what we are going to say, not the words themselves. An impulsion arises from within. This impulsion, an energy that wants to be expressed in a certain way based on the context, is the only meaningful application of free will we will ever have. All we can really do is decide to affirm or renounce that expression, and shape how it comes into the world. The more awareness we have in the moment, the more we can fine tune that expression and ensure contextual relevance because we are operating at a deeper level of relating. In the case of writing, it would be that I am operating at the level of the manuscript itself, which is the emergent pattern of the situation, rather than operating at the level of the typing or even the level of a sentence or paragraph. Lack of awareness in the moment is the equivalent of “lag” or latency in a videogame, rendering us always out of sync with the moment. Attempting to micromanage only disconnects us further from that awareness, trapping us in our heads and outside of the here and now.
There emerges a clear hierarchy in the expression of free will. The broadest and most basic stroke is, what phenomena do we move towards or away from? These expressions correspond to the two basic defining characteristics of any living thing, human beings included: instincts towards what we value as good, and away from what we value as bad. Remember, our consciousness has no a-priori values. Our valuation system comes from some personal mix of internal embodied disposition, shaped by experience of the world around us through interpersonal relating. How we then express that value system through our free will, itself constantly updating through feedback in the form of experience, is one of the most fundamental and difficult tasks we face. The broadest stroke of free will, what phenomena to move towards or away from, is the single biggest choice affecting our lives, because it implies change of context and therefore transformation of self. That itself, due to the ambiguity of the change, can be difficult to face. We simply cannot know who we will be on the other side, and what that possible person’s experience of life will be. But at the same time, renunciation or affirmation of context through decision and action is the first and oftentimes the only difficult task to confront. Small changes do not amount to anything if they are done in a context that we cannot affirm. It is why so many people struggle with implementing the change they seek in their lives. Caught between who they are now and who they want to become, they cannot affirm one or the other. Half-measures are implemented that compared to the influencing power of their current relationships (which in the end are what define us as people and organisms) are like a drop of water in the ocean. For transformation to occur, one context must be renounced and the other affirmed. Without physical movement towards or away from, actual action taken to either rule out possibilities or change contexts, the renunciation and affirmation is false and unrealized.
The bigger of the two had just left to take a piss. I didn't like him and smelled trouble . I didn't like his friend, either, but he at least seemed more harmless.
I told my girlfriend at the time, "Let's go home. I'm tired of these guys already." It was about 2:15 in the morning, and we'd been out drinking with a girlfriend of hers.
"Yeah, I don't like them either."
"Does your friend want them here?"
"No, she doesn't want them here."
Finally, a clear fucking answer from one of the two of them. I went up to her friend, whose home we were at, and whispered in her ear, "Do you want them here?"
We'd met the two guys at one of the bars, and they essentially invited themselves along with us. When my girlfriend's friend let them in her apartment, she'd been the model host. Suddenly, she looked at me with alarm in her eyes.
"No," she whispered back.
Trying not to think too much about it, I went up to the guy that was still in the living room. Politely, I explained that we were tired and wanted to be alone, but I also made it clear: "The two of you should go." I was suddenly very aware that my heart was pumping blood at a mile a minute, and my system was flooding with adrenaline.
He was apologetic and suddenly aware that he had trespassed some invisible boundary. He excused himself and started to get ready to leave. I turned around. His friend had come in from the bathroom, and either he had overheard or our host had explained to him the situation. He was sneering at me, sizing me up. But he backed down. He was a smartass about leaving, but the two of them left without incident.
I locked the door behind them.
How in the hell did two guys we didn't like wind up hanging out in one of our homes with us?
My girlfriend, who I am no longer seeing, had just finished her exams for the semester.
She is from Toulouse, France, and was in the first year of her Master's program. I'd been living with her for two and a half months. After studying for a month straight for her exams, extremely stressed, she was looking forward to a night out having fun with her friend from her program.
We went to her friend's place, whose boyfriend was out at a work event, and drank. My girlfriend and I were already tipsy from the three or so glasses of wine we'd had at dinner. At her friends place, we polished off a round of beers, a bottle of wine, and a sizeable amount of vodka during a drinking game. Trying to save money, I didn't particularly want to go out, and we were having a hell of a good time anyway. They did want to go out, however, so we went to a nearby bar. We hadn't even finished one round before my girlfriend shouted into my ear over the loud music, "We're going somewhere else!" Not particularly caring, I nodded along and started putting on my coat. The two girls walked out the front door without me.
When I joined them outside, they were talking to three men. To put it politely, they were scruffy and rowdy. It seems the friend of my girlfriend wanted to go sing karaoke. I liked karaoke, so that was fine by me. I did not, however, understand why we continued to engage in a conversation with these men we didn't know. I'm all for being friendly, don't get me wrong, and I'll strike up a conversation with most anyone. But these three gave me a bad feeling from the beginning.
I don't know whether the friend invited them along to karaoke, or if they invited themselves, but when we left one of the three was tagging along with us. He was friendly if a bit weird. I made small talk with him for a while as the two girls led the way to the karaoke bar, but eventually grew bored and hoped he would go away. He kept looking back and lingering, waiting for his two friends to catch up. I hoped he would join them and we wouldn't see any of the three again. Call me churlish, but I wasn't in the mood to make new friends, at least not with him and his crew.
The karaoke place was shit. The DJ told me they weren't taking new song signups. What's the point of a karaoke place where you can't sing? I asked my girlfriend and her friend if they wanted to stay. They were noncommittal. I waited outside for them.
They eventually came outside with the guy still hanging on like a bad case of lice. All the bars were closing, my friends said, closing time being 2am. The guy invited us back to his place. My girlfriend asked me what I wanted to do. I did not want to go to this guy's home. Instead, I said, we're still near her friend's place, why don't we go back there and have a drink before heading home. The guy seemed to invite himself, or assume he was invited by default. I didn't want him to come. I thought he was weird, and I had that nagging bad feeling about him that is all too easy to ignore. I didn't say anything because I hadn't had a chance to talk with my girlfriend and her friend about him, and her friend seemed to enjoy talking with him. Looking back, I wonder if I should have spoken up at this point. Probably. I didn't, though.
While walking back to the friend's place, I talked with my girlfriend about the situation and expressed my concerns that he was tagging along, saying I didn't like him and didn't want him to come back with us. My girlfriend was apathetic and resigned. "That is the way things are in France," she said, "You meet people and they come partying with you."
I was flabbergasted. That happened anywhere, but not if you didn't like the people you met. She claimed she hadn't had a chance to talk with them enough to have a sense for whether she liked him and his friends or not. Despite her being there and talking to them before I even showed up outside the first bar, I took her at her word. It was the easiest thing to do.
The guy went off to find his friends, coordinating with my girlfriend's friend to meet us at her place. I was wary, and as soon as he left I expressed my doubts.
"He was a bit weird, and frankly I don't feel like meeting up with him or his friends."
My girlfriend and her friend were again noncommittal, and my girlfriend once again reiterated that that was simply how things were in France. "Bullshit", I thought, but I bit my tongue. Secretly I was hoping they wouldn't show up.
On the way back to her place, just the three of us, the friend was nearly hit by a drunk driver who slammed on his brakes right as I was reaching to pull her out of the way. I mention this because if I wasn't already worked up from the thought of these guys joining us, then that certainly did it. I cussed and yelled at the car as it sped off.
We got back to the friend's place, and sat singing Karaoke songs somewhat halfheartedly for fifteen minutes until the friend's phone rang. She answered it without thinking, apparently believing it was her boyfriend on his way back from his event. It was the guy we'd met, and he'd brought a friend. Panicking, my girlfriend's friend invited them up, not knowing how to say no. At this point, her body language was pretty clear that she did not want the two of them there. She seemed surprised and dismayed that they'd actually shown up.
As the friend went to open the door for them, I looked at my girlfriend with a look of disbelief. She said something to the effect of, "I don't know why she's letting them up. She thought it was her boyfriend calling her." She seemed apprehensive but not overwhelmingly so.
They came up. The friend of the guy who had tagged along with us was tall, big, and frankly, a douchebag. Admittedly, I was rather dismissive towards them. I didn't want them there, and still had adrenaline running from the drunk driver incident. I made no effort to be friendly.
My girlfriend's friend found a Michael Jackson karaoke song and put it on. Halfheartedly sung lyrics came out from the group. The big guy asked why I wasn't singing along.
To be honest, I hadn't ever really listened to Michael Jackson and didn't care for his music. I shrugged and dismissed him. Any respectful, decent person would have left me alone. He insisted, and I shrugged him off again.
Then he asked me where the toilet in the apartment was. I told him. He pointed in the opposite direction and asked if it was there. I asked what was wrong with him. This went back and forth like this for a full minute or so, the guy trying to bait a response from me. I simply refused to play ball, ignored his games, and treated him like the idiot he was. "I just told you where the bathroom was. Why don't you go?"
It was clear to me: this guy was trying to fuck with me. He was trying to intimidate me in some way to take control of the situation. Intuitively, on an energetic level, I felt how aggressive he was and how little he cared about other people to come into someone else's home and fuck with the people there.
It felt like a high stakes game of poker, seeing who would fold first. It wasn't about the bathroom at all. It felt positively medieval.
That's when I had asked my girlfriend if she wanted to leave.
Amazingly, my girlfriend didn't even notice that a power play had occurred between me and the big guy, despite being seated right next to me- and in between me and him- the entire time. I thought maybe I was crazy for acting the way I did. Then I remembered the objective facts: both women had told me they were uncomfortable with the two strangers and did not want them there.
At the same time, there seemed to be some sort of willful ignorance from my girlfriend and her friend, and not just about this, but about who those guys were, what they wanted, and them even coming along with us in the first place- until they were already in the apartment.
Singing karaoke for a few songs, just the three of us, distracted me from what was going on inside me. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein had just replaced all the blood in my veins with pure electricity. Distractedly, I downed Coke mixed with a splash of vodka. But we had to leave to catch the last metro back to our place, so we said goodbye. The friend thanked me for helping her. My girlfriend and I walked in silence to the metro.
"Are you mad?" My girlfriend asked. I couldn't believe she could even be asking me that.
"I'm not mad, certainly not at you, but I am worked up as hell. It will take me a while to calm down. Are you not upset at what happened?"
All she could say was, Good thing you were there, over and over again. But from the nonchalant, flippant tone of her voice, I could tell it was simply words with no feeling behind it. She was saying it to appease me.
Jesus Christ. Again with the willful ignorance.
We walked from the last metro station to our apartment. I didn't press the issue as I was too busy feeling the electricity flowing through my veins, marveling at the fact that nothing around me seemed to escape my awareness. Every fiber of my body felt awake, energized, ready to leap into action. Rather than being in my head, daydreaming or being self-absorbed, I found myself attuned to everything around me, and everyone who passed. I had the sense that I could read their intentions in some way. For example, things were energetically dead among the passengers on the metro, but on the way home, my awareness spiked as two specific young men went walking past. It only happened with them, and no one else on the way home. Maybe it was my own nerves after what had just happened, or maybe it was me picking up on some vague, barely expressed impulse on their part. Maybe both.
Without thinking, I tugged my girlfriend gently by the jacket back onto the curb as she almost stepped out in front of a car that had the right of way. It had happened automatically, my instincts far ahead of my conscious mind.
We advanced towards the apartment. She continued to say, "you're still mad."
I reflected as we marched up the long hill towards home, still scanning 360 degrees automatically, as if this behavior had been programmed into my genes all along, waiting to be expressed. It sure as hell felt that way.
I'd been in a melancholic slump for the past several weeks, unproductive at work and barely able or willing to leave the apartment. I burned through books until I got so bored I couldn't bear reading anymore. I'd spent most of that day before going out watching stupid YouTube videos.
But goddamn, I felt so fucking alive and purposeful and honest right then. I felt I was right where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. Don't get me wrong. I don't think that what I did was heroic and special. In the end, all I did was tell (politely) two unwanted guests to leave. People do that all the time with no fanfare.
I'd done something similar a few months before, before joining my girlfriend in Toulouse. I was visiting a friend from my childhood in Columbus, Georgia. He invited me out with his friends. We were having a nice time, and had struck up a conversation with a guy who claimed to be an Army soldier stationed at Fort Benning. I'd had the sense he was a weird guy, but a bit lonely. I chatted with him for a bit, then went and talked with some others in the group.
I didn't see it happen, but a girl from the group came up to me and my friend and complained that the soldier had smacked her ass. She was clearly not comfortable being around him and was seeking safety with the larger group. Stunned, I looked over. The guy was still chatting with some in the group, clearly oblivious to this woman's distress.
I thought about it for a second, then marched over. I explained to him, quite politely, that we were friends trying to catch up, he'd made us uncomfortable, and that he should leave. He apologized, but claimed he had done nothing wrong. I was insistent that he leave. He tried explaining himself, and I walked away from him. He got the hint and left.
I had my fifteen minutes of fame in the little group. The brother of the offended woman admitted he wished he'd have had the guts to go up and do what I did. I didn't say what I was thinking: that I had spent all of my life up till that moment wishing the same thing, loathing myself for my own perceived cowardice.
My conscience is complicated by the fact that I've done stupid, insensitive things to women myself. Hell, I'd smacked a girl on the ass myself, earlier that year. Me and my friends were drunk, one especially brazen friend suggested I do it, and without thinking I found myself swinging.
And I've been smacked on the ass myself, numerous times, by both men and women. The one time it happened to me truly maliciously, from another man, I felt humiliated. I still feel my blood boil when I think about it. I still wish I'd have turned right around and socked him.
I still wish I thought about how that experience made me feel before I smacked that women on her ass in that bar in Budapest.
"You're still mad."
I thought about my girlfriend's words. "Yes, I'm still mad. I think maybe it's hard for you to understand, but there's still adrenaline coursing through my veins. I don't think it's sunk in for you what happened back there. Two guys invited themselves into your friend's apartment. No one wanted them there. And yet they were still with us in your friends apartment. So, yes, I'm still mad. I'm not mad at you, or at your friend. But this event has profoundly shaken me."
And it had. How did it come to that? And yes, what if I had not been there? What might have happened?
We see each day a new story of women who didn't feel capable saying no to men who were in a position of power over them. And we need women to feel capable saying no.
At the same time, the willful ignorance displayed by my girlfriend and her friend distressed me. How could they not see what was going on? There's only one reason a guy goes back to a girl's place at 2:30 in the morning. It is to have sex. Women know this too. And yet, this willful ignorance still persists. I say this, hard as it is to believe, without excusing any behavior from the men. You can see the same willful ignorance in the moment in many of the high profile abuse and harassment cases that came out over the past couple of years.
These two women- my girlfriend and her friend- did not feel comfortable saying no, and more distressingly, did not even feel the need to say no until the men were already in an apartment with them, when it was precisely the hardest for them to say no.
What might have happened, indeed, had I not been there? My girlfriend and her friend clearly had no intention of drawing boundaries with those men- else they would have never made it into the apartment. Once you allow someone to cross your boundaries once, it gets progressively harder to stop them the next time.
Most guys have good hearts and want to treat women respectfully. And despite the story I've told, I have no way of knowing for sure what the two guys would have done, what their intentions were, and whether or not they would respect a "no" or even be attuned enough to the women to know whether or not to even try anything. But the point here is that the continued silence of the two women made it a moot point. All they had to do was continue to be willfully ignorant and pretend that what was happening around them was not happening.
And, I admit it, there was a part of me that wondered if my girlfriend (and her friend) actually wanted something to happen with them. That would be one explanation for their behavior.
"But I can tell you're mad at me."
I thought about it some more. I typically would have assured her I was not mad to avoid an argument. We'd been arguing too much recently. But as on fire as I was feeling, I literally felt no desire or capacity for deceit, no matter how insignificant it might seem. I felt truly myself. And it started with speaking up in a difficult situation.
"Yes, I am mad at you to a certain extent. I am angry that you do not seem to realize what a difficult situation that was. I am angry that you did not pick up on what was going on, heed my warnings about these guys, and take what was going on seriously until they were already in your friend's flat. They were in her flat. You two had already shown you weren't willing to say no up to that point. When were you going to start saying no?"
Walking up the steep, abandoned street at 3am, my girlfriend protested. "But I had told you she didn't want them there!"
"Yes, after they were already up!"
"No, I told you when they called!"
At that point, all the bottled-up anger came spilling out of me. Icily, calculatingly, I seethed:
"Bullshit. Bullshit. I blame myself for not taking action sooner, but do not lie to me and tell me you said something you did not. That is a fucking cowardly thing to do. Yes, I am venting some of my anger at the situation and at these two guys at you, and I am sorry for that. But do not lie to me about what you said. I told you over and over again I did not like these guys and was not comfortable with them, and you said nothing until they were already in your friend's place."
"But I couldn't have known they were weird! I didn't talk with them!"
Ah, this excuse again. "You were there and you went through the same interactions with them as I did. You cannot pretend you did not pick up on anything. And if you didn't, then that is even more fucking worrisome."
We got home. I checked the door behind us and locked both locks. I took off my jacket, powered into the bathroom, and sat down to have a moment to myself. I wanted to smash something and I wanted to cry. Compared with tonight, everything up to this point felt like a frivolous game. This was the first time I was standing up for someone I really knew and loved, where the stakes seemed real. I felt anger and raw energy building up in me in a way I hadn't felt consistently since I was a child, when I was taught that feeling this way was wrong. That I shouldn't feel this.
That feeling it made me a bad man.
I walked out onto the balcony of the apartment, still trying to make sense of what happened, still trying to understand the events of the night and the reaction of my girlfriend. I felt deeply troubled by what had happened that night. But the overwhelming sense I couldn't escape was just how goddamned alive and purposeful I felt. And it only came from speaking up, in the moment, in a situation that would have been easiest to run from. It's a lesson I won't forget. By not speaking up, I am complicit in what is unfolding around me. When I speak up, I have at least discharged the responsibility I have in the moment. I have imbibed an antidote to future remorse. I do not want to babysit other people's experience, I have a hard enough time with my own. Perhaps next time I'll speak up sooner. Perhaps it will be easier with practice. But if it were easy, it wouldn't be a meaningful thing to do.
For whatever reason, my friends that night did not want to speak up.
I couldn't sleep, and only felt the desire to do something, to create, to testify, to mark time. And so I find myself writing this, trying to make sense of what happened, trying to understand my reaction to it.
Does selfishness get a bad rap? How much do intentions really matter?
At a bar a few nights ago I got into a conversation with a stranger on precisely this topic (among others). He pointed out how a friend of his mentioned giving money to a homeless guy, and how he felt good after doing so, so he liked doing it. He saw this as selfish, and by extension a bad thing, because the intention wasn't to help the man but to feel good. Ideally, the intention would be completely pure.
I disagree. I think the selfish/selfless debate we constantly hear about is malarkey, and a clear case of a false dichotomy. The problem is we've come to associate selfishness with manipulation and taking advantage of others, and we've equated selflessness with good deeds.
...sees much and knows much