Purpose Statement

Exploration -> Experience -> Feeling -> Transformation -> Understanding

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Looking in the Lee mirror

I had lunch today with beloved soul brother Lee and in the course of gazing into the Lee mirror, I came to recognize a source of discontent within myself.

Hermann Hesse’s brilliant book Steppenwolf is about a man that is torn between two selves – a bourgeois self and an extremist self. Here is how Hesse sums it up:

Now what we call “bourgeois,” when regarded as an element always to be found in human life, is nothing else than the search for balance. It is the striving after a mean between the countless extremes and opposites that arise in human conduct. If we take any one of these coupled opposites, such as piety and profligacy, the analogy is immediately comprehensible. It is open to a man to give himself up wholly to spiritual views, to seek after God, to the ideal of saintliness. On the other hand, he can equally give himself up to the life of instinct, to the lusts of the flesh, and so direct all his efforts to the attainment of momentary pleasures. The one path leads to the saint, to the martyrdom of the spirit and surrender to God. The other path leads to the profligate, to the martyrdom of the flesh, the surrender to corruption. Now it is between the two, in the middle of the road, that the bourgeois seeks to walk. He will never surrender himself either to lust or to asceticism. He will never be a martyr or agree to his own destruction. On the contrary, his ideal is not to give up but to maintain his own identity. He strives neither for the saintly nor its opposite. The absolute is his abhorrence. He is ready to be virtuous, but likes to be easy and comfortable in the world as well. In short, his aim is to make a home for himself between two extremes in a temperate zone without violent storms and tempests; and in this he succeeds though it be at the cost of that intensity of life and feeling which an extreme life affords. A man cannot live intensely except at the cost of the self. Now the bourgeois treasures nothing more highly than the self (rudimentary as his may be). And so at the cost of intensity he achieves his own preservation and security. His harvest is a quiet mind which he prefers to being possessed by God, as he does comfort to pleasure, convenience to liberty, and a pleasant temperature to that deathly inner consuming fire. The bourgeois is consequently by nature a creature of weak impulses, anxious, fearful of giving himself away and easy to rule. Therefore, he has substituted majority for power, law for force, and the polling booth for responsibility.

Another German writer, Thomas Mann, wrote about living as an extremist with feeling, intensity, and vigor:

... it is our duty, our religious duty to feel. Our feeling, you see, is our manly vigor, which awakens life. Life slumbers. It wants to be awakened, roused to drunken nuptials with divine feeling. Because feeling ... is divine. Man himself is divine in that he feels. He is the very feeling of God. God created him in order to feel through him. Man is nothing more than the organ by which God consummates His marriage with awakened and intoxicated life. And if man fails to feel, it is an eruption of divine disgrace, it is the defeat of God's manly vigor, a cosmic catastrophe, a horror that never leaves the mind

These passages resonate with me. The puer in me believes that intensity and feeling are what bring value to life and if I have not lost my self in the consuming fire of complete commitment to the one thing to the sacrifice of everything else, I am not living. People have told me numerous times how they admire all that I have accomplished – I completed an Ironman triathlon, I hang glide and paraglide, scuba dive all over the world, take pretty photographs, I’m a successful professional engineer, … I can admit that I am pretty good at all these things, but I have never devoted myself exclusively to any one thing. So in my mind, I really have not accomplished much at all. I can hang glide, but I’ve never flown big XC. I finished an Ironman, but I’ll never go under 9 hours. I’m a successful engineer, but the truth is, I put no passion into my work. I scuba dive, but I’ll never be Jacques Cousteau.

At lunch today Lee and I spoke of Jesus. Jesus lived as an extremist, to such a degree that the bourgeoisie of his day crucified him. Who among us really wants to emulate Jesus? Wouldn’t you rather be a successful Roman businessman with slaves to make your life comfortable? I wonder if the Mexicans who clean and fix-up my house have ever thought of me as a metaphorical Roman.

So there is a part of me that is discontent with my life of success and comfort. Of course, I am the Steppenwolf, so there is a bourgeois part of me that is anxious and fearful to do anything other than stay miserable.

But there is something telling me that it is the puer that wants to be an extremist and the puer is part of my shadow, so that cannot be the solution. Hesse says as much in his masterpiece Narcissus and Goldmund. At the end of the book, the two extremists are still unfulfilled.

The Buddha taught of the middle way and mystic Dan is always teaching the Via Media and I think this must be the preferred solution, but here is the part I haven’t figured out – What is the difference, and I sure hope there is a huge difference, between the middle way of wisdom and the mediocre middle of the bourgeoisie? How to I go directly from the mediocre bourgeois middle to the wisdom middle?

3 comments:

Andrea said...

The way of Eastern religion, especially in Taoism & Orthodoxy, seems to me to be neither A nor B, but both in revelation. That is, it goes beneath the surface of paradox, to find the union.

Andrea said...

And I like Demian best of Hesse. Did I mention I finally read Goldmund & Narcissus at your recommendation?

Manai'a Explorations said...

And isn't it brilliant? Everytime I re-read it, I am amazed at the new things I discover.