December 09, 2009

Be Here Now

I often wonder how many people in their sixties or seventies have had this experience: you awake one morning and realize that forty years went by in the blink of an eye. You can barely remember them; it all seems like one big blur. What stands out is the suddenness of this passage of time. One day you were a young adult, and the next day (seemingly) you are a Senior Citizen. What in the world? you ask yourself. Where was I all that time?

As Proust told us, the past can only be recaptured kinesthetically, as a somatic memory that is largely fragmentary in nature. Much of this is intertwined with desire. But since desire pursues a “moving target,” so to speak, our personal history seems like an illusion, or even a hallucination. It is for this reason that the fantasy of wanting to return to an earlier point in our lives and “do it over again,” but with our present adult consciousness intact, is a common one–the subject of a number of films, in fact.

All this has led me to think of how I might avoid repeating this feeling that I wasn’t present for most of my life. Proust’s solution to this conundrum was what he called “intermittence”–submission to the “great turning wheel of experience.” It has an obvious affinity with the Buddhist concept of awareness. But it poses certain problems. First, how can I get myself to be aware of my experience as I am having it? It seems more likely that I shall forget to remember. Second, even if I were to become successful at doing this, there is no guarantee that on my deathbed, I won’t experience the past twenty or thirty years, once again, as a blur that went by like a speeding train. Either way, life will have passed me by.

Recently, motivated by some odd form of nostalgia, I searched the Internet for my first love, the girl I dated during my sophomore year in college. Much to my surprise, I found her: she was a successful architect, living in a small town in Virginia. Ironically enough, I had worked in that very town for several years; she and I probably passed each other on the street, or sat in the same cafés together without realizing it. The picture that came up on the screen, of a woman in her early sixties, confronted me with a parallel universe, as it were: had things “worked out,” this person could have been my life. Not that I had any regrets, or sadly missed that alternative possibility; but that she had floated out of my life, only to reappear as a virtual image forty-five years later, was a weird sensation. I thought of writing her, but finally decided against it. What did we really have to say to one another, after all this time? That relationship was someone else’s life.

Truth be told, I have found my “actual” life to be not very different from my dream life. I recall one dream I had when I was thirty...I was taking a bus to a different city, ostensibly to begin a new life, and, having gotten on the bus, discovered that my luggage was sitting out on the curb. I told the driver I needed to get it before we took off, but he told me that as this was a Sunday, the rule (for some strange reason) was that I had to travel without it or not at all. While I was trying to decide what to do, I looked just behind the area where the bus driver was sitting, and noticed a large circular badge or button, made out of metal, on which the words were written, in Spanish, “Doctor of Bone Medicine Aboard.” (This was particularly odd, because at that point in my life, I knew practically no Spanish.) I told the bus driver I would stay on the bus, and leave my baggage behind; whereupon he started the engine, and the bus left the station.

When I awoke, I had the feeling that the message in Spanish was related to a then-popular tune by Simon and Garfunkel, which goes like this:

Never hides your broken bones
And I don't know why
You want to try
It's plain to see you're on your own.
Oo-ee, spare your heart
Everything put together
Sooner or later falls apart.

One thing that I felt the dream was telling me was that in order to undertake a journey of freedom, of unfolding consciousness, I had to leave my emotional “baggage” behind. The second message seemed equally clear: nobody could heal me but myself; I was the “Doctor of Bone Medicine” accompanying myself on this journey. I would mend my broken bones, and I would not use “peraphernalia” (gimmicks or substitute satisfactions) to do it. And finally, the notion that life was fleeting, impermanent. We want things to last, but they don’t.

Some years later, I ran across a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez that seemed to echo this existential reality:

I am not I.
I am this one
who walks beside me, without my seeing him
whom I sometimes see
and whom at other times I forget
who is quiet, serene, when I talk
who forgives me, gently, when I hate
who walks where I am not
who will remain standing, when I die.

Perhaps this is the “intermittence” that Proust was referring to; I’m not sure.

In any case, I find myself thinking about death a lot these days, and wondering what that will be like. Since I don’t believe in an afterlife, I imagine it as a letting go into nothingness–not a pleasant prospect. The Zen idea of being fully present in every experience doesn’t have much attraction for me, in this case, and I always admired the total honesty and simplicity of Zen master Shunryu Suzuki’s last words: “I don’t want to die.” When all is said and done, none of us escapes the human condition.

Last words, of course, say a lot about the person who utters them. “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life,” said Wittgenstein, as he slipped out of consciousness and into the Great Void. I can’t imagine I’ll enjoy the same peace of mind. My guess is it will be more like, “You mean, this is it?” All those fragments–the girl I dated in college and found decades later on the Net, the dream about the “Bone Doctor,” the time I was seven years old and sat on the beach at Lake Ontario, playing in the sand with a pail and shovel–what, finally, did it all mean? Quite obviously, there is no forcing things to make sense: either they do or they don’t, and there is no guarantee that they will.

I recall, in 1973, visiting Prague (I was living in London at the time), and being politely accosted, in English, by an elderly Czech gentleman sitting on a bench on a street just off Wenceslas Square. He was wearing a suit, overcoat, and hat, and explained to me that he often hung out in the touristy sections of the city so that he might get a chance to practice his foreign language skills–French, Russian, German, English. His name–I remember it to this day–was Jan Horna, and there was something very dignified about him, very self-contained. We chatted for about half an hour, after which I asked him if I might take his photograph. He agreed, on condition that I write down his address and send him a copy of the photo; which I subsequently did. The picture captured him exactly, sitting on the bench with a look that was both wistful and questioning. I assume he is long gone by now, buried in some cemetery in Prague. I think about him from time to time, and wonder how the rest of his life turned out.

©Morris Berman, 2009


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

That was a very interesting article. I have also been perplexed by how time moves.
I am a very scientific, rational thinker, but I have had many strange, unexplainable (psychic) experiences that have lead me to believe that there is perhaps more. I have had vivid dreams where dead relatives come to me and talk to me after passing away. Interestingly, they just smile and dissolve when I ask them directly about the afterlife. It seems they aren't allowed to give any details. My relatives who have died suddenly and violently usually want me to explain to them how they died. They tell me that they are "fine", but are just curious about how they died. These relatives "break into" my normal dream. Is this just the subconscious mind? Who knows? I have had enough premonitions, visions, and dreams that have come true to make me think that there is something, perhaps a whole ocean, beyond what we rationally/scientifically understand. It seems very confident to declare that there is "nothing." I don't buy the conventional, religious bull: angels, ghosts, UFOs, etc., but I do leave open the possibility that there is something beyond our senses and understanding. We are just monkeys, and we don't know it all. I cannot "prove" there is something, and you cannot "prove" there isn't. We will both find out sooner or later, and either way it doesn't really matter. Didn't Socrates leave this as an open question? Didn't he say that either way (void) or (afterlife) was a possibility? Shouldn't we all be agnostic like Socrates?

9:18 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

I'm much more interested in life after birth than life after death, to tell you the truth. For example: *Is* there life after birth??! Important question. In any case, I encourage you to explore your nonrational side. You might start by keeping a dream journal.


10:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

You don't need to publish this, but I do appreciate your comments and feedback. I do view you as a mentor from afar, as I am sure many others do as well. You are the smartest person I know, and it's nice to bounce ideas off of you. We may all talk about the negative impact of various technologies, but this opportunity to discuss and respond to a writer is unprecedented. Please keep writing and blogging and we will continue reading and writing for inspiration. You have a fan base. I think more people read and follow than comment. Keep writing and know that you are making a big difference in our lives. I usually comment anonymously because I am paranoid about leaving my mark on the world wide web. Just know that you are respected and make a difference. Thank you for all of your work! I am really glad that you are doing this blog, and I hope it brings something to you as well.


11:02 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear John,

Yes, it brings me a lot, esp. things to reflect on, which I often do. A lot of this is 'subliminal', so to speak, but I know it's there. In any case, thank you for your appreciation; it means a lot.


9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Thanks. I also think of death a lot. My mother died a couple of weeks ago at age 105. I reassure myself that I have her genes, but her death, and returning to the place of my birth have intensified my reflections on the brevity of the 74 years I’ve been “here.”

But was I “here” at all? I have mental pictures of some of it but the rest is just vague. The pictures, stories, etc., must represent a tiny fraction of what happened. I want to be here for at least the rest of the trip but have little skill at being here. How much does language, linear thinking, and time inhibit the experience of now?

On the positive side, I think consciousness transcends biological death. I’ve seen a number of examples in my shamanic teaching. In fact, I’m not sure that consciousness even resides in us. Of course the quality of that, what it might feel like to be conscious beyond biological death is ???

As a young boy I thought about this as I watched the waves roll in on the Oregon Coast. I was reassured that even if I ceased to exist, the waves would continue. Later I learned that Chuang Tzu questioned how we can trust nature so much and yet not trust our own life/death. And I often fall back on the notion that if there is absolutely nothing after death I won’t experience it.

Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Buddhist, teaches that to be fully alive we must embrace impermanence. Yes, but I can get nihilistic real fast with that. Nothing matters…. etc…Like Tony Soprano’s mother said, “it’s all a big nothing.” Back to existential questions…..

Religious people are so lucky.

Thanks for the poetry too.


6:23 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dave,

First, my condolences on the loss of your mom. Tho as you know, 105 is a pretty good shot. My mother died 5 yrs ago, at age 94, having basically told me, when she was
90: "I've lived long enough; it's all gravy from here on." Still, when it was time for her to let go, she really didn't want to.

As far as surviving death, I don't believe in it, and it's not a problem, because the obvious conclusion is: squeeze everything out of the present, since it's all you've got. I try to remember to do that. That's my form of prayer, I guess.

Finally, I (myself) don't envy religious people; I can't see any way that all of that stuff isn't wishful thinking, a psychological crutch, and a hedge against death. I think that getting high on reality is much, much better than getting high on fantasy, and I regard God as basically a fairy tale for adults. Not to say there isn't such a thing as sacred experience; but I can't convince myself there is anything "out there," and I don't see that it matters. ("There *is* another world," wrote Paul Eluard, "but it is in *this* one.") In my view, religion cheats people of life, in the paradoxical guise of giving it to them. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." The world as it presents itself is enough for me, in short; that I be here now, is all I ask.

Thanks for writing, amigo, and take care of yourself.


8:58 PM  
Anonymous Juan Santos said...

Part 1(of 2)

Estimado Morris,

Me alegra enormemente leer sus palabras: usted sigue siendo mostrándose tan humano como siempre y yo le aprecio de todo corazón por esto. Le aprecio no sólo por su particular calidad humana –muchas personas la tienen–, sino por seguir siéndolo después de haber escrito lo que probablemente sea una de las trilogías más profundas y exhaustivas sobre la íntima condición del hombre. No hay muchas personas tan eruditas como usted; todavía menos con una mente clara como la suya; y muy escasas parecen ser, las que después de un viaje así, tienen el coraje y la fuerza de no agarrárse a dogmas y vivir haciendo equilibrios en la cuerda floja de la duda.

Es la primera que le escribo, es un sentimiento extraño, muy extraño. Yo empecé a leer su trilogía cuando me vine a vivir de España a Suecia, hace ya más de diez años. No se confunda, no le idolatro, pero sí siento una especie de cariño especial por usted como escritor. Valoro muchas de las reflexiones que realiza, estoy en descuerdo con otras. Valoro especialmente la recopilación de pensamientos y bibliografía esencial que comenta, combina y sirve de base a su obra. Muchos de esos libros que usted cita han sido la base de mi lectura estos últimos años. Sinceramente, me sorprende que sus libros se lean tan poco. Quisiera aprovechar esta ocasión para expresarle mi más sincero agradecimiento por escribir esos valiosos librso y por compartir sus experiencias.

Sorry to write in spanish but it felt better like that. The next comment is about what you wrote in your last post. I will try to do it in English. I apologise for the grammatical mistakes. Your questions and reflections are too important to be dealt with in such a short space, so I hope you get something worth out of it.

Juan Santos

3:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Estimado Juan Santos,

Thank you for your kind words; I'm actually blushing a little from all that praise. Mira: I'm sorry I couldn't post Part 2 of your message, but we have a 'length policy' on this blog, and that would have been too much. But you can always write me (in Spanish, if you'd like, but again, please keep it short--I tend to be somewhat busy these days) at Por cierto, what are you doing in Sweden?

Muchisimas gracias,

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

I first read Proust in Africa, the tempo of life there lending itself to a great "dilation of time" and I fell under the spell of his power of retrieving the Orphic epiphany, and perhaps one of the only truly aesthetic experience through literature I had in my adult life. (I was in my late thirties at the time.)

In my forties, I studied intermittently at a meditation center in Central Java, over a period of about six years. This was a most informal setting with little or none of the often clap-trap externals associated with such places, i.e. excessive devotion to the teacher, proscribed postures, adherence to formula, etc. etc., and there was no money involved, in the sense of giving money to the teacher or donations, of any sort. I learned enough at first to observe the "psychological benefits" of practice. In the last two years studying there, I encountered a host of phenomena that seemed to mock my psychological reductionism. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Dear Horatio........." the Shakespearean commonplace. (Alfred Jarry somewhere says that "Cliches are the armature of the Absolute.")

I turned sixty this past year, living now in the small hometown of my birth, in Michigan, and note as you have in your experience, how appallingly
brief it all appears...and clearly see, when I am not unafraid, how the " the sea roars mournfully at the edge of all things," including my dilemmas about sprituality.

Thank you for peeking through the portal of mortality.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey are you a professional journalist? This article is very well written, as compared to most other blogs i saw today….
anyhow thanks for the good read!

8:44 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

You're welcome. I have legal status in Mexico as a writer-journalist, and do a regular column for two literary mags.


10:16 AM  
Blogger Ten Thousand Winds said...

Thanks for the poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez. Also I used to work in a hospice so I could get over the fear of dying. It didn't work, I am still afraid of dying...

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

Just a technical note: the Paul Simon lyrics you quoted, "Everything Put Together Falls Apart", is from his first solo album--not Simon and Garfunkel. So, if this essay is to be included (I'm just guessing) in your collection, "A Question of Values", you might want to edit that.

I need some extra money. Any chance that you're hiring? (just kidding)

4:21 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Art,

Many thanks. I don't know how many people wd have caught it, but it's always gd to be accurate.

As for needing an editor or research ass't: well, you'd hafta work for next to nothing (I don't have a lot of disposable income), and be perfectly bilingual. Next lifetime, I guess. But thanks for the offer.


12:39 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Simply a beautiful post, echoing feelings that so many of us are having these days.

I turned 56 over this past weekend, so your words especially strike home with me today. I've got that sense of living on borrowed time, having needed an emergency triple bypass some 8 years ago. I had no previous symptoms, save for a shortness of breath beginning just a month previously. The doctor told me afterwards that 16 of his colleagues looked at my test data & all agreed that I should have dropped dead months before that, without a single warning sign.

So I'm enjoying the gravy!

As for an afterlife ... I'd like to believe that I'll meet my dead father again, and all my family. I really would. But I can't believe that'll happen. More & more, I see that this life is it. I do believe in sacred experience, but in a Jungian sense of something within the psyche -- an individual universe that's born & then dies in a single lifetime. And why shouldn't it?

William Blake wrote, "Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast." That pretty much sums it up for me.

So I'm doing my best to make use of my time right now: making art, writing, reading, keeping a dream journal, enjoying the world around me with my wife. I find that so much more enriching than the empty life offered by commercials & corporations!

Your blog is one of those riches for me. I agree with the other posters that you're offering something valuable & worthwhile; I hope you know that it's appreciated.

2:28 PM  
Blogger jjarden said...

Dear Morris,

I'm filled with sadness after reading your piece, which means that is was good, as usual.

For me, the sadness comes from the realization that in the end, nothing really matters...NOTHING.

So WHY do we fret so, and why are we all filled with worry over our lives, how it's going, and how it's turning out?

As I reach my 47th birthday, the thing that is causing me great angst is that I feel like I haven't produced anything of real value in my 47 years. I've been a paper-pusher my whole life...a manipulator of electronic symbols on my keyboard producing nothing of value...just keeping the great corporate machine humming, and being paid nicely for it.

I haven't written a book, although I feel like I a have a few good ones in me...I haven't written a play...I haven't written a song...I haven't painted a painting, or sculpted a sculpture. All I do is work to get money to finance my lifestyle. There is no creative piece of work through my own mind and hands that will live on after me in my name, so that the world can say, "Joe wrote, created, or produced that."

One of the reasons (I tell myself) why I don't get off my behind to create and produce is this very feeling that nothing matters in the end.

So, as I'm currently in the throes of a full-blown, mid-life crises, and questioning it all, it begs the question...Would it really matter anyway if I wrote that book or song?



6:52 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tim,

Here's another line from Blake you might find helpful:

"Earth and all you behold;
Tho' it appears without, it is within."


I think there are two things that really do matter in the end; and not just for me: Love, and Truth. The questions I ask myself around this time of year are:
1. Have I loved? (usually, not enuf)
2. Have I pursued the truth, and lived in it? (usually, to the best of my ability)

Amigo, you are only 47--a mere babe! You cd easily live to 94, in which case yer only at the halfway mark. You have decades ahead of you (altho they fly by, in the blink of an eye...). *Write* the book, the song. This life is not a 'rehearsal'; it's literally all you've got.


7:54 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

So what's it all mean?

The poem that struck me as being utterly & completely honest, the first time I read it, is by Stephen Crane:

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

I don't see the universe as being either caring or indifferent, benign or malicious -- it simply is. And we simply are. And if we require meaning, then we must make it ourselves, even though it won't survive our death.

Joe -- write that poem, paint that painting, compose that song. It'll make a difference to you. I say this as someone who overcame too many years of self-imposed fear & finally began to create art myself. Elsewhere in these posts I've wondered if a culture can die from lack of beauty -- well, I do know that beauty & meaning can sometimes help salvage an individual life.

Is a flower's beauty any less meaningful for being so ephemeral? Or is it actually more beautiful for that? No matter what we do, no matter what we create, it'll vanish one day, as will the Earth, as will our sun.

But we're here, now, alive. And as Professor Berman just stated, we have both Love & Truth to pursue, to give us the meaning we seek. We can choose to make our lives meaningful, if only to ourselves.

Joe -- if no one else says or knows that you created something, YOU will know it. You will know that you lived your life. And you'll know that it was YOUR life. That's more than a lot of people ever get. It's precious -- don't let it slip through your fingers.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Bahayla said...

"The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with the indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light." -- Stanley Kubrick

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

"So WHY do we fret so, and why are we all filled with worry over our lives, how it's going, and how it's turning out?"

Joe, that's a question I ask myself all the time. Looking back over my 50 years, the things that I did *not* do, are what I regret the most. Physical and social constraints have certainly played their part, but underlying it all (for me anyway) is fear. I've heard the advice, "feel the fear and do it anyway", but knowing that doesn't seem to do much good.

Life in techno America is not only an impoverished one; it is also a very stressful one. Perhaps many of us are suffering from adrenal burnout, or other stress-induced syndromes. Disengaging from the machines, and getting outside for a walk, may prove to be the best medicine to help ease our chronic worrying. Then, our more natural and creative inclinations may begin to flow again.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Ali Moharrer said...

Morris, When Heidegger writes 200+ pages to say that ''to think is to thank (your memory'', one like me would wonder which would come first: thinking or thanking? at first this may sound vacuous but if the progression series of thinking - thanking is taken to an infinite limit, something similar to the terrain of a raised an undulating surface may show up that is called memory and omission: both are o the same construct of mutual actions o thinking-thanking though that due to a kind of a polarized optical reflection from texture of this surface, memory looms more prominent than omission. Now one’s exercise is at once to configure the whole source of illumination, traversed surface and recycles of memory-omission and realize that it’s simply a reflection on reflection that has no bounds…this is frightening for our time bound ego but liberating to jump up like a shock front to a more inclusive perspective or experience.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I hafta be honest w/u: I haven't the foggiest idea of what you, or he, are saying!


4:16 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,
I read your post your post with great interest and all the comments that have been added. I know you don't believe in life after death but I do believe that the person (or consciousness perhaps for lack of a better word) that stands apart from us does survive the demise of our bodies. A friend of mine told me of an unusual experience she had about 30 years ago. She had a very close friend who died suddenly in a car wreck---she said she couldn't have loved a sister more and she was devastated by her death, cried every day for months and couldn't stop mourning for her. One night her adolescent daughter was having a slumber party in the family room and she and her husband had gone to bed. When she turned off the light she saw a girl standing in the doorway but couldn't see her face in the dim light. She thought it was one of the kids from the party and asked what she needed. Then she realized it was her friend. She said her friend communicated to her (without speaking) that she was fine and Charlie had to stop mourning for her.
Did her mind conjure this up to relieve the strain of constant grief? Maybe. Charlie had no interest in the paranormal then or ever and told me nothing like that had ever happened to her before or since. I've hesitated to share this story and, of course, it's up to you whether or not you post it. We're a puzzle and life is a puzzle it seems to me, in so many ways.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Well, I certainly believe Charlie's story, in the sense that she is clearly reporting what she saw. And as you know, there are many stories like that--lots of people have reported seeing those types of "presences". In that sense, I also believe UFO witnesses; i.e., I don't think they are lying. The question is whether what they saw is really what they think they saw; i.e., whether it is "outside" or simply in their minds, as you suggest. Stress could have indeed created this apparition. Jung believed that UFO reportage was mental projection; and a friend of mine who attended their annual conference in Wyoming years ago told me these were people who seemed desperate to have meaning in their lives. Which would describe a lot of us, of course, and explain why religion has so powerful a hold on us, including "sightings" of the Virgin, shrouds of Turin, "miracles" at Lourdes, and etc.

That being said, consciousness remains a vast and open subject in the scientific world. Reports have it that the CIA has been doing psychic research for decades (planning ever-greater horrors for the Third World, I suppose). In time, we may be able to determine if it can exist independently, on its own (though of course a mind would have to perceive it, which means subjective factors could again play a heavy role). Right now, we can't even say what it is; or what the mind-body relationship is, precisely; or whether any system (a transistor, for example, or any wiring diagram of the brain) is in fact conscious. Anyway, I'm sure I'm outta my league here, as I'm not engaged in any serious investigation of the subject; so I'll leave it at that. Thanks again for writing.


11:15 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

"The question is whether what they saw is...'outside' or simply in their minds..."

What about crop circles? There's no doubt of their existence, physically; and their complexity suggests that most of them are not hoaxes (or works of art, if you prefer). And what about that spiral that appeared in the Norwegian sky recently? Mandalas writ large?

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Susan & Art,

The fundamental question underlying my shamanic work of nearly 30 years is "are visions projections of the psyche or representative of a "stand alone" reality?" I proved to my own satisfaction 15 or 20 years ago (as one trained in science) that they are often not, as Jung thought, projections of the psyche.
And sometimes they clearly are.

The question that remains for me and I'm sure will not be answered in this life is, "how does it work?" What are the rules? Or are there any?


1:32 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman, Art and Dave,
Thanks for your answers---I guess someday we'll all find out, won't we? May we all be pleasantly surprised. Maybe experiences such as the one my friend told me about are unique to that person and can't be generalized in any way we know or confirmed or dismissed as inauthentic b/c this experience hasn't happened to us. I honestly don't know --- if I had heard this from some other friends who have a looser grip on reality, I would have figured it was an overactive imagination. I think it's important not only to consider the event but also the source which, of course, you have no way of doing. The number of people who swell the ranks of UFO conventioneers, Scientologists, Jim Jones followers, etc. have always amazed and saddened me. There's a tremendous hunger for something to believe in and be a part of it seems to me. But your post was on time and I've strayed far from the topic.

9:04 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Dear Morris,

I remember experiencing something in a new relationship. After the dating was over and we begun to spend more time together. I started to find myself thinking of my own death. I would lie in bed at night and turn to the thought of ceasing to exist. I began to reflect why this was happening and I wondered one day was these thoughts anything to do with my new relationship. I discussed this with my mentor and he mentioned death of self. It made sense to me in that perhaps I was fearful of loosing my identity or perhaps it was the letting go of aspects of self. I still feel unsure even writing this now, but it intrigues me because it made me realise how my fear of death is based on loss of self.

Death for me is entirely theoretical, yet if I choose to contemplate my non-existence only for a few seconds I begin to feel intense fear and have to stop thinking about it. I don't ponder on it and it causes me no stress, but reading your article reminded me of it. Do you think people's fear of death is mostly about loosing one's 'self'?

4:49 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear James,

Thank you for writing. Looks like you are a night owl, like myself.

This may be another way of saying it, but I have the impression that fear of death is basically fear of the unknown; of total blankness. Religion has a lot of its basis, and its appeal, in this fear; it's why virtually all religions have some form of afterlife, so that people will not be terrified that they are just winking out. (Judaism, interestingly enough, is kind of vague on the existence of an afterlife. Personally, I'm with the Hasidim of 18C-Poland: might as well dance and sing now.)

My mother died nearly 5 yrs ago. She was in a nursing home; I was in another city, about 12 hrs away. A hospice worker phoned me: "You need to talk to her," she said; "she's just hanging on now." "What should I say to her?" I asked her; "I have no experience with this." "Tell her it's all right to let go," she replied.

I hesitated. Since I don't believe there is anything beyond this life, and since I wasn't really sure what my mother believed about it, how could I tell her to let go? In what way was that "all right"? The poem by Dylan Thomas flashed across my mind: "Don't go gently into that night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Clearly, my mother *didn't* want to let go, in the crunch, at age
94, although four yrs ago she had told me that she didn't want to live forever and that "it's all gravy now." Let's face it: gravy or not, we all want it to go on. My mother was clutching for (literally) dear life.

The hospice worker held the phone to my mother's ear. "Ma," I said, "it's all right to let go." She died a few hours later, or perhaps it was the next day, I can't remember. The day after that, I spent five minutes with her corpse, by myself, at the funeral home. It was a curious sensation: I was looking at a shell. The same person, but the spirit had fled. It was what they call a "defining moment" for me.

What I think people fear when a relationship ends is not so much loss of self as loss of a loving self; loss of themselves as a loving person. But it is probably contained within the larger issue, of loss of self *tout court*.

My advice to you, amigo, is not to run from this fear you have, but rather to run toward it. I suspect it has much to teach you. If you can get to the root of it, you just might "save" your life.

Thanks for writing.


6:07 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Every time I read something of yours I feel more hopeful about myself, less crazy, less alone.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Well maybe it's time to start establishing what Ernest Becker called 'communities of the abandoned', or something like that. The problem is that putting together the words 'community' and 'America' in the same sentence is creating an oxymoron.

But stay tuned to this station, anyway.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Preston said...

"When all is said and done, none of us escapes the human condition."

Only a hair separates the false from the true. Transcending the human condition -- the all-too human form -- is what Nietzsche was all about, no? No matter that we call this form today "anthropocentric attitude". That is just another term for narcissism, however. Narcissism is the human condition and Narcissus the human shape. This is what Juan Ramón Jiménez's poem means. It is not different in meaning from Goethe's Faust,

Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast;
And each is fain to leave its brother.
The one, fast clinging, to the world adheres
With clutching organs, in love's sturdy lust;
The other strongly lifts itself from dust
To yonder high, ancestral spheres.
Oh, are there spirits hovering near,
That ruling weave, twixt earth and heaven are rife,
Descend! come from the golden atmosphere
And lead me hence to new and varied life!

Without appreciating the significance of these two snippets of verse, it isn't possible to approach the meaning of the Zen koan "show me your face before you were born", for that is what the cultural historian Jean Gebser called "the itself" and the Ever-Present Origin.

You might call this "itself" (ipseity) the "inhuman" but that's only because it's not organic awareness to begin with. The organic awareness is what we call anthropos and "human condition".

And there's also the ever inimitable Rumi, too

O my noble friends, slaughter this cow,
if you wish to raise up the spirit of insight.
I died to being mineral and was transformed.
I died to vegetable growth
and attained to the state of the animals.
I died from animality and became Adam:
why then should I fear?
When have I become less by dying?
Next I shall die to being a human being,
so that I may soar and lift my head among
the angels.
Yet I must escape even from that angelic
everything is perishing except His Face.
Once again I shall be sacrificed, dying to the
I shall become that which could never be
imagined ---
I shall become nonexistent.
Nonexistence sings its clear melody,
Truly, unto Him shall we return.

Quite reminiscent of Aurobindo's evolutionary "supramental" spirituality which also points beyond the human condition and the human mold or anthropos. Rumi's poem is quite incomprehensible without also correlating this with Goethe and Jiménez. But I'll leave off with Rumi's concise definition of the human form (really, the human phantom) as we understand "human",

"This human shape is a ghost made of distraction and pain"

It's not "after-life" we should obsess with, for it is vain, but to remember who and what we were before birth. The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means "unforgetting", and all remembrance is an overcoming of the dis-memberment called "human condition". Karsten Harries, in his excellent book "Infinity and Perspective", referred to this losing the human form as an "opening to the infinite" that attends the shipwreck of reason on paradox and coincidentia oppositorum (and which otherwise has the meaning "apocalypse" -- that is, disclosure; moment of truth, which is usually always shattering of delusion, so that it is indeed experienced as something even catastrophic. But "closure" is nothing but Blake's "dark Satanic mill", and that, too, is a description "the human condition" of self-absorbed narcissism.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Berman, from Seville, Spain.
One of the matters that i have in mind, is why sometimes we are scared of death, and sometimes we are not.
To me , death is the sensantion of disappear. I was sick of anxiety some years ago, and that fear was always in my head. Finally i accepted that feeling. Now i live like in every moment i would dissapear, but i am not scared anyomre.
I would like to talk in a deeper way, but i don´t speak fluent english. Bye

3:13 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Hola Sr(a) Anon de Seville:

Si quieres ecribir en espanol, esta bien.


4:10 PM  
Blogger Ashley Colby said...

Mr. Berman,

The last time I commented on your blog (about the hula hoop theory of history), you recommended that I read The Designated Mourner. I have, as well as Wandering God, and continue to follow along with your blog.

Since I discovered you, you have occupied this odd place in my consciousness, like this other point of light in a world of darkness. I think my feeling is best captured by a part of WH Auden's poem 'September 1, 1939:'

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I wonder what you think (or if you've read) John Gray's book _Straw Dogs_. I found it immensely useful in attacking these sorts of conundrums.


6:04 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Ashley,

Auden will always have a special place in my heart. He came to Cornell U. in 1963, when I was a freshman, to do a reading. By the time I got there, the auditorium was packed, so they closed the doors and made the other 1000 people stand outside, listening to his voice on a loudspeaker. I was one of the ones outside, but I'll never forget the voice. I knew I was party to a special event, and that poem you quote is one of my favorites (along with "Age of Anxiety"). If he were alive today, I wonder if he'd draw more than 100 students, at any university in the US.

As for Gray, another fave of mine, tho I never read "Straw Dogs." But I esp. enjoyed "Black Mass," among others. He's good at showing what a pile of crap globalization is, but in a nation drooling over a clown like Thomas Friedman, or reading dreck like "Who Moved My Cheese?", who's listening?

Dark Ages indeed, my friend...all we can do is try to find pts of light.


6:48 PM  
Blogger Ashley Colby said...

Oh, that's quite exciting that you haven't read _Straw Dogs_. If you do find some time (it should take less than a few days) and the means to get it, I would really recommend it. I read it before I read any other of Gray's books and it is much more philosophical and spiritual than _Black Mass_.

_Straw Dogs_ has been for me a kind of companion to _Wandering God_, so I would be ravenously curious to find out what you think of it.

11:36 PM  

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