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You Need to Deal with the Survival Paradox

The man who invented the calculator, you might imagine, was pretty freakin’ smart.

But he apparently didn’t understand some really freakin’ fundamental things. He one time wrote:

“I know not what is good or bad in anything. I know not which is more profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world.”

Man, whatta dumbass.

He doesn’t know what’s better, illness or wellness? He doesn’t know whether anything in the world is good or bad for him? How about a dog’s lockjaw-clench on the genitals? Can we agree that’s bad? How about a toddler’s smile? Can we agree that’s good?

Apparently not, according to Blaise Pascal.

Talkin’ Serious Reality

Okay, Pascal obviously wasn’t speaking literally. He wasn’t reflecting on how he lived his everyday life.

But he was speaking seriously: as seriously as a serious speaker can seriously speak.

Because he was speaking from the other side of the door.

Pascal Could Break on Through

I concluded my Monday column last week with these words:

If we want to break on through to the other side [of reality], we need to approach it with an entirely different set of tools and an entirely different mindset.
Instead of language, silence.
Instead of logic, meditation.
Instead of control, detachment.

Pascal, few biographers would doubt, was a man who at least occasionally broke on through to the other side of the door of reality. Those words above were him on the other side. He was speaking about complete and total detachment.

“A Scrap of the Cosmos”

Detachment, Thomas Merton observed, is the number one rule of religious life. (That the monk Merton seemingly forgot that rule and became very attached to secular things need not detain us: failure to execute is not a failure to perceive . . . more on Merton soon)

Detachment is a “holy indifference” to every mortal or earthly thing that affects you: your possessions, your desires, your reputation, your opinions. In today’s vernacular, it’s saying,

“F*** what you want, desire, and think. It doesn’t matter. And if people think you’re an ass, they’re probably just perceptive.”

This holy indifference, in the words of the mystic Evelyn Underhill, deflates the ego and “Tends to make the subject regard itself, not as an isolated and interesting individual, possessing desires and rights, but as a scrap of the Cosmos, an ordinary bit of the Universal Life, only important as a part of the All.” Mysticism (Image Books, 1990), 205.

That elimination of the isolated individual, that becoming a scrap of the Cosmos, that realization that you’re only important as a part of the All: that is the Tao. It is that sphere of our reality that sits on the other side of the door.

The Other Side of that Door

Full reality includes something on the other side of that door.

That’s the problem.

We’re on this side of the door. We need things like food and shelter: survival necessities. If we’re married, we must provide survival necessities to our spouse, children, and elderly parents. If we are able, we must provide survival necessities to other family members and maybe friends and perhaps even strangers who can’t provide for themselves.

And that requires us to engage in things on this side of the door. We must carry out a life of control and take command of every second of the day: make ourselves get out of bed, turn the ignition key, click on the computer. Everyday life is a relentless series of mini-control exercises that allow us (and those dependent on us) to stay alive.

It’s absorbing, even exhausting and disheartening, leading to worries and stress and addictions and strokes.

We work in the reality (and it is reality) of essence and existence, focusing on it, with our back turned to the door, bending down and working with our hands in the world of essence and existence, not realizing that, in the process, our backsides are jamming the door shut more and more.

All to our detriment.

The Survival Paradox: The Focus That Lets Us Stay Alive Kills Us

That’s the most frustrating, paradoxical, puzzling thing of all.

We must focus on things on this side of the door, yet it’s that focus that anneals the door shut: to our ultimate demise, to unhappiness and early death.

The focus that lets us stay alive kills us.

It’s crucial that we try to unjam that door, even though the effort takes time and energy from our efforts to stay alive.

We must stop trying to survive in order to survive. Call it the “survival paradox.” Call it whatever you want. It’s our existence in reality.

Mystics Respect the Survival Paradox

All the mystics knew it.

Mystics, contrary to one of those odd assumptions that poison the modern mind, aren’t impractical. Some are, no doubt, but it’s just part of their personality, not their mysticism. The most famous female mystic in history was St. Theresa Avila, and she was highly efficient and practical. Her namesake, Therese Lisieux, devised a mystical way of existence that makes a person incredibly efficient and practical if she can master it. Monasteries and convents themselves are communities where the mystical and efficient come together to create institutions that last a millennium.

We Must Try Not to Try

We must all cultivate that paradoxical existence, one in which we try without trying too much: taking energy off the trying, with the result we can put energy into the trying. “Trying not to try” is how modern author John Slingerland describes it.

The Taoist refers to it as “non” efforts.

Wu-shih: non-concern

Wu-ch-iu: non-seeking

Wu-wei: non-ado

It’s all part of detachment: attaching to the world without attaching. Non-attachment, in Taoist terms.

It allowed a great mind like Blaise Pascal to create perhaps the most practical thing in the world, the calculator, yet write something so impractical as the lines that opened this column.

Pascal also wrote, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

The heart is that region on the other side of the door. The practice of detachment lets us to crack it open, even if the mind can’t understand how.