Consciousness and suffering

In his The Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel de Unamuno identifies consciousness as the perception of suffering. He writes:

And how do we know that we exist if we do not suffer, little or much? How can we turn upon ourselves, acquire reflective consciousness, save by suffering?

This observation turns Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) into the existential “I suffer, therefore I am.”

Unamuno’s sentiment (at this point though later he addresses more) does not quite appreciate the fact that animals suffer and are undoubtedly conscious of their suffering, however we want to define it. I have suggested elsewhere that perhaps less animate beings may be conscious of their suffering, albeit impossible for humans to perceive. That we cannot perceive something, of course, does not mean that it does not exist. In this case, our very lack of perception is a grave ethical warning that we ought not to tread into opting for human against any other definition of consciousness or perception.

Unamuno goes on:

When we enjoy ourselves we forget ourselves, forget that we exist; we pass over into another, an alien being, we alienate ourselves. And we become centered in ourselves again, we return to ourselves, only by suffering.

Thus to be other than human is to not suffer. Yet we are but human and are inhuman if we do not acknowledge suffering. This return to self is not of itself an enlightenment. Sorrow and suffering override the positive aspects of consciousness in this scheme. Even creativity as a form of transcendence can fall so short that it becomes a vanity. Unamuno quotes Herodotus: “The bitterest sorrow that one can know is to aspire to do much and to achieve nothing.” Part of the lesson (not palatable to Western thought) is to not aspire to do much, a philosophy of life exemplified by Eastern culture, where action is not necessarily a form of creativity. Death in the end, as a goal to the trajectory of suffering, makes even the grandest of achievements into nothing.

This whole conversation ought to remind us of the Buddha’s first noble truth: all is suffering. Indeed, consciousness of this truth becomes the equivalent of Unamuno’s awareness of suffering, and both would conclude that this consciousness is what makes for being human.

Unamuno evens moves from knowledge (of suffering) to what is translated as pity but is more fully understood as compassion.

It is our reservoir of pity, eager to diffuse itself over everything, that makes us discover the likeness of things within ourselves, the common bond that unites us with everything in suffering.

Here is the convergence, using separate language and experience, of Western and Eastern perception, for the Buddha, too, sees the discovery of being in everything to form a bond and identity. From this experience can arise an ethic and philosophy of life, leaving aside as less urgent a metaphysics. The Buddha often taught (as in the parable of the poisoned arrow told to Malunkyaputta) that metaphysics could not be the first priority or motivation but rather the addressing of suffering and the implementation of a solution to suffering was the priority. Addressing suffering lies not in metaphysics but in the the mechanics of daily life and consciousness — in this case the Eightfold Noble Path.

The growth of consciousness in an individual is first an intensification of the awareness of suffering. It is a form of knowledge and suffering in itself, with a decidedly ethical component if the truths sought are genuinely reflective of reality and not projections of ego. But secondly, or in the second stage, consciousness is the emptying of ego in the intensification of that ethical component, which eventually becomes compassion, coupled with a strong will and ascetic component. Hence the paradox highlighted by historian Gavin Flood: the necessity to build a strong ego and will in order to understand, but also in order to renounce.

Merton and art

Reading Angelic Mistakes: the Art of Thomas Merton, edited by Roger Lipsey (2006). The heart of the book is the collection of images of Merton’s inkbrush work, with selected passages from his writings. The untitled art works are expressionist, and towards the end of Merton’s life, despite the increasing influence of Eastern thought, his work still reflected the untrained dilettante working for his own creativity.

One can see why, as editor Lipsey notes, these works should remain fairly obscure except for Merton devotees. Although born of artist parents, Merton had no formal training and nearly despaired of attempting to work out a theory of art within his Catholic tradition, which did not address non-religious art, especially not expressionist or modern.

Not until the mid-sixties did two confluences encourage Merton: his achievement of hermit status, with his own quarters as a hermit, and his discovery of Zen calligraphy and D. T. Suzuki.

As to Merton’s hermit status, Lipsey concludes: “It was the solitude of the hermitage. Had there been no hermitage, there would have been no art.” As to the influence of Zen on his art, Merton described his works as “neither rustic nor urbane, Eastern nor Western, perhaps can be called … Zen Catholicism” — here using Aelred Graham’s famous book title.

The book does not delve into the effect of being a hermit (well, Merton was never completely a hermit) on Merton’s art, but choice passages from his writings do show this effect. “It is true,” Merton wrote in his Turning Towards the World, “places and situations are not supposed to matter. This one [referring to his hermitage] makes a tremendous difference. Real silence. Real solitude. Peace.” So much so that in the Notebooks, Merton came to refer to his sessions working on art as “collaborations with solitude.”

The presence of Zen in his awareness was transformative, and we will never know how far Merton would have taken it. It was certainly transformative for his creativity: “What really matters to me is meditation — and whatever creative work really springs from it,” he wrote in The Other Side of the Mountain.

Zen and his Christianity, Zen and his creativity, Zen and his whole personality — this was uppermost in his last years. Merton nearly predicted where he was going: “Suddenly there is a point where religion becomes laughable. Then you decide that you are nevertheless religious.”


For a long time I have collected rocks from nearby that looked interesting, not from an interest in geology but to watch them weather nicely. Some prop fence posts or make borders here and there, or just sit assembled with several other rocks, never quite striking the aesthetic presentation I originally wanted.

The rocks turn brown, even black, and some have taken on a fuzzy green from living plant life growing on them. Some rocks in groupings have come to serve as homes for lizards, bugs, little toads and frogs, probably scorpions, maybe even snakes, though I have not ventured to disturb the rocks in order to verify.

But most of all I am impressed by the simplicity, the stolidness, and the silence that rocks represent. I realize that I am projecting these virtues onto inanimate objects, but at the same time, I want to see how far our environment, the things around us, made by humans or not, can go to represent meaning in itself, versus whatever meaning I assign it or think is there.

Ancient peoples everywhere have tended to attribute some level of not only meaning but what we call “life” to even the most inanimate of objects. Rocks were logically the most challenging objects for assuming that some sort of spirit-life is within them. But rocks are just slightly less animate than plants and trees, which, of course, grow, but in an unobtrusive way. This absence of fanfare and difference in mobility and motility are what groups rocks and plants together in terms of natural character, versus animals.

The Shinto of Japan perceived these shared characteristics and influenced Zen in its conceptual garden, where rocks and stones function in the same way as plants. Shinto, like the Druidism of Europe, assigned different spirit beings as either guardians or inhabitants of these natural objects. This belief gave humans a new and benign way of seeing their universe and the relations between its many manifestations, whether “living” or not.

Hunter-gatherers had rituals to assure the fertile return of the animals they killed for food, but today that process of killing is an assembly line where the only ritual is the end-product of eating. If most people barely think of the meaning of animals, what of plants and rocks? What do we think when we witness the destruction of old-growth forests or ancient mountains stripped for coal or minerals? There is in the objects we abuse a part of our character and virtue that is not merely disrespected but lost, devalued, forgotten, destroyed, even as culture exploits the organs and tissues of inanimate or less animate beings.


Tintern Abbey
A conceit of the Romantic period was the sentimental interest in ruins, what the British writer Rose Macaulay might call the “pleasure of ruins.” Wordsworth’s depiction of “Tintern Abbey” and Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias” are examples. There is a reminder of impermanence and human fate in reflecting on the ruins of long-ago-and-far-away civilizations.

I once had an idea of creating a calendar, like those ubiquitous themed twelve-month calendars, the ones so quickly marked down for sale after the beginning of January. There are twelve photographs to accompany each month. These calendars are always pleasant and inspirational. I suppose mine would be slightly less so. My pictures would be of ancient ruins representing major civilizations of antiquity, something like this:

  1. Egyptian
  2. Babylonian
  3. Phoenician
  4. Persian
  5. Indian
  6. Chinese
  7. Cambodian (Angkor Wat)
  8. Greek
  9. Roman
  10. North African
  11. British (Stonehenge?)
  12. a medieval European castle, or just Tintern Abbey, with its wonderful purple flowers in spring

There is a reason why ruins of antiquity rather than contemporary ruins would be cited, and even the Romantics would have understood this. We have a plethora of contemporary ruins, made not by the passage of time but by human iniquity (not that violence and power did not exist in antiquity). One could cite such ruins of today: Dresden, Hiroshima, Baghdad … this list could go on, of course.

There is always a fine line between sentimentality and moroseness, between information and morbid curiosity, between moral persuasion and the cloyingly didactic. Reflecting upon ruins of antiquity can be an historical exercise, like reading historical fiction, or a philosophical musing on the passage of time. But the same exercise is made to be political and controversial when the object of reflection is contemporary. Yet the point of both exercises is the same. We ought to conjure the same mingling of moral and intellectual insight from the past as from the present: that the culture around us is destined to pass away even as we dwell in its presence and wrestle with the moral confines of its ignorant architects and its built-in impermanence.