The word “path” refers to both the physical and psychological. Our trajectory in life is called a path but we both follow a worn path trodden by predecessors (the totality of what we call culture and society) and a path of our own making. We assume the latter to be our own making and feel guilty when it does not please or gratify or reward us, but the path of our own making is seldom so autonomous.

Working with images of paths helpfully illustrates this. Our usual image of change and decision-making is that of a forking path, illustrated by, for example, the letter “T” or “Y”.

If we begin at the bottom of the stem of the letter and proceed up, we soon encounter a fork on the path. We must make a decision about our path, which we will presume was never so clear or resolute that we could be sure that we did not want to proceed.

As the poet Heine notes, the tension at the fork is overwhelming, beyond our strength to simply hold the tension, to stay where we are and refuse to go forward. We seem to instinctively want to choose one of the choices and be done. We are lured by what we hope may be a better scenario, a path wherein we can retain our identity while enhancing and improving our lot. Thus, Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

We take the gamble, not fully understanding what we will discover, clinging to past and projecting the present. Hope reigns stronger than reason, desire clings to an intuition.

If we have understood what Buddhism calls the Ground (and here may be illustrated by the stem of the letter), then the path that is manifested does not really fork but just continues. The fork is an interruption, a decision, an existential pausing, scanning, and continuing.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

We look back, imagining how far we have come, and what good things lie before us. If we get to the end of this new path — the arm of the stem on the Y or the crossbar of the T — we can conceptualize our point on the path. If we recognize the Ground, we are merely changing the appearance but have the opportunity to incorporate where we are, the new here and now, as simply a continuation. We begin to become the path, as the popular Buddhist saying goes.

But we may doubt. We might turn around again, proceed along the path we have just trodden. We want to go back and not face change or decision. But we will only come to a crossroad again, another fork in the path. It is not the same fork because we are now looking at it from another perspective, yet we are back where we started. Everything will look different, everything will look strange and unexplored, and perhaps vaguely familiar, but we are lost. We cannot go back again because the consciousness we held at the beginning is now different, even at the same physical point of the path.

And when we recognize the notion of path as a psychological or even spiritual one, we can realize why we cannot go back, even if we go back to the same physical spot.

This can be further illustrated by an anecdote. Someone goes back to the city or town of their birth. The house of their childhood is still there, the neighborhood grid of streets and other dwelling-places, something of the curve of the road and the landscape are familiar.

But everything is in a different light. Time has passed, the same people are no longer there. You realize that they are gone. A new set of occupants is there, strange faces staring out of windows or appearing at their doorsteps in suspicion. Time has passed, but space is compressed and seems suffocatingly so. What seemed vast and indifferent for a child is now almost claustrophobic, crowded and stifling. The very air, the sunlight, the absence of familiar sounds or voices, are all changed. Where are they?

The path once known cannot be recovered. That which was comfortable and familiar is now hostile, like an animal occupying new territory, driving away the bird or mammal that once occupied the nest, the den, that once ranged the field now barren and pathless.

Perhaps nature is more definitive, more “realistic” than we are. When something is irrevocable, nature seems harsh and unrelenting, while we demand more time to evoke a wistful nostalgia for our old path, our old self. It is then that we find our emotions merely accentuating a pathlessness, a feeling of not belonging anywhere, or having lost identity or psychological reassurance. Nature wants to reach equilibrium as soon as possible.

So Frost writes of what we should end up doing, of the way to accept change and to act by not acting. We must take a path intuitively, not for any rationale presented to us by the world, not for money, comfort, prestige, or social opportunity.

Oh, I kept the first [path] for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

We can be less certain that the path less traveled is the better one. It is, as Frost says, simply different, and we will have only one chance to do the choosing, and the telling.

More important is the criteria for our choice, for there is no fork in the path, only a continuation of the same path, only adjustments to the path we are creating. The path less traveled of Frost’s last stanza below is simply the path we travel. We don’t have to keep the first path for “just in case.” We have to make the present (new) path the path.

And while the material or psychological outcomes of change or decision-making may not be exactly what we demanded, they, too, may represent a path that is open to change, to a new fork, if we need it to be. The only outcome to satisfy is, after all, in the heart, in the spirit. If we are wise in our path, that is the “all” that makes “all the difference.”

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Doubt in Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard approached doubt in the opposite way of Descartes. Descartes’ methodical doubt is an abstract product of reason, therefore conquerable by a systematic application of reason. But Kierkegaard recognized that doubt is a subjective product of consciousness, not of reasoning. Kierkegaard saw that the Greek skeptics had rightly defined doubt as the product of perception or interest, that “they could cancel doubt by transforming interest into apathy.” This apathy is not indifference but disengagement (apatheia). And “interest” is based on its etymology: inter esse,” meaning “being between.” We literally step into something, take an interest in something, and by recognizing the contradictions of consciousness, propose doubt.

But by this stepping away from interest or wanting not to be in the middle or in between, we find disinterest or disengagement, which dissolves doubt because it dissolves mediacy. Doubt arises from the demands of our consciousness. We do not silence doubts by bludgeoning them with reason and logic, but by stepping away from the contradiction represented by doubt, perceived by consciousness. This method has familiar counterparts in Eastern traditions.

The sequence of Kierkegaard’s argument is found in his essay “Johannes Climacus” — no relation to the historical writer and mystic.

Kierkegaard asks “What is it to doubt? What must the nature of existence be in order for doubt to be possible?” Knowledge stands in direct and immanent relation to its object and is known not in an inverse and transcendent relation to a third. Hence doubt exists — like knowledge — within consciousness, not outside it like a counter-logic or a counter-reason. Immediacy excludes doubt because it is fully conscious, to the point of absorbing consciousness. In a state of immediacy, wherein the mind is fully engaged, everything is “true.” In fact, there is no “relation” to anything because everything is fully immediate.

As soon as this immediacy wavers or breaks, we create indeterminateness, and things — now “other” things — become “untrue.” As Kierkegaard puts it: “If consciousness can remain in immediacy, then the question of truth is canceled.” Of course, it cannot so remain.

Consciousness cannot remain in immediacy, for then it would not, could not, be consciousness. Immediacy is reality. But mediacy and immediacy presuppose one another. They become concepts, ideas. Mediacy simply reflects on things. The moment this reflection begins, contradiction begins. And this contradiction, says Kierkegaard, is the very nature of consciousness. We are forever experiencing what he calls “duplexity.”

The duplexity Kierkegaard sees is reality and ideality on the one hand and consciousness as relation on the other hand. Because immediacy is something our consciousness can grasp only fleetingly — that we can grasp this seamlessness of reality only in a flash, in a moment of insight — we must acknowledge that the whole universe is nothing but reality, nothing but unbrokenness — unbroken immediacy — because no consciousness extrapolates relations with objects. Rather, all objects in reality simply are. It is we who introduce duplexity, we who because of consciousness create in our minds an interruption of seamlessness. This interruption is what Kierkegaard calls doubt.

Even if we consider these issues to be mere expressions of language, our very transformation of this consciousness yields mediacy, yields time, space, dimension, engagement. We bring ourselves into relationship with things that are not the real or true relation (which would exist only in immediacy), but are rather our own idea of it, our own perception of it, our engagement.

This is the source of Kierkegaard’s radical subjectivity — or, rather, subjectivism. It is based not on feelings but a logic of its own.

Kierkegaard shows that we create or perceive two contradictory levels, one in immediacy, another in mediacy — one when we (in this ideal state) do not engage consciousness because it is already one with reality. The other is the contradictory level of mediacy, fully engaged, fully related to, between, and conscious, unable to draw back. Consciousness is reflection, our reflection on things. Says Kierkegaard (and emphasis his):

Reflection is the possibility of the relations; consciousness is the relation, the first form of which is contradiction. … Reflection’s categories are always dichotomous.

Why contradiction? It is because “consciousness emerges precisely through the “collision” of ideality and reality. Contradiction between ourselves and the objects around us comes about through reflection on difference, separateness — though of course perception is an intrinsic mental function. Perception is executed in mediacy. The collision of real and ideal exists in the realization of perceived differences. Kierkegaard calls this the perception of repetition, the emergence of recollection. Yet recollection is neither of the ideal nor the real — conjuring the ideal from thought, conjuring the real from memory. These are contradictions insofar as they involve irresolvable tensions.


Recollection is not ideality; it is ideality that has been. It is not reality; it is reality that has been — which again is a double contradiction for ideality, which, according to its concept, has been, and the same holds true of reality according to its concept.

Doubt is intrinsic to reflection because doubt is consciousness applied and engaged — and unable to epistemologically “break through” since consciousness can only truly discern reality through disinterest, by being so engaged as to lose focus on foreground. Doubt is not a product of logic or reason but a byproduct of simply having consciousness. And when we reflect on this, our consciousness is one that knows and realizes this as a supreme irony.

Reality principle

The previous post highlighted some of Freud’s post-World War I speculation about the reality principle and the death instinct. In short, the pleasure principle is not a debauchery principle but a reality check that makes the self or organism strive for balance, stability, and equilibrium, avoiding excitation — the opposite of what pleasure is usually considered to be. The pleasure principle is here revised by Freud to be the reality principle.

If this is the unconscious goal of the natural organism, then what we witness in society and culture is not a striving for pleasure but for something else. The sexual instinct is largely sublimated by society into rituals and symbolic actions, but a large element is no longer natural (compared to, say, animals) and is the result of frustration, repression and what might be termed cultural excitation or even peer excitation. Here enters the element of narcissism, aggression, and violence, which Freud considers products of the sexual instincts gone wrong.

If the reality principle otherwise governs the human psyche, then the natural emergence of the instincts is what Freud calls Eros, a larger sense of creativity from individual creativity to the creation of civilization. We cannot be too hasty in condemning civilization as a whole insofar as it is the macro vehicle for the preservation of our smaller and more modest creative efforts: poetry, art, music, thought, etc. To condemn civilization outright risks the destruction of these products of human ingenuity so vital to our individual understanding of reality.

But as individual creativity unfolds, overlapping with society and culture, the individual encounters serious obstacles to his or her efforts, until the creative product is largely absorbed by the demands and structures of culture. The flowering of art and intellectual work witnessed in grand epochs of history is a confluence of cultural forces working together, regardless of class or power — at least for a little while, during, say, the 5th-century B.C.E. Greek or the Renaissance eras. Otherwise, Eros hovers around our easel, workbench, writing desk, lab, shop, but never gets too far in influencing the rest of hapless society.

The mystic’s quest, ironically, is not for equilibrium but for excitation. It makes its quest an analogy of the sexual instinct. Though this is denied by scholars as a mere parody, there is a strange and unconscious venality when one reads the works of mystics and poets from the Song of Songs to Rumi to Teresa of Avila, who make their relationship with God (or equivalent) to be a courtship, seduction, and intercourse.

One is tempted to think that these individuals have the wrong vocation, what Freud would call transference. One suspects that psychological substitution or repression is at work. Despite our desire to find the poetry or prayer or analogy ennobling, it is somewhat tawdry and earthbound. William James (in Varieties of Religious Experience) quotes a number of such examples from the writings of minor religious figures that are painfully awkward to read today. Indeed, if these writings were broadcast today, the edifice of conventional mysticism might collapse.

This is not to say that mysticism is false or contrived, but that it is unnatural — at least in Freud’s sense, and his sense can be extrapolated to a rational argument. For if Eros is the “preserver of all things” at the individual and cultural levels, the individual must find a creative outlet, and ought not to be left to analogies of the sexual instinct. Culture must provide these creative channels, or the individual becomes either frustrated (neurotic) or aggressive (psychotic) or uncommonly creative.

(In Western and Hindu religion, the object of mysticism is a personification, and this further complicates the instinct for identification, leading to a too literal concept of God, who becomes a surrogate love partner. Contrast this psychology to that of the East where the Tao cannot even be named, let alone psychoanalyzed.)

We are expecting support for creativity from society, but, of course, society is the very structure or circumstance or confluence of behaviors that stokes the antithesis of the natural trajectory Freud speaks of. Society stokes competition, rivalry, xenophobia, hatred, aggression, violence, and war. So there is little to look for there unless we have a discerning mind to appreciate the products of Eros and of the sages along the way.

As Freud puts it, the primary process of the mental apparatus is to “convert their [the instincts’] freely mobile cathectic energy into a mainly quiescent (tonic) cathexis.” In other words, our instincts are inherent energies but our consciousness and reason need to channel these energies fruitfully.

To deliver ourselves to the confluence of society is to deliver ourselves to a whirlwind of oppression, control, aggression and violence, to what Freud ultimately describes as the “death instinct.” Death will have its natural place in the order of creativity, but as a natural flow or trajectory, not as an aberration.

Whether the mystic analogy is a flirtation with death as reality principle or an excitation derived from a frustrated expression of the pleasure principle is in neither case a true path. In contrast, mysticism differs significantly from enlightenment, which is precisely an equanimity, equilibrium, a stability — and yet a union with the universe as well.

Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”

Freud began edging away from his theory of sexual instincts dominating all neuroses when he witnessed the traumas of World War I, traumas involving no physical causes or lesions, no obvious childhood context. He had already begun to extend the concept of sexual instincts into larger creative or life-giving forces, Eros, as he shifted from individual case work to larger theories not involving clinical practice. Freud called this phase one of “speculation, often far-fetched speculation,” but it was one of fruitful meta-psychology.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the decided shift begins. Rather than viewing the pleasure principle as rooted in sexual instinct, Freud is describing this principle somewhat like the Epicurean — not a debauchery or licentiousness but a natural ebb and flow, where the principle involves not the search for pleasure but the search for lowering of tension and excitation. It is the avoidance of pleasure, not the production of pleasure, that governs the self. “Unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” [emphasis his] This was an important step in understanding the self.

Freud also speculated that our tendency towards pleasure is never absolute or dominant. We naturally seek not pleasure but constancy, meaning self-preservation. In the external world, self-preservation replaces the pleasure principle with what Freud called the reality principle. And the reality principle is nothing more than the instinct to postpone satisfaction in favor of self-preservation. We intellectualize this reality principle by formulating goals. We put off satisfaction in some things for a larger goal. Ultimately, as Freud says, Western culture was to formulate this principle into the core of its religion: we postpone satisfaction in this life for pleasure in the afterlife. Thus an intellectualized extrapolation of the reality principle.

But the reality principle can be overridden by stronger impulses, namely the sexual instincts, which in fact are always working to override the reality principle. A core such perversion is narcissism, of which he wrote during this period. Yet Freud was already identifying these libidinal and egoistic instincts with creative and live-giving instincts. The self uses a number of ways of adapting the libidinal instincts to creative and life-giving work. (Indeed, Jung used Freud’s term “libidinal” in this larger sense of creativity, with Freud nearly coming round to accepting the revision for himself).

Freud cites the compulsion to repeat as one life-preserving mechanism. This compulsion to repeat is witnessed in children, unconsciously in adults whose lives seem to repeat the same themes, failures, or tragedies, but also in larger society with ritual and memory. Another mechanism is transference, wherein instincts and feelings are displaced onto other people or cultures to dissipate what is threatening one’s own self or group. But ultimately, “all the organic instincts are conservative, are acquired historically and tend towards the restoration of an earlier state of things.” We must monitor these tendencies in our own lives in order to fully understand our personal goals, fears, behaviors, and zones of comfort.

Perhaps the most interesting speculation in Beyond the Pleasure Principle addresses the primitive organism and the germ-cell, as Freud called it. These basic living beings, completely dependent on external stimuli, are consistently attempting to return to a conservative state. In such a primitive cell, however, the next level of conservation is to become inorganic again. Every cell, of every complexity, likewise seeks to preserve itself absolutely as it came into being, to avoid external stimuli altogether. One cannot posit a pleasure principle here. At this level, all is reality principle. Reality is stasis, no change, no growth. And, Freud says, no life. Self-preservation intends not life but death, or rather, the organism intends death in its own manner and not in the manner of outside stimuli.

Despite evolution and the development of higher faculties in human beings, we see no instinct in operation towards perfection or growth or development so strong as that which is self-preserving, avoiding stimuli, and desiring balance, equanimity, constancy, stasis, and what Freud describes as wanting to die in one’s own fashion and not as dictated from outside the self. Thus is the posited death instinct, which, when perverted into a dynamic (a dynamic urge for satisfaction) becomes the aggressive instinct.

The aggressive instinct is the opposite of the libidinal instinct. The aggressive instinct overthrows the trajectory of life towards a reconciliation and quiet death (so to speak). The aggressive instinct overthrows the reality principle, perverts the creative energy of the sexual instincts into destructive energy, and becomes a parody of the pleasure principle.

And yet, with the evolution of civilization, we have seen the means of expression of the aggressive instinct grow in leaps and bounds, overtaking Eros as the death instinct. The aggressive instinct infects the very lifeline of the self. We are inured to it and accept its inevitability. We struggle in vain to reconcile it with morality, accept it as a necessary evil, give it a place in our society and politics. The aggressive instinct dominates our social and cultural lives. Society, like Saturn, consumes its children, its creative efforts. From this sense of the tension in the world and the tension other people inherit from society and culture, is born a deep sense of eremitism, a deep sense of solitude as a way of understanding (that is, preserving the understanding of) how things are.