Discover more from Layman Pascal
The School of Soft Knocks
The Pedagogy of Positive States
“If this isn’t nice, what is?” — K. Vonnegut.
That quote, from the esteemed author, cynic and humanitarian, presents a very natural way of cultivating conscious appreciation & gratitude for the better moments of our lives. Although we do not wish to become a superficial Hallmark cliche or a naively idealistic Pollyanna, we must nonetheless take seriously our best states of being. What can we learn from them? How can we serve them better? In what do they actually consist? How can we help them to come more often, stay longer and unfold with greater richness and reliability?
Before we explore our best feelings, let’s consider the opposite perspective:
When somebody claims they were educated in the school of hard knocks, they mean that suffering, shocks, distress, failures & thwarted attempts have taught them more about the world and themselves than can be understood through even the highest degrees of academic instruction. They may be correct. However, our human brains — evolved to emphasize negative emotions — must also direct their intentional attention toward those facets of life that actually do “work out well”.
Of course we need to survive the disruptive hits from the world. And yet the very reason we want to survive in the first place is that life provides opportunities for enjoyment, meaning, epiphany, connection, pleasure, strength, understanding, vibrancy, etc. Soft knocks. Resilience and cynicism are necessary but they are servants rather than masters. The purpose of survival is be available to thrival.
I might be persuaded to claim that this is the ancient religious message of humanity. In fact I would say that it is the shared message of ascetics & hedonists. The art of pleasure and the art of piety are identical in so far as they both encourage an intelligent, devotional effort to privilege more intense states of meaning, coherence, empowerment & satisfaction.
Both the hedonist and the religious fanatic are worshipers of ultra-appreciative states — conditions in which we overflow, in surrendered gratitude, to the excessively coherent depth and power that is possible for beings like ourselves to encounter. Either way can go astray. We run the risk of diminishing returns with crude pleasures and enervating indulgences. We also run the risk of dehumanizing and anti-life spirituality in which we act as though the best things in life were located in death, void, eternity, heaven or some other non-existent condition against which we devalue our organic lives.
Whether we pray for the restoration of a meaningful part of our lives or struggle to eat just enough of our favorite food, whether we want the feeling of generalized vitality that comes from a successful yoga session or the vast power of sheer meaningfulness that accompanies the vision of God, we are nevertheless dependent upon and oriented towards more optimal states of coherent being and empowerment.
However we infrequently try to learn from these conditions. Historically we have tended to either dismiss them as indulgent or passively entertain them until they pass away. What have really learned about our own peak states?
When was the last you doubled your understanding of your own most authentic feelings? Do feelings of deep meaningful victory come to you more often than when you were a child? Do they stay longer and change you more profoundly? Are you more aware of the various dynamic factors the occur in moments of quiet pleasure or well-coordinated healthy action? In the last ten years have you gotten significantly better at securing the supportive conditions that incline you to have your best feeling and most intimately transcendent or inspiring moods?
Have you even been thinking of states of “accomplishment” or “grace” as phenomena you can study, learn from, integrate more thoroughly?
When we think of goals in life we should be acutely aware of the degree to which their value depends on our capacity to experience value. What good is a million dollars if it doesn’t give any of that “million dollar feeling”? What good is the support you show to a traumatized person if they are not capable of shifting into the mode of feeling supported? Unless you can really feel the emotional satisfaction and freely streaming physiological sensations of sexual pleasure then does it really matter who you fuck or how often?
It is not only our spiritual life that depends upon being students (disciples) of our own peak states but also upon this same factor largely depends the goodness of all possible good things in ordinary life.
To quote the controversial spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj, “You can’t feel better unless you learn to feel better.” But how DO you get better at feeling your best potential conditions of psychological, spiritual, emotional and physical experience?
A few general thoughts:
You must take advantage of supportive conditions. Health, free time, good luck, love, nourishing food, the absence of trauma, stimulating resources, a vivifying balance of challenges & ease, access to wisdom, etc. Many privileges make it possible for any moment of well-being.
You must engage in practices that increase the probability of peak experiences high & low. These are often the disciplines and self-cultivation exercises found throughout the many traditions of human spirituality.
You must notice (as per Vonnegut) the arising of the good experience or the peak self — stronger, grounded, clarified, expanded, deepened, magnetized, transcendent, awake, contented, exquisite, integrated, open, etc.
You must study this state while it lasts. And this may be done in a 1st, 2nd or 3rd person sense. Who am I being right now? Who is this Other One who has come upon me? What is this phenomenon or energy? Don’t be afraid to make notes, make diagrams, speculative, dissect. Analysis doesn’t harm reality.
Perhaps we should be paying specially attention to the ancient religious injunction to treat our confidence, well-being and inspiration as if it were an Other Entity. Can we enter into dialogue with that Divine Person? Can we describe its qualities to ourselves in a way that brings us closer to being “one with” that emergent being?
Regardless of how we approach, let’s try to keep clearly in mind that we should probably be trying to learn from — and become more sculpted by — our most coherent, meaningful and overflowing states of being.