Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writhing, as a Spiritual Practice

When I look openly at my own experience of life, and look nakedly at the behavior of people around me, it seems to me quite clear that in the base experience of human life, discomfort plays an important, crucial role. Discomfort comes in many forms, from mild restlessness to outright pain, but in all shades and variations, this discomfort is really the organizing principle for our lives.

I remember once seeing a film done by sleep researchers, in which the typical night's sleep for various test subjects was condensed into 30-second long fast-motion film clips. What was striking was that a "good night's sleep" featured a few moments of utterly relaxed motionlessness, but was mostly a matter of tossing and turning and writhing, as the subject twisted away from physical discomfort and tried to find a few moments of comfortable respite.

This strikes me as a microcosmic of what human life is like, as a great deal of what we do, both individually and culturally, is a form of writhing——an attempt to move out of discomfort and into comfort. It's something of a no-win battle, as no sooner do we find a comfortable position in which to lie, then it grows wearisome and uncomfortable, and we're left to writhe in a different direction to relieve the newly arisen discomfort. This seems evident on so many levels that I wonder if it can be disputed at all.

The creation of government is an attempt to reduce the discomfort of chaos; science is an attempt to establish comfort, either by simply relieving our terror of the unknown or by relieving physical discomfort through practical applications. Art is an attempt to articulate the dramatic interplay of comfort and discomfort and thereby make it understandable. Religious mythologies create stories that explain the origins of comfort and discomfort, and how to court one and banish the other.

I walked through a modern American mall the other day, and counted three store shops devoted to massage, acupuncture, oxygen inhalation and other forms of relieving physical discomfort. The other retail stores existed to serve other methods for courting pleasure and distracting us from pain. The entire capitalist structure it seems to me, exists in particular to nurture pleasure and banish discomfort, through dedication to the pursuit of happiness. When we suffer from great discomfort as a society, we're very likely to go to war to attempt to take gain some comfort, taking it from other people.

This may seem like a slightly cynical view of life, but I'm not sure it's really anything to moan about at all. It really seems to be mostly a matter of simple mechanical physics. Our experience of cycles of comfort and discomfort aren't really all that different from the physical laws we observe in the natural world, where periods of pacific weather give way to stormy turbulence, which then discharge energy and allow a period of peaceful, calm weather to settle in again. Calm landscapes are periodically thrown up in mountainous upheavals and earthquakes, then the landscape gradually erodes again to form calm plains. A boulder perched on the edge of a cliff strikes me as being quite uncomfortable there, and is much relieved when it tumbles into the valley and releases the precarious imbalance.

So our experience of comfort and discomfort, pain and pleasure, may be nothing more than our subjective experience of normal universal physical properties. Wherever you look, you see the matter-energy matrix in a constant flux between periods of comfortable equilibrium and disturbed imbalance. It is the way of the world. The periodic arising of sorrow and unhappiness, and the subsequent appearance of peace and happiness, may be every bit as normal as the brightly shining sun that churns evaporated water vapor from oceans into storm clouds, which then must be relieved by thunderstorms before the sun can shine again.

Subjectively, there is some philosophical peace-of-mind to be had simply from understanding that the cycle of discomfort and comfort, pain and peace, is a natural one. At the very least, it makes it hard to feel put-upon by life's challenges, and it eliminates the "it's not fair" attitude that governs the emotionally immature.

It's something of a cop-out, though, to passively dwell here, tempting though it might be. For the truth is that the writhing itself, the instinct away from discomfort and toward peace, is in itself a natural function, and it's here that spiritual practice fits in. Spiritual practice, after all, isn't about detached philosophical acceptance, but rather, it's always a tool for improving the success of the writhing itself. When you look at the practices and rituals of any spiritual system, you quickly see that they don't really offer acceptance of the suffering, but always propose beliefs and practices aimed at discharging the energy, for facilitating the motion toward peace and comfort.

Even Buddhism, arguably the most detached and accepting of practices, holds as one of it's four basic tenants that its techniques offer an end to suffering. Every other system of spiritual practice also offers its own form of salvation from suffering, and that fact alone proves my contention: spiritual practice exists in the zone of writhing, that transition zone from pain and discomfort to peace and ease. Spirituality helps us writhe more successfully, much the way a lightning rod discharges the energy of a thunderstorm without burning down the barn.

The success of a spiritual practice, then, should be judged not by whether it offers never-ending happiness (clearly impossible), but by how well it helps us routinely negotiate the motion from imbalance back to equilibrium, from sorrow to peace, whenever those imbalances arise.

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