Pain and Death

by Richard Moore

I think it was Oswald Spengler who remarked that we in the West are preeminently the Culture of the Will. Who, what am I? I am my wishes, my hot desires—to have this, be that. In its origins and first mystical formulations in the Western European Middle Ages, this view of man was marvelously complex and paradoxical. Those early believers might not have accepted the Russian formulation that the worst thing that can happen to a man is to get everything he wants, but they would have understood the urge to make it, and they said something very like it in their fairytales, in which ill-considered wishes can prove disastrous. There was, after all, a God, and His desires were supreme. And in that other religion of the time, to have the Lady, you had to submit to her wishes.

In the ages that followed, this Heavenly complexity grew simpler, earthier. God's world, His angels first, then He Himself, got pushed into the background or, more subtly, lost their spiritual dimension; and the desires themselves became clearer, more demanding. Money came to express them more and more easily. But there was a problem with this secularization. Western Man's deepest, most universal desire is for eternal bliss. This desire was satisfied beautifully in the old system, in which the virtuous would find it after death. If it is to be had in life here on earth, death becomes, not a sanctified gateway, nor wished-for consummation, but a nasty problem.

We always knew it, didn't we? Earthly pleasure is the only good, pain and death, the only evils. The aim of life, then, is obvious: to eradicate pain as completely and delay death for as long as possible, and in the meanwhile, forget about death altogether, pretend that it doesn't exist, because to be too persistently aware that death is the end of every life is just too unpleasant and spoils the life-game we have set our hearts on playing.

This view suggests a hierarchy of human occupations, at the top of which the most crucial, most sacred even, is, obviously, the medical profession. Even President Bush, that pillar of our wisdom and sanity, must do as his doctor prescribes: must fast for a day and take powerful laxatives, so that the next day he can be drugged into insensibility and a specialist can insert a large tube into his rectum, in order to examine his gut from the inside and determine whether, according to the latest scientific opinions, there is anything in there that shouldn't be.

Thus, our human intelligence having over the ages developed the marvelous apparatus of Medical Science, the will uses that apparatus to exert its mastery over—what? The body! The will and the body are different, then. Are they? When you destroy the body, don't you destroy the will as well? And before the body existed, where was the will that thinks it uses it? The more you consider such questions nowadays, the more evident it becomes that the will and the body are inextricably intertwined. What can it possibly mean, then, to say that the will exerts its mastery over the body? Can the snake put its tail into its mouth and eat itself?

But we do it all the time. We cut tumors out of each other, invent and feed ourselves ever more powerful drugs. But along with the fine line between the will and the body comes the fine line between the murderer's knife and the surgeon's; between the old poison and the new miracle drug. Sometimes the line doesn't even exist. The surgeon's knife kills or cripples us. The miracle drug has "side effects," which is to say, poisons us. Surgeons are so often mistaken for murderers that their insurance premiums have become astronomical. The fourth largest cause of death in the United States is from infections contracted in hospitals; and a recent study concluded that the catastrophic spread of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa was primarily caused, not by the refusal of lovers to wear condoms, but by the failure of workers in immunization programs to clean their needles. In this age of strange new uncertainties, the enthusiastic defenders of sophisticated new medical procedures have begun more and more and to growing minorities to sound like the fanatical defenders of a dying belief. Drug companies are suspected of making obscene profits. Maybe there is no real need for what they produce and they are hoodwinking us.

Which is more likely, that the will can make us better, or that the will made us ill in the first place? Our bodies and their desires are forever getting in the way of what we desire. A little discussion group that I conduct every Sunday was deeply shocked recently when I remarked that the poor in the Middle Ages, if they weren't actually starving, were probably healthier than the rich. The elite ate white bread, meat, sweets, foods much less good for you than the garlic, brown bread, and roughage that sustained the peasants when they were sustained. The upper classes suffered horribly from constipation, cancer, heart attacks, God knows what—ailments directly attributable to their stupid, self-indulgent diet. There was a much healthier diet described in Homer's Iliad, composed 2000 years before that. More contemporaneously, we have Chaucer's Nun's Priest (so called because his job was to serve as a trustworthy male presence in a nunnery and to accompany its prioress when she went on pilgrimages). Before he begins his marvelous tale of the rooster Chaunticleer and his wife Pertilote, the priest describes the farmyard where they live and the peasant woman in charge of it, and he takes the opportunity to make a deftly satirical jab or two at the Prioress' expensive life and habits, which we have heard described in the Prologue to the Tales. Of the old woman, he says,

Attempre diete was al hir phisik,
And exercise, and hertes suffisaunce.
Temperate diet was her only medicine
And exercise, and sufficiency of heart.

The first two of this three-item formula for good health sound to us like discoveries of modern times. The hot news arrives weekly in my mailbox that I should eat less and exercise more. Why have such obvious dicta had to be repeated almost constantly and usually hopelessly for 500 years? Clearly because, in the popular view, it is so unpleasant to follow them. They conflict with those natural desires which, in our view of ourselves, ought be supreme: to eat heartily and snooze pleasantly afterwards. Just how destructive our own untrained natural desires are is suggested by a series of experiments and observations that have been made with laboratory rats.

Fundamentally there are two ways to feed the little beasts. You can arrange things so that they can eat all they want—can feed "ad libitum," as the jargon has it—or you can give them various amounts less than that. Feeding ad libitum is very bad for them. They get sluggish and unhealthy, and their lives, as Thomas Hobbes remarked of human beings, tend to be "nasty, brutish, and short." The diet that has the best results for them is the ad libitum diet cut by 1/3. The people reporting these results on Public Radio speculated that the same was probably true of human beings; but the advice couldn't be directly applied, they agreed, because with human beings "the quality of life" was such a large consideration.

So with regard to good health, the poor in the Middle Ages with their low quality of life were indeed better off than the wealthy, and the wisdom of Chaucer's Nun's Priest is clear. But we still have said nothing about the third term in the barnyard woman's formula for good health, her "hertes suffisaunce." Her heart was sufficient. She wasn't full of desires for a lot of things that she couldn't have—or could have only at anxiety- and stress-inducing cost. How unwelcome she would have been in America's appetite-inducing economy!

There are profounder, more contemplative pleasures, the Nun's Priest suggests, that the barnyard woman knew about; and that suggestion confronts us with the ultimate, most beautiful paradox of the will: what is best for it, what leads to its deepest and rarest ecstasy is for it to be thwarted. It is indeed best for the Angel of God—or for the Lady—to have their way, to gather us into their arms and obliterate our foolishness.

But how can we in modern times submit ourselves to such beneficent powers when we can't even begin to believe in them? There are various ways to answer that question, none of them, perhaps, satisfactory. I think our essential problem is that we think we are individuals. When that belief is firmly entrenched in us, then the battle for our survival, even as individuals, is lost. We are not individuals. We are social beings held together by beliefs, by systems of symbols; and the beliefs, the systems, range from profound and beautiful to shallow and stupid. And who is going to judge that, cries the angry scholar, who wants every assertion to be proved with references to books in his official library? Ah, scholar, you can't prove these things that way. You just have to know. Know rightly. Or know wrongly.

But sometimes you hear and you know immediately, and that hearing, that knowledge, suffices you—just as you hear music sometimes and know when you hear it and hear it again in your silent awareness afterwards, that it is marvelous, magical music.

In this search for something to replace the old beliefs, let us stay with the body since our habitual thinking seems to have led us so far astray; and since our own culture has failed us—deserted us because we have outgrown and forgotten it—maybe it will be helpful to glance at other cultures that have also died, knowing that such glances are always superficial and dangerous. Forty years ago I became fascinated with yoga practices and exercises and they have been with me daily ever since. Before that, there was the Taoist, Chuang Tzu, in Arthur Waley's Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China; before that, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky; and before that, in my childhood, the astonishing thoughts of our black maid who treated me, the youngest, to devastating satires of my "upper middle class" American family.

Words, words. One has to get beyond them. Only last week, I made a curious new formulation of some old ideas, to which the yoga had led me. Thus: there are three realms of human awareness, which decrease in accessibility and increase in strangeness and importance: the worlds of Mental Activity, Sensory Perception, and Bodily Awareness. The first is full of words and other symbols and is specifically human; we share the other two with the animals. The animal, "primitive" worlds are more important because they are more powerful in us still. The things we actually apprehend with our senses scatter mere thoughts as leaves in the wind, and bodily pains and pleasures, in turn, scatter these. At the same time, the logical rules which we find necessary to bring coherence to our thoughts tend to break down when we reenter our animal existence. The world of our senses is full of uncomfortable paradoxes: optical illusions, confusions and contradictions—dangerous misinformation from the body's sense of its own motion, for example, as any pilot of an airplane will discover to his sorrow who tries to fly "by the seat of his pants." When he is flying in a cloud, he must forget his panicky sensations and believe what his instruments tell him, or he and his passengers will end in a tailspin.

The rule of illogic becomes even more extreme when we extend our conscious awareness to the vast and mysterious depths of our own bodies. The postures of Hatha Yoga, the so-called "asanas"—those strange contortions, those aspirations to the mystical state of the human pretzel—seem designed—as one discovers directly in years of practice—to help us know ourselves by experiencing our own bodies with new vividness. Western-style exercises (sit-ups, push-ups, etc.) are boring and repetitive and one of their effects is to teach us that our bodies are boring and repetitive. We do them, not for the pleasure or the pain of doing them, but to accomplish something: make ourselves good soldiers, say, or social charmers, so that we will have good times in Bermuda, Hawaii, or Los Vegas and have lots of sex (and of course, the sex is not really a bodily experience any more, but a conquest—because, if you've had one orgasm, you've had them all, haven't you?).

The physical exercises of Yoga, on the other hand (stretches and motionless postures, for the most part reached slowly and quietly) help us to feel how rich and various our bodily sensations can be. Perhaps the most fundamental and astonishing of them all, startling in its simplicity, is "the corpse posture," sometimes renamed "the relaxation posture" in deference to our Western discomfort with words that make us think of death. You lie on the floor and pretend that you are dead, that all your muscles have gone limp (including the ones around your eyes, mouth, and anus). Your breathing grows slow, quiet, and almost ceases inside you. The press of the hard floor against your shoulders, bottom, and legs exaggerates, then fades away. Your body manifests itself by disappearing. You are floating somewhere.

If you do this before you go to bed, the softness of the bed afterwards will overwhelm you, and you will fall asleep instantly. A woman I know had a persistent and devastating cough. When she got into the corpse posture, the cough left her, but she was too busy and didn't have time for that, so she went to her doctor, took antibiotics, various kinds of cough medicine, steroids, and went on coughing.

That's a Pandora's box I have just opened. People argue endlessly and futilely about what cures them, what the proofs are for this or that remedy.... Maybe the arguments only prove that getting well, as they say, is a subjective experience—but even to say that is to be contentious.

There are hopelessly differing views in such matters. One pair of such views that comes to mind at the moment, is over the question of what "really happens" when something happens to someone. Let me give a concrete illustration. You are deep into the corpse posture. You are having a distinct feeling, a direct feeling, that you are floating somewhere between the floor and the ceiling. The question is: Where are you really? The great majority of people in this part of the world without hesitation will answer, "On the floor. Your sensation is an illusion." This seems perfectly obvious to us. Our whole science-based culture has for centuries been founded on this way of thinking about such matters.

But there are other places—maybe most other places in the world—the backward, unmodernized parts of India, to cite one possible example—where our Western answer is not so obvious. If you feel that you actually are floating between the floor and the ceiling, isn't that what you actually are doing at that moment? That you open your eyes in the next moment and find yourself on the floor proves nothing—unless you assume, as we do, that the body has to be consistent, that is, can only be moved according to rules that we recognize. There is no logical proof of that, and there never will be.

But life—the cry will go up—social life is so much more harmonious, consistent, intellectually graspable if the body is assumed to stay in the same place unless moved by one of our accepted ways of moving it. Maybe so, but consider what you have sacrificed to your need for intellectual consistency. You have sacrificed the immediacy, the truth, the glory—yes, the glory!—of what you are actually experiencing. You are consigning what may be your finest, most positive moments to the drab, vague shades of uncertainty.

And having committed such violence on ourselves...could that be why we need the countermanding violence of drugs and surgeons' knives to restore us to health? Maybe if we can go deeper into our bodily experience, there will be answers to that question and relief from that paradox. One of the gifts of Yoga for which I am most grateful is the experience of how intimately pain and pleasure are intertwined and can transform into each other. There was an awareness of this in a perverse way even in our own Middle Ages. A fine bodily pleasure happens to us when we wake from sleep, yawn, and stretch. It must have been a meditation on this that brought those terrible instruments of torture, the rack, the strappado, and other machines that stretch us, into existence.

In Yoga the transformation is in the opposite direction. The exercise that brought us discomfort, and if we were not careful, pain at first, becomes with deepening practice and mastery the source of exquisite pleasure. It would probably not be useful to describe specific examples from my experience. Bodies are as immensely various as the people they represent, and everyone has different experiences with the same repertoire of postures. Thus, the "lotus" position (sitting cross-legged on the floor with each foot on the opposite thigh) has been a lifelong struggle for me; and in consequence, when I sit in it now, I feel mysteriously, triumphantly transformed—a little knotted master of my inner universe. Decades ago, near the beginning of the struggle, when such mastery seemed out of the question forever because I had damaged my knees, making too great an effort to achieve it, I explained my difficulties to a friend, no longer my friend, whom I had begun to see as a corrupt person, living in a world of spiritual and emotional lies—"O, you mean this!" he said and assumed the position without difficulty. That it was so easy for him was reason enough why it could never mean to him what it has come to mean to me. If he had taken up the study, entered the world of asanas, he would have found difficulties of his own—postures that had come easily to me—that would have defined his own struggle and pilgrimage.

What is the end of that pilgrimage in which pain plays such a fruitful part? The answer is obvious, isn't it? It is something inevitable for all of us that we avoid, postpone, shrink from, refuse to think about for as long as we can. We suppress our own knowledge of it just as we have learned to suppress the knowledge of our own bodies.

I am an old man. Like other old men, I tend to forget things that have happened recently and remember incidents, shameful or triumphant, from my earliest years. My family was wealthy, but there were poor people next door, living in the carriage house of a large estate, a young Irish family, incomprehensibly old to me. Nasty little boy that I was, I taunted them—and of course, can't remember any of the things I said. One day the father and the mother were out, on higher ground quite far up the street with a baby carriage. I must have shouted something particularly insulting because, when I looked again, the father was running down the street toward me. I panicked and ran to escape. But it was hopeless. He would catch me in a moment. And he would do something terrible, something horribly painful that I deserved. Then, inspired by I don't know what, I stopped, turned again, looked at him, and waited. A few steps short of me, he drew himself up, muttered a curse or two, and walked back to his wife and child.

Perhaps my instinctive gesture rescued him from the demon of pursuit that Robert Frost speaks of in one of his poems. It doesn't matter. What matters to us at the moment is how we deal with death, and that, it seems to me, is how. The problem is not a problem. It's going to happen anyway, isn't it? So why not relax and let it? In those last instants, if you stay calm, maybe you will get a glimpse of what is coming, sense it, savor it.

When the poet Rilke was dying of leukemia, he refused pain-killing drugs. He wanted to experience the pain which was the natural outcome of his life. He wanted to sense clearly this last, most terrible thing that was happening to him, embrace and accept it. In her novel, The Persian Boy, Mary Renault describes the death of a Yogi, observed by the Greeks of Alexander the Great's army in India two thousand years ago. A great funeral pyre for him is built, lit, and the Yogi goes up in flame and smoke, mastering the pain of such a death. Did the pain become ecstasy? What a pity that no one could ask him and jot down his answer in a notebook!

The best kind of death was a favorite subject at the conclusion of dinner parties in ancient Rome. At one of these the night before his assassination, Julius Caesar, who had gone aside to look at some urgent papers, overheard and shouted, "A sudden one!"

Death, I am beginning to sense, is a deeply fascinating process. Our bodies change, grow weak, tell us about it, tell us how tiresome life is getting to be, how sweet it will be to have it over. Then, once we have surrendered to that feeling and embraced it lovingly, there will be days when life seems to flow back into us, telling us about things still to do.

So I have begun to hope for a death without hospitals, drugs, surgeons' knives, a death of my own, arising from the unique experience of my particular life, not one recognizably labeled for me by medical science, as Rilke described in The Journal of Malte Laurids Brigge. We mustn't let it frighten us because we all, somewhere in our souls, are longing for it.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.