He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche – “Beyond Good and Evil”, Aphorism 146 (1886)
I hope you’ll forgive me for rolling out the beloved of goths syphilitic nihilist poet as an opening quote, but when we’re talking about the depths of the human soul there are few who can yet match Nietzsche. Especially if we ignore that he was completely off his head for most of his life and hated almost everything and everyone.
Nietzsche strikes me as the kind of chap who might have benefited from taking a few minutes here and there to be with himself and be ok. Nietzsche’s touch of genius came from the same dark place that lives inside all humans. We all have the internal voice that in benign moods counsels caution and in dark times encourages us to throw ourselves in front of a bus. In a certain sense, it could be said that a lot of our activities, art, procrastination, and self-destruction comes from a desire to occupy our minds, to quiet the nagging internal voice.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, people try all sorts of things to silence their inner voice; alcohol, casual sex, cannabis, various other substances, ranging from amphetamines and MDMA to LSD and Valium, and avoiding being alone as much as possible.
If I can be allowed for a moment to condense the entirety of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings to a couple of sentences, we run away from the present moment, for fear of being left alone with our own head. When we are inactive, that is, not mentally engaged in a task or activity, we quickly veer off into unconscious thought. It’s not our present mind doing the thinking, as we are in essence merely the spark of consciousness. We are our attention. This is the necessary leap of understanding to glean. The voice in your head, the internal monologue, is not you.
How could this be?
Who are we, if we are not the sum of all that goes into making up the self? Tolle defines the internal monologue as the ego, and I find it hard to disagree. The mental pushes and prods we receive from our egos are incessant. While to my mind (my conscious mind, that is) it is clear that at some point in our evolutionary history this vocalised subconscious served some purpose.
Perhaps it was this internal monologue that enable Gogg and Mogg to conceptualise new ways of defeating the sabre-toothed tiger. We all know the occasional pleasure of a creative daydream. The problem I see with the modern human is that for the most part we no longer have the day to day struggle for survival – at least, in the existential sense of being eaten or murdered. While this removal of threats is undoubtedly a benefit, we still have the OH MY GOD A TIGER mechanism.
Left unchecked this preservation mechanism we all possess feeds on all of the stimuli that we experience during our day to day lives. With the elimination of existential threats, our egos become existential. Oh, sweet irony. This leads us to self-destruction, self-criticism and to being separated from the present moment while we indulge the fears conjured by our minds. See the above list of techniques we apply to ourselves to avoid the crushing weight of the imaginary self.
It’s probably not a great surprise that the adoption of a better diet, exercise and meditation have been far more successful for most than any amount of self-medication. What we must all learn is the simple truth that the ego will not be quelled by the simple application of sex, drugs, alcohol, overeating and escapism from oneself in general.
This is where meditation comes in.
I, like you perhaps, spent a lot of time looking for things without finding them. Looking external to myself for solutions to problems that lie within naturally led to no correct answers at all, and the continuation of the dominance of my ego.
Meditation feels weird. When I stopped what I was doing, sat down in my quiet room and closed my eyes, there was a tidal assault of thoughts and ideas. Mainly they told me that I was surely a fool for trying to meditate in the first place, and a pint would surely be better. This proceeded for some time.
Fortunately for me that I had for once taken a pro-active approach and read up a little on what to expect from meditation. This assault from within was thus one I for which I was prepared. While still feeling like a bit of an arse, I acknowledged the thoughts telling me I was a fool and let them pass on. After a time, my mind became quieter. And after some more time, quieter still, until I was, for the first sober time, quite alone in my mind. I found that it was this tranquil loneliness that had been driving me for my entire adult life. As it happens, the company of my attention and presence was quite pleasant.
The fear of being alone with ourselves drives us to mindlessness, instead of mindfulness.
Once we stop looking into the abyss and take a few tentative steps into it, we can find that the abyss is not so bad at all. Trust me, you’re going to feel like a massive idiot when you try it. That’s totally fine, it is kind of funny, sitting there and thinking about nothing. I would suggest though, that it beats letting the television or a drink occupy our minds as if we are infants who need constant entertaining.
When trying to fill the abyss, we should remember that no amount of stimulation or distraction will suffice. We are the abyss, and the abyss is kind of beautiful once you get to know it.
Written by Daniel Finch