Beyond the Anguish of Impossibility

This is what Miguel de Unamuno referred to as the tragic sense of life. It is the authentic motivating power behind religion. Monks and saints have always been those who have accepted the impossibility of sexual relationships and mundane life, and have gone to monasteries to ponder the ultimate meaning of the impossibility of existence, including the impossibility of the existence of God.  Impossibility, of course, is the mark of the presence of God, since the world cannot be accounted for through any rational process of cause and effect. Yet by the same token, God is an impossible concept. This has led, on the one hand, to rampant agnosticism and, on the other, to the silence of the Buddha.

Today, in our less contemplative era, we tend to face impossibility with anger and projection. We see the impossibility of political change (or else we deny the impossibility, and vote for someone who offers ‘change we can believe in,’ and then suffer massive disappointment, but soon look for yet another false messiah to save us). Yet, instead of recognizing and accepting the impossibility, we defiantly demand the impossible. We project on ‘the one per cent’ that they are the obstacles to change, when in truth, they are as helpless as anyone else.

Impossibility is structural. It cannot be changed. We need to learn to live with it, to understand it, to become it. Only then, as the embodiments of impossibility, of paradox, of God’s diabolical sense of humor, can the way out be glimpsed. But let us not get too optimistic just yet. To become the impossible is not so easy. In fact, it too is impossible, but this is where the silence of the Buddha—and the incisive words of the few liberated sages who have spoken about the issue—becomes of paramount importance.

Let us assess the issue more rigorously. What follows is a rough outline for a treatise on impossibility.

We must begin by recognizing that reality itself is an infinite process of enfoldment and unfoldment of an unknowable implicate order, a la David Bohm. It is impossible to put limits on that order or its potential. Therefore, impossibility is itself impossible to assert, except as an empirical observation. The unfoldment process does tend to demonstrate archetypal moments, or folds. Each fold reveals a deeper dimension of the Real. The folds, or pleats, must be linked together in consciousness to unveil the hidden pattern of the implicate order that the phenomenal plane can only at best symbolize to the very consciousness that is being observed, in yet another incident of impossibility.

A compleat human life has seven pleats:

1. The innocent ignorance of impossibility
2. The denial of impossibility
3. The hatred and projection of impossibility
4. The anguish of impossibility
5. The acceptance of impossibility
6. The transcendence of impossibility
7. The attainment of the Impossible

In the first pleat, impossibility has not yet been consciously encountered. The function of the parents is to delay the recognition of impossibility, so that childhood innocence and joy can flourish, and the young mind has time to develop resources to cope with the reality of impossibility when it is finally, inevitably, cognized.

The whole significance of the story of the Buddha is that of the unfoldment of the awareness of impossibility and its authentic treatment. The young pre-Buddha is a prince whose father tries to protect the innocent eyes of the son from seeing images of sickness, old age, and death, but to no avail. The boy realizes the impossibility of sustained youth and happiness, and he falls into dejection. But then he spots a wandering yogi, one who has renounced the pursuit of jouissance for the achievement of liberation from the realm of the impossible. He immediately decides to become a yogi.

The meaning of yoga is encapsulated in the Buddha’s three tests. He is first faced with an attack by Kama, the lord of pleasure, in the form of three beautiful young women who try to seduce him. But he has the sense to ask them their names, which turn out to be Desire, Satisfaction, and Regret. Upon realizing that he cannot get one without all three, he renounces sexual jouissance.

Next, the great spiritual warrior is faced with Mara, the lord of fear. He is not intimidated by the power of the Other, by the prospect of pain and death, nor by the desire for power over others. He scorns Mara and remains unmoved by the display of military might. It is Mara who then becomes dejected and submits.

The fledgling Buddha is then faced with the final test, the guilt tripping by Dharma. He is a prince; he should be sitting on the throne, acting responsibly, taking care of the kingdom; at least taking care of his own wife and newborn son. How can he abandon his karmic responsibilities? Has he no conscience? At this moment, the Buddha becomes even more deeply cognizant of the impossibility of his situation, and realizes that the only way out is to dissolve his identity entirely. Only by not existing can he attain freedom. But what does not exist is clearly not his body, but the ego. In suddenly seeing through the illusion of the ego, he becomes the Buddha in fact, not just in potentia, and a new world teacher is born.

Most of us, alas, are far more reluctant to become buddhas in fact, and need to be dragged through the pleats of denial, anger, and anguish, before reaching the bliss of liberation. The price of denial of impossibility is living an imaginary life, a superficial life, a life led in bad faith, with an unconscious split-off mind full of skeletons, traumas, and anxieties that can come out only as physical symptoms, psychological problems, accidents, and relationship difficulties.

Eventually, with the help of an adept spiritual guide or even a good psychoanalyst, one can come out of denial without falling into projection and fury. But otherwise, the route of least resistance is to scapegoat someone else for the impossibility of love and happiness and fairness and freedom, and to live in a state of war. Interpersonal conflicts are always the result of inauthentic existence, the cowardly failure to face the structural presence of impossibility as the true face of the Real.

Now the phase of mourning begins, the anguish of recognizing impossibility as a necessary, not contingent, condition of life. At last, one sees through one’s own imaginary narrative of egoic existence, and the futility of carrying on the façade any longer. But the real anguish comes in the realization that one is completely lost, that impossibility destroys the compass by which one has navigated through time. All attempts at maintaining a semblance of meaning now collapse in waves of anxious depersonalization.

It is at this point that the assistance of an authentic guru, someone who has gone through this crisis and come out the other side, becomes valuable.  But trying to sustain a relationship with the guru is itself traumatic, since the guru by definition is no longer a person. He or she is an impossible object, ungraspable, uncanny, intimate yet utterly unknowable. And yet, you feel that you are known—and loved—by the guru more deeply than anyone has ever known or loved you. The relationship, though impossible, brings peace. And when all else has fallen away, what remains of oneself is only love.

One’s own impossibility, and that of the world, can at last be fully accepted. And this is the real beginning of the spiritual pilgrimage. One becomes a profound student of impossibility. One comes to appreciate the beauty of paradox. One is drawn to the art of such creative geniuses as Escher, Dali, Borges and other masters of paradox. One sees in impossibility the mark of a superhuman intelligence. In the very chains of the most frustrating impossibility, one comes to perceive the sublime presence of salvation, the life breath of our liberating God.

Through surrender to that God who has inscribed impossibility into the very structure of His Creation, we gradually—or suddenly, in an eternal moment of satori—discover the patterns of the thought-waves of the mind of the Savior.

Then, in the wake of surrender of the ego mind to God, the created world is recognized as nothing less than the eternal Tao. No longer is it perceived as created, but now it is glimpsed rather as dreamed. Chuang tzu dreamed he was a butterfly; then he awakened, and wondered if he were really a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang tzu.

Acceptance of impossibility now morphs into transcendence of impossibility. If it is all a dream, then, as in a dream, all is possible. One becomes as a little child once more; now one can enter the kingdom of heaven. But where is the portal?

Innocence must evolve into utter egolessness. The last traces of entityhood must evaporate in the silence of pure awareness. The mind based in language, thought, imagery, emotion—must die. The Logos itself must ascend to the Godhead. The Source of mind is Supramental Intelligent Presence. In full surrender to the eternal, immovable Presence, the world itself dissolves.

The unsurpassable sage Sri Ramana Maharshi often proclaimed that to the gyani (one who knows the ultimate truth) there is no world. There are no others. No creation has ever occurred. This is the perennial doctrine of Ajata—all is uncreated appearance. Time and space are both illusions. Even the most sublime notion of God is an illusion. The Supreme Real is not a being.

Give up all concepts, all attempts to grasp, to control, to master. Renounce even the saintly self that is willing to renounce it all. Realize compleat Emptiness. This is the unfoldment of the final pleat, the attainment of the Impossible: the Dreamer of the Dream.

Thou art That. No more should or can be said.


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