What is the proper response to this burning, bleeding, milk secreting, honey babbling world? It seems to me that the range of responses are pretty limited, and can be boiled down to six plausible options:
- acceptance and celebration (go with the flow)
- detachment (disengage from the flow)
- imitation (be the flow)
- control (govern the flow)
- outright rejection and resistance (hate the flow)
- escape (ignore or deny the flow)
Let’s look at each in turn:
1. Acceptance and celebration (go with the flow). Some wonderful illustrations of this attitude to existence come from the Dionysian rites elaborated in Euripides’s great play, Bakkhai. In Greek myth Dionysos, the god of wine, represents:
- nature’s overwhelming persona degenerating energies; and
- amelioration of the persona’s suffering in the midst of those energies (via intoxication, spell, illusion, trance).
Dionysos was symbolized and mirrored in ancient rites, as when the Bakkhai’s maenads braid snakes through their hair in honor of the god (like this quote, all subsequent quotes below come from scene 1):
[Zeus] crowned him with a crown of snakes—
Which is why the maenads catch these eaters of
What is wild and braid them through their hair.
And here is how Euripides presents the chorus’s call to join a Bakkhic celebration:
Crown yourself with ivy,
O Thebes, where Semele [the mother of Dionysus] lived!
Abound, abound in
Leaves and red berries, consecrate
Yourselves as Bakkhai with
Sprays of oak and pine!
Over your dappled fawn skins drape
White woolen curls and strands,
And with all your violent fennel-rods
Be holy! Now the whole earth
Will dance together when Bromion [another name for Dionysus] leads
Worshipers to the mountain. To the mountain—
where the throng of women
Wait together, stung to a frenzy and driven
Away from their shuttles
And looms to Dionysos!
The procession to the mountains is accompanied by the Korybantes, ecstatic drumming and pipe-playing young men devoted to the Phrygian mother-goddess Kybele:
Devised for me
The circle of stretched hide!
In the frenzy of the dance
They joined this beat with the sweet
Calling breath of Phrygian
Pipes, they gave the drum,
Pounding for the Bakkhic cries
Of ecstasy, to Mother Rhea.
And why is this procession into the mountains engaged in collectively? Because:
Our Dionysos rejoices when everyone is dancing.
Below is the chorus depicting this charismatic Dionysian rapture when it reaches the mountains. Notice the embrace of predatory aggression, the acceptance of whatever flows, and the celebration of fire, fast motion, vibration, sound, and leaping:
How sweet he is in the mountains,
When running with his worshipers he throws
Himself to the ground, wearing his holy fawn skin—
Rapture of killing and the spilled
Blood of eating
Raw the flesh of the hunted goat!
[. . .]
From the earth comes flowing milk, flowing
Wine, flowing nectar of bees! The Bakkhic One
Lifts his blazing torch high,
The sweet pine smoke streams
Like Syrian frankincense as he races
Holding the staff of fennel—
Running and dancing, joyously
Crying, Dionysos stirs
The straggling maenads to shake
With rapture and he whips
His long fine hair in the air of heaven.
Amidst their joyful cries
He roars to them, “Onward,
Bakkhai! Onward, Bakkhai!”
You are the pride of gold-
Giving Mount Timolos.
Sing of Dionysos to the thundering drumbeats,
Your shouts of rapture exalt
The god of joyful cry.
With Phrygian crying and calling,
When the melodious holy
Pipes with holy notes
Resound around those
Who throng to the mountain,
To the mountain!
Then, like a joyful foal, when it plays
Near the grazing mare, the woman
Worshiper swiftly, nimbly leaps!
This is acceptance.
Another way to think about “go with the flow” can be found in the 1970s poster caption accompanying an image of Swami Satchidananda riding a surfboard:
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
2. Detachment (disengage from the flow). One of the great texts of Buddhism, which T.S. Eliot likened to the Gospel of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” is the Buddha’s “Fire Sermon,” which, in Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation, begins thus:
Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.
Buddha makes the same observations about the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the intellect. Here’s how the deconstruction sounds as applied to the intellect:
The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.
And what is the result of experiencing existence as aflame? Disenchantment. In other words, once you get fed up trying to make permanent what is, in its very nature, not permanent, then you’re teachable; you’ve finally come to the end of your illusions, your delusions. This is followed by a loss of passion, which, according to the Buddha, is a desirable arrival point, since passion is at the root of suffering:
Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
Here’s a photograph, from Wikipedia Commons, of the site in India where the Buddha supposedly gave his Fire Sermon:
3. Imitation (be the flow). Now we come to Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Euripides and the Buddha, Nietzsche recognized that existence is change, but his response was not to go with the flow, or disengage from the flow, but to be the flow. Not to do as one should, but to do as one will, is Nietzsche’s admonition. One need not submit to Dionysos as such, or disengage one’s passions to avoid disappointment and suffering, as Buddha prescribes. Instead, one can enjoin passion—enjoin life—with the relish of a predatory bird, as if one is the god Dionysos himself. The very last sentence of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo is this:
Have I been understood? Dionysos against the Crucified.
4. Control (govern the flow). An extension of Nietzsche’s position, this is the Apollonian assertion of persona into Nature, and is exemplified by the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. At the beginning of the novel, Roark, standing in an area of wilderness, surveys a cliff:
He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky.
These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.
5. Outright rejection and resistance (hate the flow). This attitude toward existence can be found exemplified in 1 John 1:15-17 in the New Testament (KJV):
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
And don’t forget Dylan Thomas’s poem in which he urges his father not to “go gentle into that good night”:
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
6. Escape (ignore or deny the flow). This is the way of Don Quixote. Here you might simply live in the blissful imagination, or psychologically drop out via, say, immersion in a transcendental cult, or even just Gilligan’s Island reruns. Living with nostalgia is one way to both ignore change and resent it.
Which of these six stances toward existence do I subscribe to? I suppose the art of life is to know what your purpose is, and which attitude is best applied to any given moment.
Or is this just me expressing my own incoherence?
Perhaps I’m missing something here. The opaque God of this energetic world is great and we mortals are small. Is anything, really, ever wholly adequate to coping with this fact?
Although I’m not sure we get to choose these paths. It may be largely dictated by inherited personality traits. To a certain point we might acknowledge that the paths have their domains and pick one accordingly – in a party it’s usually best to go with the flow. But some people hate parties and avoid the domain altogether. And that I think is not really a choice at all but a question of personality.
As a conservative I am rather skeptical of Imitation and Control. These conquering styles typical of the modern person tend to be unrealistic and ultimately end up as something similar to Escape.
But I engage in infantile Rand-like fantasies too sometimes. The only path I’m completely against is Detachement. Whoever chooses that path needs to grow a pair. Pain and sorrow are strong meaningful experiences. This is the path of antidepressants which make you numb.
You mention two things that have me thinking further: first, I think that you’re right that there is a fight or flight personality/temperament factor in what we choose. Hmm.
And second, your mention of social situations as an analogy puts a curious spin on all six attitudes. Really, when we speak of reality there are three realms: (1) our inner reality; (2) nature; and (3) the social.
Applying the six categories to the social, I suppose that we would get these options:
(1) go with the flow of the party (as you said);
(2) emotionally detach from the party;
(3) be the Nietzschean center and life of the party;
(4) treat people like objects for manipulation at the party;
(5) hate the party;
(6) exit the party.
As far as one’s relationship to inner states:
(1) accept and celebrate them;
(2) detach from them (“they’re not me”);
(3) self-consciously construct a flamboyant persona out of them;
(4) objectify them and order them about;
(5) hate them;
(6) escape them (ignore or deny them)
Who knows, you may be on to something like a new personality model. I’ve read a few books on personality psychology but I can’t remember it being sliced like this before.
I guess you could say with some certainty that if there is a strong correlation between the social and inner realm strategy, it is a question of personality. This certainly seems plausible for Imitation, but hardly Rejection. And Escape in my experience has a negative correlation – the guy who escapes his inner states is often a party animal.
Or you could look at how these strategies correlate to well-known personality traits like the Big Five or MBTI. A low or close to zero correlation would then indicate an actual choice.
But I suspect most of them correlate strongly to personality traits: Acceptance to Extraversion, Detachement to Neuroticism or Harm Avoidance; Imitation and Control to Narcissism, and Rejection might be something like Introverted Intuition with a dash of Neuroticism.
I’ve never really taken a very close look at the personality scale (MBTI) you’re referring to.
I’ll look into that.
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