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We tend to forget that experience depends on a perceiving subject and objects that can be perceived. During the waking hours we have experiences, but when the brain largely shuts down at night the subject and perceived objects disappear and we experience very little. The subject, the thing that experiences, is a product of the brain. This fact is staring us in the face because the subject, the sense of something that experiences, disappears when we sleep. Deep dreamless sleep is the most extreme example. Dreaming is the result of a brain that is still functioning to some degree, and as a result images are formed and the subject is still functioning, although much more dimly.
That the subject, the thing we call a “self” is a temporary phenomenon depending on the activity of the brain, is so obvious we overlook it. Gurdjieff commented many times that our everyday waking consciousness was not our real consciousness. He claimed the subconscious was the real part of us. In my opinion Gurdjieff’s claim doesn’t really help. Whether we like it or not our brains are active for the largest part of the day, and so we need to find ways to mitigate the suffering associated with its activity. The primary activity of the brain during waking hours is to serve the survival program – find food, earn money, seek shelter, company, a mate and so on. If the desires associated with the survival program are fulfilled we experience pleasure, otherwise we experience pain.
So the task we are charged with, as reasoning beings, is to minimize our suffering during the waking hours of the brain. Spinoza was accused of three grave sins – he largely dismissed the notion of consciousness (he replaced this with thought), the denial that the universe contains any objective notion of good and evil (what is good is what helps me understand, and what is evil is what inhibits my understanding), and finally that we can banish what he called “the sad passions”. Among the sad passions Spinoza included many that were extremely useful to the religions – regret, remorse, shame, pity, embarrassment and so on.
The reason Spinoza claims that good and evil relate only to our ability to understand, indicates how important he believed understanding is. And it is important because it is instrumental in helping us deal with the sad passions – the emotions that cause us pain. Spinoza was very clear. We are small things living in a very large, indifferent universe and most of the forces at work are much more powerful than we are. He is quite explicit – God/Nature is the cause of our suffering, but by developing understanding we can be the source of our own pleasure even when events and circumstances work against us. I quote from Prop 18 Part 5 The Ethics:
So insofar as we understand God to be the cause of pain, to that extent we feel pleasure.
It’s a strange statement, but extraordinarily deep. By developing understanding of the nature of existence and our own nature we can find ways to diminish the sad passions. The religious figures of the day hated this. Religions depend on the notion that we somehow feel inadequate or are somehow flawed. His works were essentially banished for centuries after his death.
So to summarize. Our waking consciousness is driven by the survival program. When its desires are fulfilled we feel pleasure, and when they are not we feel pain. The emotions that derive from these pleasures and pain are legion, but they are also passive. The task at hand is to become active within, and to become the source of our own pleasure. We can only do this through understanding. Meditation, chanting, devotional practices, philosophizing as a pure intellectual activity, religious practices – none of these things will bring some degree of liberation from the survival program. Reason and understanding hold the key, which is why they are of interest to so few people.