My friend Simon Schwarz responded to my last post with a pointed question. "Could you explain how the inherent ambivalence of consciousness may be one of the essential properties of higher consciousness?" he asked. I should say at the outset that perhaps I can't explain it and even as I made that assertion I qualified it by using the verb phrase "may be". But Simon seems to be calling my bluff so I shall try to defend my position here even though I have to confess that I make my defence with some uncertainty. I suspect that what he finds most questionable is my use of the term "higher consciousness" which is often used as a synonym for mystical consciousness. But I don't mean to imply that ambivalence--feeling divided in thought and emotion-- is a characteristic of mysticism, though I am inclined to think that experiencing a certain profound ambivalence may be a prelude and perhaps even a precondition for mystical experience. But my more basic point is that ambivalence is intrinsic to being human and is one of the attributes of consciousness that distinguish us from other animals; hence, my claim that ambivalence is a property of higher consciousness. I assume that this claim is fairly uncontroversial. What is more questionable is my implicit suggestion that ambivalence not only distinguishes us, but also discloses higher possibilities of experience for us. After all, feeling ambivalence is often experienced as confusion and anxiety and once ambivalence crosses a certain threshold of intensity it becomes an affliction, as well as an impediment to conscious functioning. How then can ambivalence be seen as a property of higher consciousness when it is experienced as little more than a vehicle of anxiety and confusion?
Anxiety, of course, is one of the main reasons people come into therapy and I know from experience that most clients would gladly abandon any claim to higher consciousness in order to be free of the worry and confusion they suffer. But as Sartre argued, anxiety is an attendant feature of the freedom to choose which is imposed on us by being human and conscious. We are condemned to be free, as he memorably put it. But although I agree that freedom does entail anxiety from not knowing how our actions will ultimately play out, as a Buddhist I believe that I have some sense of how things will unfold, even if my ability to foretell the future is as dim and as limited as everybody else's. Moreover, anxiety itself can act as a harbinger of the necessary, but painful truth that nothing we can apprehend can last forever, least of all a self that desperately fastens to a false perception of permanence as a means of preserving its claim on existence. Even so, a moment of anxiety may seem to offer little more than a demonstration of the inadequacy of consciousness. Far from being a preparation for realising a difficult truth, anxiety, it seems, only makes us yearn to be free of its grip. But anxiety reveals to us the depth of our ignorance.
A recurrent theme of this blog is the nature of avidya or ignorance. Avidya is not intellectual ignorance of something like string theory or even the more obscure points of Buddhist doctrine. It is, rather, more of a disposition that blinds us to a truth that would be apparent if only we bothered to look for it. Why we don't bother to look may depend on a number of karmic factors, but at bottom it may come down to our wilful refusal to see the truth of things if they fail to accord with our predilections. Always looking for things that will satisfy the cravings that sustain our sense of self, we overlook the possibility of finding lasting freedom from those cravings. Moreover, once we base our personalities on our predilections, we fall easily into the delusion that they constitute an inner truth that lies beyond our powers to change it. The Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, James Low, expresses this insight with an apt metaphor. "The self" he said in a workshop I once attended, "is going to sleep inside a habit." Sometimes, though, the self is shaken so violently from its slumber by circumstances or events that remaining serenely unaware is no longer possible. The question then is how to respond to it?
It is all too easy to say the best response to anxiety is to go into therapy or follow Buddhism. Indeed, these are the paths that I myself have taken and now encourage others to travel. But they aren't the only good responses to anxiety; moreover, without reflecting on the possibilities inherent in anxiety we may overlook what it is that makes Buddhism and therapy so potentially liberating. As I wrote in my previous post, we tend to go through our lives in a state of forgetfulness and respond to our circumstances automatically. We forget that our intentions not only preprogrammed our automatic responses, but also mapped the world in such a way as to serve our prior interests. But when the world as it is begins to cave in on the world as we expect it to be, our impending sense of doom can be overwhelming, And we are not always to be blamed for suffering such anxiety. Even our best, most worthy and selfless intentions can be cruelly rubbished by the caprices of a heartless world. Old age, sickness and death, the three marks of existence which Buddhism identifies as ineradicable features of the conditioned world, will always undermine any designs for achieving perfection that we can conceive. And although we know that uncertainty and anxiety come with being alive, such wisdom hardly helps us unless it actively informs our thoughts and actions.
This is where ambivalence can serve to expand our consciousness of the possibilities that the world holds. Indeed, the world as we experience it hinges on the understanding that we have of ourselves as participants in it. Although circumstances limit what we can do, ambivalence suggests how much we can do within our perceived limits. The self does prefer to fall asleep within its habits and usually reacts to being rudely awakened with anxiety or anger. But by becoming awake to our ambivalence we find ourselves on the pivot of wonder from which we find meaning for ourselves in the world.