From Thought to Presence

June 17, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” - Shakespeare, Hamlet

Last week, we discussed the practice of being fully present within an actual moment, whereas today we will discover what a number of authors say about the mind's ability to conjure presences, to bring memories into a present moment. When discussing being, we utilize the present progressive tense. Something that exists at this actual moment and we project that it will continue to exist into the next moment, and the next. When we focus on our immediate present, only our own immediate presence should be reflected. Hamlet's “to be or not to be” speech ponders what existence truly means. Being is the essential question. Hamlet also questions this form of presence, this ache that stirs us to remember other people, places, memories. He wonders if it is not better to sleep, to die, to dream. These forms of escape would allow him to remove himself from his current situation, which causes a great amount of stress. He wishes to flee, but then claims that his will refuses to go in any unknown direction. He concludes, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (III, i, 92).

Emily Brontë created an excellent dialogue regarding the idea of a presence in Wuthering Heights. Near the end of the novel, Heathcliff explains the anguish of his life without Catherine. He says, “'Nelly, there is a strange change approaching – I'm in its shadow at present – I take so little interest in my daily life, that I hardly remember to eat, and drink – Those two who have left the room are the only objects which retain a distinct material appearance to me; and, that appearance causes me pain, amounting to agony. About her I won't speak; and I don't desire to think; but I earnestly wish she were invisible – her presence invokes only maddening sensations. He moves me differently; and yet if I could do it without seeming insane, I'd never see him again! You'll perhaps think me rather inclined to become so,' he added, making an effort to smile, 'if I try to describe the thousand forms of past associations, and ideas he awakens, or embodies – But you'll not talk of what I tell you, and my mind is so eternally secluded in itself, it is tempting, at last, to turn it out altogether'”. This change that Heathcliff speaks of becomes a physical presence. Seeing the children reminds him of so many past memories, it physically pains him. He is drawn to certain rooms for their memories and, in the end, he literally feels Catherine's proximity, a ghostly presence that comforts him. Nelly can find no other reason for his behavior, but believes that “conscience had turned his heart to an earthly hell”.

Macbeth too, hears voices and see phantoms, caused by a guilty conscience. Jane Eyre hears Rochester's voice calling her back from the heath. There are also the works of Edgar Allen Poe, or Dante's Inferno, or Odysseus finding his mother in the Underworld. In these examples, all have experienced some major trauma or change that now affects their mental stability. In “Parmenides”, Plato discusses the relationship between being and non-being. This dialogue spins the head a bit, but, of course, that is precisely what happens to the person who confronts trauma through memory. A connection presents itself between being and non-being in this dialogue. It reads, “The one who is not, if it is to maintain itself, must have the being of not-being as the bond of not-being, just as being must have as a bond the not-being of not-being in order to perfect its own being; for the truest assertion of the being of being and of the not-being of not-being is when being partakes of the being of being, and not of the being of not-being – that is, the perfection of being; and when not-being does not partake of the not-being of not-being but of the being of not-being – that is the perfection of not-being.” The odd part of this connection is that it can also be viewed as a rupture, or a trauma. Connection to an other can cause trauma.

Last week, in our discussion of what it means to be present, Deepak Chopra offered his advice for maintaining focus. In addition to ideas regarding a present state of mind, Chopra also discusses a form of this idea of presence, the type revealed from the mind's own energy. He claims that the creation of a presence is an awareness of spiritual energy. He writes, “Through our energy or consciousness, we have an unlimited capacity to send out ripples that will help the planet and its inhabitants move in the most evolutionary direction – from fear, hostility and unrest to love, compassion, peace, and joy." This appears similar to Hegel's idea of a Universal Spirit which moves through unrest into peace and love. This optimistic idea breeds connection and continuance in a newly-landscaped (post-traumatic) world. These literary characters struggle to find balance, and that struggle informs the reader about trauma, change, and pain. It also informs us of a path towards connection.

If the mind's power conjures images of a being through memory alone, what other type of connective energy does it have? Is the use of this skill to maintain connection? To prove of spiritual energy? To remind us of love and empathy? What use have we for the skills of being present and/or of conjuring a presence?

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