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Thaddeus Golas’ assertion [“Understanding Pain,” Issue 108] that pain is rewarded and pleasure punished is not new: it’s been a central theme of organized religion for centuries. His claim that “Earth is as close to a mistake as the law will allow” is an extension of the Fall from Grace myth, only worse. The Christian version tells us the fall resulted from man’s disobedience, while Thaddeus insists the fault is neither God’s nor man’s: he blames it on the “imperative of functional interactions.” (Darwin would have loved that.) In other words, the problem with physical reality is that we are here to consciously experience its random disequilibriums. It’s a curious world view, and only a shade brighter than nihilism. It reminds me of Tom Robbins’ quip that water invented humans as a means of getting around.
I think in its attempt to cynically mechanize the paradoxes of pain and pleasure, “Understanding Pain” is a brilliant and even helpful essay. But as a comprehensive elucidation of the essential nature of pain — which implicitly it purports to be — it fails considerably. Overall, the essay is disjointed. It’s more a performance than an analysis, as if the writer concocted the theme merely as a platform from which to launch miscreant opinions (e.g., “We exist in a reality in which real love is always improbable and often impossible.”). Sure, there are smatterings of wit and insight (“The medical profession is itself like a cancer eating the nation’s wealth.”), but they hang like ornaments on a dead tree, their luster diminished by lifeless branches. Most damning is the absence of references to actual human experience (e.g., “The truth is that widespread agreeability leads to social chaos.” It’s an intriguing idea, but where’s the evidence? I want to see an example, a case history, and more than one if I am to believe, “That is the way systems work.”). Primarily, the essay succeeds not in describing a “fundamental feature of systems-reality,” but in detailing Thaddeus Golas’ perception of reality (which probably bears strong resemblance to his experience of it). It is possible, and highly probable, to experience the world quite differently than does Thaddeus Golas, even in regard to the universal phenomenon of pain. It is likely too that a day will come when Thaddeus will experience it differently himself.
When I first read “Understanding Pain,” I was reminded of this passage from Seth:
“The idea of a meaningless universe is in itself a highly creative imaginative act. Animals . . . could not imagine such an idiocy, so the theory shows an incredible accomplishment of an obviously ordered mind and intellect that can imagine itself to be the result of non-order or chaos — you have a creature who is capable of mapping its own brain, imagining that the brain’s fantastic regulated order could emerge from a reality that has no meaning.”
It is impressive how the creative intellect can paint itself into a corner, or out of existence altogether.
The physicist Niels Bohr remarked that although the opposite of a fact is a falsehood, the opposite of a truth might be another truth. One facet of wisdom, then, might be the ability to sustain and internally reconcile a spectrum of contradicting truths. Wisdom is more potent than intelligence because it derives not from reason alone, but from the fertile union of reason and intuition. This is the foundation of my gripe with Thaddeus: I am disturbed by his essay because it is an exercise in mere logic. It disregards intuition. It ignores the inner senses, indeed denies their existence. Propelled by the left brain only, it imitates scientific method, weaving facts with logic in pursuit of truth. Accordingly, it arrives at something short of the whole truth.
The fallacious premise in “Understanding Pain” is that humans are subject to the same laws as systems. I realize we are systems, in a sense, and that from a reductionist point of view we have no choice but to be rocked by the turbulent waves of endless probabilities. But we are undeniably more than “self-conscious systems.” We are more than yesterday’s cereal grown into today’s bodies. We are, in Bucky Fuller’s apt metaphor, phantom captains: “with the phantom captain’s departure, the system becomes inoperative and very quickly disintegrates into basic chemical elements.” Although this phantom captain, this invisible personality essence, has neither weight nor sensorial tangibility, throughout life it stands at the helm and, endowed with a degree of free will, guides the individual through storm and calm. Thaddeus asserts that “consciousness is utterly useless to us.” But it is consciousness that is the organizing, anti-entropic element, the thing that holds us together. When consciousness leaves the body at death, along with it goes the self-organizing factor. One has only to consider a railroad or computer system to see that although we too are systems, we are far more than that. “But we should not expect ideas to have any influence on the inevitable flow of painful and disappointing events,” writes Thaddeus. That is because, outfitted solely in his scientifically sanctioned left-brain garb, Thaddeus Golas refuses to perceive that an idea is just as real, if not more so, than an object. (Yet it is ironic to note how gracefully he glides through the world of ideas.)
But what of this long-standing human belief that pain is rewarded and pleasure punished? I think it’s about time we stop thinking of karma in terms of debits and credits. Things just aren’t that simple. We’ve all experienced pleasures that weren’t afterward punished; likewise we’ve endured pains which rendered no reward. “Suffering,” states Seth, “is not good for the soul, unless it teaches you how to stop suffering. That is its purpose.” Think of the person who makes the same mistake over and over, continues to suffer the same consequences, yet never learns to stop making the mistake. If I were him I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for an avalanche of reward.
On the other hand, there is some truth to the notion that pain is rewarded and pleasure punished, though I suspect it is as much semantic as actual. Here my complaint with Thaddeus is that he doesn’t follow his argument to its conclusion: that pain and pleasure, like hate and love, are extremely different aspects of the same creative force. The words reward and punishment are nearly synonymous with pleasure and pain, therefore what we are saying is simply this: following pain must come pleasure, following pleasure must come pain. It is called the nature of opposites. Lao Tzu said it this way: “People through finding something beautiful/Think something else unbeautiful,/Through finding one man fit/judge another unfit./. . . AND WHAT IS IS THE WAS OF WHAT SHALL BE.” Thaddeus claims that “pain and effort promote our survival and pleasure does not.” But how is it that pleasure doesn’t promote our survival? Recall what Colin Wilson said in “Peak Experience,” [Issue 108] that Maslow studied healthy individuals and discovered the thing they had in common: the relatively frequent and spontaneous eruptions of “peak experiences,” those “sudden bubbling, overwhelming moments of happiness.” And I ask Thaddeus, is not health a factor in survival? If it isn’t, and if pain is the sole promoter of survival, then we must conclude that those least healthy, and most torn by pain, have the greatest chances for survival. (Darwin wouldn’t have liked that.)
The profound truth about pain and pleasure, though it may defy facts, is that the two spring from the same source, and ultimately are one and the same. In fact, on occasion we experience them at the same time. Consider the slight edge of pain which yields so much pleasure during sexual intercourse. Or ask a mother about the sweet, agonizing pain of childbirth. In such moments we transcend the hold of time and experience the essential oneness (equilibrium) of pleasure and pain. Instead of saying that pain is a necessary ingredient of systems survival, which is merely a fact, it is more the truth — the whole truth — to say that because we exist in a “local distortion of reality” comprised of energy-matter and space-time, the aspect of creative force known as pain-pleasure is typically experienced in two parts, one before the other, the two separated by the apparent passage of time. If what I’m saying sounds like hocus pocus, it is because we have not yet assimilated the disturbing implications of this century’s scientific revolution, the so-called quantum revolution which began in 1905 with Einstein’s Relativity Theory, now the bedrock of modern physics. Perhaps the most pertinent implication of the revolution is this: our perceptions of reality are inextricably bound to reality, and our ideas about the world indeed help to shape the world we live in. Thaddeus Golas says not to blame humans for humanity’s predicament; but if we don’t blame humans, who shall we blame — “the imperative of functional interactions?”
Thaddeus Golas’ “Understanding Pain” in Issue 108 evoked a lengthy letter from Brian Knave and a shorter one from Darryl Carlton, which we printed in Issue 110. I asked Thaddeus if he wanted to respond.
Thanks for your nice card.
The only point of Knave’s letter (the Knave! the bounder!) that stuck in my mind, that I thought I ought to reply to, was his illegitimate equation of “reward” and “pleasure,” when the article says, most pointedly in its last lines, that “pain is rewarded by survival.”
Now that I read his letter again, it seems to me only that Knave is delighted with the sound of his own vocabulary. He knocks down targets I had not set up, and ignores essentials of what I said. And I am saying this only because you asked.
Mostly I was just grateful that the letters were reasonably intelligent, and let it go at that. Many years ago I had an article in the Village Voice, and then they printed a letter, supposedly in refutation, but which actually paraphrased what I had said in the article. Very strange experience. Now that I think of it again, perhaps it was an exercise in dada or surrealism.
The human race is on the edge. We must solve the problem of violence. Violence grows out of pain. People get violent, they abuse their loved ones, they start wars, even nuclear wars, in an effort to nullify the pain by destroying the other that is regarded as the cause of pain. (They even write letters to the editor.)
Therefore, it would seem to me, any suggestion as to the roots of violence should be examined. If people know that pain is inevitable and even useful, perhaps they might bear with it instead of stupefying themselves and lashing out and starting wars.
The only other thought that I will offer now in response to the letters is that I am amazed that both spoke as though I had abandoned the spirit and surrendered to the local reality. I suppose I didn’t communicate clearly enough, even though I did say “the whole universe is a rich, eternal pleasure.” It is precisely the contradiction between that Reality and what we human beings experience that I tried to explain.
Much useful analysis is possible, but I have misplaced the thimble with which I usually empty oceans. Consider the rash of teen-aged suicides: young people in comfortable towns kill themselves, leaving notes saying they “cannot bear the pain.” Of course they can’t — they have had no conditioning in doing so. What they needed was a miserable, uncomfortable British Public School, of the kind that so many sensitive authors have complained about. The kind of school that produced people capable of ruling one-fourth of the Earth’s land mass. They always dressed for dinner. (Alas, World War I destroyed them.)
Well, there I go again, running on, when I was determined to write a short letter. I’ll try to end again:
Actually, I have reached the great goal — I’ve stopped thinking. As a consequence, I will probably write a lot of books.
Oh, yes, I must tell you my favorite mantram, which I recommend to one and all: “The answer is already known.”
It appears my brother Thaddeus has fallen into grievous error. [Thaddeus Golas, “Understanding Pain,” Issue 108.] In his own writings on spaciousness he shows the path beyond “system,” beyond body and mind. In teaching after teaching (I am specifically thinking of Stephen Levine) the question is not whether pain can be avoided, but who is in pain? (See Who Dies?) The illusion is that we are this body and mind — that we are this poor system.
My brother Thaddeus writes in a machine-like staccato that is Nietzschean in flatness and total tonal control. I fear for him who has left the light of life for the cold logic of machine and system survival. Each sentence of his essay could be a thing refuted. The shock is not that he wrote it, Sy, but that you published it. I fear it could lead many souls astray.