The poet Gregory Wood describes, in one of his poems, soldiers ending their day in ‘bleak debauchery.’ This rather startling turn of phrase describes rather neatly a great truth. It is only while it preserves the charm of novelty that debauched, decadent behaviour can be said to be exciting. It possesses the glamour of unknown possibilities and unforeseeable excitements so long as it is new to us. After a while though it loses these attributes and becomes repetition. In relationships or creative endeavour the possibility of growth always exists, in debauchery this is not so. We can add quantity but never quality to these experiences. As our appetites become jaded we may seek to add in elements to stimulate the effects of our actions but this is not growth rather it is an attempt to recreate the excitement of our first encounters with immorality.
This absence of possibilities to grow does not necessarily act as a deterrent to continued plunging into the world of debauchery. The lust for this or that experience, gambling, drunkenness, promiscuity, becomes an itch that we need to scratch to obtain brief ease or, in the situation Gregory Woods wrote about, as a consolation, a powerful sensual experience to drown out for a while the memories and anxieties which the rest of our life produces in us. Indeed it is its sensual nature which is its key characteristic. The senses can drown out the mind and the emotions and there are times when mind and emotion are seen by us as enemies to be avoided not instruments through which we can fulfil our potential. Where we are guided by sensuality not thought then we can expect less complexity and thus the consequence of repetition and the absence of the possibility for growth.
From a rather different angle an ancient Hebrew poet wrote “let me find life in following thy ways.” (Psalm 118:37) This speaks to a perception in various philosophical and religious traditions that behind or within existence in the transient and phenomenal world which we experience through our senses there are eternal verities which we encounter directly through Mind or Spirit. Plato and the neoplatonists thought of them as Ideas, like Truth, Beauty and the Good which exist beyond the realm of shadows which we inhabit (hence the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic.) The Zen concept of enlightenment, satori, when we unlock the Buddha nature within is essentially similar. The use of spatial analogies like within or without is unavoidable but misleading since Mind or Spirit is presumed to be universally present so the distinction between within and without is merely a descriptive tool to be discarded when that which it describes is understood.
The concept here is that the sensual life though real is less real than the life of Mind because it concerns itself with what arises and passes away. Which is to say it attaches undue importance to things which will shortly cease to exist. Mind can give due importance to that which always was and always will be. Here the possibility for growth exists because though the verities do not change we do. The more we contemplate them the more we mirror that which we contemplate. The finite grows into the infinite the temporal into the eternal. The argument against this is that we know that the objects of sensual experience exist but we cannot say the same for the objects of Mind. However, we only know that the objects of sense exist because our senses have encountered them. In the same way we can only know that the objects of Mind exist if and when our Mind encounters them. Given that the Mind is more complex than the senses clearly that which it encounters at its own level requires more effort and attention than that which the senses encounter at theirs.
Most of us most of the time occupy the space between unchained sensuality and unfettered Mind. In our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our creative endeavours we seek to live and to grow. Yet this is rarely entirely satisfactory at times, perhaps frequently, we seek to escape with our bodies and minds from the mundaneness and unsatisfactoriness of the everyday. Because the senses are near at hand, powerful and habit forming they are often our first resort taking the form of anything from excess chocolate to flagellation. That is not the only option though. We can seek that “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” as St Paul puts it (2 Corinthians 5:4.) The restlessness and ennui which normal life cannot eliminate opens up a space and an incentive for us to use Mind to search for what lies beyond the transient and the phenomenal. And this, unlike bleak debauchery, is not an escape from the daily but an expansion of it into new and infinite dimensions. To be fully alive is to be growing to be half dead is to be forever repeating. Lust, decadence and immorality are bleak because repetitious and they lead us to death in life, death of the Mind. The French letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life.
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The picture is from a fresco found at Pompeii