simone weil – meaning of the universe*

simone weil gravity and graceWe are a part which has to imitate the whole.

The a¯tman. Let the soul of a man take the whole universe for its body. Let its relation to the whole universe be like that of a collector to his collection, or of one of the soldiers who died crying out ‘Long live the Emperor!’ to Napoleon. The soul transports itself outside the actual body into something else. Let it therefore transport itself into the whole universe.

We should identify ourselves with the universe itself. Everything that is less than the universe is subject to suffering.

Even though I die, the universe continues. That does not console me if I am anything other than the universe. If, however, the universe is, as it were, another body to my soul, my death ceases to have any more importance for me than that of a stranger. The same is true of my sufferings.

Let the whole universe be for me, in relation to my body, what the stick of a blind man is in relation to his hand. His sensibility is really no longer in his hand but at the end of the stick. An apprenticeship is necessary.

To limit one’s love to the pure object is the same thing as to extend it to the whole universe.

To change the relationship between ourselves and the world in the same way as, through apprenticeship, the workman changes the relationship between himself and the tool. Getting hurt: this is the trade entering into the body. May all suffering make the universe enter into the body.

Habit, skill: a transference of the consciousness into an object other than the body itself.
May this object be the universe, the seasons, the sun, the stars. The relationship between the body and the tool changes during apprenticeship. We have to change the relationship between our body and the world.

We do not become detached, we change our attachment. We must attach ourselves to the all.

We have to feel the universe through each sensation. What does it matter then whether it be pleasure or pain? If our hand is shaken by a beloved friend when we meet again after a long separation, what does it matter that he squeezes it hard and hurts us?

There is a degree of pain on reaching which we lose the world. But afterwards peace comes. And if the paroxysm returns, so does the peace which follows it. If we realize this, that very degree of pain turns into an expectation of peace, and as a result does not break our contact with the world.

Two tendencies with opposite extremes: to destroy the self for the sake of the universe, or to destroy the universe for the sake of the self. He who has not been able to become nothing runs the risk of reaching a moment when everything other than himself ceases to exist.

External necessity or an inner need as imperative as that of breathing. ‘Let us become the central breath.’ Even if a pain in our chest makes respiration extremely painful, we still breathe, we cannot help it.

We have to associate the rhythm of the life of the body with that of the world, to feel this association constantly and to feel also the perpetual exchange of matter by which the human being bathes in the world.

Things which nothing can take from a human being as long as he lives: in the way of movement over which his will has a hold, respiration; in the way of perception, space (even in a dungeon, even with our eyes blinded and our ear-drums pierced, as long as we live we are aware of space).
We have to attach to these things the thoughts which we desire that no circumstances should be able to deprive us of.

To love our neighbour as ourselves does not mean that we should love all people equally, for I do not have an equal love for all the modes of existence of myself. Nor does it mean that we should never make them suffer, for I do not refuse to make myself suffer. But we should have with each person the relationship of one conception of the universe to another conception of the universe, and not to a part of the universe.

Not to accept an event in the world is to wish that the world did not exist. That is within my power—for myself. If I wish it I obtain it. I am then an excrescence produced by the world.

Wishes in folklore: what makes wishes dangerous is the fact that they are granted. To wish that the world did not exist is to wish that I, just as I am, may be everything.

Would that the entire universe, from this pebble at my feet to the most distant stars, existed for me at every moment as much as Agnès did for Arnolphe or his money-box did for Harpagon. If I choose, the world can belong to me like the treasure does to the miser. But it is a treasure that does not increase.

This irreducible ‘I’ which is the irreducible basis of my suffering—I have to make this ‘I’ universal.

What does it matter that there should never be joy in me since there is perfect joy perpetually in God! And the same is true with regard to beauty, intelligence and all things.

To desire one’s salvation is wrong, not because it is selfish (it is not in man’s power to be selfish), but because it is an orientation of the soul towards a merely particular and contingent possibility instead of towards a completeness of being, instead of towards the good which exists unconditionally.

All that I wish for exists, or has existed, or will exist somewhere. For I am incapable of complete invention. In that case how should I not be satisfied?

Br . . . I could not prevent myself from imagining him living, imagining his house as a possible place for me to listen to his delightful conversation. Thus the consciousness of the fact of his death made a frightful desert. Cold with metallic coldness. What did it matter to me that there were other people to love? The love that I directed towards him, together with the outlines shaping in my mind of exchanges of ideas which could take place with no one else, were without an object. Now I no longer imagine him as alive and his death has ceased to be intolerable for me. The memory of him is sweet to me. But there are others whom I did not know then and whose death would affect me in the same way.

D . . . is not dead, but the friendship that I bore him is dead, and a like sorrow goes with it. He is no more than a shadow.

But I cannot imagine the same transformation for X . . ., Y . . ., Z . . ., who, nevertheless, so short a time ago did not exist in my consciousness.

Just as parents find it impossible to realize that three years ago their child was non-existent, I find it impossible to realize that I have not always known the beings I love.

I think I must love wrongly: otherwise things would not seem like this to me. My love would not be attached to a few beings. It would be extended to everything which is worthy of love.

‘Be ye perfect even as your Father who is in heaven. . . .’ Love in the same way as the sun gives light. Love has to be brought back to ourselves in order that it may be shed on all things. God alone loves all things and he only loves himself.

To love in God is far more difficult than we think.

I can taint the whole universe with my wretchedness without feeling it or collecting it together within myself.

We have to endure the discordance between imagination and fact. It is better to say ‘I am suffering’ than ‘this landscape is ugly’.

We must not want to change our own weight in the balance of the world—the golden balance of Zeus.

The whole cow gives milk although the milk is only drawn from the udder. In the same way the world is the producer of saintliness.
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* The identification of the soul with the universe has no connexion here with pantheism. One can only fully accept the blind necessity which rules the universe by holding closely through love to the God who transcends the universe. Cf. above: ‘This world, in so far as it is quite empty of God, is God himself.’ [Editor’s note.]
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Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

how to stay sane: the art of revising your inner storytelling

A review by Maria Popova, from brainpickings.org.

“Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life.”howtostaysane

“[I] pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity,” Jack Kerouac professed in discussing his writing routine. But those of us who fall on the more secular end of the spectrum might need a slightly more potent sanity-preservation tool than prayer. That’s precisely what writer and psychotherapist Philippa Perry offers in How To Stay Sane (public library; UK), part of The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living.

At the heart of Perry’s argument — in line with neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recent meditation on memory and how “narrative truth,” rather than “historical truth,” shapes our impression of the world — is the recognition that stories make us human and learning to reframe our interpretations of reality is key to our experience of life:

Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left.

[…]

We are primed to use stories. Part of our survival as a species depended upon listening to the stories of our tribal elders as they shared parables and passed down their experience and the wisdom of those who went before. As we get older it is our short-term memory that fades rather than our long-term memory. Perhaps we have evolved like this so that we are able to tell the younger generation about the stories and experiences that have formed us which may be important to subsequent generations if they are to thrive.

I worry, though, about what might happen to our minds if most of the stories we hear are about greed, war and atrocity.

Perry goes on to cite research indicating that people who watch television for more than four hours a day see themselves as far more likely to fall victim in a violent incident in the forthcoming week than their peers who watch less than two hours a day. Just like E. B. White advocated for the responsibility of the writer to “to lift people up, not lower them down,” so too is our responsibility as the writers of our own life-stories to avoid the well-documented negativity bias of modern media — because, as artist Austin Kleon wisely put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Perry writes:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.

[…]

The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. … If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up.

[…]

The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

Yet despite the adaptive optimism bias of the human brain, Perry argues a positive outlook is a practice — and one that requires mastering the art of vulnerability and increasing our essential tolerance for uncertainty:

You may find that you have been telling yourself that practicing optimism is a risk, as though, somehow, a positive attitude will invite disaster and so if you practice optimism it may increase your feelings of vulnerability. The trick is to increase your tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than avoid them altogether.

[…]

Optimism does not mean continual happiness, glazed eyes and a fixed grin. When I talk about the desirability of optimism I do not mean that we should delude ourselves about reality. But practicing optimism does mean focusing more on the positive fall-out of an event than on the negative. … I am not advocating the kind of optimism that means you blow all your savings on a horse running at a hundred to one; I am talking about being optimistic enough to sow some seeds in the hope that some of them will germinate and grow into flowers.

Another key obstruction to our sanity is our chronic aversion to being wrong, entwined with our damaging fear of the unfamiliar. Perry cautions:

We all like to think we keep an open mind and can change our opinions in the light of new evidence, but most of us seem to be geared to making up our minds very quickly. Then we process further evidence not with an open mind but with a filter, only acknowledging the evidence that backs up our original impression. It is too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that being right is more important than being open to what might be.

If we practice detachment from our thoughts we learn to observe them as though we are taking a bird’s eye view of our own thinking. When we do this, we might find that our thinking belongs to an older, and different, story to the one we are now living.

Perry concludes:

We need to look at the repetitions in the stories we tell ourselves [and] at the process of the stories rather than merely their surface content. Then we can begin to experiment with changing the filter through which we look at the world, start to edit the story and thus regain flexibility where we have been getting stuck.

Complement How To Stay Sane with radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s 1948 list of the six rules for creative sanity.