THE BONDAGE OF SELF

Updated: Feb 17


Art from Installation by Ledelle Moe


“Before, I always lived in anticipation, I had the feeling that nothing I did was the “real” thing, that it was all a preparation for something “greater,”more “genuine.” But that feeling has dropped away from me completely. I live here and now, this minute, this day, to the full, and life is worth living. And if I knew that I was going to die tomorrow, then I would say: it’s a great shame, but it’s been good while it lasted.” Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life.



At a time of life when I am letting go of many things I pick up Etty Hillesum’s diary, An Interrupted Life. It is an extraordinary book by one of the finest minds of the Twentieth Century, one that was snuffed out by the Nazis in its prime. She was murdered at Auschwitz.


Her writing is brilliant, honest, and although keenly observant of everyone around her, she is primarily responsible to the workings of her own mind. I’ve come to view “mind” as not merely the sum of our cogitations but also the larger consciousness of the heart.*


We find her in therapy with a Jungian named Spier who is also sexual with her. Jung had sex with at least one patient and Spier seems to be following in the master’s footsteps. What happens between them during their meetings is not a complete sexual act but a kind of frottage; sometimes lying on top of her, sometimes tenderly affectionate – touching her face -- sometimes her sitting on his lap while he talks or reads to her. Spier warns her not to fall in love with him, and she does not, but not because of his warning; she is seemingly a more precise observer of her own feelings than he is. Spier seems much more in danger of falling in love with her. Hillesum is a grown woman confident of her own sexuality: “I am accomplished in bed, just about seasoned enough I should think to be counted among the better lovers…” She is also intellectually confident: “I am blessed enough intellectually to be able to fathom most subjects…” These statements don’t come off as arrogance but merely as a statement of fact; a kind of resumé. Whereas we are now outraged at accounts of blurred boundaries between therapist and client, there is no sense that Hillesum feels she is any kind of victim. She is also aware that all around her Nazis are deporting people, breaking up families and sending them to concentration camps. Her project is her own soul, and we are quickly aware that she is not an ordinary human being and is capable of great courage and presence. I marvel that she became such a person early in life, certainly earlier than my own nascent consciousness.


What does it mean to not judge, to not blame, to not cower, not become self-pitying, not join a legion of hatred, not have one’s life dictated by external circumstances or blinded by projections? I would say this is the center of spiritual work; we are much magnanimous than we let ourselves be.


And so, I find Hillesum a mentor and an inspiration.


I’ve had considerable trauma in my life, both as a child and later in a war, the sixties, and a long life of self-destruction and bad choices. Like many men of my generation, I’ve been prolifically sexual and sometimes to the point of irresponsibility. I’ve been in recovery from alcoholism for thirty-three years and have spent years in psychotherapy, in-patient and out. I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and major depression. But the transformation of those things has made me a larger person. I am a meditator with an excellent teacher and much of my practice is about letting go. The closer I get to the end of my life the more I find this to be the most important practice. All the belongings I own are a metaphor for everything I seek to be rid of.


How free I would be if I could stop blaming myself, could let go of hurts caused by others, let go of fear? How free simply to forget the slights, the humiliations, and the resentments, and become a part of the larger world in spite of its dangers and imperfections, and to not spend my life merely reacting? I see around me people who seem to have built their lives around victimhood, as if to be free of it would leave them in a terrifying terra incognita with nothing to cling to.


And, of course, becoming conscious involves improving the company I keep. In the last two years I’ve had the privilege of loving a sane woman with a kind heart. This is new.


[*I like the Buddhist definition: “Chitta,” or heart-mind. It includes the emotions and the full range of being human. For an excellent detailed study of this idea I recommend Joseph Goldstein's book, Mindfulness, a close reading of the Sattipathana Sutta.]

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