Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Where to Find It and How to Deal with It

Where does one go if one wants to study existence itself? Where does one look? What does one do there?

In July of 1896, when he was sixteen years old, Ramana Maharshi experienced a "sudden, violent fear of death", which occasioned what is normally considered his moment of enlightenment, a "sudden liberation". In July of 1923, Ernest Hemingway went to Pamplona to "study ... one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental", namely, "violent death" (Death in the Afternoon, p. 10).

"There was nothing in my state of health to account for it," Ramana explained, "and I did not try to account for it or to find out whether there was any reason for the fear. I just felt, ‘I am going to die,’ and began thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a doctor or my elders or friends. I felt that I had to solve the problem myself, then and there." Apparently, he succeeded. Afterwards, "‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centred on that ‘I’. From that moment onwards the ‘I’ or Self focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the Self continued unbroken from that time on."

Hemingway tells a different story: "I went to Spain to see bullfights and to try to write about them for myself. I thought they would be simple and barbarous and cruel and that I would not like them, but that I would see certain definite action which would give me the feeling of life and death that I was working for. I found the definite action; but the bullfight was so far from simple and I liked it so much that it was much too complicated for my then equipment for writing to deal with and, aside from four very short sketches, I was not able to write anything about it for five years -- and I wish I would have waited ten." (p. 11)

I wonder if is too much of a stretch to suggest that the problem that Ramana felt he had to solve for himself "then and there" was the same problem that was "much too complicated" for Hemingway's "equipment for writing to deal with" in 1923. Certainly, it is one thing to experience one's own existence as something "very real", and another to write it down.


Anonymous said...

none of those were 'sudden' experiences though. you mention the time between the beginning of those two stories and the conclusions. well, after all, they are 'explaining' the thing, right?

Thomas said...

Hemingway's experience was certainly not sudden, of course. Ramana's, however, is a classic example of what he called akrama mukti, what the French call illumination subite. He accomplished in a matter of hours what normally takes years and years of concerted effort.

I think only Hemingway was interested in "explaining" it. He went looking for death in order to write about it. And he did that in order to learn how to write at all. Ramana did not go looking for it. He was "overtaken" by it.