Adam Blatner

November 26, 2008     (Click here to read other papers on philosophy, etc.)

One of the components of existential angst is, I think, the intuitive awareness of the vastness of the imagination and its impossibility of full realization. There’s just too much, and a single life cannot begin to channel it, words or paintings or music cannot begin to capture it. There is a bit of tragedy or poignancy in this, especially if the awareness emerges in a mind that has been taught to believe that one “should be all that you can be.” Phrases like “living fully,” words like “completely,” and the like are aimed to evoke an attitude of engagement and effort, but they offer no solace to those who are conscientious. How much, after all, is enough? Is there any place for letting go, for surrender, for contentment?

My diagnosis of this requires a semi-metaphysical philosophical viewpoint as well as a psychological theory: The mind does have the capacity to experience the ineffable—a word that indicates the inability to capture what is thought or perceived in words. It can also experience the numinous—another term that suggests that what is thought or perceived is of great moment, relevance, significance, of compelling force. Composers, artists, mystics, mathematicians, many bright people of all sorts have experienced their inner intuitions as partaking of numinosity, ineffability, and vastness or intensity of imagery or richness—too much to ever be captured by the seemingly relatively weak powers of creators who we ordinary mortals might consider to be geniuses. They report, though, that what they have captured, in music, in art, in poetry, etc., is but a weak shadow or stylized cartoon of their inner vision! (Sometimes when I get into my visionary talking or writing, I fear I become like the Saul Steinberg drawing here portrayed:

So it is with the richness of life, the sheer eventful-ness, the stories within stories, the overlap of other elements, the coincidences and inter-penetration of influences. Within history, for example, I’ve been impressed with several books on contra-history—essays that speculate on what might have happened “if” one small event had gone differently. I find such stories fascinating, as the authors lay out much of the background and actual event, and then focus on a minor element, playing out a plausible scenario that might eventuate if that had happened differently. It helps to thicken the appreciation of history. Another source stimulating this sensation has been the series of books in the 1990s ?  by Kenneth Burke based a the British television series, revealing the many interconnections among events in history.

Applying this to the feeling of life: Can I ever communicate to another the fullness of my own life, even if I were to write an extensive autobiography? It would miss the ineffable experiences of the smell of crayons or clay in childhood, or the vividness of colored construction paper. Nor can I recapture the vividness of the worlds of imaginative play that my more plastic mind could enjoy in childhood. (I’ve tried playing with toy cars and figures with my grandchildren, but it’s not the same.) Ah, poignant loss. Oh, well.

And of course, that’s the point: What does it take to let go and move on? Could it be that many people cannot easily move on because they have been taught to cling, to grasp, to hold on, to think of loss as bad? Certainly, much in our culture is infused with an over-valuing of striving, and a pathological fear of contentment, lest it support complacence, sloth, and non-accomplishment. But really, there is an optimal middle amount, and the recognition of this idea that moderation is optimal is too often missing in our culture.

There is a philosophical utility to considering that life is in fact far greater than what can be known or lived. We have within our interests a range of subjects, desires, ambitions. Were we more potent, super-heroes of mind-worlds, we would indeed become more of the birds and flying heroes, dragons and whales, firemen rescuing the frightened, policemen fighting evil, and all the other characters we found amusing or compelling to play out in our make-believe endeavors.

As we grow, there is again that sense of tragedy or poignancy at having to leave this world in which we were free to expand our sense of self into all possible roles. In drama, we can preserve a little more than what ordinary folks can do, but I like to encourage people to continue to cultivate their imagination and to create roles in which some of this enjoyment can be continued, albeit in a somewhat modified and refined way. (My wife and I wrote a book to this end, The Art of Play, which is presently being revised.)

Other Manifestations of this Complex

Perhaps we might call this the Moses complex, mainly for the story that Moses was able to glimpse God’s glory (Exodus 33:18-23). The point is that what was allowed to happen was indirect: Moses was placed in a cleft in a rock, covered with God’s hand “...until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Indeed, the thinking that led to this paper was stimulated by a dream in which, among many other experiences, there was a sensation as I was approaching the transition from dream into reverie that all the impressions had to be poured through a narrow opening, as if a cereal box were tipped and were pouring its contents through just one corner. Along with this was the corresponding intuition that the fullness of reality had to find as an outlet the relatively small vehicle of a single actual human life. Another association was to the way sand could only pass through the  pinched middle of an hour-glass only a few grains at a time. In reverie, pondering this image, other associations came, such as a downward-pointing cone and the way a baby at birth also needed to be pressed through a seemingly narrow canal. Later, I wondered if some of the perceptions of fear and getting stuck that Dr. Stan Grof describes as part of the deep archetypal residues of the birth experience might also be reinforced by this “Moses” complex—i.e., the conundrum that our minds can express and lives can live out only a small fraction of what our fullest psychic potential might be.

I noticed within this aforementioned dream a mild pang of grief at the sense that it was a great pity that so much other beauty and insight and experience would be lost to the world! Yet this experience was also somewhat modulated with a pinch of humor, another pinch of surrender, and a teaspoon of philosophical awareness that, paradoxically, the grief (ideally) must be balanced by the surrender. It is just the way life is.

A friend and colleague noted that another somewhat related dynamic involves the foolish tendency to waste life by living in what I call “the subjunctive state” of what “could” have been, or what “should” have happened. They live in illusory dream of “if only” that depletes their energies about either confronting the issues they face or surrendering and getting on with other engagements. “Get a life,” is a phrase that captures the intuitive recognition that someone is living in this “if” fantasy. The point is to accept life’s limitations and nevertheless engage it within the boundaries of reality.

A further dynamic involves the psychology of compassion. Others also have so much life, and live out far less than their potential. From the outside, it is sometimes easier to imagine the greater potentials, and to be impatient with other’s recalcitrance or inertia; or indignant about what seem to be external forces of oppression or neglect. We sense their desire to live and expand their experience and it resonates with this yearning to be all we imagine we can be.

Whether selflessly applied to others or self-consciously applied to oneself, though, this pity is misplaced. It fails to allow for the significant degree to which we are out of control. All that seems blurry, and there are tiny currents of shame and guilt for not doing more to rescue or give to others; or for not driving oneself harder. For sensitive souls, these currents are stronger and generate a fair amount of prevalent background guilt-shame, perhaps associated with other negative emotions.

If Only

The Moses complex feeds on the subtle desires and fantasies that are associated with what have been called “omnipotent fantasies” in psychoanalytic literature. There are those, too, but these are not really omni- or all-powerful, but still more than what’s realistic.

Consider the challenge: Would that we could:
  – receive feedback on all that we do, all our gifts to the world and the effects they have, the karma of our good deeds, the power of a smile, a reaching out. Often—almost always—others don’t have the sensitivity or capacity or knowledge to give this feedback, and the ripples beyond the ripples multiply so their source cannot be discerned.
  – receive feedback with some insight on the mistakes we make, so that we can recognize our errors and correct them
   – express the most vulnerable and subtle yearnings of our soul for love, for spiritual connection, for resting into a place of inner freedom
   – express our dreams and numinous (i.e., deeply compelling and meaningful) experiences. (Our culture is as yet quite ambivalent regarding people’s semi- and fully mystical experiences, parapsychological experiences, uncanny experiences, deeply felt experiences.) I find that most folks have a few that they haven’t felt safe sharing with anyone—a pity, because there are a few who would receive them and reflect them wisely and care-fully. Admittedly, though, this reticence is appropriate because most people don’t know what to make of such phenomena and tend to want to defend against them, calling them crazy, “just imagination,” “only coincidence,” and in other ways discount them.
  – express the depth of transpersonal passion that can be operating in infatuation-romance, deep maturity romance (i.e., more oxytocin than dopamine operating as the key neurotransmitter), the hate and crazy rage of desperate battle (common in warriors), the disapproving mask that hides overwhelming bewilderment at the intensity and seeming weirdness of youth (the archetype of the planet Saturn), the expansiveness of the reformed Scrooge (the Jupiter-like spirit of Santa and Christmas), and so forth. The point is that the archetypal forces that can sweep through a person are only partially explained by more Freudian or personal psychological dynamics. We are all vulnerable as part of the human condition. While we may exercise some responsibility and equanimity in coping with these currents of feelings, we cannot escape their entrance into our souls.
  – express the depth of beauty, imagery, excitement, inspiration that occasionally comes, sometimes filling the heart with religious ecstasy, or in other ways trying to find expression
  – hold on to or express in words the fullness of great sensations of beauty, in music, in nature, in action, in “flow,” in joy, and so forth
   – to adequately express the desperate negativity that can also afflict the soul. “Depression” or “Panic” hardly capture these equal-and-opposite emotional storms.
   – express or capture the sense of wonder, mystery, astonishment, awe, tinged either with pleasure or dismay, depending on the matrix of beliefs and understandings that serve as the context of the aforementioned experiences.

I think a number of human activities seek to articulate this sense a little more than ordinary life. Rituals of rites of passage and dramas in general seek to bring attitudes of reverence and celebration to such events. Poetry and the arts may highlight the experience. What good is a coronation or the recognition of an award if not accompanied by some hoopla, an oratorio written for this event, a little skit, a humorous “roast,” a well-formulated and clearly enunciated toast?

The aforementioned depths and vastness of potentials for living hint at two deeper levels than our ordinary waking consciousness: First, the soul level, which is as mentioned, ten or a hundred or maybe a thousand times broader, more complex, more intricate, more filled with resonances among the various parts. Second, beyond this, there may be registered in our puny consciousness a hint of the vastness beyond, the level of Spirit, the awareness that all this may be multiplied by factors of a million or more, through innumerable eons, light years of space, on billions of other planets, life forms, stories, species, evolutionary processes, dramas, comedies.

Through all of this is—from the viewpoint of an ego clinging to preserve the coherence of one’s own life—the most grievous tragedy! Ah, that so many potentials are cut short before their fullest manifestation. But from the wider viewpoint of the Realities of Life, death is necessary so that new life can have room, and this truth is valid not only in terms of available material and energy, but also in terms of the freedom to evolve new psychological and cultural forms. The proper response is surrender, and Buddhist attitudes become most relevant in coping with this type of existential angst.

The Moses Complex

I don’t think this tragi-comic awareness of unfulfilled life is a neurotic complex, in the sense of tying it into some abnormality in the normal sequence of psycho-social development. Rather, it is universal. Yet I suspect that the sensitivity to experiencing the poignancy of this dynamic varies tremendously. First, there would be a spectrum of being able to find words to express any of this, as people vary according to culture, vocabulary, education, experience, intelligence, aesthetic sensitivity, insight, and so forth. For example, my expression of the supreme irony of life, my diagnosis of this complex, rests on the knowledge of scores of psychological, philosophical, and spiritual elements, plus science and so forth. It may be that it required all of these to come to a point of critical mass for me to discern it. Others have other backgrounds—musical, artistic, poetic, philosophical, with which to speak to these issues.

Second, there seems to be an innate sensitivity of temperament, so that some people experience the difficulties of life—this being one complex within many other difficulties—with more pain or poignancy than others. Some of this perhaps is ameliorated by the more recent anti-depressants; some may be ameliorated a bit by artistic expression, if one is fortunate. Other people, I suspect, hardly notice the feelings of dissonance, the tragic elements of life. Some of these may sense it and have built up layers of defense to it; others perhaps don’t have that much sensitivity to begin with. None of these positions is intrinsically any more virtuous than any other. We play the cards we’re dealt.

My hope in writing this is that by identifying the phenomenon—the sense of compassionate angst at the unfulfilled potentials of life—that this may help to identify and ameliorate some of the pain, as well as point to a relatively constructive resolution. If this diagnosis is true, then recognizing it for what it is will help: One life cannot possibly begin to express all of the potentialities associated with that life. The best we can do is live our “dharma,” live out with some effort at engagement and integration as many of the potentials as seem wise and useful. Associated with this should be an attitude of surrender and letting go of what cannot be. This in turn is facilitated by cultivating a transpersonal vision, philosophy, religious belief symbol system, etc., that expresses a greater story, one that appreciates the significance—however minute—of a single life, while also reminding the individual of some greater story, some broader dramatic unfolding.

My Belief System

This is more poetic than literal: I envision the individual as the nexus, the coming-together-point, of hundreds of talents, abilities, temperament, archetypal tendencies, human instincts, mysterious imaginative components, and so forth. They operate from many sources and make up a unique combination of potentials that seek to be lived out. The way life gets lived out is then a kind of game, a drama, with tendencies to overshoot first this way, then that. Sometimes potentials are sensed as too much and hidden, buried, cut short, and, ideally, later redeemed. There are miracles in how we meet those people, encounter this book or that teacher, get kicked in the pants in what turns out to be a constructive direction, and so forth.

In other words, I envision a mass of soul potentials a hundred times greater than who I can ever be. I do sense the possibility of expressing or playing out a range of responses, from foolish, lazy, frightened, paralyzed, short-sighted, to wise, energetic, courageous, engaged, and long-sighted. So there is “free will” in this range of possibilities, but that freedom is embedded in the larger limitations of history, culture, misfortune and good fortune, and other broader contexts.

The soul potentials in turn express spiritual currents of flow seeking life expression—perhaps among billions of life forms on billions of planets—that are again billions of times more complex and closer to Divinity than what can be played out in this tiny corner of the universe. It’s all fine, though, because it’s all part of the Divine dance, discovery, play, adventure, invention.

The theme of creativity pervades the whole. In our lives, we have a potential for being creative in hundreds of ways, from the games we play as children to the opportunity to sing a melody to a loved one at the time of dying. If we can participate in this creative process in any ways—and pausing to savor the beauty, wonder, curiosity, sweetness, and other emotions attending the creative process is also part of the creative process!—, then we are participating as one of the cells in the mythic Body of God, dancing into ever-more-ness.


The idea that there is a point of closure, of Omega finishing, of resolution and stasis, is a projection of human consciousness. It is we, not God, who must rest, who come to a point of tiredness. It is not for us to presume that God must follow our particular bio-rhythmic requirements. (One could argue that God rests a lot—just watch the stillness of the lions on the plains. Most of the universe spends most of its time just being, and in profound stillness.)

Instead, consider that it is much too far in the future for us to properly speculate about the ends of our existence, in terms of millions of years. Nor should we be attached to our destiny as a species beyond the scope of thousands of years. Rather, it is more proper for us to consider, as we can now do, our potential to take greater responsibility to find sustainability, political and economic stability and justice, social equality, and other noble goals. Our world is yet far from these more obviously needed and theoretically attainable goals.

(To explain the desire to speculate about the distant destiny of humanyity, the mind has a tendency to fantasize the distant happy ending as a way to magically get there, as a way to skip over the not-insignificant barriers of even halfway getting there. Thus a child wants to “be” a fireman, to fantasize a few high-point rescues or heroic activities, denying the great majority of time spent in training, in mundane study, in waiting, and so forth. So with many other ambitions of childhood.)

Speaking of childhood, I like the image of God as a child rather than as a king, in respect of a continuing engagement in invention and adventure, in the creation of new games with new variations. God (in this fantasy) may not get tired and need to nap or sleep—the metaphor fails in this respect—but rather the symbol draws on the way that a child can develop daily, gradually, over years! New skills emerge almost imperceptibly. (Visiting my grandchildren a few times a year, these changes are more obvious, more striking, compared to when I was raising my children and lived with them through their emergence day-to-day.)

An old friend just sent me a Thanksgiving poem on email: It is a verse by the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Ulysses is speaking to the crew of his ship (and in the spirit of each of us as if we were crew of our own ships):
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.
    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
    Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,—
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The Right Amount of Compassion

Today the insight is that of recognizing that what touches my heart and brings tears to my eyes, makes me choke up a little, is the button pushed by that which reminds me of unlived potentialities. Thornton Wilder’s play, “My Town,” does this to me. (The fact that my beloved wife, Allee, played the starring role in that play during her teen years is probably a factor, but only one.)  She also gave me a book that illustrated the song sung by Pete Seeger (and the Byrds) titled “To Everything There is a Season”—a folk song that derived its words from a passage in the Bible (Ecclesiates 3:1) (Ain’t Google wunnerful?!); the book again pushed my tear-buttons.

For a year or more I’ve been wondering what this deep tearfulness is about. I wasn’t able to trace it down to any source. At last, the meaning fits, or so it seems: I weep for all that could have been, for the sheer preciousness not only of life lived, but of what could else have been lived. The bird whose songs were not sung, the squished frog in the road who didn’t get to eat those extra-yummy crickets and mate a few more seasons to make lil’ pollywogs. Sure, it’s projection, but there it is: I weep for that fifty-times-more-ness that I see in not just my own upward-opening-cone of possibilities (see webpage on deep maturity), but also the possibilities of those whom I love.

I weep more for those whom I’ve gotten to know enough so that I can sense what further they have to live. I had a friend who lived quite fully, but my tears, on reflection, following his death, was that he didn’t have a sufficiently receptive audience for the insights of his last years. They deserved to be noticed by more people.

And yet I know that letting go is the wisest path. It occurred to me that according to another principle I’ve worked out—that of the “optimal amount”—that to withdraw from opening my heart for fear of the pain seems wrong. But it becomes overwhelming if I open my heart more than, oh, say, 20%.  I tend to quantify things—it helps to suggest proportionality. It seems optimally human to open my heart, to feel compassion for the drama of a loved one, or to wish that a loved one would care about me—about 10-15%. More than that seems to be either pity or I want to say to someone else, “Don’t deplete yourself that way. I’m not that bad off.”

If I go to less than 2%, I feel that I’m not doing the ethical thing by at least imagining what the situation might be like for them. I feel too cold, uncaring. So I will some opening, some concern.

Admittedly, there is a range of that kind of concern. For most people it’s quite small, and that relative uncaring is reciprocated. We hardly know each other, if that much. For some within my social network, the concern rises proportionately to our kinship or relationship plus reciprocity or rapport.

Beyond 20%, though, I think we need to realize that there are many other forces at work in the cosmos. Not only can we not actually help much, but some of these forces involve the body-wisdom and unconscious processes of those for whom we care, the need for them to learn from their own foolishness, to discover resources from within themselves that would be stifled by our foolish attempts at rescue, to encounter their own karma. There are cultural and historical forces also operating for them, as well as the relationships with all the others in their social network.

These are rationalizations I use to let my kids, especially, live out their own lives without my feeling overwhelmed with the compulsion to give money and unasked-for-advice. It applies proportionally to others in my world. Talking with my wife about how much and when and whether also helps a lot, for sometimes this judgment is an ongoing process of diplomacy and negotiation. It’s not by any means clear. But such judgments are there for those who care for elderly parents, middle-aged kids, younger kids and grandkids, other relatives and friends, etc.


My path is that of insight, of adventuring into the subtle realms of mind—and discerning trends also in the subtle realms of collective mind, in cultural trends—, and seeking to elucidate them for our culture. I’m aware that likely only a small number of people enjoy these reflections, but if I can encourage or inspire others in any way, then my life’s drama is correspondingly multiplied in effect. Anyway, I am finding it’s the only thing I can do that doesn’t make me feel that I’m violating my potential or what in Yoga is called “dharma” or proper duty.

I hope this essay on "Life is Greater than What Can Be Lived" stimulates some feedback from you. It is a provisional essay and would be enriched by your comments.
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