No Choice

“The overall ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ charge which different emotions seem to have is due to the relative percentages of their more subtle ‘positive’, ‘negative’ and neutral layers. Different mixtures of such strata comprise what we consider our personalities.” Time, Space, and Knowledge, page 265-6

I was reading about these three strata (positive, negative, and neutral) involved in the self’s sense of presence in the world, when a passage from Kafka dislodged from my memory. I certainly recognized that I am always in some kind of emotionally-tinged state as I continued to read in this TSK passage how ‘positive’ states such as love and ‘negative’ states such as anger or resentment are equally unbalanced and therefore unstable. Beneath the surface of such positive and negative states there is another stratum that the self doesn’t notice and whose energies are in sharp contrast to the surface feeling which the self does notice. For instance, beneath the positive feelings of love a cross-current that is demanding and aggressive is present; beneath the self-centered impatience of anger, an incisive, penetrating quality is present. And beneath these two top layers (with the self only noticing the top one) lies a third, neutral layer that:

“. . . is silent, but nevertheless the ground which allows a stratification to develop along positive and negative lines.” Time, Space, and Knowledge, Page 265.

Considering this way of looking at the operations of human emotion, in the midst of our complex and convoluted realities, the following passage came back to me from Franz Kafka’s short writings:

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Franz Kafka, The Great Wall of China, Page 184.

I was glad to see that this remembered passage included the particular phrase I was looking for: “no choice”. And I find myself wondering if Kafka could have had something like these three strata in mind when he composed this passage.

Ever since I first encountered Kafka in the early ‘70’s, I’ve appreciated the double flavor of the phrase “will roll at your feet”. It invokes an image of Earth ‘rolling’ through space and also suggests how a puppy runs up and plops down at our feet, rescuing us from the ‘negative’ sense that planetary embodiment limits and confines us.

This sense that we might not have been sentenced to an inescapable life of stress after all may lead us back to the first few sentences of Kafka’s striking image. We might even try sitting quietly and attentively in order to experience how Mother Earth is a friendly presence that has ‘no choice’ but to nourish and support us.

So what does it mean that this world has “no choice”? Could that be the third ‘neutral’ strata?

The problem with puppies is that they will jump up and follow some other impulse as abruptly as they galloped up and plopped down on their backs to have their stomach rubbed. They may gladden our hearts and even inspire us to feel more at home in the world for a while. But the image of a friendly reality (which the Tibetan master Longchenpa invoked in the title of his trilogy: “Kindly Bent to Ease Us”) that is present in a way that is beyond choice (independent of any clever contrivance required to qualify) suggests a fundamental reliability and unwavering presence that never leaves us–as the exuberant puppy is likely to do.

Who doesn’t yearn for this comfort? Who doesn’t hope that there is a presence that doesn’t need us to earn it, but is a ‘neutral’ and abiding presence that makes possible, and supports our own frantic, incessant winnowing of the good from the bad, the desired from the abhorred, and the positive from the negative?

Could this be the true and loyal friend we spend our lives searching for?

3 comments to “No Choice”
  1. Thinking about the ‘neutral’ layer. Could it be thought of as a sort of base personality we are born with? Or maybe a filter? Another way of thinking about ‘no choice’? A form of control?

  2. Thank you JoAnne and Gilly. I think of my personality as being a combination of tendencies I was born with and the conditions that have made those tendencies engrained and automatically reactive. I’ve plenty of those inconvenient reflexes. As for a strata that is prior to and independent of those positive and negative tendencies, I think of it as more like the wind that carries whatever fragrance and weather arises in its path, a flowing stream of air that has no choice but to include all passengers. I think of such choicelessness as being the nature of life,a presence that remains unblemished by the specificity of my emotions or anything else that makes me unique.

    One of the concepts in TSK that I find particularily lovely is the “Universal Unique” which leaves room for the unique (our personalities and everything else that arises in the stream of time) and for the universal (the mysterious wholeness of this realm into which we have been born): a meeting in perpetual session in which our uniqueness gives us access to this greater, ‘neutral” presence and allows us to be as individual as we care to be.

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