Chapter no 4

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race


“Depressing” is the adjective that ordinary folk affix to the life perspectives expressed by men such as Zapffe, Schopenhauer, and Lovecraft. The doctrines of world-class religions, dolorous as they may be, will never be thus defamed, because they are perceived to be “uplifting” by ordinary folk. Panglossian falsehoods convene the crowd; discouraging truths disperse it. The reason: It is depression not madness that cows us, demoralization not insanity that we dread, disillusionment of the mind not its derangement that imperils our culture of hope. An epidemic of depression would quiet those chattering voices in our heads, stopping life dead in its tracks. Providentially, we are endowed with enough manic enthusiasm to keep us plowing onward and making more of ourselves, bragging all the while about what billions of years of evolution have bidden every species to do anyway.

Zapffe, Schopenhauer, and Lovecraft fared well enough without surrendering themselves to life-affirming hysterics. This is a risky thing for anyone to do, but it is even more risky for writers, because anti-vital convictions will demote their work to a lower archive than that of wordsmiths who capitulate to positive thinking, or at least follow the maxim of being equivocal when speaking of our species. Everyone wants to keep the door open on the possibility that our lives are not MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Even highly educated readers do not want to be told that their lives are an evolutionary contingency—and nothing else—and that meaning is not what people think it means.1

For Schopenhauer, the fallout from his negations has been that he takes up far less floor space in the museum of modern thought than does his fellow German and antagonist Friedrich Nietzsche. Schopenhauer promises nothing but extinction for the individual following the postmortem recall of his “true nature” as a tiny parcel of the person-less and ever-roiling Will. Nietzsche borrows from religion and sermonizes

that, although we will not be delivered into the afterlives of his ecclesiastic models, we must be willing in spirit to reprise this life again and again to its tiniest detail for all eternity.2 As unappealing as repeating our lives even once may seem to some of us, we are not the ones who make a writer’s reputation. This is the bailiwick of philosophical trendsetters, who discovered in Nietzsche the most spellbinding conundrum in the history of the mind. All the better for the perseverance of his corpus, which has supplied his exegetes with lifetimes of interpretation, argumentation, and general schismatic disharmony—all the purposeful activities that any religionist, with or without a deity, goes for.

Among other things, Nietzsche is famed as a promoter of human survival, just as long as enough of the survivors follow his lead as a perverted pessimist—one who has consecrated himself to loving life exactly because it is the worst thing imaginable, a sadomasochistic joyride through the twists and turns of being unto death. Nietzsche had no problem with human existence as a tragedy born of consciousness— parent of all horrors. This irregular pessimism is the antinomy of the “normal” pessimism of Schopenhauer, who is philosophy’s red-headed stepchild because he is unequivocally on record as having said that being alive is not—and can never be—all right. Even his most admiring commentators, who do not find the technical aspects of his output to be off-putting, pull up when he openly waxes pessimistic or descants on the Will as an unselfconsciously stern master of all being, a cretinous force that makes everything do what it does, an imbecilic puppeteer that sustains the ruckus of our world. For these offenses, his stature is rather low compared to that of other major thinkers, as is that of all philosophers who bear an unconcealed grudge against life.

Although both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche spoke only to an audience of atheists, Schopenhauer erred—from a public relations stance

—by not according human beings any special status among the world of things organic and inorganic or trucking in any meaning to our existence. Contra Schopenhauer, Nietzsche not only took religious readings of life seriously enough to deprecate them at great length, but was hell-bent on replacing them with goal-oriented values and a sense of meaning that even nonbelievers beg for like dogs—some project in which individuals may lose (or find) themselves.

Key to Nietzsche’s popularity with atheistic amoralists is his materialistic mysticism, a sleight of mind that makes the world’s meaninglessness into something meaningful and refashions fate into freedom before our eyes. As for Schopenhauer’s cattle-drive existence in which an unknowable force (the Will) herds us along—that had to go. In the form of a diverting fiction, it might well be worth its conceptual weight in shivers of uncanny horror; but as a proposed reality, it is self-evidently depressing.

In confederacy with those whom he believed himself to have surpassed in the race toward an undefined destiny, Nietzsche did what he could to keep the human pageant strolling toward . . . wherever. Even though he had the clarity of mind to recognize that values did not grow on trees nor were writ on stone tablets, he duped himself into thinking that it was possible to create them. But how these values would be created and what they would be he could not say. After demolishing the life-rejecting faith of the Crucified, Nietzsche handed down his own commandments through the Antichrist-like messiah Zarathustra, who was groomed to take over Christianity’s administration of the Western world and keep it afloat with counterfeit funds. Carrying around a sackload of unrealities from here to the eternal return, perhaps no one has ever been as “normal” as Nietzsche.

Why did this naysaying yes-man believe it was so important to keep up our esprit de corps by fending off the crisis of nihilism he predicted as forthcoming? Nietzsche could not have thought that at some point people were going to turn their heads to the wall due to a paucity of values, which may run low sometimes but will never run out. Those who were supposed to have gone running into the streets in a funk of foundationlessness have survived without a hitch: nihilistic or not, they still carried home an armful of affirmations. To publish or perish is not a question that professional thinkers have to think about for long. And whatever moral crisis lies ahead will have to take place in an environment undamaged by nihilism.

As a threat to human continuance, nihilism is as dead as God. (See James E. Edwards, The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in the Age of Normal Nihilism, 1997.) To do away with one’s values is rather impossible, an ideal to be imagined until one is seized by a natural end. Schopenhauer, a virtuoso of life’s devaluation, knew that. But Nietzsche fretted about those unborn values he imagined his work would

inspire, worrying over them as would an expectant parent concerned that his name, his blood, and his codes both moral and genetic be bodied forth by generations fading over the hills of time. Leaving no values that posterity could not cook up on its own, Nietzsche was withal an admirable opponent of enslaving values from the past. In their place, he left nothing. And for that we should thank him.

Possibly stolen from Nietzsche is what has been tagged as Zapffe’s Paradox—where human beings deceive themselves into thinking their lives are something they are not, namely, worth living. In his Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche wrote:


It is an eternal phenomenon: The insatiable will always find a way, by means of an illusion spread over things, to detain its creatures in life and to compel them to live on. One is chained by the Socratic joy of knowing and the delusion of being able thereby to heal the eternal wound of existence; another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; yet another by the metaphysical consolation that beneath the whirl of appearances eternal life flows on indestructibly—to say nothing of the more common and almost more forceful illusions the will has at hand at every moment. (The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Walter Kaufmann)


One can only rue the fact that Nietzsche did not unfold this observation into a life-negating pessimism, as did Zapffe, rather than into a pessimism that teaches us “what it means ‘to be frightened’”—“a pessimism of strength.” But by the time Nietzsche wrote these words in his “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” published as a preface to the 1886 edition of The Birth of Tragedy, it was too late for his conversion, or reconversion, to a purist’s pessimism. He had already hit the road toward what would indeed frighten average mortals, a set of persons in which he did not include himself, or did not want to include himself. Zapffe did include himself among this set, and his analysis of those who opted out of it fits Nietzsche to a tee: “In such cases, a person may be obsessed with destructive joy, dislodging the whole artificial apparatus of his life and starting with rapturous horror to make a clean sweep of it. The

horror stems from the loss of all sheltering values; the rapture from his by now ruthless identification and harmony with our nature’s deepest secret—the biological unsoundness, the enduring disposition for doom.” In its life-negating aspect, pessimism lost a great champion when Nietzsche became joyful about the frightful, a psychic stand that in itself is a paradox if ever there was one.



After Nietzsche, pessimism was revaluated by some, rejuvenated by others, and still spurned as depressing by average mortals, who continued to recite their most activating illusion: “Today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better still.” While being alive may be all right for the moment, the future is really the place for a person to be, at least as far as we care to see into it. Lovecraft is a figure of exceeding intrigue here because much of his fiction is based on a clutch of godlike beings whose very presence in the universe degrades the idea of betterment in human life into a cosmic miscalculation. Azathoth the Blind Idiot God, Nyarlathotep the Crawling Chaos, Cthulhu the Dead Dreamer: These are some of the entities that symbolize the Lovecraftian universe as a place without sense, meaning, or value. This perspective is memorably expressed in Lovecraft’s poem “Nemesis”:


I have seen the dark universe yawning Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge or lustre or name.


These lines and others like them are not cordially received by votaries of the future, who will deny the vision of this quatrain or treat it as only a literary diversion, which in effect is all that it is, along with every glyph and scribble ever recorded since Gilgamesh sojourned in the land of the dead. More popular among fans of occult fiction are the canonical texts of Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Scientology, G. I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way, the Kabbalah, and so on.

Among this select bibliography of arcane studies should be added the curiosa of “transhumanism,” a zealous type of utopian thought

underwritten by the belief that day by day we are getting closer and closer to building a better human. Like defenders of libertarian free will, transhumanists believe we can make ourselves into who we are today and, should the mood strike us, remake ourselves into who we will be tomorrow. But this is impossible. Because of evolution, we got made. We did not bring ourselves out of the primeval ooze. And everything we have done since we became a species has been a consequence of being made. No matter what we do, it will be what we were made to do—and nothing else. We may try to make something of ourselves, but we cannot take over our own evolution. We made antibiotics because we were made to be the kind of beings who make such things as antibiotics. That changed our condition without changing us, being as we are the kind of creatures who do things and make things, yet are not in the business of getting ourselves made. Nature had plans for us and still does. One of those plans seems to be the dream of transhumanism, which may just be a plan to unmake us. If so, we are not going to alter that plan simply because we imagine we can make a new person with new evolutionary programs that we will write. We know how to survive and we know how to reproduce. We know how to do many things, but we do not know what to do with ourselves that is over and above our preset patterns. Some of us only think we do. We are not even part of the process of getting remade. We are following orders, as we have always done, that nature is forever barking out.

As humans conceived transhumanism, transhumanists have conceived posthumanism, a far-off condition in which none will live as we have all these years but will have evolved into something beyond our present selves. And then what? Have the transhumanists really thought this through? And how could they? We have no idea where our next thought is coming from, not excluding the thoughts of transhumanists.

We do have thoughts, but we do not know what we are going to make of them. How, then, are we to know what to make of ourselves? Even posthumans would still be caught without a clue in the MALIGNANTLY USELESS rut of being. And notwithstanding the cachet of a future paradise that drifts about the scheme of a posthumanity, it is not as if this idea was first conceived in the late twentieth century. In its search for the “good,” or at least the better, it recapitulates our most ancient fantasies.

Like a song we feel we have heard even though we are hearing it for the first time, the machinations of transhumanists serenade us from the past,

and even from a pre-historical Eden of perfect existence, depending on whether or not one likes their song or cares for a homecoming in Eden. But these machinations may also sound like something that was over the moment it began—old, stale, nothing.

By definition, transhumanists are dissatisfied with what we are as a species. Naturally, they think that being alive is all right—so much so, in fact, that they cannot stand the idea of not being alive and have envisioned strategies for staying alive forever. Their problem is that they need being alive to be vastly more all right than it is. And the power of positive thinking is not enough to get them where they want to go. They are past all that, or would like to be. They are also past believing in God or an afterlife of eternal bliss. To a believer, transhumanism would be a useless appendage to what they already believe, as well as an offense against Him who made us as He made us, with nature as the go-between, and long ago laid down the ways in which we can make ourselves better and better. Those ways may be hard to follow, but the alternative is the despair of living without hope of an unimaginably better future. For the believer’s alternative to despair, transhumanists have substituted their own. Yet while transhumanists operate on the assumption that we will massively profit when we self-mutate into posthumans, the upshot of their program is still unknown. It could begin a dynamic new chapter in the history of our race, or it could trumpet the end of us. Either way, the prophesized leap will be jumpstarted by all manner of gadgetry and will somehow involve artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and other habiliments of high technology. These will be the instruments of the New Genesis, the Logos of tomorrow. Or so says one desperate group of scientific thinkers.

For a less desperate group of scientific thinkers, posthumanism is a chimera and will not occur: we will go on with our lives as stumblebums of the same old story. Understandably, the transhumanist view is more arousing than old-fogy humanism precisely because an apocalypse has been inserted as a wild card. (See Bill Joy’s “The future doesn’t need us,” Wired, 2000.) In this sense, transhumanism is a secular retelling of the Christian rapture, and some of its true believers foresee it as happening within the lifetime of many who are alive today, just as the early Christians believed in an impending Judgment Day. Perhaps at some time in the future, such predictions will not have to take into account eschatological contingencies and we can all relax, secure in the

knowledge that day by day, in every way, we are getting made better and better.

Transhumanism encapsulates a long-lived error among the headliners of science: In a world without a destination, we cannot even break ground on our Tower of Babel, and no amount of rush and hurry on our part will change that. That we are going nowhere is not a curable condition; that we must go nowhere at the fastest possible velocity just might be curable, though probably not. And what difference would it make to retard our progress to nowhere? Zapffe reviled technological advancements and the discoveries to which they led, since those interested in such things would be cheated of the distraction of finding them out for themselves at whatever pace they chose. Every human activity is a tack for killing time, and it seemed criminal to him that people should have their time already killed for them by explorers, inventors, and innovators of every stripe. Zapffe himself reserved his leisure hours for that most purposive time-killer—mountain climbing.

As we should know by now, it is as easy to make fun of religious or scientific visionaries as it is to idolize them. Which attitude is adopted depends on whether or not they tell you what you want to hear. Given the excitements promised by transhumanism, odds are that it will collect a clientele of hopefuls who want to get a foot in the future, for nobody doubts that tomorrow will be better than today. Yet one possibility transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take. They have also failed to reflect upon those aspects of the scientific worldview that may be damaging to our mental well-being. In that case, transhumanists will not get as far as stage one in their mission before they must head back to the conspiracy against the human race and be reeducated in the art of self-deceptive paradox.

Many people in this world are always looking to science to save them from something. But just as many, or more, prefer old and reputable belief systems and their sectarian offshoots for salvation. So they trust in the deity of the Old Testament, an incontinent dotard who soiled Himself and the universe with His corruption, a low-budget divinity passing itself

off as the genuine article. (Ask the Gnostics.) They trust in Jesus Christ, a historical cipher stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster out of parts robbed from the graves of messiahs dead and buried—a savior on a stick. They trust in the virgin-pimping Allah and his Drum Major Mohammed, a prophet-come-lately who pioneered a new genus of humbuggery for an emerging market of believers that was not being adequately served by existing religious products. They trust in anything that authenticates their importance as persons, tribes, societies, and particularly as a species that will endure in this world and perhaps in an afterworld that may be uncertain in its reality and unclear in its layout, but which sates their craving for values not of this earth—that depressing, meaningless place their consciousness must sidestep every day.3 Sure enough, then, writers such as Zapffe, Schopenhauer, and Lovecraft only wrote their ticket to marginality when they failed to affirm the worth and wonder of humanity, the validity of its values (whether eternal or provisional), and, naturally, a world without a foreseeable end, or at least a world whose end no one wants to see.



Like many faiths and philosophies that go against the Western grain, Buddhism has baited legions of those in the cognitive vanguard. This religion is to be praised both for its lack of an almighty god-figure and for its gateway teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The first of these truths is the equation between the life of the average mortal and dukkha (roughly “suffering,” but really whatever state of ill-being you care to name). The second is that craving anything in this world—good physical or mental health, long life, happiness, or even the elimination of craving

—is the provenance of all suffering. Buddhism’s Two Noble Truths sit atop a religion that is incomparable for its soteriological prescriptions. These begin with the Third Noble Truth, that there is a way out of suffering, and continue with the Fourth Noble Truth—that the way to be released from the leg-irons of suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, a list of things-to-do and things-not-to-do much like the Old Testament Decalogue, except not as plainly spoken or easygoing.

By laying a heavy emphasis on human life as something that needs to be drastically reworked due to the First Noble Truth of dukkha, Buddhism has been disparaged as pessimistic. Naturally, Buddhists deny

that their religion is any such thing. It is a system for uncovering our true nature—and nothing else. Nevertheless, Buddhism and pessimism cannot be pried loose from each other. The likeness between them is simply too pronounced to be overlooked. Buddhists claim that they are not pessimists but realists. Pessimists make the same claim. Buddhists also claim they are not pessimists because their founder’s teachings showed a way out of suffering for all sentient beings. Pessimists also have their plans toward this end. Ask Zapffe. Ask Mainländer. Or ask Schopenhauer about working toward a denial of the Will, which is the cause of dukkha, the facets of which have been identified by the Ven. Dr. Thanat Inthisan, and many other Buddhist wise men, to include “dissatisfaction, imperfection, pain, impermanence, disharmony, discomfort, irritation, war, incompleteness, insufficiency” as well as the physical and mental suffering of “birth, decay, disease, and death.” Calling oneself a realist is as much the privilege of the Buddhist as it is that of the pessimist. But to designate Buddhism as anything but pessimism is just a matter of semantics. The only real discrepancy between the two philosophies is that hundreds of millions of Buddhists have accepted dukkha as the primary reality of existence. How queer that pessimists cannot boast such numbers. While it is not perceived as such by followers of this ancient religion, the disavowed fact is this: Buddhism is pessimism. Yet whereas the pessimism that dares speak its name is met with near universal incredulity, Buddhism may advertise as truth what no pessimist can prove—that suffering is basic to human existence and it should be the work of our lives to liberate ourselves from its grasp. This double standard is flatly an outrage of logic. Of course, one must always keep in mind the latitude religions are permitted by virtue of the fact that their beliefs cannot be objectively corroborated and must be taken on faith, pessimistic though they may be.

Unlike the practical uniformity of pessimists, not all Buddhists line up on the same side even in some of the broadest aspects of their beliefs. (Ask Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, 1998.) For instance, there are differing opinions among Buddhists regarding anatta (“no-self”) and how it relates to reincarnation, because if there is no self, then what is it that gets reborn? To this question are loads of learned exegeses. One belief held by many Buddhists is that human beings are

bits and pieces that add up to nothing, things of parts, hollow puppets— non-beings that think they are something they are not. Other Buddhists believe that this is only half the story: things both exist and do not exist; things are not what they seem nor are they other than they seem; things are many and they are one; everything is nothing, including nothing.

Along with every other religion, Buddhism is a compilation of do-it-yourself projects, and some of them, such as Pure Land Buddhism, are only lightweight versions of the faiths scantily detailed here. This principle has its parallel in every philosophy, ideology, and bag of myths that has ever been presented to the world. Because no two minds are contoured alike, no one system or collocation of systems will ever be sized to fit all. If truth is what you seek, then the examined life will only take you on a long ride to the limits of solitude and leave you by the side of the road with your truth and nothing else. This gives leave to believers in anything to have an opinion about whatever they like. For Buddhists, though, this is a problem, because clinging to opinions, or whatever else ordinary folk cling to, is an obstruction to becoming a right-minded practitioner of Buddhism. But you can believe that in Buddhist law, or in someone’s opinion of Buddhist law, there are allowance conditions that stipulate when clinging is not really clinging. All religions must have allowance conditions or they would implode upon themselves by the pressure of their own doctrines.

Since Buddhism’s only objective is attaining enlightenment, that high road to nirvana (see below), it is at one with other religions in pitching a brighter future for believers in deliverance from the woes of this world. One problem: Human beings are rarely so sensitive to the woes of this world that they feel a pressing need to reject all cravings for the pleasures of this world, as Buddhism would have them do. And it seems that any amount of pleasure is pleasure enough to get us to keep the faith that being alive is all right for everyone, or almost everyone, and will certainly be all right for any children we cause to be delivered into this world. How else could we stave off a craving to become extinct?

The good news for Buddhism as a for-profit religion is that there are more than enough people who are sensitive to the woes of this world, and who are willing to let go of their cravings for its pleasures, to seek the extinction of their everyday selves in the oasis of nirvana (absolute beatitude, permanent detachment from all attachment to a benighted way

of life, a step-off from the cycle of death and rebirth, or whatever happy thing you like). Reaching this oasis may happen during an individual’s lifetime or could be delayed for the next round of reincarnation, when one will have another chance to cut oneself loose from karma, a doctrine that Buddhists borrowed from the Jains and the Hindus.

Leaving aside reincarnation and the mental gymnastics it foists on the believer, the central focus of Buddhism’s three-ring circus remains the state or non-state of enlightenment, which, like Jesus’ ethereal theme park, is an appetizing carrot suspended in the darkness of life’s suffering, if you are one of those who are sensitive enough to life’s suffering.

However, to get that carrot you must first kowtow to dogmatic authorities that cannot be told apart from those of Christianity, spiritual ministers who strong-arm you to do some things and not do others under pain of not becoming enlightened.

But here is the real catch: If you want to become enlightened you will never become enlightened, because in Buddhism wanting things is just the thing that keeps you from getting the thing you want. Less circuitously, if you want to end your suffering, you will never end your suffering. This is the “wanting paradox,” or “paradox of desire,” and Buddhists are at the ready with both rational and non-rational propositions as to why this paradox is not a paradox. How to understand these propositions is past understanding, because, per Buddhism, there is nothing to understand and no one to understand it. And as long as you think there is something to understand and someone to understand it, you are doomed. Trying for this understanding is the most trying thing of all. Yet trying not to try for it is just as trying. There is nothing more futile than to consciously look for something to save you. But consciousness makes this fact seem otherwise. Consciousness makes it seem as if (1) there is something to do; (2) there is somewhere to go; (3) there is something to be; (4) there is someone to know. This is what makes consciousness the parent of all horrors, the thing that makes us try to do something, go somewhere, be something, and know someone, such as ourselves, so that we can escape our MALIGNANTLY USELESS being and think that being alive is all right rather than that which should not be.

The Buddhist “wanting paradox” might be regarded as correlative to Zapffe’s Paradox (the paradox of conscious beings attempting to

disclaim their consciousness of the flagrantly joyless possibilities of their lives). The difference between Buddhism’s Paradox and Zapffe’s Paradox is that the latter is not amenable to being resolved, explained away, or denied, either rationally or non-rationally. It can only be left unacknowledged so that we can continue to live as we have all these years, or at least as long as we can before the paradox demands acknowledgment to the extent that we cannot live with ourselves as beings whose existence is terribly false and paradoxical, things so uncanny that we can no longer even look at one another or hold our heads steady. Until that day, we will keep living as obstinate selves who affirm that being conscious is an enlightened way to be and that being alive is all right.

In the marketplace of salvation, enlightenment seems the best buy ever offered, if only at first blush. Rather than floundering in a world that is not worth the emptiness it is written on, you may sign up to attain a conclusive vision of what’s what and what’s not. Broadly speaking, enlightenment is the correction of our consciousness and the establishment of a state of being in which muddy illusion is washed away and a diamond of understanding shines through. This is the supreme desert . . . if it may be had, if it has any reality outside the pat or cryptic locutions that advert to it.

Millions of people have spent their lives, and some have even lost their minds, trying to win enlightenment without ever comprehending, as they sucked their last breath, what it was they had gambled to get. Had they attained enlightenment without being aware of it? Are there stages of enlightenment (maybe, depending on the type of Buddhism to which one subscribes) and how far had they gotten? In his One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality, Ken Wilber, a widely known and highly influential multidisciplinary scholar and theorist of spiritual traditions, reported that he asked one Zen Buddhist master “how many truly enlightened—deeply enlightened—Japanese Zen masters there were alive today.” The master replied, “Not more than a dozen.” Another Zen master put the number of fully enlightened individuals in the East at one thousand throughout Zen Buddhism’s history. Wilber’s conclusion: “Thus, without in any way belittling the truly stunning contributions of the glorious Eastern traditions, the point is fairly straightforward: radical

transformative spirituality is extremely rare, anywhere in history, and anywhere in the world. (The numbers for the West are even more depressing. I rest my case.)” Indeed, enlightenment by Buddhism truly seems to be a well-defended redoubt whose location cannot be triangulated by speech, the only rule being that if you have to ask yourself if you have arrived, then it is certain you have not.



As we have seen, Buddhism’s ways and means to illumination are full of shortcomings and vexations. Nevertheless, it does seem that some have reached a state corresponding to that of Buddhist enlightenment as delineated in scads of scriptures, diaries, copyrighted publications, and public depositions. Curiously, these charmed individuals appear to have come to this state unwarned, sometimes as a result of physical trauma or a Near-Death Experience (NDE).

Perhaps the capital instance of enlightenment by accident is that of

U. G. Krishnamurti. Although U. G. gave no credence to any doctrine of awakening, he claimed to have experienced “clinical death” at the age of forty-nine, after which he returned to life as the kind of being glorified in the literature of enlightenment. Through his clinical death and its aftermath, which he called a “calamity” due to the pain and confusion he felt during this process, U. G. was transformed.

For decades prior to his calamity, U. G. was an earnest seeker who sought enlightenment by effort rather than by accident. But his efforts got him nowhere, and he ended up financially drained. By chance he met a woman who was willing to support him, and for years he was something of a layabout. It was while living with this woman that his calamity struck. Upon recovering from his calamity, he had what he once looked for and in disgust had given up trying to find. U. G. was no longer the person he once was, for now he was someone whose ego had been erased. In this state, he had all the self-awareness of a tree frog. To his good fortune, he had no problem with his new way of functioning.

He did not need to accept it, since by his report he had lost all sense of having an ego that needed to accept or reject anything. How could someone who had ceased to participate in the commerce of selves, who had inadvertently forfeited his personhood, believe or not believe in anything so outlandish as enlightenment . . . or any other spiritual

vendibles, none of which are evident in the least and all of which are as outmoded as the gods of antiquity or tribal deities with names that sound comical to believers in “real” religions?4

While it may seem that U. G. had become a zombie, in a non-philosophical sense, his post-calamity life was nothing like that. Until his death in 2007, he spent much of his time berating people who came to him for spiritual succor. Cantankerous and opinionated as some of the more famous masters of Zen Buddhism, U. G. arrestingly and often humorously told those who had made the pilgrimage to his door that everything they believed about anything was wrong. Few of them could get a word in edgewise as he assassinated all that humanity has ever held sacred. Some would view U. G.’s disrespect for spirituality to be in happy rapport with the nature of enlightenment, which they have been taught cannot be pinned down by doctrines of any kind. Others would deny this assertion, perhaps because they have been indoctrinated to believe that both irreverence and deference toward the transcendent are off the mark once one has “awakened.” Neither side of this squabble would have tempted U. G. What he enunciated in interviews is the near impossibility of human beings, except perhaps one in a billion, to think of themselves only as animals born to survive and reproduce.

As Zapffe had written long before U. G. began slurring every belief in the world, mental activity beyond the basic programs of our animalism has led only to suffering. (“In the beast, suffering is self-confined; in man, it knocks holes into a fear of the world and a despair of life.”) U. G. never spoke of a solution for what consciousness has made of our lives.

We are captured by illusions and there is no way out. That U. G. came upon a way out, as he told his countless interrogators, was nothing but luck, nothing he knew anything about or could pass on to others. Yet they still came to him and asked for his help. To their pleas he immediately replied he could not help them, nor could they help themselves. No help could be had from any sector in which they searched. They could seek deliverance their entire lives and make it all the way to their deathbeds with nothing but the same useless questions and useless answers with which they began. U. G. had his, but they would never get theirs.

So why should they go on living? Naturally, no one bluntly posed this question to U. G. But they had his answer: There is no “you” that lives, only a body going about its business of being alive and obeying

biology. Whenever someone asked U. G. how they could become like him, he always replied it would be impossible for them even to desire to become like him, because their motive for wanting to be like him was self-interested, and as long as they believed in a self that was interested in canceling itself, that self would want to keep itself alive and thus would not want to know ego-death. Whatever people did with their lives was of no concern to U. G., as he tirelessly recapitulated to those who engaged him in conversation. He did not see his himself as a sage with spiritual merchandise to sell. That was for the mountebanks of salvation who infested the world with their codified sects, each baring its teeth to defend some trademarked trumpery.

U. G. is not the only known case of enlightenment by accident. A quite singular instance of the experience in question is that of the Australian physicist John Wren-Lewis, a non-religious man who nearly died of poisoning and woke up in a hospital in a state of enlightenment he never requested or pained himself to earn. Both U. G. and Wren-Lewis publicly emphasized the unsought nature of their illumination. Both also warned against gurus with recipes for enlightenment. In talks with interviewers, U. G., who did not write books, lambasted every religious figure known to humanity as a fraud. After his own awakening, Wren-Lewis became overtaken by the possible connection between enlightenment phenomena and NDEs. His way of thinking, for what it might be worth, parallels Zapffe’s in that it identifies ordinary consciousness as a “basic malfunction” that “is some kind of inflation or hyperactivity of the psychological survival-system” (“Aftereffects of Near-Death Experience: A Survival Mechanism Hypothesis,” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1994). He derived hope that this malfunction could be repaired from the fact that NDE-ers are sometimes relieved from death anxiety by having their egoistic consciousness commuted into an “impersonal consciousness” of an enlightened sort. None of this is to say that reports of NDE experience are any more believable than, let us say, those of alien abductions. Leniently interpreted, however, they may foretell that our species has an outside chance at a future without extinction-fearing egos. Since the human race will never do the honorable thing and abort itself, perhaps someday we

will be individually fixed to die without an unbecoming fight to the death.

A stereotypical report of an NDE is related by businessman and author Tem Horwitz in his essay “My Death: Reflections on My Journey into Non-Being” (Death and Philosophy, ed. Jeff Malpas and Robert C. Solomon, 1998). In the course of describing his transformation following his death as a result of anaphylactic shock in September 1995, Horwitz wrote: “There was no vestige of self-importance left. It felt like death had obliterated my ego, the attachments I had, my history, and who I had been. Death had been very democratic. It had eliminated innumerable distinctions. With one bold stroke my past had been erased. I had no identity in death. It didn’t stay erased—some would say that this was the real tragedy—but it was erased for a time. Gone was my personal history with all of its little vanities. The totality of myself was changed. The ‘me’ was much smaller and much more compact than it had been. All that there was, was right in front of me. I felt incredibly light. Personality was a vanity, an elaborate delusion, a ruse.” Compared with U. G. Krishnamurti and John Wren-Lewis, Horwitz had only a slight case of ego-death following his clinical death. Soon afterward he was “cured” of the erasure of his identity.

Another statistic of long-term ego-death was Suzanne Segal, who one day found she had become bereft of herself. After years of seeking a cure to the unease this experience had set off in her—it would seem that not everybody is at peace with being nobody—she wrote Collision with the Infinite: A Life Beyond the Personal Self (1996). The following year she died of a brain tumor at the age of forty-two. Although no link was established between her diseased brain and the disappearance of her ego, cerebral tumors causing altered states of consciousness and changes in personality are not unknown.5

Unlike U. G. but similar to Wren-Lewis, Segal sought answers to her transformation in spiritual traditions that addressed egoless experience.

Unlike Wren-Lewis but similar to U. G., Segal had pursued a spiritual practice, Transcendental Meditation, before she became the beneficiary of enlightenment by accident. Segal lost her ego two years after discontinuing TM, which she performed for eight years. In an interview, she stated that she did not feel meditation played a role in the loss of her

self-identity. U. G. was in agreement with Segal. After years of pursuing ego-death through meditation, he railed against this procedure as pointless and perhaps harmful.

For most of humanity, including that part which studies consciousness, the phenomenon of ego-death is not enthralling, or even well marked as a human experience. Ordinary folk have all their big questions answered to their satisfaction by some big book. And cognitive psychologists, philosophers of mind, and neuroscientists have their reputations to consider as high priests of the noosphere. Quite naturally, then, almost no one figures their time to be ill spent in bickering about some point of scripture or a psycho-philosophical poser rather than in sizing up some superlative individuals who have called into question what we are or what we might be aside from slaves of our egos. Regardless of the life stories of U. G., Wren-Lewis, and Suzanne Segal, ego-death is a state that has nothing but anecdotal evidence to support it, which groups this phenomenon with mystical experiences and revealed religions. As one might imagine, though, ego-death is laden with about as much mass appeal as physical death. It has been eyeballed as an ideal only by a minuscule number of our species who feel there is something wrong with ego-life, which they conceive as an uncanny masquerade where things they would rather not see are behind every false face. To everyone else, life is life and death is death. We are not sold on impersonal survival. It would negate all that we are, or think we are, for what are we but egos itching to survive? And once our egos have been deposed, what would be left of us? By all recorded accounts, everything would be left except what Horwitz called “a vanity, an elaborate delusion, a ruse.”

Some would say that if human beings must exist, the condition in which U. G., Wren-Lewis, and Segal found themselves is the optimum model, one in which everyone’s ego has been overthrown and our consciousness of ourselves as persons goes up in smoke. As Segal tried to explain what had happened to her:


The experience of living without a personal identity, without an experience of being somebody, an “I” or a “me,” is exceedingly difficult to describe, but it is absolutely unmistakable. It can’t be confused with having a bad day or coming down with the flu or

feeling upset or angry or spaced out. When the personal self disappears, there is no one inside who can be located as being you. The body is only an outline, empty of everything of which it had previously felt so full.

The mind, body, and emotions no longer referred to anyone

—there was no one who thought, no one who felt, no one who perceived. Yet the mind, body, and emotions continued to function unimpaired; apparently they did not need an “I” to keep doing what they always did. Thinking, feeling, perceiving, speaking, all continued as before, functioning with a smoothness that gave no indication of the emptiness behind them. No one suspected that such a radical change had occurred. All conversations were carried on as before; language was employed in the same manner. Questions could be asked and answered, cars driven, meals cooked, books read, phones answered, and letters written. (Collision with the Infinite)


As the ego-dead, so we might imagine, we would continue to know pain in its various forms—that is the essence of existence—but we would not be cozened by our egos to take it personally, an attitude that converts an individual’s pain into conscious suffering. Naturally, we would still have to feed, but we would not be omnivorous gourmands who eat for amusement, gorging down everything in nature and turning to the laboratory for more. As for reproduction, who can say? Animals are driven to copulate, and even as the ego-dead we would not be severed from biology, although we would not be unintelligently ruled by it, as we are now. As a corollary of not being unintelligently ruled by biology, neither would we sulk over our extinction, as we do now. Why raise another generation destined to climb aboard the evolutionary treadmill? But then, why not raise another generation of the ego-dead? For those who do not perceive either their pleasures or their pains as belonging to them, neither life nor death would be objectionable or not objectionable, desirable or not desirable, all right or not all right. We would be the ego-dead, the self-less, and, dare we say, the enlightened.

A depiction of what our lives might be like in such a state would seem to have been recorded in the eightieth section of the Tao Te Ching, perhaps to show up humankind’s modus vivendi by daydreaming about one not of this earth.

Let all lands be small And their people few, So they have no need

For time-saving machines.


Let them keep their minds On the coming of death And never stray far

From where they were born.


Should they have boats Or carts to go traveling, Let there be nothing They would want to see.


Should they have weapons, Let them be put someplace Out of everyone’s sight

To rust and grow useless.


Let each person’s duties Be no more than may be

Kept track of by tying knots On a short piece of string.


Let their food be enough And their clothes drab, Their homes decent shelter

And their lives unremarkable.


If the next land is so close That they can hear its

Dogs barking at night and its Roosters crowing at dawn . . .


Let them get old and die Rather than be troubled

By the least curiosity

To have a look over there.


One might think of this not as a description of an ego-dead society but of one that is dead all the way. But one would be wrong. Wherever there are those who “get old and die,” there are also those who live in wait for age and for death—youths and infants and infants-to-be. And because none of them should take his fate personally in the Taoist scripture quoted above, why not take it as it comes? Of course, this would not occur to the ego-dead, just as it does not occur to species of a lower order that recycle themselves as nature bids them. The ego-dead would be back to where our race began—surviving, reproducing, dying. Nature’s way would be restored in all its mindlessness and puppetry.

But even if ego-death is regarded as the optimum model for human existence, one of liberation from ourselves, it still remains a compromise with being, a concession to the blunder of creation itself. We should be able to do better, and we can. To have our egos killed off is second-best to killing off death and all the squalid byplay that flitters around it. So let all lands be small, and let them grow smaller and smaller until no lands are left where any human footstep need press itself upon the earth.

At the height of her ego-death, Segal was ecstatic twenty-four hours a day. She also began to speak of what she called the “vastness,” a term that sounds as if it belongs in one of Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic horror. To Segal, the vastness was a unitary phenomenon that comprised all existence. As she wrote, “The purpose of human life has been revealed. The vastness created these human circuitries in order to have an experience of itself out of itself that it couldn’t have without them.” Living in the vastness as she did, nothing was useless to Segal because it served the purposes of the vastness. For her, it also felt good once she had gotten over her initial fear of being a tool of the vastness rather than a person. However, toward the end of her life, as American psychotherapist and Buddhist Stephan Bodian recounts in his afterword to Collision with the Infinite, Segal began to have more intense experiences in which “the vastness became even vaster for itself.” This new phase of the vastness both distressed her emotionally and sapped her

physical energy until she died from her unsuspected brain tumor not long afterward.

Like Segal’s vastness, Schopenhauer’s Will has the same purpose in mind for human beings—to use our “circuitries” to acquire some kind of knowledge of its mindless self. For Schopenhauer, though, the self-seeking Will does not feel good to human beings except during moments when we temporarily satisfy its universal ravening as it emerges within us. Why the vastness or the Will should want to use us in this way is a mystery. Both of these meta-realities do serve the purpose of making sense of human life in their own way. But whether they make us feel good does not seem to matter to either of them. We are just vehicles; they are the drivers. And wherever we are going, as Segal and Schopenhauer have assured us, along with every other individual whose consciousness has been opened to the vastness by whatever name or nature, we must keep in mind that we are not what we think we are. Taking things a step further, Professor Nobody would teach us that neither is our world what we think it is, lecturing with a flamboyant dispassion on the omnipresence of the infernal in “The Eyes That Never Blink.”


Mist on a lake, fog in thick woods, a golden light shining on wet stones—such sights make it all very easy. Something lives in the lake, rustles through the woods, inhabits the stones or the earth beneath them. Whatever it may be, this something lies just out of sight, but not out of vision for the eyes that never blink. In the right surroundings our entire being is made of eyes that dilate to witness the haunting of the universe. But really, do the right surroundings have to be so obvious in their spectral atmosphere?

Take a cramped waiting room, for instance. Everything there seems so well anchored in normalcy. Others around you talk ever so quietly; the old clock on the wall is sweeping aside the seconds with its thin red finger; the window blinds deliver slices of light from the outside world and shuffle them with shadows. Yet at any time and in any place, our bunkers of banality may begin to rumble. You see, even in a stronghold of our fellow beings we may be subject to abnormal fears that would land us in an asylum if we voiced them to another. Did we just feel some presence that does not belong among us? Do our eyes see

something in a corner of that room in which we wait for we know not what?

Just a little doubt slipped into the mind, a little trickle of suspicion in the bloodstream, and all those eyes of ours, one by one, open up to the world and see its horror. Then: no belief or body of laws will guard you; no friend, no counselor, no appointed personage will save you; no locked door will protect you; no private office will hide you. Not even the solar brilliance of a summer day will harbor you from horror. For horror eats the light and digests it into darkness.

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