The Universe That Resists

Ever since attaining self-consciousness, Man has had an ambivalent relationship with the Universe in which he found himself. On the one hand he saw that Nature provided everything he needed; on the other hand he realized that he had to struggle to accomplish whatever he set out to do. Over time, as it seems, he had grown accustomed to Nature’s bountifulness and, taking its providence for granted, he started to concentrate more and more on the difficulty of his various struggles. His determination to find answers and understand the world and himself, his urge to modify his environment – carve the cave, chisel the wood, plow the land –, the restlessness inherent in his nature that sought to create art, music, and a myriad new tools, devices, and structures, seemed always to confront an opposing force. There was endless effort, hard work, challenges and toils on the way to accomplishing his countless aims.

Gradually, Man found himself in some kind of “protracted war” with his environment. Nature, although perfectly suited to accommodate him, seemed unwilling to instantly succumb to the insatiable demands made upon it by this new species whose ambitions and desires seemed to know no bounds. And soon, Man started to experience the natural resistance of Nature as directed towards himself personally! Nature, and in effect the Universe as a whole, seemed to be constantly resisting his efforts. An air of permanent pessimism and dissatisfaction with his life-situation took hold of him. And at some point, a few thousand years ago, in almost all cultures and traditions around the globe, Man started to see himself through this new prism of gloom, despair, and dissatisfaction.

In the very beginning of the Old Testament, we already see the life on Earth being portrayed in this exact dismal light by none other than God himself! After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, he exiles them to the Earth to live and suffer on its cursed ground:

To the woman He said: 
“I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception;
In pain you shall bring forth children;…

Then to Adam He said, 
“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
…Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”

In the New Testament, this human toil is taken to another level. The whole of life becomes a Via Dolorosa – a sorrowful, painful, long-winding and ever-ascending path culminating in a final crucifixion. Jesus’s fourteen Stations on the Cross become a reflection of our life’s ordeals that we are asked to bear with equanimity, strength, and hope – hope that all will finally end in a glorious resurrection that lies beyond this supposedly miserable life.

The Ancient Greeks too, from Homer to the Classical period, chose to highlight in their epic poems and literature not the joys of life but its sufferings. Odysseus’s long journey back home, an adventure full of trials and tribulations, is but a lighter version of the Iliad’s even more tragic portrayal of life. The modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy brilliantly summarized the Iliad’s gloomy message in his now classic poem “Trojans.” Because the poem perfectly describes the resistance of the Universe to all of our efforts – the “something that always comes up to stop us” – it is worthwhile to quote it in full:

Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
gain a little confidence,
grow almost bold and hopeful,

when something always comes up to stop us:
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think we’ll change our luck
by being resolute and daring,
so we move outside ready to fight.

But when the great crisis comes,
our boldness and resolution vanish;
our spirit falters, paralyzed,
and we scurry around the walls
trying to save ourselves by running away.

Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.

This sorrowful vision of life was perhaps best exemplified in the Classical period by the Athenian tragedians. Oedipus’s wretched life has become an eternal symbol of both the unavoidability of suffering as well as its supposed imposition on us by some external power, be it the Gods or Fate. It is so interesting that in the theatrical competitions of Ancient Athens, the playwrights had to submit three tragedies and only one satyr play – by that point in time, it seems that life was truly seen as being three quarters misery and one quarter laughter!

But perhaps in no other tradition has the human condition been so completely portrayed in negative terms as in Buddhism. Buddha’s first Noble Truth proclaims that the whole of human life is dukkha. For many centuries, dukkha was translated as “suffering,” which resulted in the mistaken view that Buddhism is the most pessimistic philosophy-religion in the world. “Suffering” is too strong a word to describe the totality of our life’s experiences. Life is definitely not full of suffering, and the Buddha never claimed it was. Nowadays, probably the best rendering of dukkha is “unsatisfactoriness.” The Buddha starts his teaching by positing that there is an inherent, default unsatisfactoriness in the life of Man. And then he proceeds to show what the cause of it is, and how we can eliminate it, by following his proposed path to salvation.

Since no other philosophical system has spent over two millennia exploring the unsatisfactoriness of life, it is worthwhile examining the concept of dukkha. Buddhist teachings divide dukkha into three different types: dukkha-dukkha is the pain caused by physical and mental afflictions; sankhara-dukkha is due to our reaction to this pain, which usually consists of brooding on it by “grieving, lamenting, beating our breasts, and becoming distraught,” as the Buddha himself described it; and viparinama-dukkha is caused by our clinging to impermanent pleasures that in the end disappear leaving a lasting taste of unsatisfactoriness in our mouth. The first type of dukkha refers to the unavoidable pain inherent in life, which Buddhist scripture usually refers to as the pain of giving birth, growing old, becoming ill (multiple times), and finally dying. Such a description, which strips life of all that is pleasant, and which focuses only on life’s painful aspects, reminds us of God’s curse upon humanity in the Old Testament – the anguish of giving birth, the thorns, thistles, and toil of life, and the final dust to dust. (It is noteworthy that childbirth is mentioned in both scriptures as the first “bodily affliction” – maybe because women in those days commonly experienced the pangs of birth over a dozen times!)

The second type, sankhara-dukkha, refers to our consciousness of pain, our mental reaction to it, which allows it to linger longer than it should. Finally, viparinama-dukkha is an extension of the central Buddhist teaching of impermanence as it applies to suffering.

The Buddha then proceeded in his Second Noble Truth to explain the cause of this three-headed dukkha – although in some sense its cause is already alluded to in the very description of the three types. He called it tanha, and it is variously translated as thirst, desire, craving, attachment. Our life ends up being unsatisfactory because of our ceaseless cravings for more, be it money, material things, comforts, love, accomplishments, or whatever else.

This Buddhist perspective makes sense as part of a self-contained system that aims to help people attain happiness or even nirvana – the consummate extinguishing of all dukkha. As a description of our life, though, at least in the way it is generally presented by the various Buddhist schools, it has weaknesses. Desire and craving cannot possibly explain all forms of unsatisfactoriness in life. After all we do not desire pain when we give birth, nor do we desire illness or growing old (the dukkha-dukkha) – a significant part of our dissatisfaction is beyond our control. And some attachment to the material, emotional, or mental pleasures of this world seems necessary if we are to achieve anything in life. Can you imagine a school without exams and competition, workers and athletes without ambition, artists and musicians who are not attached to their beloved creations? And can we truly ever achieve the Buddhist ideal of absolute non-attachment to all the small or large joys of everyday life? Even the Dalai Lama has admitted his attachment to his many luxury watches! After all, if we have reincarnated into this world (according to the metaphysical aspect of Buddhism), is it not because we also craved some more ice cream or … some more wisdom? If we expunge the desire for wisdom (that will in turn hopefully help us relinquish our attachment to ice cream!), how can we ever end up studying Buddhism in the first place?

Granted, our ceaseless cravings, our grasping on ephemeral objects and emotions that end up being phantoms, our clinging to an ego-identification that separates us from both our inner self and our fellow humans, are the cause of a big part of our unsatisfactoriness. But not all disconnect from the Universe is the result of our own unwise cravings and clinging. There are other elements at play that result in our perception that the Universe is resisting us.

There are, for example, the laws of physics themselves! Newton’s third law of motion postulates that for every action, there’s a reaction. “Reaction” is built into the fabric of the cosmos. As you swim in the sea, you push the water sideways, but at the same time the water pulls you. You must strive to swim, because of the sea’s reaction to your action. Similarly, the bodily pain an athlete experiences during his training is the result of the equal force he must always exert to overcome the resistance of his equipment or his own weight. Even Newton’s first law of motion, the law of inertia, is pertinent: “The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body endeavors to preserve its present state …” In other words, Newton says that every material object in the universe has an “innate power of resisting” and that it basically “wishes” to remain in its current state. The marble the sculptor strives to chisel (to use Aristotle’s favorite example) resists the efforts to alter its form; the artist has to overcome this resistance. Just as the farmer has to struggle against the soil’s resistance to the plow. But Newton’s first law goes well beyond physics: the TV addict cannot be moved from his sofa even with a crane; the person attached to his morning coffee ritual cannot be moved out of it; and the person who repeatedly vows to quit his job for another never quite manages to overcome the resistance-inertia of the known and familiar. Nature’s and Man’s established order, as well as many of their movements, tend towards stability, stasis, inertia. Every time Man decides to modify something within Nature or within himself, he has to confront this law of inertia, and in doing so, he experiences the opposing force as resisting his efforts.

But there is still a more subtle cause of human unsatisfactoriness that may be found in the very heart of our most important function as free agents: our Will. Every time we Will something, there is a strange process at work of which we are not aware. It was Franklin Merrell-Wolff, an American transcendentalist philosopher and mystic, who first referred to this process in his book The Philosophy of Consciousness-Without-an-Object. He describes it while discussing his system of metaphysics, yet his insightful analysis may also be applied to our ordinary acts of Will as we experience them in everyday life. Merrell-Wolff starts with his aphorism no. 36, which was the inspiration for this essay’s title:

The Universe as experienced is the created negation that ever resists. 

Paraphrasing his ensuing analysis, he explains that whatever is created in the Universe is subject to the law of necessity. Yet when we consciously Will something and invoke this necessity, we do not truly know what the latter entails. We imperfectly understand what ensues from our every act of Willing. Most often, we find that we have Willed more than we knew and thus face compulsive necessity in the environment we have creatively produced. As a result, further Willing is conditioned by this necessity. Hence, whatever we try to do resists us because it obeys its own law of necessity. In the end, we must conform to conditions we had never foreseen in our initial Willing, and we must face compulsive necessity in the environment in which we chose to act.

For example, if we freely decide to climb a steep mountain, we will be choosing to conform to its conditions, which are associated with the physical reality of a steep mountain. We will therefore have a challenging job. The mountain will apparently be resisting our efforts, yet this resistance was predetermined in the original decision to climb the mountain. We knew that a steep mountain would be difficult to climb. However, we may not have anticipated the level of difficulty; we may have imperfectly understood how truly difficult it would be. We all freely choose or create our life situations every day out of a set of options. Yet these situations, in turn, have to conform to laws, because everything created and residing in the universe is subject to laws. But let’s make it clear that we are talking of all types of Willed action – not just climbing mountains or ploughing the soil or … running after our negative “Buddhist” cravings and desires. There is also the Will to do good, the Will to create something beautiful or beneficial or inspiring, the Will to improve ourselves – to live healthier, become more caring and wiser. Even these types of Willing are also resisted by the same process Merrell-Wolff describes.

In a nutshell: As a rule, we Will more than we know and then face the ensuing compulsive necessity of our initial Willing (that we had imperfectly understood). That is, a big part of our struggles and difficulties are actually self-chosen or self-imposed. And everything in the outside world that supposedly resists our acts of Will may be seen as being in great part the result of our own choices.

Still, though, this can never be otherwise. We cannot not choose our own struggles and difficulties. What Merrell-Wolff implicitly says is that this is actually unavoidable. Like Newton’s laws, the unavoidability of the trials of life is built in to the Universe’s fabric! And the reason for this is that there is no way we can ever make a perfectly informed Willing. Only an omniscient being can predict all the possible outcomes of an action it initiates. Since we are limited beings, whatever we Will in any activity of life, whatever we strive to create or accomplish, will always be imperfectly understood. In our imagination, we might incorporate some vision of our possible future trials, but this vision is usually embellished or simply incomplete. Life and the Universe are so complicated that they cannot be contained, as if in a mold, in our various abstract conceptions of how they ought to react to the action of our Will. Reality as a rule destroys our plans, falsifies our guesses. In other words, our relationship with the Universe is such that the Universe will always perforce be experienced by us as resisting our efforts. Our Will can never foresee the Universe’s reaction to our actions, and the Universe can never conform to our wishes so as to minimize our struggles. Its own laws were not made exclusively for Man.

Or were they?!

Don’t we deep down want the universe to resist us? 

Do we want our push-ups to be easy; do we want our completing a marathon to have been easy? Do we want the solving of a mathematical problem or of a mystery to be easy? Do we want the composition of our musical or literary masterpiece to be easy? Do we want everything in our life to be easy?

Maybe the resisting of the Universe is not necessarily something bad after all! Maybe it is what we truly desire in our heart of hearts.

Well, as it happens, and contrary to all the aforementioned established philosophical and religious systems of thought that emphasize and concentrate on the negative aspects of the resistance of the Universe, there is another school of thought that claims just this. A line of thought in India that culminates with Sri Aurobindo and his philosophical magnum opus The Life Divine, asserts that it is exactly this ubiquitous resistance to all of our aims that lies behind the ananda, the joy, the delight of existence! Our life is not all tragedy and gloom and misery. The resistance of the Universe is also the cause of our greatest creations and achievements, together with their ensuing joys. Overcoming the manifold and ever-present resistance of the Universe is the sine qua non of being human. As he so eloquently puts it:

There is no greater pleasure for man himself than a victory which is in its very principle a conquest over difficulties, a victory in knowledge, a victory in power, a victory in creation over the impossibilities of creation, a delight in the conquest over an anguished toil and a hard ordeal of suffering. At the end of separation is the intense joy of union, the joy of a meeting with a self from which we were divided. There is an attraction in ignorance itself because it provides us with the joy of discovery, the surprise of new and unforeseen creation, a great adventure of the soul; there is a joy of the journey and the search and the finding, a joy of the battle and the crown, the labor and the reward of labor.

Rather than being resentful and frustrated about the resistance of the universe, we can widen our view to incorporate the above attitude. For at the end of the day, the more ambitious our plans and the more uncompromising our Will, the more shall we experience the Universe as being against us. The resistance of the Universe, just as in Newton’s third law, ends up being proportional to the magnitude of our efforts to resist it! It is in our resistance to the Universe’s resistance that we find the supreme joy of “a victory in creation over the impossibilities of creation.” The stronger our struggle against this resistance, the greater our “delight in the conquest over an anguished toil and a hard ordeal of suffering.”

And maybe, what Sri Aurobindo says is what all the other schools of thought have been saying all along: It is because of the resistance of the Universe that the Via Dolorosa becomes the condition for the resurrection; it is because of his ten-year-long ordeals that Odysseus’s journey becomes the archetype of the heroic life; it is because of the inherent dukkha of life that we take the decision to enter upon Buddha’s path to achieve nirvana; it is because we constantly misjudge the consequences of our Willing that we enjoy the “new and unforeseen” on the way to our life’s various mountain peaks.

Amor fati, loving our fate, with all that it encompasses, may in the end be the best possible stance towards a Universe that apparently resists us.

© 2021 Nicos Hadjicostis