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Against the Pollution of the I

Jacques Lusseyran was born in 1924. At school one day when he was seven, as classes ended and he was rushing for the door, he was accidentally shoved. He fell, hitting his head on one of the sharp corners of the teacher’s desk. He was wearing glasses and the blow drove one of the arms of his glasses deep into his right eye. He lost consciousness. When he came to, he was permanently blind in both eyes.

Later he was to write that barely ten days after the accident he made a discovery that continued to entrance him for the rest of his life. He found that if rather than looking out, he looked inward, that he could see. As he described it, his experience of seeing was real and concrete. There was a light that he experienced coming from within, and that light illuminated what was around him.

A second great discovery soon followed. There was only one way to turn on the inner light. If he was overwhelmed with feelings of resentment or sorrow, then the light faded. If he experienced joy and love the light increased. He states this discovery “was so great that a whole lifetime full of religion and morality is often not enough to enable others to make it.”  Yet he made that discovery as a child.

What a thought to ponder. What would it mean in my life if I had to love in order  to see. Not that Lusseyran did not experience negative emotions like anger or sadness. It was simply that in order to see, he could not let himself be attached to such emotions. Resentment is attachment to anger. Often in recovery circles people talk about having a resentment as providing a room in your head rent free to someone you don’t like. In order to see, Lusseyran had to let go of his negative emotions and be open to the joy of life.

The poet Robert Bly once said that your greatest wound is the source of your greatest gift. Lusseyran found that because of his blindness he had to develop a forgotten faculty, the faculty of attention. He became more attentive to himself, to others and to the world around him. Through the development of the power of attention, one develops the capacity for being completely present. Lusseyran found that by being completely present he was open to the joy of life, open to a very physical experience of the animating force in all things, and by tuning into that and being very attentive, Lusseyran found that he would not run into objects; by being attentive he could discern whether he was walking under maples or oaks.

He discovered that every object and living thing revealed itself to him as a kind of quiet yet unmistakable pressure that indicates its intention and form. What he describes is like the experience carried to the tenth power of realizing suddenly that someone has walked into the room and is standing behind you. You have not heard them but you sense their presence. For Lusseyran this sensitivity to the pressure of things became his way of being in the world.

Shortly after he graduated from high school, France was invaded by the Nazis and within five weeks Paris was occupied. He said that he experienced the invasion by the Nazis  like a second blindness  the experience of the loss of freedom in the external world was like his experience of being blinded. After being in shock for a few weeks he reacted as he had to his first blindness, by looking internally for freedom. With the clarity of his internal vision, he entered the underground French resistance movement. Because of his inner sight he became the person who determined who could be allowed to enter the resistance group he organized, which wrote and published an underground newspaper. He was the blind leader of six hundred sighted comrades.

In July 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo. He was interrogated for forty-five days, kept in jail for six months and in January 1944 taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. Of the two thousand Frenchmen who arrived in Buchenwald the day Lusseyran did, only thirty were alive when the United States Third Army liberated the camp. He survived, Lusseyran believes, for two reasons: because in the worst of moments he always knew how to turn inward to a source of help and because he found a way to be useful to his community of prisoners. He served his fellow prisoners by speaking several languages and setting up a system of prisoner communications. He could turn inward not because he simply had faith but because his blindness had given him an experience of the reality of his faith. He says: “Every time the sight and the tests of the camp became unbearable, I closed myself off from the world. I entered a refuge where the SS could not reach me. I directed my gaze toward that inner light which I had seen when I was eight years old. I let it swing through me. And quickly I made the discovery that that light was life — that it was love. Now I could again open my eyes, and also my ears and nose,  to the slaughter and the misery. I survived them.”

What he experienced was the all important truth that our fate is shaped from within ourselves outward, never from without inward. Lusseyran says that one of the most powerful learning’s of his blindness was his coming to understand the illusion of believing that life is about progressing from one form to another. He came to know that if one believes that what one sees externally encompasses reality then one becomes a sort of idolater. For Lusseyran, seeing was always an interplay of internal and external worlds. In blindness he learned that freedom is internal, personal and subjective, but at the same time mutually dependent on interaction with the rest of creation.

Lusseyran also made a discovery about impatience.  . . . “when I was impatient, I wanted everything to go faster. I wanted to eat quickly. And during this time when I was impatient, all the objects immediately started to turn against me like fretful children.”  Impatience he found is a form of arrogance. It affected his inner/outer seeing like resentment or anger. The antidote to impatience was joy. Joy is captured by being a part of the world on the world’s terms. Impatience only drives further away the thing that one is impatient for. It is, he suggests, impossible to be happy and impatient at the same time. If he could not hold joy inside, he could not see.

One of the most intriguing essays written by Lusseyran is one called “Against the Pollution of the I.”  He distinguishes the I he is talking about from the ego, which he calls  the outer manifestation of the I. The ego is the part that reads self-help books, that thinks it can fix itself, that lives in the extremes of grandiosity — either as the controlling person who must dominate to feel okay or the victim who must stay in self-pity. The ego needs things. The I makes no such demands.

Lusseyran argued in his essay that our sacred inner space, in which, though blinded, he found his ability to see, is being taken over by a barrage of external stimuli from the flashing images of the modern world on radio, television and the cinema. Lusseyran died before the impact of the computer and the internet became a part of the bombardment of the psyche by the external world. But he would have certainly included them. Lusseyran’s concern was, to use the information age analogy, that the operating program of the person has been corrupted by a virus so that rather than giving clear images from the I, what is received is distorted, lacking in any personal truth. Lusseyran believed that the I only learns through experience and that it nourishes itself exclusively on its own activity. He feared the pollution of the I was leading to the death of the I for many people. Lusseyran sees the loss of the I in the work of famous post-modern writers and artists who wish to deconstruct everything, to create a metaphysics of absences. When the I dies the person loses the ability to see, the ability to survive concentration camps, the ability to be attentive, the ability to know and feel the world external to the I, the ability to love.

The greatest pollution of the I seen by Lusseyran was in drug use. People drink alcohol because it works, it allows them to change their mood, the way they feel. People drink to avoid the I. Kids go to rock concerts to get high to eliminate their I-ness. People take cocaine to feel happy. Lusseyran notes, “Owning an I is not easy, and keeping it is even harder. Perhaps the search for happiness is not the right approach.”

Lusseyran said, “I understand very well why so many young people are drawn to drugs. I understand, you may be sure, that they want to draw a curtain over a world in which entire populations or huge forests are wiped out every day, where persecution is not a matter of passion but of calculated science. * * * I well understand that they are possessed of only one desire: to get away. But if they leave, do they ever arrive?  They really ought to be told that they never will arrive.”

You never arrive Lusseyran believed because the I is left behind. Drugs work against the I. “They set upon it to ravage it. They live through its absence. * * * As human beings, we have all been touched by the force that we call “the I”, but it is not riveted to our bodies. It is at all times ready to give up its place. It practically cries out for its own submergence by things, by numbers, by systems, by endless pleasure, and by drugs. And that is why I say that there is danger, most pressing danger. The I is being polluted even more rapidly than the earth.”

– by Don Carroll

Campbell Law Observer, 2000 February Vol.21 No. 2

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