This is a small book of around 100 pages yet it is packed with a sweeping criticism of the current state of affairs of humanity. Although the book was first published in 1949, most of the observations are relevant even today and I believe they will remain relevant for centuries to come.
Bennett was deeply influenced by the ideas of Gurdjieff in writing this book. He highlights the manner in which humanity is sleeping by presenting an incisive criticism of three areas of human endeavor – education, science and religion. Finally he also suggests a way for individuals to wake up from this horror we call life.
He observes rightly that while there are innumerable efforts made by people through the ages to change the human condition, only a very few have focused on the root cause of all human suffering – the basic human nature. People simply hope for the best in this case, which really means ignoring the problem. He challenges the notion that man is truly more than a mere thinking animal.
On education, he says
In our modern civilization (as it is called), people are subject to political propaganda or the suggestions of advertising agents… No free individuals exist; everywhere people’s lives are determined and governed by a series of stereotyped external stimuli against which they have no resistance at all. The direct cause of all this is our so-called education. By the process of this education, men and women are produced who are perfectly adapted to a mechanized existence.
When children are born, they are subjected almost from birth to influences that will inevitably produce in them such characteristics as vanity, self-will, self-importance, distrust, deceitfulness, suggestibility, dependence upon other people, and at the very root and center of their being, egoism… Children are made to think and to feel by influences that are brought to bear on them almost from birth that it is only their external manifestations seen by other people that determine their value.
An influence present in almost every educational system is the stimulus to effort, not through inner decision, but through competition and reward… No effective steps are taken to develop in children the realization that one’s own impartial judgment of oneself, made inwardly, without reference to the good and bad opinions of other people, should be the basis of one’s own actions.
Apart from the absurdity of learning by heart “facts”, with no reference to their significance or interpretation, there are many kinds of so called intellectual disciplines that are taught in a way that has very serious after consequences – that is they are taught without reference to any concrete reality. The result is that into the very mechanism of thought there enters an inability to distinguish between words and the meaning for which they stand.
A man who does not know his own mind, who cannot make decisions valid for all his moods and all external circumstances, cannot be said to possess an “I”. … to have an aim in life chosen by oneself on the basis of one’s own self judgement, and not as a result of accidental influences or deliberate suggestion from without is one mark of a real I. to be able to make self-imposed efforts for the attainment of such an aim without the stimulus of anything either feared or hoped for from other people is another mark.
On science, Bennett says
A remarkable feature of the history of science is that in spite of the obvious impermanence of all scientific theory, there is always a tendency to draw final conclusions, affecting our attitude toward man and his place in the universe, from the particular theories that happen to be fashionable at a given moment. Although scientists who think seriously about these matters know very well that a theory is only a convenient method of description and not a statement about fact, they are no less prone than others to condemn as unscientific any views that do not conform to the theories in vogue.
Many people consider it quite legitimate, whenever any views about God and the universe are expressed, to ask the question – How do you know about this? Can it be scientifically proven? Implying that scientific proof is a well-established and proven procedure… it fails to allow for one indispensable element in scientific activity, and that is the ‘leap in the dark’ by which a new hypothesis is formulated.
My purpose in making the distinction between science and technology is to draw attention to one point often overlooked – the assumption that technological achievements presuppose the prior existence of valid knowledge. If this were true, it would follow that the achievement of certain results would be evidence of an understanding of the process by which results are achieved. … a very simple, obvious case – we all eat and more or less successfully digest our food, but this does not mean that we understand the process of digestion, or that any pronouncements we may choose to make about the energy that is needed for the life of man and the nature of this energy must be valid.
We take for granted that we are better than our ancestors and that our modes of life are superior to theirs… With all progress of biological science, we have scarcely succeeded in domesticating a single animal or a single plant not known to our early ancestors.
On religion, he says
Among the many strange things taught to children in their geography lessons are statistics of the world’s population distributed into various racial, economic and cultural groups…. We only know too well that these divisions mean very little in regard to the inner conventions and beliefs, the way of life and the dominating motives of the people concerned.
The concern of the founders of the great religions was not to offer man something external to himself, a body of doctrine, an institution, a ‘something’ to occupy a certain place in his life to safeguard him from particular dangers and to assure him particular benefits… it is an invariable characteristic of the authentic teaching of the founders that they rejected all theological speculation and ethical theory and emphasized the fundamental principle of self-perfecting through conscious labor and intentional suffering.
Bennett challenges us to think whether man is really better than animals. When it comes to raising a family and caring for and protecting the young, there is not much difference between man and animal. However, man has the possibility to be different when it comes to how he uses his free time and energy. Unfortunately, man devotes such time to activities of enjoyment and leisure and not working on becoming a free human being. The reason, as Bennett points out, is that man already thinks he is complete in all respects and nothing more needs to be done.
Man suffers from a tendency to self-deception and illusion for which he cannot be blamed except in so far as he fails to struggle against it. … there is a cosmic purpose that can be served only by free beings. In each one of us, the seed of free individuality is planted from above. The choice before us is slavery to that which is below or service to that which is above.
The most debated topic when it comes to spirituality is renunciation. No wonder, there are many misconceptions about it.
Renunciation, the way it is understood by most people, is the act of leaving home and family life in order to pursue the spiritual life – to live the life of a wandering hermit in search of the ultimate truth. The central question is whether it is necessary to renounce worldly life in order to achieve enlightenment.
Before we enter the debate on the pros and cons of renunciation, we must understand some basics about enlightenment. Enlightenment is the same for all human beings. In fact self-realization is about discovering your true self, beyond the illusory person that you think you are. So the question is about the approach – whether leaving family is going to help you to achieve that.
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the situation. We know that we have to be born in a family setting. No human being is born without a mother and a father and if he has grown up to get enlightened, then we can be sure, he or she has spent significant time in the care of the family and society. If there was no family, no society, then there would be no enlightened individuals also.
Society at times or rather at all times is a place full of chaos, where every individual is seeking his self-centered happiness and does not hesitate to harm others and cheat others to get what he wants. Children are prepared through education to get ready to enter the society and sustain its existence. Customs of marriage and rituals of coming of age are all significant for the sustenance of the society.
One cannot force anyone to exit the society, except as an outcast for breaking some of the agreements of the society. So by default, everyone is condemned to live in the society despite its cruelties. All one can do is to further one’s own goals, hoping one gets through life without serious incidents. The whole desire for enlightenment has no place in this structure. Society does not encourage the seeking for truth. Its existence depends on the illusion of progress and civilization.
When an individual who perceives these illusions promoted by the society, he tries to understand what is going on. He comes across other individuals who talk of a true life, self-realization, etc and he is intrigued. He tries to find answers in the society but quickly comes to the conclusion that nobody knows anything about it.
His mind is boiling with the question and he is not finding any outlet because he has to fulfill the responsibilities of his life. He cannot focus on anything unless he gets an answer and therefore needs time and space to go within to explore. However, life has no mercy. It is unrelenting in its demands for survival and sustenance of the family and societal institutions.
Therefore, the only practical way out for a person is to renounce the family and go off to live alone in search of the truth. This has been happening in India throughout history. All those who had this inner calling have promptly renounced their worldly life and went into the forest. Whether they were successful in their search or not is another question.
The search for one’s true self requires meditation for long periods so if you are sitting and doing nothing while at home, other people will think you are lazy and a shirker. They do not appreciate the inner calling of the person. On the other hand, if you are in the forest, away from the home life, then there is no one to disturb you in your meditation. You have voluntarily retired from all responsibilities so you can focus singlemindedly on your goal.
The Buddha used to say that going from the home to the homeless life was the fastest way to self-realization. Hundreds and thousands of young men left their homes to join the Buddha’s Sangha. Even today, many people leave their homes and join a spiritual order, whether Buddhism or Christianity or Hinduism.
Point to note is that if a person is leaving home just to avoid the arduous responsibilities, then that is not the right renunciation. It is right renunciation only when the individual’s intention is to realize his true self. Only then is the renunciation a practical choice because there is no other way to live in the society and seek the higher reality.
So the question naturally arises. Is enlightenment impossible without this renunciation of worldly life? It is not impossible. There have been many cases of family people getting enlightened by hearing the teachings of masters.
In fact Gurdjieff actively promoted the fourth way, a way of self-realization while living the ordinary life. He was of the opinion that the situation one finds oneself in in one’s life is the most appropriate situation to start the struggle against sleep in order to awaken.
The truth about awakening is one of conditions. If a man is living in conditions that are conducive to enlightenment, then it will happen whether he is living at home or in the forest. And if the conditions are not suitable, then awakening will give him a slip even if he has renounced worldly life.
So is there a middle way between renouncing and not renouncing? Yes, definitely there is a way for the intelligent person who knows the conditions to be created. These conditions include first and foremost unobstructed time and space for meditation. If a man is able to organize this time wherein he is able to devote time to meditation with the sincere aim of awakening, then he will be in a much better position than a man who has renounced the world and is living troubled with the thought of where to get his next meal in the forest.
True renunciation is the renunciation of the idea of ‘I’. This can be done anywhere. The only problem of living in the society is that others remind you of being you all too often for you to practice the inner renunciation of ‘I’. However, for a person who is able to maintain self-awareness in all his worldly interactions, he will not be troubled. Within his mind, he has renounced while he is still performing ‘self’-less actions in the world outside.
If at some time, the awakened person wants to really change his way of life and live away from society, then the outer renunciation is only a formality. True renunciation has already happened when the person stopped identifying himself with his body and mind.
Therefore, it can be said that renunciation is the last obvious step rather than the first courageous step.