by David Patten
There is major difference between action that results from a mechanical reaction, or reflex action, and spontaneity. an that difference displays the division many people feel in the way we interact with the world. In our complex society most of our institutions seem to rely on a culture of conformity and mechanicalness, leaving us restless and yearning for our simple birthright – the enjoyment of being awake, and in the present. Erwin Straus, in the Primary World of the Senses wrote: “A subject of reflex motion is the muscle, or the sensomotorium; the subject of spontaneous motion is the animal or the man. A muscle is set in motion, but a man moves.” i
Spontaneous action is alive, a being becoming, exploring an ever changing present, for example the world of the small child or that of a wise person. In an awake state the present shows me the face of God, and I find myself located Here in relationship with something spatially/temporally distant There, a relationship that gives me direction and a goal.
Reflexive motion, on the other hand, is brought about by an external force with its own agenda, and is merely reactionary. Reflexive action, rather than spontaneity, has become the focus of many institutions, which in its desire for “seamless continuity” minimizes the open and vast nature of the present. The result is that we live with a ‘world’ (and self) that is fixed, separate, and transcendent rather than the permeable, present, and unifying.
When we reduce our relationship to the world to a series of reflexes or reactions, we lose the sense of the more mysterious Here and Now, no longer feeling located in the present. Overwhelmed and fragmented by this vision of the world and the self as reflexive, we lose our inquisitive and inclusive attitude toward the world. We stop valuing the present, and the basis of our becoming. In antiquity, says Goethe, the present was “pregnant, in other words, filled with meaning, but it waws also lived in all its reality and the fullness of its richness, sufficient unto itself. We no longer know how to live in the present.” The French philosopher, Hadot, is even more damning: “For us the ideal is the future, and can only be the object of a sort of nostalgic desire, while the present is considered trivial and banal. We no longer know how to profit from the present” ii, and I might add: “not even for a future which now seems to be increasingly insane.”
Loss of our stance in the Here and Now means losing our spontaneity, and causes us to become increasingly unable to act, a sort of catatonia. This inability to act is not based upon some physical, mechanical or emotional inability but rather upon the loss of ‘ground’ and with that, ‘goal’ and ‘direction’, in other words self-movement. The result is less spontaneous action, and more reflexive (or reactionary) and unconscous action.
When the Here and Now is diminshed, and a person is seen as more or less robotic, there is less room for people to act in the public arena from any depth, or truthfulness, and the self becomes increasingly private. That which we share begins to be reduced to that which I own, or don’t own. This is a diminution of even the private self of the common man, who cannot readily play with public institutions. At the same time the private domain of the controlling few is enhanced.
People feel alienated and unable to act in a creative manner, as American elections have recently shown. With that narrowing of present-based spontaneous action, people retreat into notions of institutions as sanctuary from the world. Indeed, with increased alienation more is heard about hopes of a transcendental Self, separate, and independent from the mere world.
Freidrich Nietzsche describes the impoverishment of institutions, and consequently of language, this way: “Is it not the case that all human institutions are intended to prevent mankind from feeling their life, by means of a constant dispersion of their thoughts?” iii
Impoverishment of institutions inevitably depletes the self. Replicability and numbness replace wisdom and spiritual practice. On the other hand, by defiantly staying in the “open” and addressing the world as it uniquely presents itself from moment to moment, we enrich institutions and ourselves. Social action can be either reactionary (reflexive) motion (like that of a muscle) or it can arise in the spontaneous wealth of the present in which world and self merge and grow together.
i E. Straus, The Primary World of the Senses, Pp236
ii Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pp220-221
iii Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations