Hesse On Living A Life Of Heightened Awareness


Once a turtle sticks his head out from the comfy confines of his shell, he has, most fundamentally, two choices…  To stay out… or to duck back in.  It’s more frightening and truly more dangerous outside the shell, but it’s also more exciting, and– if our turtle is a philosophical one– he may desire to know the more fully filled-in Truths he can gather from a vantage point outside his shell.

Similar to the turtle, once the human child (of whatever age) begins to come out from under the illusions in which society has wrapped him, he has two choices– remain in the relative comfort of the second-hand illusions or keep moving forward toward a greater, more painful, and yet also more delightful enlightenment.

Hermann Hesse, poet-novelist, encourages the more full-sighted approach.  It saddens him to see that, as the youthful Hesse says in his essay On Little Joys (1905), “great masses of people these days live out their lives ina  dull and loveless stupor.”  They shuffle through their gray days to their gray jobs with their black and white values and their red little appetites.

Hesse wants us to break outside the coloring-book lines of the simplified and distorted worldview we are handed during childhood.  He wants us to open our eyes wide and took a good look– absorb the world, plunge in all the way up to our elbows.  This is the poetic frame of mind, and as with so many artistic things in life, it seems that the first step in the creation of the new is the destruction of the old.  We have to UNSEE the world as it has been painted for us, only then do we have a chance at seeing what is really going on.  Hesse writes in Variations On A Theme By Wilhelm Schafer of the poet possessing “this mood, this willingness of the soul NOT to recognize the familiar world.”

Hesse speaks openly about the dangers of seeking a heightened awareness of reality.  It may not even be a healthy thing to do.  The creature of heightened awareness, says Hesse in his essay on the BrothersKaramazov, is “an invalid of the sort who has lost the healthy, sound, beneficent instinct of self-preservation which is the essence of all middle class.”  The person of heightened awareness (and like others before and after him, Hesse uses interchangeably terms such as “Prophet” and “Artist” and “Seer” and “Poet”)– this person serves as what Hesse calls an “antenna” for the dull and stupified masses.  Such a person is “especially sensitive, noble, vulnerable” with “a prophetic sense of touch.”  Hesse believes that, for the majority of people, the faculty which enables the life of heightened awareness “has remained vestigial”— and with good evolutionary reason… most people are happier and healthier without it.

Re-activating the vestigial faculty of heightened awareness takes, like any conditioning exercises, steady application and a commitment of time.  Then, states Hesse in On Little Joys (1905)…

“Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustable fun of daily life.  From their to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey.  The principle thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.”

Hesse goes on to speak of “the ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life,” going so far as to say that it leads to “the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival.”

This does NOT mean we should go off a Rimbaudian tear of deranging all the senses and exploding in a short, firework-burst of narcissistic, nihilistic debauchery.  In fact, quite the opposite.  After a person has developed a high level of awareness– less is more.  A flower does not need to do a song and dance to be enjoyed by a person who can completely Be Here Now.  For the man fully “in the moment,” a side-walk cafe can be as stimulating as the Grand Canyon.  When it comes to the fully awake individual, says Hesse, “moderate enjoyment is double enjoyment.”  I think included in what Hesse means by this is the fact that after moderate enjoyments, there are no hang-overs, no regrets, no painful consequences– all the negative after-effects of pleasure so routinely suffered by the undisciplined, unenlightened, semi-sighted over-indulgers of the world.  No truly wise man has ever been a binge-er.

Hesse suggests, as a run-through of this new approach to life– we should stop playin’ the bloody tourist (I paraphrase).  He uses the example of the museum visit.  The typical bourgeois would run through the entire exhibition, attempting to see as much as possible during the time scheduled to “do” the museum.  Relax, counsels Hesse.  Try instead to spend “an hour or more in front of a single masterpiece.”  In Concerning The Soul (1917), Hesse remarks that “contemplation is not scrutiny or criticism, it is nothing but love”-– and an “undemanding love” at that.

Hesse disparages the “aggressive haste” that undervalues every moment precisely by overvaluing it.  “The idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living,” says Hesse, “is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”  For some people the job of having fun is “hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work.” 

The irony of it all for Hesse is that– in a world of increasing leisure time and ever more technologies dedicated to pleasure and diversion– “there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy.”

I’d like to end today’s post with an example of Hesse’s prose, wherein I think he exhibits that sort of calm, poet’s contemplation of the world.  The following is from the essay At Year’s End, written in 1904 when Hesse was still a young man, but sounding very much like an old sage…

“A brief hour ago I was out on the hills looking at the clouds.  Each one drifted past, or strode or swam or danced by like a miracle, like a word or a song or a jest or a solace from the lips of God, and pressed on eagerly into the distance, cradled in the cool pale blue, and it was beautiful and sang more enchantingly than any songs printed in books.”

More Posts from Hammering Shield On Hermann Hesse:

Hesse On the Decline Of The West 

Hesse On Clear Contemplation And The Cloudy Mirror Of Desire

Hesse On Critics:  The Good, The Bad, And The Actually Helpful

Hesse On Facing The Abyss Within 



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