Philip Seymour Hoffman | Seeking Oblivion

Philip Seymour Hoffman | Seeking Oblivion

Soul in Bondage by Elihu Vedder discussed by Delia O' RiordanThe death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has had far more than the usual impact when an artist of truly stellar magnitude passes away. Partly, it is his relative youth, partly his enormous talent, but mainly it is the mystery surrounding the addiction that led to his death that tantalizes us. We SHOULD be able to understand addiction, shouldn’t we? Most of us have at least one. For a majority it’s coffee, for what is becoming a majority it’s food and computer games or “social networks”, for untold numbers it’s porn and sex and for a (now) highly visible minority, it’s nicotine. Yet  despite our dependence on these indulgences most of us can and do voluntarily control our consumption in favour of having a regular heart rhythm, an acceptable public image and avoiding being confined in clouds of smoke to glass cages in restaurants and clubs. In the eternal against addiction we turn to science to enlighten us. However, “science” tells us more and more about less and less in terms of the neurochemistry of these addictions. As each new molecular piece of the addiction puzzle falls into place we make the mistake of thinking that we “understand” addiction better. The truth is , we don’t. Physiological approaches to the problem can only reveal the mechanical side of addiction. Not that it isn’t valuable information, it is. Science can lead us to a  blocking agent that would render “addictive substances” less harmful or prevent addiction altogether. That would be a good thing, right? Yes, it would – but we are also an amazingly resilient species. Close one door on us and we find another way in. We don’t stop for obstacles; we find a way around them and usually we succeed. In the case of addiction, you can remove cocaine, heroine, amphetamines, porn, etc. from the environment but how do you extinguish the deep-seated drive toward Oblivion?

Philip Seymour Hoffman | Seeking Oblivion

If we were to awaken tomorrow in a changed world – one in which addiction no longer existed but in which there was one geographical area, a country even, where all addictive substances and pastimes were available – how many of us would opt to emigrate? If there is any impulse in you in the direction of Oblivion you might be tempted. Oblivion would be a place of no problems, no responsibility, nothing but a constant state of unawareness fed by your drug of choice. Like the opium dens in Hollywood’s old “B” movies, whole buildings would offer cubicles in which you could be kept in a state of mental paralysis indefinitely.  If food were your drug of choice you’d have endless access to every sort of food imaginable. Caffeine and nicotine could be mainlined into your system non-stop. In other words, you would never again have to be fully Conscious. And that is the heart of the problem: addiction isn’t so much about the substance as it is about the state it induces. Forget “the brain’s pleasure centres” – they only account for the effect, not the cause. The issue is what impels us to seek less conscious states of being in the first place. What it is that we are so desperate to avoid? Awareness? In a word, Yes. What we seek is the bliss of unawareness similar to the state of the fetus suspended weightless and constantly fed without effort on its part. Compared to life as a self-aware creature, fetal existence is preferable for more and more of us as the world we have created devolves into a gangster planet operated by thugs in suits and posturers selling religious delusions as an alternative drug.

The “Death Wish” | The Soul In Bondage

According to Freud (and I disagree with him on most issues, but not this one), we all harbour a “death wish”, a desire to escape the awareness of the consequences of our actions – including our failure to act. It is from this ambivalent state that we seek alternatives. Psycho-analysis and some forms of probative therapy offer us one path toward resolving the drive toward self-destruction that begins in early childhood when we first experience limits on our freedom to act. The family, the state, the church, the schools all have ‘codes of acceptable conduct’. As long as the codes make sense and do not reduce the child to an approval-seeking social robot, the damage may be minimal but if the code is arbitrary, aimed at breaking the child’s spirit, serious damage will be done and the adult version of that child will find that Consciousness is at least as much a curse as a blessing.

Escaping “The Death Wish”

The REAL work of maturing into an adult is not in “adapting” to the existing “code”; it is in examining the effect the various “codes” have had on us and discovering how much of it we can accept without betraying our inherent integrity. Constant changes around us at both the micro and macro levels have an impact on how we live our lives and it is easy to become “overloaded” by the contradictions of those changes and the demands that accompany them.  Life can be overwhelming, a balancing act that drains us because we are so involved, so enmeshed in reacting to events that we lose track of the part of ourselves that could help us most: the silent witness of consciousness, the “I” that is also the “eye”, the observer who cannot be hurt, seduced by addiction or anything else, cannot inflict harm nor absorb it. The one reliable ally we have is available to us 24/7 and beyond: the still-point of consciousness that we can learn in minutes how to reach. We can all do it with a simple shift of attention, but it’s a crucial one because it gives us a perspective we can find in no other way and makes it possible for us to live very differently with much less emotional pain and far more enjoyment of life despite the “problems”.

Finding The Still-point

The still-point of consciousness is also an apparent antidote to the drive toward addiction. It short-circuits the mental process: the guilty internal debate that we so often lose in the end. The act of withdrawing from the chaos of life to the still-point on a daily basis means we live more deliberately and with far less emotional blowback. We make better decisions. We don’t get lost in ‘career poker’ in our work. We’re not blindsided by the unexpected; we observe it first and wait for calm before taking any action. Most importantly, the still-point is where we came from and where our integrity resides. It is absorption in the state of pure consciousness for seconds at a time, then minutes and we come back from it able to handle whatever life throws at us. We will never know why such a talented man as Philip Seymour Hoffman sought Oblivion. We are certainly the poorer for it. He was an artist whose gifts were intense yet subtle, passionate yet intellectually honest. He was a sensualist but also a spiritual being and he was in pain, the pain of alienation of the self from the Self and in the end his effort to relieve that pain brought death instead.

In Memoriam

On a personal note, I had the greatest respect and admiration for PSH. I loved his work, his ability to transform himself into a character as real as anyone we have ever known despite the fact that the character exists only in imagination. He sought to convey the truth at the heart of each character and especially to make us feel what it was to be a man who lived in two worlds: the world of art and the world of brutality in his characterization of the late Truman Capote. Capote was as complicated as one senses PSH was. Philip sought to understand and helps us to do the same. The manner of death does not change that truth.

 Art credit: Soul in Bondage by Elihu Vedder, Wikimedia, Public Domain.

© Delia O’ Riordan 2014

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