Asleep and Awake: Two Stories

Anna Karenina (1877)
by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

True religion consists in establishing the relation of each of us
towards the infinite life that surrounds us,
the life that unites us to the infinite, and guides us in all our acts.
— Tolstoy

“Any critical reader making a list of the ten great novels of the world is compelled to include Ann Karenina. This is a two-fold story: one branch of the narrative tells of the illicit love of Anna and Vronsky and of the disaster and tragedy which result; the second branch recounts the experience of Levin—who is Tolstoy himself—in a quieter life on a Russian farm and incorporates the author’s theories of agriculture and of the relations of men of wealth with the peasant. The first is a story of the passion of love, of the circles of Russian urban society, of man’s vanity and ambition; the second is a story of the country and the family, of the seasons, the hunt and the harvest, of man’s search for peace.”[i]    

You see where we are going with this novel? We see in the first story the full expression of the false-self energy centers and an unconscious society, not fundamentally different than all human societies populating our planet today. “His most common themes are the prejudices and convictions of human beings, their pettiness and their greatness, their behavior in the face of death and their search for God.”[ii]  As he got older, and since he spent a lifetime struggling with the meaning of suffering, Tolstoy was able to have deep insights into the nature of reality. For Tolstoy the source of his deepest insight was his suffering.

After a very active life Tolstoy had a “peak experience,” a mystical conversion of sorts. He adopted the dress and behaviors of the Russian peasant giving up his ruling class status. He even resorted to manual labor such as shoemaking. “In the last years of his life, after the time of his conversion, Tolstoy preached certain specific doctrines: non-resistance, belief in a god of abstract goodness rather than a personal deity, the necessity for man to avoid greed and hate, the evil of property.”[iii]  Not bad, we can all hope to do as well. In Simple Reality we call “non-resistance” not reacting or “response.” Tolstoy had learned that reaction was the cause of all human suffering and then did his best to support that belief in his behavior.

In the second part of the story, Levin experiences being awake and aware of his intuitive True self and then asleep and lost—an experience that we all have moving back and forth between Paradigms A and B. “When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul, determining which of two possible courses of action was the better and which was the worse, and as soon as he did not act rightly, he was at once aware of it.”[iv]    

And then he would move back into his head where he could no longer hear the still small voice: “So he lived, not knowing and not seeing any chance of knowing what he was and what he was living for, and harassed at this lack of knowledge to such a point that he was afraid of suicide, and yet firmly laying down his own individual definite path in life.”[v]  Levin was not ready to give up and maintained his intention to discover the truth concerning the meaning of life. He knew even at his darkest moments that something better was possible because he had tasted it in the present-moment interludes that had punctuated his life.

We all know, thanks to our Buddhist friends, as well as intuitively, that it is important to internalize the principle of impermanence in order to transcend the illusion of form. In his character Levin, Tolstoy reveals part of his process in that regard as Levin supervises his peasants. “‘Why is it all being done?’ he thought.’ “Why am I standing here, making them work? What are they all so busy for, trying to show their zeal before me? What is that old Matrona, my old friend toiling for, raking up the grain, moving painfully with her bare sun-blackened feet over the uneven, rough floor? They’ll bury her and this piebald horse, and very soon too and Fyodor the thrasher with his curly beard full of chaff and his shirt torn on his white shoulders. And what’s more, it’s not them alone—me they’ll bury too, and nothing will be left. What for?’”[vi]    

Tolstoy also knew an anthropomorphic god would be an insurmountable obstacle to an experience of reality and when he discarded the Old Testament god he was able to see the goodness of Creation. Finally he observed human behavior closely enough to see that seeking security, sensation and power is self-destructive behavior.

We know the importance of P-A, of living life in a profound narrative, because that context determines our identity and ultimately our behavior, that is to say, how we live our life. Tolstoy describes how a well-intended Levin tries to exhibit meaningful, compassionate behavior even without the support of a wholesome context. “In former days—almost from childhood, and increasingly up to full manhood—when he had tried to do anything that would be good for all, for humanity, for Russia, for the whole village, he had noticed that the idea of it had been pleasant, but the work itself had always been incoherent, that then he had never had a full conviction of its absolute necessity, and that the work that had begun by seeming so great, had grown less and less, till it vanished into nothing.”[vii] 

In the second part of the story, although not strictly-speaking P-A, Tolstoy intuits some of the characteristics that the new paradigm would have to have. The NOW is easier to attain in the peace and quiet of being closer to nature. Observing the processes of nature like the seasons, we feel the underlying perfection of the flow of Creation. And in our universal search for peace we all benefit from the intention that Tolstoy had, namely, to move from a story in which we are asleep, to one in which we awaken into the peace-filled present moment.

An actual paradigm shift on the part of our character Levin would require what has been called “insight” or Vipassana in Sanskrit. This experience is life-transforming if it is acknowledged. “And here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides and I never noticed it!”[viii] 

In the countryside watching the peasants work so close to nature awakens his compassion and broadens his worldview. Levin begins to distrust the survival strategy he had relied on for most of his life. Fyodor the thrasher comments that: “One mustn’t live for ones belly but must live for truth.”[ix]    

Although a well-educated aristocrat, Tolstoy learned over time that his intellect would not lead him to the truth that he sought and that “knowledge cannot be explained by reason” and that “goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.”[x]  The distinction between intuition and the intellect is a profound insight for anyone to experience. “And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given, because I could not have got it from anywhere.”[xi] 

Of course this “knowledge” that Tolstoy had experienced is within each of us and perhaps a better label would be inner wisdom. “I have discovered nothing. I have only found out what I knew. I understand the force that in the past gave me life, and now too gives me life. I have been set free from falsity; I have found the Master.”[xii]  That “Master” is Self-realization.    

Asleep and Awake: Two Stories

[i]     Hibbard, Addison, and Horst Frenz. Writers of the Western World. New York: Houghton, 1954, page 990.   

[ii]     Ibid.  

[iii]    Ibid.  

[iv]    Ibid., page 1004.  

[v]     Ibid.  

[vi]    Ibid.   

[vii]   Ibid., page 1003.  

[viii]   Ibid., page 1005.  

[ix]    Ibid.  

[x]     Ibid., pages 1005-1006.  

[xi]    Ibid., page 1006.  

[xii]   Ibid.  


Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry. 


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