Pasternak: From Doctor Zhivago


In an early chapter of Doctor Zhivago, the title character — Zhivago pre-doctor — visits the mother of the woman he would later marry. She’s sick, convinced that she’s dying, and asks the young med student to reassure her. What follows is an impromptu speech from Zhivago. He falters at the beginning — does she want to know his opinion as a scientist? He's not one for the idea of resurrection. Does she really want the real-talk version? Yes? Okay.

But what is consciousness? Let’s look into it. To wish consciously to sleep means sure insomnia, the conscious attempt to feel the working of one’s own digestion means the sure upsetting of its nervous regulation. Consciousness is poison, a means of self-poisoning for the subject who applies it to himself. Consciousness is a light directed outwards, consciousness lights the way before us so that we don’t stumble. Consciousness is the lit headlights at the front of a moving locomotive. Turn their light inwards and there will be a catastrophe.

— Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Will death be painful, he wonders? Or what, more to the point, will she be conscious of as her body disintegrates? And then we get to this gem of a section. When we focus our consciousness inward, we often are met with the opposite result — the more we consciously cling to the idea of sleeping, the more awake we stay. The more consciously we try to feel our digestion, the more likely we get a bellyache.

Consciousness is a light that will combust if we keep it turned inwards — better to turn it outwards to light our way in the world. But what does that mean for us as meditators, when our instinct during practice is to turn inwards? Let’s revisit the Buddhist notion of no-self: No fixed boundaries as to who we are or what our experience is or can be.

Reggie Ray says, “To discover who one is is not pulling in and centralizing, which is what you would normally think.… Strangely enough, to discover who we are, we have to let go of our story.” So with this light of consciousness, if we turn it outwards, are we also turning ourselves outwards? Does our self awareness come part and parcel with our growing awareness of the rest of the world around us?


What I do know is that I still spend a lot of time inward. And I can use this idea of the light as a way of reminding myself when I’m spending too much time in my head, to surrender my stories and feel myself in the reality of the moment. As such, we can use practice as a means of connecting our inward self with the rest of the world around us. We can use our practice towards becoming more awake to our place in the world, and to dedicate the merit of that practice so that it may light the way for others.  

Today’s Contemplation

When you practice today, this week, or this month, try casting your eyes down the bridge of your nose as you take your posture — but, if your mode of practice includes gently closing the eyes, see what happens when you let the eyelids close by only 50%. Keep the gaze hazy and unfocused. Does this change your experience of practice? How do you feel towards the other sensory experiences in the room around you? What is the dialogue between your inner self and the outer world?