Being embodied is literally the stuff of nightmares.
Being embodied is the premiere condition for the possibility of nightmare. Fear, pushing action, in its own direction, regardless of your plans. Fear sees danger whether that danger is real or imagined. We are keyed-up and looking for danger. We are, by design, perpetually a hair’s breadth from panic.
This is the bio-psychological basis of Kierkegaard’s theory that subjectivity is constitutionally angst-ridden. In fact, angst is not an essence of consciousness (whether subjectivity is another issue, see below). Consciousness and angst, or (worse) consciousness and despair-angst, are not linked in every possible world. We know this because we ourselves, with or without opiates, cocaine, SSRIs, sugar, alcohol, have had fully blissful consciousness, or consciousness that is blissful even in the midst of self-searching.
When you feel good, you make happy metaphysics; bad, bad. Feeling is that stone inside your shoe. It cannot be replaced like thinking can. Willing is in full control of thinking, which is really concept-choosing and judgment-making. Talk is cheap. Same for imagination. I can pick any meaning, and I can posit any image, both without effort.
Now, try to will a feeling. Or try to will your current feeling out of existence.
This is the nightmare of being embodied. Feeling is real—it cannot be imagined away. But not only is it there, it is us. Willing is 99% determined by feeling. So it enters you from behind and takes you over. What you want is what it wants … and you’re gone.
Can the human subject exist without pain? No—it is constitutive. And we now know that it is a gift to the species.
General anxiety—Kierkegaard’s angst—is now known to be boon-mutation that was selected for and retained because it is a side-effect of the tree-falling anxiety that our ancestors luckily acquired. Falling out of trees while you're sleeping is a good way to die. Only the keyed-up primate snaps and jerks away when it starts to fall. People still do this hypnogogic jerk even when they’re not falling. You all remember when my friend Adam Frank fell asleep in Mr. Stark’s calculus class at Ransom. One second, he’s hunched over with head peacefully on desk. One picosecond later, his arms and legs out like the Vesuvius Man, his spine is erect, with a drool rope bridging the space between lips and desk. Fear of falling. It’s your friend and it works by running in the background all the time.
That is Existential Angst. It is real. It directs you with pain, and in such a way that you take credit for its (your) actions. “I mean to do that.” No you didn’t, you just took credit after the fact.
The good news is that there is a way to weaken, not the background throb of the angst, but its power of action determination. Rational planning can intervene in any behavior that is an automatic response to feeling. The response is a stored procedural rule: when you feel X, you do Y “to help yourself.” The last part is crap, the rule just exists as a brute physical fact. Perception is had, meaning is uttered, feeling arises, and—boom, the automation runs.
The automation is stored, is activated, and remains stored for the next time X is felt. But it is not stored in ROM; it is stored in EPROM. Physically, it exists as a pathway made out of weighted logic gates. These gates are determined by other pathways. Habits can be changed.
But that’s not the solution I mean. The most efficient means of intervening between feeling and reaction involves a bizarre and highly effective practice called samatha.