In The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon describes the structures of the Nazi concentration camps and the methodologies used by the SS, first, to control, and second, to exterminate their captives. In one chapter he describes the ritual degradation of new inmates, a degradation that began as soon as the individuals marked for death stumbled out of the cramped boxcars that shuttled them to the site of their demise.
“The end of the admission formalities removed the prisoners for the time being from the clutches of the SS, and few prisoners survived without some damage to their personality. Many kept their bearings only by a kind of split personality. They surrendered their bodies resistlessly to the terror, while their inner being withdrew and held aloof.”
When I came across the above passage, and recalled the Buddhist notions of inhabiting pain, the mindfulness exercises of sincere evaluation, and the Stoic cultivation of untouchable inner spaces, I realised that mindfulness is very much a fair-weather policy. It can get us through the ordinary trials of existence—fatigue, disillusion, frustration, interpersonal conflicts, and even ideological conflicts. But to endure the harshest, most unimaginable conditions and treatment? It doesn’t suffice. Embracing pain does not enable us to endure utter inhumanity. No. Another strategy is required: retreat, divorce, an agonising sundering of our very being.