First Thoughts This Morning: What Does it Mean to Lead an Examined and Eyes-Wide-Open Life?


It is only in the face of death that man’s real self is born.” – St. Augustine

It is not enough in this life to be born only once; we must be born again, and from or into something higher and wiser and more stable than all of the accidents and contingencies that make up our first self—all of the fears and unchosen conditioning (“karma”) and things that others have done to us when we were young and defenseless, and that have set our basic wiring in place.

Dag Hammarskjöld wrote—

At every moment you choose yourself. But do you really choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one—which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed or your need for security, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life—is your ‘I’.”

Gurdjieff put it this way—

Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their ignorance, attached to their fear, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else. A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born. But how can they be made to die? . . . It is at this point that the possibility of awakening comes to the rescue. To awaken means to realize one’s nothingness, that is, to realize one’s complete and absolute mechanicalness, as well as one’s complete and absolute helplessness. . . . So long as a person is not horrified at himself, then a person knows nothing about himself or life.

So what does it mean to lead an examined and eyes-wide-open life?

It means to get up every morning (or nearly every morning) and think and reflect and contemplate for a while—and perhaps even write/journal/blog for a few minutes—on the idea that nothing in life is certain. Nothing, except death. Except loss. Except change. It means to think about our shared place in the scheme of things—the lot or predicament we all share. It means to be able to think about more than just our own personal problems and unhappiness, but the larger problems and unhappinesses and sufferings that all of us as human beings are heir to—sickness, old age, death, loss. It means to think about impermanence, how fleeting life and health and even wealth and love can be, how quickly things can change from good to bad. Or from bad to worse.

Thinking about such things—while perhaps on the surface appearing depressing or a “downer”—is the only true source of our humanity and humaneness. Our inhumaneness, our inhumanity—to ourselves, and, what is more often the case, to others, because it is almost always those around us who pay the greatest price for our shortfalls in courage and grit and goodness—lies in running away from these sorts of thoughts and considerations. In fact, running away from such considerations is the definition of what it means to be asleep or blind in life.

Yes, it’s human to run, to avoid what is unpleasant, difficult, distressing, but it’s also human—and much more human and humane—to stop running and to begin facing what we most fear.

What’s worst and weakest in us wants an easy life, a life free of suffering, a life of comfort and security and soft gentle touches and caresses. And when life stresses us out and or shows us its not so soft and warm side, that part of us spins out and pushes us (seduces us) to run—to break and sell out and run.

And so the more we do this, the more we set this precedent within us, the more we grease and lube those neural networks and make it all the more likely we will run all the more quickly and for even lesser reasons than we just did.

And if we do this frequently enough, not only do we cripple ourselves and hurt, even harm* those around us in our flight from ourselves and from life and reality and truth, we eventually damn ourselves, render ourselves irredeemable, become a ghastly flinchy, neurotic, largely conscienceless creature that no longer recognizes anything or anyone outside of itself and its own insatiable need for safety, security, comfort, avoiding stress, tension, pain. We become locked into a prison of ourselves, unable to stretch ourselves beyond our own most basic wants and needs. We may look human on the outside, but on the inside, we are regressing, living with less and less dignity and uprightness, becoming less and less of an adult, and more and more weak, crippled, asleep, living on our knees.

This is what life is like when we refuse to think about more than ourselves and our own fears and hurts and likes and dislikes. We become petty tyrants, little petty unjust despots, little devils, little banes in the lives of others. Partly human, but often hideously inhumane and atrocious to others.

But life looks different—much different—the more we slow ourselves and allow ourselves to reflect honestly on life’s inevitables—the inevitables that we are all heir to—loss, sickness, old age, suffering, death, impermanence, fragility.

As we begin to shift our thinking from me to we, from my own personal neuroses and misfortunes to the sufferings we are all prone to, then we begin deeply humanizing our thinking and ourselves. As we move from me to we, we begin to allow such things as genuine appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness, magnanimity, personal responsibility, mindfulness, wakefulness, Love (the real stuff—http://realtruelove.wordpress.com) to take real root in us.

We can begin (finally) asking ourselves—and more and more often—”Knowing that death cannot be avoided and that I (and those around me I love and care about) owe a death, do I still want to cave right now and run away from this lesser difficulty /fear and thus weaken myself even more in regards to my ability to live and die well?” And we can begin living this question—this very humane and humanizing question—and see what effect it has on us and how we show up to life—especially the difficulties inherent in everyday life.

Our essential “I”—our true self, our authentic self—lies in not running away from what most frightens us, but from struggling honestly and heroically to learn how to more truthfully face our deepest fears and compassionately integrate life’s unavoidables and inevitables into our daily and moment to moment decision-making apparatus. 

And one of the best ways to begin doing this is begin a habit of thinking about life’s inevitables compassionately and honestly when we wake up and before we get on with our day.

If more and more of us would do this—would spend 20 or 30 minutes reflecting first thing in the morning on Life, death, Love (the real stuff), impermanence, interconnectedness, suffering, loss, or reading something soulful and of substance, or writing/journaling/blogging on these themes—it will help to change things for the better and make us more humane and honest and awake.

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think . . . and think . . . while you are alive.
What you call “salvation” belongs to the time
before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will rejoin with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.

What is found now is found then.

If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the
City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next
life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that
does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

– Kabir “The Time Before Death,” translated by Robert Bly

———————–

* Just because we don’t see the long-term cumulative effects that our repeated acts of weakness and cowardice have on those around us, doesn’t mean we aren’t harming them, doing to them similar what was done to us and what has rendered us as we are—weak, dishonest, ashamed, hurt, wounded, flinchy, avoidant, cowardly, impulsive, ungrateful, parasitic.

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