“Communion”


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This is my response (slightly edited here; this is my site, so I’m a bit more blunt and direct here 🙂 ) to a comment that I received on another site in reference to a comment I left there (and that I posted here as my previous blog post “Connection”)

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why oh why does this existentialist view point make me (and all disciples of it) feel so much like jumping off a bridge, or just sitting and contemplating the knotted roots of a tree?

I think that’s how it feels in the beginning—and for a while (a year? 10 yrs? who knows; it varies from person to person) after that. I know it felt like that for me in my teens and even into my twenties. Of course, I didn’t dive headlong into it. I sort of fell into it bit by bit, as it were. Everyone else around me was doing their thing, living life in a very non-existential (blind) way. So I was on my own. I stepped—fell—into existentialism and despair little by little—and I never did it full-time. It was more seasonal and part-time. As a teen, I would have these intense excruciating experiences of my smallness—my cosmic insignificance, how infinitesimal I was, how little my life was in the scheme of things, how vast the eternity before me was and after me will be. And I would be left wondering: What’s the effin’ point? How did I get put into this predicament?

And then I would run—dive headlong into school, friendships, play, whatever would distract me and keep me from thinking these terrifying horrible thoughts. I was living in denial.

And the process would repeat. A moment—or several moments, repeated over the course of days or weeks—of excruciating intense existential clarity—and then my attempt to escape from it, to unseen what I had seen, to unthink what I had thought, to numb and distract myself from what I had realized, to get myself to forget what I had glimpsed and to go back to “normal” life.


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I would try to play games with my fears—peak at them, try to master them, try to trigger them and then calm and soothe myself, rescue myself from the terror suddenly unleashed and raging within me, the sudden turbulent whirligig of giant white-hot thrashing waves that had capsized me and was pulling me under.

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I would read or think something frightening, unleash the terror, and then throw myself into the water after myself and try to rescue myself life a Coast Guard diver. I would try to soothe myself and restore my equilibrium, get my heart-rate down.

 

And I was just a kid—just a frightened 13 or 14 year old kid at first, and then a 20-year old, then a 23-year old.

But at some point in my very early twenties, I made the choice to stop running (or at least to stop running using the ways that I had been using). No more bar-hopping, no more anesthetizing myself with sex or by trying to pick up women.

I was no longer going to live the way those were around me were living. I didn’t want any more of the insubstantial bar banter and chitchat. I wanted to have friends who didn’t look at me as if I was bat-shit crazy or as if I had “finger-banged their cat” when I wanted to talk about some existential thought I had had.

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No, John, you’re not supposed to do that; you’re not supposed to talk about morose depressing things. You’re not following the rules and playing nice; everyone else here wants to talk about the Cleveland Browns or how hot that girl over there is and how best to approach her; no one wants to talk about how life is fleeting, empty, and fragile. You’re such a buzz-kill, dude.

Needless to say, my “friends” and I soon parted way—their choice more than mine. And I was left to look for new friends. Oddly enough, I didn’t really find any live ones. But I did find some dead one, some antecedents—Peck, Nietzsche, Buddha. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had opted out of the conventional approach to life. Apparently I wasn’t so strange after all. There were others; at least, there had been a few others here and there sprinkled through history.

But were there others who were alive now?

That would seem to be a needle in a haystack type proposition.

At the very least though I had found some decent books to read; I had found at least a few minds whose thoughts resonated with me and actually seemed firmly connected to the way life actually is.

And so I read and read and read—and I wrote and wrote and wrote, as well. And eventually I started writing more than I read. And then some time soon after that my thinking took on a life of its own, or rather, my thinking came to life—it brought me to life. I had found my own voice. It was there all along, but it had been stuffed down most of the time under a lot of denial and fear and avoidance.

No more.

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why oh why does this existentialist view point make me (and all disciples of it) feel so much like jumping off a bridge, or just sitting and contemplating the knotted roots of a tree?

I think that’s just (just?—when you’re feeling it, it feels far far from “just” anything!) how it feels in the beginning—and for a while (a year? 10 yrs? Who knows; varies from person to person) after that. The first noble truth of Buddhism is “Life is suffering” (or “life is unsatisfactory”). Peck and Rilke both wrote about how life is difficult. Sartre wrote: “‘Life begins on the other side of despair.” Most people are afraid to face this—or at least to consider/ponder this. Most people are afraid to face the facts, they’d rather believe what they want to believe, what makes them feel good, what helps get them through the day; most people live behind a curtain of fantasy; and so (arguably) they never really live. Because as long as a person lives on the near-side of despair, without having faced or considered/pondered what scares them the most, they will be living a hemmed-in anxious life of avoidance, denial, and very limited awareness; they will always be preemptively excluding things from their consciousness that might frighten or trigger them, and they will turn to relationships, shopping, reading, writing, bars, football, dancing, et cetera, all as means of trying to anesthetize themselves and keep their mind occupied and from straying onto what scares the shit out of them.

And they will do all of this in a Sisyphussian attempt to make themselves feel better about their life, that it’s not as scary and frightening (that life isn’t as fleeting, that we’re not as fragile, et cetera) as they fear. Every morning they will get up and roll the rock of their particular neurosis / amalgamation of avoidance and denial and distraction up the hill. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Repeat. Always the same underlying fear driving them on. Until one day, they get brave, they get tired of rolling the rock up the hill; the weariness of their neurosis becomes greater than the threat of their fear, and so instead they start to actually face their fears. And really it’s not so much out of bravery as it is out of weariness, out of the desire to experience something different than the rock they’ve chained themselves to. The comfort zone of their rolling their rock up continually back up the hill life has become a dead zone.

But how much better would it have been to have begun from the realization that we are alone, that we are lost, that we are forlorn? How much life could have been not wasted? It was just a matter of the weariness getting big enough. It was just a matter of the weariness becoming big enough that it was more cumbersome than what it was originally intended to save and insulate the person from.

So that’s the position we’re all in. Continually rolling our particular neurotic tangled rock up the hill again, and again. And again. And our culture offers us an abundance of potential distractions and anesthetics—means of distracting and anesthetizing/numbing ourselves—Internet, 4G cell phones, books, movies, television, shopping malls and centers, pornography, drugs, alcohol, bars, restaurants, even religion. All of these can be used as means of occupying our thoughts and taking our mind off of what we most fear and what seems to hold no solution.

So how much better is it or would it be to cut to the chase and begin from the realization that life is suffering, that we are alone, to begin with despair, and to really face that, instead of always running from it and trying to avoid it? Why not try to get the pain out of the way first? Yes, of course, facing life honestly and directly may be like taking a “headlong dive into a bottomless bucket of shit.” It may indeed be like going down a rabbit hole of despair that has no end. It may be the equivalent of getting sucked into a psychological black hole. But apparently some people *have* taken the journey, some people have gone before us. And what they have to tell us is that there is a bottom to the bucket, the rabbit hole doesn’t go on forever, there is something worthwhile and even better and more beautiful and joyous on the other side of our fears and despair.

So that’s the choice we’re all faced with: red pill or blue pill. Deny reality and live in our own little fantasy worlds, believing whatever it is we want to believe—and then searching for others who share our particular peculiar version of neuroticness and have a penchant for the same anesthetants and distractions that make up our neurosis. Or start facing reality—whether out of boldness or out of weariness from the alternatives—and see who else, if anyone, we meet along the way . . . .

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You can choose to connect to people…despite the aching, droning truth that in the end, you are alone. It just feels better to share a laugh, doesn’t it? Laughing alone is the stuff of lunatics (more often than not). . . . So…we all have these new toys to communicate with. Nothing has changed, really. We are still alone AND we still have the choice not to be.”

That’s the question—do we really have a choice in not being solitary? Can we ever escape the prison of ourselves and find some real deep and lasting connection or communion with another human being? Certainly we can meet up with others who are opting to distract and anesthetize themselves in a way similar to the way we are numbing and distracting ourselves—and we can doll this up and call it “connecting.” But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t call it that: I would call that level of relationship or connection an “acquaintanceship,” because two such people haven’t met and connected with each other from their core: they’ve met and connected with each other from their periphery, from their particular neurosis.

And I suppose we always have a choice in that—in connecting with people from that place—from the place or level of our neurosis, because the stuff of most people’s neurosis—the stuff that most people use in their distraction and avoidance and denial—is fairly common stuff—bars, TV, dancing, sports, fitness, yoga, meditation (most people use meditation as a way of avoiding /escaping from life and themselves, not as a means of really facing themselves and their demons and their fears/terrors), shopping, book clubs, surfing the web, hiking, “nature loving,” et cetera, et cetera—the vast majority of people seem to participate in these things from the near-side of despair, not the far- or other-side of it. And so at the very least, most people will at least have that in common—that they’re both living in denial; it’s just that the particular mechanisms or means that they’re each employing in their war against reality and suffering may differ.

So can we really choose not to be alone? Can we really choose to connect with people?

I don’t think so. I think we *can* choose to relate to people, to try and understand them and what they are going through. But our success in that will be limited by how well (i.e. honestly, truthfully) we understand ourselves and our own motivations and struggles and underlying fears, and how widely we have lived and thought (and read—what we have read—how many wise and deeply truthful minds we have rubbed up against and wrestled with). These factors will definitely influence how well we can sympathize with others, understand what they’re (likely) going through. So the more we read and think and reflect, and the wider and more broadly we live and the deeper we become, the better able we will be to interact with understanding and compassion with others.

But as far as finding a real live soul mate or someone with whom we can connect and converse deeply and experience a deep and profound meeting of the minds, that seems to require quite a stroke of luck, because it requires that two do deep and well-self-developed souls / persons actually happen upon each other.

But the first step is developing oneself, and that ultimately means ceasing to deny reality and instead learning how to face it and ourselves directly and heroically.

“Our relationship with our deeper selves is the foundation upon which we achieve any notable communion with others.” – Bill Plotkin

The extent that we get real with ourselves and with life in general, to that extent will we be able to connection deeply and genuinely with others—but we will also find ourselves that much more alone / isolated / unrelate-able—strangers in a strange land—a very strange land, what T. S. Eliot refers to as a wasteland, wandering and wading through all of the varieties of ways that we humans have created in order to distract ourselves and buffer ourselves from raw existence.

“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

– Martin Buber

“Connection”


One of the blogs I follow and on occasion read is a blog titled Analyfe. Erin, the writer of the blog, is an intelligent 20-something year old, who lives somewhere in Arizona, and who has an undergrad degree in psychology (I think). I stumbled on her blog a year or so ago (or maybe vice versa, she stumbled upon one of my blogs; I don’t know or remember), and what I enjoy most of all in her writings is her “searchiness” and the time and thought she puts into her posts. I don’t always agree with her posts or her conclusions, but I am very appreciative that she actually has depth to her thinking and writing; and so even if I disagree with something she has said, it often will end up as good food for thought for me—which is really what I want most of all out of a blog I read—I want food for thought—whether it takes the form of something profound I’ve never thought of, or whether it takes the form of something that I disagree with but that has been intelligently written, makes little difference to me. I value the food for thought.

What follows is my recent comment on one of her posts—on the surface it’s about upgrading to spiffy new state of the art 4G cell phone, but it’s really more of a musing about living in the moment and the quest for human connection.

Her original post can be viewed here (http://www.analyfe.com/2012/11/12/a-bittersweet-upgrade/).

And here is the comment I left—
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Interesting as always, Erin! A lot of food for thought!

And at many points while reading what you wrote, I wondered, Is this really true? (That’s what I do in general when I read: I find myself asking often—is this really true?) And not just true for you, but is it really true in general? Much of what you are expressing is certainly and arguably a fairly popular contrarian / counter-culture point of view. But is it really true?

(And before I go into this, you wrote, “I’ve started writing little notes in Evernote on my phone, instead of in my notebooks and journals. . . .” Just as a heads up, if your phone crashes or gets submerged in water, those notes may be unretrievable.)

At one point, you write about the human connection void—

“I go to the park to read and then feel inclined to share an incredible picture of the lake and trees, because I can. And that bothers me. . . . When I glace up to the trees–still green and lively–and then look around, I notice that I’m alone. Everyone else is fiddling around with the smart phones. I can’t help but wonder: what am I missing? Nothing. I know that’s the answer, yet I pull out my phone and feign productivity. I pretend not to feel the extreme existential disconnect of being in a group where no one pays the slightest attention to anyone else. We’re attempting to fill the human connection void with technology. We’re fooling ourselves into thinking that the feat is even possible.”

Maybe we are. Maybe some people are. But this all begs the question: what does it mean to actually really connect with another human being? What does it mean to reach that essential common uncommon common-ground with another human being?

Over a hundred years ago—meaning well before cell phones and PDAs and the Internet, et cetera—Rilke wrote: “And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization.” (“Letters to a Young Poet, letter # 8)

Yes, even to begin from this realization—existential disconnect, the human connection void—this is our lot: we *are* solitary. As C. S. Lewis wrote (in “A Grief Observed”)—“Alone into the alone.” We are born alone and we die alone. And we may partner up, develop a few seemingly deep friendships, even get married and have children, and still be utterly barrenly irremediably alone—with those supposedly closest to us utterly incapable of understanding us, “getting us,” penetrating us, accessing our inner solitude. And we may be just as helplessly incapable of understanding them and penetrating them to their core. Which begs the question: are we even able to access our own inner depths or core? Most people aren’t. Most people haven’t. Most people are incapable of doing so—understanding themselves let alone another, connecting deeply and meaningfully with themselves (with what is essential in themselves) or with another (connecting with what is essential or deepest in ourselves seems to be a prerequisite to connecting deeply with another).

And is this because of technology or an excess of technology?

Is this because of the widespread availability and use of cell phones, obsessive twittering, facebook updating, pinteresting, even blogging, et cetera? Are we dummying ourselves down through all of this to the point of being ineligible for connecting with others, never mind ourselves?

Is this, in fact, even a new predicament that we modern humans find ourselves in?

Not according to Rilke. Or Thoreau—

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. . . . A stereotyped but unconscious desperation is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them. . . . Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand. . . . Simplify, simplify. . . . Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? . . . For my part, I could easily do without the post office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life—I wrote this some years ago—that were worth the postage. . . . And I am sure I have never read any memorable news in the newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned down, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up . . . we never need to read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? To a philosopher all “news,” as it is called, is gossip. . . .” (“Walden“)

It would seem that we were solitary and disconnected long before technology made us apparently even more so.

Being disconnected and unable to connect deeply seems to come with the territory of living in denial. To the extent that we’re living in denial, we will be unable to connect deeply with others; and to the extent that we are no longer living in denial, we will be better able to actually connect deeply with others (who are also no longer living in denial), but in reality we will find ourselves still alone—and perhaps even more alone— because the mass of our fellowmen and -women will still be living in denial, still leading lives of quiet desperation (or not so quiet desperation—see Lesley Carter’s blog: http://lesleycarter.wordpress.com), and thus flitting along the surface and dissipating themselves with whatever distractions their particular culture and epoch provides. . . .

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? . . . As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of these things at all. . . . The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, distraction; and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” – Pascal, Pensees,” #’s 167-171, 205 (circa 1660 AD)

I tend to think that the human connection void is due to much more than the prevalence of cell towers, cell phones, PDAs, the Internet, FaceBook, twitter, Pinterest, video games, et cetera. I think these things are merely the latest scapegoats. The reality is most people aren’t in touch with their deeper or more authentic selves, most people aren’t very self-aware, most people don’t lead very examined lives, most people don’t think very critically—especially about their own assumptions and biases and thinking (and I could be a prime example of this), and most people are afraid—afraid of death and living in denial—especially those who say claim they aren’t (in my experience most of those people are living in la-la land; they haven’t truly faced death or a real brush with death or had a long cancer scare—things that might actually lend some credibility to their claims).

Switching subjects, Erin . . . at another point in your essay, you write—

“It’s wonderful that you were able to capture Allison’s first steps or Derek’s first school play, but while focused on manipulating the camera, were you really present in the moment? I went to a concert recently and watched as a girl in front of me snapped several photos, then proceeded to post the pictures to every social networking site and tag everyone she was with. Ten minutes of an enjoyable event was spent broadcasting to her networks that she was out living life. But in those ten minutes, she wasn’t really there. Modern society–myself included– look forward to enjoying memories of these moments but, in doing so, sacrifice enjoying the actual moment. Rather than being present, we choose busyness–completing mundane and unnecessary tasks. We live in an era where most people view playing Angry Birds as a better use of time than sitting quietly at the park to hear the birds sing. Life becomes some big display. Each of us a caged animal–we spend our days priming and posing and trying to impress everyone else. While busy flaunting every tiny detail of our lives, we begin missing out on the big adventures. Worse yet, we set out on spectacular journeys and come back unchanged, but for a few neat photographs. The moments captured, are also moments lost. It seems we so fear losing our experiences–the youth of our first born, an incredible trip abroad, a new relationship, or the shifting seasons–that we make the ultimate sacrifice and step out of those noteworthy events in order to take notes…notes that may hold no future relevance.”

What does it mean to you to be really present in the moment? Why does recording the moment and savoring it later not count as being even more present in the moment? Regarding the girl in front of you at the concert—maybe she was posting pictures on FaceBook or what have you to get her ego strokes and reflected sense of self, but what would her really being there at those ten minutes have really been like? And what would she have after that? Would she be changed deeply as a person because of those 10 minutes? Would she have a deeper memory of the experience? But even memory is fallible. So many studies have been done regarding the unreliability of memory. In my experience. the more we remember something, we often end up remembering our memories and not the actual experience. It’s like making a cassette recording or a cassette recording, or opening a JPEG in photoshop and working the photo and saving it again as a JPEG. Each time the file is saved and compressed—or each time a cassette duplicates a duplicate of a duplicate, et cetera, cassette, quality is lost from the original recording or JPEG. Personally I prefer fact to fiction, so I do plan to take lots of videos of little Allison’s or Derek’s first steps and first kindergarten play. I want to be able to savor the original 20 years from now, should I live that long. And I want to be able to give those recordings to my child(ren). I wish my parents had taken videos of me when I was a kid. I wish they had taken videos of an average day around the house or on a Sunday afternoon outing to the beach. Think of how much those recordings would change the psychotherapeutic process—to not just have to take a client/patient’s word for what their relationship with their mom and dad was like, but to actually be able to get some sense of it. I would love to see with my 40-something-year-old eyes what my childhood was actually like!—the way that my mom and dad tried to parent me, interact with me, how I interacted with my brother and sister, what kind of kid I actually was. Instead all I’ve got to go on are a lot of memories—a lot of very subjective and likely distorted memories.

Thanks as always for the interesting post, Erin, and the food for thought! I hope you are well.

Kindest regards,

John

Enjoying Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last


Erin, over at Analyfe.com, wrote a review of the book “Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last” by Lee Lipsenthal, on her blog—http://analyfe.com/2011/11/16/enjoy-every-sandwich-living-each-day-as-if-it-were-your-last/

From the publisher’s website (http://www.randomhouse.com/book/215689/enjoy-every-sandwich-by-lee-lipsenthal)—

This book is a culmination of what I’ve learned. I hope it will open the door for you to embrace your humanity, accept uncertainty, and live a life of gratitude. —from Enjoy Every Sandwich

As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.

The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.

I wrote the following as a response on Erin’s blog—

Sounds like a very interesting book, Erin!  Right up my alley. 

The Dalai Lama wrote that he begins each day meditating on impermanence and our interconnectedness.  Covey discusses that “beginning with the end in mind” is one of the key seven habits of effective people because it helps us cut to the chase (and cut through our own bs) and start organizing our lives around what’s truly important and what’s ultimately going to matter to us.  Steve Jobs said in a 2005 commencement speech: “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’  It made an impression on me.  So ever since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.  Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

To me it’s clear that the first key to living a more meaningful and eyes-wide-open life is facing our own mortality instead of denying it.  Which is no easy feat—we live in a death-deny culture teaming with all sorts of diversions to distract us and anesthetize us to our own and others’ mortality. 

The second key to living a more meaningful and examined life is moving past merely intellectualizing the knowledge of our own and others’ mortality and instead allowing ourselves to feel this always-possible future reality viscerally, emotionally, no (or at least little) differently than if we were in a doctor’s office and being told we (or a loved one) had cancer.  Which also is no easy feat!

Tomorrow I am going to the dermatologist’s office to have a mole on my forehead biopsied.  It may turn out to be nothing.  Or it may turn out to be something and my life will move in a dramatically different direction after tomorrow.

So, a personal question Erin, what did the book mean to you?  How did it change your life or give you pause to reconsider certain things you may or may not be doing now?

As for my own answer to your query—is today a good day to die?—I’ll let you know after tomorrow when it may be no mere intellectual exercise.

Namaste and thanks,

John

Ps. These are links to two of my blogs where I share some of my own (and others’) reflection on death and dying and living with passion and meaning.

https://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/

http://aweektolive.wordpress.com/