Life 101


The Ideas of the Shipwrecked” – Jose Ortega y Gasset

Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

…….

Dragon-Princesses” – Rilke, August 12, 1904, Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden (from “Letters to a Young Poet,” letter no. 8; this is my combination and paraphrasing of separate translations by Stephen Mitchell and M. D. Herter Norton)

To speak of solitude again, it becomes clear that at bottom this is not something that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. But that is all.

Yet how much better would it be to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes are used to resting on would be taken away from us, there would no longer be anything near us, and everything far away would be infinitely far. It would be as if a person were taken from his room, without any preparation or transition, and placed on the heights of a great mountain range; he would feel something of the sort: an unparalleled insecurity, an abandonment to something inexpressible that would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces. And what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses!

This is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly, and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, extraordinary imaginings and strange new sensations arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable.

But it is necessary for us to experience that too.

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can. Everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.

That human beings have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.

To say nothing of God.

But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we don’t think we can cope. For it is only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude anything, even the most incomprehensible and enigmatical, who will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we think of the existence of an individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners. And we have little reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is likely not against us. If it has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses in all likelihood belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien may become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps many of the dragons in our lives are actually secretly princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So try not to be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloudshadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. So why would you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions might be doing inside of you?

……..

And this is my slight paraphrasing of something else Rilke wrote in “Letters to a Young Poet” (in letter no. 4, I think )–

I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. And try not to be too overwhelmed in your search for answers, many of which probably could not be given to you yet at this point, because you would not be able to really live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. And then perhaps someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

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The Truth About How to Be Truly Mentally Healthy & Live a Truly Extraordinary Life


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Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

M. Scott Peck, from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 51

This is a very salient idea—a potentially life-changing idea.

What Peck is saying is that in order to be(come) a truly mentally healthy individual we must dedicate ourselves completely and continually and near-constantly (meaning day after day, and hour after hour) to reality—to seeing reality, including ourselves, as realistically and as completely as possible, meaning without any softeners, without fantasies or errant thoughts that save our pride (that spare us some expense emotionally). At all costs means we cannot try to save face or look at ourselves and how we act in a way that spares us feeling bad or ashamed. If we have done shameful things, then if we want to be truly healthy and truly grow, then we must look honestly at what we have done and feel the full shame of it. If we have done wrong or hurtful or injurious things, then we must look at those things as well honestly and accurately, and not in a way that softens things and spares us some expense emotionally.

If we have any desire at all to be truly healthy in this life and “grow up”—instead of growing sideways or growing malignantly—then we must dedicate ourselves fiercely and completely to truth—to seeing ourselves and life as objectively and unbiasedly as possible.

If left to ourselves and our own devices and familiar patterns, we will invariably cheat on this process—we will take one of the many available paths of lesser resistances, use softeners, buffers, make excuses for ourselves, and see ourselves and the bad or shameful things we’ve done in far less than bad or shameful ways, perhaps even in glowing ways.

This is the way of the false self, that Merton speaks of in this post on one of my other blogs. This is the way of the ungodly self, the self that lies, that wants to hide, that still thinks that life goes on forever, that doesn’t want to face its own mortality, that refuses to feel death breathing down its neck and down the neck of all of those it loves and depends on. This is the self that doesn’t want to think about loss and impermanence, that doesn’t want to marvel at just how truly inexplicable and potentially amazing and brutal life is; this is the part of us that wants to live and love and fart around as if life goes on forever, as if there’s plenty of time left on the clock, and so it lives and loves selfishly, safely, without gratitude, without perspective, and so it doesn’t really live or love at all: it just plays it safe and survives to live and waste another day.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we want to grow into our full stature as human being—grow into what the gods or God intends for us—then we must dedicate ourselves to seeing reality as well as ourselves as accurately and objectively and truthfully and fully as possible, and we must do so irrespective of the costs to ourselves emotionally and irrespective of the costs to our own comfort and happiness.

Gurdjieff said that the most we as human beings can do is to choose our influence. We’re always going to be influenced by something, that much is inevitable and inescapable: to be alive is to be influenced; but the best we can do is to choose what influence or set of influences we want to submit to. Most people submit to their emotions—that is their chief influence and addiction, and they never rise above it. And in failing to do so—in failing to rise above the perpetual disorder and chaos of that most ancient part of their brain—and in particular the fear centers of their brain—they never become fully human; they never become what the gods or God intended they become.

What Peck is saying—and what truly wise and coherent and sane people (Buddha, Jung, Jesus, Rilke, Thoreau, Weil, Chodron, Fromm, Krishnamurti, et cetera) have been saying to us throughout the eons—is to let truth become our chief influence—to let Truth, Love, Death become what most deeply and consistently influence and guide us. Let these become our advisors, our addictions even. (What Gurdjieff was saying about the only real freedom we as human beings have is in choosing what we allow to influence us, can be rephrased as: the only choice we as human beings have is in choosing what to be addicted to, and Peck and Gurdjieff and all the aforementioned wise people are saying is why not let truth and Love [real Love, the love that is steep in generosity, self-extension, gratitude, compassion, understanding, perspective, overcoming one’s fears], and death be one’s addictions, be one’s prevailing thought patterns? The only alternative to this is to live a discursive and self-centered and reactive life, or to try [unsuccessfully] to vacillate forever between these possibilities and to elevate freedom to our addiction—the freedom to always be free, to be indeterminate, to be free to always choose another influence—which means the freedom not to grow, the freedom to remain stuck, the freedom to remain unformed and chaotic, the freedom to remain true or false or a confused mix of the two—a mix so confusing that even we no longer know what is true or what is false—

We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.

But we cannot make these choices with impunity.

Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it and that confusion reigns.

(Thomas Merton)

And Rumi said the same thing—any wine will get us drunk, so why not pick a wine that will also make us a better person and wake us up? Why not pick the wine of truth, Love, and death? Enjoyments pass, consequences remain. Most of us do not understand this—that the consequences for so much freedom, escapism, denial, momentary escape and enjoyment is that it mangles us, that it does something ungodly even hellish to us at the soulular level.)

Mental health is an ongoing process of complete dedication to reality at all costs—to seeing life and others–and ourselves–as realistically and truthfully and honestly as possible.

And this is not something that most of us willingly want to do. In fact, truth be told, it’s the furthest thing from what we want. (But it’s likely what we most need.) We don’t want to see reality as it is. Why? Because we don’t want to truly face death, suffering, impermanence, fragility—our own and others. We don’t want to really have to feel and face these things as inescapables, unavoidables, as everpresent possibilities. At most we might be willing to intellectualize over all of this a little bit and idly talk about it; but truly feel and experience all of this in such a way that compels us to change our ways, that it rises to level of critical mass in us and gives us great clarity and wisdom?—we don’t want to do that.

And we also don’t want to see ourselves as we are—especially the more we have done unkind, hurtful, and shameful things; nor do we want to be around people who do not like us or approve of us because of those sorts of things we’ve done. Instead of submitting ourselves to truth and some of the just and deserved consequences of our actions (other people’s dislike and disapproval and invalidation of what we have done), we run and hide. Why not? After all, there’s never a shortage of people who we can start over with and seduce into thinking well of us—seduce via our half-truths (which is to say half-lies, distortions, rational-lies-zations) and playing the victim, etc. There’s always a fresh supply of people just around the next bend. It’s not difficult in this day and age to hide ourselves and hide from ourselves and hide from the light and truth of who and what we are and have done, and just start over again and again elsewhere, just walk the earth like a troubled guest, going from city to city mindlessly repeating our same patterns and never having the courage and honor and character to go back and clean up the mess we have made, make amends, have a true change of heart, show some real contrition and remorse and shame. In this world, there will always be plenty of buyers for our false self; there will always be people we can seduce into believing the best about us, even though that “best” is just a façade over what’s worst in us and what always ultimately rules the show whenever we get in a pinch or bind.

“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

This is the hardest path to walk in life. This is the path of greatest resistance. Walking the path of truth, of complete dedication to reality, of dedication to truth and reality at all costs. To truly walk this path means that we must become instantly much more serious and sincere and honest about how we’re living our lives. It means that lying, denial, self-deception, half-truths, buffering, using softeners, even thinking “positively” are all off the table, and must be given up.

Being truly mentally healthy and dedicated to reality at all costs means when given the choice between being right and happy—thinking positively or thinking realistically—we must choose thinking realistically over thinking positively (being right over being happy), because positive thinking might lead us astray. Positive thinking isn’t about seeing reality as it is; it’s about seeing reality in a way that makes us feel okay, happy, optimistic, good. It’s about being happy instead of accurate (or right or “objective”). And so while it may make us feel happy initially, consequences still remain, and of the consequences is that we have hedged the full truth, ignored the difficult to stomach and emotionally digest parts. We have unwittingly spared ourselves some expense.

Mental health requires a certain level of fierceness—a certain level of inner grit and courage and moral and psychospiritual inner warriorship. Because in order to truly dedicate ourselves to reality at all costs we must give up self-deception and denial. And that means that invariably we are going to have to “race out beyond all lesser dangers,” as Rilke put it, “to be safe”—meaning to truly find ourselves—wrestling “with that greatest danger of all”—death. That is, our own mortality. And the deaths of those we love and care about and depend on emotionally and psychologically.

Okay, try this then,
everybody
I know
and care for,
and everybody
else,
including me,
is going
to die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine
and a pain
I can’t comprehend.

If we are truly dedicate to reality at all costs then we will have to face death, face it squarely, and with no bullshite or softeners. And if this is too much, if this is too daunting and overwhelming and panic-/anxiety-inducing, then if we want to be(come) truly mentally healthy, we must at least begin committing ourselves to the effort, and do so in a way that costs us, that affects us not just intellectually but viscerally—we have to feel death breathing down our necks, we have to begin intimating and feeling what it will be like to lose those we love. We have to begin the real and visceral attempt to integrate death and inescapable loss into our daily lives, into our daily consciousness or awareness; and we need to do this in a very real and tangible way; our attempt must be honest and ongoing—one where we try again and again and again—to try again and again to face and to feel our own and others’ mortality more and more directly and honestly (viscerally) every day.

To fail at this—to go a day without deeply considering (feeling viscerally) our own and others’ mortality and living in accordance with what we know and feel—is to have wasted a day of our lives. It is to choose comfort over truth. It is to choose a path of lesser resistance. It is to choose mental unhealth over mental health.

We’re all born narcissistic; we’re all born impulsive and self-centered; we’re all born without much if any of a conscience; we’re all born emotionally reactive; we’re all born unaware and unmindful; we’re all born more dedicated to comfort and avoiding pain; we’re all born craving permanence and having life on our terms; and we’re all born feeling like life goes on forever and that safety and security are things that life owes us.

That’s just the way we all, some more so that others, some less so, come equipped into this life. We all have these tendencies within us. And we all have our unique combination of patterned (reactive, automatic) ways of habitually avoiding truth and avoiding reality.

And true mental health is the concerted effort to grow out of this state—meaning, becoming more conscious, learning how to think accurately and honestly, lessening our impulsivity, lessening our dependence (not being a parasite or predator, not exploiting or using others, but genuinely contributing and investing; becoming mature enough to be interdependent), developing our objectivity and conscience, lessening our denial and dishonesty, lessening our laziness and want of always having things easy, lessening our tendency to always want to be the center of the universe and have everything our own terms, lessening our dependence on always having to be comfortable or feel safe but instead learning how to tolerate insecurity and fear in order to do the truly right and healthy and loving thing (this is the true definition of courage).

True mental health is the ongoing dedication to all of these ideals irrespective of the cost to our own happiness or comfort or peace of mind.

If we’re not willing to sacrifice our own comfort and happiness for a while in the pursuit of truly growing up and becoming mentally healthier, then we’re not really interested in becoming mentally healthy; we’re more interested in being comfortable, in having an easy life, as Gurdjieff put it. And you’d be in good company: 98% of other people are just like you; you’ll never be lonely. But you’ll also never truly love another, and you’ll never truly live, and you’ll never truly appreciate life and become what the gods or God intended either.

Jung wrote: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” Without pain.  True mental health means accepting certain pains and sufferings as being inescapable and unavoidable, and thus necessary for us to feel and to experience instead of always trying to run from them and avoid them and keep life on our (control-freak) terms.

Jung also wrote that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”

And the key word in that sentence is “always.”

Any time we cop out on seeing and facing reality and ourselves fully and fearlessly and honestly, we are choosing mental unhealth over mental health, we are choosing psychopathology or neurosis over the rigors of truth.

And we all have done this.

And most of us base our lives on continuing to do this—because this is what freedom means to us—to be free to be able to refuse to have to face reality, to be free to be able to not have to face whatever is most perilous in life and whatever threatens to wrest away our sense of control.

Whenever facing reality squarely, whenever seeing reality—and our place in it—seems too daunting, too overwhelming, too painful—we avoid it, and in doing so we are choosing to mental unhealth—some form of psychopathology or neurosis instead.

And we do so because the substitute seems less painful to deal with; it’s easier, it’s more immediately gratifying—or at least less immediately terrifying and makes us feel less out of control.

When given the choice between the easy wrong that allows us to feel in control and the difficult right that would force us to relinquish control, we will always choose the easy wrong because it allows us to stay in control and maintain the illusion of control. That’s just the way the human ego is built—needing to maintain control, to fight to maintain this, and to fight like hell (literally) to avoid having to give up control or surrender our need for control and to instead live and love on life’s terms (instead of our own self-protective control-freak terms).

But eventually life gets truly lonely behind these walls. And the substitute—the neurosis—eventually becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was originally designed to avoid. And the longer we hide out from life (and love) and truth and reality behind our walls, the more the human spirit in us begins to wither and shrivel and even become warped and malignant and go bad in us.

The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain

We shrink from suffering but unwittingly love and nurture its causes.” – Shantideva,

To be dedicated to reality at all costs means we must spare no expense, no consequence, to ourselves in quest for true mental health and the ability to break off and metabolize legitimately more and more of the harsh parts of this world and to learn how to suffer legitimately rather than illegitimately.

To be dedicated to truth (and not “our truth,” but “the truth”) and reality at all costs means that our own comfort cannot or pleasure or even safety cannot be the determining factor in why we choose to believe something or even in whether we choose to do something, if that something is the right thing. Meaning if we are truly dedicated to the truth and to reality at all costs, then the difficult right becomes for us paradoxically the path of least resistance, and the path of least resistance becomes for us the difficult, if not impossible, wrong.

And this represents a true metanoia—a true conversion or figure-ground reversal in the established order. It represents the fruits—or natural outward expression—of having undergone a true awakening, or a true change of heart and mind and life orientation. —Which is what we’re each called to do—to wake up, to convert, to give up our innate mentally unhealthy and even pathological and neurotic ways and instead become more truly mentally healthy and dedicated (committed) to reality and the rigors required in facing it—the unavoidable suffering that comes with it—squarely.

Self-preservation and avoidance and denial must decrease, facing reality squarely and honestly and heroically must increase.

This is the essence of mental health and of becoming mentally healthier.

Dedicating ourselves fully to the truth irrespective of the cost to us emotionally or to our own comfort, facing death squarely and really feeling it breathing down our neck and the necks of those we love, and learning what Love truly is: these three thins are the essence mental health and becoming mentally healthier—of what is best in us increasing and what is worst in us decreasing.

On a long enough timeline, self-preservation, avoidance, and denial, will each fail. And when they do, we will look back—some part of us, some sane part of us—whatever modicum of sanity we have left and that we haven’t corrupted—will look back in horror and shame at all the time we have wasted and how cowardly we lived our life. And at that point it will be too late to do anything about it. We will have wasted our one chance at life and love. We will have wasted this inexplicable gift.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

What Does Spirituality Mean to You?


Do you have a spiritual practice?  And is it truly a spiritual practice?  And how can we know if what we consider to be a spiritual practice, truly is a spiritual practice?  What is the proof?  What are the fruits?

For me, a true spiritual practice is a practice or discipline that allows us to truly take on and deal with what is worst and weakest in ourselves–and others–and contend with it in a fairly mature and loving/compassionate way, and even overcome it and not let it run and or ruin our lives. 

And so for me, a spiritual practice means organizing my life and my days and my thoughts around certain key ideas and principles/virtue: courage, Love, truth, goodness, self-transcendence, impermanence, death, loss.

Ultimately self-preservation is a flawed strategy. Self-protectiveness will always only be temporary successful.  As will avoidance. What we most fear will one day have the upper hand on each of us will indeed one day have the upper hand on us.  Perhaps sooner rather than later.  And there is no escape from this fate. There’s no avoiding this eventual reality. On a long enough timeline self-preservation, self-protection, and avoidance will always fail.

So what else does spirituality mean to me? It means sobriety—meaning in this sense not necessarily living free from drugs or alcohol, but living free of the inebriants of lies, distortions, and crazy discursive cloudy confused thinking.  Spirituality means clarity; it means thinking very clearly as well as seeing very clearly; it means not living in denial, not perpetually numbing and deluding ourselves and taking up residence in an avoidant world of fantasy and lies and distortions and self-protective isolation—isolated from what might undo us, from what threatens to bring us face to face with ourselves, from whatever lies outside our carefully controlled comfort (i.e. control-freak) zone.

A true spiritual practice seems to be the only means we have of trying to transform and transcend our self-protective and avoidant tendencies. A true spirituality (as opposed to all of the false pseudo-spiritual practices and religious dogma that are around) means learning how to squarely face life’s losses—life’s inevitable and necessary losses—including our own and others’ deaths—and not shutting down or isolating ourselves in response to these losses and the threat of these losses, and living an uncourageous closed-off life of perpetual avoidance and self-deception and denial as a result of our fear, anxiety, nervousness.

The reality is is that there is a clock ticking for each of us.  As well as for each one of those we love and depend on and care about.  And a true spirituality begins with this in mind—with the end in mind—and does not cheat on or cheapen this.  And it keeps this end in mind as often as possible; so much so that it actually makes a difference in our lives and in how we make decisions—we consult our own and others’ deaths, we think about what will matter when all is said and done. We get down to the heart of the matter and cut through our own bullshite and denial. If we are living and loving as if life goes on forever, as if it’s still early on in the first quarter of the game of life and we have all the time in the world, then we’re living and loving in denial. We are asleep. We are spiritually blind. We are just another troubled guest darkening this earth and causing more nonsense for ourselves and others because of our denial, our escapist tendencies, our reality- and truth-avoiding tendencies.

Spirituality also means learning how to truly Love. It means how to transcend the smaller self—the weaker and errant and even evil and malignant and toxic parts of the self (instead of trying to protect and save and preserve and keep them). It means surrendering our smaller self, giving it up instead of preserving it, holding on to it, and remaining attached malignantly to it.  It also means committing ourselves fiercely to becoming our best self and to loving and living more passionately and deeply and mindfully (with much greater awareness). To allow ourselves to be anything less than our best or near-best at any moment is to be wasting that moment of our life. It is to be living in denial of our own and others’ mortality. There is simply no time to lose. When we waste time we are living in denial. When we allow ourselves to be sidetracked, distracted, anesthetized, intoxicated by unessential and trivial things, we are living in denial–in denial of the ticking clock.  When we live without appreciation and gratitude and love for those around us, we are wasting that moment of our life. Life is short and capricious; there simply is no time to lose, no time to waste. We cannot truly love another if we do not have the relentless ticking clock near-constantly in mind and understand that the clock could run out suddenly, without warning, at any moment. To live in a way other than this is to live in denial; it is to be asleep; spiritually blind; to be wasting our lives.

Already the ripening barberries are red
and the old asters hardly breathe in their beds.
Whoever is not rich now will wait and wait

and never be himself.

It’s all over for him, he is like a dying man.
Nothing else will come to him; no more days will open
and everything that does happen will cheat him.
—Even You, my God. And You are like a stone
drawing us each daily deeper into the depths. 

-Rilke

Ultimately the refusal to face ourselves and to face what most truly frightens us in this world is a refusal to grow. It is to make fear our master and send love to the gallows. This world is full of lost and sleeping and frightened souls who build their lives around convenience, playing it safe, the path of least resistance, who habitually confuse the easy way with the right way, who cannot get their mind and heart out of the prison of their own self-protectiveness and fears; people who when they make a mistake go to even greater lengths to avoid correcting their mistake, and in doing so make even more senseless and unnecessary mistakes.

Any wine will get us drunk, wrote Rumi. So many things in life will numb and anesthetize us and titillate the little monkeys in our mind.  Only truth and genuine love combined will truly sober us up and free us from ourselves–from what’s worst and weakest in ourselves.

So what does spirituality mean to you?  What (spiritual) practices do you have that are not just bringing you peace of mind, but also bringing you closer to reality and to being able to handle life’s inevitable losses with greater equinamity, efficacy, grace and perspective?

The person who, being truly on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world, will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive. Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it, thus making of it a “raft that leads to the far shore.”

Only to the extent that a person willingly exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.

In this lies the dignity of daring.

Thus, the aim of a spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a truly spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broke and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go his futile hankering after harmony, surcease of pain, and want of a comfortable life in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.

The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life and encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and face and confront the demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some objects as a protection against such forces. Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation, can our contact with what is Divine, with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.

The more a person learns whole-heartedly to confront a world and way of living that threatens him with isolation, the more are the depths of the Ground of Being revealed and the possibilities of new life and Becoming opened for him.

(Karlfried Graf von Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pp. 107-8)

How to Begin Liberating Oneself


O Slave, liberate yourself.

Where are you, and where’s your home,
find it in your lifetime!

If you fail to wake up now,
you’ll be helpless when the end comes.

Listen, O wise one, says Kabir:
the siege of Death is hard to withstand.

Nearly every morning I get up and marinade my brain with this sort of stuff.

I have to. I choose to. But the truth is that thinking like this—that needing or wanting to think like this—has become as essential and necessary—and effortless—as breathing to me. It’s something I do oft and repeatedly throughout the day.

Fact: If I don’t open myself up now, while I’m alive, while there’s still time, death will do it eventually for me and in spite of me, and then there will be no time left on the clock. And all of the Love I could have given, all the tenderness I could have shown and received, all of the Love and insight I could have shared and left of myself on this earth to possibly brighten it, will go in the ground or up in flames over the pyre.

And my one chance at living and loving will be over.

It will be gone. Finished. Finito. Never to be repeated.

And billions and billions of years will come after me and wipe away all trace of me and whatever I did with my life—whether I played it safe and lived out of fear and clung ruthlessly to any sort of security I could find; or whether I let myself be fully opened and not play it so damn safe, and live and love on life’s terms.

So what am I waiting for now? And you reading this, what are you waiting for?

What are any of us waiting for?

A day without reflection and contemplation, a day without love, a day without loving others and being good to them, a day without facing our fears and stretching ourselves beyond them, a day without the depth of love we know we could have if we were just a bit braver, more open, more daring, in need of less security, is a wasted day.

And yet this is what so many of us do. Gotta work more, gotta earn more, gotta save more, gotta get more security and safety, gotta anesthetize myself more, gotta avoid life more, gotta avoid what frightens me more, gotta numb myself more, gotta live on autopilot more, gotta read crappy books more, gotta drink more, gotta daydream more, gotta escape more, gotta get more comfort.

And day leads on to day and turns into weeks and then months, and more and more time (and life) gets wasted.

And then of course one has to justify all of the wastefulness and start fighting for it; one has to dig in one’s heals, twist one’s thinking, and start compounding the mistake, and begin the process of heaping error on top of error.

Why do so many of us live on so little and live such small sheltered frightened lives and want so little that is real for ourselves?

Why are we so afraid of our own emotions and of being overwhelmed or flooded by them?

News flash: What we fear is going to happen one day to us is going to happen to us one day. Later or sooner. We each owe a death. It’s unavoidable. Inevitable. We each have to play out that scene. And when that time comes, it’s too late for us to really become all that we could have become earlier, in our prime, if we had lived with greater courage and steadiness and composure. And love.

I see all of the fear in others and myself, how much we flinch and tremble, how we shut down and run away from life, from love, from others, but most of all from ourselves and from growing up and facing ourselves and our larger life situation (life’s inevitables) honestly. And it breaks my heart. Why do we (some of us? most of us?) do this to ourselves and to each other?—torment each other with ourselves and our pettiness and avoidance? Why does something—life, love—that began so beautifully and with so much promise and passion and possibility have to end so badly and scatter in debris on some loveless shore? Why do so many people do indecent things to each other? Why do hurt people hurt people? Why? Why? Why?

 

The Crunch” – Charles Bukowski

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAIwmHt2PRc

too much too little

too fat
too thin
or nobody.

laughter or
tears

haters
lovers

strangers with faces like
the backs of
thumb tacks

armies running through
streets of blood
waving winebottles
bayoneting and fucking
virgins.

an old guy in a cheap room
with a photograph of M. Monroe.

there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock

people so tired
mutilated
either by love or no love.

people just are not good to each other
one on one.

the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.

we are afraid.

our educational system tells us
that we can all be
big-ass winners

it hasn’t told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.

or the terror of one person
aching in one place
alone

untouched
unspoken to.

people are not good to each other.

I suppose they never will be.
I don’t ask them to be.

but sometimes I think about
it.

the beads will swing
the clouds will cloud
and the killer will behead the child
like taking a bite out of an ice cream cone.

too much
too little

too fat
too thin
or nobody

more haters than lovers.

people are not good to each other.
perhaps if they were
our deaths would not be so sad.

meanwhile I look at young girls
stems
flowers of chance.

there must be a way.

surely there must be a way that we have not yet
thought of.

who put this brain inside of me?

it cries
it demands
it says that there is a chance.

it will not say
“no.”
 

If you really think about it—if anyone dares to really think about it—no other way of living really makes sense other than this: than to live as courageously and honestly and openly as possible, to love and be loved, to grow and mature emotionally and become less and less beholden to or controlled by our fears and weak points. Sure, others might take advantage of us and our openness and use it against us. So what? Do it anyways. No one gets out of here alive. We’re all caught in ticking traps. We’re all going to turn cold and one die—even those we love and cling to will eventually die on us. So what are we so afraid of? Why aren’t we all living with greater openness and honesty and courage? And Love? (The real stuff.)

“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. Instead we let ourselves be distracted by nonsense, terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We’re eaten up by nothing. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don’t live up until their death. They don’t honor their own lives, they piss on their lives. They shit them away. Dumb fucks. They concentrate too much on fucking, movies, money, family, fucking. Their minds are full of cotton. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow country without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can’t hear it. Most people’s deaths are a sham. There’s nothing left to die.”
– Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors have taken over the Ship (1998)

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.

Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action


Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action

I suppose I could have also titled this post: “The Truth—will it set you free or will it cause you to break cleanly with reality and go bat-shit crazy?”

We all have a personal philosophy. Our personal philosophy is simply our approach to life—our way of approaching life and dealing with what we encounter. There are really only two ways to approach life: either we approach life—all facets of it—in a thoughtful and examined way; or we opt not to. —Meaning, at some point we unconsciously decide that thinking will open up too many painful doors and bring up too many terrifying and unanswerable questions, and so we decide to limit that part of ourselves (the thinking and conscious part) and we try instead to lose ourselves in work, play, relationships, Facebook, et cetera. Essentially, it’s the “any port in the storm” approach to life—a life of hiding out from what we fear most—the emotions that most frighten us—terror, panic, anxiety, shame, inadequacy—and the thoughts and experiences/situations that will likely trigger these emotions—these intense and overwhelming emotions.

And sadly, such an approach limits our humane-ness as well as our growth and development. It is the ultimate act of self-limiting—to opt to curb one’s awareness and one’s thinking and instead lead a timid and an unexamined life and hide from what most frightens us.

Yet it’s what almost all of us instinctively and naturally do. It’s our default. A default that’s been bred into us through thousands upon thousands of years of natural selection. Self-preservation—the will to survive—is our default. And nothing helps us more in this than automatically seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Thus our personal life philosophies have been instinctively built around avoiding and retreating suffering and difficulty and discomfort and anything that might cause us mental anguish or unsettle us, and chasing after good vibes and good feelings. . . .

But . . . there tends to be a problem with this approach to life . . .

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

― Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

There are certain sufferings that likely cannot be avoided—sickness, old age, loss of love, death. But in our youthful exuberance, ignorance, naiveté, and feelings of omnipotence, we think we actually can play hide and seek with the dark parts of life and avoid suffering—at least for a very long time into the future.

And so part of doing so involves automatically limiting our awareness and our thinking—not exposing ourselves to thoughts and ideas that might cause us to suffer. Who in the spring or summer of their life wants to think about the inevitable coming winter? Who wants to think about death and loss and sickness and old age and poverty and the pains and sufferings of one’s upbringing?

It’s easier to just sweep all of that stuff under the psychological carpeting and out of our conscious mind, and keep the party bus approach to life rolling.

We’re all afraid. That’s a given.

And certain amount of suffering is inevitable; it’s unavoidable; it’s part and parcel of being alive and living.

Thus our dilemma.

Either we approach our lives very honestly, in fear and trembling, and with eyes and mind wide open; or we do so with eyes and mind frightened and quickly closing and shutting down, always squinting, always nervous and apprehensive about what they might see around the next bend or read in the next book or blog post.

In my early-teens through my early twenties I used to routinely avoid TV shows like “Cosmos” or anything that mentioned the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the Universe. If the Universe began and ended like this, then what’s the point? Everything comes to naught. Why live? Why live for anything other than as much immediate and overwhelming pleasure and ego-gratification and enlargement as possible? Why not try to lose oneself in pleasure and the stream of life and try to lose oneself completely—after all, the alternative is too much to face, too much to bear? And as for God, where is there room for God in such cosmology? 13 or 14 billion years ago, the Universe blasted itself into existence, and millions and millions of years of evolution took place and have all come to this point—this point where I am alive, aware of myself, aware that I will die, aware that before me there was an eternity of nothingness, that before the beginning of the Universe there was what?—and that I will die, perhaps in a hideous or random way as will those around me, and then everything will fade to black, and there will be an eternity—an eternity upon eternities—after me; the Universe will turn cold and motionless, or it will perhaps collapse upon itself—and perhaps start again and everything will repeat itself exactly, again and again; or perhaps everything will be different the next time through. Or perhaps the Universe won’t start again, and me, my life—whatever I am, whatever I make of myself and my life—will be swallowed up and lost in the folds of all of this, just like everything and everyone else.

Those were the questions of my youth and young adulthood. And they still are, except they don’t fill me with me as much terror; things don’t seem as bleak and or grim. I still don’t hold out much hope for an afterlife—not that I wouldn’t relish being proven wrong.

I think that what’s changed for me—or in me—are two things. Firstly, I tolerate the questions better—I think that a bit of “desensitization” has taken place—not that I still am not occasionally filled with terror at all of the above and spin out in panic; I just don’t spin out as dramatically or for as long—or as easily. So a bit of desensitization has taken place. Plus, I’m 44; I’m “over the hill”—I’m likely past the halfway point in my life—and perhaps well past it. I’m less afraid across the board than I was 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve watched firsthand as my mom wasted away and died from melanoma a couple of years ago; I watched as my grandfather wasted away and died of old age and some age-related disease that I can’t recall the name of; I’ve had a woman who I thought was my best friend betray me; I’ve experienced other break-ups and losses and betrayals and disappointments in love. In other words, I’ve taken my fair share of dings and nicks and dents in life. One headlight. My nerve-endings and emotions are generally just not as sensitive and raw as they used to be—they’ve been broken in; I’ve been broken in. I just don’t get as surprised as often as I used to (not that I still can’t be surprised!) The blinders are largely off—I know how hideous and weak people can be and what they can do to another because I’ve been on the receiving end of this several times. I’ve watched people do to me and to others unconscionable horrible things—all in the name of illegitimately avoiding their own suffering—and things I was powerless to stop. Live long enough and honestly enough and that’s just the way it is—life does this to everyone—tries to break us each, or at the very least, it breaks our engine in. The question for us is: do we join in the decline of western civilization and start mistreating others because we have been mistreated and so pass on our pain onto others? Or do we take a stand against this way of life and try to metabolize and soak up some of the pain and misery in the world and make something decent of the suffering that is given us—do we try to make art, wisdom, something beautiful of it and or ourselves? Do we become one of life’s works of art—whether others appreciate it or not.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had no problem passing my pain onto others—I was running from myself, from life, from the big questions in life; I was afraid, weak, underdeveloped, out of shape psychologically, ill-equipped emotionally for life (not that I still may not be; just perhaps a bit less so, hopefully!). I had no problem hitting the bars, mistreating my body with cigarettes and alcohol and fast food, and looking to meet a woman who was mistreating herself similarly and see if she wanted to go home for the night and metabolize a little of our avoidance and stuffed down existential pain together. . . .

That’s a snapshot of me in my late teens and early twenties—just going along with the prevailing winds, doing whatever the other largely mindless, soulless, unthinking nitwits around me were doing. Basically I was leading an unexamined life; I wasting my mind—at least trying to—and perhaps wasting my life.

And then I went through a very painful break-up and betrayal. And the best way I can describe it is that the pain of that experience—the pain of those months of my life (the summer of ’97)—was worse than the rest of the pain I had been running from. And those pains that summer turned out to be labor pains—or perhaps I turned them into labor pains. I’m not sure how to attribute it. Either way, I had a Jerry Maguire type birth of conscience and a different way or level of thinking and of seeing the world. Something clicked in my mind and I could see very clearly that I had been running from a lot of things in my life and that that running was all in vain; I saw myself very objectively, very clearly, and I saw very clearly how all of my previous ways of trying to deal with pain by not actually dealing with it but by passing it on to others and spreading my misery or emptiness or unhappiness around had rendered me as a pretty weak and cowardly little shell of a person.

I had unwittingly been participating in my own demise; I had unwittingly been making myself in many ways an emotional wimp.

But, during my twenties I had also done some things that would ultimately save me from all of this—save me from myself, from what’s worst and weakest in myself, and from living like a weak little nitwit who reactively tried to eschew everything difficult and uncomfortable and ultimately unavoidable in life from his plate.

One of the things I did was to go to college and get my degree—degrees actually. I got my degrees in two fields that interested me the most—philosophy and psychology; and I almost got a third degree in religion/religious studies.

In the course of my studies I took a course on Buddhism where I learned about a way of life where people actually (!) faced life and faced honestly what was unavoidable in life—sickness, old age, death, loss, parting.

I also took two English classes where I was required to keep a journal and write 5 or 10 handwritten pages a week (this was in the olden days!) on anything I wanted to write about. It was a habit I would return to frequently throughout my schooling and after I graduated—and I’m so thankful I did!

I also took a class on poetry—a class where we were forced to write a poem every few days if we wanted to pass the class—that was the seeding of another fortuitous habit/hobby!

I also started reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and a little of Kierkegaard and Rilke (though I didn’t start really “reading” Rilke until I was in my late-30’s after another painful break-up/betrayal. All I really got from Rilke in my 20’s was that immortal line: “You must change your life.” I knew that for sure. That line hit me over the soul with a sledgehammer).

I also was trying to read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“—but by and large, the books that have impacted me the most were not books that I came across in college, but were books that I read after I graduated. Nevertheless, along the way, some seeds of conscience and intellectual and emotional honesty and courage and self-awareness were replanted and re-nurtured through some of what I was introduced to in the course of my studies in psychology and philosophy and a few of the teachers I had during those years.

And then everything that had been planted in me—or that I had helped plant in me—all came to fruition—into bloom—and how fortunately!—in the summer of ’97, in the midst of all of my inner turmoil and agony over the ending of a 3.5 year relationship.

In the midst of all of that pain, I read and wrote and thought voraciously—I read and wrote and thought for my very life! And after about 3 months of doing this—and getting very little sleep each night—something clicked for me. I had what the Buddhist’s term “a moment of satori“—or great insight and clarity—about myself, my life, life, and how flawed my up till then approach to life and difficulty and suffering had been. It was for me the psychological equivalent of what in Christianity is termed a “metanoia“—a deep paradigmatic shift, a radical figure-ground reversal, a complete change of heart and mind and life direction.

And since then I’ve found my soulmates—the books that have more than their fair share of tell it like it is / in your face truth—M. Scott Peck (anything by him); “How Could You Do That!?” “Ten Stupid things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives”; “A Return to Love”; anything by Krishnamurti; Rilke, Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke; “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”; C. S. Lewis—his essay and nonfiction books; Thoreau—especially his section on reading in “Walden”; Emerson; Kierkegaard; Jacob Needleman; Gurdjieff; James Hollis; David Schnarch; Murray Bowen; Maslow; “The Denial of Death” by Earnest Becker; Simone Weil; “The Little Prince”; Pema Chödrön; Chögyam Trungpa; the Buddha; The Gospel and First Epistle of John; the Old Testament Wisdom books; Montaigne; “The Nicomachean Ethics”; Roger Housden. And the list goes on.

Our lives are the way they are in large part—if not wholly—because of how we think / the way we think—about ourselves and our lives. Our lives bear witness to our thinking—as well as to our lack of thinking and thus our fears. What we are afraid of—what scares us, terrifies us, threatens us, stresses us out, might potentially undo us—we don’t think about—we don’t permit ourselves to think about.

But some of us having something in us that likes to play with this fire—with this fire of truth—that knows that we need to get a little bit closer to this fire and even get burned by it—perhaps even risk getting annihilated by it.

This fire—the fire of truth—is the only fire worth playing with. It’s the only thing that will really warm us. And it’s the only thing that will potentially save us—from ourselves, and from the sufferings inherent in life.

Philosophy—the real stuff, not the stuffy academic nonsense—is fundamentally about wisdom and creating the conditions that will allow for the transmission of wisdom. Meaning philosophy at best is about learning how to think—both logically/reasonably, and also humanely. It’s about learning to have the courage to ask and perhaps even to try to provisionally and tentatively and humbly even answer the big questions in life—why are we here? for how long? what happens after we die? why is there something rather than nothing? is there a God? and if so, what is he or she really like and what does he or she want out of me? how am I to live so that when I come to die (or when get a terminal diagnosis) I’m not filled with terror and fear, or I don’t look back on my life with regret, and realize that I have wasted my life out of fear and convention and servicing other’s expectations of me (just filling a role)?

Our lives are the way they are because of our personal philosophies—our beliefs and ideas about what is and is not worthwhile in this life, what will make us happy, and what we need to avoid or eschew in order to stay safe and content. And how thought-out and examined or unthought-out and unexamined these beliefs and ideas are.

Our lives are philosophy in action. Each of our lives is either the examined or unexamined life, the heroic and courageous or the avoidant and timid life in action. And thus as a whole or in parts it may well serve as a cautionary tale to the dangers or the excesses of one or the other way of life.

The Buddha said, “All we are is the result of what we think; with what we think we make a life.” Something along those lines.

There’s either the more or less examined life, or the more or less unexamined life; a life of learning and growth, or a life of fear and comfort and avoidance.

There’s really no neutrality in this.

There’s no avoiding this choice—try as some (or many) of us may.

Either we think and deal heroically with the pain that comes from thinking honestly and seeing life as it is; or we live thoughtlessly, forsaking thinking and the largest part of what makes us most fully human and potentially humane, and we try to pass as much of our fear and suffering and cowardice onto others and make them pay, in place of us, the cost of our living.

The Truth—Will it Set You Free or Will it Completely Fry Your Ass and Undo You?


Your life is the mirror of what you are. It is in your image. You are passive, blind, demanding. You take all, you accept all, without feeling any obligation. Your attitude toward the world and toward life is the attitude of one who has the right to make demands and to take, who has no need to pay or to earn. You believe that all things are due you, simply because it is you! All your blindness is there! Yet none of this strikes your attention.

None of this strikes your attention because you have no measure with which to measure yourself. You live exclusively according to “I like” or “I don’t like,” or “I feel like” or “I don’t feel like.” You have no appreciation except for yourself. You recognize nothing above you—theoretically, logically, perhaps, but in actuality no; you submit to nothing except your own desires and subjectivity. That is why you are demanding and continue to believe that everything is cheap and that you have enough in your pocket to buy everything you like. You recognize nothing above you, either outside yourself or inside. That is why you have no measure and live passively according your impulses and likes and dislikes.

Yes, this lack of appreciation for anything and anyone except for yourself blinds you. It is by far the biggest obstacle to a new life. You first must get over this threshold, this obstacle, before progressing even one step further. This crux alone is what divides human beings into two kinds: the “wheat” and the “chaff.” No matter how intelligent, how talented, how gifted, how brilliant a human being may be, if he does not change his appreciation of himself, there will be no hope for real inner development, for a work toward honest self-knowledge, for an awakening. He will remain such as he is now for his entire life.

The first requirement, the first condition, the first test for one who genuinely wishes to work on oneself is to change his appreciation of himself. And he must not do this theoretically—he must not imagine, not simply believe or think; rather he must do this in actuality: he must see things in himself which he has never seen before—which he has never had the nerve or courage to see before. And he must see them fully. A person’s appreciation of himself will never change as long as he or she sees nothing new and untoward in himself.

Today we have nothing but the illusion of what we are. We do not respect ourselves. In order to respect myself, I have to recognize a part in myself which is above the other parts. And my attitude toward this part should bear witness to the respect that I have for it. But so long as I treat all parts of myself equally, I think too highly of myself and I do not respect myself, and my relations with others will be governed by the same caprice and lack of respect.

In order to see oneself, one must first learn to see. This is the first initiation into genuine self-knowledge. In order to see ourselves realistically, we must see all the ways in which we habitually over-estimate and over-appreciate ourselves. But you will see that to do this is not easy. It is not cheap. You must pay dearly for this. For bad payers, lazy people, parasites, there is no hope. You must pay, pay a lot, pay immediately, and pay in advance. You must pay with yourself; you must pay with sincere, honest, conscientious, disinterested efforts. And the more you are willing and prepared to pay without economizing, without cutting corners, without cheating, without falsifications, the more you will receive. Because from that moment on you will become acquainted with your nature. You will begin seeing all of the tricks, all the dishonesties that your nature resorts to in order to avoid paying with real cash, real effort, real expenditure, real sacrifice, real cost to oneself. Because up till now, you like to cheat, you like to cut corners; you like to try and pay with your readymade theories, your convenient beliefs, your prejudices and conventions, your “I like” and “I don’t like”; you like to bargain, pretend, offer counterfeit money.

Objective thought is a look from Above. A look that is free, that can see. Without this look upon me, seeing me, my life is the life of a blind person who goes her own way, driven by impulse, not knowing either why or how. Without this look upon me, I cannot know that I exist.

I have within me the power to rise above myself and to see myself freely—and to be seen. My thinking has the power to be free.

But for this to take place, my thinking must rid itself of all of the garbage that holds it captive, passive, unfree. My thinking must free itself from the constant pull of emotions. My thinking must feel its own power to resist this pull—its objective capacity to separate itself and watch over this pull while gradually rising above it. For it is in this moment that thought first becomes active. It becomes active while purifying itself.

If we cannot do this—if we refuse to do this—our thoughts are just illusions, something that further enslaves us, that we use to numb and avoid ourselves, a snare in which real thought loses its power of objectivity and intentional action. Confused by words, images, half-truths, fantasies, falsehoods, it loses the capacity to see. It loses the sense of “I”. Then nothing remains but an organism adrift, a body deprived of intelligence and seduced by any- and everything, and wholly at the mercy of “I like” and “I don’t like.” Without this inner look, without this inner seeing, I can only fall back into automatism, and live under the law of accident and nature.

And so my struggle is a struggle against the passivity of ordinary thinking, being seduced and led astray and obliterated by it. Without struggling against ordinary thought, a greater consciousness will not be born. At the heart of this struggle—to create order out of chaos—a hierarchy is revealed—two levels, two worlds. As long as there is only one level, one world, there can be no vision. Recognition of another and higher level is the awakening of thought.

Without this effort, without this struggle, thought falls back into a sleep filled with seductive and consoling words, images, preconceived notions, approximate knowledge, dreams, fantasies, and perpetual drifting. This is the thought of a person without any real intelligence. It is a terrible thing to realize that one has been living for years without any intelligence, without a level of thinking that sees what is real, with thinking that is without any relation to the real world. It is a terrible waste to think this way.

But without realizing this—without realizing that perhaps one has been thinking for years without intelligence—there is no hope for awakening.

Try just for a moment to accept the idea that you are not what you believe yourself to be, that you overestimate yourself, in fact that you lie to yourself. That you always lie to yourself every moment, all day, all your life. And that this lying rules you to such an extent that you cannot control it any more. You are the prey of lying. You lie, everywhere. Your relations with others—lies. The upbringing you give, the conventions—lies. Your teaching—lies. Your theories and art—lies. Your social life, your family life—lies. And what you think of yourself—lies also.

But you never stop yourself in what you are doing or in what you are saying because you believe in yourself. You never doubt or suspect yourself. You must stop inwardly and observe. Observe without preconceptions, accepting for a time this idea of lying. And if you observe in this way, paying with yourself, without self-pity, giving up all your supposed riches for a moment of reality, perhaps you will suddenly see something you have never before seen in yourself until this day. You will see that you are different from what you think you are. You will see that you are two. One who is not, but takes the place and plays the role of the other. And one who is, yet so weak, so insubstantial, that he no sooner appears than he immediately disappears. He cannot endure lies. The least lie makes him faint away. He does not struggle, he does not resist, he is defeated in advance. Learn to look until you have seen the difference between your two natures, until you have seen the lies, the deception in yourself. When you have seen your two natures, that day, in yourself, the truth will be born. You will finally be born.

– Jeanne de Salzmann, abridged and adapted and at points modified from “Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teachings,” pp. 2-6.