At this point in my life, after whatever portion of life I’ve seen and experienced and lived through and read and written about and reflected on (which may be a little or may be of some significance), I am convinced that there are only TWO ways of truly changing our lives and waking up.
There are many ways of making more or less superficial or cosmetic changes to our lives—what Covey refers to as the way of “the personality ethic.” And these “changes” will only change us sideways or in reverse; they will not truly change us in any real and deep and profound sense—in the sense of real growth, in the sense of changing our character, in the sense of changing our stripes, in the sense of leading us to truly experience an awakening of our conscience and our soul and having our level of thinking and clarity and self-control radically increase and improve.
There are only TWO ways of truly CHANGING our lives in the sense of waking up and radically (meeting at a fundamental or “root”—radical comes from the Latin “radix” meaning “root”) altering oneself and one’s character, transforming oneself, having a metanoia, a true spiritual awakening, dying while alive and being completely dead in order to be born again spiritually and psychologically.
And neither of these paths of real change is easy or simple. In fact, both are quite painful. And both tend to go heavy on the pain and suffering and put it first, make you pay up front, and then give you the happiness and joy and bliss later, down the road.
And if these TWO ways are not painful—if they’re easy and simple—then a person can pretty much be sure that he or she isn’t doing them correctly, if they’re even really doing them at all.
And combining both of these TWO ways is what will have the greatest impact and effect on us in terms of waking us up and changing us deeply, fundamentally, irrevocably.
Lastly, the first of these two ways often leads quite naturally to the second way as well. But the second way doesn’t necessarily lead back to the first way, and, in fact, without the addition of the first way, the second way is apt to be a watered-down even cosmetic “personality ethic” version of what it could be with the addition of the first way as well.
So clearly, in my estimation, the first way is by far the more important of the two ways, but if we truly want to grow we must employ both ways wholeheartedly.
So what are these two ways?
The first is DEATH—getting real about death, taking the blinders off, ceasing to live in denial, getting real about our own and others’ death, and immersing ourselves more and more in our mortality so that things reach a critical mass in us. And I don’t mean reading more and more cheesy vampire fiction; I’m not speaking about that sort of pop-death nonsense; what I’m speaking of is real death, truly beginning with the end in mind and doing so in tangible ways—i.e. volunteering with hospice, visiting a hospice ward, driving by graveyards and cemeteries and actually looking at the grave markers and not turning away but deeply realizing as we are now, they once were, as they are now so too will we be, as will be all of those we love as well as those we dislike, those who irritate us, try our patience, et cetera.
If any real change is to occur in our lives we must begin having an actual living relationship with our own death/mortality. Living, meaning consulting one’s own and others’ death must become an active and ongoing and semi-constant “preoccupation” (for lack of a better word), for us.
We have to start thinking about death, reflecting on death, contemplating it, reading and writing about death every day. That’s the practice. That’s the discipline. If—if—we truly want to change and awaken and grow.
Because if we aren’t frequently (i.e. several times throughout the day) and searchingly consulting our own and others’ death, then our decision-making processes are likely to be off—to be too narrow, too myopic, too limited in scope, too based in gratifying the Id or one’s want of comfort and security and an easy or fun and frivolous life. The space between our ears is for rent; it’s up for grabs, to be occupied by either love or fear, perspective or myopia, truth or falsity, good or evil; there’s no neutrality; every moment is either a moment of sanity or insanity/discursiveness/blindness/falsity.
I am convinced at this point in my life that there’s no way of living sincerely and mindfully without integrating one’s own and others’ mortality into one’s life and giving it it’s proper place in our lives.
Yet when I mentioned this line of thought the other day to someone, she made it sound like I was being unrealistic. She assured me that only a person like the Dalai Lama would do this sort of thing (think about death and impermanence). And I responded that anyone can do this, it’s available to everyone—anyone thoughtful normal person who has reached the age of 25 or 30 has likely lost someone significant to them through death, and so that person should be able to start thinking ahead and realizing that death is in store for everyone, including themselves, but that everyone around them seems to be co-conspiring in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to death and dying, and so everyone else is living in denial and everyone else comes down hard on (ostracizes) anyone who refuses to play by the same rules.
And sure enough her response was to de-friend me from her Facebook account because she was already under enough stress and only wanted to surround herself with “positive” people.
I kid you not.
But this is 98% of the human race: blind, asleep, not beginning with the end in mind, living in denial (which suggests that they are beginning with the end in mind, they just don’t want to face it honestly, so instead they want to face away from it and be dishonest about it). . . .
“Be aware of the reality that life ends, that death comes for everyone, that life is very brief. When you realize that possibly you don’t have years and years to live, and if you start living your life as if you only had a day or a week left, then that heightened sense of impermanence and fragility also tends to increase our feelings of preciousness and gratitude and love. It puts things in perspective.” – Pema Chodron
“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
It’s only when we truly know we’re going to die that we stop fucking around in life and get serious about aligning our current actions with those that we think are going to matter most when we get the cancer scare or when we’re on our deathbed.
Death alone—that level of pain and anxiety—is what seems to be sufficient to cut through our bs, restore us to sanity, give us clarity and perspective.
And death also seems to be the only real source of true gratitude. Without death—i.e. when we’re living on autopilot and as if life goes on forever—we invariably take things for granted. But by more and more facing death, we begin to take the good and neutral things in our life with much more real gratitude and appreciation.
“Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” – Doris Mortman
Part of making peace with who we are means making peace with the fact that we are mortal, that we have a body, that we will die, as will everyone else, and that what happens afterwards is essentially a matter of belief and speculation—it’s a mystery, and no matter how much we would prefer to solve that mystery, it is ultimately a mystery for now.
And it is in recognizing this and really reflecting on this, and doing so more and more often, that we can begin to become much more truly humble and appreciative.
And this—thinking about death, truly doing the inner work that will allow us to make peace with our own death and others’ deaths—is also what will allow us to get our priorities right: to give Love, goodness, compassion, understanding, gratitude, kindness, their rightful place in our lives. Because in the end, these soul qualities are what will (likely) truly matter: Did we kiss this life enough? Did we love others? Did we let another or others truly and deeply in? Were we good to this world or were we just another troubled guest who darkened the earth and used others and lived like a thief in the night?
Were we a hero? Or did take the coward’s way out?—Did we hide out from life, play it safe, live and love as if life went on forever?
. . .
The second way of deeply changing our lives is really a combination of steps 4 through 10 of the 12 Steps.
If we truly want to change and grow as a human being and awaken, we have to begin identifying more and more with our conscience, with that part of ourselves, and nourish and feed that part of ourselves.
Our conscience is our inner quality control expert—it’s what monitors us and monitors our level of effort in life. Are we doing our best or near-best? If our conscience is working and is well-formed, we will get one answer; if it is underdeveloped and we are living life in denial and emotionally (primarily from our feelings and the emotions and moods of the moment) and reactively, we will get another answer—a distinctly less honest and less realistic and less conscientious answer, one that makes us feel good but that likely is far less than truthful and realistic.
Our conscience is also what allows us to take the hit emotionally in life. It’s what allows us to not always have to feel good. In fact, it’s what allows us to prioritize things such that we can put doing good ahead of feeling good. People without a conscience or whose conscience is underdeveloped CANNOT do this—they cannot put doing good ahead of feeling good; everything revolves around their feelings—around feeling safe, loved, secure, accepted, validated, wanted, and when they feel all of this, they act one way (normally with decency), and when they don’t feel this way, they act an entirely different way (meaning, they typically act ungrateful, spoiled, entitled, bitter, petty, resentful, et cetera).
In order to raise the level of our conscience and to better develop it, we must start making regular (meaning every day, without exception—WITHOUT EXCEPTION!) searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs and our shortcomings and our character defects.
And the day we skip a day of doing this, is the day we fall of the wagon spiritually; it’s the day we prove that we really don’t want to change—that all of our talk about change is just that—talk, and not something real.
“It is impossible to grow and transform as a person unless we are prepared fully to cooperate in the process. Each step in the process depends on our wholehearted concurrence, because, in the long run, self-transcendence can only be the result of constant and tireless practice.
“Not until we have begun to practice continuously and vigilantly, with complete awareness, can we be said to have really joined the way. From then on the wheel of growth and transformation never stops turning. The process of transformation requires that all that is contrary to our essential being to be relinquished.” – Karlfried Graf Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pg. 79.
Moreover, because we have to participate in our own redemption (meaning, because we have free will), we will have to consent to allowing our character defects and shortcomings to be removed. —And we will have to do the work as well and participate in removing our own defects of character and conscience; we will have to put in actual time, labor, effort, work, real blood, sweat, and tears, and actually monitor ourselves and right our wrongs or our failings as soon as we notice them, instead of trying to trying to hide them, save them, cover them over, etc.
We need to be entirely ready on onboard for this to happen; we cannot cheat in this process.
And this is where DEATH comes in. Death, if faced honestly, cuts to the chase and cuts through our bs and denial like nothing else in life can and can actually keep us on track—death is what allows us “to race out beyond all lesser dangers to be safe around that one great danger”—that one great danger where we can bloom.
Making a change also requires that we make amends, that we make a list of all the persons we have harmed and wronged and fucked over, and that we are willing to humble ourselves and go back and correct our mistakes (except in those very rare and exceptional cases where doing so might cause serious injury to the other person—so this is not a caveat that allows any real wiggle room). This is part of what mental health, in the sense of complete and ongoing dedication to reality and to truth at all costs, means—it means that we don’t spare ourselves the expense by trying to save face and not taking the hit emotionally to our pride.
And truly making a change means that we to continue taking a searching and fearless personal moral inventory every day, that we remain vigilante, watchful, mindful, observant, honest. And whenever we notice that we are wrong, we need to swallow our pride, take the hit, and promptly admit our mistake or transgression, and not act in ways that invest ourselves even more heavily in our mistake. . . .
Having a truly working and functioning conscience means that there is something within us—what’s best in us—that’s active and that won’t let us lie to ourselves or cheat or cut illegitimate corners or get away with doing less than our best for very long. It means there’s something in us that monitors us, that doing quality control on us and our effort level, and that will call us out on our own bullshite. It means that we have an up and running personal ethics that allows us to feel another’s pains and the effects of our own actions (or lack of actions; i.e. withholding, withdrawal) on the other person. It’s what allows us to not do to another what we would not want done to us if the situation were reversed, and to do to another what we would want done to us if the situation were reversed. And it’s what allows this to happen in real time or near-real time, with minimal lag and minimal wiggle room for self-deception and lies and rationalizations (rational-lies-ations).
And one of the best ways to help this process along—this process of kick-starting our conscience and taking the quality of our moral reasoning and living to the next level—is to imagine we’re in a theater and we’re watching the story of our life—the highs and the lows. What would you be watching? What would you be seeing? And would you be the hero or the villain the story? Would you be proud of yourself and in awe or would be ashamed and embarrassed, even horrified? (Gurdjieff said that a person cannot awaken and truly change his or her life until he is completely appalled and “horrified” with himself—that that level of emotional disgust is necessary in order to motivate a person to get serious about waking up and letting all the smaller false I’s die. Facing death squarely also has the same effect of energizing us and getting us serious about waking up and living with greater clarity and maturity and Love.)
And now imagine watching yourself in your final days or when you get a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Watch yourself on your deathbed hours before dying. Was it worth it?—the way that you lived? Are you proud of how you conducted yourself here on earth? Are you proud of what you stood for and fought for and believed in? Did you do your best?
Now try taking yourself out of the equation: If you were watching someone else on screen doing the things you have done in your life, how would you feel about that person? How does he or she treat others? How does he or she treat him- or herself and the world? Is this person a good and noble soul? Or is he or she the proverbial “troubled guest darkening the earth”—full of chaos, fear, causing others pain? How would you feel watching this life review? Because right now you are trading your life to be this person—so is it worth it? Is this really the type of person you want to become? Are you doing your best or near-best? Are you even trying any more?
A searching and fearless and honest moral inventory is what will help us to more honestly and deeply ask and answer these questions—as will facing death squarely.