How do you view yourself and your life?
Do you see yourself and your life and your actions as an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light, within yourself?—your good and healthy inclinations versus your unhealthy and bad inclinations?—your inclinations to stay comfortable and have an easy life opposing your inclination to grab life by the stones, to wake up and live courageously and much more honestly and with heart- and mind- and eyes-wide open?—to get yourself up out of the muck and mire and live in a much more ennobling and virtuous and wise and—dare I say it—”Godly” way?
How do you see yourself and your one little precious life?
Some of us are very good people, some of us are very bad, even evil, people, but the vast majority of us are somewhere in between.
We might therefore think of human good and human evil as a kind of continuum. And as individuals we can move ourselves one way or the other along the continuum. With sustained effort—right effort—we can move ourselves more and more toward the good, and with sustained denial and neglect and abnegation of responsibility we can move ourselves further and further away from the good and closer and closer to the bad or toward evil.
Just as there is a tendency for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, so too there seems to be a tendency for the good to get better and the bad to get worse, the wise to get wiser and the foolish and unhealthy to get even more foolish and mentally unhealthy.
(Adapted and elaborated on from M. Scott Peck’s “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,” pg. 88)
So what accounts for this?—what is necessary or required for us to move ourselves along the continuum in the right direction, from less healthy psychologically to more healthy psychologically, from less goodness to more goodness?
Two things, in my estimation. The first is awareness—call it mindfulness, self-awareness, self-consciousness, being “awake,” leading an examined life; it’s the capacity to realize what we we’re doing while we’re doing it. Without this capacity, life is either a senseless blind descent into the ground, or always lived in retrospect and only understood by looking back, never by looking clearly at what’s in front of us and where we are right now. This sort of awareness requires intelligence, as well as tremendous honesty and inner grit/courage, and a good bit of humility—swallowing our pride and denial, not being afraid to admit when we’re wrong, not being afraid of feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, less than; because if our self-esteem is so low that we are afraid to take these hits—bear these narcissistic injuries and slights to ourself—then we will continue on the path of excessive and malignant emotional self-protection—avoidance of feeling badly about ourselves at all costs, even when it means hurting others and forcing them to take the hit emotionally rather than ourselves.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13)
And some degree of external necessity. Few of us will come to great levels of self-awareness and wakefulness and wisdom by virtue of inner necessity alone; we will need to have our hand forced, compelled, or even guided by something outside of us—Grace, a teacher or mentor or guru, a path, a religious or spiritual path (meditation, the Dharma, a twelve step program), a great loss or series of losses, great pain, a near-death experience, a cancer-scare or heart attack, something along those lines that will force us to cut through our crap and start the habit/discipline of looking squarely and directly at ourselves and leading much more honest and examined life.
Some people—a very small minority— are compelled by inner necessity to wake up and get serious about living much more honestly and sincerely. They are graced (cursed?) with powerful, even horrifying, glimpses of their own impermanence and fragility and brevity—the impermanence and fragility and brevity of all things—that there is nothing in this world to cling to, that we are born without any real idea why we are here or for how long (“I stick my finger in existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? And why was I not consulted?” – Søren Kierkegaard), that talk of God and an afterlife is largely some combination of hand-me-down stories and inner wish-fulfillment and desperation. And a glimpse such as this—all at once searing and piercing and terrifying—of oneself and one’s lot is enough to get some people to cut the crap and to get busy living more honestly, sincerely and in a much more awake and responsible fashion.
But most people are not graced—or cursed—with such experiences or glimpses into the way things (likely) really are. Instead they live asleep behind a curtain of words and ideas and social conventions and expectations, anesthetizing themselves on drink, relationships, Sunday church, a Monday through Friday routine of 8-5 work then a commute home for dinner and an evening in front of the TV, conversations about sport, gossip, politics, and other trivial matters, facebook, web browsing, dissipating and numbing themselves constantly in a thousand different ways all so that they never have to come up against or feel and face the likely truth of their existence. Instead they’d rather “tranquilize themselves on the trivial” (Earnest Becker’s term, from “The Denial of Death”), focus on the little happy sounding things in life—building self-esteem rather than character, being happy rather than being good, being comfortable rather than being awake and fully born, being content rather than having a mature conscience and an active soul, fitting in the status quo rather than growing up as much as one can emotionally and psychologically and spiritually. It is these people who will require some sort of external inducement or aid to help them wake up and live more sincerely and honestly and mindfully. They will require a guru or teacher, or some sort of calamity, or hitting rock bottom in some way, before they will have the impetus to get living in a more courageous and noble way.
“If you will but stop here and ask yourself ‘Why am I not as pious as the first Christians were?’ your own heart will tell you the answer: that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” – William Law
Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice in life.
The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions (i.e. taking the easy way out, the path of least resistance—choosing the easy wrong over the difficult right, choosing the easy and quick-fix wrong over the difficult and more long-term right, choosing comfort over truth, opting for half-baked solutions and easy answers, scapegoating, abdicating responsibility, blaming others, spinning out emotionally, refusing to look at ourselves, being hypersensitive to honest criticism and scrutiny, et cetera)—and refuse or are unwilling to see our decisions as such, the more our heart will harden (our heart will have to harden in order to keep out the light and keep us in the dark and keep us in denial).
On the other hand, the more often we make the right (courageous, noble, virtuous, honest) decision, the more our heart softens—or perhaps better, comes alive.
Each step in life which increases my courage, my honesty, my integrity, my conviction, and my wisdom also increases my self-confidence, my discernment, and my capacity to choose the desirable alternative (the difficult right over the easy wrong), until it eventually becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable wrong (the easy way out) rather than the desirable right.
On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice—each time I blame/scapegoat others and or life and refuse to master myself and my own reactions and emotions and avoidant (drapetomaniacal) tendencies, and instead reactively opt to abrogate or abnegate responsibility—weakens me, opens the door to further acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.
Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme where I have lost my freedom to right action and parent or govern myself in a healthy and conscientious way, there are innumerable degrees of freedom of choice.
In the practice of life, the degree of freedom emotionally (limbically) and psychologically to choose is different at any given moment.
If the degree of freedom to choose the good is high, then it requires less effort from me to choose the good.
However, if the degree of freedom is small, then it requires either favorable circumstances, help from others (borrowed functioning, emotional support, other-validation, encouragement), or it requires great effort on my part—grit, self-mastery, a productive character orientation, honesty, courage, inner reserves and resourcefulness, a strong conscience, a strong and well-developed ethics of personal responsibility, and so on.
Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong road, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road—most likely because that would require them (a) to admit to themselves and others that they are on the wrong road and (b) that would further burden them to admit that they must go back to their first wrong turn, atone and make their amends and reparations, and (c) accept the fact that they have wasted a lot of unnecessary energy and time living pridefully and in fear of feeling ashamed, embarrassed, not good enough, et cetera.
(Adapted and modified and elaborated on from Erich Fromm’s “The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil,” pp. 135-138)
The resolve to awaken requires the integrity not to hurt anyone in the process. Dharma practice cannot be abstracted from the way we interact with the world. Our deeds, words, and intentions create an ethical ambiance that either supports or weakens our resolve. If we behave in a way that harms either ourselves or others, our capacity to focus on our work will be weakened. We will feel disturbed, distracted, anxious, uneasy, and our practice will less and less effect. . . .
Ethical integrity requires both the intelligence to understand the present situation as the fruition of former choices, and the courage to engage the present moment as the arena for the creation of future consequences (karma). It empowers us to embrace the ambiguity of a present that is simultaneously tethered to an irrevocable past and yet still free for a future that is not wholly determined.
Our ethical integrity is threatened as much by attachment to the security of what is familiar and known as by fear of what is unfamiliar and unknown. It is subject to being remorselessly buffeted by the winds of desire and fear, doubt and worry, distrust and anxiety, fantasy and egoism. The more we give into these things, the more our integrity and resolve are eroded, and the more we find ourselves being carried along on a wave of psychological and social habit.
(Adapted and modified from Stephen Batchelor’s, “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,” pp. 45-48)