“Communion”


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

But were there others who were alive now?

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

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

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

No more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Martin Buber

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Real Love & The Examined Life


We naturally tend to speak to others in our own love language, meaning we try to love others in the way we would want to be loved, in ways that speak love to us.  This is just part of being human, part and parcel of being a see of awareness born into one set of five senses, an ego limited to a particular skin bag of bones and nerve endings.

But Love—real love—means stretching ourselves to learn how to speak love in a way that speaks to those we love in a way that is more native and natural to them (so long as that way is healthy, of course).   Real love means learning how to speak in other dialects of love—the other person’s dialect.  It means learning to love another in a way that is meaningful to them, even though it may (initially or for a while) be foreign or difficult to us.  That’s part of the self-extension of real love. 

And it involves a lot of paying attention and noticing and thinking.

The other side of the self-extension of real love means stretching how we receive love.  Real love means stretching ourselves and our hearing so that we can receive love from others in a way that is native to them even though it may be foreign or alien to us—meaning even though it may not be our preferred way of being loved.

This is a huge part of what it means to be in a conscious relationship. 

In a truly conscious relationship, both people are focused on increasing their own awareness of themselves and their real underlying motivations and needs and patterns, as well as their awareness of the other person and his or her real motivations and needs—and intending this level of awareness or being fully present 24/7/365.  This is what makes a relationship, by definition, a truly conscious relationship. 

And it’s an inescapable part of leading an examined life. 

And, truth be told, to live anything less than a very mindful and examined and consciously aware life is to waste one’s mind—to forsake it—and live asleep, unconsciously, as if one had never been born.  Or to live as if one had never been born human but instead was an animal.  Perhaps a very successful and pleasant to be around animal, but essentially an animal nonetheless. 

What makes us most human—and what simulaneously most frightens/terrifies/haunts us—is our capacity for self-awareness.  Self-consciousness, self-awareness, is both a tremendous blessing and an onerous curse.  Because the more aware of ourselves we are, the more keenly aware we will be as well of our own mortality, our own finitude, the possibility of a vast pitch-black eternity of nothingness to come after our meager little life has run its course.

“I stick my finger in existence—and it smells of nothing.  Where am I?  Who am I? How did I come to be here?  What is this thing called life? What does it mean?  Who is it that has lured me into the world and why was I not consulted?” – Søren Kierkegaard

We might say that the child is a ‘natural’ coward.  Most of us, by the time we leave childhood, have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation.  We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience.  The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.

But nature has protected the lower animals by endowing them with instincts.  It is very simple: Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to.  They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their noses and shuts everything else out.

But look at man, the impossible creature.  Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts.  She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience.  Not only in front of his nose, in his ‘umwelt,’ but in many other ‘umweltsen.’  He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species.  He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows.  He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now.  He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes.  It is appalling, the burden than man bears.  He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.  His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him but all the more strange.  Each thing is a problem.

Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet.  And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation. 

(Ernest Becker, from “ The Denial of Death,” pp. 50-51)

This double-edged sword nature of awareness is what keeps many people from ever becoming very aware of themselves, others, life, and instead forces them to unconsciously, unknowingly, stunt themselves psychologically and emotionally and remain narcissistic, impulsive, unthinking, unreflective, unaware.  Because it just seems easier (meaning less frightening, less terrifying, less disorienting and bewildering) to live that way.  Why trade in a bunch of little niggling nuisance even luxury problems for a set of bonafide and likely irresolvable and unanswerable and perhaps endlessly terrifying existential questions? 

Why submit or surrender oneself to this—to living this honestly?

Why not limit one’s awareness, live dishonestly, and do like the vast majority of other people do and not dedicate oneself to truth and reality but instead dedicate oneself to trivia, distraction, and the art of dissipating oneself and immersing oneself in this and that illusion or fantasy or lie?

This is one of the fundamental philosophic and psychological questions in life, if not THE fundamental question in life: How self-aware to permit ourselves to be?

Or: how much denial and self-deception and dishonesty to allow ourselves to generate and buffer ourselves with.

Real love is based on—and is the fruit of—real self-awareness, real self-honesty, intense soul-searching and self-scrutiny, in other words, a very very examined and highly mindful life.  Or in still yet other words, it’s based on having a truly high-functioning conscience. 

Thus, if a person is not leading a highly mindful and examined and reflective life, then one is not capable of truly loving others or one’s self: one’s love will at best be hit or miss—a mix of acting out one’s feelings, good and bad, and perhaps the fruits of a decent upbringing and many Sunday sermons—or at worse it will be some form of exploitation, robbery/thievery, narcissism, parasiticism.

This is the choice we are all faced with: How aware to permit ourselves to become of ourselves, others, life.

To not permit ourselves to become very aware of ourselves and others and life will mean we will have to live superficially, dissipate our mind on popular fiction and the worst of bestsellers, live in the shallows relationships-wise and conversationally as well, insulate ourselves from those things that (not to mention people who) might overwhelm or frighten us.  It means to commit ourselves to a life of comfort first, a life of ongoing dedication to the path of least resistance, to laziness, to cutting corners, to not extending or stretching ourselves, to stagnating as a person, to stunting and blunting and dulling our awareness, to listening to lots and lots of SportsCenter or Entertainment Tonight, et cetera.  It means committing ourselves to never growing up, to never outgrowing our innate narcissistic (self-centered) and antisocial (unconscientious), and borderline (impulsive, avoidant, emotionally reactive and volatile) tendencies.

On the other hand, to become ever more self-aware and lead an increasingly mindful and examined life will entail a life of discipline, facing challenges, facing reality, thinking, reflecting, reading decent books, courage, non-avoidance, honesty, deliberateness, facing our fears, extending and stretching ourselves and growing vertically or perpendicularly as individuals spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually.

From M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled,” page 303—

A young woman who had been in therapy with me for a year for a pervasive depression, and who had come to learn a good deal about the psychopathology of her relatives, was exultant one day about a family situation that she had handled with wisdom, equanimity, and facility. 

“I felt really good about it and myself,” she said. “I wished I could feel that way more often.”

I told her that  she could, pointing out to her that the reason she had felt so well was that for the first time in dealing with her family she was in a position of power, being aware of all of their distorted communications and the devious ways in which they attempted to manipulate her into fulfilling their unrealistic demands, and therefore she was on top of the situation.  I told her that as she was able to extend this type of awareness to other situations she would find herself increasingly “on top of things” and therefore experience that good feeling more and more frequently.

She looks at me with the beginning of a sense of horror.

“But that would require me to be thinking all the time!” she said.

I agreed with her that it was through a lot of thinking that her personal power would evolve and be maintained, and that she would be rid of the feeling of powerlessness at the root of her depression.

She became furious.  “I don’t want to have to have to think all the goddamn time!” she roared.  “I didn’t come here for my life to be made more difficult.  I just want to be able to relax and enjoy myself, have fun, and enjoy a comfortable life.  You expect me to be some sort of god or something!”

Sad to say, it was shortly afterward that this potentially brilliant woman terminated treatment, far short of being healed, terrified of the demands that real mental health would require of her.