What Does It Mean to Be “Awake” in Life?


Is This True

What does it mean to be awake in life?

In large part it means being able to ask, “Is this really true?” when speaking to oneself, when speaking to others, or when others are speaking to you (or when reading what another has written).

Being asleep in part means not being able or willing to evaluate the truthfulness of statements and one’s own or others’ thoughts.

Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, the blogosphere — all of these are exploding with person after person sharing their “wisdom” and posting their pithy bon mots and platitudes. And many of these platitudes are simply not true, or only partially true or occasionally true, yet many appear as categoricals/universals, not situationals.

To me, being “awake in life” is synonymous with leading an examined life–a life of ever-increasing awareness, noticing, observing, attention, paying attention, commingled with reflection, pausing, contemplating, pondering.

And such a life is, when it comes to listening to others (or even ourselves and our own stories–narrations of reality and statement of the (facts”), in large part based upon being courageous and inquisitive and aware enough to ask the question: Is this really true?

Is this really true?

If we can’t/won’t ask this question, much less try to answer honestly, then we are subject to whatever lies, bias, propaganda, slant, deception, is being sold or marketed to us.

We live in a world that is becoming more and more fake and fraudulent, more and more driven by deception, sleight-of-hand, unauthentic-ness / inauthenticity, bullshit.  Deep down I suspect that many of us want real connection, real trust, real intimacy, for someone to have our back and for us to have someone else’s back just as much.  But we are living amidst a culture of false advertising, a culture of trickery and deception.  What we see on TV isn’t real.  We don’t see real life, but heavily edited and directed reality shows.  We see products being sold that over-promise on what they claim to be able to deliver.  We see people gussy themselves up behind make up, toupees, et cetera.  On-line dating sites are full of people not being real but claiming to be real and claiming not to be into games.  Without being able / willing to pause and ask “Is this really true?” we’re an easy mark–we’re highly gullible and suggestible and manipulable.

Is this really true?

This is such a large (and ignored) part of what being truly vulnerable *really* means: Being vulnerable actually means openly stating what we believe, putting out there (for all to see and to debate and even criticize) our deepest convictions and opinions and principles, and then having the courage and the respect to allow others to ask of us (in their own way): Is this really true?  If we don’t allow others to question us, if we hide behind platitudes such as “it doesn’t matter what others’ think” or “forget the haters and the naysayers, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter won’t mind,” then we’re not really “daring greatly” and we’re deceiving ourselves about living out loud, or living vulnerably.

The proof of truly living openly and vulnerably is in whether the person is open to receiving criticism.  And being open to criticism means being able to deal with it by pausing and asking “Is this really true (what the other person is saying)?”–this is the only way of legitimately dealing with criticism / a different point of view.

Is this true?

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The Waiting


waiting-room - 2

My mom died from metastatic melanoma a little over 3 years ago.  She found her first lump in mid-Feb of 2009 and she died about 10.5 months later.  She lived here in town near me, we had a good relationship, so I accompanied her through the entire process-through all of the consultations, appointments, treatments, et cetera.  I was there at her bedside much of the time during her last weeks, including when she died.

I learned a lot about waiting during that time.  Most obviously, there were the many waiting rooms where I would wait with my mom before her various appointments.  Then there was the waiting for test results—PET scans, MRIs, CAT scans, blood counts, et cetera.

And then there was the waiting that took place during the last couple of weeks of her life when it was clear that all of her treatment options had been exhausted, that the cancer was incurable, and the end was nearing quickly.  During that time, when I was at my mom’s bedside and she was sleeping, I would try to wrap my head around the concept that there would soon come a time when my mom would no longer be here.  There was going to be a clear and absolute division, a time in my life before my mom’s death and then the time after that.  And that time was coming soon.  It was a lot to try to wrap my head around, not just emotionally, but even intellectually.

And then one day it did indeed happen.  My mom did indeed die.  And then life with my mom ended, and life after my mom started.

I don’t have a grand philosophic point in mind as I am writing this.  Just a sense of similarity, but in a different direction.  I am waiting again, in a very turning-point sense again.  This time for the birth of my first child.  At 45-years old, my suspicion is that one appreciates this much more and much differently than when one is 25 or 30—or had this happened for me when I was 25 or 30.  45-year old me has lived more and seen more and read more and thought (and written) more—thought (and written) a lot more—than the 30- or even 35-year old me.  30 or 35-year old me hadn’t yet lost his mom, hadn’t yet had Rilke’s writings open up to him like a 3-D picture because of the ending of a particular relationship.  35-year old me wasn’t yet into photography, had only begun exploring Bowen and Schnarch’s writings on “differentiation of self,” was just starting to get a sense of what the world (and many of its inhabitants—human inhabitants) were really like beyond the façade and the veneer.

At 45-years old, becoming a first-time father means something more to me because there’s more of me for it to mean something to.

As Rilke put it, “The richer/deeper we are inwardly, the richer/deeper too is all that we experience.”  Something like that.

As I said, I have no grand philosophic insight in mind in writing and sharing this, no pie-in-the-sky Eckhart Tolle-like living in the now while still waiting take on this.  Just the simple observation that waiting for a new life has something in common with waiting for a death.  Just the simple observation that while my daily life is going on and while I am making preparations for this new member of the family, I am also temporarily in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for this latest crescendo-like turning point in my life to actually occur—this next *life-will-never-be-the-same-again-afterwards-as-it-was-before* type event, but in an opposite and much more joyous direction.  Hopefully.  Hopefully, meaning my child is not yet born, my wife has not yet gone through this labor and emerged healthy and having given birth to our son yet.  But so far, everything looks good, very good.  Any day now.  Any day now and my life will change in ways that I cannot fathom.  Any day now, and that line will be crossed—the line separating the time when I was not yet a biological father and was still waiting to become one and the time when this new chapter of my life will start.

.

The only tidbit I have approaching a bit of advice is this:  Wise people think about death.  Their own and others’.  They have a realistic relationship with their own mortality and thus with others’ mortality as well.  It’s not a depressing relationship or a morbid one, but a very life-enhancing and perspective-giving one.  As in the real meaning of carpe diem—being very grateful for and appreciative of what one has, not sweating the small stuff, not going through life childishly and angrily with a hole in one’s soul that nothing can fill.

We live in a society where the concept of growth has been usurped and externalized to mean improvement and is measured in material ways—home improvements, lifestyle status improvements, social improvements (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”).  Advertising has us convinced that if we improve the externals of our situation—take a vacation, redecorate the kitchen, put on a new coat of paint, get a fancier car, travel here or there, somehow gain more attention adulation and fame—then we’ll be happier, or then we’ll finally make it—or at least get closer to this.  And for some this does seem to work to some extent and perhaps for a while.  But it’s my experience that for this strategy of roundabout self-pseudo-improvement to work, there has to be a fair amount of self-delusion and self-deception in play, as well as some sort of psychic numbing and placating in addition to the shopping and consumerism—alcohol, antidepressants, et cetera (arguably even with some people religion).

Our own mortality and fragility and brevity is a lot to wrangle with.  And at first, this wrangling can be very very unsettling—very anxiety-provoking and or very depressing and nihilisitic (life has no meaning, paint it all black)—anything but life-enhancing and perspective-giving and empowering at first.

And clearly this is where many people get caught.  We get our first brush with death—someone close to us dies, or we start being haunted by thoughts and intimations of our impermanence and cosmic brevity—and we spin out, dive headlong into a superficial life of appearances, of psychic numbing, of distractions and dissipation, of the pursuit of status and advancement and travel, of checking things of our bucket list—self-indulgent things that we think are ultimately important but that in actuality likely really won’t be.

Or maybe our dive isn’t headlong; instead we just go along even more fervently with the crowd: no else seems to be integrating their own mortality into the fabric of their everyday decision-making, everyone else seems to be chasing after the wind in one form or the other, so why not join the crowd and chase after it too?—after all, what else is there to do in life with one’s life?

But there also seem to be those who have endured the first line and very powerful dissuaders of depression and anxiety and who instead of turning aside from a more realistic relationship with life and with their own and others’ mortality and fragility and brevity, have stuck with it, wrestled with and through the depression or fear and panic, and who have come to some deeper and more abiding sense of perspective and wisdom.

And it’s this realistic relationship with death has much to do with their wisdom, with having made them wise.  Arguably, a realistic relationship with our own impermanence, with our own brevity and fragility, is the only source of real compassion—compassion that doesn’t merely involve the limbic system, but that also includes the higher brain—the neo-cortex, the frontal lobes, our conscience and our consciousness.

When we are living in denial, when we live and love and fight and argue as if life goes on forever, we live and love without perspective, and arguably, without much depth or appreciation.  Real compassion, real wisdom, stem from developing a realistic relationship—instead of a denial-based relationship—with our own mortality and with our place is the universe.  Mortality is a lot to haul; it’s a lot to wrestle with; it can be unfathomably frightening and unsettling and disorienting, but it might just be what ultimately saves you, or lets you avoid living a life of quiet or unquiet desperation and un-appreciation.

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You’re the Same Today As You Will Be in Five Years Except for TWO Things…


I came across this quote somewhere in the blogosphere/twitterverse today.

You’re the same today as you will be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read. Think about it.”

And after thinking about it for a bit—yes, thinking—I responded:

Interesting and very thought-provoking statement (from Charlie Jones). But I don’t find it to be a completely true statement, only partially true—the statement is certainly an overstatement (just like “we are what we read”). But, nonetheless, it is still a fairly profound quote and a good reminder to watch what we read—and not waste time reading mediocre books but instead be daring enough to read something that is truly substantial—and also to perhaps live and love and (be)friend (instead of de-friend) a bit more widely than we might otherwise be apt to do.

Think of it this way—are you the same person today as you were five years ago except for the books you have read and the people you have met in that interim?

I know that I’m not.

At least not completely.

Two years ago my mom died after a 10 month battle with cancer that I witnessed and supported her through firsthand. So certainly deaths and losses and life crises (earthquake, tornado, hurricane, job loss, health crisis, divorce, et cetera) can have a very significant influence on us (and, yes, of course their influence depends on the thoughts we think, which arguably are largely influenced by the books we read and the people we meet as well as the people we surround ourselves with.)

In the last five years, I’ve also deepened my photography skills and traveled a fair amount, especially through the Southwestern US (AZ and UT and Southern CA in particular) and consider myself fortunate enough to have seen some very sublime sights and to have taken some perhaps fairly sublime photos. And that too has changed me fairly significantly, it has deepened me as a person, helped me become even more patient and creative, not to mention attentive (especially to details).

Turret Arch through Window Arch at Sunrise; Arches NP, UTTurret Arch seen through Window Arch at Sunrise, 2008, Arches NP, UT (my photo)

And these are just two examples from my own life that do not fall in line with the quote from Charlie Jones.

But I do get the gist of what he’s saying—Read small and live small and isolate yourself and you will largely waste the next five years of your life—and likely develop a neurosis or two to show for it. On the other hand, open your heart and your mind a bit more, live and love and befriend a bit more courageously and live the questions, and you will likely have (much) more to show for the next five years of your life. The choice is yours. Think about it.

What I’m saying is that I think the statement would read better and truer if it were rendered along the lines of: “In five years, you’ll largely be the same as you are today except for the books you read, the thoughts and ideals you think about and focus on and strive and extend yourself for most often, both the people you decide to love and surround yourself with as well as the people (and causes and ideals) you decide to dislike or hate or take a stand against, and, lastly, the crises and transitions you face. Think about it.”

Not nearly as quotable, but certainly much more true and realistic.

“‘You are the same today as you’ll be in five years except for two things, the books you read and the people you meet.’ Read all you can. Think about what you read carefully, and carefully think about what you’re reading. If you read nothing but comic books, you’ll get nothing but expert comic book knowledge. Read history books. There is nothing you can’t learn from history and biographies.

“Reading builds your mind and expands your thinking. In a world where the average American reads one to two books a year, if you read just one book a month you’ll be ahead of the pack ten fold. Remember though, that you have to think about what you read. Apply it to your life and realize how it could impact your own experiences. Learn from it. Finally, share it. Knowledge is nothing if it is not given away freely. If you give because you have, you’ll develop a greater capacity to give. Share everything you learn and always be thankful. The first sign of greatness is thankfulness.” Scot Giambalvo and Charlie Jones, http://www.modeweekly.com/1996/0896/0896CharlieJones.htm, http://tremendouslifebooks.org/tv/about-being-tremendous

The heart of my life is books. My favorite saying is this: ‘You are the same today you’ll be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read.’ In every turning point and crisis of my life, there’s always been a book that helped me think and see more clearly and keep laughing and keep looking up and keep my mouth shut. . . . When people come to my office, they come to talk to me. Instead of conversing with me like they think they are going to do, I get them reading. I pick out some great books and have each person read three or four sentences. I just received another email from a person recounting how his life was changed by learning the power of reading together—rather than talking. I just can’t get over the power of a little book—sometimes only 30 or 40 pages—that literally turns and shapes an entire lifetime. Yet most people say, ‘I don’t read.’ My heart aches for those people since I remember when I didn’t read because I was so ignorant. In my case, I was always blessed because I was ashamed of my ignorance; most people are proud to be ignorant. . . .

“This is how it all started. Years ago, I discovered that people throw away your business card. I could never imagine that people would be dumb enough to spend money on something that people throw away. I am not brilliant, but I am not dumb either: I gave away books as a business card and wrote my name and phone number in the book. People never threw them away! So I have given away hundreds and hundreds of thousands of books over the years and people remember me around the world. Many people say, ‘You’re the first person who ever game me a book.’ What makes you different is not what you have in your head, it is what you have in your heart. It is reading that helps you see more clearly and grow: You can not be interesting if you do not read.” – Charlie Jones, http://www.leadernetwork.org/charlie_jones_february_06.htm

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.

The One Thing: Prioritizing and choosing what’s truly important over what feels important at the moment


“Cleanliness becomes more important when godliness is unlikely.” – P. J. O’Rourke

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

The hustle and bustle and clutter all around us is never as threatening as the clutter and the shortfall in perspective overrunning us inside our own minds.

De-cluttering and minimalizing our lives is more often than not just another distraction—another way of temporarily distracting ourselves from what matters most in life.

Put it this way: in the end, on your deathbed, or when you’re in the doctor’s office being given the test results and told that you have a stage IV cancer, what will matter most then?

That you kept a tidy home?

There is an art in life to letting slide that which truly does not matter. (“No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.” – from the motion picture “Fight Club“)

There is an art in life to decluttering our own minds and getting down to what is most essential. In the end, “Feng Shui” ultimately does not matter—it’s just another distraction, another of the “many things”; the real ground zero is inside our own minds; that’s where the real Feng Shui and interior redecorating and de-cluttering needs to take place. It doesn’t matter how the rooms in our house are arranged, what matters is how much attention we’re paying to our own thinking from moment to moment—how observant we are of it versus how often we’re just blindly acting out on it and on our impulses and feelings.

What will matter in the end?

This is the lesson of the baobobs

On all planets there are good plants and bad plants. In consequence, there were good seeds from good plants, and bad seeds from bad plants. But seeds are invisible. They sleep deep in the heart of the earth’s darkness, until some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. Then this little seed will stretch itself and begin–timidly at first–to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognizes it.

Now there were some terrible seeds on the planet that was the home of the little prince; and these were the seeds of the baobab. The soil of that planet was infested with them.

A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots.

But before they grow so big, the baobabs start out small.

“It is a question of discipline,” the little prince said to me later on. “When you’ve finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care. You must see to it that you pull up regularly all the baobabs, at the very first moment when they can be distinguished from the rosebushes which they resemble so closely in their earliest youth. It is very tedious work,” the little prince added, “but very easy.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “there is no harm in putting off a piece of work until another day. But when it is a matter of baobabs, that always means a catastrophe. I knew a planet that was inhabited by a lazy man. He neglected three little bushes . . .”

I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist. But the danger of the baobabs is so little understood, and they present such a considerable risk if left untended to, that for once I am breaking through my reserve.

“Children,” I say plainly, “watch out for the baobabs!”

My friends, like myself, have been skirting this danger for a long time, without ever knowing it. And so it is for them that I have worked so hard over this drawing.

The lesson which I pass on by this means is worth all the trouble it has cost me.

 

 

 

Perhaps you will ask me, “Why are there no other drawing in this book as magnificent and impressive as this drawing of the baobabs?”

The reply is simple.

I have tried; but with the others I have not been successful. When I made the drawing of the baobabs I was carried beyond myself by the inspiring force of urgent necessity.

This is the only cleanliness that ultimately matters—de-weeding the baobobs in our mind. Yes, it’s important to shower every day, brush our teeth at least twice daily, floss, do the dishes, tidy up the kitchen so as not to attract ants and cockroaches and mice, et cetera. But after this, if we do not focus on our own mind and our own thinking and pay close attention to it—decluttering it of what’s not important and refocusing it on what truly matters, then we are wasting our lives. We are living blind, asleep. The boabobs are growing. The baobobs are winning and overrunning our lives.

What keeps the baobobs in check is death. Ultimately, the only thing we have that can keep the baobobs in check is beginning with the end in mind—actually  s  l  o  w  i  n  g  down and really thinking about what will be truly important to us when we finally “get it”—when we finally get how precious and fleeting and fragile life is and the lives of those around us are; when we finally get how little time we have left.

What matters then ought to matter now. That’s the essence of beginning with the end in mind.

And the essence of a true spiritual practice is that it does this for us: it gives us real functioning perspective. Not perspective that kicks in 20 minutes or 2 hrs or 2 days or 2 weeks too late after the baobobs and what’s worst in us has hijacked us and mucked things up for us—after we have made a mistake, and then compounded that mistake with another mistake and then another and then another, exponentially so, all in a misguided and blind attempt to save our pride, avoid some difficulty or discomfort, spare ourselves some feeling of shame or embarrassment or guilt. (“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” And “[i]nsofar as the nature of a challenge is legitimate [and it usually is], lying is an attempt to circumvent legitimate suffering and hence is productive of mental illness.” – both quotes are from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 51 & 56.)

A true spiritual practice cultivates something tangible in us—a new and contrary capacity that empowers us such that we actually counter what’s worst and weakest in us.

A true spiritual practice cultivates a love of truth and reality and the courage and grit and desire to face what is difficult to face in life and about life and about ourselves.

If our spiritual practice isn’t promoting this type of courage and desire to face reality and deal with life more directly and honestly, then we’re just bullshitting ourselves with our “spiritual practice.”

A true spiritual practice is what allows us to better connect with what’s best in us and not get sidetracked or distracted, and not let what’s worst and weakest in us take over and get the better of us when we get stressed, in a pinch or a bind, or when things get difficult or when we get flooded emotionally.

A true spiritual practice decreases how often we stress out and flood emotionally, and when we do flood, a genuine spiritual practice is what will decrease how much we flood and how long we stay flooded for.

If our spiritual practice isn’t helping us to do this, then we’re just bullshitting ourselves with our spirituality and our spiritual practices—our spiritual practice isn’t real, but is escapist and is only empowering our weaknesses and what’s worst in us.

Only beginning with the end in mind—and making a daily and ongoing habit and practice of this—is what will keep the baobobs in check.

Only beginning with the end in mind and having this as an up and running “antiviral program” running constantly in the background of our lives and blocking pop-ups (the world and its distractions as well as our own penchant for allowing ourselves to get sidetracked and distracted) is what will keep the baobobs in check.

30 minutes in the morning reading something of substance, something that begins with the end in mind, or 30 minutes (or 2 hrs) of writing in the morning about what will really matter in the end or when the plane is going down, that is what will help center us for the day and allow us to be better able to root out the baobobs and distinguish them from the rose bushes.

And the day we forget to do this, the day we forget to tend to our own mind and read something of substance or write about what truly matters in life, the day we just get up and get going without thinking and without centering ourselves and without beginning with the end in mind and allowing that to fill us with gratitude, is the day we fall off the wagon.

We’re all in recovery.

Whether we wish to admit it or not, we’re all in recovery. We all have an ego, so we’re all in recovery and we all have to deal with our innate narcissistic and reactive and impulsive tendencies. Because we have an ego, we’re all some sort of –holic; we’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, living in denial of our own mortality; we all have avoidant and escapist tendencies; we all piss away time every day doing stuff that ultimately and even much less ultimately does not matter; we’re all prone to lose perspective and sweat the small stuff; we’re all prone to flood emotionally and act out angrily and irrationally and in hurtful ways; we all have baobobs we need to tend to each and every morning and without exception!

That’s just part and parcel of the human condition; that’s just part of being human and fighting the good fight—tending to our own thinking; potty training ourselves to begin with the end in mind, and to do so now before it’s too late and before life forcibly takes this choice away from us.

The boabobs want to distract us with many things, with a life of endless straightening, an endless chasing after this wind or that, a life of putting out one fire after another, when ultimately there is only need of one thing. A good day for the ego is a bad day for the soul. A day misspent by not beginning it by beginning with the end in mind, a day misspent not reading or write something of substance and not connecting with our deepest self—with what is most important in life and will be most important to us when things fall apart or when the plane is going down, is a great day for the ego and its denial and avoidance and distraction mechanisms, and a bad day for the soul

Albert Schweitzer on Love, Death, and Gratitude


(This is my abridgment and arrangement and adaptation of pp. 67-76 of “Reverence for Life.” It comes from a sermon Schweitzer preached Sunday, November 17, 1907, at the morning service at St. Nicolai’s Church.)

A man and a woman who love each other have not experienced everything together in life unless, looking at each other, the questions have occurred to each: What would become of you without me? And what would become of me without you?

Something deep and sanctifying takes place when people who belong to each other share the thought that every day, each coming hour, may separate them.

In this awareness we always find that the initial anxiety gives way to deeper and very important questions: Have we given each other everything we could? Have we been everything we might have been to one another? Is there anything we would like to undo, something we wished had never happened or that we had not said?

We sense that perhaps we can better bear the parting if we have treated each other with such love.

What a different world this would be if we dared to look deeply at each other, if we kept in mind the prospect of being torn unexpectedly from each other. We each would become more sacred to one another because of death. So much of what we value, so much of what captivates us and engages us, so much of what we fight over and bicker about, is only of temporary worth. In an instant, in the very next hour, it may become utterly valueless.

We all pretend toward one another that the possibility of each other’s death or our own could never happen. No other rule of behavior is so scrupulously observed as this. Most people around us still live in bondage to death. They won’t mention death’s name, and they refuse to think about it. You as well as I can see the unnaturalness of this conspiracy—this conspiracy of silence by which death asserts its rule over modern man. Let us observe ourselves at this very moment. Look at our involuntary embarrassment. We know each other; we share the thought that we all must die. And although we feel this strange embarrassment, I believe that we also can share an awareness that can help us to overcome the thoughtlessness with which death is usually ignored.

Often, as we look at ourselves and others, we realize how poorly and disjointedly we have been living at times. This is because we have not yet made it a practice to think honestly about death and therefore we have not achieved an inward from the unessential things in life.

We must each become familiar with the thought of death if we want to grow into really good people. We need not dwell on it every hour or even every day, but let us not close our eyes to it either.

Thinking about death in this way produces a true love for life. When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as the gift that it is. Only if we are thus able to accept life—bit by bit; as something we owe of ourselves, instead of something owed us—does it become precious.

Only familiarity with the thought of death creates true, inward freedom from material things. The ambition, greed, love of power, lust for security that we keep in our hearts, that shackles us to this life in chains of bondage, cannot in the long run deceive the person who looks death in the face.

Rather, by contemplating our end and the futility of so many of our pursuits, we eventually can be purified and delivered from our baser selves, from material things, as well as from the fear and hatred and jealousy that isolate us from our fellow men and women.

So how can our normal lives and interactions be transformed? By regarding, in moments of deepest concentration, our own lives and those who are part of our lives as though we already had lost them to death, only to receive them back for a little while.

The person who dares to live his life in this way, with death before his eyes, the person who receives life back bit by bit and lives as though it did not belong to him by right but has been bestowed upon him as a temporary gift, such a person has much freedom and peace of mind because he has come a long way in overcoming death.

The TWO Preliminaries Necessary to Train In In Order to Awaken and Truly Change & Grow


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.

Remember youth as you go by,as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me

Remember youth as you go by,as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me

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.