What kind of horse do you want to be?
“The superior mind will find itself equally at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them.” – Emerson
The Buddha told a story about four types of horse and the ways in which they learn and how they respond to their master.
The first horse responds to the shadow of the whip; the second responds to the cracking sound of the whip; and the third to the feel of the whip on its skin.
But the fourth type of horse does not respond until it feels the pain of the whip in its bones and marrow.
The Buddha told this story as a way of elucidating how people, especially those who are spiritual seekers, respond to guidance they receive and the pain and disappointments and losses they experience in their lives.
(Adapted from Philip Martin’s book “The Zen Path through Depression,” pg. 117)
Most people like to think that they are like the first type of horse—actually, such is the pervasive nature of pride/vanity and our fear of feeling inferior/ashamed that the vast majority of us flatter ourselves by imagining that we are like the first type of horse. (How did ashes and dust become so proud!?) But in reality the vast vast majority of us are like the fourth type of horse—we have to have things “beaten” into us by life—driven down painfully, tediously, to the bone, to the marrow—before the lightbulb turns on and we “get it.”
For most of us, our daily lives are full of lies—full of brazen, bald-faced lies. Lies that we tell most of all to ourselves. We pull the wool over our own eyes all the time to ourselves, push the unpleasant to deal with stuff about ourselves out of our awareness, pretend not to notice certain incongruities within ourselves (or at least we don’t allow ourselves to feel the full force of them), feign obliviousness to certain stains in our character, et cetera. Basically we deceive ourselves in hundreds of ways hundreds of times a day. Especially when it comes to the biggest concern of all: death. How many times a day do we reactively, automatically suppress, deny, exclude, annihilate anything that might remind of us death? When we pass by cemeteries, how many of us pause and think “someday that will be me and all of those I now love, and even those who annoy me. What’s the point of it all? Why am I living the way I’m living? Why am I not living with greater clarity and conviction and purpose? Why am I living so obliviously, as if death will never touch me or those around me?” Et cetera, et cetera. . . .
The truth is that the vast majority of us are not living now as we will have wished that we will have lived when we’re dying.
And even if we protest and say we are and or say we have a bucket list, how can we be sure that that’s really what we will consider to be truly important in the final analysis?
—Unless—unless—we have made it a daily habit of not merely even just thinking about death, but contemplating it and feeling it fully and deeply, all the way down to the bone—with the same fear and sadness and terror that we will likely experience when the doctor comes into the room, sits us down, and tells us that it’s not good news, that the PET/CT scan is showing multiple hot spots of increased glucose uptake, areas on our liver, lungs, spine, pelvis, back of our skull, et cetera, that we’re dealing with a cancer that has metastasized.
Until we start reflecting on and feeling our own mortality in this way—then we’re still just feeling the whip on the very hair on our skin. We’re just bull-shitting ourselves. We’re not yet feeling our own mortality penetrating us to our core, to our very bones.
And so we’re still living in denial; we’re just hoodwinking ourselves with our talk about our own mortality.
Now perhaps all of this self-talk about our own mortality may be the beginning of something that will become much more honest and transformative—it may be the beginnings of a practice that will eventually reach down to the bone and allow us to affect some real change in ourselves and the way we’re living. So thinking and reflecting on our own mortality is not to be decried. It may eventually lead past mere intellectualization. It may signify the first step away from an unconscious and blind life to a much more examined and awake life.
The main reason for this—the reason why the vast majority of us are the way we are—is that we don’t yet have the level of “being” or “differentiation” to support an honest relationship with reality, a significant part of which means allowing our big beautiful brains to think about their—which in all likelihood means “our”—own impending extinction and likely (possible?) non-existence. We don’t allow our minds to consider the perennial existential questions in life. Why are we here? How did we get here? How long are we here for? What happens after death? Who am I? What is it that I am to do with my life? What is the meaning of my life? What meaning will I give it? Is there any meaning to life? et cetera, et cetera. How can we live the questions if we never really ask them? . . .
“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
The reality is that we as all need to borrow a certain amount of functioning to make it through the day. And denial is one of the primary forms of currency we rely on.
But we also need and rely on other forms of borrowing functioning, because the truth is none of us is non-dependent. We are all dependent in some way upon others, society, for our survival and functioning—and not merely for our physical survival and functioning, but also our emotional survival and functioning—we all lean on others, curry their favor and support and encouragement and validation and favorable mirroring of us, in order to make it through the day, stabilize our moods and emotions, feel good about ourselves, learn about and come to better know ourselves.
Another way many of us borrow functioning and psychological stability is through our religious and spiritual beliefs. For many people—perhaps the vast majority of people—their belief in God and an afterlife and some sort of cosmic order, however vague and unformed these beliefs may be, lends them psychological functioning and emotional stability and help them make it through the day by not forcing them to consider and confront the alternative—that there may be no God (or at least not the God that many people are worshipping), that there may be no life after this, and more to the point, their beliefs allow them to arrogantly eschew and postpone having to deal with their own mortality.
Through the considerable thick skin of denial that many of us have surrounding us, buffering us, insulating us from seeing life perhaps more clearly and honestly, we are able to continue on, living more or less conventionally, tranquilizing ourselves on the trivial, anesthetizing ourselves with our 9-5 routines and our shallow discursive relationships and friendships, and hypnotizing and deluding ourselves with our idiosyncratic and or esoteric beliefs.
And the proof of this—perhaps the only real proof possible—comes the morning we wake up and feel a lump under our arm, the day we have the heart attack, the night we don’t sleep because we are dreading get the lab results back—the day life finally pins us to the mat and we are forced to scream “uncle!” and give up our self-deception. The day life finally drives it through our thick head—through the thick crust of our denial, the thick crust of our pride and vanity and denial and self-deception—all of our various buffers and discursive monkey-minded ways of flitting on the surface of life, and we finally “get it.” The day we finally feel the sting of life’s whip on our bones.
Wake up. You’re not going to live forever. Nor are those around you. Wake up to this each morning. Remember this frequently, hourly, every 30 minutes, during the day. Remember this while you are shopping, while you are standing in line and growing impatient with the elderly person fumbling around in front of you or making small talk with the cashier. Remember this while you are driving and caught in traffic. Remember this while you are driving past a cemetery or graveyard—as you are now, they once were; as they are now, so too will you be one day.
How did ashes and dust get so proud?
Until we realize our own mortality at an emotional and visceral level, and not merely intellectually, we are not mentally healthy. We are unhealthy. Or put another way, to the extent that we are living our lives as though life goes on forever, we are mentally ill.
Peck defined mental health as an ongoing dedication to reality at all costs. Yet most of us don’t have much of a relationship with reality; rather we have a much stronger relationship with unreality, with fantasyland with some figment of it. We don’t see things as they are, but as we are and as we need to see them in order to make it through the day, not be overwhelmed or flooded, not go insane, et cetera. And we don’t see ourselves as we are, but only as our fragile wittle egos will permit us to see ourselves take in without feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, ashamed, full of self-loathing, et cetera.
To dedicate ourselves to reality—to seeing ourselves as we are and life as it is—requires an immense amount of grit and determination. Being dedicated to truth and reality requires a level of commitment—a level of fierce determination—that is not come by cheaply nor easily. It requires a certain level of “differentiation” or “being” to support and sustain it, to make it viable. —And trying to make—and keep—that commitment is also what helps create the eventual level of being or differentiation required to sustain it.
“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.” – John Ruskin
Schnarch, in his absolutely fascinating book, “Passionate Marriage,” describes marriage and long-term intimate committed relationships as “people growing machines.” So too is real philosophy—doing some solid and honest thinking about oneself and one’s place in the world, leading a very mindful and examined and introspective life and facing oneself and one’s biases and bull-shite—is also a people-growing machine. In fact, this level of honest self-examination and self-confrontation and soul-searching is one and the same level of soul-searching and self-examination and self-confronting that makes a marriage or long-term relationship not just work but really flourish and sizzle.