Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action


Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action

I suppose I could have also titled this post: “The Truth—will it set you free or will it cause you to break cleanly with reality and go bat-shit crazy?”

We all have a personal philosophy. Our personal philosophy is simply our approach to life—our way of approaching life and dealing with what we encounter. There are really only two ways to approach life: either we approach life—all facets of it—in a thoughtful and examined way; or we opt not to. —Meaning, at some point we unconsciously decide that thinking will open up too many painful doors and bring up too many terrifying and unanswerable questions, and so we decide to limit that part of ourselves (the thinking and conscious part) and we try instead to lose ourselves in work, play, relationships, Facebook, et cetera. Essentially, it’s the “any port in the storm” approach to life—a life of hiding out from what we fear most—the emotions that most frighten us—terror, panic, anxiety, shame, inadequacy—and the thoughts and experiences/situations that will likely trigger these emotions—these intense and overwhelming emotions.

And sadly, such an approach limits our humane-ness as well as our growth and development. It is the ultimate act of self-limiting—to opt to curb one’s awareness and one’s thinking and instead lead a timid and an unexamined life and hide from what most frightens us.

Yet it’s what almost all of us instinctively and naturally do. It’s our default. A default that’s been bred into us through thousands upon thousands of years of natural selection. Self-preservation—the will to survive—is our default. And nothing helps us more in this than automatically seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Thus our personal life philosophies have been instinctively built around avoiding and retreating suffering and difficulty and discomfort and anything that might cause us mental anguish or unsettle us, and chasing after good vibes and good feelings. . . .

But . . . there tends to be a problem with this approach to life . . .

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

― Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

There are certain sufferings that likely cannot be avoided—sickness, old age, loss of love, death. But in our youthful exuberance, ignorance, naiveté, and feelings of omnipotence, we think we actually can play hide and seek with the dark parts of life and avoid suffering—at least for a very long time into the future.

And so part of doing so involves automatically limiting our awareness and our thinking—not exposing ourselves to thoughts and ideas that might cause us to suffer. Who in the spring or summer of their life wants to think about the inevitable coming winter? Who wants to think about death and loss and sickness and old age and poverty and the pains and sufferings of one’s upbringing?

It’s easier to just sweep all of that stuff under the psychological carpeting and out of our conscious mind, and keep the party bus approach to life rolling.

We’re all afraid. That’s a given.

And certain amount of suffering is inevitable; it’s unavoidable; it’s part and parcel of being alive and living.

Thus our dilemma.

Either we approach our lives very honestly, in fear and trembling, and with eyes and mind wide open; or we do so with eyes and mind frightened and quickly closing and shutting down, always squinting, always nervous and apprehensive about what they might see around the next bend or read in the next book or blog post.

In my early-teens through my early twenties I used to routinely avoid TV shows like “Cosmos” or anything that mentioned the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the Universe. If the Universe began and ended like this, then what’s the point? Everything comes to naught. Why live? Why live for anything other than as much immediate and overwhelming pleasure and ego-gratification and enlargement as possible? Why not try to lose oneself in pleasure and the stream of life and try to lose oneself completely—after all, the alternative is too much to face, too much to bear? And as for God, where is there room for God in such cosmology? 13 or 14 billion years ago, the Universe blasted itself into existence, and millions and millions of years of evolution took place and have all come to this point—this point where I am alive, aware of myself, aware that I will die, aware that before me there was an eternity of nothingness, that before the beginning of the Universe there was what?—and that I will die, perhaps in a hideous or random way as will those around me, and then everything will fade to black, and there will be an eternity—an eternity upon eternities—after me; the Universe will turn cold and motionless, or it will perhaps collapse upon itself—and perhaps start again and everything will repeat itself exactly, again and again; or perhaps everything will be different the next time through. Or perhaps the Universe won’t start again, and me, my life—whatever I am, whatever I make of myself and my life—will be swallowed up and lost in the folds of all of this, just like everything and everyone else.

Those were the questions of my youth and young adulthood. And they still are, except they don’t fill me with me as much terror; things don’t seem as bleak and or grim. I still don’t hold out much hope for an afterlife—not that I wouldn’t relish being proven wrong.

I think that what’s changed for me—or in me—are two things. Firstly, I tolerate the questions better—I think that a bit of “desensitization” has taken place—not that I still am not occasionally filled with terror at all of the above and spin out in panic; I just don’t spin out as dramatically or for as long—or as easily. So a bit of desensitization has taken place. Plus, I’m 44; I’m “over the hill”—I’m likely past the halfway point in my life—and perhaps well past it. I’m less afraid across the board than I was 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve watched firsthand as my mom wasted away and died from melanoma a couple of years ago; I watched as my grandfather wasted away and died of old age and some age-related disease that I can’t recall the name of; I’ve had a woman who I thought was my best friend betray me; I’ve experienced other break-ups and losses and betrayals and disappointments in love. In other words, I’ve taken my fair share of dings and nicks and dents in life. One headlight. My nerve-endings and emotions are generally just not as sensitive and raw as they used to be—they’ve been broken in; I’ve been broken in. I just don’t get as surprised as often as I used to (not that I still can’t be surprised!) The blinders are largely off—I know how hideous and weak people can be and what they can do to another because I’ve been on the receiving end of this several times. I’ve watched people do to me and to others unconscionable horrible things—all in the name of illegitimately avoiding their own suffering—and things I was powerless to stop. Live long enough and honestly enough and that’s just the way it is—life does this to everyone—tries to break us each, or at the very least, it breaks our engine in. The question for us is: do we join in the decline of western civilization and start mistreating others because we have been mistreated and so pass on our pain onto others? Or do we take a stand against this way of life and try to metabolize and soak up some of the pain and misery in the world and make something decent of the suffering that is given us—do we try to make art, wisdom, something beautiful of it and or ourselves? Do we become one of life’s works of art—whether others appreciate it or not.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had no problem passing my pain onto others—I was running from myself, from life, from the big questions in life; I was afraid, weak, underdeveloped, out of shape psychologically, ill-equipped emotionally for life (not that I still may not be; just perhaps a bit less so, hopefully!). I had no problem hitting the bars, mistreating my body with cigarettes and alcohol and fast food, and looking to meet a woman who was mistreating herself similarly and see if she wanted to go home for the night and metabolize a little of our avoidance and stuffed down existential pain together. . . .

That’s a snapshot of me in my late teens and early twenties—just going along with the prevailing winds, doing whatever the other largely mindless, soulless, unthinking nitwits around me were doing. Basically I was leading an unexamined life; I wasting my mind—at least trying to—and perhaps wasting my life.

And then I went through a very painful break-up and betrayal. And the best way I can describe it is that the pain of that experience—the pain of those months of my life (the summer of ’97)—was worse than the rest of the pain I had been running from. And those pains that summer turned out to be labor pains—or perhaps I turned them into labor pains. I’m not sure how to attribute it. Either way, I had a Jerry Maguire type birth of conscience and a different way or level of thinking and of seeing the world. Something clicked in my mind and I could see very clearly that I had been running from a lot of things in my life and that that running was all in vain; I saw myself very objectively, very clearly, and I saw very clearly how all of my previous ways of trying to deal with pain by not actually dealing with it but by passing it on to others and spreading my misery or emptiness or unhappiness around had rendered me as a pretty weak and cowardly little shell of a person.

I had unwittingly been participating in my own demise; I had unwittingly been making myself in many ways an emotional wimp.

But, during my twenties I had also done some things that would ultimately save me from all of this—save me from myself, from what’s worst and weakest in myself, and from living like a weak little nitwit who reactively tried to eschew everything difficult and uncomfortable and ultimately unavoidable in life from his plate.

One of the things I did was to go to college and get my degree—degrees actually. I got my degrees in two fields that interested me the most—philosophy and psychology; and I almost got a third degree in religion/religious studies.

In the course of my studies I took a course on Buddhism where I learned about a way of life where people actually (!) faced life and faced honestly what was unavoidable in life—sickness, old age, death, loss, parting.

I also took two English classes where I was required to keep a journal and write 5 or 10 handwritten pages a week (this was in the olden days!) on anything I wanted to write about. It was a habit I would return to frequently throughout my schooling and after I graduated—and I’m so thankful I did!

I also took a class on poetry—a class where we were forced to write a poem every few days if we wanted to pass the class—that was the seeding of another fortuitous habit/hobby!

I also started reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and a little of Kierkegaard and Rilke (though I didn’t start really “reading” Rilke until I was in my late-30’s after another painful break-up/betrayal. All I really got from Rilke in my 20’s was that immortal line: “You must change your life.” I knew that for sure. That line hit me over the soul with a sledgehammer).

I also was trying to read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“—but by and large, the books that have impacted me the most were not books that I came across in college, but were books that I read after I graduated. Nevertheless, along the way, some seeds of conscience and intellectual and emotional honesty and courage and self-awareness were replanted and re-nurtured through some of what I was introduced to in the course of my studies in psychology and philosophy and a few of the teachers I had during those years.

And then everything that had been planted in me—or that I had helped plant in me—all came to fruition—into bloom—and how fortunately!—in the summer of ’97, in the midst of all of my inner turmoil and agony over the ending of a 3.5 year relationship.

In the midst of all of that pain, I read and wrote and thought voraciously—I read and wrote and thought for my very life! And after about 3 months of doing this—and getting very little sleep each night—something clicked for me. I had what the Buddhist’s term “a moment of satori“—or great insight and clarity—about myself, my life, life, and how flawed my up till then approach to life and difficulty and suffering had been. It was for me the psychological equivalent of what in Christianity is termed a “metanoia“—a deep paradigmatic shift, a radical figure-ground reversal, a complete change of heart and mind and life direction.

And since then I’ve found my soulmates—the books that have more than their fair share of tell it like it is / in your face truth—M. Scott Peck (anything by him); “How Could You Do That!?” “Ten Stupid things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives”; “A Return to Love”; anything by Krishnamurti; Rilke, Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke; “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”; C. S. Lewis—his essay and nonfiction books; Thoreau—especially his section on reading in “Walden”; Emerson; Kierkegaard; Jacob Needleman; Gurdjieff; James Hollis; David Schnarch; Murray Bowen; Maslow; “The Denial of Death” by Earnest Becker; Simone Weil; “The Little Prince”; Pema Chödrön; Chögyam Trungpa; the Buddha; The Gospel and First Epistle of John; the Old Testament Wisdom books; Montaigne; “The Nicomachean Ethics”; Roger Housden. And the list goes on.

Our lives are the way they are in large part—if not wholly—because of how we think / the way we think—about ourselves and our lives. Our lives bear witness to our thinking—as well as to our lack of thinking and thus our fears. What we are afraid of—what scares us, terrifies us, threatens us, stresses us out, might potentially undo us—we don’t think about—we don’t permit ourselves to think about.

But some of us having something in us that likes to play with this fire—with this fire of truth—that knows that we need to get a little bit closer to this fire and even get burned by it—perhaps even risk getting annihilated by it.

This fire—the fire of truth—is the only fire worth playing with. It’s the only thing that will really warm us. And it’s the only thing that will potentially save us—from ourselves, and from the sufferings inherent in life.

Philosophy—the real stuff, not the stuffy academic nonsense—is fundamentally about wisdom and creating the conditions that will allow for the transmission of wisdom. Meaning philosophy at best is about learning how to think—both logically/reasonably, and also humanely. It’s about learning to have the courage to ask and perhaps even to try to provisionally and tentatively and humbly even answer the big questions in life—why are we here? for how long? what happens after we die? why is there something rather than nothing? is there a God? and if so, what is he or she really like and what does he or she want out of me? how am I to live so that when I come to die (or when get a terminal diagnosis) I’m not filled with terror and fear, or I don’t look back on my life with regret, and realize that I have wasted my life out of fear and convention and servicing other’s expectations of me (just filling a role)?

Our lives are the way they are because of our personal philosophies—our beliefs and ideas about what is and is not worthwhile in this life, what will make us happy, and what we need to avoid or eschew in order to stay safe and content. And how thought-out and examined or unthought-out and unexamined these beliefs and ideas are.

Our lives are philosophy in action. Each of our lives is either the examined or unexamined life, the heroic and courageous or the avoidant and timid life in action. And thus as a whole or in parts it may well serve as a cautionary tale to the dangers or the excesses of one or the other way of life.

The Buddha said, “All we are is the result of what we think; with what we think we make a life.” Something along those lines.

There’s either the more or less examined life, or the more or less unexamined life; a life of learning and growth, or a life of fear and comfort and avoidance.

There’s really no neutrality in this.

There’s no avoiding this choice—try as some (or many) of us may.

Either we think and deal heroically with the pain that comes from thinking honestly and seeing life as it is; or we live thoughtlessly, forsaking thinking and the largest part of what makes us most fully human and potentially humane, and we try to pass as much of our fear and suffering and cowardice onto others and make them pay, in place of us, the cost of our living.

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Becoming Who We Truly Are By Living the Biggest Question of Them All


Living the Biggest Question of Them All

It is only in the face of death that man’s real self is born.” – Augustine

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At every moment you choose (and thus create or reinforce) yourself. But do you really choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one—which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed or comfort or need for security, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life—is your true ‘I’.” ( – Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 10)

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In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all of the questions life puts to us.” ( – Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 138.)

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Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage for that which he really knows.” – Nietzsche

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Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.” – Eric Hoffer

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People who are afraid of living are also especially frightened of death.” – Médard Boss

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We are the choices we make.

We become the choices we make. It’s not primarily our thoughts that make us who we are, because for many of what we think and what we do are not congruent or related; it’s our choices, our behaviors that most define us and makes us who we are.

Our truest self is formed in relation to the big questions in life—not just how honestly we choose to formulate and pose these questions, but how honestly and deeply we choose to attempt to answer these questions with our life and in our daily actions, how courageously we choose to live these big questions while we are trying to grow and live our way into an answer and being capable of receiving and sustaining some semblance of a real answer.

If we manage to do all of this with integrity (integration), honesty, and courage—meaning there’s no great gulf or dissonance between our thinking and doing, our thinking and actual life practice—then we will arrive at a very valid and authentic version of our deepest and truest self.

But if we fail to ask the questions and we live our lives asleep or as if we’re dreaming—if we live discursively and in the shallows of life, playing hide and seek with death and with thoughts and an awareness of our own mortality, avoiding cemeteries, eschewing thoughts of the origin and fate of the universe, and the fate of those we love and their fragility and mortality—as well as our own—then we will pass our life like in a dream and sleepwalk through our lives and never get a sense of who we really are or could be or should have been.

The tranquility and contentment of a well-born spirit and the resolution and assurance of a well-ordered soul should never be attributed to a person until he has been seen to play the last, and beyond a doubt the hardest, act of this play. In everything else there may be sham: fine reasonings of philosophy may be mere posturing in us; our trials by not testing us all the way to the quick and pressing us all the way to our last limits, may give us a chance to keep our face and stay falsely composed and proud. But in our last scene, between death and ourselves, there is no more pretending, no more posturing. We must talk plainly, show what is good and clean at the bottom of the pot, if anything—

‘At last true words surge up from deep within our breast,
The mask is snatched away, reality is left.’—Lucretius

“That is why all the other actions of our life must be tried and tested by this act. It is the penultimate and master day, the day that is the judge of all others. ‘It is the day,’ says Seneca, ‘that must judge all my past years.’ And as Cicero says, ‘to philosophize is nothing else but to prepare for death.’ I leave it to death to test the fruit of all of my studies and learning. We shall see then, at that moment, whether my reasonings have come from my mouth or from my heart.”

(Montaigne, “The Complete Essays of Montaigne,” pg. 55.)

Or if we do try to ask and ponder the big questions, but we do so in a very timid or frightened or dishonest or self-deceptive way, clutching for whatever answer or convention seems to hold the promise of alleviating our anxiety, quelling or soothing or staving off our growing uneasiness and panic, we will also arrive at a very illegitimate version of our self—a false authentic self—not the truly authentic self arrived at by “living the questions” openly and honestly and courageously, in fear and trembling, but the falsely or inauthentic authentic self arrived at by our avoidance, by our need for answers that settle us and relieve our stress and make us feel good and in control.

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

The end will come no matter what. No matter what. It cannot be avoided. We each owe a death. There’s no getting out of playing that scene, unless we’re completely obliterated in the middle of the night by some enormous piece of space junk while we sleep. Loss is the long and the short lesson in life. Everything burns, everyone dies, everything is on its way to somewhere else. The cells that make us up and make up those we love and cling to are just temporary assemblages of borrowed molecules—combinations of atoms and empty space. Death alone is certain. It is unavoidable, inescapable. Everyone dies. Ourselves included. Beginning with the end—with that end—deeply in mind is the only way of living that makes sense and that can actually help awaken us and raise our level of self-awareness and self-honesty (help us cut through our own crap and our smaller self’s avoidant-escapist life/reality-denying tendencies) as well as raise our level of differentiation or “being.”

The point of all of this is simple: we don’t need to acquire any more knowledge. We just need to become more honest and courageous in regards to what we already know and start putting it into practice and living it. Because unless we translate into action and live/exhibit/practice what we “know,” we’re just deluding ourselves—and others—we’re being a fraud, a genuine fake, a false self. We really don’t know what we think we know and what we talk about. The only real knowledge is knowledge which acts, which shows up in our behavior: that’s where we show what we truly are and what we really know. We can say that we’re spiritual and talk about living courageously and living and loving as if we’re dying or as if we’re running a two-minute drill with our lives, but the proof is in our behaviors. When the moment to act and live a bit more dangerously, with more force and clarity, with more intensity and courage and resilience comes, do we just talk about it, or do we heroically and lovingly stretch ourselves taut—or let ourselves be stretched taut—across some great new experience or unknown or intense situation that promises us something real and possibly expansive and transformational? (—if we can manage to hold onto ourselves and stay in the heat of the moment and stay the course and not implode and run) Are we just talkers and self-deluders forever scheming and pretending and talking about becoming braver and running away less from what frightens us but still sitting around on our “buts”; or are we actually doers and putting the wheels in motion to actually do and live what we claim to know and take the appropriate leap and lessen the gulf or dissonance between what we think and what we do.

Get busy loving or get busy dying. That’s the choice we each have every day. Waste another day of life by living without love and courage and openness and honesty and not facing what frightens us—especially in ourselves. Or open our heart, our mind, look honestly at ourselves, really see ourselves as we are, without blinders, favoritism, softeners, and sit down and write and have that long honest heartfelt tender conversation with ourselves on paper so that we can see our own thoughts and words staring back at us.

So many people say that they know life is short, that they know that everyone including themselves dies, et cetera et cetera, yadda yadda yadda, but then they proceed to refute that so-called knowledge at every turn by how they live and especially by how they show up to the intense moments and interactions in their life. They live and love as if life goes on forever, as if tomorrow has been promised and assured them—as if many tomorrows, in fact, have been promised them. And so what do they really know? Nothing really of worth; what they know is how to bullshit themselves and pretend to be other than what they are, because what little they are is uninspiring and banal, inwardly empty and barren and flat-souled. And so they live as if they have never been born, because in truth, they haven’t yet be born and become who they authentically are or are supposed to be.

And living life like a two-minute drill is not about living irresponsibly, damn the consequences. It’s about living with greater clarity, focus, intensity, enthusiasm, passion, and taking a few more (wise and loving) risks, opening the heart more and self-protecting and avoiding the full flow of life less. It’s about living as you will have wished you would have lived and loved more often when you get the heart attack or hear the diagnosis cancer. It’s about having—and maintaining—perspective—holding onto our center, our big mind or overview, keeping the end in mind, keeping our eye on the prize, not getting hijacked by our amygdala or reptilian brain and our fears and insecurities and anxieties. It’s about being able to take the leap when the opportunity presents itself, and not just talk about it and then backing away from the edge of the plane when it’s our turn to psychologically and emotionally skydive into the unknown, to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Thank You, My Fate” – Anna Swir

Great humility fills me,
great purity fills me,
I make love with my dear
as if I made love dying
as if I made love praying,
tears pour
over my arms and his arms.
I don’t know whether this is joy
or sadness, I don’t understand
what I feel, I’m crying,
I’m crying, it’s humility
as if I were dead,
gratitude, I thank you, my fate,
I’m unworthy, how beautiful
my life.

This is living and loving as if one’s dying. This is what we’re all capable of, and what so many of us when we get the terminal diagnosis will wish we had done more often in our prime while we still had time.

(And in truth, we’ve all already received the terminal diagnosis if but we would drop our denial and realize it. We’ve already each received the terminal diagnosis. And so much of personal growth is about looking at the myriad of ways in which we do not allow this knowledge to reach critical mass in us now while there’s still time.)

If a person claims to know a lot about life and death, living and loving, and shows up to a situation with another person who also claims also to be at a similar place in life psychologically, spiritually, but then one of the two lapses into pettiness, superficiality, vanity, avoidance of living the questions, backslides out of fear into a “life goes on forever” mentality and way of thinking, then doesn’t that shows that that person really doesn’t know that life is short and insecure? Doesn’t that mean that this person is essentially an imposter, a pretender, a genuine fake, a fraud, a poser? (Tough words, yes, to be certain; but why use softeners and delude ourselves about it? Life is too short.)

We don’t “own” something—we don’t own a particular trait or self-capacity—until we can exhibit it or perform it under fire, under pressure, in times of great stress and duress; unless we can take the leap from talking about it to actually doing it and living it. Then we actually know it. Difficulty—being stress-tested—shows us what we are—it shows us who we are, in the raw, free of all of our finery and pretensions and errant thoughts and fine but delusive stories about our self. And this self-knowledge is real self-knowledge. It’s the real stuff. And it’s the type or degree of self-knowledge that most of us want no part of because of how difficult (unsettling? eviscerating?) it is to stomach, how much it wounds our pride, vanity, ego; how bad it makes us feel, how inadequate, how out of control, insecure, undone it leaves us. It’s not comfortable stuff. It’s highly unsettling and emotionally charged and emotionally taxing and anxiety-provoking stuff, which is why so many people shy away from it. But they do at the cost of wasting their lives in the meantime, in living as though asleep or at best half alive. The end will come no matter what. The question is whether we will get a diagnosis and thus get the opportunity to actually run a two-minute or six-month drill with our life and thus get to live and apply all of the new wisdom and insights and fearlessness that we have learned now that the scales of self-deception and Maya have fallen away (or been forcibly removed) from our eyes; or whether the end will come so suddenly and without any wiggle room or hope of reprieve that we get no time to make any changes to our life—the blood vessel pops, the heart stops, the car or plane crashes, and we’re gone. Our one little life is over. No second chance, no reprieve, no great awakening that we can live and share and pass onto to others, no time to get down anymore to the heart of the matter and actually live that way, only perhaps an instance in which to try and die that way.

Unbridled narcissism is the principal precursor of psychospiritual illness.

The healthy spiritual life consists of progressively growing out of narcissism. The failure to grow out of narcissism, although extremely common, is also extremely destructive.

The prospect of our death and the process of our dying physically can be one of the greatest stimuli to such healthy growth. They may even be the greatest such stimulus. When psychiatrists talk about injuries to pride, we call them narcissistic injuries. And on any scale of narcissistic injuries, death is the ultimate. We suffer little narcissistic injuries all the time; as a result of those narcissistic injuries, we either become embittered and avoidant or we become more courageous and open and grow. But death is the big one. Nothing threatens our narcissistic attachment to ourselves and our self-conceit more than our impending obliteration.

It is utterly natural that we should fear death and everything that begins to become a reminder of death.

There are two ways to deal with that fear: the common way and the smart way.

The common way is to put it out of our mind, limit our awareness of it, try not to think about it.

The smart way is to face death as early as possible. In doing so, we can realize something really simple; that is, insofar as we can overcome our narcissism we can diminish our fear of death.

It is not an easy journey, but what a worthwhile journey it is. Because the further we proceed in diminishing our narcissism and self-centeredness and sense of self-importance, the more we discover ourselves becoming not only less fearful of death but also less fearful of life. And this is the basis for learning to become more loving. No longer burdened by the need to constantly protect and defend ourselves, we are able to lift our eyes off ourselves and truly recognize others. We begin to experience a sustained, underlying sense of happiness that we have never experienced before.

Again and again all of the great religions tell us that the path away from narcissism and our smaller self is the path toward meaning in life. And this is their central message: Learn how to die. Buddhists and Hindus speak of this in terms of the necessity for self-detachment; indeed, for them even the notion of the self is an illusion. Jesus spoke of it in similar terms: “Whosoever will save his life”—that is, whosoever will hold onto his narcissism and smaller self—”shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”

(M. Scott Peck, in “The Road Less Traveled and Beyond“)

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You are frightened of death because you have postponed it. We have separated living from dying; and in the interval between living and dying is fear. Living is our daily torture, daily insult, sorrow and confusion, escape and distraction, with the occasional brief opening of a window over enchanted seas. This is what we call living. And we are afraid to die, which is to end this misery. We would rather cling to the known than face the unknown—the known being our house, our furniture, our family, our masks, our false self, our smaller self, our work, our knowledge and little certainties, our fame, our loneliness, our gods—that little empty parasitic thing that moves around incessantly within its own limited pattern of embittered existence.

We think that living is always in the present and that dying is something that awaits us at a distant time. But we have never even questioned whether this battle of everyday life is living at all. We want proof of the survival of the soul, but we never ask how to live—how to live with delight, with enchantment, with beauty, with courage, with grace every day. We have accepted life as it is with all its agony and despair and have gotten used to it, and think of death as something to be carefully avoided. But death is extraordinarily like life when we know how to live. You cannot live without dying. You cannot live if you do not die psychologically to your self—to your smaller frightened conditioned self—every minute. This is not an intellectual paradox. To live completely, wholly, every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be dying to everything small and timid within us, otherwise you live mechanically, escapistly, and an escapist mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is.

Freedom from the known is death; learn how to die to yourself and then you are living.

(J. Krishnamurti, abridged from “Meeting Life“)