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.

Advertisements

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.

Dedication to Reality v Dedication to Fear and Avoiding Reality: Are you turning your weakness into your sickness?


.

Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline not to avoid pain and effort. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to the truth, not partially. That is to say, we must always hold truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more crucial, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant, and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs. What does this life of total dedication to the truth means? It means, above all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and honesty with oneself. — M. Scott Peck, from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 50-51

Try just for a moment to accept the possibility that you are not as mentally healthy as you might normally assume. That you are, in fact, perhaps rather mentally unhealthy, out of shape, that you are perhaps more unstable than you’d like to consider, that you are actually confused, lost, living in denial.  That you lie to yourself—sometimes so frequently, so naturally, so effortlessly—that your thinking has, as a result, become so distorted and unconsciously motivated by avoiding difficulty that you can never trust your thinking or yourself; nor even your emotions; because everything about you conspires to mislead you.

This is the situation for any and all of us who have been living a life more dedicated to comfort and the path of least resistance than to truth.  We live this way for so long that we no longer have any difficulty in fooling / hoodwinking ourselves and convincing ourselves at every opportunity when given the choice between a difficult right and a less difficult wrong, that what we are choosing is the difficult right—and we’re SURE of it!—even though if we are more dedicated to comfort and the path of least resistance than to truth, we are again in all likelihood choosing the less demanding wrong, as we have almost always done before.

Moreover, consider whether you might not actually prefer your current state of mental unhealthiness over mental health, and not simply because you are indeed mentally unhealthy, but because being mentally unhealthy is easier and less demanding than being mentally healthy, and that the demands of mental health are too great, too daunting for you—that living a truly conscientious and virtuous life, that living with emotional self-control, living with real love and appreciation and goodness and generosity, living with real perspective, living in a way that truly recognizes that you and those you love could actually die at any moment—that living in alignment with all of this is just simply too demanding, too painful, too taxing, too unsettling, too effortful for you.

And so you are mentally unhealthy because of it—because it is an easier life, even though it’s one filled with unhappiness, voluntary self-crippling and self-sabotage, cowardice, lies, deception, rationalizations, distortions, confusion.  All of this is easier than and preferable to facing your fears, overcoming your weaknesses, making amends, feeling shame and guilt, going back and correcting past wrongs. It’s easier just to stay on the wrong path, the easy path, and continue on and keep shuffling.

Intuitively, I think we all recognize at some level what mental health actually means: ultimately it’s about growing up and facing reality. And equally intuitively, we all recognize and fear what actually doing so might actually do to us–it might overwhelm us, undo us, cause us to have a nervous breakdown.  In the words of John the Cougar Mellencamp, “Growing up leads to growing old and then to dying, and dying don’t sound like that much to me.”

So why voluntarily put ourselves through the equivalent of a heart attack or major psychological catastrophe in the prime of our life when we don’t have to, when our deepest desire is to live long and die without ever knowing so while sleeping?  Why put ourselves through the wringer psychologically and emotionally just in the faint hope of genuinely growing up, waking up, and transforming our lives completely and irrevocably?

I think we all recognize at some level that the largest part of truly growing up means facing our own and others’ mortality squarely, meaning in a way that costs us emotionally, a way that will forever change or alter us and how we treat life and others and ourselves.  If we truly face death and “die while alive” we will be forever altered.

Yet few of us however are willing to fully submit to this, to this knowledge and to these demands. Why?  Because it seems to be the surest way to suck the fun right out of life.

Few of us are willing to let the knowledge of our own and others’ mortality reach a critical mass in us because doing so is difficult, not fun, and runs completely contrary to our self-preservative tendencies and want of ease and comfort and to be settled and have some sense of “peace.”

In fact, truth be told, we are likely to do whatever we can and need to do in order not to let this knowledge reach a critical mass in us. We will do whatever we have to to keep this knowledge under our control, clamped down in a box.  Which means, as a natural consequence of this, we will continue making choices in life that suggest that we think that we and those around us that we care about have all the time in the world.

And in so doing we begin failing at the art of living.

And the art of loving.

Mental illness or mental unhealthiness is at essence a way of trying to illegitimately deal with our immense and inordinate fear of death and dying and emotional pain and suffering. Our fear of death is so large, so intuitively terrifying and unsettling, so potentially overwhelming, that avoidance, denial, not listening too closely or too carefully to our conscience—to that still small voice in us, to our soul—and instead giving into fear again and again, are the only alternatives we are left with.

If we are unwilling to face our own and others’ mortality, then we are left with leading a discursive self-centered life of distraction, avoidance, self-numbing, comfort, ease, hiding out from life and love, a life of continual petty little ego projects and meaningless self-aggrandizement and dissipation.

Either we dedicate ourselves to truth and reality at all cost, which means invariably “racing out beyond all lesser dangers” and wrestling with that single biggest danger of all—our own (and others’) mortality, brevity, and fragility. Or we opt for comfort and the path of lesser resistance whenever we sense the truth or reality to be too frightening, too overwhelming, too difficult, too demanding, likely to cause too much upheaval, and we end up unwittingly dedicating ourselves to mental unhealth and to preserving what’s worst and weakest in us.

And, in doing so–in unconsciously pledging our allegiance to comfort instead of to truth and to necessary and appropriate levels of personal discomfort–we end up running the very real risk of forever turning our weaknesses into our sickness.

The Truth About How to Be Truly Mentally Healthy & Live a Truly Extraordinary Life


.

Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

M. Scott Peck, from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 51

This is a very salient idea—a potentially life-changing idea.

What Peck is saying is that in order to be(come) a truly mentally healthy individual we must dedicate ourselves completely and continually and near-constantly (meaning day after day, and hour after hour) to reality—to seeing reality, including ourselves, as realistically and as completely as possible, meaning without any softeners, without fantasies or errant thoughts that save our pride (that spare us some expense emotionally). At all costs means we cannot try to save face or look at ourselves and how we act in a way that spares us feeling bad or ashamed. If we have done shameful things, then if we want to be truly healthy and truly grow, then we must look honestly at what we have done and feel the full shame of it. If we have done wrong or hurtful or injurious things, then we must look at those things as well honestly and accurately, and not in a way that softens things and spares us some expense emotionally.

If we have any desire at all to be truly healthy in this life and “grow up”—instead of growing sideways or growing malignantly—then we must dedicate ourselves fiercely and completely to truth—to seeing ourselves and life as objectively and unbiasedly as possible.

If left to ourselves and our own devices and familiar patterns, we will invariably cheat on this process—we will take one of the many available paths of lesser resistances, use softeners, buffers, make excuses for ourselves, and see ourselves and the bad or shameful things we’ve done in far less than bad or shameful ways, perhaps even in glowing ways.

This is the way of the false self, that Merton speaks of in this post on one of my other blogs. This is the way of the ungodly self, the self that lies, that wants to hide, that still thinks that life goes on forever, that doesn’t want to face its own mortality, that refuses to feel death breathing down its neck and down the neck of all of those it loves and depends on. This is the self that doesn’t want to think about loss and impermanence, that doesn’t want to marvel at just how truly inexplicable and potentially amazing and brutal life is; this is the part of us that wants to live and love and fart around as if life goes on forever, as if there’s plenty of time left on the clock, and so it lives and loves selfishly, safely, without gratitude, without perspective, and so it doesn’t really live or love at all: it just plays it safe and survives to live and waste another day.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we want to grow into our full stature as human being—grow into what the gods or God intends for us—then we must dedicate ourselves to seeing reality as well as ourselves as accurately and objectively and truthfully and fully as possible, and we must do so irrespective of the costs to ourselves emotionally and irrespective of the costs to our own comfort and happiness.

Gurdjieff said that the most we as human beings can do is to choose our influence. We’re always going to be influenced by something, that much is inevitable and inescapable: to be alive is to be influenced; but the best we can do is to choose what influence or set of influences we want to submit to. Most people submit to their emotions—that is their chief influence and addiction, and they never rise above it. And in failing to do so—in failing to rise above the perpetual disorder and chaos of that most ancient part of their brain—and in particular the fear centers of their brain—they never become fully human; they never become what the gods or God intended they become.

What Peck is saying—and what truly wise and coherent and sane people (Buddha, Jung, Jesus, Rilke, Thoreau, Weil, Chodron, Fromm, Krishnamurti, et cetera) have been saying to us throughout the eons—is to let truth become our chief influence—to let Truth, Love, Death become what most deeply and consistently influence and guide us. Let these become our advisors, our addictions even. (What Gurdjieff was saying about the only real freedom we as human beings have is in choosing what we allow to influence us, can be rephrased as: the only choice we as human beings have is in choosing what to be addicted to, and Peck and Gurdjieff and all the aforementioned wise people are saying is why not let truth and Love [real Love, the love that is steep in generosity, self-extension, gratitude, compassion, understanding, perspective, overcoming one’s fears], and death be one’s addictions, be one’s prevailing thought patterns? The only alternative to this is to live a discursive and self-centered and reactive life, or to try [unsuccessfully] to vacillate forever between these possibilities and to elevate freedom to our addiction—the freedom to always be free, to be indeterminate, to be free to always choose another influence—which means the freedom not to grow, the freedom to remain stuck, the freedom to remain unformed and chaotic, the freedom to remain true or false or a confused mix of the two—a mix so confusing that even we no longer know what is true or what is false—

We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.

But we cannot make these choices with impunity.

Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it and that confusion reigns.

(Thomas Merton)

And Rumi said the same thing—any wine will get us drunk, so why not pick a wine that will also make us a better person and wake us up? Why not pick the wine of truth, Love, and death? Enjoyments pass, consequences remain. Most of us do not understand this—that the consequences for so much freedom, escapism, denial, momentary escape and enjoyment is that it mangles us, that it does something ungodly even hellish to us at the soulular level.)

Mental health is an ongoing process of complete dedication to reality at all costs—to seeing life and others–and ourselves–as realistically and truthfully and honestly as possible.

And this is not something that most of us willingly want to do. In fact, truth be told, it’s the furthest thing from what we want. (But it’s likely what we most need.) We don’t want to see reality as it is. Why? Because we don’t want to truly face death, suffering, impermanence, fragility—our own and others. We don’t want to really have to feel and face these things as inescapables, unavoidables, as everpresent possibilities. At most we might be willing to intellectualize over all of this a little bit and idly talk about it; but truly feel and experience all of this in such a way that compels us to change our ways, that it rises to level of critical mass in us and gives us great clarity and wisdom?—we don’t want to do that.

And we also don’t want to see ourselves as we are—especially the more we have done unkind, hurtful, and shameful things; nor do we want to be around people who do not like us or approve of us because of those sorts of things we’ve done. Instead of submitting ourselves to truth and some of the just and deserved consequences of our actions (other people’s dislike and disapproval and invalidation of what we have done), we run and hide. Why not? After all, there’s never a shortage of people who we can start over with and seduce into thinking well of us—seduce via our half-truths (which is to say half-lies, distortions, rational-lies-zations) and playing the victim, etc. There’s always a fresh supply of people just around the next bend. It’s not difficult in this day and age to hide ourselves and hide from ourselves and hide from the light and truth of who and what we are and have done, and just start over again and again elsewhere, just walk the earth like a troubled guest, going from city to city mindlessly repeating our same patterns and never having the courage and honor and character to go back and clean up the mess we have made, make amends, have a true change of heart, show some real contrition and remorse and shame. In this world, there will always be plenty of buyers for our false self; there will always be people we can seduce into believing the best about us, even though that “best” is just a façade over what’s worst in us and what always ultimately rules the show whenever we get in a pinch or bind.

“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

This is the hardest path to walk in life. This is the path of greatest resistance. Walking the path of truth, of complete dedication to reality, of dedication to truth and reality at all costs. To truly walk this path means that we must become instantly much more serious and sincere and honest about how we’re living our lives. It means that lying, denial, self-deception, half-truths, buffering, using softeners, even thinking “positively” are all off the table, and must be given up.

Being truly mentally healthy and dedicated to reality at all costs means when given the choice between being right and happy—thinking positively or thinking realistically—we must choose thinking realistically over thinking positively (being right over being happy), because positive thinking might lead us astray. Positive thinking isn’t about seeing reality as it is; it’s about seeing reality in a way that makes us feel okay, happy, optimistic, good. It’s about being happy instead of accurate (or right or “objective”). And so while it may make us feel happy initially, consequences still remain, and of the consequences is that we have hedged the full truth, ignored the difficult to stomach and emotionally digest parts. We have unwittingly spared ourselves some expense.

Mental health requires a certain level of fierceness—a certain level of inner grit and courage and moral and psychospiritual inner warriorship. Because in order to truly dedicate ourselves to reality at all costs we must give up self-deception and denial. And that means that invariably we are going to have to “race out beyond all lesser dangers,” as Rilke put it, “to be safe”—meaning to truly find ourselves—wrestling “with that greatest danger of all”—death. That is, our own mortality. And the deaths of those we love and care about and depend on emotionally and psychologically.

Okay, try this then,
everybody
I know
and care for,
and everybody
else,
including me,
is going
to die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine
and a pain
I can’t comprehend.

If we are truly dedicate to reality at all costs then we will have to face death, face it squarely, and with no bullshite or softeners. And if this is too much, if this is too daunting and overwhelming and panic-/anxiety-inducing, then if we want to be(come) truly mentally healthy, we must at least begin committing ourselves to the effort, and do so in a way that costs us, that affects us not just intellectually but viscerally—we have to feel death breathing down our necks, we have to begin intimating and feeling what it will be like to lose those we love. We have to begin the real and visceral attempt to integrate death and inescapable loss into our daily lives, into our daily consciousness or awareness; and we need to do this in a very real and tangible way; our attempt must be honest and ongoing—one where we try again and again and again—to try again and again to face and to feel our own and others’ mortality more and more directly and honestly (viscerally) every day.

To fail at this—to go a day without deeply considering (feeling viscerally) our own and others’ mortality and living in accordance with what we know and feel—is to have wasted a day of our lives. It is to choose comfort over truth. It is to choose a path of lesser resistance. It is to choose mental unhealth over mental health.

We’re all born narcissistic; we’re all born impulsive and self-centered; we’re all born without much if any of a conscience; we’re all born emotionally reactive; we’re all born unaware and unmindful; we’re all born more dedicated to comfort and avoiding pain; we’re all born craving permanence and having life on our terms; and we’re all born feeling like life goes on forever and that safety and security are things that life owes us.

That’s just the way we all, some more so that others, some less so, come equipped into this life. We all have these tendencies within us. And we all have our unique combination of patterned (reactive, automatic) ways of habitually avoiding truth and avoiding reality.

And true mental health is the concerted effort to grow out of this state—meaning, becoming more conscious, learning how to think accurately and honestly, lessening our impulsivity, lessening our dependence (not being a parasite or predator, not exploiting or using others, but genuinely contributing and investing; becoming mature enough to be interdependent), developing our objectivity and conscience, lessening our denial and dishonesty, lessening our laziness and want of always having things easy, lessening our tendency to always want to be the center of the universe and have everything our own terms, lessening our dependence on always having to be comfortable or feel safe but instead learning how to tolerate insecurity and fear in order to do the truly right and healthy and loving thing (this is the true definition of courage).

True mental health is the ongoing dedication to all of these ideals irrespective of the cost to our own happiness or comfort or peace of mind.

If we’re not willing to sacrifice our own comfort and happiness for a while in the pursuit of truly growing up and becoming mentally healthier, then we’re not really interested in becoming mentally healthy; we’re more interested in being comfortable, in having an easy life, as Gurdjieff put it. And you’d be in good company: 98% of other people are just like you; you’ll never be lonely. But you’ll also never truly love another, and you’ll never truly live, and you’ll never truly appreciate life and become what the gods or God intended either.

Jung wrote: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” Without pain.  True mental health means accepting certain pains and sufferings as being inescapable and unavoidable, and thus necessary for us to feel and to experience instead of always trying to run from them and avoid them and keep life on our (control-freak) terms.

Jung also wrote that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”

And the key word in that sentence is “always.”

Any time we cop out on seeing and facing reality and ourselves fully and fearlessly and honestly, we are choosing mental unhealth over mental health, we are choosing psychopathology or neurosis over the rigors of truth.

And we all have done this.

And most of us base our lives on continuing to do this—because this is what freedom means to us—to be free to be able to refuse to have to face reality, to be free to be able to not have to face whatever is most perilous in life and whatever threatens to wrest away our sense of control.

Whenever facing reality squarely, whenever seeing reality—and our place in it—seems too daunting, too overwhelming, too painful—we avoid it, and in doing so we are choosing to mental unhealth—some form of psychopathology or neurosis instead.

And we do so because the substitute seems less painful to deal with; it’s easier, it’s more immediately gratifying—or at least less immediately terrifying and makes us feel less out of control.

When given the choice between the easy wrong that allows us to feel in control and the difficult right that would force us to relinquish control, we will always choose the easy wrong because it allows us to stay in control and maintain the illusion of control. That’s just the way the human ego is built—needing to maintain control, to fight to maintain this, and to fight like hell (literally) to avoid having to give up control or surrender our need for control and to instead live and love on life’s terms (instead of our own self-protective control-freak terms).

But eventually life gets truly lonely behind these walls. And the substitute—the neurosis—eventually becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was originally designed to avoid. And the longer we hide out from life (and love) and truth and reality behind our walls, the more the human spirit in us begins to wither and shrivel and even become warped and malignant and go bad in us.

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

We shrink from suffering but unwittingly love and nurture its causes.” – Shantideva,

To be dedicated to reality at all costs means we must spare no expense, no consequence, to ourselves in quest for true mental health and the ability to break off and metabolize legitimately more and more of the harsh parts of this world and to learn how to suffer legitimately rather than illegitimately.

To be dedicated to truth (and not “our truth,” but “the truth”) and reality at all costs means that our own comfort cannot or pleasure or even safety cannot be the determining factor in why we choose to believe something or even in whether we choose to do something, if that something is the right thing. Meaning if we are truly dedicated to the truth and to reality at all costs, then the difficult right becomes for us paradoxically the path of least resistance, and the path of least resistance becomes for us the difficult, if not impossible, wrong.

And this represents a true metanoia—a true conversion or figure-ground reversal in the established order. It represents the fruits—or natural outward expression—of having undergone a true awakening, or a true change of heart and mind and life orientation. —Which is what we’re each called to do—to wake up, to convert, to give up our innate mentally unhealthy and even pathological and neurotic ways and instead become more truly mentally healthy and dedicated (committed) to reality and the rigors required in facing it—the unavoidable suffering that comes with it—squarely.

Self-preservation and avoidance and denial must decrease, facing reality squarely and honestly and heroically must increase.

This is the essence of mental health and of becoming mentally healthier.

Dedicating ourselves fully to the truth irrespective of the cost to us emotionally or to our own comfort, facing death squarely and really feeling it breathing down our neck and the necks of those we love, and learning what Love truly is: these three thins are the essence mental health and becoming mentally healthier—of what is best in us increasing and what is worst in us decreasing.

On a long enough timeline, self-preservation, avoidance, and denial, will each fail. And when they do, we will look back—some part of us, some sane part of us—whatever modicum of sanity we have left and that we haven’t corrupted—will look back in horror and shame at all the time we have wasted and how cowardly we lived our life. And at that point it will be too late to do anything about it. We will have wasted our one chance at life and love. We will have wasted this inexplicable gift.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

What Does Spirituality Mean to You?


Do you have a spiritual practice?  And is it truly a spiritual practice?  And how can we know if what we consider to be a spiritual practice, truly is a spiritual practice?  What is the proof?  What are the fruits?

For me, a true spiritual practice is a practice or discipline that allows us to truly take on and deal with what is worst and weakest in ourselves–and others–and contend with it in a fairly mature and loving/compassionate way, and even overcome it and not let it run and or ruin our lives. 

And so for me, a spiritual practice means organizing my life and my days and my thoughts around certain key ideas and principles/virtue: courage, Love, truth, goodness, self-transcendence, impermanence, death, loss.

Ultimately self-preservation is a flawed strategy. Self-protectiveness will always only be temporary successful.  As will avoidance. What we most fear will one day have the upper hand on each of us will indeed one day have the upper hand on us.  Perhaps sooner rather than later.  And there is no escape from this fate. There’s no avoiding this eventual reality. On a long enough timeline self-preservation, self-protection, and avoidance will always fail.

So what else does spirituality mean to me? It means sobriety—meaning in this sense not necessarily living free from drugs or alcohol, but living free of the inebriants of lies, distortions, and crazy discursive cloudy confused thinking.  Spirituality means clarity; it means thinking very clearly as well as seeing very clearly; it means not living in denial, not perpetually numbing and deluding ourselves and taking up residence in an avoidant world of fantasy and lies and distortions and self-protective isolation—isolated from what might undo us, from what threatens to bring us face to face with ourselves, from whatever lies outside our carefully controlled comfort (i.e. control-freak) zone.

A true spiritual practice seems to be the only means we have of trying to transform and transcend our self-protective and avoidant tendencies. A true spirituality (as opposed to all of the false pseudo-spiritual practices and religious dogma that are around) means learning how to squarely face life’s losses—life’s inevitable and necessary losses—including our own and others’ deaths—and not shutting down or isolating ourselves in response to these losses and the threat of these losses, and living an uncourageous closed-off life of perpetual avoidance and self-deception and denial as a result of our fear, anxiety, nervousness.

The reality is is that there is a clock ticking for each of us.  As well as for each one of those we love and depend on and care about.  And a true spirituality begins with this in mind—with the end in mind—and does not cheat on or cheapen this.  And it keeps this end in mind as often as possible; so much so that it actually makes a difference in our lives and in how we make decisions—we consult our own and others’ deaths, we think about what will matter when all is said and done. We get down to the heart of the matter and cut through our own bullshite and denial. If we are living and loving as if life goes on forever, as if it’s still early on in the first quarter of the game of life and we have all the time in the world, then we’re living and loving in denial. We are asleep. We are spiritually blind. We are just another troubled guest darkening this earth and causing more nonsense for ourselves and others because of our denial, our escapist tendencies, our reality- and truth-avoiding tendencies.

Spirituality also means learning how to truly Love. It means how to transcend the smaller self—the weaker and errant and even evil and malignant and toxic parts of the self (instead of trying to protect and save and preserve and keep them). It means surrendering our smaller self, giving it up instead of preserving it, holding on to it, and remaining attached malignantly to it.  It also means committing ourselves fiercely to becoming our best self and to loving and living more passionately and deeply and mindfully (with much greater awareness). To allow ourselves to be anything less than our best or near-best at any moment is to be wasting that moment of our life. It is to be living in denial of our own and others’ mortality. There is simply no time to lose. When we waste time we are living in denial. When we allow ourselves to be sidetracked, distracted, anesthetized, intoxicated by unessential and trivial things, we are living in denial–in denial of the ticking clock.  When we live without appreciation and gratitude and love for those around us, we are wasting that moment of our life. Life is short and capricious; there simply is no time to lose, no time to waste. We cannot truly love another if we do not have the relentless ticking clock near-constantly in mind and understand that the clock could run out suddenly, without warning, at any moment. To live in a way other than this is to live in denial; it is to be asleep; spiritually blind; to be wasting our lives.

Already the ripening barberries are red
and the old asters hardly breathe in their beds.
Whoever is not rich now will wait and wait

and never be himself.

It’s all over for him, he is like a dying man.
Nothing else will come to him; no more days will open
and everything that does happen will cheat him.
—Even You, my God. And You are like a stone
drawing us each daily deeper into the depths. 

-Rilke

Ultimately the refusal to face ourselves and to face what most truly frightens us in this world is a refusal to grow. It is to make fear our master and send love to the gallows. This world is full of lost and sleeping and frightened souls who build their lives around convenience, playing it safe, the path of least resistance, who habitually confuse the easy way with the right way, who cannot get their mind and heart out of the prison of their own self-protectiveness and fears; people who when they make a mistake go to even greater lengths to avoid correcting their mistake, and in doing so make even more senseless and unnecessary mistakes.

Any wine will get us drunk, wrote Rumi. So many things in life will numb and anesthetize us and titillate the little monkeys in our mind.  Only truth and genuine love combined will truly sober us up and free us from ourselves–from what’s worst and weakest in ourselves.

So what does spirituality mean to you?  What (spiritual) practices do you have that are not just bringing you peace of mind, but also bringing you closer to reality and to being able to handle life’s inevitable losses with greater equinamity, efficacy, grace and perspective?

The person who, being truly on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world, will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive. Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it, thus making of it a “raft that leads to the far shore.”

Only to the extent that a person willingly exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.

In this lies the dignity of daring.

Thus, the aim of a spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a truly spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broke and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go his futile hankering after harmony, surcease of pain, and want of a comfortable life in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.

The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life and encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and face and confront the demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some objects as a protection against such forces. Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation, can our contact with what is Divine, with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.

The more a person learns whole-heartedly to confront a world and way of living that threatens him with isolation, the more are the depths of the Ground of Being revealed and the possibilities of new life and Becoming opened for him.

(Karlfried Graf von Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pp. 107-8)

Practicing the Art of Losing: Are You a Good Sport in Life or Just Another Troubled Guest Darkening the Earth?


Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins

Have the courage to live. Anyone can die.” – Robert Cody

Yes: Have the courage to truly live and love; anyone can die and live a life that looks like a living death. 

Life is about loss. Loss—at least some losses in life—are inevitable. And most of us naturally try to live our lives in ways that minimize our losses and our potential for losing the things and people that are important to us. And in doing this, we try to create a sense of permanency, or, put another way, a sense of being in control. If we’re going to have to lose things, we’d much rather lose them on our terms than on life’s terms. We’d much rather have some sense of power, some say in when and how we lose something, rather than experience the complete and utter helplessness and vulnerability of having life simply take what we love away from us, and do so forcibly, and realizing how utterly powerless and helpless and small we are in the scheme of things. We don’t want to be stripped or violated by anyone or anything, including life itself. Yet this is just what life will surely do to each of us so long as we insist on trying to live and love on our own terms instead of life’s.

And so our natural reaction is to fight this, to try to hold on, cling to our desire to be in control, to hold on fiercely to some sense of power and say. And in doing so we run the risk of losing some of our humanity and, what’s worse, becoming inhumane and callous to others.

Loss in life is inevitable. But we’re not humble enough and honest enough to admit this and face this; we’re too afraid to put ourselves through getting acclimated viscerally to this truth. We don’t want to be wounded and scarred like this. Yet think about it: Live long enough and you’ll lose both your parents and all your grandparents, you’ll lose friends, family members, acquaintances. People die. You’ll also lose jobs and loves and friendships, perhaps through your own fault, or perhaps through no fault of your own. But because these losses happen sporadically—”into every life a little rain must fall“—because these losses happen infrequently enough, in between typically much longer stretches of not losing anyone or anything, that allows us plenty of wiggle room in playing our games of denial with ourselves and life. Life—by not defeating us more and more frequently and soundly, by not kicking our butts more and more often and severely—is making it too easy for us to indulge our neurosis (our avoidant tendencies) and play our little games of denial and self-deception and turning away with reality.

Hear the cry of the woman at the hour of giving birth, see the struggle of the dying in their last minutes and days, and then tell me whether that which begins and that which ends like this has been designed for pleasure.” – Kierkegaard

.

One Art” – Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

.

The Man Watching” – Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age;
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we too would become strong, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Life is about loss. About being defeated more and more decisively. This is the source of our humility–it’s what keeps our ego in check.  If we are not being defeated regularly by life–by wrestling with what is extraordinary and eternal in life–we run the risk of becoming soft, spoiled, tepid, weak.  Those little victories of little things make us small, we get too comfortable expecting that life will (almost) always take place on our terms, and we get out of shape in terms of the bigger questions and concerns and taking losses in life. 

But losses in life are inevitable.  And so as such, much of life is really about learning to lose either well or badly. This is the fundamental position we have to decide on in life: to learn how to lose well—with dignity, with some semblance of grace and perspective; or to lose badly—to lose like a child having its favorite toy taken away, to hide away, wall up, feel sorry for ourselves, pitch a fit, spin out, insulate and isolate ourselves, become “control freaks,” and begin shutting down inside and dying while alive—to begin reducing life to survival and staying safe and comfortable (the path of least resistance) rather than growing and enlarging ourselves and learning to live and love on life’s terms.

Everything and everyone will be taken from us. Nothing lasts, nothing will endure; all is vanity. On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everything and everyone drops to zero. In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead. We’re impermanent, brief, fleeting, and fragile—so very fragile. We learn to live and survive alongside what can kill us. This is just the basic lay of the land in life; it’s what we’re each innately up against.

And most of us are not very good sports when it comes to dealing with this. Most of us are not very good sports when it comes to losing. We lose badly. Throw tantrums. Act out. Even become vicious and hurtful—”hurt people hurt people,” they torment others because they are unable and or unwilling to metabolize on their own all of the torment they feel, so they spread it around, literally forcing everyone to feel and mitigate their pain. What it comes down to is this: we’re bad sports because we’re afraid, because we’re not humble, because we have things backwards in life—we expect certainty and security and ease where there is actually little to none. Losing terrifies us, and in doing so, usually brings out what’s worst in us. It reminds us of the truth of our situation—that fundamentally life is about loss, that there’s nothing and no one we can cling to; that life is a perpetual groundlessness: we don’t know why we’re here, or for how long, where we came from, or where we’re going. All we have to use to lessen our fear and terror and sense of helplessness are the stories we’ve been told—some passed down through generations; and the stories we invent and tell ourselves.

Our everyday mind has it all wrong, has it backwards. We think that life is supposed to be much more safe and secure and certain than it is—much more. And that’s what makes us asleep, blind, living in denial—that we have things backwards, that we insist on trying to have things our way when it comes to the big questions—”what is extraordinary and eternal.” We each know at some level what the truth is, but because it terrifies us and because we don’t want to fully feel and face all of that and go through getting acclimated to it, we deceive ourselves and typically hurt others in the process of making our fast getaways from reality. We think that loss should be the exception, not the rule—which may well in fact be the case in the beginning, when we’re young; but as we grow older, we begin experiencing more and more losses, seeing those around us die—grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents. And at some level we begin suspecting that we’ve been duped—that life doesn’t go on forever, there’s a ticking clock—a ticking clock for each and everyone of us—and there’s only so much time on it. And this terrifies us. This terrifies the hell out of us. But this new information, this new reality, comes smack up against what we first learned about life, and so it tends to be very difficult for us to wrap our minds around it and integrate it, because deep down we think—and desperately hope—that life is still supposed to be pleasant and safe and secure and cozy. And we desperately clinging to this hope. Because the alternative is too terrifying. We can’t handle the truth. The truth is too dizzying, too overwhelming, too unsettling. We much rather live badly and live as if permanence and security and happiness are things that are owed to us. We’d much rather believe in a God wants us to be happy, that wants us to have a good time here on earth and not have to suffer. . . .

Does God want us to suffer?
What if the answer to that question is yes?
See, I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy.
I think He wants us to be able to love and be loved.
He wants us to grow up.
We think our childish toys
bring us all the happiness there is
and our nursery is the whole wide world.
But something—something—must drive us out of the nursery
to the world of others
and that something is suffering.
– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

Wrapping our minds around the inevitability of death and loss is no easy task; it’s like learning a new language—a second language, and at that a very foreign and difficult to master second language. Our first language is one of permanence, security, safety, gratification, being taken care of; it’s what we speak naturally and it speaks to what we seek naturally. This new language, this second language—the linguistics of loss, grief, impermanence, uncertainty, death—conflicts directly and deeply with much of what we first learned of life and with what we most desire from life: happiness, permanence, comfort, pleasantness, goodness. But learning to speak this new language well is essential if we are to grow up and learn how to truly love. Not only that, if one is to truly master this second language—and so to grow and learn how to truly love—it will not be enough just to learn to speak it fluently, we must learn to actually think in it—our very thinking must drip with the language of loss, impermanence, death, suffering. All of this must happen if we are to successfully grow up—i.e., put away the things of childhood, that is, overwrite and replace what we first learned of life—our first impressions of life—that life was supposed to be pleasant and happy and safe, that we weren’t supposed to get broken and deeply wounded here, that we weren’t going to have to change our thinking deeply and radically and fundamentally.

Christianity calls this paradigmatic shift, this complete and irrevocable figure-ground reversal in our way of looking at life—as life being something fleeting, impermanent, transitory, uncertain, mysterious, terrifying, immense, overwhelming, instead of something permanent, cozy, happy, safe—a “metanoia.” A metanoia means a radical change of heart and mind, a dramatic shift of one’s life direction and orientation away from the self and narcissistic gratifications (vanity) and permanence, to impermanence, uncertainty, mystery, transcending the self and our conditioning, and living and loving on life’s terms, not the ego’s terms. It is a complete conversion and epiphany rolled into one.

It is clear that when we are still operating according to the idea that life is supposed to be more safe and secure than it is, that we’re not supposed to be broken and deeply wounded here, that not everyone dies, everyone leaves, everything burns, everything is vanity, then we live badly. We are, in essence, refusing the term’s of life’s loan to us. And when we live like this—in refusal—our power in life lies in distancing—in putting up walls and pushing away unpleasant and difficult and immense realities—and people—and keeping these people and things at arm’s (or more, much more) length. It’s how we feebly try to keep our sanity, our equilibrium—an equilibrium that, truth be told, is not worth keeping, because it comes at the expense of us crippling and warping ourselves; it’s the equilibrium of childhood; it’s one based in weakness and denial, of approaching life in a way that is intellectually dishonest, instead of honest. What we most fear will happen to us will indeed one day happen to us, it will get the upper hand on us, so why wait? Why waste life in the meantime, trying to run from life and reality?

The only real foundation for happiness that we can have in life comes from facing life as it is—in all its majesty as well as hideousness and terrifyingness—and facing ourselves as we are, our weaknesses and strengths, and being honest with ourselves—and others—about these, and then heroically trying to overcome them. The only real happiness in life comes from learning thoroughly that what threatens us or most frightens us yet does not kill us or reduce us to a vegetative state and the fetal position is what makes us stronger and wiser and better human beings. There’s no strength to be gained in avoiding and denying what is inevitable and what will one day have the upper hand on us. In fact, denying what is inevitable its rightful place in our lives is the surest way to cripple ourselves emotionally, intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually. We must be brave—we really have no choice in this. To only be partially brave means to unwittingly consent to allowing ourselves to be crippled. To only partially face the truth means to still lie to ourselves and others. To grow up means to choose suffering, it means to say YES to life—to the full intensity and mystery of life, the full catastrophe of life, and not live as a frightened pygmy. But to choose safety repeatedly means to say no to life, to say no to growing up, to instead choose a slow form of psychological suicide, a living death, the ego and its fear-based ways over living and loving on life’s terms.

Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
Twice in that life
I’ve been given the choice:
As a boy . . .
and as a man.
The boy chose safety. The man chooses suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.

– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

.

There is only one way in which one can endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” – Alan Paton, “The Challenge of Fear,” in Saturday Review, September 9, 1967, pg. 46

Dungeon” – Rabindranath Tagore

He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon.
I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into
the sky day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust and sand
lest a least hole should be left in this name;
and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Dostoevsky

.

Hell is self-chosen. Hell has only volunteer residents. The reality is that the gates of hell are locked from the inside, as Lewis wrote. Hell is the suffering of being unable—or unwilling—to extend oneself and to love, to paraphrase Dostoevsky. Hell is being trapped from the inside because of oneself inside one’s neurosis or illness and being too afraid to truly love and be loved. It is to be a prisoner, locked within the dungeon of oneself, one’s ego, where the only purpose left in life is to fiercely defend one’s freedom to stay locked inside one’s prison cell. Hell is to be too afraid to risk being vulnerable, open, intimate, to afraid to risk living and loving on life’s terms instead of the ego’s manipulative and self-serving terms. Hell is to prefer the suffering of being unwilling to love to the sufferings involved in loving anything or anyone (after all, they may die or leave you or reject or betray you). Hell is to prefer the sufferings inherent in running away from the full intensity of life and backing down from the full catastrophe of living to the sufferings inherent in living and loving on life’s terms. Hell is to prefer the sufferings and crippling one brings upon oneself rather than the sufferings inherent in waking up and truly living.

On Truth, Personal Responsibility, Love, and the Face of God: Lessons from the film “Dead Man Walking”


(Warning: Contains spoilers!)

If you’re not familiar with the movie, “Dead Man Walking,” watch it. It’s an incredibly well-acted and beautifully written and moving film; a film that will likely linger with you (long) after it’s over.

In the film, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), befriends a death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who reaches out to her by mail initially under the auspices that he’s not guilty of the horrific crime he’s been sentenced to death for. But as she continues getting to know Poncelet and his story, she soon begins to suspect that what he’s told her about his part in the crime is not the truth. And so as the last minute appeals are denied one after another, Prejean’s task becomes one of helping to redeem Poncelet and help him to die well—that is, to die with dignity, with a clear conscience, with no hatred or lies in his heart.

It’s a beautiful film, with a message for all of us, meaning that even though most of us have done nothing even in the heinous ballpark of what Poncelet did, we all have our “sins”—meaning, bad, even wicked conscienceless hurtful things we’ve done to others in moments of weakness and fear, that we probably ought to own up to before we die/before it’s too late. Because the reality is we’re each dead men (and women) walking. We all owe a death; it’s the final installment or payment on being alive—and likely the costliest and most difficult installment to pay well.

And part of living a truly meaningful and dignified and decent life means taking responsibility for our actions. It means not get sucked into an easy out—an “easy out,” meaning, a path of lessor resistance, a path which curses the effect on us of our past actions and yet at the same time sows more seeds of future suffering. And the easiest easy out is to get sucked into continuing to blame others or society or even our upbringing for the quality of our lives. As Bruno Bettleheim put it: “Blaming others or society is the child’s privilege, but if an adult continues to abnegate responsibility it is yet another step in personal disintegration and destruction.” To live a meaningful and dignified and worthy life, we have to begin living more consciously, more honestly and self-awarely, stop making so many excuses for ourselves, and begin facing the reality that all along we have been making choices—and that oftentimes the choice was to blame others and pretend like we didn’t have a choice or make a choice. And this is perhaps the most damning lie that we can tell ourselves—that it wasn’t possible for us to choose otherwise—because it absolutely brings to an immediate halt and undercuts any attempts at personal growth and changing one’s life for the better. As Stephen Covey put it, “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say, ‘I choose otherwise’” (from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). More to the point, that person cannot change and truly grow and heal.

From: “Dead Man Walking“—this is my slight rewrite of the movie, I have done so in order to help translate the film to print

The scene: Near the end of the movie, a cell on death row, about 28 hours before Poncelet’s scheduled execution the following night. Poncelet and Prejean are alone in the cell.

Prejean: Let’s talk about what happened. Let’s talk about that night.

Poncelet: I don’t want to talk about that.

Why?

Because I’m pissed off! I’m pissed at the kids for being parked. I’m pissed at myself for letting Vitello (his accomplice) get them kids. . . . And I’m pissed at their parents for coming to see me die. . . . Oh l got a thing or two I want to say to the Percys and the Delacroixs.

You want your last words in this life to be words of hatred?

Clyde Percy wants to inject me himself!

Well, think about it, Matthew; think of how angry he must be. He’s never gonna see his daughter again. He’s never gonna hold her, love her, laugh with her. You have robbed these parents. They have nothing in their lives anymore but sorrow and unimaginable pain; no joy. And that is what you gave them. . . . So why were you in the woods?

I told you, I was stoned!

Don’t blame the drugs, Matthew. You had been harassing couples for months before this happened. So what was it?

What do you mean?

Did you look up to Vitello? Did you think he was cool? Did you want to impress him?

I don’t know.

You could have walked away.

He woulda went psycho on me.

Don’t blame him! . . . Matthew, you blame him, the government, drugs, blacks, the Percys, the Delacroixs. You blame the kids for being there. But what about you?—what about Matthew Poncelet? Where’s he in this story? What?—is he just a victim?

I ain’t no victim.

But you’re not taking responsibility, Matthew. Time’s ticking away. You’ve got death breathing down your neck and you’re still playing your little con-man games and looking for loopholes.

The scene: It’s the next day, the same cell on death row, only hours before Poncelet’s scheduled midnight execution. Poncelet is alone in his cell, Prejean enters. She looks at him, Poncelet looks different, and he is looking at Prejean differently.

Prejean: What, Matt? What is it?

Poncelet: (thoughtful) Earlier today when I was saying my goodbyes, my mama kept saying, ”It was that damn Vitello.” She always regrets that I got involved with him. But I didn’t want her thinking that—that it was him and not me. Something you said got me thinking, Sister. . . . I could’ve walked away. . . . But I didn’t. I didn’t. . . .. I wasn’t a victim; I was a fucking chicken. He (Vitello) was older than me and tough as hell. And I was just boozing up and trying to be as tough as him. But I couldn’t. He was bad; but I didn’t have the guts to stand up to him. I told my mama this—that I was yellow. But she kept saying, ”It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you.”

Your mama loves you, Matt.

But it was me, Sister. It was me. I had a choice. I made a choice. You know that boy—

Walter?

Yes, Walter— 

What? What Matthew?

Well I killed him. I shot him in the back of the head. I shot him like he was nothing. I shot him because I wanted to prove how tough I was. I shot him because I was too scared to stand up for myself. I shot him because I was a coward. I treated him—Walter—like he was nothing at all because I was a coward.

Oh Matthew. . . . And Hope? 

No, ma’am.

No? . . . Did you rape her?

Yes, ma’am, I did. I did horrible things to those kids.

Then you’re taking responsibility, Matthew?—for both of their deaths?

Yes, ma’am. (Sobbing) Yes ma’am, I do. (Sobbing) . . . . When the lights dimmed last night, I kneeled, and I prayed for them kids and their families. I ain’t never done that before. I felt so alone. I feel so bad for them. How could I have done what I did? Why did I have to do it? Why? . . .

Oh, Matthew. There are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible, hideous thing. You ended two young innocent lives and you robbed those two families of their children. You treated those kids—those human beings—like they were disposable to you, you treated them like they were here for you to do what you wanted with them. But they weren’t. . . . And now you’re facing the truth, Matthew, and doing so has set you free—the truth has made you free. You’ve known the truth all along, but now you’re admitting it, facing it finally, not lying any more about it. And because you’re doing this and taking responsibility for your actions, Matthew, there’s real dignity in this: You have a dignity now. And nobody can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.

Nobody ever called me no son of God before, Sister. I’ve been called a son of you-know-what lots of times, but never no son of God. . . . l just hope my death can give them parents some relief.

Maybe the best thing you can give to the Percys and the Delacroixs is this is to let them know this remorse and regret that you feel—to feel their pain, and not hide from their anger—the anger that you brought into their lives. You can give them that, Matthew, and a wish for their peace.

If I could, I would do things differently; I wouldn’t do what I did. I’d be stronger, you know. I never had no real love myself. Never loved a woman or anybody else. I would want to love. It figures I’d have to die to find love.

Matthew, I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. You look at me. And I’ll be the face of love for you.

Yes, ma’am. Thank you, for loving me.

Thank you, Matthew.

 

To truly love another person is to see the face of God.” – Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables

.

Confession—a truly heartfelt and thorough confession—what in recovery circles is referred to as making a full and searching and fearless moral inventory—is the first step to real personal growth and true mental health and healing. The truth will set us free. But only if we face it and confess it fully. To confess the truth partially is to still to lie, and lying will not set us free.  But admitting the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth, and taking personal responsibility—ceasing to grumble and blame society, others, our upbringing, et cetera, but instead focusing on ourselves and the choices we’ve made and are making, becoming conscious of these choices instead of denying them—is what will set us free.

Yes, to be sure, external things as well as the past certainly exert an influence on us and have-wired us limbically and even intellectually a certain way. But they do not get the last word in who we are—they do not get the last word in who we become.

We get the last word in who we become if—if—we take responsibility for ourselves, for our choices, and face the (potentially terrifying) truth about how we’ve lived, what we’ve done, the choices we’ve made, and who we’ve become. —And the worse and less courageously we’ve lived, the more terrifying the truth will be for us. As John wrote in his Gospel (paraphrasing): “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were wicked. For everyone who does evil things hates the light and is ashamed, and so in his shame does not come towards the light, but instead hides from the light so that his or her deeds may not be exposed. But whoever lives truthfully comes to the light so that his deeds may be seen clearly. . . . ” (John 3:19-21)

We’re all dead men and women walking. We all owe a death. The problem is that unlike Poncelet, for most of us the hour of our death is unknown. And that uncertainty as to when—not if, but when—is what gives us the wiggle room that allows us to live badly, to lose perspective and live and make choices as if life goes on forever (or at least a lot longer than it likely will). Castaneda said that death is the only wise advisor we have. I would revise that statement and say that death is one of only two wise advisors we have—the other being God or God’s point of view—what’s best in us, what does our conscience say, asking honestly what is the Loving and truly mature and courageous thing to do. If we learn how to consult both of these advisors more and more in life—and more and more when we’re making decisions—especially potentially big decisions, then we’ll be crafting a habit that will serve us well. We will be learning to begin with the end in mind—the end, meaning death and what will be important to us at that moment. And thus we will be living and making decisions more truthfully—and honorably.

 

Let death and banishment and rejection and misfortune and every other thing that appears dreadful and that you’d rather ignore, be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” —Epictetus

.

You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out, on your feet or on your knees? I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same.” – from the motion picture “The Kingdom

 

There’s no way out of this alive. No one gets out of here alive. We all have to die. And all of those we love and depend on also will die. And we must not let the uncertainty as to when we and others will die provide us with the wiggle room to live and love badly, pettily, to use others, to run from ourselves and our fears, to lie, to live and love like we’re not dead men walking and like we and those we love will never die. Because once we lose perspective and start living a life unmindful of the end—a life of denial, avoidance, dishonesty—we become shameful creatures and we leave the door open in ourselves for evil, for real inhumanity and abuse and cruelty—and all in the name of preserving our comfort and not having to face our fears and be overwhelmed by them—by what will one day unavoidably have the upper hand on us. Carpe diem—seizing the day—isn’t about living a frenzied life, ramping up our living in denial and living more hedonistically and superficially. Just the opposite, it’s about facing reality, beginning with the end in mind, and not living superficially, not living as a coward, not tranquilizing ourselves with what is trivial and will not mean anything to us as we’re dying or when we get the cancer diagnosis or one of our children has died. Carpe diem—living deeply and sucking the marrow out of life—means living very consciously, deliberately, mindfully, with gratitude, appreciation, kindness, openness, honesty, depth, substance. It means not worrying so damn much about our own comfort. It means getting out of the shallows and into the depths where life reveals its secrets (Rilke).

Confession—his level of honesty and perspective—is a huge part of being reborn, of a metanoia—of a profound change of heart and mind and life direction—or, if you don’t want it to sound so biblical or religious, then just call it growing up and being a better human being.

Confession—confessing our sins, really feeling the pain in others that we’ve put there because of what we’ve done, making our amends, correcting the past, sincerely desiring to exchange places with those we’ve hurt (meaning genuinely being willing to take the bullet or the hit, instead of making someone else take it for us)—is a sign of real growth, real psychological and spiritual health and strength. And it’s a sign that we’re not lost—that we haven’t lost perspective, but instead have found it, that we’re finally putting ourselves on some really truly solid ground, instead of the fleeting groundlessness of living in denial and living superficially.