“Communion”


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

But were there others who were alive now?

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

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

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

No more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Martin Buber

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


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

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

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

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

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

That you kept a tidy home?

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

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

What will matter in the end?

This is the lesson of the baobobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

The reply is simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all in recovery.

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

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

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

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

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“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?

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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.

Self-Criticism, Mental Health, and Genuine Personal Growth


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To me, these excepts all seem to be saying very much the same thing. What do you think?

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The very purpose of spirituality is self-discipline. Rather than criticizing others, we should evaluate and criticize ourselves. Ask yourself, what am I doing about my anger, my attachment, my pride, my jealousy? These are the things we should check in our day to day lives.” – the Dalai Lama, Facebook status update, Fri 27 Jan 2012

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They call you “Little Man” or “Common Man.” They say that your age has dawned—the “Age of the Common Man.” And the future of the human race will depend on your thoughts and actions.

A doctor, a shoemaker, mechanic, or educator has to know his shortcomings if he is to improve in his work. Yet your teachers and masters rarely tell you what you really are and how you really think. No one dares confront you with the one truth that might make you the unswerving master of your life, because you banish, bully, malign, ostracize, cut off, wall out, exile, crucify anyone whose opinion you don’t agree with. You are indeed “free” little man, but in only one respect: you are free from the self-criticism that might help you to better govern your own life. . . .

Don’t run away: Have the courage to look at yourself.

I can see the question in your frightened eyes, hear it on your insolent tongue: “By what right are you lecturing me?!”

You are afraid to look at yourself, little man; you are afraid of criticism, you afraid of who you can become. You are afraid to think that your self—the person you feel yourself to be right now—might someday be different from who and what she is now—truly free rather than cowed; candid and honest rather than manipulative and scheming; capable of truly loving in broad daylight instead of stealing affection like a thief in the night. Secretly you despise yourself.

You differ from a great person in only one respect: a great person was once a little man, but he developed one very important trait: he learned to recognize the smallness and narrowness of his thoughts and actions.

Under the pressure of some great task which meant a great deal to him, he learned to face himself and see how his own smallness and pettiness endangered his own happiness. In other words, a great man knows when and in what way he is a little man.

A little man does not know this and is afraid to know this.

(Wilhelm Reich, adapted from “Listen Little Man,” pp. 5-7)

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Judge not, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not cast pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7: 1-6)

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Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps of reality only when we have the discipline not to avoid that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to the truth. 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 a life of total dedication to the truth mean?

It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine ourselves, the examiner. . . . Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within, and it is certainly because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the majority steer away from it. Yet when one is dedicated to the truth this pain seems relatively unimportant—and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther one proceeds on the path of self-examination.

A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy, rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion. Yet, because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity.

The tendency to avoid challenge is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature. But calling it natural does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior. It is also natural to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth. Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until the unnatural becomes itself second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural. Another characteristic of human nature—perhaps the one that makes us most human—is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.

(M. Scott Peck, abridged from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 50-53.)

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


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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


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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.

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.