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


Is This True

What does it mean to be awake in life?

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

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

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

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

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

Is this really true?

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

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

Is this really true?

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

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

Is this true?

The Waiting


waiting-room - 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

Love, Impermanence, Uncertainty, Fear: Which Wins?


I read this on another blog—an advice column blog called “Dear Sugar.”

This is the question that was asked:

Dear Sugar,

I’m 29 and dating a man that I adore; we’re planning to move in together soon. I have a stable job that I hate, but I hope that I’ll one day find something I enjoy. I have family and friends and hobbies and interests and love. So much love. And I’m desperately afraid that I’m going to have cancer.

I’m terrified that sooner or later, I’ll be diagnosed. My mother had breast cancer when I was in college. She survived hers, but in some ways, she didn’t. It broke her, Sugar. My father died of liver cancer when I was in high school—he was never lucky enough to be counted “a survivor.” My grandmother had a brain tumor when I was a newborn; she didn’t live to see my first birthday. As much as I take care of my health, as much as I try to be careful, I have this niggling doubt that my genes are setting me up for failure.

I know you can’t tell me whether or not I will have cancer, and I know you can’t tell me when. But what I’m struggling with—what I need help figuring out—is how to make the decisions in my life while keeping this possibility in mind. You know the decisions I mean: The Big Ones.

How do I decide whether or not to get married? How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it? I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself? How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through? How do I prepare myself?

Scared of the Future

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And this is the answer I would have given:
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Dear Scared of the Future,

Those questions you asked are REALLY good questions—or can be—if—ifyou don’t let them make you totally neurotic. Meaning, if you can achieve and maintain some precious *balance*—accept the wisdom and perspective and appreciation for life that these questions bring, but refuse the neuroticness and craziness and shrinking from life that they also tempt us with.

And it’s very a tough balance to find and maintain.

Most people don’t think too much about death, and so they tend to make decisions without much perspective, clarity, and or wisdom: they live and love as if life goes on forever—or if it’s at least supposed to go on for a very very long time into the future.

And living in this way invites people to live rather badly and superficially—to skim the surface, to take themselves and others for granted, to consume and shop and buy and spend, to live for themselves, to become greedy, to lust for power, prestige, status, et cetera. In short, to live in denial, and in a way where they are forced to limit and guard their awareness and what they will permit themselves to think about.  Only the safest and superficial things are permitted to be thought about and talked over.

And then if they’re lucky, they get some sort of wake-up call at midlife or soon thereafter—some sort of brush with death and their own mortality. And if that wake-up call actually wakes them up, then they live better, make changes, rethink their life, have a metanoia, live with more grace and appreciation and kindness and perspective. Death does that. Or at least it can.

But this is not your lot, SotF. Living in denial is not your predicament. You’ve been touched by death—by the death and near-death of those nearest and dearest to you. Losing your father in high school? Unbelievably tragic. Your mother’s battle with breast cancer while in college? That was strike three. The verdict: Life can’t be trusted; life is tenuous, fleeting at best; we are fragile, I must be next.

You are wrestling with some pretty profound questions and realizations, SotF. Questions that wise people have wrestled with and become wise for having had the courage to wrestle with—while not letting themselves lose their passion and wonder for life.

The Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” Sickness, old age, death: these things cannot be avoided. But most people try—try desperately, try to avoid these, try to avoid thinking about these dark shouters, these inevitables. It’s called self-preservation: and it’s hard-wired into our DNA; we’re riddled with it. Yet because of this—because of how avoidant most people are in terms of facing their own and other’s mortality—most people wind up impoverishing themselves, leading lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. Leading lives where they try to distract and anesthetize themselves in a myriad of ways—addictions, relationships, sex, shopping, impulsivity and fanaticism of every kind, mindless reading, elaborate new age metaphysics and soft-minded mumbo-jumbo. And they live and love poorly, badly, superficially, because of it. Because they lack courage. Because they are afraid—and too afraid to face (and really *feel*) how afraid (and lost) they are. There are numerous ways in which we human beings check out from the full intensity of living and loving. There are numerous ways we humans have devised in order to try and avoid suffering and feel like we have some control over our fate and over death.

“There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” – R. D. Laing

“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”

But, again, this is not your lot, SotF. Your situation is different: How do you find (and maintain) balance between the lessons that having death over your left shoulder is teaching you (“carpe . . . carpe diem . . . seize the day, make your life extraordinary . . . !”), and not letting death and the uncertainty you feel in terms of your own remaining life-span make you totally skittish? How do you live and love well and fully amid all of this uncertainty and fear? For you, the question is not: How would I live if I knew I only had one year (or 5 years) to live? It is: Now that I know not to take anything and anyone for granted in life, what do I most want to experience, and who (if anyone) do I most want to experience that with? Who do I want to go through time with—whatever time I have left and he has left? How do I most want to spend myself and my time?

Death is certain; the time of death is not. This is true for us all. Maybe (perhaps even likely, I don’t know) because of the history of cancer in your family, the odds are a bit increased that your time may be up a bit sooner rather than later. But death wins and life loses if you go too far and swing to the opposite side of the equation—if in ways you don’t even realize you are shrinking from living and loving and refusing the gift.
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How do I decide whether or not to get married?

If you love this man deeply, if knowing him has changed your life in ways you could not imagine and still cannot fully fathom for the better and vice versa, if knowing each other is bringing you both more alive, then you look him in the eyes and promise to love him with all that you are for as long as you can and then you go out and do this. Every day. That is the essence of carpe diem.

Read Schweitzer’s essay “Overcoming Death” in “Reverence for Life” (pp. 67-76), read chapter 14 (“Sex, Love, and Death”) in Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage,” read C. S. Lewis’s words in the chapter on “Charity” in “The Four Loves.” And watch “Shadowlands,” watch “The Notebook,” and if this is how you feel about your beloved, if this is who you are and who you aspire to be at your core, then marry him, give yourself fully to him, and LOVE him with all that you are and aspire to be.
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How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it?

If he loves you, if he truly loves you, he will consent to all of this; he will sign on for it. Love is not about sparing someone else inevitable pain or trying to shield them from the brute inevitable facts of life. Love is about facing reality bravely, courageously, with grit, resolve, kindness, compassion, depth, understanding, openness.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” ― C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

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I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself?

Then death may have already won and claimed you. Consider that. Consider with what you are saying here whether death may not have already won. Consider that.
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How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through?

It’s not your job to prepare your spouse or to protect him from your death. Every person has to prepare themselves for their own death and for the death/loss of those they love. Every person has to do this for themselves. No one can do this work for anyone else in life. And having to do this work and prepare for one’s own death and for the deaths of those we love is a horrific thing to have to do; but the alternative—trying to avoid this and spare ourselves and others this—is even more horrific. It leads us to live superficially at best and badly at worst.
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How do I prepare myself?

Be gentle with yourself, treat yourself kindly, and read (Pema Chödrön’s books would be a great place to start), think, write/journal, contemplate, talk, listen, love, live, walk, observe, participate, develop a spiritual practice, meditate, appreciate, be grateful, cry, weep, be open, smile, laugh, breath. Most of all breath. Be good to yourself, be kind to yourself, let yourself love and be loved—yes, this most of all—let yourself really love and be deeply loved.

Nothing is guaranteed. This is so difficult to accept, and like everyone else you are having difficulty accepting this, but you are approaching this from a much different starting point than most. But the crux is still the same: to accept that life does not offer guarantees, and thus to learn how to live and love on life’s terms, and not your own. Acceptance means surrendering some of the control you are so desperately craving; it means relinquishing this, easing up your grip on the proverbial wheel; it means learning to live and let live—it means to let yourself live and truly live.
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***
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And this is the answer that Sugar gave:
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Dear Scared of the Future,

There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.

Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?

Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?

If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people.

I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.

So will yours if you let it, sweet pea.

You have my deepest sympathy and my most sincere understanding, but you’re not thinking clearly on this. You’re granting the crazy lady way too much power. Your sorrow and fear has clouded your ability to be reasonable about your mortality. And if you continue in this vein it’s going to rob you of the life you deserve—the one in which your invisible inner terrible someone finally shuts her trap.

You do not need to look into your lover’s eyes and “explain to him what he might have to go through” should you be diagnosed with cancer. Tell him about your family’s experiences with cancer and about how you made it through those difficult times. Share your fears with him, and your grief. But don’t make the illogical line from your relatives’ real illnesses to your nonexistent one. Only the crazy lady is pretty convinced you’ll get cancer and die young. All the rest of us are entirely in the dark. Yes, you need to be aware of your risks and monitor your health, but do so while remembering that in most cases a genetic history of any given disease is only one predictor of your own likelihood of getting it.

Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You are a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be when and of what.

That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we’re all part of whether we sign up to be or not—the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong.

You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.

Yours,

Sugar

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-92-your-invisible-inner-terrible-someone/

What If Today We Were More Grateful?


The hardest arithmetic to master is the one which enables us to count our blessings.” – Eric Hoffer

I came across the following passage in a post on another blog I was reading this morning . . .

“[E]verybody’s always telling us to BE GRATEFUL BE GRATEFUL BE GRATEFUL and there is something to that. But for me, gratitude comes in moments, all encompassing, out of time moments—Kairos moments—and as a general knowing in the back of my head and heart. Gratitude is not always front and center for me. And I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into gratitude. Life is beautiful, and there is much for which to be grateful. But life is also tough. The big things are tough – like I’m sick, and I’m not getting better, and the little things are tough, like – WHY IS THIS PLAYDOH SO FREAKING HARD TO OPEN? The big and the little stuff get me down. And that’s okay. No need to be grateful all the time.”

And in response I wrote:

This reminds me of what Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning“—

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate. . . .

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

It’s hard to be grateful. No doubt about it. It’s difficult to put gratitude front and center. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But the fact of the matter is that it’s just plain easier not to—not to put gratitude front and center. It takes so much effort, so much self-inflicted hardship and training, so much difficult and unpleasant self-analysis and self-overcoming, so much difficult inner work and inner rewiring, to facilitate that degree of a “metanoia.”

But it begs the question: If being as grateful as possible as often as possible isn’t our priority, then what is?

Survival? Self-preservation? Making it through the day so we can get up and do it all again tomorrow? And then the day after that and the day after that?

And then what?

What if we were all more grateful more often? How would that change things?

To me it seems clear that much of the time, life is neither inherently pleasant or unpleasant, easy or difficult, and that in those situations, it’s our attitude and thinking that either makes our experience of life at that moment either heavenly or hellish. In other words, as we are, so too is how we see and experience life. So thus the question—why not strive to make ourselves more grateful, to cultivate withn ourselves a greater attitude of gratitude and appreciation? Why not make gratitude more of a front and center focus? Because if not gratitude, then what?  What will we being allowing to rule us?  Anger?  Resentment? Bitterness? Disappointment? Constant craving? Ungratefulness?

No need to be grateful all of the time. . . . We don’t have to feel grateful all the time.” Fair enough. I’m not grateful all of the time. But I am much more appreciative and grateful than I was 10 years ago, not to mention 20 years ago.  I think that is something we can all strive to improve in—to be more grateful and appreciative today than we were yesterday or last year or 5 or 10 years ago.  That is certainly my aim.  I know that I do appreciate life more than I use to; I appreciate the little things, the simple things more. And teaching myself to be more grateful has definitely opened me up to more “kairos” moments. And learning how to be more appreciative and grateful has seemed to make many of life’s losses and sufferings more bearable. For one, there’s less regret over wasted time (for the simple fact that the more you appreciate life and live as if time is a gift, then the less of it you tend to waste by going through life sleepwalking or trying to numb yourself or being pissed off and angry that life isn’t meeting your demands). And two, there’s less “denial.” Part of what instills a sense of greater gratitude and appreciation for life seems to be facing how capricious and transient life is (granted this is very unpleasant to do, which is why so few tend to do it). And so the more deeply and honestly we come to terms with our own and others’ mortality (and cut back on our denial), then the proportionally greater potential we have to be grateful and appreciative. As Chesterton put it,

“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether we take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

And so why not be as grateful as possible as often as possible and train ourselves in this way of engaging more and more of life? Especially if it allows us to go through life with more grace and perspective and composure?

I believe there is a part of each of us—the “what’s best in each us” part—that longs to fall to its knees more regularly and say more often with incredible depth of feeling:

“Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you . . .  thank you for my life. I had forgotten how big . . . thank you . . . “

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And in my experience it requires a lot of honesty and courage and real humility to get in touch with that part of ourselves, and to desire to get in touch with that part of ourselves.

Humility seems to be the key. I think ultimately humility is the key to becoming more grateful and appreciative. After all, it takes a lot of real humility to wrestle honestly with our own mortality, to realize that we will die (our “pride” won’t let us think about our own death and how small we are). And it also takes a lot of humility to look a why we don’t want to put a greater sense of appreciation for life front and center in the way we live—it takes a lot of humility to really look at why we say “I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into gratitude.” To me, “I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into gratitude” lacks a certain amount of humility.  And it takes humility to learn—and the greater the lesson, typicaly the greater the humility required to learn it.  Personally, at this point in my life, I don’t know if there’s anything in life that I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into learning, especially if it holds the potential of helping me become a better human being. I really don’t care if I’m “right” in how I see life, what I’m more interested in is whether I’m seeing life accurately, fairly, honestly. It’s not an “ego” thing where I have to be right about it. —It’s not about who’s right but what’s right—or what’s true or most accurate.

Yes, “Pain is pain, and we all get the privilege of feeling it.” But there are other ways of looking at this. As Helen Keller put it, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my life.”

To me this is what rings more true. And to me this is always the miracle—increasing our appreciation for life and for what we have; learning to see things more appreciatively, and downsizing that part of ourselves that tends to run petty, ungrateful, whiny, complaining, asleep. (“He must increase; I must decrease“—what’s best in me must increase, what’s worst and weakest in me must decrease.)  It’s a miracle whenever anyone awakens and increases their appreciativeness and gratefulness and decreases how disgruntled and unhappy and angry they are. And this is difficult; making this happen is difficult.  No doubt about it.  Affecting this change in ourselves—or even helping encourage it in others—is difficult.

But it’s the good kind of difficult. They type of difficult that makes us better human beings. . . .

“All of us have read thrilling stories in which the hero had only a limited and specified time to live. Sometimes it was as long as a year; sometimes as short as twenty-four hours. But always we were interested in discovering just how the doomed man chose to spend his last days or his last hours. . . .

“Such stories set us thinking, wondering what we should do under similar circumstances. What events, what experiences, what associations, should we crowd into those last hours as mortal beings? What happiness should we find in reviewing the past, what regrets?

“Sometimes I have thought it would be an excellent rule to live each day as if we should die tomorrow. Such an attitude would emphasize sharply the values of life. We should live each day with a gentleness, a vigor, and a keenness of appreciation which are often lost when time stretches before us in the constant panorama of more days and months and years to come. . . .

“In stories, the doomed hero is usually saved at the last minute by some stroke of fortune, but almost always his sense of values is changed. He becomes more appreciative of the meaning of life and its permanent spiritual values. It has often been noted that those who live, or have lived, in the shadow of death bring a mellow sweetness to everything they do.

“Most of us, however, take life for granted. We know that one day we must die, but usually we picture that day as far in the future. When we are in buoyant health, death is all but unimaginable. We seldom think of it. The days stretch out in an endless vista. So we go about our petty tasks, hardly aware of our listless attitude toward life.

“The same lethargy, I am afraid, characterizes the use of all our facilities and senses. Only the deaf appreciate hearing, only the blind realize the manifold blessings that lie in sight. . . . [T]hose who have never suffered impairment of sight or hearing seldom make the fullest use of these blessed faculties. Their eyes and ears take in all sights and sounds hazily, without concentration and with little appreciation. It is the same old story of not being grateful for what we have until we lose it, of not being conscious of health until we are ill.

“I have often thought it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken blind and deaf for a few days at some time during his early adult life. Darkness would make him more appreciative of sight; silence would teach him the joys of sound. . . .

“Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. ‘Nothing in particular,’ she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little.

“How was it possible, I asked myself, to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing worthy of note? I who cannot see find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. In spring I touch the branches of trees hopefully in search of a bud, the first sign of awakening Nature after her winter’s sleep. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me. Occasionally, if I am very fortunate, I place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song. I am delighted to have the cool waters of a brook rush through my open fingers. To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug. To me the pageant of seasons is a thrilling and unending drama, the action of which streams through my finger tips.

“At times my heart cries out with longing to see all these things. If I can get so much pleasure from mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight. Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.

“If I were the president of a university I should establish a compulsory course in ‘How to Use Your Eyes’. The professor would try to show his pupils how they could add joy to their lives by really seeing what passes unnoticed before them. He would try to awake their dormant and sluggish faculties.” (Helen Keller, “Three Days to See.”)

 

Related articles & posts on Gratitude:

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/happy-thanksgiving/

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/love-gratitude-and-perspective/

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/the-learning-of-love-gratitude/

http://courageandchoice.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/always-do-your-best-the-power-of-gratitude/

http://elenaabrams.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/gratitude-day-25/

http://trishborgdorff.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/thanksgiving-and-gratitude/

http://letlifeinpractices.com/2012/05/03/teaching-children-to-be-grateful/

http://www.everydayhealth.com/saying-thanks/teaching-kids-the-importance-of-gratitude.aspx

http://gyatoday.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/50-shades-of-gratitude/

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


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

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

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

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

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

That you kept a tidy home?

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

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

What will matter in the end?

This is the lesson of the baobobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

The reply is simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all in recovery.

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

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

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

Albert Schweitzer on Love, Death, and Gratitude


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Schweitzer on the “Sleeping Sickness of the Soul”


“[Y]ou can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities, which attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There’s a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, ‘tranquilization by the trivial.’ And I think our culture has mastered this better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.” – Roy Walsh, psychiatry professor, as quoted in “The Search For Meaning,” by Phillip L. Berman

I believe that the damned are, in one sense, rebels, successful to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” – C. S. Lewis, from “The Problem of Pain

The Sleeping Sickness of the Soul” – Albert Schweitzer, abridged from pp. 77-81 of “Reverence for Life” (from a sermon he preached Palm Sunday, April 4, 1909, at the afternoon service at St. Nicolai’s Church)

What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?” – Mark 8:36

A silent agony is brooding over the human race.

Many who outwardly look happy are really not happy in reality. For they know in their heart of hearts that they have forfeited the right to truth and goodness. They themselves have shut the door to what is sacred and pure. They have through their own conduct locked themselves out of the best that is within them. And only afterward do they realize how poor they have become. They stretch their hands out but do not reach goodness, beauty, and truth. They have cut themselves off from the world of goodness and beauty within them.

True joy means letting the noblest and purest thoughts within you inspire your lives.

It does not matter so much what you do: what matters is whether your soul is harmed by what you do. If your soul is harmed something irreparable happens, the extent of which you won’t realize until it will be too late.

But there are also others who harm their souls without being exposed to great temptations. These people simply let their souls wither. They allow themselves to be dulled by the pleasures and worries and distractions of life; they have lost all feeling for everything that makes up the inner life. It is just this creeping danger I want to warn you about.

You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sickness. First its victims get slightly tired, then the disease gradually intensifies until the afflicted person lies asleep all the time and finally dies from exhaustion.

There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. You should realize that your soul has suffered harm.

Your soul suffers if you live superficially. People need times in which to concentrate, when they can search their inmost selves. It is tragic that most people have not achieved this feeling of self-awareness. And finally, when they hear the inner voice they do not want to listen anymore. They carry on as before so as not to be constantly reminded of what they have lost. But as for you, resolve to keep a quiet time both in your homes and here within these peaceful walls when the bells ring on Sundays. Then your souls can speak to you without being drowned out by the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

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Related articles:

https://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/albert-schweitzer-on-the-sleeping-sickness-of-the-soul/

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/distraction-love/

http://mindfulbalance.org/2013/09/20/training-the-heart/

http://mindfulbalance.org/2013/09/06/22491/

http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/60976988930/if-you-could-give-one-piece-of-advice-to-a-large