The Waiting


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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:

“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

“Connection”


One of the blogs I follow and on occasion read is a blog titled Analyfe. Erin, the writer of the blog, is an intelligent 20-something year old, who lives somewhere in Arizona, and who has an undergrad degree in psychology (I think). I stumbled on her blog a year or so ago (or maybe vice versa, she stumbled upon one of my blogs; I don’t know or remember), and what I enjoy most of all in her writings is her “searchiness” and the time and thought she puts into her posts. I don’t always agree with her posts or her conclusions, but I am very appreciative that she actually has depth to her thinking and writing; and so even if I disagree with something she has said, it often will end up as good food for thought for me—which is really what I want most of all out of a blog I read—I want food for thought—whether it takes the form of something profound I’ve never thought of, or whether it takes the form of something that I disagree with but that has been intelligently written, makes little difference to me. I value the food for thought.

What follows is my recent comment on one of her posts—on the surface it’s about upgrading to spiffy new state of the art 4G cell phone, but it’s really more of a musing about living in the moment and the quest for human connection.

Her original post can be viewed here (http://www.analyfe.com/2012/11/12/a-bittersweet-upgrade/).

And here is the comment I left—
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Interesting as always, Erin! A lot of food for thought!

And at many points while reading what you wrote, I wondered, Is this really true? (That’s what I do in general when I read: I find myself asking often—is this really true?) And not just true for you, but is it really true in general? Much of what you are expressing is certainly and arguably a fairly popular contrarian / counter-culture point of view. But is it really true?

(And before I go into this, you wrote, “I’ve started writing little notes in Evernote on my phone, instead of in my notebooks and journals. . . .” Just as a heads up, if your phone crashes or gets submerged in water, those notes may be unretrievable.)

At one point, you write about the human connection void—

“I go to the park to read and then feel inclined to share an incredible picture of the lake and trees, because I can. And that bothers me. . . . When I glace up to the trees–still green and lively–and then look around, I notice that I’m alone. Everyone else is fiddling around with the smart phones. I can’t help but wonder: what am I missing? Nothing. I know that’s the answer, yet I pull out my phone and feign productivity. I pretend not to feel the extreme existential disconnect of being in a group where no one pays the slightest attention to anyone else. We’re attempting to fill the human connection void with technology. We’re fooling ourselves into thinking that the feat is even possible.”

Maybe we are. Maybe some people are. But this all begs the question: what does it mean to actually really connect with another human being? What does it mean to reach that essential common uncommon common-ground with another human being?

Over a hundred years ago—meaning well before cell phones and PDAs and the Internet, et cetera—Rilke wrote: “And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization.” (“Letters to a Young Poet, letter # 8)

Yes, even to begin from this realization—existential disconnect, the human connection void—this is our lot: we *are* solitary. As C. S. Lewis wrote (in “A Grief Observed”)—“Alone into the alone.” We are born alone and we die alone. And we may partner up, develop a few seemingly deep friendships, even get married and have children, and still be utterly barrenly irremediably alone—with those supposedly closest to us utterly incapable of understanding us, “getting us,” penetrating us, accessing our inner solitude. And we may be just as helplessly incapable of understanding them and penetrating them to their core. Which begs the question: are we even able to access our own inner depths or core? Most people aren’t. Most people haven’t. Most people are incapable of doing so—understanding themselves let alone another, connecting deeply and meaningfully with themselves (with what is essential in themselves) or with another (connecting with what is essential or deepest in ourselves seems to be a prerequisite to connecting deeply with another).

And is this because of technology or an excess of technology?

Is this because of the widespread availability and use of cell phones, obsessive twittering, facebook updating, pinteresting, even blogging, et cetera? Are we dummying ourselves down through all of this to the point of being ineligible for connecting with others, never mind ourselves?

Is this, in fact, even a new predicament that we modern humans find ourselves in?

Not according to Rilke. Or Thoreau—

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. . . . A stereotyped but unconscious desperation is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them. . . . Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand. . . . Simplify, simplify. . . . Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? . . . For my part, I could easily do without the post office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life—I wrote this some years ago—that were worth the postage. . . . And I am sure I have never read any memorable news in the newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned down, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up . . . we never need to read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? To a philosopher all “news,” as it is called, is gossip. . . .” (“Walden“)

It would seem that we were solitary and disconnected long before technology made us apparently even more so.

Being disconnected and unable to connect deeply seems to come with the territory of living in denial. To the extent that we’re living in denial, we will be unable to connect deeply with others; and to the extent that we are no longer living in denial, we will be better able to actually connect deeply with others (who are also no longer living in denial), but in reality we will find ourselves still alone—and perhaps even more alone— because the mass of our fellowmen and -women will still be living in denial, still leading lives of quiet desperation (or not so quiet desperation—see Lesley Carter’s blog: http://lesleycarter.wordpress.com), and thus flitting along the surface and dissipating themselves with whatever distractions their particular culture and epoch provides. . . .

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? . . . As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of these things at all. . . . The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, distraction; and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” – Pascal, Pensees,” #’s 167-171, 205 (circa 1660 AD)

I tend to think that the human connection void is due to much more than the prevalence of cell towers, cell phones, PDAs, the Internet, FaceBook, twitter, Pinterest, video games, et cetera. I think these things are merely the latest scapegoats. The reality is most people aren’t in touch with their deeper or more authentic selves, most people aren’t very self-aware, most people don’t lead very examined lives, most people don’t think very critically—especially about their own assumptions and biases and thinking (and I could be a prime example of this), and most people are afraid—afraid of death and living in denial—especially those who say claim they aren’t (in my experience most of those people are living in la-la land; they haven’t truly faced death or a real brush with death or had a long cancer scare—things that might actually lend some credibility to their claims).

Switching subjects, Erin . . . at another point in your essay, you write—

“It’s wonderful that you were able to capture Allison’s first steps or Derek’s first school play, but while focused on manipulating the camera, were you really present in the moment? I went to a concert recently and watched as a girl in front of me snapped several photos, then proceeded to post the pictures to every social networking site and tag everyone she was with. Ten minutes of an enjoyable event was spent broadcasting to her networks that she was out living life. But in those ten minutes, she wasn’t really there. Modern society–myself included– look forward to enjoying memories of these moments but, in doing so, sacrifice enjoying the actual moment. Rather than being present, we choose busyness–completing mundane and unnecessary tasks. We live in an era where most people view playing Angry Birds as a better use of time than sitting quietly at the park to hear the birds sing. Life becomes some big display. Each of us a caged animal–we spend our days priming and posing and trying to impress everyone else. While busy flaunting every tiny detail of our lives, we begin missing out on the big adventures. Worse yet, we set out on spectacular journeys and come back unchanged, but for a few neat photographs. The moments captured, are also moments lost. It seems we so fear losing our experiences–the youth of our first born, an incredible trip abroad, a new relationship, or the shifting seasons–that we make the ultimate sacrifice and step out of those noteworthy events in order to take notes…notes that may hold no future relevance.”

What does it mean to you to be really present in the moment? Why does recording the moment and savoring it later not count as being even more present in the moment? Regarding the girl in front of you at the concert—maybe she was posting pictures on FaceBook or what have you to get her ego strokes and reflected sense of self, but what would her really being there at those ten minutes have really been like? And what would she have after that? Would she be changed deeply as a person because of those 10 minutes? Would she have a deeper memory of the experience? But even memory is fallible. So many studies have been done regarding the unreliability of memory. In my experience. the more we remember something, we often end up remembering our memories and not the actual experience. It’s like making a cassette recording or a cassette recording, or opening a JPEG in photoshop and working the photo and saving it again as a JPEG. Each time the file is saved and compressed—or each time a cassette duplicates a duplicate of a duplicate, et cetera, cassette, quality is lost from the original recording or JPEG. Personally I prefer fact to fiction, so I do plan to take lots of videos of little Allison’s or Derek’s first steps and first kindergarten play. I want to be able to savor the original 20 years from now, should I live that long. And I want to be able to give those recordings to my child(ren). I wish my parents had taken videos of me when I was a kid. I wish they had taken videos of an average day around the house or on a Sunday afternoon outing to the beach. Think of how much those recordings would change the psychotherapeutic process—to not just have to take a client/patient’s word for what their relationship with their mom and dad was like, but to actually be able to get some sense of it. I would love to see with my 40-something-year-old eyes what my childhood was actually like!—the way that my mom and dad tried to parent me, interact with me, how I interacted with my brother and sister, what kind of kid I actually was. Instead all I’ve got to go on are a lot of memories—a lot of very subjective and likely distorted memories.

Thanks as always for the interesting post, Erin, and the food for thought! I hope you are well.

Kindest regards,

John

The TWO Preliminaries Necessary to Train In In Order to Awaken and Truly Change & Grow


At this point in my life, after whatever portion of life I’ve seen and experienced and lived through and read and written about and reflected on (which may be a little or may be of some significance), I am convinced that there are only TWO ways of truly changing our lives and waking up.

There are many ways of making more or less superficial or cosmetic changes to our lives—what Covey refers to as the way of “the personality ethic.” And these “changes” will only change us sideways or in reverse; they will not truly change us in any real and deep and profound sense—in the sense of real growth, in the sense of changing our character, in the sense of changing our stripes, in the sense of leading us to truly experience an awakening of our conscience and our soul and having our level of thinking and clarity and self-control radically increase and improve.

There are only TWO ways of truly CHANGING our lives in the sense of waking up and radically (meeting at a fundamental or “root”—radical comes from the Latin “radix” meaning “root”) altering oneself and one’s character, transforming oneself, having a metanoia, a true spiritual awakening, dying while alive and being completely dead in order to be born again spiritually and psychologically.

And neither of these paths of real change is easy or simple. In fact, both are quite painful. And both tend to go heavy on the pain and suffering and put it first, make you pay up front, and then give you the happiness and joy and bliss later, down the road.

And if these TWO ways are not painful—if they’re easy and simple—then a person can pretty much be sure that he or she isn’t doing them correctly, if they’re even really doing them at all.

And combining both of these TWO ways is what will have the greatest impact and effect on us in terms of waking us up and changing us deeply, fundamentally, irrevocably.

Lastly, the first of these two ways often leads quite naturally to the second way as well. But the second way doesn’t necessarily lead back to the first way, and, in fact, without the addition of the first way, the second way is apt to be a watered-down even cosmetic “personality ethic” version of what it could be with the addition of the first way as well.

So clearly, in my estimation, the first way is by far the more important of the two ways, but if we truly want to grow we must employ both ways wholeheartedly.

So what are these two ways?

The first is DEATH—getting real about death, taking the blinders off, ceasing to live in denial, getting real about our own and others’ death, and immersing ourselves more and more in our mortality so that things reach a critical mass in us. And I don’t mean reading more and more cheesy vampire fiction; I’m not speaking about that sort of pop-death nonsense; what I’m speaking of is real death, truly beginning with the end in mind and doing so in tangible ways—i.e. volunteering with hospice, visiting a hospice ward, driving by graveyards and cemeteries and actually looking at the grave markers and not turning away but deeply realizing as we are now, they once were, as they are now so too will we be, as will be all of those we love as well as those we dislike, those who irritate us, try our patience, et cetera.

Remember youth as you go by,as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me

Remember youth as you go by,as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me

If any real change is to occur in our lives we must begin having an actual living relationship with our own death/mortality. Living, meaning consulting one’s own and others’ death must become an active and ongoing and semi-constant “preoccupation” (for lack of a better word), for us.

We have to start thinking about death, reflecting on death, contemplating it, reading and writing about death every day. That’s the practice. That’s the discipline. If—if—we truly want to change and awaken and grow.

Because if we aren’t frequently (i.e. several times throughout the day) and searchingly consulting our own and others’ death, then our decision-making processes are likely to be off—to be too narrow, too myopic, too limited in scope, too based in gratifying the Id or one’s want of comfort and security and an easy or fun and frivolous life. The space between our ears is for rent; it’s up for grabs, to be occupied by either love or fear, perspective or myopia, truth or falsity, good or evil; there’s no neutrality; every moment is either a moment of sanity or insanity/discursiveness/blindness/falsity.

I am convinced at this point in my life that there’s no way of living sincerely and mindfully without integrating one’s own and others’ mortality into one’s life and giving it it’s proper place in our lives.

Yet when I mentioned this line of thought the other day to someone, she made it sound like I was being unrealistic. She assured me that only a person like the Dalai Lama would do this sort of thing (think about death and impermanence). And I responded that anyone can do this, it’s available to everyone—anyone thoughtful normal person who has reached the age of 25 or 30 has likely lost someone significant to them through death, and so that person should be able to start thinking ahead and realizing that death is in store for everyone, including themselves, but that everyone around them seems to be co-conspiring in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to death and dying, and so everyone else is living in denial and everyone else comes down hard on (ostracizes) anyone who refuses to play by the same rules.

And sure enough her response was to de-friend me from her Facebook account because she was already under enough stress and only wanted to surround herself with “positive” people.

I kid you not.

But this is 98% of the human race: blind, asleep, not beginning with the end in mind, living in denial (which suggests that they are beginning with the end in mind, they just don’t want to face it honestly, so instead they want to face away from it and be dishonest about it). . . .

“Be aware of the reality that life ends, that death comes for everyone, that life is very brief. When you realize that possibly you don’t have years and years to live, and if you start living your life as if you only had a day or a week left, then that heightened sense of impermanence and fragility also tends to increase our feelings of preciousness and gratitude and love. It puts things in perspective.” – Pema Chodron

.

“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

It’s only when we truly know we’re going to die that we stop fucking around in life and get serious about aligning our current actions with those that we think are going to matter most when we get the cancer scare or when we’re on our deathbed.

Death alone—that level of pain and anxiety—is what seems to be sufficient to cut through our bs, restore us to sanity, give us clarity and perspective.

And death also seems to be the only real source of true gratitude. Without death—i.e. when we’re living on autopilot and as if life goes on forever—we invariably take things for granted. But by more and more facing death, we begin to take the good and neutral things in our life with much more real gratitude and appreciation.

“Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” – Doris Mortman

Part of making peace with who we are means making peace with the fact that we are mortal, that we have a body, that we will die, as will everyone else, and that what happens afterwards is essentially a matter of belief and speculation—it’s a mystery, and no matter how much we would prefer to solve that mystery, it is ultimately a mystery for now.

And it is in recognizing this and really reflecting on this, and doing so more and more often, that we can begin to become much more truly humble and appreciative.

And this—thinking about death, truly doing the inner work that will allow us to make peace with our own death and others’ deaths—is also what will allow us to get our priorities right: to give Love, goodness, compassion, understanding, gratitude, kindness, their rightful place in our lives. Because in the end, these soul qualities are what will (likely) truly matter: Did we kiss this life enough? Did we love others? Did we let another or others truly and deeply in? Were we good to this world or were we just another troubled guest who darkened the earth and used others and lived like a thief in the night?

Were we a hero? Or did take the coward’s way out?—Did we hide out from life, play it safe, live and love as if life went on forever?

 . . .

The second way of deeply changing our lives is really a combination of steps 4 through 10 of the 12 Steps.

If we truly want to change and grow as a human being and awaken, we have to begin identifying more and more with our conscience, with that part of ourselves, and nourish and feed that part of ourselves.

Our conscience is our inner quality control expert—it’s what monitors us and monitors our level of effort in life. Are we doing our best or near-best? If our conscience is working and is well-formed, we will get one answer; if it is underdeveloped and we are living life in denial and emotionally (primarily from our feelings and the emotions and moods of the moment) and reactively, we will get another answer—a distinctly less honest and less realistic and less conscientious answer, one that makes us feel good but that likely is far less than truthful and realistic.

Our conscience is also what allows us to take the hit emotionally in life. It’s what allows us to not always have to feel good. In fact, it’s what allows us to prioritize things such that we can put doing good ahead of feeling good. People without a conscience or whose conscience is underdeveloped CANNOT do this—they cannot put doing good ahead of feeling good; everything revolves around their feelings—around feeling safe, loved, secure, accepted, validated, wanted, and when they feel all of this, they act one way (normally with decency), and when they don’t feel this way, they act an entirely different way (meaning, they typically act ungrateful, spoiled, entitled, bitter, petty, resentful, et cetera).

In order to raise the level of our conscience and to better develop it, we must start making regular (meaning every day, without exception—WITHOUT EXCEPTION!) searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs and our shortcomings and our character defects.

And the day we skip a day of doing this, is the day we fall of the wagon spiritually; it’s the day we prove that we really don’t want to change—that all of our talk about change is just that—talk, and not something real.

“It is impossible to grow and transform as a person unless we are prepared fully to cooperate in the process. Each step in the process depends on our wholehearted concurrence, because, in the long run, self-transcendence can only be the result of constant and tireless practice.

“Not until we have begun to practice continuously and vigilantly, with complete awareness, can we be said to have really joined the way. From then on the wheel of growth and transformation never stops turning. The process of transformation requires that all that is contrary to our essential being to be relinquished.” – Karlfried Graf Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pg. 79.

Moreover, because we have to participate in our own redemption (meaning, because we have free will), we will have to consent to allowing our character defects and shortcomings to be removed. —And we will have to do the work as well and participate in removing our own defects of character and conscience; we will have to put in actual time, labor, effort, work, real blood, sweat, and tears, and actually monitor ourselves and right our wrongs or our failings as soon as we notice them, instead of trying to trying to hide them, save them, cover them over, etc.

We need to be entirely ready on onboard for this to happen; we cannot cheat in this process.

And this is where DEATH comes in. Death, if faced honestly, cuts to the chase and cuts through our bs and denial like nothing else in life can and can actually keep us on track—death is what allows us “to race out beyond all lesser dangers to be safe around that one great danger”—that one great danger where we can bloom.

Making a change also requires that we make amends, that we make a list of all the persons we have harmed and wronged and fucked over, and that we are willing to humble ourselves and go back and correct our mistakes (except in those very rare and exceptional cases where doing so might cause serious injury to the other person—so this is not a caveat that allows any real wiggle room). This is part of what mental health, in the sense of complete and ongoing dedication to reality and to truth at all costs, means—it means that we don’t spare ourselves the expense by trying to save face and not taking the hit emotionally to our pride.

And truly making a change means that we to continue taking a searching and fearless personal moral inventory every day, that we remain vigilante, watchful, mindful, observant, honest. And whenever we notice that we are wrong, we need to swallow our pride, take the hit, and promptly admit our mistake or transgression, and not act in ways that invest ourselves even more heavily in our mistake. . . .

Having a truly working and functioning conscience means that there is something within us—what’s best in us—that’s active and that won’t let us lie to ourselves or cheat or cut illegitimate corners or get away with doing less than our best for very long. It means there’s something in us that monitors us, that doing quality control on us and our effort level, and that will call us out on our own bullshite. It means that we have an up and running personal ethics that allows us to feel another’s pains and the effects of our own actions (or lack of actions; i.e. withholding, withdrawal) on the other person. It’s what allows us to not do to another what we would not want done to us if the situation were reversed, and to do to another what we would want done to us if the situation were reversed. And it’s what allows this to happen in real time or near-real time, with minimal lag and minimal wiggle room for self-deception and lies and rationalizations (rational-lies-ations).

And one of the best ways to help this process along—this process of kick-starting our conscience and taking the quality of our moral reasoning and living to the next level—is to imagine we’re in a theater and we’re watching the story of our life—the highs and the lows. What would you be watching? What would you be seeing? And would you be the hero or the villain the story? Would you be proud of yourself and in awe or would be ashamed and embarrassed, even horrified? (Gurdjieff said that a person cannot awaken and truly change his or her life until he is completely appalled and “horrified” with himself—that that level of emotional disgust is necessary in order to motivate a person to get serious about waking up and letting all the smaller false I’s die. Facing death squarely also has the same effect of energizing us and getting us serious about waking up and living with greater clarity and maturity and Love.)

And now imagine watching yourself in your final days or when you get a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Watch yourself on your deathbed hours before dying. Was it worth it?—the way that you lived? Are you proud of how you conducted yourself here on earth? Are you proud of what you stood for and fought for and believed in? Did you do your best?

Now try taking yourself out of the equation: If you were watching someone else on screen doing the things you have done in your life, how would you feel about that person? How does he or she treat others? How does he or she treat him- or herself and the world? Is this person a good and noble soul? Or is he or she the proverbial “troubled guest darkening the earth”—full of chaos, fear, causing others pain? How would you feel watching this life review? Because right now you are trading your life to be this person—so is it worth it? Is this really the type of person you want to become? Are you doing your best or near-best? Are you even trying any more?

A searching and fearless and honest moral inventory is what will help us to more honestly and deeply ask and answer these questions—as will facing death squarely.

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.

What Does Spirituality Mean to You?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and never be himself.

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

-Rilke

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

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

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

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

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

In this lies the dignity of daring.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Art” – Elizabeth Bishop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– From the motion picture “Shadowlands”

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

Dungeon” – Rabindranath Tagore

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

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

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

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