“Communion”


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

But were there others who were alive now?

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

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

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

No more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Martin Buber

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Life 101


The Ideas of the Shipwrecked” – Jose Ortega y Gasset

Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

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Dragon-Princesses” – Rilke, August 12, 1904, Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden (from “Letters to a Young Poet,” letter no. 8; this is my combination and paraphrasing of separate translations by Stephen Mitchell and M. D. Herter Norton)

To speak of solitude again, it becomes clear that at bottom this is not something that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. But that is all.

Yet how much better would it be to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes are used to resting on would be taken away from us, there would no longer be anything near us, and everything far away would be infinitely far. It would be as if a person were taken from his room, without any preparation or transition, and placed on the heights of a great mountain range; he would feel something of the sort: an unparalleled insecurity, an abandonment to something inexpressible that would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces. And what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses!

This is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly, and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, extraordinary imaginings and strange new sensations arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable.

But it is necessary for us to experience that too.

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can. Everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.

That human beings have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.

To say nothing of God.

But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we don’t think we can cope. For it is only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude anything, even the most incomprehensible and enigmatical, who will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we think of the existence of an individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners. And we have little reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is likely not against us. If it has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses in all likelihood belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien may become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps many of the dragons in our lives are actually secretly princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So try not to be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloudshadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. So why would you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions might be doing inside of you?

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And this is my slight paraphrasing of something else Rilke wrote in “Letters to a Young Poet” (in letter no. 4, I think )–

I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. And try not to be too overwhelmed in your search for answers, many of which probably could not be given to you yet at this point, because you would not be able to really live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. And then perhaps someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Albert Schweitzer on Love, Death, and Gratitude


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are these two ways?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kid you not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Criticism, Mental Health, and Genuine Personal Growth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps of reality only when we have the discipline not to avoid that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to the truth. That is to say, we must always hold truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more crucial, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant, and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the art of loving.

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

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

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

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

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)