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


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

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

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

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

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

That you kept a tidy home?

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

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

What will matter in the end?

This is the lesson of the baobobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

The reply is simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all in recovery.

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

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

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

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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.)

We MUST Choose, Part 2: Conscience and Reality and the Dark Side of Daydreaming and Fantasy


We MUST Choose, Part 2: Conscience and Reality and the Dark Side of Daydreaming and Fantasy

The opposite of sanity is insanity.  The opposite of truth is falsehood, which includes self-deception, lying, half-truths, rationalizations, denial, scapegoating, transference, projection, i.e. the vast majority of our defense mechanisms. 

Truth—insight, self-knowledge, greater self-awareness, clarity—though perhaps very painful at first, will not only (eventually) make us free, it will make us sane, because the more we lie to ourselves and others and avoid reality, then the more mentally unhealthy or less sane we are.

Thus one of the best ways to become healthier and more sane, decent, and loving, is by beginning to nurture our conscience and to focus on developing our character and our reality principle (three very interrelated things).

Because one of the other marks of not very healthy or decent people is that they really don’t have a healthy and functioning conscience—or the conscience they have is very twisted and malignant—meaning, their sense of right and wrong is very twisted and subjective and not open to any real investigation and or scrutiny (what they say goes, just because they think or feel it, and without any real discussion or deliberation).  And thus they are able to freely warp and spin things and lie to themselves and con themselves into believing at some level that their maladaptive (bad) behavior is actually secretly really good or decent or noble.  (This is one of the things about mentally unwell people—they love their secrets and abhor accountability and transparency and honesty.  In order to maintain their self—their sick self and current level of mental unhealth—they need to live in the dark and avoid the light—the light of disclosure, openness, transparency, scrutiny, feedback, and critical thinking, questioning.)   What bad people and not very good people and unhealthy people share is that they are just not that dedicated to truth or reality—which is a large part of why their conscience continues to be skewed and warped, and which is why they prefer alternate fictional fantasy pseudo-realities to the real world—often elaborate fantasy worlds replete with intricate yet absurd and irrational metaphysics and beliefs.  They prefer to exist in these fantasy worlds because at some level they find the real world too demanding, difficult, stressful, painful, complicated.  The real world terrifies them, stresses them out, makes them anxious, makes them feel too vulnerable, makes them feel out of control, insecure, exposed, inadequate, inferior, insubstantial, without purpose or meaning.  The real world is not meeting their basic needs—their needs for survival, esteem, uniqueness/specialness, love, belonging, safety, security, meaning, purpose—and so they are faced with a choice—the choice to grow and become stronger and attune themselves and their thinking and their conscience to reality and to truth, or escape into denial and fantasy and in doing continue doing damage to their psyche/soul. 

And the vast majority of people opt for some degree of the latter—always have, and still are doing so. When reality becomes too painful or too demanding it is denied or otherwise avoided.

And the less mentally healthy and the more neurotic and less sane they or we are, the more we/they will opt for this solution—opt for escaping into a world of fantasy and unreality instead of attuning ourselves to reality—in order to survive and self-preservate. 

“I believe that the root of evil, in everybody perhaps, but certainly in those whom affliction has touched and above all if the affliction is [psychological], is day-dreaming. It is the sole consolation, the unique resource of the afflicted; the only solace to help them bear the fearful burden of time; and a very innocent one, besides being indispensable. So how could it be possible to renounce it? It has only one disadvantage, which is that it is unreal. To renounce it for the love of truth is really to abandon all one’s possessions in a mad excess of love and to follow him who is the personification of Truth. And it is really to bear the cross.

“[I]t is necessary to recognize day-dreaming for what it is. And even while one is sustained by it one must never forget for a moment that in all its forms—those that seem most inoffensive by their childishness, those that seem most respectable by their seriousness and their connection with art or love or friendship—in all its forms without exception, it is falsehood. It excludes love.  And only love is real.”

Simone Weil, from “The Simone Weil Reader, “ Letter to Joe Bousquet“, pg.90

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, “Economics, Peace and Laughter” (1971), p. 50.

And this proof is often an escape into some alternate fantasy world/universe.  The proof that there’s no need to change one’s mind or to grow and mature psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, comes in the form of the false-growth of conspiracy theories and concocting elaborate new agey fantasy worlds to inhabit with one’s mind and to believe in.  And for the sake of these false-realities and in the name of these elaborate fantasy worlds—in the name of helping to build some imaginary fantasy utopia—all sorts of bad and even evil things can be perpetrated and rationalized (rational lies) away.

Why do sane people allow themselves to be duped like this—by their own least healthy thinking, by what’s weakest and worst in themselves?  Why do they actually opt to dupe themselves in this way and cooperate in pulling the wool over their own eyes?

Because of all of the pain, difficulty, suffering, complexity, and stress, of life in the real world—meaning the full intensity of life, the full intensity of truth and reality and the demands that true mental health and growth require and would make on us—and all of the ego-threatening negative and anxious feelings they (which is to say that many of us) are hoping to avoid and evade.

And because what’s best in them—their conscience, their reality principle, their inner truth-detector, their character, their core self, their capacity for reasoning and for looking at things (especially themselves and their own behavior!) fairly and objectively and impartially—is so weak, so malnourished and underdeveloped, that it doesn’t offer much in the way of protest or defense or objection (dialectical thinking), or its objections and protestations cannot be heard above and distinguished from of all of the internal blather and incessant inner chattiness and discursive thinking.  Their conscience is just a fleeting, unidentifiable voice or very occasional strand in their discursive, unorganized inner monologue.  They may have a very healthy or noble or sane thought here and there, but because there is so much falsity also zipping through and monopolizing their inner monologue, they no longer really notice it or pay attention to it.  It’s in one inner ear and out the other and quickly followed by something that is less demanding, less truthful, and makes them feel better, happier, or is more familiar, even if it is unhealthy and discursive and unrealistic.   

The Buddha said that most people’s eyes are so caked shut with the dust of denial and self-deception that they will never be able to awaken or grow.  Most people’s thinking—their inner monologue—is so cluttered with falsehoods, unexamined thoughts, escapist thoughts—that there’s no hope for them to ever wake up from that degree of sleepwalking or inner shame and denial.

We are what we think
All that we are arises with our thoughts
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with an impure mind, and trouble will follow you, as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart
We are what we think
All that we are arises with our thoughts
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with a pure mind, and Happiness will follow you, as your shadow, unshakable
How can a troubled mind understand the way?
Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded and unexamined
But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother.

Buddha

Slowing down and really paying attention to and examining our own thoughts and thinking and really listening to what we’re saying to ourselves (the deeper implications, the underlying assumptions in our thoughts, the escapist/avoidant/self-numbing tendencies that are likely rife in it, et cetera) is one way of trying to break the cycle of mental unhealth.  (Why would anyone want to do that though!? Especially when it is paying off in some way for a person. . . . ) And consciously beginning to try to see at least two points of view with our own thinking—to begin thinking more dialectically and scientifically and logically—in terms of thesis on the one hand, and antithesis or what would disprove our thinking or prove it to be fallacious, on the other hand—and to begin playing devil’s (or God’s) advocate with our own pet theories and fantasies and start trying to see the other and less ego-flattering and more difficult to emotionally stomach side of things is another way of kick-starting our journey to sanity and mental health.

Peck defined mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs” (“The Road Less Traveled,” pg. 51), meaning that in order to get healthy psychologically and truly grow we must start choosing truth over our own comfort, waking up over a comfortable life, the difficult rights over easy wrongs, reality over fantasy and daydreaming and other forms of escapism, and that we must doing so ever more consistently and heroically. 

Only truly mentally healthy individuals—or those truly on the path—can or will dare to do this.

Those of us who are not very healthy (and those of us with a lot of internal pain and wounds we’re trying to avoid dealing with and facing [because of shame]) will spend much of our free time avoiding reality instead of facing it.  And the more we do this, the more we make ourselves sick, or if you will, psychologically out of shape and gluttonous—it’s like doing to the mind what a steady diet of fantasy—cheeseburgers, chocolate, potato chips, fast food, French fried, friend foods, Twinkies, and a lot of time on the couch in front of the TV and no exercise—does to the body. 

Again, there’s no neutrality in life.  We must choose our allegiance—to one side or the other—to either growth and mental health and truth and reality, which apparently will set us free; or stagnation and regression and escape and avoidance—i.e. falsehoods, denial, self-deception, discursive thinking, the unexamined life, excessive daydreaming—which will put us more and more to sleep and make us less healthy, less sane, less fit for life, less good, less loving, and eventually may even seal our fate, damning us, making us unredeemable.

We must choose: sanity or insanity, truth or lies, mental health or pathology, growth or comfort, growth or familiarity, what’s best for us v what tastes/feels good right now.

There is no middle road in this; there may be a middle road once we choose one side or the other, but there is no middle road or balanced way beforehand.  There may be, and likely is, a way where we exercise our mind, stretch ourselves, and then gives ourselves some time to recover and lock in those gains, before once again stretching ourselves, growing, taking on more truth and reality, but doing so little by little, as we would if we were working out and slowly adding more weight or resistance to our work outs over the course of weeks, while cutting back on the fatty escapist comfort foods and not watching as many escapist TV shows, et cetera.

Real Love & The Examined Life


We naturally tend to speak to others in our own love language, meaning we try to love others in the way we would want to be loved, in ways that speak love to us.  This is just part of being human, part and parcel of being a see of awareness born into one set of five senses, an ego limited to a particular skin bag of bones and nerve endings.

But Love—real love—means stretching ourselves to learn how to speak love in a way that speaks to those we love in a way that is more native and natural to them (so long as that way is healthy, of course).   Real love means learning how to speak in other dialects of love—the other person’s dialect.  It means learning to love another in a way that is meaningful to them, even though it may (initially or for a while) be foreign or difficult to us.  That’s part of the self-extension of real love. 

And it involves a lot of paying attention and noticing and thinking.

The other side of the self-extension of real love means stretching how we receive love.  Real love means stretching ourselves and our hearing so that we can receive love from others in a way that is native to them even though it may be foreign or alien to us—meaning even though it may not be our preferred way of being loved.

This is a huge part of what it means to be in a conscious relationship. 

In a truly conscious relationship, both people are focused on increasing their own awareness of themselves and their real underlying motivations and needs and patterns, as well as their awareness of the other person and his or her real motivations and needs—and intending this level of awareness or being fully present 24/7/365.  This is what makes a relationship, by definition, a truly conscious relationship. 

And it’s an inescapable part of leading an examined life. 

And, truth be told, to live anything less than a very mindful and examined and consciously aware life is to waste one’s mind—to forsake it—and live asleep, unconsciously, as if one had never been born.  Or to live as if one had never been born human but instead was an animal.  Perhaps a very successful and pleasant to be around animal, but essentially an animal nonetheless. 

What makes us most human—and what simulaneously most frightens/terrifies/haunts us—is our capacity for self-awareness.  Self-consciousness, self-awareness, is both a tremendous blessing and an onerous curse.  Because the more aware of ourselves we are, the more keenly aware we will be as well of our own mortality, our own finitude, the possibility of a vast pitch-black eternity of nothingness to come after our meager little life has run its course.

“I stick my finger in existence—and it smells of nothing.  Where am I?  Who am I? How did I come to be here?  What is this thing called life? What does it mean?  Who is it that has lured me into the world and why was I not consulted?” – Søren Kierkegaard

We might say that the child is a ‘natural’ coward.  Most of us, by the time we leave childhood, have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation.  We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience.  The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.

But nature has protected the lower animals by endowing them with instincts.  It is very simple: Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to.  They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their noses and shuts everything else out.

But look at man, the impossible creature.  Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts.  She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience.  Not only in front of his nose, in his ‘umwelt,’ but in many other ‘umweltsen.’  He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species.  He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows.  He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now.  He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes.  It is appalling, the burden than man bears.  He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.  His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him but all the more strange.  Each thing is a problem.

Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet.  And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation. 

(Ernest Becker, from “ The Denial of Death,” pp. 50-51)

This double-edged sword nature of awareness is what keeps many people from ever becoming very aware of themselves, others, life, and instead forces them to unconsciously, unknowingly, stunt themselves psychologically and emotionally and remain narcissistic, impulsive, unthinking, unreflective, unaware.  Because it just seems easier (meaning less frightening, less terrifying, less disorienting and bewildering) to live that way.  Why trade in a bunch of little niggling nuisance even luxury problems for a set of bonafide and likely irresolvable and unanswerable and perhaps endlessly terrifying existential questions? 

Why submit or surrender oneself to this—to living this honestly?

Why not limit one’s awareness, live dishonestly, and do like the vast majority of other people do and not dedicate oneself to truth and reality but instead dedicate oneself to trivia, distraction, and the art of dissipating oneself and immersing oneself in this and that illusion or fantasy or lie?

This is one of the fundamental philosophic and psychological questions in life, if not THE fundamental question in life: How self-aware to permit ourselves to be?

Or: how much denial and self-deception and dishonesty to allow ourselves to generate and buffer ourselves with.

Real love is based on—and is the fruit of—real self-awareness, real self-honesty, intense soul-searching and self-scrutiny, in other words, a very very examined and highly mindful life.  Or in still yet other words, it’s based on having a truly high-functioning conscience. 

Thus, if a person is not leading a highly mindful and examined and reflective life, then one is not capable of truly loving others or one’s self: one’s love will at best be hit or miss—a mix of acting out one’s feelings, good and bad, and perhaps the fruits of a decent upbringing and many Sunday sermons—or at worse it will be some form of exploitation, robbery/thievery, narcissism, parasiticism.

This is the choice we are all faced with: How aware to permit ourselves to become of ourselves, others, life.

To not permit ourselves to become very aware of ourselves and others and life will mean we will have to live superficially, dissipate our mind on popular fiction and the worst of bestsellers, live in the shallows relationships-wise and conversationally as well, insulate ourselves from those things that (not to mention people who) might overwhelm or frighten us.  It means to commit ourselves to a life of comfort first, a life of ongoing dedication to the path of least resistance, to laziness, to cutting corners, to not extending or stretching ourselves, to stagnating as a person, to stunting and blunting and dulling our awareness, to listening to lots and lots of SportsCenter or Entertainment Tonight, et cetera.  It means committing ourselves to never growing up, to never outgrowing our innate narcissistic (self-centered) and antisocial (unconscientious), and borderline (impulsive, avoidant, emotionally reactive and volatile) tendencies.

On the other hand, to become ever more self-aware and lead an increasingly mindful and examined life will entail a life of discipline, facing challenges, facing reality, thinking, reflecting, reading decent books, courage, non-avoidance, honesty, deliberateness, facing our fears, extending and stretching ourselves and growing vertically or perpendicularly as individuals spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually.

From M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled,” page 303—

A young woman who had been in therapy with me for a year for a pervasive depression, and who had come to learn a good deal about the psychopathology of her relatives, was exultant one day about a family situation that she had handled with wisdom, equanimity, and facility. 

“I felt really good about it and myself,” she said. “I wished I could feel that way more often.”

I told her that  she could, pointing out to her that the reason she had felt so well was that for the first time in dealing with her family she was in a position of power, being aware of all of their distorted communications and the devious ways in which they attempted to manipulate her into fulfilling their unrealistic demands, and therefore she was on top of the situation.  I told her that as she was able to extend this type of awareness to other situations she would find herself increasingly “on top of things” and therefore experience that good feeling more and more frequently.

She looks at me with the beginning of a sense of horror.

“But that would require me to be thinking all the time!” she said.

I agreed with her that it was through a lot of thinking that her personal power would evolve and be maintained, and that she would be rid of the feeling of powerlessness at the root of her depression.

She became furious.  “I don’t want to have to have to think all the goddamn time!” she roared.  “I didn’t come here for my life to be made more difficult.  I just want to be able to relax and enjoy myself, have fun, and enjoy a comfortable life.  You expect me to be some sort of god or something!”

Sad to say, it was shortly afterward that this potentially brilliant woman terminated treatment, far short of being healed, terrified of the demands that real mental health would require of her.