“The good that I should do, I do not do; and the wrong that I should not do, I do do.” (St. Paul, in Romans 7:19)
Why is this so?
Isn’t this the very definition of being asleep? Or of being “wretched” (Pascal’s word)?
Is it better to live ignorant of our doubleness than to have the brief moment of consciousness (self-awareness) and conscientiousness that shows this about ourselves?
Because what then comes next? Knowledge such as this certainly creates obligation. Or at least a lot of tension!
So next comes either the awakening, —or the frantic desperate attempt to, at every turn, suppress and eradicate this information and keep it from one’s own awareness.
Why? Because of the tremendous amount of emotional pain (regret, remorse, sorrow, guilt, shame, embarrassment, horror) inherent in doing so.
And because of the tremendous workload then associated with really changing one’s life. (“No matter how much a person changes, they still gotta pay for the things they’ve done. So I’ve got a long road.” – from the motion picture “The Town”)
What allows us to see or glimpse ourselves as we are is our conscience. But our conscience is the last part of us on the scene developmentally. First we are born a bundle of chaotic blind impulses and emotional reactivity all clamoring for immediate gratification. Next arrives the age of thinking and reasoning. The level of conscience and self-awareness that sees us as we are comes to us much later in life; after we’ve already set up deeply embedded and well-practiced habits of not thinking clearly, not looking at ourselves honestly and or objectively, avoiding difficulty, abandoning people, lying to ourselves and others. As Gurdjieff put it: “There stands behind most of us many years of wrong living—years spent catering to and indulging in all kinds of inner-weaknesses and therefore reinforcing these, years of self-deception and lying to ourselves, years spent shutting our eyes to our own errors, striving to avoid all sorts of unpleasant truths, blaming others, and so on, and so on.”
Our conscience and that type of self-awareness that goes with it are like a teeny tiny little squirt gun trying to deal with the conflagration that is our innate inner life—full of contradiction, dissonance, hatred, anger, self-preservation, looking out for number one, lying, avoidance, emotionality, reactivity.
For most of us by the time anything difficult or stressful reaches us we’re already in over our heads and spinning out in our maladaptive ways of trying to deal with stress and difficulty illegitimately and immaturely and counterproductively. And our conscience—those nerve-endings and synapses—stand no real chance of firing or impacting us. We have been hijacked—for days, weeks, months—by our amygdala and our limbic system.
For the vast majority of us our nervous system is not our friend but our enemy—and it’s Public Enemy Number One.
And so knowing this intuitively, we have two choices: the easy way or the hard way. One way will wake us up, the other will make us more comfortable and lessen our stress—at least temporarily, until something sets us off and sends us in a tailspin again—which will happen—because we’ve never learned real self-control; we’ve only learn roundabout self-control—trying to control ourselves by controlling our environment, which is really just self-avoidance.
We have to understand that extreme situations expose us; they show us who we really are, they show us our true self which gets to stay in hiding when things are fairly comfortable and or familiar. Which is one reason why most people prefer to do what they’ve always done—doing the wrong they ought not do, and not the good they ought to do. Good is foreign to us. Courage is foreign to us. Honesty is foreign to us. Integration is foreign to us. And in most cases, these things have to enter a person and take a person over like a Trojan horse, or by complete force, or by a near-death experience, or by grace, or by hitting rock bottom. The vast majority of people just cannot heal or grow themselves, no matter how much willful or deliberate intent they muster—they will always regress and backslide once their surroundings allow it (ease up on them) or compel it (some new stress hijacks their amygdale and sends them spinning out into the far reaches of the universe for weeks or months or years).
If extreme situations expose us, and comfort and familiarity and low stress allow us to hide from ourselves and believe in our pretty little veneer and our whitewashed hothouse version of ourselves, then it’s no wonder that so many of us will fight tooth and nail (or like a caged animal) for our comfort zones and not for real change and real growth.
If anything should trigger the machine and push a person/machine outside its comfort zone, the machine will try its hardest—and by seemingly any means necessary—to restore in itself a sense of safety and comfort and equilibrium.
This is how the vast majority of people are.
But in order to truly grow and awaken and observe oneself as one is, one must become reconciled to this tension and stress and discomfort and agonizing helplessness, and die to one’s smaller self or smaller I.
Because only by actually experiencing and tolerating this level of discomfort can a person really observe himself and begin to actually change and grow.
Thus for anyone who wants to awaken, there is the question: what do you want—a quiet life or to actually work oneself? If a machine wants a quiet and comfortable and safe life, he must fight to protect his comfort zones and keep himself from extremes, for even though he may feel bad about himself in his usual repertoire, he nonetheless will feel comfortable and safe because as bad (even unhealthy and pathological) as it might be, it is still familiar and known.
But if a person sincerely wants to work on himself and awaken and cease being a machine, he must first of all do one thing: destroy his hankering for peace, safety, comfort, an easy life. Until he actually does this, all of his attempts at change will be futile and doomed to fail.
To have comfort and growth, safety and growth, familiarity and growth, comfort and courage, comfort and honesty together is in no way possible.
A person must make a choice.
A person must take a stand—against himself and his own hankering after peace and comfort and security and safety—if a person truly want to awaken.
But what usually happens when choosing is that a person chooses talk, a person chooses deceit; which is to say, a person in words chooses “growth” but in reality he does not want to give up (or surrender) his comfort and safety and peace.
The person will not be willing to do what is necessary to awaken.
And the result is the most wretched and unfortunate position of all: A person does no real work on oneself at all, and at the same time he or she gets no real comfort whatsoever.
To really work on oneself and to sustain the work that one is doing oneself is incredibly difficult, in part because however difficult a person’s life may be, it still runs smoothly enough. Even if a person considers himself and his life and his ways bad, he is still accustomed to it and to that level of a workload. And so it is better for things to be bad and yet known, than for them to be new and more difficult and unfamiliar and awkward and unknown and even more stressful and full of doubt and to not even know if the desired result can be had from it or not.
Which is why the vast majority of people regress and backslide and continue not to do the good and right and growth-oriented things that they ought to do, but instead continue to do the self-defeating and familiar and played-out and maladaptive and self-deceptive things that they always do.
[T]he aim of a genuine 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 person’s spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go of his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and want of a comfortable life go in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites and his petty resistances.
The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life when it is most difficult to do so and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.
When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and welcome the fears and anxieties and demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some object as a protection against such forces.
Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of discomfort and annihilation can our contact with what is Divine, and with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable. The more we learn wholeheartedly to confront the world and a patterned way of living and reacting that threatens each of us with isolation, the more the depths of our own being will be revealed to us and the more the possibilities of new life and inner transformation will be opened to us.
(From “The Way of Transformation,” Karlfried Graf Durchheim, pp. 107-108)