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


Is This True

What does it mean to be awake in life?

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

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

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

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

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

Is this really true?

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

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

Is this really true?

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

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

Is this true?

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Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action


Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action

I suppose I could have also titled this post: “The Truth—will it set you free or will it cause you to break cleanly with reality and go bat-shit crazy?”

We all have a personal philosophy. Our personal philosophy is simply our approach to life—our way of approaching life and dealing with what we encounter. There are really only two ways to approach life: either we approach life—all facets of it—in a thoughtful and examined way; or we opt not to. —Meaning, at some point we unconsciously decide that thinking will open up too many painful doors and bring up too many terrifying and unanswerable questions, and so we decide to limit that part of ourselves (the thinking and conscious part) and we try instead to lose ourselves in work, play, relationships, Facebook, et cetera. Essentially, it’s the “any port in the storm” approach to life—a life of hiding out from what we fear most—the emotions that most frighten us—terror, panic, anxiety, shame, inadequacy—and the thoughts and experiences/situations that will likely trigger these emotions—these intense and overwhelming emotions.

And sadly, such an approach limits our humane-ness as well as our growth and development. It is the ultimate act of self-limiting—to opt to curb one’s awareness and one’s thinking and instead lead a timid and an unexamined life and hide from what most frightens us.

Yet it’s what almost all of us instinctively and naturally do. It’s our default. A default that’s been bred into us through thousands upon thousands of years of natural selection. Self-preservation—the will to survive—is our default. And nothing helps us more in this than automatically seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Thus our personal life philosophies have been instinctively built around avoiding and retreating suffering and difficulty and discomfort and anything that might cause us mental anguish or unsettle us, and chasing after good vibes and good feelings. . . .

But . . . there tends to be a problem with this approach to life . . .

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

― Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

There are certain sufferings that likely cannot be avoided—sickness, old age, loss of love, death. But in our youthful exuberance, ignorance, naiveté, and feelings of omnipotence, we think we actually can play hide and seek with the dark parts of life and avoid suffering—at least for a very long time into the future.

And so part of doing so involves automatically limiting our awareness and our thinking—not exposing ourselves to thoughts and ideas that might cause us to suffer. Who in the spring or summer of their life wants to think about the inevitable coming winter? Who wants to think about death and loss and sickness and old age and poverty and the pains and sufferings of one’s upbringing?

It’s easier to just sweep all of that stuff under the psychological carpeting and out of our conscious mind, and keep the party bus approach to life rolling.

We’re all afraid. That’s a given.

And certain amount of suffering is inevitable; it’s unavoidable; it’s part and parcel of being alive and living.

Thus our dilemma.

Either we approach our lives very honestly, in fear and trembling, and with eyes and mind wide open; or we do so with eyes and mind frightened and quickly closing and shutting down, always squinting, always nervous and apprehensive about what they might see around the next bend or read in the next book or blog post.

In my early-teens through my early twenties I used to routinely avoid TV shows like “Cosmos” or anything that mentioned the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the Universe. If the Universe began and ended like this, then what’s the point? Everything comes to naught. Why live? Why live for anything other than as much immediate and overwhelming pleasure and ego-gratification and enlargement as possible? Why not try to lose oneself in pleasure and the stream of life and try to lose oneself completely—after all, the alternative is too much to face, too much to bear? And as for God, where is there room for God in such cosmology? 13 or 14 billion years ago, the Universe blasted itself into existence, and millions and millions of years of evolution took place and have all come to this point—this point where I am alive, aware of myself, aware that I will die, aware that before me there was an eternity of nothingness, that before the beginning of the Universe there was what?—and that I will die, perhaps in a hideous or random way as will those around me, and then everything will fade to black, and there will be an eternity—an eternity upon eternities—after me; the Universe will turn cold and motionless, or it will perhaps collapse upon itself—and perhaps start again and everything will repeat itself exactly, again and again; or perhaps everything will be different the next time through. Or perhaps the Universe won’t start again, and me, my life—whatever I am, whatever I make of myself and my life—will be swallowed up and lost in the folds of all of this, just like everything and everyone else.

Those were the questions of my youth and young adulthood. And they still are, except they don’t fill me with me as much terror; things don’t seem as bleak and or grim. I still don’t hold out much hope for an afterlife—not that I wouldn’t relish being proven wrong.

I think that what’s changed for me—or in me—are two things. Firstly, I tolerate the questions better—I think that a bit of “desensitization” has taken place—not that I still am not occasionally filled with terror at all of the above and spin out in panic; I just don’t spin out as dramatically or for as long—or as easily. So a bit of desensitization has taken place. Plus, I’m 44; I’m “over the hill”—I’m likely past the halfway point in my life—and perhaps well past it. I’m less afraid across the board than I was 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve watched firsthand as my mom wasted away and died from melanoma a couple of years ago; I watched as my grandfather wasted away and died of old age and some age-related disease that I can’t recall the name of; I’ve had a woman who I thought was my best friend betray me; I’ve experienced other break-ups and losses and betrayals and disappointments in love. In other words, I’ve taken my fair share of dings and nicks and dents in life. One headlight. My nerve-endings and emotions are generally just not as sensitive and raw as they used to be—they’ve been broken in; I’ve been broken in. I just don’t get as surprised as often as I used to (not that I still can’t be surprised!) The blinders are largely off—I know how hideous and weak people can be and what they can do to another because I’ve been on the receiving end of this several times. I’ve watched people do to me and to others unconscionable horrible things—all in the name of illegitimately avoiding their own suffering—and things I was powerless to stop. Live long enough and honestly enough and that’s just the way it is—life does this to everyone—tries to break us each, or at the very least, it breaks our engine in. The question for us is: do we join in the decline of western civilization and start mistreating others because we have been mistreated and so pass on our pain onto others? Or do we take a stand against this way of life and try to metabolize and soak up some of the pain and misery in the world and make something decent of the suffering that is given us—do we try to make art, wisdom, something beautiful of it and or ourselves? Do we become one of life’s works of art—whether others appreciate it or not.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had no problem passing my pain onto others—I was running from myself, from life, from the big questions in life; I was afraid, weak, underdeveloped, out of shape psychologically, ill-equipped emotionally for life (not that I still may not be; just perhaps a bit less so, hopefully!). I had no problem hitting the bars, mistreating my body with cigarettes and alcohol and fast food, and looking to meet a woman who was mistreating herself similarly and see if she wanted to go home for the night and metabolize a little of our avoidance and stuffed down existential pain together. . . .

That’s a snapshot of me in my late teens and early twenties—just going along with the prevailing winds, doing whatever the other largely mindless, soulless, unthinking nitwits around me were doing. Basically I was leading an unexamined life; I wasting my mind—at least trying to—and perhaps wasting my life.

And then I went through a very painful break-up and betrayal. And the best way I can describe it is that the pain of that experience—the pain of those months of my life (the summer of ’97)—was worse than the rest of the pain I had been running from. And those pains that summer turned out to be labor pains—or perhaps I turned them into labor pains. I’m not sure how to attribute it. Either way, I had a Jerry Maguire type birth of conscience and a different way or level of thinking and of seeing the world. Something clicked in my mind and I could see very clearly that I had been running from a lot of things in my life and that that running was all in vain; I saw myself very objectively, very clearly, and I saw very clearly how all of my previous ways of trying to deal with pain by not actually dealing with it but by passing it on to others and spreading my misery or emptiness or unhappiness around had rendered me as a pretty weak and cowardly little shell of a person.

I had unwittingly been participating in my own demise; I had unwittingly been making myself in many ways an emotional wimp.

But, during my twenties I had also done some things that would ultimately save me from all of this—save me from myself, from what’s worst and weakest in myself, and from living like a weak little nitwit who reactively tried to eschew everything difficult and uncomfortable and ultimately unavoidable in life from his plate.

One of the things I did was to go to college and get my degree—degrees actually. I got my degrees in two fields that interested me the most—philosophy and psychology; and I almost got a third degree in religion/religious studies.

In the course of my studies I took a course on Buddhism where I learned about a way of life where people actually (!) faced life and faced honestly what was unavoidable in life—sickness, old age, death, loss, parting.

I also took two English classes where I was required to keep a journal and write 5 or 10 handwritten pages a week (this was in the olden days!) on anything I wanted to write about. It was a habit I would return to frequently throughout my schooling and after I graduated—and I’m so thankful I did!

I also took a class on poetry—a class where we were forced to write a poem every few days if we wanted to pass the class—that was the seeding of another fortuitous habit/hobby!

I also started reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and a little of Kierkegaard and Rilke (though I didn’t start really “reading” Rilke until I was in my late-30’s after another painful break-up/betrayal. All I really got from Rilke in my 20’s was that immortal line: “You must change your life.” I knew that for sure. That line hit me over the soul with a sledgehammer).

I also was trying to read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“—but by and large, the books that have impacted me the most were not books that I came across in college, but were books that I read after I graduated. Nevertheless, along the way, some seeds of conscience and intellectual and emotional honesty and courage and self-awareness were replanted and re-nurtured through some of what I was introduced to in the course of my studies in psychology and philosophy and a few of the teachers I had during those years.

And then everything that had been planted in me—or that I had helped plant in me—all came to fruition—into bloom—and how fortunately!—in the summer of ’97, in the midst of all of my inner turmoil and agony over the ending of a 3.5 year relationship.

In the midst of all of that pain, I read and wrote and thought voraciously—I read and wrote and thought for my very life! And after about 3 months of doing this—and getting very little sleep each night—something clicked for me. I had what the Buddhist’s term “a moment of satori“—or great insight and clarity—about myself, my life, life, and how flawed my up till then approach to life and difficulty and suffering had been. It was for me the psychological equivalent of what in Christianity is termed a “metanoia“—a deep paradigmatic shift, a radical figure-ground reversal, a complete change of heart and mind and life direction.

And since then I’ve found my soulmates—the books that have more than their fair share of tell it like it is / in your face truth—M. Scott Peck (anything by him); “How Could You Do That!?” “Ten Stupid things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives”; “A Return to Love”; anything by Krishnamurti; Rilke, Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke; “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”; C. S. Lewis—his essay and nonfiction books; Thoreau—especially his section on reading in “Walden”; Emerson; Kierkegaard; Jacob Needleman; Gurdjieff; James Hollis; David Schnarch; Murray Bowen; Maslow; “The Denial of Death” by Earnest Becker; Simone Weil; “The Little Prince”; Pema Chödrön; Chögyam Trungpa; the Buddha; The Gospel and First Epistle of John; the Old Testament Wisdom books; Montaigne; “The Nicomachean Ethics”; Roger Housden. And the list goes on.

Our lives are the way they are in large part—if not wholly—because of how we think / the way we think—about ourselves and our lives. Our lives bear witness to our thinking—as well as to our lack of thinking and thus our fears. What we are afraid of—what scares us, terrifies us, threatens us, stresses us out, might potentially undo us—we don’t think about—we don’t permit ourselves to think about.

But some of us having something in us that likes to play with this fire—with this fire of truth—that knows that we need to get a little bit closer to this fire and even get burned by it—perhaps even risk getting annihilated by it.

This fire—the fire of truth—is the only fire worth playing with. It’s the only thing that will really warm us. And it’s the only thing that will potentially save us—from ourselves, and from the sufferings inherent in life.

Philosophy—the real stuff, not the stuffy academic nonsense—is fundamentally about wisdom and creating the conditions that will allow for the transmission of wisdom. Meaning philosophy at best is about learning how to think—both logically/reasonably, and also humanely. It’s about learning to have the courage to ask and perhaps even to try to provisionally and tentatively and humbly even answer the big questions in life—why are we here? for how long? what happens after we die? why is there something rather than nothing? is there a God? and if so, what is he or she really like and what does he or she want out of me? how am I to live so that when I come to die (or when get a terminal diagnosis) I’m not filled with terror and fear, or I don’t look back on my life with regret, and realize that I have wasted my life out of fear and convention and servicing other’s expectations of me (just filling a role)?

Our lives are the way they are because of our personal philosophies—our beliefs and ideas about what is and is not worthwhile in this life, what will make us happy, and what we need to avoid or eschew in order to stay safe and content. And how thought-out and examined or unthought-out and unexamined these beliefs and ideas are.

Our lives are philosophy in action. Each of our lives is either the examined or unexamined life, the heroic and courageous or the avoidant and timid life in action. And thus as a whole or in parts it may well serve as a cautionary tale to the dangers or the excesses of one or the other way of life.

The Buddha said, “All we are is the result of what we think; with what we think we make a life.” Something along those lines.

There’s either the more or less examined life, or the more or less unexamined life; a life of learning and growth, or a life of fear and comfort and avoidance.

There’s really no neutrality in this.

There’s no avoiding this choice—try as some (or many) of us may.

Either we think and deal heroically with the pain that comes from thinking honestly and seeing life as it is; or we live thoughtlessly, forsaking thinking and the largest part of what makes us most fully human and potentially humane, and we try to pass as much of our fear and suffering and cowardice onto others and make them pay, in place of us, the cost of our living.

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.

We MUST Choose


We MUST Choose

This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Shakespeare, “Hamlet

Yes, but what part of thine own self to be true to?  What’s best in oneself?  Or what’s less—sometimes even much much less—than best in one’s self?

“For human beings, there is a possibility of making a choice of influences; in other words, of passing from one influence to another.  It is impossible to become free from one influence without becoming subject to another.  All work on oneself consists in choosing the influence to which you wish to subject yourself, and then actually falling under the influence of or submitting wholly to this influence.” – G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 25.

There’s no neutrality in life. 

There are only two possible states of being, two ways of orientating ourselves. 

One is complete submission to God or to God’s will or influence, the influence of the Tao, the Dharma, Truth, goodness, virtue, Love.

And the other is incomplete submission—or the refusal to truly submit ourselves—to anything, to any influence, beyond our own will—beyond our own narcissism and our own scattered disorganized impulses, desires, and feelings—a refusal which automatically opens the door to the forces of evil. 

Because at every moment we ultimately belong to either God or the devil, to good or evil, to one influence or the other.  Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch around us and every split second of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed by God or the devil, and to be claimed by us for either God or for the devil.” 

And to attempt to avoid this dilemma by trying to stand exactly halfway between the two—halfway between God and the devil, uncommitted to either—to either goodness or utter selfishness—is to risk being torn apart and split forever into two beings, to become a house divided, permanently at war with ourselves, vacillating forever between two influences, forever fighting ourselves, fighting within ourselves, and having that infighting spill out of us into the lives of those around us.  Because, ultimately, even trying to choose not to choose and to not align ourselves with one influence or the other is still to choose, it is still to choose not to submit to anything beyond the self, beyond one’s own will and wants.  

Christ expressed this paradox when he said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).  

Yes, we are always free to choose, but ultimately we are free only in this sense: in the sense of choosing which influence, which form of enslavement, we ultimately will submit to: God’s or the self’s, God’s will and influence or ultimately nothing more than our own; what’s best and highest and noblest in us or a free-for-all where we give into and submit to any impulse or desire that occurs to us.  

We must choose: —One form of enslavement or the other. (The previous eight paragraphs were abridged and adapted and elaborated on from M. Scott Peck’s “Glimpses of The Devil,” pg. xvi)

And most people do not so much choose their form of enslavement as they just go along with what happens to them and what feels natural without questioning much, without really thinking much or examining themselves and searching out their own heart and mind and conscience and paying much consistent attention to themselves and what path they’re really on and why.

This is our fundamental choice in life and to make each day and at every moment—who and what to live for and why?  To live on the autopilot of emotions and impulses and desires and wants and pet ego-projects and whatever gets us through the day and anesthetizes us, numbs us, titillates us, distracts us, momentarily makes us drunk*; or to live more mindfully, more deliberately, with more grace and composure and perspective and order?  To live for ourselves and nothing greater or more than the self and our ego and aggrandizement and survival (narcissism); or to live for something more, something that transcends the self—some ideal, principle, path or way (Tao), some force or Spirit—God, Love, Truth? 

Again, there’s no neutrality in life. Every day, in every moment, and with every choice we make—of what to do with ourselves in that moment, with how to spend that moment—we are declaring our allegiance and we are doing something to ourselves . . .
 

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

“To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” – C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87

 ——————————————————————-
 

* “There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all highs are the same!
Drink from the jars of saints,
not from other jars.
Be a connoisseur,
taste with caution,
discriminate like a prince.
Any wine will get you high;
choose the purest,
one unadulterated with fear.
Drink a wine that moves your spirit.
– Rumi

Growth, Change, & Death


What will it take for you to change and grow?—for you to become what God or the gods intended?  What will it take for you to manifest what is godly or divine-like in you and to live from that place?  For example, immature people, as well as bad people, do not know how to take good care of the things in their life.  They don’t know how to be “responsible”; they do not know how to love and care for what life gives them (or brings into their life) that is good and decent.  They are too invested in their pathology or immaturity and laziness to change.  They are too use to always taking the path of least resistance and or having things handed to them (again and again). 

So how does a person like that “change their stripes”? 

God’s Grace?  Luck?  A teacher or guru?  A book? . . .

Most of us are born this way—in a fallen or “less than” state—as cute and cuddly and smiling as we are, we’re also born with the tendency to be irresponsible, selfish, lazy, to take without asking, to whine and complain and blame and lie, to be exploitive; many (most?) of us seem to come into this life without a work ethic, acting like the world owes us, as if the world was made just for us and revolves us and our wants and impulses—no discipline, no giving back, no real charitable impulses.  Paraphrasing the movie “Shadowlands”—Most of us “think our childish toys will bring us all the happiness there is and that our nursery is the whole wide world.”  This tendency or possibility is what seems to be within all of us.  In fact, the tendency to be either good or bad, to awaken or to sleepwalk through life, to manifest virtue and compassion and psychological health and great mindfulness or to manifest disorder, selfishness, impulsiveness, greed, thoughtlessness seems to be possible within each of us, and it’s up to our environment, especially our parents, to determine what we will become.  This is what immature and emotionally/psychologically stunted people manifest—immaturity, selfishness, chaos, confusion, greed, grubbiness, pettiness—this is how they act; and it’s also what bad people do.  Immature people and bad people set fire to the world around them—they exploit, manipulate, lie, confuse, use—they exploit the world and use those around them—they treat those around them as props, not as real fellow human beings just like themselves and deserving the same consideration and care as themselves, but as props—props in their own personal sick dysfunctional psychodramas and unconscious patterns.  No personal responsibility.  No real care or concern.  Just the self-centeredness of looking out for number one.  Just “me first, everyone else a distant second—unless I want/need something from you and you might serve my pet ego projects or suffice as a pleasant distraction for a while.”  But no real love.  No real affection.  No real giving.  Just a long trail/pattern of exploitation, using, lying, deceiving. 

And Gurdjieff knew this.  He knew it well.

Which is why he had “Only he who can take care of what belongs to others may have his own” inscribed high up on the walls of his study house—his dojo—the place where his students would travel to from all corners of the world in order to try to awaken.  Waking up—real change and growth—was not possible for those who were irresponsible, exploitative, self-centered, lazy, without a work ethic—those who were bent on drugging themselves (anesthetizing and numbing and distracting and dissipating themselves) on silly books, TV, frivolous soulless relationships (Gurdjieff knew that the interpersonal was the ground and the path, and that there could be no separation).

Gurdjieff had looked into the heart of man.  He knew that most people we exploitative and irresponsible and had been raised by people who were the same, and who themselves had been raised by some version of the same, et cetera.  He knew what we was up against—how difficult it is to teach irresponsible and exploitative and poorly-parented people to actually have a work ethic, to wake up from their sleep of unawareness and running on the botched and chaotic programming of their upbringing and their innate selfish and impulsive and reactive and avoidant tendencies.  Gurdjieff knew how extraordinarily difficult it is to re-parent people and help them overcome both their nature and nurture.  Gurdjieff knew very well how “effed for life” most people were.

And he knew how difficult it would be for them to wake up and for him to help them in that—for all of his learning and sagely advice not just to be water down their lovely little dysfunctional drains.  He knew that deep down the vast majority of people were not going to be loyal to him or his teaching or “The Dharma” or whatever you wish to call it, but rather were going to be most loyal to what is most familiar to them—that that would be “home” to them—no matter how dysfunctional or toxic or twisted that original home was.  It would still be home to them.  And getting them to leave home—i.e. grow up and leave those dysfunctional parts of themselves—would be a severely arduous and uphill battle. 

Gurdjieff knew the deep meaning of these words of Jesus—“If anyone comes to me without hating his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  That without this level of deep dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s life and what one grew up in, there could be no real openness for something new and healthy—that whatever Jesus had to say, whatever Gurdjieff had to say, whatever any great spiritual sage or teacher would have to say, would just be water down the drain and be drowned out by all of their listener’s pathology, faulty and warped programming and upbringing, closed and frightened heart and mind.  Gurdjieff, like Jesus—and like Fromm— knew that most people never really leave home and break what Fromm described as the incestuous psychological and limbic ties to family and what is familiar and what they grew up with.

Moreover, Gurdjieff knew, like M. Scott Peck (see “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” pp. 138-149—“The Case of Spider Phobia” [The case of Billie]) that most people were destined/doomed to become modern day Maguas (“The Last of the Mohicans”)—an imitation of what had twisted them—that they would, even in spite of themselves and their best intentions (if they had these), twist themselves even more fully into the shape of what had first twisted them and becoming living monuments to those who first and most deeply wounded them.

Gurdjieff knew that waking up from all of this dysfunction and conditioning and pathology as well as innate narcissism and immaturity would be for most a fate worse than death, because for most people it would be a death—the death of so many parts of themselves, the death of their ego, the death of their personality, their first self—which most people are attached to neurotically, pathologically, “egosyntonically”—meaning even if that self is pathological, sick, wounded. 

Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else.  A person must first free himself from attachment.  Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person.  These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born.  But how can they be made to die?  They do not want to die.” (Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218)

Changing oneself is the last thing people will willing do.  It’s a case where cure that is worse than the disease.   Most need the threat of execution, the threat of imminent and painful death, before they will get serious about “changing their ways.”  Most people would sooner live in the squalor of their own disease and amputate themselves from everything and everyone around them, even family, even children, than face and deal with themselves and make some real changes inside the self and to their patterns of thinking and perceiving and reacting.  Most are hoarders when it comes to the immature and dysfunctional parts of their psyche—and they are not going to give up these parts without a fight—without kicking and screaming and firing off all of their many defenses frequently and grandly and throwing others under the bus, et cetera.  Most people would simply rather hack away idiotically and self-centeredly at the branches all around them and prune this and that and try to make their pathology livable (“Each human being must keep alight within him the sacred flame of madness. And must behave like a normal person.” – Paulo Coelho) or even gussy it up a bit and make their dysfunctional patterns and tendencies look like some sort of Bonsai tree than get busy hacking away at the roots and really start growing up and become who and what they were intended to be, and to do so passionately and joyfully. (As Gurdjieff wrote, “The energy spent on active inner work is then and there transformed into a fresh supply, but that spent passive work and distraction is lost forever.”  And M. Scott Peck speaks in his books how therapy becomes a joy and even sometimes playful when the patient [disciple] allows him or herself to become open and trusting and vulnerable [pregnable] to the therapist; it’s then that the real work of healing and growing begins in earnest and the preliminary work of getting [seducing] the patient to this point is over. [See “People of the Lie” pp. 158-9 and “The Road Less Traveled” pg. 55.])

Which is why Gurdjieff eventually become quick to cut to the chase and put things in no uncertain terms

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

He didn’t say one way, he said the sole way, the only way.  This is his ax for the frozen sea within us, strictest attention-getting, whack us with a sledgehammer, in your face, cut to the chase, no bs equivalent of Luke 14:26.  If you really want to change, you have to know, not think, but know, feel viscerally, emotionally, in a white-hot terrifying searing way, that you—and all the people you love, and all your pet ego- and immortality-projects, and all of the pet rats you keep (a reference to an episode of “Hoarders”— http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsITgqGQgj4)—are going to die, and that there’s no getting around this, that death is certain, that loss is certain, and you and your little groveling pathetic inner control freak cannot do thing one to change it—not will all of your bs, escapist reading, self-numbing, et cetera.  There’s no place for you to run or hide.  You will die; someday you and all those you love will play out that scene, and so what are you doing right here and now to prepare for that—for that greatest of partings?  “Only he who has freed himself of the disease of ‘tomorrow’ has a chance to attain what he came here for” (Gurdjieff), and “the best means for arousing the wish to work on yourself is to realize that you may die at any moment.  But first you must learn how to keep it in mind” (also Gurdjieff).

There’s no real change, no real growth, possible for us without facing our own mortality and really feeling now what it will feel like some day when we’re told we only have a week or months to live, or that, God forbid, one our children or a parent has died.

Otherwise we’re just wasting time.

As Augustine put it, “It is only in the face of death that man’s (true) self is born.”

Short of this level of honest and open relationship with our own mortality, we’re living the false life of a false self.

The Last Taboo—Thinking Honestly and Deeply About Oneself and One’s Life


We arrive here with few clues as to where we came from, and even fewer clues as to where we’re headed.  Our time here on earth is but a fleeting tiny little stopover; the only certainty before us is death.   Whether we claim to be religious or nonreligious matters little.  I think what matters more, much much more, is the extent to which we have reflected on our lives and acted upon the fruits of those reflections with sincerity, commitment and courage.

Dealing directly with philosophic and religious issues of death and dying and the meaning of life brings us face to face with what may be the last and greatest taboo of American life.  These subjects are seldom the topic of conversation at the typical American dinner party, or even in intimate discussions among friends, where people are much more likely to focus on work, family problems, the economic and political issues of the day.  Discussions about moral and spiritual questions are seldom encouraged; and if you do bring them up, you run the risk of offending your host or putting off people.

This aversion to spiritual and existential matters makes sense.  We want answers, not problems; and we certainly do not want uncertainties.  And I think we realize—even if perhaps only subconsciously—that when dealing honestly with spiritual and moral questions we are dealing in mysteries, the insolubility of which we find deeply discomforting and unsettling.

And much of what we call daily American life is about this discomfort and the manifold ways we seek to deny or avoid it—a problem that is further magnified by the many subtle and not so subtle ways that our capitalistic advertising-driven society discourages reflection in order to promote impulsivity and spending and encourage consumption.   As Roy Walsh, a psychiatry professor in San Francisco, put it—

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

(Abridged and adapted from Phillip L. Berman, “The Search For Meaning,” pp. 5-6)

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.