Reality v. What Most People Think


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                                       What most people assume to be the case

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                                                 What actually IS the case
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                              (from http://www.johnptacek.com/gallery.html)

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This is not something that most of us generally want to admit or consider, but there are times when a difficult person is our teacher, even our greatest teacher.

And the lessons difficult people have to teach us tend to be some of the most difficult lessons to learn–lessons about love, tough love, loss, patience, persistence, endurance, adversity, difficulty, forgiveness, resilience, et cetera. 

Because the lessons are difficult and unpleasant, those who pass on the lessons or try to teach them too can become unpleasant and difficult, sometimes by extension, sometimes by association, sometimes because they themselves become calloused and hardened–in the eyes of us who have not yet learned the lessons they now know so well.   

There are times we might consider someone a difficult person because what they have to impart is very profound and so many levels above our own thinking, that what they have to say is difficult for us to accept and make sense of and digest intellectually and emotionally. 

Other times difficult people are difficult because they are annoying or gossipy or angry mean-spirited chaotic people, and so our task in those situation is to practice (learn)patience, a bit more tolerance, to try to see or grasp their humanity (perhaps their life story, if we knew it, or what they’re going through, if we knew it, would greatly change how we view them; so instead of viewing them as a nuisance, we would see them with much more compassion), and to see if there’s some way we might help add a little depth and self-awareness to their lives through what we say or through our own presence.

Spiritual practices are not there to provide us with insulation, escape, new ways of numbing ourselves.  Rather, they are there to help us show up to reality with greater clarity and understanding and awareness and insight.

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift
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– “The Uses of Sorrow,” Mary Oliver

[T]he aim of a spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a truly spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broke and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go his futile hankering after harmony, surcease of pain, and want of a comfortable life in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.
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The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life and encounter all that is most perilous in the world.
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When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and face and confront the demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some objects as a protection against such forces. Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation, can our contact with what is Divine, with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.
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The more a person learns wholeheartedly to confront a world and way of living that threatens him with isolation, the more are the depths of the Ground of Being revealed and the possibilities of new life and Becoming opened for him.
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Karlfried Graf von Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pp. 107-8.

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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?

The Waiting


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My mom died from metastatic melanoma a little over 3 years ago.  She found her first lump in mid-Feb of 2009 and she died about 10.5 months later.  She lived here in town near me, we had a good relationship, so I accompanied her through the entire process-through all of the consultations, appointments, treatments, et cetera.  I was there at her bedside much of the time during her last weeks, including when she died.

I learned a lot about waiting during that time.  Most obviously, there were the many waiting rooms where I would wait with my mom before her various appointments.  Then there was the waiting for test results—PET scans, MRIs, CAT scans, blood counts, et cetera.

And then there was the waiting that took place during the last couple of weeks of her life when it was clear that all of her treatment options had been exhausted, that the cancer was incurable, and the end was nearing quickly.  During that time, when I was at my mom’s bedside and she was sleeping, I would try to wrap my head around the concept that there would soon come a time when my mom would no longer be here.  There was going to be a clear and absolute division, a time in my life before my mom’s death and then the time after that.  And that time was coming soon.  It was a lot to try to wrap my head around, not just emotionally, but even intellectually.

And then one day it did indeed happen.  My mom did indeed die.  And then life with my mom ended, and life after my mom started.

I don’t have a grand philosophic point in mind as I am writing this.  Just a sense of similarity, but in a different direction.  I am waiting again, in a very turning-point sense again.  This time for the birth of my first child.  At 45-years old, my suspicion is that one appreciates this much more and much differently than when one is 25 or 30—or had this happened for me when I was 25 or 30.  45-year old me has lived more and seen more and read more and thought (and written) more—thought (and written) a lot more—than the 30- or even 35-year old me.  30 or 35-year old me hadn’t yet lost his mom, hadn’t yet had Rilke’s writings open up to him like a 3-D picture because of the ending of a particular relationship.  35-year old me wasn’t yet into photography, had only begun exploring Bowen and Schnarch’s writings on “differentiation of self,” was just starting to get a sense of what the world (and many of its inhabitants—human inhabitants) were really like beyond the façade and the veneer.

At 45-years old, becoming a first-time father means something more to me because there’s more of me for it to mean something to.

As Rilke put it, “The richer/deeper we are inwardly, the richer/deeper too is all that we experience.”  Something like that.

As I said, I have no grand philosophic insight in mind in writing and sharing this, no pie-in-the-sky Eckhart Tolle-like living in the now while still waiting take on this.  Just the simple observation that waiting for a new life has something in common with waiting for a death.  Just the simple observation that while my daily life is going on and while I am making preparations for this new member of the family, I am also temporarily in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for this latest crescendo-like turning point in my life to actually occur—this next *life-will-never-be-the-same-again-afterwards-as-it-was-before* type event, but in an opposite and much more joyous direction.  Hopefully.  Hopefully, meaning my child is not yet born, my wife has not yet gone through this labor and emerged healthy and having given birth to our son yet.  But so far, everything looks good, very good.  Any day now.  Any day now and my life will change in ways that I cannot fathom.  Any day now, and that line will be crossed—the line separating the time when I was not yet a biological father and was still waiting to become one and the time when this new chapter of my life will start.

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The only tidbit I have approaching a bit of advice is this:  Wise people think about death.  Their own and others’.  They have a realistic relationship with their own mortality and thus with others’ mortality as well.  It’s not a depressing relationship or a morbid one, but a very life-enhancing and perspective-giving one.  As in the real meaning of carpe diem—being very grateful for and appreciative of what one has, not sweating the small stuff, not going through life childishly and angrily with a hole in one’s soul that nothing can fill.

We live in a society where the concept of growth has been usurped and externalized to mean improvement and is measured in material ways—home improvements, lifestyle status improvements, social improvements (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”).  Advertising has us convinced that if we improve the externals of our situation—take a vacation, redecorate the kitchen, put on a new coat of paint, get a fancier car, travel here or there, somehow gain more attention adulation and fame—then we’ll be happier, or then we’ll finally make it—or at least get closer to this.  And for some this does seem to work to some extent and perhaps for a while.  But it’s my experience that for this strategy of roundabout self-pseudo-improvement to work, there has to be a fair amount of self-delusion and self-deception in play, as well as some sort of psychic numbing and placating in addition to the shopping and consumerism—alcohol, antidepressants, et cetera (arguably even with some people religion).

Our own mortality and fragility and brevity is a lot to wrangle with.  And at first, this wrangling can be very very unsettling—very anxiety-provoking and or very depressing and nihilisitic (life has no meaning, paint it all black)—anything but life-enhancing and perspective-giving and empowering at first.

And clearly this is where many people get caught.  We get our first brush with death—someone close to us dies, or we start being haunted by thoughts and intimations of our impermanence and cosmic brevity—and we spin out, dive headlong into a superficial life of appearances, of psychic numbing, of distractions and dissipation, of the pursuit of status and advancement and travel, of checking things of our bucket list—self-indulgent things that we think are ultimately important but that in actuality likely really won’t be.

Or maybe our dive isn’t headlong; instead we just go along even more fervently with the crowd: no else seems to be integrating their own mortality into the fabric of their everyday decision-making, everyone else seems to be chasing after the wind in one form or the other, so why not join the crowd and chase after it too?—after all, what else is there to do in life with one’s life?

But there also seem to be those who have endured the first line and very powerful dissuaders of depression and anxiety and who instead of turning aside from a more realistic relationship with life and with their own and others’ mortality and fragility and brevity, have stuck with it, wrestled with and through the depression or fear and panic, and who have come to some deeper and more abiding sense of perspective and wisdom.

And it’s this realistic relationship with death has much to do with their wisdom, with having made them wise.  Arguably, a realistic relationship with our own impermanence, with our own brevity and fragility, is the only source of real compassion—compassion that doesn’t merely involve the limbic system, but that also includes the higher brain—the neo-cortex, the frontal lobes, our conscience and our consciousness.

When we are living in denial, when we live and love and fight and argue as if life goes on forever, we live and love without perspective, and arguably, without much depth or appreciation.  Real compassion, real wisdom, stem from developing a realistic relationship—instead of a denial-based relationship—with our own mortality and with our place is the universe.  Mortality is a lot to haul; it’s a lot to wrestle with; it can be unfathomably frightening and unsettling and disorienting, but it might just be what ultimately saves you, or lets you avoid living a life of quiet or unquiet desperation and un-appreciation.

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For the Class of 2013 (& People Everywhere) — Four Brief Pieces of Advice


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1.

If I had one piece of advice for people everywhere, it would be this: think critically more often.  Try to spend some time every day thinking critically, examining yourself, your life, your relationships, your own deeds and words, your basic assumptions, your conscience and your principles.  Be a more reflective person.

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My second piece of advice would be to try to spend some time every day reading something of substance.  Not just something that affects you emotionally, but something that makes you think, that makes you go wow! or a-ha! or I hadn’t thought of it that way before.  Books and reading are too often abused; intellectually we Americans consume far too many books that only entertain us or that only speak to our biases.

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My third piece of advice would for people everywhere would be to learn to deal better with criticism.

I don’t mind criticism.  I really don’t.  The rejection part of it still stings, but nowhere near as much as it did at one time.  I learned these things about criticism (and dealing with it) long ago —

Don’t mind criticism; if it’s untrue, disregard it; if it’s unfair, keep from irritation; if it’s ignorant, smile; if it’s justified, learn from it.” — unknown

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill

I’ve found that the best way to deal with criticism is to make the decision to detach emotionally from it and instead think critically about it.

Criticism rarely is the enemy; our reactions to it more often are an issue; once we learn better how to deal with ourselves and our emotions and calm and soothe and talk to ourselves (talk ourselves down), then we become much more inwardly peaceful and much better able to deal with criticism.

If you’re not being criticized, you’re not really living.  A person can easily avoid criticism by saying nothing, doing nothing, standing for nothing, being nothing. (I think a quote similar to this has been attributed to Aristotle).

Or as Winston Churchill said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  The same goes for criticism:  You’re being criticized?  Good  It means maybe you’re standing up for something.

Or it means that maybe you’re in the wrong and you have something to learn.  Either way, it’s a win for you if you can reign your ego in and not let it get in the way of things.

(And here’s a link to a blog post that might be helpful. — http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-criticism-well-25-reasons-to-embrace-it/)

4.

My last piece of advice to people everywhere (including myself) is this: whether you are young or old or somewhere in between, get your house in order.

Living constantly under perpetual threat of dying or of losing those around you, or of losing your health, can be exhausting, not to mention highly unnerving, anxiety-producing, and panic-inducing.

But what other option is there really?  Ignoring all of this?  Living in denial?  Only thinking every once and while about our own mortality?

If we don’t reflect at least occasionally on our own and others’ mortality, we tend to live badly, without much appreciation.  We tend to take other people and life and our own health and the good things we have in our life for granted.  Reflecting on death is one of the surest ways to cut through the morass and muddle and get to what matters most.

Of course thinking too much about death can completely unnerve us, cause us to take too many chances, live desperately, do rash things.

So what’s the solution?

Find an optimal balance.  Think about / acknowledge death just enough so that you don’t go off the deep end (or too far off the deep end) and live foolishly and recklessly, but think enough about death so that you don’t take life and those around you for granted, so that you live in a more deliberate but not desperate way.  Live in a way so that you focus on the things that will matter the most to you in the end.  Death is inevitable for each of us and for all of those whom we love and rely on.  This is not negotiable.  It’s a hard fact of life—the hardest, if we’re honest.  But how much time we and those around us each have is a bit more of a mystery, and it’s this leeway that tends to get us each in trouble.  We tend to play games with ourselves and others because of this leeway—taking them and ourselves and our health for granted, or we numb ourselves, we don’t live from our highest and best self, we don’t live a very examined life, we go through life on autopilot, we don’t live deeply and passionately and intensely enough, and we don’t live in such a way that we put our house in order.

Thoreau’s oft-quoted words about life and death still make for some very sound and good advice—

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. . . .”

Bonus point to ponder:

“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive.”

How awake are you?

How awake do you want to be?

How much discomfort and unsettledness are you willing to endure to become more awake?

And is it possible to live a very meaningful life if one is not very awake?

Camus wrote, “everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”  Great spiritual masters and leaders have spoken throughout the ages of human beings tending to go through life asleep, blind, deaf, and needing to “wake up.”  What if awareness is where it’s at?  And what if the more aware we are—the more we see and feel and think about—the less settled and less comfortable we are?  How aware are you willing to be?

The Pursuit of Happiness Doesn’t Always Make You Feel Happy—and, in Fact, it Shouldn’t; and Here’s Why


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Becoming a “better” person—becoming more centered, emotionally mature and stable, principled, conscientious, (yes, all of these nice adjectives and virtues I like to list), pensive, reflective, composed, affable, joyful, (you’re almost at the end of the list o’ adjectives), good-natured, kind-hearted, generous, patient, courageous, humorous, happy—isn’t always an easy or a happy and joyful process.  At times it can be quite difficult, quite a struggle—and even make us feel bad.

Gretchen Rubin, in her book “The Happiness Project,” sums up this seeming paradox up quite nicely—

“Six months into my happiness project, although each day I felt more joy and less guilt, had more fun and less anxiety, the areas that had been toughest for me when I started were still the toughest.  I was continuing to struggle to keep my temper and to be generous.  In some ways, in fact, I had made myself less happy; I’d made myself far more aware of my faults, and I felt more disappointed with myself when I slipped.  My shortcomings stared up at me reproachfully, in the form of X marks instead of checkmarks, from the page of my Resolutions Chart.

“One of my secrets to adulthood is ‘Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy,’ and  a heightened awareness of my failings , though salutary, wasn’t bringing me happiness in the short term—but in the long term, I was sure, I’d be happier as a consequence of behaving better.  I was comforted by the words of my model Benjamin Franklin, who reflected on his own chart: ‘On the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been had I not attempted it.’ ” (pp. 163-4)

Sincerely trying to become a better person will indeed help you become a better person—likely a *much* better person— than had you not tried focusing on becoming a better you.

It’s like taking up golf or tennis.   You become a better golfer or tennis player by actually playing the sports—picking up a racquet or set of clubs and hitting some balls.  You won’t become a better golfer or tennis player—you won’t even become one, period—unless you first pick up a racquet or set of clubs and start hitting some balls.  If you want to be become a better person—more mature and stable emotionally, more brave and courageous and persevering, more composed and reflective, more kind and affable—then you have to make the decision to start, to take up the challenge, to make the attempt—to try and start behaving in those ways (the ways of a better person) more and more often.  You have to practice those behaviors and patterns and attitudes that lead to betterment, clarity, wisdom, happiness, perspective, moral goodness.

It’s really that simple.

And that difficult.

The theory is simple—and really inviolable.

But the practice and application are more difficult—perhaps even much more difficult, depending on where we’re starting out from—i.e. our current level of psychological fitness, our upbringing, our emotional state.

Practicing behaviorally the behaviors of a better version of ourselves will require mindfulness, focus, resolve, initiative, proactivity, a good memory, will-power, some modicum of discipline, et cetera.  Just a thimbleful at first is all that is needed.  Just 20 seconds of raw courage.  Just some shred of self-discipline—because that’s the irony about developing self-discipline: it requires some iota of self-discipline, or some external discipline and outside motivation, to develop it.

And some of us, by virtue of good genes and or good upbringing, may have a head start over others, who because of not as good genes and or a tougher and less favorable upbringing, may have the deck stacked more against them.

But regardless of how favorably or unfavorably our deck is stacked, action—doing—getting off our butts and our buts (excuses, rationalizations, justifications)—is essential.—

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.  This is the case with the virtues: by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.  The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; rather it makes a very great difference: it makes *all* the difference.” – Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 1 (http://nothingistic.org/library/aristotle/nicomachean/nicomachean08.html)

You—me, any of us—becomes a better person simply by *trying* to become a better person—by making the sincere effort and decision to become a better person, and by starting now to do the things that a “better person” or a better version of you would do.

And one of the first things to do is to admit or acknowledge or realize that a better version of yourself does indeed exist and is possible.

Which means paradoxically some form of self-rejection.—

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This goes for ourselves as well.  Too much self-acceptance—I am this way or I am that way and I can’t change it, it’s just the way I am—can be a bad (or stultifying) thing.  Life is change.  Change is certain; but growth and deepening in response to all / some of that change is *optional.*

Granted, self-acceptance and self-rejection tend to be touchy subjects.  Self-acceptance—especially “radical self-acceptance” tends to be en vogue in certain new age and self-improvement circles.  But the concept of “self-acceptance” tends to be a muddy and ill-defined one—even one that is inherently and internally contradictory.  The truth (ok, my opinion; —but it may also be the truth too) is that we can’t—or won’t—grow without the right mix or *balance* of self-acceptance and self-rejection.  Too much self-rejection and we go off the deep-end and plummet into a dismal spinout cycle of violence and or substance abuse or depression, et cetera.  But if we over-correct or if we go for too much self-acceptance, then we will never really change or grow much, and we may well find ourselves surrounded / insulated with people who are as neurotic as we are—people who are blind and or hurting in a way similar or compatible with how we are hurting and or blind, and also opting for more self-acceptance and comfort and healing—and possibly stagnation—than growth and change and depth.  (Maslow divided people into two types: deficit and repair oriented, or growth-oriented.  He posited that most people—the vast majority of people—were deficit and repair oriented; and that perhaps only 2% of people were truly growth-oriented.)

If we can ease up a bit on the throttle of our inner-critic and inner-fault-finder, become a bit more gentle and kind with ourselves as we (hopefully) would if we were mentoring a child, if we can learn, paradoxically, to think more clearly, and improve our own critical thinking skills (perhaps what is often most needed in terms of dealing with one’s inner critic and to silence him or her is to start thinking critically about that voice!), and we can find a healthy and wholesome balance between self-acceptance and self-non-acceptance, then we will have done much to set the stage for some genuine growth and self-betterment.

In fact, just getting this balance right or more in balance is itself a major feat of personal growth.

And success—perfection—becoming a perfect is never the goal—even though the Bible does make mention of this (I tend to suspect that in this day and age, were Jesus to see the poop-storm that the term “perfection” typically unleashes, he might have qualified his words.  Maybe he wouldn’t have, but I tend to suspect he would have).  Instead of perfection—which is something that is outside of our control—i.e. scoring 100% on a test can be done, but likely requires some luck, a couple of good / educated guesses, et cetera; but getting an A on a test should be more doable—so instead of perfect, aim for excellence or improvement.  And maybe something modest, maybe 10% improvement.

In other words, get acclimated to the idea up front that becoming a better person may mean failing, it may mean faltering and stumbling, it may mean some missteps and wrong paths; it may mean feeling bad or guilty or regretful about things you have done or not done.

—And all of this is par for the course.

All of this is to be expected.

None of it is unusual.

You’re going to see a lot of things about yourself that you may not like—that you never did like, but that you were anesthetized to (perhaps in part because of who you had surrounded yourself with—people who didn’t expect much out of you, or people who expected *much* out of you but didn’t have much to offer you in terms of direction and support).

Part of becoming a better person almost always means *losing the blinders,* having the scales removed from our eyes, becoming less desensitized to what we perhaps ought to have been very sensitive to in the first place.

And this is the sort of thing that doesn’t make us feel good or happy when it happens—but that can and likely will lead greater—far greater??—happiness in the future.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

(Which means that a lack of excellence is likely also a habit.)

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what he gets by it, but what he becomes by it.” – John Ruskin

“Ideals (and principles) are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you reach your destiny.” – Carl Schurz

What Vulnerability *Really* Means


The real gift and the crux of our difficulty is our constant and entirely natural experience of vulnerability. Trying to live without feeling vulnerable means we do not understand the fierce nature of the reality we inhabit. In closing off our vulnerability, we close off the authentic exchanges that tell us we are actually having a real conversation. Vulnerability is the door through which we walk into self-understanding and compassion for others. Being enlightened does not mean we assume supernatural powers or find a perfection that exalts us above the daily losses other human being are subject to; enlightenment means we have accepted thoroughly our transience, our vulnerability and our imperfections and live just as robustly with them as without them.”

David Whyte, in “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship.”

Cultivating the Mind: Resolve to Master Something Truly Difficult (& Worthwhile!)


(Much*—much*—of the following essay has been borrowed, adapted, rearranged, added to, edited, excerpted, taken word for word, from a post Greg Swann wrote on a blog titled “freetheanimal”—http://freetheanimal.com/2011/12/guest-post-greg-swann-and-resolving-to-master-something-difficult-in-2012.html. I want to make this perfectly clear at the outset: MUCH of this post is not my own.  The arrangement of it is; the additions to it are, but much of this post has been excerpted and adapted from a post that Greg Swann authored. And so what I am doing here is displaying the way my mind works—how I process something I read.  First, I read it, and then if it has some wisdom or insight to it and piques my interest, I will sometimes rewrite and edit what I have read so that it squares more with my own experiences and temperament, and so that it says even more what I think is true.  To me, this is an inescapable part of what it means to read actively and critically.)

 

What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

(http://taylormali.com/poems-online/what-teachers-make/)

.

Is there anything you can think of that you did in school or college that you’re truly proud of now? —Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life where you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?  Was there any class that you took—ever—where you had to bust ass every day or risk getting hopelessly lost?

And moreover, the reality is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents.  To have graduated from high school in the United States in 1880 or 1910 was to have acquired an education far beyond that attained by all but the smallest few college graduates today.

And irrespective of why this may be and how times have changed, we are still largely responsible for the education we received.  Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy eff-ups who were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade we desired or that was expected of us from our parents, and not looking to be challenged in school—not looking to take AP or Honors Level courses.  So I absolve myself of nothing in this.  I know how much of the time that I could have spent acquiring an education was wasted on trivia instead, or on tendentious cant, or on outright lies, or on plotting my social life.

steve-prefontaine-the-gift_i-G-8-837-D2IY000Z

And yet the fault is not entirely our own.  So many (some? at least a few?) teachers are of the cash-greedy glib-and-lazy eff-up type—those who by default and not as a vocation or a calling decided that teaching was their best option—an option that gave them the summer off, and a few more vacation weeks throughout the year.   Certainly there are teachers—a lot? some? a few?—who do little to nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from and meet the standards of the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them.

Put another way, how many teachers did you have or even know who pushed you like the teacher in the poem at the head of this post or who inspired you like Mr. Keating did many of his students in “Dead Poets Society”?  How many teachers demand nothing less than your best from you?  How many pushed you beyond what you thought you could?  How many consistently expected and demanded exceptional work from you?

And you weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity.

Bottom line: You were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself—with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher or fellow student. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by—you were cheating yourself of an education that likely was already cheating you.

But that’s over. The past can’t be undone.  So what to do about it? The future is yours to make of it what you will.  You can start changing things with just one resolution:

Resolve to master something difficult.

Tell the truth:  Every time you see a musician performing—popular music or classical—don’t you wish you could do that, too?

The good news is, you can. All it takes is commitment and effort—and time—maybe 10,000 hours.  Maybe more, maybe less.

Mastering a demanding new skill will take a while.

How much progress can you make on any resolution in a single day?  Almost none.

How much progress can you make in a year’s worth of serious, daily effort?  You’d be amazed.  The desire for instant results is how all resolutions, including New Year’s resolutions, get abandoned.  But to learn a serious discipline will require your time every day—an hour or more a day of serious, dedicated effort.  I like the idea of working every day, since, if you take no breaks from the work, you won’t have to resist the temptation to extend a break by one day and then another and another.

The benefits to be realized by putting the time in mastering something difficult are huge—far beyond anything you might be expecting.  First off, you’ll be better for having improved your mind.  You’ll be a better person, too—more independent, more competent, more whole, better able to focus and persevere, less of a whiner and a complainer.  You’ll be better for the effort.  Not to mention wiser, and more confident.  You’ll be more independent, too, more indomitable.  And you’ll be more admirable—to your spouse, to your children, to your family and friends—and to yourself.

Plus, you’ll learn firsthand how to learn something.  You’ll learn about your own resistances, your own blocks, your own laziness.  You’ll also see for yourself just how important resolve, grit, determination, self-discipline, showing up every day, putting the time in, doing your best, pushing yourself, practicing, studying, really is.  After all, mastery of a truly difficult discipline can ultimately *only* be done alone.  Your teacher can help, and, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants.  But it’s only your brain, working all alone, that can distinguish educere from educare in Latin.  Because in Latin, we can say, “Educere est educare“—to bring up is to bring out.  To cultivate the mind is to liberate it, to lead it forevermore away from the slavery of ignorance.

So no matter what your pedigree, unless you were very lucky, you were cheated of an education when you were young.  And right now you can begin to amend that deficit.