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

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?



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.


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.


Teddy Roosevelt on “Character”

“There is need of a sound body, and even more of a sound mind. But above mind and above body stands character—the sum of those qualities which we mean when we speak of a man’s force and courage, of his good faith and sense of honor. I believe in exercise for the body—always provided that we keep in mind that physical development is a means and not an end. I believe, of course, in giving to all the people a good education. But the education must contain much besides book-learning in order to be really good. We must ever remember that no keenness and subtleness of intellect, no polish, no cleverness, in any way make up for the lack of the great solid qualities. Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Without them no people can control itself, or save itself from being controlled from the outside.”

This is from the same speech—“Citizenship in a Republic”—that Theodore Roosevelt gave at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910, and that contains the oft-quoted “Man in the Arena” passage (a quote that is perhaps even more oft-quoted now because of Brene Brown’s recent book “Daring Greatly”)—

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The World Needs *More* Warriors

The World Needs More Warriors

.     (This is my abridgment and adaptation of Sakyong Mipham’s article “We Need to . .
      Be Warriors
,” on pages 15 – 19 of the January 2013 issue of “Shambhala Sun”)

As the speed of life continues accelerating, more and more people—which is to suggest that more and more of us—are doing more and more things in perfunctorily—in half-steps, in a routine, rote, mechanical, cursory, even superficial way, with little interest, attention, enthusiasm, or engagement. Parenting, work, driving, shopping, eating, conversations, relationships, sex, all done in a path of least resistance / only partially engaged way; not in a wholehearted deeply present and attentive way.

Because of all of the distractions and horror in the world these days, it is getting harder and harder to show up deeply for the present moment and truly engage our lives. And as a result, our kindness and care are on the wane. In part because our advertising culture keeps lulling us into thinking that somehow someday life is going to get easier, better, et cetera.

As the speed of life continues increasing, what the world actually needs is more engagement, not less. We need more people who are willing to care more; not less, be more attentive, not more distracted; be more thorough, not less; be steadier, not more up and down.

In short, the world needs more warriors—more people who are willing to show up and engage the moments of their lives—the everyday, seemingly ordinary and even mundane moments of their lives—with greater attentiveness, clarity, wisdom, and bravery. The world needs more people who are dedicated and determined to engage life wholeheartedly and with an inquisitive, focused, steady mind.

Steadiness—resolve, not having a lot of ups and downs—along with bravery, is one of the basic qualities of warriorship. In this culture, most of us are constantly flip-flopping—mentally, emotionally, physically, and in every other way possible. So many obstacles and distractions are unknowingly empowered by us to sway us and drag us away from what we’re doing. And this is just an inescapable byproduct or consequence of engaging life in a half-hearted, half-focused, cursory way—the more indifferent and shallow our attention, the more easily distracted we are and become. One feeds and increases the other, and vice versa.

The process of being truly present—and remaining so—takes energy. But it also creates it. But first we have to surrender our patterned ingrained ways of escaping. When we surrender to reality, we have to keep showing up in order to make progress. And that takes effort, discipline, dedication.

Fifty percent of engaging life is just showing up, being there physically—be it showing up on the meditation cushion, classroom, work environment, home, family life, et cetera. Just showing up is fifty percent of the battle.

But it’s only fifty percent.

The other fifty percent is in how we show up. And the most important element in this is care—having a sense of respect and real interest in what we’re doing. Without care and respect, we become disengaged, and even something as potentially profound and centering as meditation becomes hollow. So how we show up is crucially important. When we pay attention to what we do, we naturally care. They feed each other.

These days, when people pursue a spiritual path and a more spiritual approach to life, they can be very enthusiastic at first, but then at a certain point some people will tend to just want to shelve it; they think they’ve practiced enough, seen enough, gained enough, and they just want to hold and stay where they are now, or even cash out and revert back to their comfort zone.

Many people seem to want a spiritual path on their own terms. And this is not possible. When we are truly engaged, we are actually giving our body, our speech, and our mind to the world.

Personally, the more my path unfolds, the more I see the need for the kind of steadiness, discipline, structure, resolve, and paying attention that keeps us on the spot, that allows us to be more deeply aware of how we show up, how we speak, what we do, how we engage with others. Because even with practice—even with a spiritual practice—and even as we are trying to practice something as noble and as profound as the dharma, it’s still easy to develop little places to which we escape, little cocoons of comfort where we withdraw when life gets uncomfortable or stale. But the training of warriorship is there to help us with those neutral and uncomfortable moments, to help push us through to an even deeper and a more profound form of practice—a deeper and more profound engagement with our practice. Without that sense of steadiness—devotion, determination, fixedness—we are always in the back of our minds looking for our retirement—a place where after we have worked hard and invested ourselves for a while, we can flop ourselves and relax and just let everything hang.

But the path of engagement does not get easier. There is no retirement on it. There is however a profound sense of delight to be developed from it. But no retirement. Engagement is the path. And this is the way of a warrior—engagement without the aim of retiring.