How to Become a Genius in Life (or: “Life Isn’t Hard Because You’re Doing It Wrong, Life Is Just Hard”)


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Life isn’t easy.

We want it to be. We wish that it were.

But it’s not.

Life is fundamentally not easy.  Life is hard.

But look around and listen to people, listen to ourselves, listen to what we say to ourselves in the privacy of our inner monologues—listen as we complain, as we bitch, as we whine, as we grumble and act cranky. And even though on the surface the object of our complaining, bitching, whining, crankiness, grumbliness may seem different, beneath it all resides the same assumption—that life is supposed to be easy. We feel justified in acting bitchy, grumpy, cranky, ornery, like a jerk, because deep down we think—wish, hope, believe, hold, assume—that life is supposed to be easy. One big gravy train. And somehow right now, at this moment when we’re being bitchy or acting like a hothead, life is somehow treating us unfairly, singling us out for no good reason and giving us a raw deal. Our kids are being difficult. Our job is too difficult (or tedious). Our clients are being difficult. The other drivers on the freeway are being difficult. Our partner or spouse is being difficult. Trying to understand him or her is too difficult. And so on.

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.” – Robert Fulghum

And our greatest desire is to make it all go away—all, meaning the difficulty of it. When people say they can’t take “it” any more, the “it” to which they are referring isn’t life but the difficult nature of their lives—the poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, fear, and so on.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

But “it”—whatever the “it”—is difficult. Loneliness is difficult. Loss is difficult. Losing a job is difficult. Wrestling with our own mortality is difficult. Trying to be our best is difficult. Emotions are difficult. Relationships are difficult. Wrestling with our demons and not so savory tendencies is difficult. Chemotherapy is difficult. Rehab—rehabbing an injury or from an addiction—is difficult.

But that’s life.

Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “Life is dukkha.”

Life is difficult,” wrote both Rilke and M. Scott Peck.

Love is difficult,” wrote Rilke.

Life isn’t pleasure, it’s constant struggle driven by relentless tension,” said Richard Rose.

Life is complex. . . . There are no easy answers,” wrote M. Scott Peck.

And yet as evident by the vast majority of our complaints we spend much of our time trying to live diametrically opposed to this truth—the truth that life is difficult.

We bitch and we whine and we lash out and we complain—and more importantly, we feel justified in doing so—because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, simpler than it is, a lot less messier than it is, more pleasurable and fun than it is.

And when it’s not we get indignant about it, we mumble and grumble—or worse—about it.

For example, we get grumpy and self-righteous and indignant with elderly people—if not directly, then indirectly—who dare tell us (how dare they!) to relish our time with our children and enjoy it because this too will pass. And we get grumpy and indignant not because of what they’re saying to us but because fundamentally we’re living at odds with the fact that life IS difficult. We’re living in denial. If we actually knew life was difficult, then we’d be much more likely not to sweat so many things and not lose our cool so often and so easily. But because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, because we’re living in denial, we think we are in the right and that it’s appropriate to bitch and complain about anyone who won’t sympathize with our plight whenever we’re feeling moody and give us a consoling there-there pat on the shoulder whenever we’re having a rough go of it with the kids, et cetera. We act as if our hardships and difficulties are unique and unprecedented on all the earth and thus our complaints—and our bitchiness and grumpiness—are entirely justified and appropriate. We think no parent has ever had so tough a go of it as we are having right now with our kids running amuck in the living room or in the aisles of Target or WalMart. How dare someone suggest that there might be a better way of looking at things!? How dare someone butt into our lives and tell us to enjoy these moments of parenthood because it all goes so fast!? That’s exactly what we want—for it—and this moment in particular—to go fast, to go much faster, for us to be able to go elsewhere, a place where life is easier, where we can sit down and rest and enjoy a little peace and quiet and a glass of red wine and something funny on the television, et cetera.

Easy, easy, easy. That’s our heart’s deepest desire—wishing things were easier, wishing that life wasn’t so (as in sooooo) difficult.

It’s been remarked (fairly often) that for we humans, one of the biggest pains (or difficulties) we have to deal with is the pain (or difficulty) of a new idea. And the idea that life actually is fundamentally, inescapably, and unavoidably difficult is at some point in each of our lives both a new and a painful idea. It comes as a quite a shock to us that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be that easy.

So what do we tend to do with this new and disturbing idea? What are we who have been raised and groomed on the assumption that life is supposed to be easy and that it can almost always be made easier to do with this idea that perhaps life actually is quite difficult?

Do we accept the idea with grace and equanimity? In other words, do we accept it easily?

Of course not.

If life is difficult and if accepting a new and potentially disturbing new idea or paradigm (way of looking at things) is difficult, why should accepting it and living in congruence with it be easy? Obviously acceptance too should be difficult—something quite difficult.

“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.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and accepting that life is difficult, versus proving that life is not difficult, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

And for the vast majority of us that attempt at proof goes no further than our daily litany of complaints, laments, “why me?” moments, and frequent “ugh!” and “arrghh” and other much less civil not to mention much less printable yet sometimes quite colorful expressions and outbursts.

Life is difficult. And so is learning not to whine so much about it and become impatient and overheated—that too is difficult. It’s easier to live in denial and bitch and complain and vent and lose perspective and forget (deny) that life is difficult and messy and oftentimes requires a lot of effort and work and sacrifice and grit. Accepting that life is difficult—and learning (developing the self-control and perspective) not to whine and bitch and complain and take out our foul moods and weak-mindedness (ultimately that’s what it is, after all) on others—is not easy; it’s difficult—very difficult.

But—but—once we accept—actually, once we begin accepting more and more (because more often than not acceptance is not some grand pie in the sky moment, but a bit by bit, inch by inch, turf war) that life actually is difficult, once this becomes our mantra, once this becomes what we more and more tell ourselves or realize when our children or our partner or life is stressing us out, the paradox is that life becomes a bit less difficult. (Because we’re no longer making things even more difficult for ourselves than they already are through how we react to life.)

If our first thought in the morning was “Life is difficult. I’m ready for another difficult day. I want to rise to the challenge of my life and do my best and be my best. I wonder what difficulties and challenges I will be presented with today. I wonder what opportunities for bettering myself and others I will find or create amidst these difficulties?” that would set our hearts and minds in the right direction.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” – Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning

But this way of thinking is likely the farthest thing from most of our hearts and minds first thing in the morning.

More likely we’re unconsciously hoping for an easy fun day.

Yet if we can begin by at least considering the idea that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be easy— and that if it were, we would never become who we’re supposed to be because we would never have cause to get stronger or wiser, and instead we would atrophy, soften, and become spoiled—if we can begin considering this and keeping this a bit more in mind, then perhaps life might paradoxically become a bit easier for us.

And not only might life become a bit easier the more we extend this realization and acceptance into different facets of our lives and live increasingly in alignment with it, life also might become proportionally a bit more joyful and wonderful. Because instead of our minds being bogged down so often bitching and complaining and wishing that life were easier, we would free up more space in our minds so we might actually enjoy (or embrace) life and some of its messiness and unease a bit more.

It’s a lot like that Seinfeld episode where George decides to be celibate for while his girlfriend (Louise) who has mono recuperates. . . .

[At Jerry’s apartment, George is sitting on couch, watching Jeopardy and playing with a Rubik’s cube while Jerry is talking to him.]

GEORGE: What is Tungsten or Wolfram?

ALEX TREBEK: We were looking for ‘What is Tungsten, or Wolfram’.

JERRY: Is this a repeat?

GEORGE: No, no, no. it’s just lately I’ve been thinking a lot clearer. Like this afternoon, (To television, “Jeopardy” is on) what is chicken Kiev, (Back to Jerry) I really enjoyed watching a documentary with Louise.

JERRY: Louise! That’s what’s doin’ it. You’re no longer pre-occupied with sex, so your mind is able to focus.

GEORGE: You think?

JERRY: Yeah. I mean, let’s say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows whole lettuce head) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce)

GEORGE: Oh my God. I just remembered where I left my retainer in second grade. I’ll see ya. (He throws finished Rubik’s cube to Jerry and he exits. Kramer enters)

So too it is with us. The space between our ears is for rent. And most of us unknowingly rent it out most of the time to what amounts to the lowest bidder—the path of least resistance, that part of us that wants life to be easy and simple and complains vocally whenever it isn’t. We live in an increasingly easier era where more and more things are being made easier, more convenient, more fun, et cetera. More and more of us are searching out ways to lose weight easier, to have more efficient and easier work-outs that will yield maximum results, to be able to eat more and more gluttonous sweet and or fatty foods without the consequences to our bodies.

So many of the things we take for granted—plumbing, refrigeration, microwaveable foods, drive-thrus, automobiles—were things that were unknown and even unimaginable to previous generations

And the dark side of it is that not only has all of this convenience and ease and abundance made life easier for us, but it likely has made us softer—another difficult idea to consider and accept.

“Wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names . . . the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railway, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and easier. . . . You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as others, undertake to make something harder. . . . When all combine in every way to make everything easier and easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the easiness might become . . . too great.” – Soren Kierkegaard, in “A Kierkegaard Anthology,” ed. Robert Bretall, pg. 194.

Yet as we begin to more and more accept that fundamentally life is not easy, things begin to shift inside for us. Instead of the part of our mind that is grateful, kind, loving, and that finds joy in life being relegated to a few tiny slivers of lettuce while the rest of the head is obsessed with assuming life to be easy and trying to make things less stressful and then spinning out and complaining whenever they aren’t, things begin to shift, the balance of power begins to shift within us. We begin to find our sanity. Life isn’t easy. We’ve been to see that we’ve been duped; we’ve been lied to; life was never supposed to be easy or simple or uncomplicated. And so the assumption that life ought to be easy no longer runs the show, is no longer our fundamental operating assumption and guiding thought. Instead more and more parts of our brain (more and more pieces of lettuce) are freed up to begin more deeply appreciating more of the little things in life that we’ve been missing and overlooking for so long because we’ve been mistakenly assuming that life was supposed to be easy!

Life is difficult. Write this a thousand times. Try repeating this to yourself a thousand times a day. Make this your new ground zero. Say it to yourself whenever the kids are trying your patience or your partner is getting on your last nerve. Life is difficult. Or “this too shall pass.”

In doing so—in realizing that life is difficult—it frees our minds up for more kairos (or vertical or soulful) moments of appreciation and wonder and gratitude.

The more we live expecting life to be easier than it is, the more we will miss these potential moments of real peace and perspective and grace.

“There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg. 15.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”– William James, “The Principles of Psychology,” Chapter 4, “Habit,” pg. 126.

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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.

What Kind of Horse Are You?


What kind of horse do you want to be?

The superior mind will find itself equally at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them.” – Emerson

The Buddha told a story about four types of horse and the ways in which they learn and how they respond to their master.

The first horse responds to the shadow of the whip; the second responds to the cracking sound of the whip; and the third to the feel of the whip on its skin.

But the fourth type of horse does not respond until it feels the pain of the whip in its bones and marrow.

The Buddha told this story as a way of elucidating how people, especially those who are spiritual seekers, respond to guidance they receive and the pain and disappointments and losses they experience in their lives.

(Adapted from Philip Martin’s book “The Zen Path through Depression,” pg. 117)

Most people like to think that they are like the first type of horse—actually, such is the pervasive nature of pride/vanity and our fear of feeling inferior/ashamed that the vast majority of us flatter ourselves by imagining that we are like the first type of horse.  (How did ashes and dust become so proud!?)  But in reality the vast vast majority of us are like the fourth type of horse—we have to have things “beaten” into us by life—driven down painfully, tediously, to the bone, to the marrow—before the lightbulb turns on and we “get it.”

For most of us, our daily lives are full of lies—full of brazen, bald-faced lies.  Lies that we tell most of all to ourselves.  We pull the wool over our own eyes all the time to ourselves, push the unpleasant to deal with stuff about ourselves out of our awareness, pretend not to notice certain incongruities within ourselves (or at least we don’t allow ourselves to feel the full force of them), feign obliviousness to certain stains in our character, et cetera.  Basically we deceive ourselves in hundreds of ways hundreds of times a day.  Especially when it comes to the biggest concern of all: death.  How many times a day do we reactively, automatically suppress, deny, exclude, annihilate anything that might remind of us death?  When we pass by cemeteries, how many of us pause and think “someday that will be me and all of those I now love, and even those who annoy me.  What’s the point of it all?  Why am I living the way I’m living?  Why am I not living with greater clarity and conviction and purpose?  Why am I living so obliviously, as if death will never touch me or those around me?”  Et cetera, et cetera. . . .

The truth is that the vast majority of us are not living now as we will have wished that we will have lived when we’re dying. 

And even if we protest and say we are and or say we have a bucket list, how can we be sure that that’s really what we will consider to be truly important in the final analysis?

—Unless—unless—we have made it a daily habit of not merely even just thinking about death, but contemplating it and feeling it fully and deeply, all the way down to the bone—with the same fear and sadness and terror that we will likely experience when the doctor comes into the room, sits us down, and tells us that it’s not good news, that the PET/CT scan is showing multiple hot spots  of increased glucose uptake, areas on our liver, lungs, spine, pelvis, back of our skull, et cetera, that we’re dealing with a cancer that has metastasized.

Until we start reflecting on and feeling our own mortality in this way—then we’re still just feeling the whip on the very hair on our skin.  We’re just bull-shitting ourselves.  We’re not yet feeling our own mortality penetrating us to our core, to our very bones. 

And so we’re still living in denial; we’re just hoodwinking ourselves with our talk about our own mortality. 

Now perhaps all of this self-talk about our own mortality may be the beginning of something that will become much more honest and transformative—it may be the beginnings of a practice that will eventually reach down to the bone and allow us to affect some real change in ourselves and the way we’re living.  So thinking and reflecting on our own mortality is not to be decried.  It may eventually lead past mere intellectualization.  It may signify the first step away from an unconscious and blind life to a much more examined and awake life.

The main reason for this—the reason why the vast majority of us are the way we are—is that we don’t yet have the level of “being” or “differentiation” to support an honest relationship with reality, a significant part of which means allowing our big beautiful brains to think about their—which in all likelihood means “our”—own impending extinction and likely (possible?) non-existence.   We don’t allow our minds to consider the perennial existential questions in life.  Why are we here?  How did we get here?  How long are we here for?  What happens after death?  Who am I?  What is it that I am to do with my life?  What is the meaning of my life?  What meaning will I give it?  Is there any meaning to life? et cetera, et cetera.  How can we live the questions if we never really ask them? . . .

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

The reality is that we as all need to borrow a certain amount of functioning to make it through the day.  And denial is one of the primary forms of currency we rely on. 

But we also need and rely on other forms of borrowing functioning, because the truth is none of us is non-dependent.  We are all dependent in some way upon others, society, for our survival and functioning—and not merely for our physical survival and functioning, but also our emotional survival and functioning—we all lean on others, curry their favor and support and encouragement and validation and favorable mirroring of us, in order to make it through the day, stabilize our moods and emotions, feel good about ourselves, learn about and come to better know ourselves.

Another way many of us borrow functioning and psychological stability is through our religious and spiritual beliefs.  For many people—perhaps the vast majority of people—their belief in God and an afterlife and some sort of cosmic order, however vague and unformed these beliefs may be, lends them psychological functioning and emotional stability and help them make it through the day by not forcing them to consider and confront the alternative—that there may be no God (or at least not the God that many people are worshipping), that there may be no life after this, and more to the point, their beliefs allow them to arrogantly eschew and postpone having to deal with their own mortality.

Through the considerable thick skin of denial that many of us have surrounding us, buffering us, insulating us from seeing life perhaps more clearly and honestly, we are able to continue on, living more or less conventionally, tranquilizing ourselves on the trivial, anesthetizing ourselves with our 9-5 routines and our shallow discursive relationships and friendships, and hypnotizing and deluding ourselves with our idiosyncratic and or esoteric beliefs.

And the proof of this—perhaps the only real proof possible—comes the morning we wake up and feel a lump under our arm, the day we have the heart attack, the night we don’t sleep because we are dreading get the lab results back—the day life finally pins us to the mat and we are forced to scream “uncle!” and give up our self-deception.  The day life finally drives it through our thick head—through the thick crust of our denial, the thick crust of our pride and vanity and denial and self-deception—all of our various buffers and discursive monkey-minded ways of flitting on the surface of life, and we finally “get it.”  The day we finally feel the sting of life’s whip on our bones.

Wake up.  You’re not going to live forever.  Nor are those around you.  Wake up to this each morning.  Remember this frequently, hourly, every 30 minutes, during the day.  Remember this while you are shopping, while you are standing in line and growing impatient with the elderly person fumbling around in front of you or making small talk with the cashier.  Remember this while you are driving and caught in traffic.  Remember this while you are driving past a cemetery or graveyard—as you are now, they once were; as they are now, so too will you be one day.

How did ashes and dust get so proud?

Until we realize our own mortality at an emotional and visceral level, and not merely intellectually, we are not mentally healthy.  We are unhealthy.  Or put another way, to the extent that we are living our lives as though life goes on forever, we are mentally ill.

Peck defined mental health as an ongoing dedication to reality at all costs.   Yet most of us don’t have much of a relationship with reality; rather we have a much stronger relationship with unreality, with fantasyland with some figment of it.  We don’t see things as they are, but as we are and as we need to see them in order to make it through the day, not be overwhelmed or flooded, not go insane, et cetera.  And we don’t see ourselves as we are, but only as our fragile wittle egos will permit us to see ourselves take in without feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, ashamed, full of self-loathing, et cetera.

To dedicate ourselves to reality—to seeing ourselves as we are and life as it is—requires an immense amount of grit and determination.  Being dedicated to truth and reality requires a level of commitment—a level of fierce determination—that is not come by cheaply nor easily.  It requires a certain level of “differentiation” or “being” to support and sustain it, to make it viable.  —And trying to make—and keep—that commitment is also what helps create the eventual level of being or differentiation required to sustain it.

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

Schnarch, in his absolutely fascinating book, “Passionate Marriage,” describes marriage and long-term intimate committed relationships as “people growing machines.”  So too is real philosophy—doing some solid and honest thinking about oneself and one’s place in the world, leading a very mindful and examined and introspective life and facing oneself and one’s biases and bull-shite—is also a people-growing machine.  In fact, this level of honest self-examination and self-confrontation and soul-searching is one and the same level of soul-searching and self-examination and self-confronting that makes a marriage or long-term relationship not just work but really flourish and sizzle.