The TWO Preliminaries Necessary to Train In In Order to Awaken and Truly Change & Grow


At this point in my life, after whatever portion of life I’ve seen and experienced and lived through and read and written about and reflected on (which may be a little or may be of some significance), I am convinced that there are only TWO ways of truly changing our lives and waking up.

There are many ways of making more or less superficial or cosmetic changes to our lives—what Covey refers to as the way of “the personality ethic.” And these “changes” will only change us sideways or in reverse; they will not truly change us in any real and deep and profound sense—in the sense of real growth, in the sense of changing our character, in the sense of changing our stripes, in the sense of leading us to truly experience an awakening of our conscience and our soul and having our level of thinking and clarity and self-control radically increase and improve.

There are only TWO ways of truly CHANGING our lives in the sense of waking up and radically (meeting at a fundamental or “root”—radical comes from the Latin “radix” meaning “root”) altering oneself and one’s character, transforming oneself, having a metanoia, a true spiritual awakening, dying while alive and being completely dead in order to be born again spiritually and psychologically.

And neither of these paths of real change is easy or simple. In fact, both are quite painful. And both tend to go heavy on the pain and suffering and put it first, make you pay up front, and then give you the happiness and joy and bliss later, down the road.

And if these TWO ways are not painful—if they’re easy and simple—then a person can pretty much be sure that he or she isn’t doing them correctly, if they’re even really doing them at all.

And combining both of these TWO ways is what will have the greatest impact and effect on us in terms of waking us up and changing us deeply, fundamentally, irrevocably.

Lastly, the first of these two ways often leads quite naturally to the second way as well. But the second way doesn’t necessarily lead back to the first way, and, in fact, without the addition of the first way, the second way is apt to be a watered-down even cosmetic “personality ethic” version of what it could be with the addition of the first way as well.

So clearly, in my estimation, the first way is by far the more important of the two ways, but if we truly want to grow we must employ both ways wholeheartedly.

So what are these two ways?

The first is DEATH—getting real about death, taking the blinders off, ceasing to live in denial, getting real about our own and others’ death, and immersing ourselves more and more in our mortality so that things reach a critical mass in us. And I don’t mean reading more and more cheesy vampire fiction; I’m not speaking about that sort of pop-death nonsense; what I’m speaking of is real death, truly beginning with the end in mind and doing so in tangible ways—i.e. volunteering with hospice, visiting a hospice ward, driving by graveyards and cemeteries and actually looking at the grave markers and not turning away but deeply realizing as we are now, they once were, as they are now so too will we be, as will be all of those we love as well as those we dislike, those who irritate us, try our patience, et cetera.

Remember youth as you go by,as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me

Remember youth as you go by,as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be, prepare for death and follow me

If any real change is to occur in our lives we must begin having an actual living relationship with our own death/mortality. Living, meaning consulting one’s own and others’ death must become an active and ongoing and semi-constant “preoccupation” (for lack of a better word), for us.

We have to start thinking about death, reflecting on death, contemplating it, reading and writing about death every day. That’s the practice. That’s the discipline. If—if—we truly want to change and awaken and grow.

Because if we aren’t frequently (i.e. several times throughout the day) and searchingly consulting our own and others’ death, then our decision-making processes are likely to be off—to be too narrow, too myopic, too limited in scope, too based in gratifying the Id or one’s want of comfort and security and an easy or fun and frivolous life. The space between our ears is for rent; it’s up for grabs, to be occupied by either love or fear, perspective or myopia, truth or falsity, good or evil; there’s no neutrality; every moment is either a moment of sanity or insanity/discursiveness/blindness/falsity.

I am convinced at this point in my life that there’s no way of living sincerely and mindfully without integrating one’s own and others’ mortality into one’s life and giving it it’s proper place in our lives.

Yet when I mentioned this line of thought the other day to someone, she made it sound like I was being unrealistic. She assured me that only a person like the Dalai Lama would do this sort of thing (think about death and impermanence). And I responded that anyone can do this, it’s available to everyone—anyone thoughtful normal person who has reached the age of 25 or 30 has likely lost someone significant to them through death, and so that person should be able to start thinking ahead and realizing that death is in store for everyone, including themselves, but that everyone around them seems to be co-conspiring in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to death and dying, and so everyone else is living in denial and everyone else comes down hard on (ostracizes) anyone who refuses to play by the same rules.

And sure enough her response was to de-friend me from her Facebook account because she was already under enough stress and only wanted to surround herself with “positive” people.

I kid you not.

But this is 98% of the human race: blind, asleep, not beginning with the end in mind, living in denial (which suggests that they are beginning with the end in mind, they just don’t want to face it honestly, so instead they want to face away from it and be dishonest about it). . . .

“Be aware of the reality that life ends, that death comes for everyone, that life is very brief. When you realize that possibly you don’t have years and years to live, and if you start living your life as if you only had a day or a week left, then that heightened sense of impermanence and fragility also tends to increase our feelings of preciousness and gratitude and love. It puts things in perspective.” – Pema Chodron

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“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

It’s only when we truly know we’re going to die that we stop fucking around in life and get serious about aligning our current actions with those that we think are going to matter most when we get the cancer scare or when we’re on our deathbed.

Death alone—that level of pain and anxiety—is what seems to be sufficient to cut through our bs, restore us to sanity, give us clarity and perspective.

And death also seems to be the only real source of true gratitude. Without death—i.e. when we’re living on autopilot and as if life goes on forever—we invariably take things for granted. But by more and more facing death, we begin to take the good and neutral things in our life with much more real gratitude and appreciation.

“Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” – Doris Mortman

Part of making peace with who we are means making peace with the fact that we are mortal, that we have a body, that we will die, as will everyone else, and that what happens afterwards is essentially a matter of belief and speculation—it’s a mystery, and no matter how much we would prefer to solve that mystery, it is ultimately a mystery for now.

And it is in recognizing this and really reflecting on this, and doing so more and more often, that we can begin to become much more truly humble and appreciative.

And this—thinking about death, truly doing the inner work that will allow us to make peace with our own death and others’ deaths—is also what will allow us to get our priorities right: to give Love, goodness, compassion, understanding, gratitude, kindness, their rightful place in our lives. Because in the end, these soul qualities are what will (likely) truly matter: Did we kiss this life enough? Did we love others? Did we let another or others truly and deeply in? Were we good to this world or were we just another troubled guest who darkened the earth and used others and lived like a thief in the night?

Were we a hero? Or did take the coward’s way out?—Did we hide out from life, play it safe, live and love as if life went on forever?

 . . .

The second way of deeply changing our lives is really a combination of steps 4 through 10 of the 12 Steps.

If we truly want to change and grow as a human being and awaken, we have to begin identifying more and more with our conscience, with that part of ourselves, and nourish and feed that part of ourselves.

Our conscience is our inner quality control expert—it’s what monitors us and monitors our level of effort in life. Are we doing our best or near-best? If our conscience is working and is well-formed, we will get one answer; if it is underdeveloped and we are living life in denial and emotionally (primarily from our feelings and the emotions and moods of the moment) and reactively, we will get another answer—a distinctly less honest and less realistic and less conscientious answer, one that makes us feel good but that likely is far less than truthful and realistic.

Our conscience is also what allows us to take the hit emotionally in life. It’s what allows us to not always have to feel good. In fact, it’s what allows us to prioritize things such that we can put doing good ahead of feeling good. People without a conscience or whose conscience is underdeveloped CANNOT do this—they cannot put doing good ahead of feeling good; everything revolves around their feelings—around feeling safe, loved, secure, accepted, validated, wanted, and when they feel all of this, they act one way (normally with decency), and when they don’t feel this way, they act an entirely different way (meaning, they typically act ungrateful, spoiled, entitled, bitter, petty, resentful, et cetera).

In order to raise the level of our conscience and to better develop it, we must start making regular (meaning every day, without exception—WITHOUT EXCEPTION!) searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs and our shortcomings and our character defects.

And the day we skip a day of doing this, is the day we fall of the wagon spiritually; it’s the day we prove that we really don’t want to change—that all of our talk about change is just that—talk, and not something real.

“It is impossible to grow and transform as a person unless we are prepared fully to cooperate in the process. Each step in the process depends on our wholehearted concurrence, because, in the long run, self-transcendence can only be the result of constant and tireless practice.

“Not until we have begun to practice continuously and vigilantly, with complete awareness, can we be said to have really joined the way. From then on the wheel of growth and transformation never stops turning. The process of transformation requires that all that is contrary to our essential being to be relinquished.” – Karlfried Graf Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pg. 79.

Moreover, because we have to participate in our own redemption (meaning, because we have free will), we will have to consent to allowing our character defects and shortcomings to be removed. —And we will have to do the work as well and participate in removing our own defects of character and conscience; we will have to put in actual time, labor, effort, work, real blood, sweat, and tears, and actually monitor ourselves and right our wrongs or our failings as soon as we notice them, instead of trying to trying to hide them, save them, cover them over, etc.

We need to be entirely ready on onboard for this to happen; we cannot cheat in this process.

And this is where DEATH comes in. Death, if faced honestly, cuts to the chase and cuts through our bs and denial like nothing else in life can and can actually keep us on track—death is what allows us “to race out beyond all lesser dangers to be safe around that one great danger”—that one great danger where we can bloom.

Making a change also requires that we make amends, that we make a list of all the persons we have harmed and wronged and fucked over, and that we are willing to humble ourselves and go back and correct our mistakes (except in those very rare and exceptional cases where doing so might cause serious injury to the other person—so this is not a caveat that allows any real wiggle room). This is part of what mental health, in the sense of complete and ongoing dedication to reality and to truth at all costs, means—it means that we don’t spare ourselves the expense by trying to save face and not taking the hit emotionally to our pride.

And truly making a change means that we to continue taking a searching and fearless personal moral inventory every day, that we remain vigilante, watchful, mindful, observant, honest. And whenever we notice that we are wrong, we need to swallow our pride, take the hit, and promptly admit our mistake or transgression, and not act in ways that invest ourselves even more heavily in our mistake. . . .

Having a truly working and functioning conscience means that there is something within us—what’s best in us—that’s active and that won’t let us lie to ourselves or cheat or cut illegitimate corners or get away with doing less than our best for very long. It means there’s something in us that monitors us, that doing quality control on us and our effort level, and that will call us out on our own bullshite. It means that we have an up and running personal ethics that allows us to feel another’s pains and the effects of our own actions (or lack of actions; i.e. withholding, withdrawal) on the other person. It’s what allows us to not do to another what we would not want done to us if the situation were reversed, and to do to another what we would want done to us if the situation were reversed. And it’s what allows this to happen in real time or near-real time, with minimal lag and minimal wiggle room for self-deception and lies and rationalizations (rational-lies-ations).

And one of the best ways to help this process along—this process of kick-starting our conscience and taking the quality of our moral reasoning and living to the next level—is to imagine we’re in a theater and we’re watching the story of our life—the highs and the lows. What would you be watching? What would you be seeing? And would you be the hero or the villain the story? Would you be proud of yourself and in awe or would be ashamed and embarrassed, even horrified? (Gurdjieff said that a person cannot awaken and truly change his or her life until he is completely appalled and “horrified” with himself—that that level of emotional disgust is necessary in order to motivate a person to get serious about waking up and letting all the smaller false I’s die. Facing death squarely also has the same effect of energizing us and getting us serious about waking up and living with greater clarity and maturity and Love.)

And now imagine watching yourself in your final days or when you get a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Watch yourself on your deathbed hours before dying. Was it worth it?—the way that you lived? Are you proud of how you conducted yourself here on earth? Are you proud of what you stood for and fought for and believed in? Did you do your best?

Now try taking yourself out of the equation: If you were watching someone else on screen doing the things you have done in your life, how would you feel about that person? How does he or she treat others? How does he or she treat him- or herself and the world? Is this person a good and noble soul? Or is he or she the proverbial “troubled guest darkening the earth”—full of chaos, fear, causing others pain? How would you feel watching this life review? Because right now you are trading your life to be this person—so is it worth it? Is this really the type of person you want to become? Are you doing your best or near-best? Are you even trying any more?

A searching and fearless and honest moral inventory is what will help us to more honestly and deeply ask and answer these questions—as will facing death squarely.

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Self-Criticism, Mental Health, and Genuine Personal Growth


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To me, these excepts all seem to be saying very much the same thing. What do you think?

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The very purpose of spirituality is self-discipline. Rather than criticizing others, we should evaluate and criticize ourselves. Ask yourself, what am I doing about my anger, my attachment, my pride, my jealousy? These are the things we should check in our day to day lives.” – the Dalai Lama, Facebook status update, Fri 27 Jan 2012

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They call you “Little Man” or “Common Man.” They say that your age has dawned—the “Age of the Common Man.” And the future of the human race will depend on your thoughts and actions.

A doctor, a shoemaker, mechanic, or educator has to know his shortcomings if he is to improve in his work. Yet your teachers and masters rarely tell you what you really are and how you really think. No one dares confront you with the one truth that might make you the unswerving master of your life, because you banish, bully, malign, ostracize, cut off, wall out, exile, crucify anyone whose opinion you don’t agree with. You are indeed “free” little man, but in only one respect: you are free from the self-criticism that might help you to better govern your own life. . . .

Don’t run away: Have the courage to look at yourself.

I can see the question in your frightened eyes, hear it on your insolent tongue: “By what right are you lecturing me?!”

You are afraid to look at yourself, little man; you are afraid of criticism, you afraid of who you can become. You are afraid to think that your self—the person you feel yourself to be right now—might someday be different from who and what she is now—truly free rather than cowed; candid and honest rather than manipulative and scheming; capable of truly loving in broad daylight instead of stealing affection like a thief in the night. Secretly you despise yourself.

You differ from a great person in only one respect: a great person was once a little man, but he developed one very important trait: he learned to recognize the smallness and narrowness of his thoughts and actions.

Under the pressure of some great task which meant a great deal to him, he learned to face himself and see how his own smallness and pettiness endangered his own happiness. In other words, a great man knows when and in what way he is a little man.

A little man does not know this and is afraid to know this.

(Wilhelm Reich, adapted from “Listen Little Man,” pp. 5-7)

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Judge not, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not cast pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7: 1-6)

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Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps of reality only when we have the discipline not to avoid that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to the truth. That is to say, we must always hold truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more crucial, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant, and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean?

It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine ourselves, the examiner. . . . Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within, and it is certainly because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the majority steer away from it. Yet when one is dedicated to the truth this pain seems relatively unimportant—and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther one proceeds on the path of self-examination.

A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy, rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion. Yet, because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity.

The tendency to avoid challenge is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature. But calling it natural does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior. It is also natural to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth. Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until the unnatural becomes itself second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural. Another characteristic of human nature—perhaps the one that makes us most human—is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.

(M. Scott Peck, abridged from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 50-53.)

Enjoying Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last


Erin, over at Analyfe.com, wrote a review of the book “Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last” by Lee Lipsenthal, on her blog—http://analyfe.com/2011/11/16/enjoy-every-sandwich-living-each-day-as-if-it-were-your-last/

From the publisher’s website (http://www.randomhouse.com/book/215689/enjoy-every-sandwich-by-lee-lipsenthal)—

This book is a culmination of what I’ve learned. I hope it will open the door for you to embrace your humanity, accept uncertainty, and live a life of gratitude. —from Enjoy Every Sandwich

As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.

The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.

I wrote the following as a response on Erin’s blog—

Sounds like a very interesting book, Erin!  Right up my alley. 

The Dalai Lama wrote that he begins each day meditating on impermanence and our interconnectedness.  Covey discusses that “beginning with the end in mind” is one of the key seven habits of effective people because it helps us cut to the chase (and cut through our own bs) and start organizing our lives around what’s truly important and what’s ultimately going to matter to us.  Steve Jobs said in a 2005 commencement speech: “When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’  It made an impression on me.  So ever since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.  Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

To me it’s clear that the first key to living a more meaningful and eyes-wide-open life is facing our own mortality instead of denying it.  Which is no easy feat—we live in a death-deny culture teaming with all sorts of diversions to distract us and anesthetize us to our own and others’ mortality. 

The second key to living a more meaningful and examined life is moving past merely intellectualizing the knowledge of our own and others’ mortality and instead allowing ourselves to feel this always-possible future reality viscerally, emotionally, no (or at least little) differently than if we were in a doctor’s office and being told we (or a loved one) had cancer.  Which also is no easy feat!

Tomorrow I am going to the dermatologist’s office to have a mole on my forehead biopsied.  It may turn out to be nothing.  Or it may turn out to be something and my life will move in a dramatically different direction after tomorrow.

So, a personal question Erin, what did the book mean to you?  How did it change your life or give you pause to reconsider certain things you may or may not be doing now?

As for my own answer to your query—is today a good day to die?—I’ll let you know after tomorrow when it may be no mere intellectual exercise.

Namaste and thanks,

John

Ps. These are links to two of my blogs where I share some of my own (and others’) reflection on death and dying and living with passion and meaning.

https://fullcatastropheliving.wordpress.com/

http://aweektolive.wordpress.com/

Learning How to Deal Better with the Full Intensity of Life by Becoming More Awake and Enlightened AND Conscientious


(This is an updated version of something I posted on Jan 7th of this year on my http://www.realtruelove.wordpress.com blog regarding how to become more awake and enlightened and conscientious. . . .

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/becoming-more-awake-enlightened-and-conscientious/)

We do not become enlightened by avoiding what is unpleasant and difficult to look at and to acknowledge about ourselves; rather we become enlightened by becoming more honest and aware of our own weaknesses and darkness. We become enlightened by letting light and truth into those dark dank places within ourselves that we are ashamed of, that frighten us, that we feel are too sensitive or too raw or too overwhelming to look at, those places that make us feel bad about ourselves or inadequate or guilty.

As Jung put it (paraphrasing): “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter alternative, however, is extremely disagreeable and difficult and therefore very unpopular.

Genuine personal development and growth requires courage—real courage—real moral courage. It takes incredible grit and inner resolve to let the light come in, to not run and hide from it or close our eyes to it. It takes incredible courage and inner resolve and stamina to genuinely transform oneself, to fess up to and face our own fears and anxieties and weaknesses (to have that honest conversation with ourselves), and to cease the nonsense of habitually and unconsciously always reflexively acting out from this place and loosing these parts of us on others and the world. (“The undisciplined person doesn’t wrong himself alone—he sets fire to the whole world.” – Rumi)

Personal growth is a moral issue. How much we actually grow as persons is inexorably tied to how much of ourselves we are willing to see—to see honestly as well as clearly. So not only is personal growth tied to our level of thinking and the amount of clarity we have (“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Einstein), it is also tied inexorably to our level of moral development—our level of conscientiousness and how much we are able to refine this and further develop it.

It is our conscience—the level and intensity of our moral reasoning—that when we are exposed to stress and strain, temptation and difficulty will either hold and allow us to rise above the mammalian and reptilian parts of our nature and brain—and thus actually be better than what’s worst and weakest in us—or it is what will not hold and what will compel us even though we see a path to the better to follow a path to what’s worst and succumb and give in to what’s worst in us. (“The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.)

It is our level of moral reasoning and the intensity with which we have internalized this part of ourselves and identify with it (egosyntonic) that will allow the center to hold and allow us to be better than our weakness and negative emotional reactivity.

But if we are underdeveloped or too “conventional” morally, when difficulty and temptation come, the center will be less likely to hold, and we will spin out or give in to temptation (set fire to ourselves and the world). Moreover, we will lack the internal impetus that will compel us to become the best or near-best version of ourselves that we can be.

So much so-called “personal growth” and so many so-called “gurus” and “life-coaches” and self-help authors ignore this fact and try to affect deep and lasting change without addressing their client’s or student’s or readership’s level of moral development, moral reasoning, moral courage, personal integrity and trying to deeply increase these.

Which is why so much so-called personal growth is short-lived, superficial, and never really sticks.

Because unless we change deeply and fundamentally in terms of our level of moral reasoning and development and courage—in terms of our level of conscience—we will not grow deeply and fundamentally as a person in terms of our level of being or differentiation. Nothing significant will have changed in us. Everything will be water down the drain—seed thrown on rocky arid soil.

Absolutely Clear” – Hafiz

Don’t surrender your loneliness
so quickly
Let it cut more deeply into you.
Let it ferment and season you as few
human or divine ingredients can. . . .
Something’s missing in my heart tonight
and that something has made
my eyes so soft,
my voice more tender,
and my need of God
absolutely clear.

Suffering some sort of personal loss or setback is just the beginning. It is only the first impetus for us to either wake up and live with more courage and clarity and force, or to dig in and try to entrench ourselves even more deeply and fervently in a life of even greater avoidance and escapism and comfort.

We need some sort of pain or hardship or heartache to get us off our butts and off our buts. It is essential. We need some sort of personal setback or tragedy to rouse and jar us from our respective dogmatic slumbers. We need some sort of personal loss or some great defeat to get us off the sidelines and get us into the game and start living more passionately, honestly, sincerely, and authentically.

As Rumi put it: “Organs and capacities respond to necessity, so therefore increase your necessity.” Without the impetus of great psychological pain we would just stay content in wasting away in our respective little comfort zones, craving more and more comforts and pleasures and escapes and distractions.

So some sort of pain or great loss is an essential and inescapable first step. Some sort of deep pain or great loss is necessary to jar us, to stop us in our tracks, to crack the crust or the walls of our egoism (the self-protective “frozen sea within us”).

Grief is so often the source of the spirit’s growth.” – Rilke

Something (bad, distressing, catastrophic, traumatic) has to happen to us to shake our tree, get our attention, and hopefully wake us up.

Wanting people to listen, you can’t just go up to them and tap them on the shoulder anymore. You’ve got to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you have their strictest attention.” – from the motion picture “Se7en

At some point in our lives, when we meet a real tragedy—which could happen to any one of us—we can react in two ways. Obviously we can lose hope, let ourselves slip into discouragement, alcohol, drugs, unending sadness, and go more to sleep. Or else we can wake ourselves up, discover in ourselves an energy that was hidden there and act with more clarity, more force.” – The Dalai Lama

The second and equally inescapable and essential next step is to develop our conscience.

Without the development of our conscience—without taking our level of moral reasoning and courage to the next level (Kohlberg’s stages 5 and 6 of moral development), we will never grow as persons, because we will not properly operate on whatever tragedy life has beset us with. We will never be able to stay and stick and actually face what happened to us; instead we will always run, hide, avoid, wall up, go numb, lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, in order to preserve ourselves emotionally and not have to feel the full brunt of the pain of what we experienced and its aftermath and possibly flood limbically. We sense ourselves to be too weak to be able to deal with the full intensity of whatever life is dealing us, and so we shut down, go numb, wall up, or run and evade.

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to life and to other people is that they trigger a confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.” – Pema Chödrön (paraphrased a bit)

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything—even the unprecedented—must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. For it is not inertia or indolence alone that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before anything new and inconceivable, any experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another human being as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being and draw forth his actions from there.” – Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet” (letter no. 8)

And so in shutting down and shying away from the pain and fear and the full intenisty of life, we never force ourselves develop perpendicularly as a person; we never deepen, we never increase in virtue, in patience, in integrity (integration), courage, transparency, trust, inner strength, willpower, self-discipline, endurance, perseverance. Instead we increase our own flightiness and evasiveness, our own weaknesses, and the likelihood that our character defects and flaws (what’s worst in us) will run the show, will run our life, especially when the going gets tough. . . .

With will, fire becomes sweet water; without will, even water becomes fire.” – Rumi

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The Panther” – Rainer Maria Rilke & me

(in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris; & the Corona Ave apartments, in Dayton, Ohio)

His seeing, wearied and vacant from being locked away
for so long behind bars, adheres to nothing anymore.
To him the world is just bars—the flashing glint
of bar upon bar—penting in his gaze, numbing his sight.
A hundred thousand bars. And beyond the bars, nothing.

The supple restless swinging stride
of the smoothen black silky flank
has been reduced to a tiny ring—a dance
of potential lithe energy around a center
in which a great will now stands stunned.

Only from time to time do the curtains of the eyelids
open on this muted life and an image rushes in, winds its
way through the taut silence of the frame, only to vanish,
forever, in the heart. And we left here watching
wondering how different or similar we are with our own gaze.

.

Call it will, call it courage, call it conscience, call it perspective (realizing that you have nothing to lose because death will claim everything soon enough), call it character, call it whatever you want; the point is not to back down, not to run, not to give in to our mammalian and reptilian brain, our monkey mind, our fear, what’s worst in us, and sentence ourselves to life of not living and not being able to give and receive love in a healthy and ennobling way. The point is to heroically stick and stay, to learn how to deal with ourselves, to learn how to feel the fear and do whatever needs to be done anyways, and to stop living as if life goes on forever and as if life is something just to be survived.

Because in most of us, by the age of thirty, we have lost most of our plasticity, and our character has set like plaster, and will never soften again, unless—unless—some great tragedy or suffering or catastrophe strikes us and levels us, devastates us, softens us completely in body, mind, heart, and soul, and forces us to start again from scratch and make some real changes in our life. . . .

You know, people get up every day and tell themselves they’re going to change their lives. They never do. I’m going to change mine.” – from the motion picture “The Town

Thus, if we often falter in life and flinch or fail in giving our best effort when life or difficulty puts us to the test, and instead we consistently opt for the immediate gratification and quick tension-relief of the easy way out (the path of least resistance), before we know it our integrity and our will (the effort-making capacity in us) will be gone in us, and our wandering attention will wander and mislead us all the time, and our fears and insecurities and weaknesses (what’s worst in us) will get the best of us constantly and lead us into all sorts of dilemmas, crises, and calamities that are largely of our own making, that are self-chosen, that we have brought upon ourselves and brought upon those around us who we claim to “love” and “care” about.

And in order for us to find ourselves at all bearable to live with in such a state, we will have to become very proficient at lying to ourselves, deceiving ourselves, avoiding by any means necessary the truth about ourselves, any realistic sense of ourselves. We will never have the stones to have an honest conversation such as the following with ourselves or with another person about ourselves. . . .

“Listen . . . listen to me for a second. I will never lie to you again, ok?”

“Really?”

“Yes, I promise you. Ask me anything you want. I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Why? I won’t believe you.”

“Yes you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers. . . Think about it, all right? . . . I will never lie to you; I will never hurt you; and if I lose you, I will regret that for the rest of my life.”

( – from the motion picture “The Town“)

Unless we have the courage to have such a conversation with ourselves or to enter into such a conversation with another, we will never change. Never.

And unless we start nurturing and keeping the faculty of deliberate effort and heroic self-overcoming alive in ourselves by “a little gratuitous exercise every day,” we will never change either. Meaning, unless we take up a practice of systematically living a bit more ascetically and acting heroically every day or two in little unnecessary ways, and begin forcing ourselves to do a few things here and there for no other reason than we would rather not do them, our lives will never change. Never. Because every time the hour of dire need finds us, we will spin out and run because it will find us unnerved and untrained and incapable of standing straight and emotionally stomaching the test. But for a person who has “daily inured him- or herself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, heroic self-overcoming, and self-denial in unnecessary things,” he or she will “stand like a tower while everything rocks and crumbles around the person, and when his or her softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. . . . The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology informs us, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way” (William James, adapted from “The Principles of Psychology,” chapter 4, “Habits”).

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Lessons” – Walt Whitman

There are those who teach only
the sweet lessons of peace and safety;
But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,
That they readily meet invasions, when they come.

.

This is about not living life as a fool or a coward, not living a life without real love, not living a life where we are forced to stay asleep out of fear and anxiety and past hurts and wounds and conditioning. This is about not wasting our one little life because we’re living as if we think life goes on forever and because we’re always contenting ourselves with just talking about making a change and growing up and taking a leap and planning our jumps, but never actually doing.

Without facing and addressing our level of moral development and courage and improving these, we will never make a real change; we will never grow genuinely as persons—we will never increase in virtue, we will never increase in integrity, we will never increase in honesty and real self-knowledge and self-awareness, we will never increase in courage, we will never increase in patience and endurance and perseverance, we will never develop willpower and emotional stamina; we will never develop a genuine inner work ethic.

As James Hollis put it—paraphrasing:

The capacity for personal growth depends on one’s ability to internalize and to take personal responsibility. If we forever scapegoat, blame others, see our life as a problem caused by others, no change will occur. If we are deficient in courage, no real growth can occur. As Jung wrote:

‘[Personal growth] consists of three parts: insight, endurance, and action. Psychology is needed only in the first part, but in the second and third parts moral strength plays the predominant role. . . . The Shadow side of ourselves represents a moral problem that challenges the whole of the ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the Shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark and anxious aspects of the personality as present and real.’

“What is not made conscious in us will continue to haunt our lives—and the world. The tendency for each of us to privilege our own position, be biased in favor of ourselves, fail to see consequences, and be unaware of hidden motives, is fundamental in us each. It takes a strong sense of self and a lot of courage to be able to examine and take responsibility for the darker parts of ourselves when they turn up. It is much, much easier to deny, scapegoat, blame others, project elsewhere, absolve ourselves, and or just bury it and keep on rolling.

“It is these moments of human frailty and inner stress and strain when we are most dangerous to ourselves, our families, our society.

“Examining this material when it comes up (or soon after it does) is an act of great moral importance, for it brings the possibility of lifting our stuff off of others, which is surely the most ethical and useful thing we can do for those around us.

“What do we each the owe the world? Simple: respect, ethical behavior, and the gift of one’s own best self.

“Our capacity to deliver on this—as well as our quality of life—will ultimately be a direct function of the level of awareness and moral courage and clarity we bring to our daily choices.