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.

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What Does it Mean to Be “Asleep” in Life?


What does it mean to be “asleep” in life?

Simply put, being “asleep” means being blind to ourselves, being blind to who we are, why we are the way we are, and what it’s like to be on the opposite end of an interaction with us.  It means being ignorant of or unconcerned with all of this and why we do what we do. 

Why do we—or some of us, or the vast majority of people—do this?—sleepwalk through their lives?  Why do we—so many of us—live like this?  Why are so many of us content to live like this?

What’s the payoff?  A supposedly easier life?  A supposedly less painful and stressful and anxious life?

Aside from the obvious answer that everyone else is doing it and living the same (asleep) way, maybe it’s because we’re too full of pride to be willing to look at ourselves honestly (especially if our life is not something shiny and lustrous to behold).  Or maybe it’s because we’re too ignorant and unintelligent and so we lack the cognitive capacities to look at ourselves (which is not likely for most people, especially “educated” people).  Or maybe it’ s because we’re uncourageous because we suspect that we might be too weak to stomach emotionally  looking at ourselves and our mess squarely, and so because we intuitively sense/imagine how stressful and painful doing so will (likely) be, we protect ourselves (self-protect) and refuse to face ourselves in an objective and fair and honest way.   We remain cloudy and asleep rather than clear and awake and piercingly honest.

When we’re asleep in life we’re not self-aware, we’re not self-conscious.  Thus we’re certainly not metacognizing—thinking about our own thinking or examining our own programming and looking at our own behaviors.  And it’s highly likely that our conscience isn’t very active either—honesty likely isn’t a big concern, nor is doing our best or growing toward our best or constantly learning throughout life. 

In short, being asleep means leading an unexamined life.  A life where we’re ignorant of our own biases and double standards and hypocrisies. 

If the unexamined life truly is not worth living, then every moment spent dishonestly or deceptively with ourselves, or ignorant and unaware of our own real motivations and deeper needs and potentials, is life wasted, and every moment where we are contemplatively aware of ourselves or where we are correcting our biases, hypocrisies, self-deception and self-deceit is a moment of life worth living.

When we’re asleep, we’re on auto-pilot and living in ego-mode, we’re lost in our projections and transferences and daydreams and biases and double standards, we’re lost and asleep living a me first life, trying reactively to get our wants and needs (love, validation, safety, security) met and inner-emptiness filled, trying to feel good, living impulsively, and taking the path of least resistant as often as possible, which means as much immediate gratification (damn the future consequences) as possible.

When we’re asleep we’re certainly not engaged in a 24/7 process of constant and never-ending surveillance of ourselves and our own thoughts and behaviors and the underlying reasons for doing what we do and saying what we say.

Blissful  ignorance is the goal when we’re asleep.  Not knowing is the goal.  Not being disturbed or perturbed or awakened is the goal.  Living for the moment, living for fun, living for the next satisfaction or good feeling or psychological high or thrill is the goal.

But not constant self-surveillance.  Not truth.  Not looking at ourselves, examining ourselves, examining our own thinking, really scrutinizing it, really asking why, really being as honest and courageous and straightforward as possible.  These are not the goal.

Why? 

Because they’re not “fun.”  They’re not gratifying.  They don’t relieve or lessen tension—not in the short-term.  In fact, if anything, they cause/create more tension, more unease, more anxiety, more depression, more distress, more stress, more confusion.  Truth doesn’t make us feel good.  Seeing ourselves as we are, with no softeners or buffers, doesn’t make us feel good, especially if we’re a bit of a hot mess or if we’ve made a hot mess of our lives.  So why do it?  Why look at honestly at ourselves?  Why force ourselves to take such bitter nasty-tasting medicine?

Most of us are still very simple creatures—seek pleasure, avoid pain; seek comfort and security, avoid danger and duress; what tastes or feels good is good for us, what tastes or feels bad must be bad for us.  Most of us live on the autopilot of these sorts of basic, unconscious (unaware) assumptions and patterns.

But waking up means waking up from the sleep that such a way of life engenders.  It means waking up from the sleep of avoiding pain and seeking only pleasure.  It means waking up from the sleep of living and reacting automatically. 

Waking up means asking why.  Waking up means  examining ourselves constantly, asking why constantly—why am I doing this?—what do I really want from this?—why do I really want this?—what will the long-term effect of doing this or getting this or eating this be for myself? et cetera. . . .

Waking up means ceasing to be hypocritical—ceasing to ask others to do what we’re not willing to do, making them do the dirty jobs or go first instead of us.  Waking up means putting an end to our me-first I’m-the-center-of-the-world narcissistic ways.  It means, instead, putting ourselves on the same level as everyone else—“Love means learning to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things, for you are only one thing among many.  And whoever sees that way heals his heart, without knowing it, from various ills” (Czeslaw Milosz)—i.e. various ills such as narcissism, antisocial tendencies, borderline tendencies, depression, a myriad of anxieties, et cetera.

When we’re asleep we can’t see the wisdom in these words of Emerson—“ Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment” (“Self-Reliance”).  When we’re asleep, we (mistakenly) think that what we’re trying to teach—what we intend to teach—is what we actually teach.  But as we awaken, we begin realize—ah, the horror, the horror!—that this is not the case—that instead what we are teaches far more than what we say or what we intend or will or pretend to be but not yet are.  And so as we awaken we get to work on our character—our level of being, our level of differentiation, our conscience, our capacity for virtue, our level of true psychological and spiritual health and courage, our capacity to love and be loved— because this is the part of us that we carry around with us everywhere and that we cannot escape or avoid or outrun or disown—“For only as we ourselves, as adults, actually move and have our being in the state of love, can we be appropriate models and guides for our children. What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become” (Joseph Chilton Pearce).

At every moment, we’re either awake or asleep and so we’re either communicating wakefulness or sleep. 

At every moment we’re either teaching wakefulness or sleep, virtue or pathology. —The opposite of virtue isn’t vice, it’s pathology; sickness.  Vice is a symptom or expression of pathology.  And evil is the most pathological form of pathology.  Healthy people are virtuous people.  Unhealthy people are a mixed bag—a disorderly random amalgamation of virtue and vice, areas of relative integration and coherence and areas of mental unwellness, compartmentalization, distortions, projection, unreality, bias, hypocrisy, denial, avoidance, cowardice, pathology.  

 So why try and wake up from our pathological slumber?  Why burden ourselves with seeing ourselves as we are?  Why look clearly and honestly at ourselves?  Why force ourselves to take such bitter nasty-tasting medicine?

Because, in all likelihood, it’s the only way out.  If we’re not willing to have the difficult conversations with ourselves, if we’re not willing to look honestly and starkly at ourselves and start putting ourselves under 24/7 around the clock surveillance and really start scrutinizing ourselves and putting ourselves and our actions under the microscope, if we’re not willing to start seeing ourselves for what we are and start calling ourselves out on our own bullshite, then we’re just wasting our lives and we really don’t want to wake up.  Waking up means intimacy—being raw and open and heroically real with ourselves—and doing so constantly.  This is the stuff of the “examined life.”  And short of this, our lives are just a blind decent into the grass, a useless march into oblivion.

“Why Love if Losing Hurts So Much?”


Why love if losing hurts so much?
I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.
And twice in that life I have been given the choice:
As a boy…
…and as a man.
The boy chose safety.
The man chose suffering.
The pain now is part of the happiness then.
That’s the deal.

( – from the motion picture “Shadowlands“)

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God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan

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We shall only draw nearer to God not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in love, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; by throwing away all defensive armor.

If our hearts need to be broken—and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break—then so be it. Hiding away our hearts for fear of their being broken, is like hiding away a talent in a napkin and burying out back, and for much the same reason—because “I knew that thee wert a hard man.”

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; become a relationship nomad, run away and emotionally cut others out of your life at the first sign of trouble; and lock your heart up safe in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; rather, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

( – C. S. Lewis, from “The Four Loves,” pp 120-122)

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One way or another, you will be forced to face the truth: everything you acquire is eventually lost. Every body you hold eventually dies. You have been waiting to give your deepest gifts, waiting to love and invest safely without the possibility of loss or rejection. You have been holding back while your life—everyone’s life—passes. You have traded in your true destiny for one of false comforts and muted agony.

If you are afraid, if you are waiting for more comfort or security, if you are holding back your gifts or closing down your love, then feel your act of closure fully—feel the tension in your muscles, the clenching in your jaw, the hardening of your heart—in short, the wasting of your life.

(David Deida, “Blue Truth,” pp. 8-9)

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Affirmation” – Donald Hall

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

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The sooner (and more completely) I can wrap my little head around this and live in accordance with this, the better.

And it’s not that I have a death wish and want to court relationships where the instability is inherently and wantonly high because the other person has set their life in diametric opposition to this fact of life and therefore is prone to flinch, spin out, shut down, run, self-preserve by throwing others under the bus or into the fire or just plain throwing them away period whenever the going gets tough.

No, I don’t want that.

But if that’s what life presents me with, then it is my duty as a man and not a boy to live that reality and that relationship at the highest level that I can and that I am able to muster. There can be no shrinking permitted from myself.

Or else all of these fine words and excerpts are just words, and I’m just kidding myself with them by citing them and quoting them. I have to live and behave myself into what I aspire to be; I have to be willing to fight myself—my smaller frightened avoidant self—tooth and nail, even when I’m scared. Especially most of all when I’m scared and feel my heart about to get wrung and broken again.

If this is the way that God or the Universe chooses to break my heart fully open, then so be it. The Universe or God or Life is always in the right. And the Universe and or God will keep breaking my heart again and again and again until I get it, until I realize that there is no safe investment, that everything will be taken from me—us—eventually, that everything is temporary.

So how do I want to live my life in the meantime, until the eventual end comes? As a coward? (Cue up the movie “Fearless” with Jeff Bridges and that wonderful scene on top of the skyscraper downtown where he declares in fear and trembling that he won’t live his life as a coward.) Or do I want to live my life as a man, with as much courage and openness and integrity as I can muster?

Both the long and the short lesson in life is loss. It’s not a particularly cheery lesson, especially not at first, and perhaps not ever, but picking and choosing our life lessons—the lessons in life we decide to learn—on the basis of their cheeriness or how well they appeal to our congenital preferences and temperament and emotional limitations and current level of differentiation doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly healthy or ennobling or even an honest way to live.

To set ourselves, heart and mind and soul, in opposition to the fact that loss is inevitable, that everyone dies, that no one gets out of here alive, that life and health and security are all fleeting and tenuous and temporary at best, seems to be a foolish way to live. And the more we set ourselves against this set of unavoidable “brute” facts of life, then either the more dishonestly or the more discursively and superficially we will have to live (“taking ruins to ruins” as Emerson put it, which is the same as the gist of Cavafy’s poem “The City”). There’s really no depth or personal growth possible except by wrestling with accepting this fact. —In fact, isn’t that what all real true personal growth is?—learning to better and more courageously and heroically accept life for what it is instead of what we escapistly wish it would be?—learning to better live and love on life’s terms and not on our own? (to lessen our inner control freak?) “He must increase, I must decrease” – John 3:30 (God I love that Gospel!). Yes, Truth and Light and Love and our level of courage and clear-headedness and honesty and clear-thinking must increase, and our own personal flighty discursive self-deceptive avoidant escapist control-freak tendencies must decrease. That’s the gist of genuine personal growth—coming to live more honestly and courageous, becoming more and more dedicated to truth and reality. And we each have a unique path we must take, one full of hardships and difficulties to be met and faced if we are to truly grow as a person. Or else in a very significant sense we end up wasting our lives, wasting the time we have been given—whatever modicum of time we may be given, living and dying as emotional children and cowards, living as “just another troubled guest darkening the earth” (Goethe, “The Holy Longing”). Which is not how I am at all interested in living or loving—as just another avoidant troubled guest darkening the earth. . . .

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The Holy Longing” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tell a wise person or else keep silent
For the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive
And what longs to be burned to death.

In the calm waters of the nights of love
Where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
A strange feeling comes over you
When you see the quiet candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught
In this obsession with darkness
And a desire for higher love-making sweeps you up.
Distance does not make you falter.

And now, arriving in wonder, flying,
And, finally, insane for the light,
You are the butterfly,
And you are gone.

And so long as you haven’t
Experienced this—to die
And so to grow—you are only
A troubled guest darkening the earth.

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The City” – C. P. Cavafy

You said, “I will go to another land,
I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found,
One better than this.
My heart, like a corpse, is buried.
How long must I remain
In this (self-made) wasteland?
Wherever I turn here, wherever I look
I see the scorched and blackened ruins of my life
Where I have spent so much time
Wandering and wasting away
.”

You will find no new lands,
You will find no other seas.
The city you are
and constantly trying to flee from
Will follow you everywhere.
You will roam the same streets elsewhere
Age in the same neighborhoods
Grow gray in the same houses.
Always you will arrive again and again
At this same doorstep
In this same city.
Do not hope for any other.
For there is no ship for you,
There is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner,
you have ruined it in the entire world.