The Reason for the Season: “There’s Life without Love, but It’s Really Not Much of a Life”


Or “Get Busy Loving or Get Busy Dying

There is no neutrality in life: every moment of our lives is up for grabs, being claimed by Love and counter-claimed by fear. 

Both options, both alternatives, are present in every moment of decision—in every decision we have to make. And to try not to choose—to live in denial and pretend we don’t have a choice—is to by default choose fear.

The world is the way it is today because of a lack of love and an excess of fear and laziness—because fear has been chosen by most people much more frequently than love, and so the sum total of these choices yields a society that is the way it is. Fear is almost always—always—the easy choice, the easier way out, the path of less resistance and a bit (or a lot) more immediate relief.

Speculative metaphysics aside (meaning, are we born loving and fear is something we learn? Or, are we are born afraid and fallen and love is something we learn? Or, are we born either a blank slate or a genetically pre-wired chaotic mixture of the two?), by the time we reach adulthood, fear is our first responder, our default. By the time we’re adults, most of us have taken enough hits in life—been mutilated, either somewhat or a lot, by either love or, what is more likely, a lack of love—that we’re naturally a bit flinchy and flighty and avoidant and shy of others and life. At some level, we’ve gotten the message—life is uncertain, those around us are weak and selfish and cannot be trusted, we have to look out for number one, life is suffering, and so we unwittingly join in the landslide. We’ve gotten the message, but only the first part of the message. And because we’ve only gotten the first part of the message, that dooms us for a while to walk and wander and get lost in the dark and make matters unwittingly worse for ourselves—and for those around us—and to teach them also that life is uncertain, people can’t be trusted, love isn’t real only fear is real, et cetera. And so the vast majority of us enter into adulthood ironically “like senseless children,” shrinking from suffering, but unwittingly loving and nurturing its causes. (Shantidava). In other words, we curse the effect, but unwittingly continue nurturing and seeding its causes.

Again, by the time we reach adulthood, fear—playing it safe, going for comfort and safety, is almost always our first choice, our default. It becomes a first instinct in most of us by the time we’re adults. Fear has been learned. It’s our reflex, our natural inclination—to play it safe, to self-preservate, to opt for comfort, to try and be settled, to avoid stress and difficulty. Fear requires nothing of us, just that we do what is easiest. Love, however, is an active power; it requires something more of us; it is something that requires effort and extension on our part if it is to be put into play. Real love costs, takes effort, requires us to go beyond ourselves—

“Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you. I kept thinking, if love does not shatter you, you do not know love.” – Ken Wilber, “Grace and Grit,” pg. 396

Fear may hurt us also, but it hurts us less at first, which is why people choose it; but it hurts or costs us more down the road, especially in terms of our sense of self-respect and self-worth. Fear costs less, requires less, devastates us less, is easier, is safer, is more immediately gratifying and stress relieving, stretches us less. But fear is also a living death. And so what fear does—its invisible cost to us, its down the road expense to us—is that it contorts us, shrinks us, closes us down, weakens and cripples and mutilates and withers us. we live, but we’re barely breathing, we’re pent in, living in fear, barely a live, living just to make it through the day safely and without having to face ourselves, ourselves deepest fears, whatever might overwhelm or trigger us or break us. We’re alive—barely—we’re surviving, but we’ve said yes to fear too often so that is now our master, and we’ve said no to love so often, that we’re no longer really alive inside; we’re dying on the inside a slow miserable death.

Again, every moment of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed either by Love or by fear, by what’s best in us or what’s worst and weakest in us, by what is healthiest and most sane in us or what is unwell and pathological in us. It is up to us to decide which of these two alternatives—love or fear, God or the devil—to put into play.

 

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

“To be the other means madness, horror, fear, self-crippling, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” – C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87

 

Love is the only alternative in life that there is to fear. There is no third alternative. There is no thesis – antithesis – synthesis when it comes to fear and love. Fear and laziness lie at one end of the spectrum, and love at the other; and in between there’s really no middle safe or neutral ground. Whatever safe space we might try to carve out and claim in the middle sooner (usually) or eventually reveals itself to have also been fear all along.

Love is God’s (or the Universe’s, if the word God is offensive to you) answer to fear. And as such, love is almost always the harder course—the difficult right instead of the easy wrong or wrongs. Often when we’re making decisions and we’ve given into fear (amygdala hijacking), we get caught up a find ourselves in the midst of a chain reaction of bad decision-making—one bad decision after another—and we’re no longer sane or in our right mind. Instead, we’re running on autopilot, compounding one mistake with another, compounding one decision made out of fear with several more, and only making matters worse, much worse. And all in the name of fear—because we’re too afraid, too ashamed to admit our mistakes, we’re too ashamed to admit to them, to face them and to face the consequences. Pride (fear) has taken over our life and is running the show in spite of us. Just as is the case with lying—meaning as soon as we tell one lie, we soon find ourselves needing to tell 20 more in order to keep the first one in play—so too it is with fear: once we make one bad decision out of fear instead of love, we soon find things snowballing out of control all around us and we find ourselves making more and more (bad) decisions out of fear, out of what’s worst and weakest in us, in order to keep the first bad decision in play. We may curse the effects, but we continue nurturing the cause. Translation, we continue sabotaging ourselves—and hurting those around us.

The obvious right and decent and loving and mature thing to do would be to come to our senses and go back to the first mistake, admit our mistake, make our amends, and quit making things worse for ourselves and those around us.

But pride (our fear of looking foolish, our fear of feeling ashamed or embarrassed) will compel us to give our word again and again and dig in our heels in order to avoid having to do what is right and loving and sane—and scary!

Again, love is the antidote to fear, the only antidote there is. And the course love will prescribe for us will almost always be the more difficult and honorable course, the course that keeps our heart open, that forces us to face our fears, to develop and strengthen our conscience and moral courage by pressing us to face up to our wrongdoings and admit to them and make real amends with a truly contrite heart (and not just try to talk our way out of whatever mess we’ve made for ourselves by having giving into fear). Love—real love—almost always involves some form of self-extension—walking the extra mile, going beyond our current limitations and maladaptive patterns and extending ourselves for the sake of what’s best in ourselves and what’s truly best for ourselves and others (and what’s truly best for ourselves and other is usually being a luminous example of personal responsibility and accountability and human goodness).

The reasons we don’t extend ourselves in life and love are because of fear and laziness, comfort and ease and safety.

Fear and laziness are deeply interconnected.

Our fearfulness—our unfitness for life and sense of shame and self-loathing or low self-worth—increases each time we cut corners, each time we take the easy way out, refuse to put forth the effort (read: we’re too lazy to challenge our own comfort and anxieties) that real strength and mental health require. We may not immediately feel the increase in self-loathing each time we choose and rationalize the easy wrong over the difficult right, which is why we so often take the path of least resistance—because we think we’re getting away scot-free with being cowardly; but that short cutting will have a deleterious effect on us down the road in the form of wounding even more deeply our sense of self respect, and thus the respect we have for others. (Self-respect and our ability to respect and love others is deeply interconnected. If we fundamentally do not respect ourselves and know how to lovingly guide and parent and correct ourselves, then we will not respect others; the same disrespect we display for ourselves we will treat others to as well.)

Again, there are only two choices in life—and there’s no neutrality in this: either we choose love or we choose fear. Either we take the time to get God’s (or Love’s or truth’s) side of the story, or we don’t and we act out reactively and automatically on our default of fear.

God’s side of the story will almost always be the more difficult side of the story to hear and emotionally digest, because it will be the side of the story that implicates us, indites us, that puts the focus on us, that shines a light on us, that doesn’t let us blame others or make excuses. It will be the side of the story that shows us objectively (or from above or a bird’s-eye vantage point) what we are, our own part in things.

And we will likely not like what we will be shown of ourselves; we will not like what we see of ourselves.

“[T]he light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were shameful and unloving. For everyone who does evil, unloving, shameful things hates the light and does not come towards the light, but instead hides from the light so that his or her deeds may not be exposed. But whoever lives truthfully comes to the light so that his deeds may be seen clearly. . . . ” (John 3:19-21)

We will be shown our weakness, our badness, our sins; we will feel ashamed; we will want to run from God, from light, from truth; we will want to surround ourselves with distorted mirrors—with people who will say nice things about us and only show us what is easy on the eyes in us. God’s—or truth’s—side of the story will almost invariably feel like a wrecking ball being taken to our life, demolishing all of our pretty little lies and self-deceptions. Which is why God’s side of the story is so seldom consulted—it’s too painful, too devastating. It’s easier—that word again!—to use softeners and spin our lives and tell stories—pretty little fictions—about what’s happened to us and how we’re the victim; it’s easier to stay asleep and live in denial; it’s easier to avoid truth rather than face it. It’s easier, easier, easier to choose fear and avoidance over love and courage.

Each of us has death breathing down our necks, but most of us are trying to avoid facing this by playing our little games of denial and distraction and dissipation.

We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. Instead we let ourselves be distracted by nonsense, terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We’re eaten up by nothing. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don’t live up until their death. They don’t honor their own lives, they piss on their lives. They shit them away. Dumb fucks. They concentrate too much on fucking, movies, money, family, fucking. Their minds are full of cotton. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow their culture without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can’t hear it. Most people’s deaths are a sham. There’s nothing left to die.”

– Charles Bukowski, The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors have taken over the Ship (1998)

Again, each of us has death breathing down our necks, but most of us are trying to avoid facing this terrifying reality by playing our little games of denial and distraction and dissipation—by trying to lose ourselves and tranquilize ourselves with the trivial, with lesser pains and worries.

 

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

“The Christianity of the majority consists roughly of these two notions, which might be called the two most doubtful extremities of Christianity: first of all they saying about “the little child”— that one becomes a Christian by being like a little child, that such is the kingdom of heaven; and the second is that of the thief on the cross.

People live by virtue of the former, and in death hope to reconcile themselves with the example of the latter.

That is the sum of most people’s lives and Christianity, and properly understood it is a mixture of childishness and crime.”

– Kierkegaard, in “The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard,” pp. 222-3.

 

We’d rather live like children or criminals because the alternative to this—the cure—is worse than the disease. We’d rather live with the disease and live diseased and spread our disease around, and live as a petty grubby responsibility-abnegating little egos, than walk upright and live as human beings, as psychological and emotional adults.

In life, we have to choose a master, we have to choose something to submit to: either love or fear, truth or our own ego.

Again there’s no neutrality in this.

We cannot choose to submit to nothing. We have to submit to something. Either we do so consciously or by default.

Either we submit to what’s best in us or by default we will end up submitting to what’s worst and weakest in us.

Either we consciously choose and submit to love and let it be our guide, let it be our chief influence in life (what is the loving thing to do? What would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? et cetera), or we live blind, asleep, and go with our default, submitting/surrendering to self-preservation, fear, playing it safe, being lazy, being petty, lying to our self and others, thinking only of ourselves—and let those things be our master and guide (misguide) and lead (mislead) us to ruin and self-loathing.

Again, we have to submit to something. We have no choice in this.

Either we submit to order or by default we will unwittingly let chaos reign over us. Either we choose the rigors of mental health or unwittingly we will let whatever pathology and illness we carry within us have its way with us. Either we dedicate ourselves to truth or else we soon find ourselves falling prey to all sorts of falsehoods and lying to ourselves and others and living a lie.

Either we begin with the end in mind and get busy grasping the fact that there’s nothing we can cling to in life, that everyone we love and depend on will one day leave us or die us, or we on them, for we too owe a death. Or we get busy living a life of denial, living badly, living defensively, living pettily and blindly, looking for any port in the storm, always quitting, always running away, hurting others and ourselves in our flight from ourselves and fears, always being exploitative, deceptive, never being grateful, always being just another troubled guest darkening the earth with our presence.

Either we get busy loving or we get busy dying.

Either we start asking what would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? What does God want us to do? What would M. Scott Peck, C. S. Lewis, Albert Schweitzer, Saint Francis, et cetera, do, and we start learning to walk upright and live with real love. Or we fail to get God’s side of the story and we live in fear, running away from the full intensity of life and mental health and back to comfort and familiarity and dependency, we run away from what frightens us, exposes us, would force us to tangibly grow and extend ourselves.

We have to choose a master: either love or fear. And again there’s no neutrality in this. We have to submit to something.

And not to choose is as bad as choosing fear, because neither of those two alternative leads to love, to mental health, to waking up, to a life of real dignity and self-respect.

And that’s the real meaning of the Christmas season—how the story of redemption and waking up plays out in our life—or if it even gets played out at all. Or if we live childishly and console ourselves with the idea that we’ll reconcile with God on our deathbed and in the meantime live childishly, uncourageously, pettily, hiding out from life and God and truth and life.

That’s the reason for the season, how this—”He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30)—plays out in our lives, if it even plays out at all. He must increase, I must decrease. “He”—meaning truth, our conscience, Love, courage, goodness, wisdom, self-control—”must increase,” and “I”—meaning what’s worst and weakest in me, my laziness, my self-preservative tendencies, my narcissism, my emotional immaturity, my fear of feeling ashamed, my capacity to do shameful things, “must decrease.”

Am I up to this? Or do I want to waste my life away numbing myself, avoiding my one great love, hiding from truth, reality, God, death, whatever threatens to overwhelm, whatever is inevitable and unavoidable and will one day have the upper-hand on me?

Get busy loving or get busy dying. That’s the message of the season. He must increase, what’s worst and weakest in us must decrease.

Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.” (John 3:3)

Christ—something Godly, something divine and full of goodness and virtue and Love and wisdom, don’t get caught up in the semantics—wants to be born into us this season, it wants to take root and grow in us. And we must allow it—we must not remain virgins and noncommittal in this sense. Instead we must court it, we must avail ourselves to it, we must in some way participate in our own redemption or awakening. And it will likely be difficult, because detoxing from a life of fear—from a life of consistently surrendering to fear, anxiety, low self-worth—those dark shouters within us—will be difficult. It will be difficult because such a way of life has left us weakened and even more afraid and feeling unworthy and timid of the light. It’s incredibly difficult to awaken—it takes immense work and clarity and self-honesty. It’s difficult to change our stripes—meaning, to alter our patterned ways of maladaptively reacting and not dealing well with life and stress. If it were easy to do these things, then everyone would be doing it, and people would much stronger and wiser and more loving, and society would not be what it is today—full of apathy, shallowness, distractions, consumerism, and either seclusion at the one end or superficial disposable relationships at the other end. The reality is is that truly waking up is difficult—immensely, heroically difficult. But this difficulty cannot be an excuse for us not to try and not to try our best and not give up (on ourselves and life), because too much is riding on this—namely our own psychological and spiritual growth and health.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it. . . .” (John 12:24)

Either we get busy loving or we get busy dying. Either we get busy loving—doing what is right, doing what is loving, stretching ourselves, dying to our maladaptive and unhealthy self, dying to what is worst in us, dealing with our ego and defenses and narcissism, dying to our maladaptive patterned ways of dealing with stress and fear—or we might as well get busy dying—living shallowly, running, walling up inside, lying, hiding, hiding out from life, hiding out from love, not allowing him—what is divine and best in us—to increase, and not allowing ourselves—what’s worst and weakest in us—to decrease.

 

I am a safety-first creature.

Of all of the arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”

To my nature, to my temperament, yes, this argument appeals.

But not to my conscience.

If I am sure of anything, I am sure that Christ’s teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.

Who would choose a wife or a friend—or even a dog, if it comes to that—in this spirit, on the basis of such prudential grounds—i.e. because the security, so to speak, is better? (No one gets out of here alive. Everyone owes a death; everyone we cling to and depend on and love will die on us if they don’t leave us first. Everyone dies. Everyone. Including you. including me. No one gets out of playing that final scene. And no one gets out of losing those around who they love, except by uncourageously living as a recluse and living a life that is a living death.)

Christ did not teach and suffer so that we might become even more careful of our own happiness. If a person is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloved whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not seen.

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; live a nomadic hermitic life and run constantly from the full intensity of life and love and the demands that psychospiritual growth and mental health will make on you. in short, 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 (adapted from “The Four Loves,” pp. 120-122.)

 

 

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

To me this is the clear message of the season: the choice between love and fear, between heaven and hell. Hell is easy, it requires nothing of us except retreating, quitting, giving in, running away. Do that enough on a long enough timeline and invariably we will find ourselves waking up in the midst of a living hell. We won’t need to wait till we die for hell, we’ll be living in it right now.

But the way of love—the way out of fear is much more difficult and demanding—and rewarding! “Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” – Milton, “Paradise Lost

For me this is the clear message of the season—this choice we are each faced with: the birth of something divine and noble in us and whether we allow and court this, or whether we impede and abort this and choose fear over love.  The easy route (the path of least resistance), or the more arduous path of growth, self-respect, Love, truth, meantal health. The cure—which may well at first be more unnerving and terrifying than the disease, the malignancies of the ego, whcih by now we are familiar with and at least know—or the unfamiliarity and fear and trembling of the disease and detoxing from our maladaptive self-criplling cure?

What does man want?—A quiet life or to truly work on himself?

“If he wants a quiet life he must never move out of his comfort zones, because there, in his usual roles, with his usual repertoire, he feels comfortable and in control, at peace.

“But if he wants to work on himself—if he truly wants to awaken—then he must destroy this sort of peace.  Because to have both together—comfort and truth—is in no way possible.

“A person must make a choice.”

Gurdjieff, paraphrased from P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,pg. 240.

He must increase, I must decrease. Truth must increase, falsity must decrease. Transparency must increase, buffers and self-deception must decrease. Right effort must increase, wrong effort and laziness must decrease. Mindfulness must increase, mindlessness must decrease. Perspective must increase; blindness, discursiveness, dissipation, distraction must decrease. Light must increase, darkness and shame must decrease. Courage must increase, timidity must decrease. Facing ourselves must increase, hiding from ourselves and life and light and truth and surrounding ourselves with safe and distorting mirrors must decrease. Our conscience must increase, being ruled by feelings of shame or fear of feeling ashamed must decrease.

 

I have come so that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

 

Do you want to waste your life living in fear, always shrinking from life?  Or do you want to live a more Loving and noble life where you made something of yourself by participating in your own redemption and overcoming what’s worst and weakest in yourself?  Love—real costly love—must increase, fear and avoidance must decrease. No one gets out of here alive. Everything will be taken from us at last, if not sooner. Life is a process of being continually stripped away.

 

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“)

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

.

 

“The Truelove” – David Whyte

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
so Biblically,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,

so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t

because finally
after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

 

Last time I saw you, I said that it hurt too much to love you. But I was wrong about that. The truth is it hurts too much not to love you.” – P.C. Cast

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

And it is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for (and suffering for) the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ “vere latitat“—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself—is truly hidden.”

– C. S. Lewis, From the essay “The Weight of Glory

 

“For human beings, there is only really the possibility of making a choice of influences; in other words, of passing from one influence to another. It is impossible to become free from one influence without becoming subject to another. All work on oneself consists in choosing the influence to which you wish to subject yourself, and then actually falling under the influence of or submitting wholly to this influence.” – G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 25.

There is no neutrality. There are only two possible states of being, two ways of orientating ourselves. One is complete submission to God (or to God’s will, or the Tao, or the Dharma, or Truth, goodness, virtue, Love). And the other is incomplete submission—or the refusal to truly submit ourselves—to anything, to any influence beyond our own will—beyond our own narcissism and our own scattered disorganized impulses, desires, and feelings—a refusal which automatically opens the door to the forces of evil. Because at every moment we ultimately belong to either God or the devil, to good or evil, to one influence or the other. As C. S. Lewis put it, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” (“Christian Reflections,” p33). Every moment of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed by us for either God or for the devil.

– M. Scott Peck, abridged and adapted from “Glimpses of The Devil,” pg. xvi

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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.

We MUST Choose


We MUST Choose

This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Shakespeare, “Hamlet

Yes, but what part of thine own self to be true to?  What’s best in oneself?  Or what’s less—sometimes even much much less—than best in one’s self?

“For human beings, there is a possibility of making a choice of influences; in other words, of passing from one influence to another.  It is impossible to become free from one influence without becoming subject to another.  All work on oneself consists in choosing the influence to which you wish to subject yourself, and then actually falling under the influence of or submitting wholly to this influence.” – G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 25.

There’s no neutrality in life. 

There are only two possible states of being, two ways of orientating ourselves. 

One is complete submission to God or to God’s will or influence, the influence of the Tao, the Dharma, Truth, goodness, virtue, Love.

And the other is incomplete submission—or the refusal to truly submit ourselves—to anything, to any influence, beyond our own will—beyond our own narcissism and our own scattered disorganized impulses, desires, and feelings—a refusal which automatically opens the door to the forces of evil. 

Because at every moment we ultimately belong to either God or the devil, to good or evil, to one influence or the other.  Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch around us and every split second of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed by God or the devil, and to be claimed by us for either God or for the devil.” 

And to attempt to avoid this dilemma by trying to stand exactly halfway between the two—halfway between God and the devil, uncommitted to either—to either goodness or utter selfishness—is to risk being torn apart and split forever into two beings, to become a house divided, permanently at war with ourselves, vacillating forever between two influences, forever fighting ourselves, fighting within ourselves, and having that infighting spill out of us into the lives of those around us.  Because, ultimately, even trying to choose not to choose and to not align ourselves with one influence or the other is still to choose, it is still to choose not to submit to anything beyond the self, beyond one’s own will and wants.  

Christ expressed this paradox when he said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).  

Yes, we are always free to choose, but ultimately we are free only in this sense: in the sense of choosing which influence, which form of enslavement, we ultimately will submit to: God’s or the self’s, God’s will and influence or ultimately nothing more than our own; what’s best and highest and noblest in us or a free-for-all where we give into and submit to any impulse or desire that occurs to us.  

We must choose: —One form of enslavement or the other. (The previous eight paragraphs were abridged and adapted and elaborated on from M. Scott Peck’s “Glimpses of The Devil,” pg. xvi)

And most people do not so much choose their form of enslavement as they just go along with what happens to them and what feels natural without questioning much, without really thinking much or examining themselves and searching out their own heart and mind and conscience and paying much consistent attention to themselves and what path they’re really on and why.

This is our fundamental choice in life and to make each day and at every moment—who and what to live for and why?  To live on the autopilot of emotions and impulses and desires and wants and pet ego-projects and whatever gets us through the day and anesthetizes us, numbs us, titillates us, distracts us, momentarily makes us drunk*; or to live more mindfully, more deliberately, with more grace and composure and perspective and order?  To live for ourselves and nothing greater or more than the self and our ego and aggrandizement and survival (narcissism); or to live for something more, something that transcends the self—some ideal, principle, path or way (Tao), some force or Spirit—God, Love, Truth? 

Again, there’s no neutrality in life. Every day, in every moment, and with every choice we make—of what to do with ourselves in that moment, with how to spend that moment—we are declaring our allegiance and we are doing something to ourselves . . .
 

“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

“And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

“To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.

“To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

“Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” – C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87

 ——————————————————————-
 

* “There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all highs are the same!
Drink from the jars of saints,
not from other jars.
Be a connoisseur,
taste with caution,
discriminate like a prince.
Any wine will get you high;
choose the purest,
one unadulterated with fear.
Drink a wine that moves your spirit.
– Rumi