The Truth About How to Be Truly Mentally Healthy & Live a Truly Extraordinary Life


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Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

M. Scott Peck, from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 51

This is a very salient idea—a potentially life-changing idea.

What Peck is saying is that in order to be(come) a truly mentally healthy individual we must dedicate ourselves completely and continually and near-constantly (meaning day after day, and hour after hour) to reality—to seeing reality, including ourselves, as realistically and as completely as possible, meaning without any softeners, without fantasies or errant thoughts that save our pride (that spare us some expense emotionally). At all costs means we cannot try to save face or look at ourselves and how we act in a way that spares us feeling bad or ashamed. If we have done shameful things, then if we want to be truly healthy and truly grow, then we must look honestly at what we have done and feel the full shame of it. If we have done wrong or hurtful or injurious things, then we must look at those things as well honestly and accurately, and not in a way that softens things and spares us some expense emotionally.

If we have any desire at all to be truly healthy in this life and “grow up”—instead of growing sideways or growing malignantly—then we must dedicate ourselves fiercely and completely to truth—to seeing ourselves and life as objectively and unbiasedly as possible.

If left to ourselves and our own devices and familiar patterns, we will invariably cheat on this process—we will take one of the many available paths of lesser resistances, use softeners, buffers, make excuses for ourselves, and see ourselves and the bad or shameful things we’ve done in far less than bad or shameful ways, perhaps even in glowing ways.

This is the way of the false self, that Merton speaks of in this post on one of my other blogs. This is the way of the ungodly self, the self that lies, that wants to hide, that still thinks that life goes on forever, that doesn’t want to face its own mortality, that refuses to feel death breathing down its neck and down the neck of all of those it loves and depends on. This is the self that doesn’t want to think about loss and impermanence, that doesn’t want to marvel at just how truly inexplicable and potentially amazing and brutal life is; this is the part of us that wants to live and love and fart around as if life goes on forever, as if there’s plenty of time left on the clock, and so it lives and loves selfishly, safely, without gratitude, without perspective, and so it doesn’t really live or love at all: it just plays it safe and survives to live and waste another day.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we want to grow into our full stature as human being—grow into what the gods or God intends for us—then we must dedicate ourselves to seeing reality as well as ourselves as accurately and objectively and truthfully and fully as possible, and we must do so irrespective of the costs to ourselves emotionally and irrespective of the costs to our own comfort and happiness.

Gurdjieff said that the most we as human beings can do is to choose our influence. We’re always going to be influenced by something, that much is inevitable and inescapable: to be alive is to be influenced; but the best we can do is to choose what influence or set of influences we want to submit to. Most people submit to their emotions—that is their chief influence and addiction, and they never rise above it. And in failing to do so—in failing to rise above the perpetual disorder and chaos of that most ancient part of their brain—and in particular the fear centers of their brain—they never become fully human; they never become what the gods or God intended they become.

What Peck is saying—and what truly wise and coherent and sane people (Buddha, Jung, Jesus, Rilke, Thoreau, Weil, Chodron, Fromm, Krishnamurti, et cetera) have been saying to us throughout the eons—is to let truth become our chief influence—to let Truth, Love, Death become what most deeply and consistently influence and guide us. Let these become our advisors, our addictions even. (What Gurdjieff was saying about the only real freedom we as human beings have is in choosing what we allow to influence us, can be rephrased as: the only choice we as human beings have is in choosing what to be addicted to, and Peck and Gurdjieff and all the aforementioned wise people are saying is why not let truth and Love [real Love, the love that is steep in generosity, self-extension, gratitude, compassion, understanding, perspective, overcoming one’s fears], and death be one’s addictions, be one’s prevailing thought patterns? The only alternative to this is to live a discursive and self-centered and reactive life, or to try [unsuccessfully] to vacillate forever between these possibilities and to elevate freedom to our addiction—the freedom to always be free, to be indeterminate, to be free to always choose another influence—which means the freedom not to grow, the freedom to remain stuck, the freedom to remain unformed and chaotic, the freedom to remain true or false or a confused mix of the two—a mix so confusing that even we no longer know what is true or what is false—

We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face.

But we cannot make these choices with impunity.

Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it and that confusion reigns.

(Thomas Merton)

And Rumi said the same thing—any wine will get us drunk, so why not pick a wine that will also make us a better person and wake us up? Why not pick the wine of truth, Love, and death? Enjoyments pass, consequences remain. Most of us do not understand this—that the consequences for so much freedom, escapism, denial, momentary escape and enjoyment is that it mangles us, that it does something ungodly even hellish to us at the soulular level.)

Mental health is an ongoing process of complete dedication to reality at all costs—to seeing life and others–and ourselves–as realistically and truthfully and honestly as possible.

And this is not something that most of us willingly want to do. In fact, truth be told, it’s the furthest thing from what we want. (But it’s likely what we most need.) We don’t want to see reality as it is. Why? Because we don’t want to truly face death, suffering, impermanence, fragility—our own and others. We don’t want to really have to feel and face these things as inescapables, unavoidables, as everpresent possibilities. At most we might be willing to intellectualize over all of this a little bit and idly talk about it; but truly feel and experience all of this in such a way that compels us to change our ways, that it rises to level of critical mass in us and gives us great clarity and wisdom?—we don’t want to do that.

And we also don’t want to see ourselves as we are—especially the more we have done unkind, hurtful, and shameful things; nor do we want to be around people who do not like us or approve of us because of those sorts of things we’ve done. Instead of submitting ourselves to truth and some of the just and deserved consequences of our actions (other people’s dislike and disapproval and invalidation of what we have done), we run and hide. Why not? After all, there’s never a shortage of people who we can start over with and seduce into thinking well of us—seduce via our half-truths (which is to say half-lies, distortions, rational-lies-zations) and playing the victim, etc. There’s always a fresh supply of people just around the next bend. It’s not difficult in this day and age to hide ourselves and hide from ourselves and hide from the light and truth of who and what we are and have done, and just start over again and again elsewhere, just walk the earth like a troubled guest, going from city to city mindlessly repeating our same patterns and never having the courage and honor and character to go back and clean up the mess we have made, make amends, have a true change of heart, show some real contrition and remorse and shame. In this world, there will always be plenty of buyers for our false self; there will always be people we can seduce into believing the best about us, even though that “best” is just a façade over what’s worst in us and what always ultimately rules the show whenever we get in a pinch or bind.

“Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

This is the hardest path to walk in life. This is the path of greatest resistance. Walking the path of truth, of complete dedication to reality, of dedication to truth and reality at all costs. To truly walk this path means that we must become instantly much more serious and sincere and honest about how we’re living our lives. It means that lying, denial, self-deception, half-truths, buffering, using softeners, even thinking “positively” are all off the table, and must be given up.

Being truly mentally healthy and dedicated to reality at all costs means when given the choice between being right and happy—thinking positively or thinking realistically—we must choose thinking realistically over thinking positively (being right over being happy), because positive thinking might lead us astray. Positive thinking isn’t about seeing reality as it is; it’s about seeing reality in a way that makes us feel okay, happy, optimistic, good. It’s about being happy instead of accurate (or right or “objective”). And so while it may make us feel happy initially, consequences still remain, and of the consequences is that we have hedged the full truth, ignored the difficult to stomach and emotionally digest parts. We have unwittingly spared ourselves some expense.

Mental health requires a certain level of fierceness—a certain level of inner grit and courage and moral and psychospiritual inner warriorship. Because in order to truly dedicate ourselves to reality at all costs we must give up self-deception and denial. And that means that invariably we are going to have to “race out beyond all lesser dangers,” as Rilke put it, “to be safe”—meaning to truly find ourselves—wrestling “with that greatest danger of all”—death. That is, our own mortality. And the deaths of those we love and care about and depend on emotionally and psychologically.

Okay, try this then,
everybody
I know
and care for,
and everybody
else,
including me,
is going
to die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine
and a pain
I can’t comprehend.

If we are truly dedicate to reality at all costs then we will have to face death, face it squarely, and with no bullshite or softeners. And if this is too much, if this is too daunting and overwhelming and panic-/anxiety-inducing, then if we want to be(come) truly mentally healthy, we must at least begin committing ourselves to the effort, and do so in a way that costs us, that affects us not just intellectually but viscerally—we have to feel death breathing down our necks, we have to begin intimating and feeling what it will be like to lose those we love. We have to begin the real and visceral attempt to integrate death and inescapable loss into our daily lives, into our daily consciousness or awareness; and we need to do this in a very real and tangible way; our attempt must be honest and ongoing—one where we try again and again and again—to try again and again to face and to feel our own and others’ mortality more and more directly and honestly (viscerally) every day.

To fail at this—to go a day without deeply considering (feeling viscerally) our own and others’ mortality and living in accordance with what we know and feel—is to have wasted a day of our lives. It is to choose comfort over truth. It is to choose a path of lesser resistance. It is to choose mental unhealth over mental health.

We’re all born narcissistic; we’re all born impulsive and self-centered; we’re all born without much if any of a conscience; we’re all born emotionally reactive; we’re all born unaware and unmindful; we’re all born more dedicated to comfort and avoiding pain; we’re all born craving permanence and having life on our terms; and we’re all born feeling like life goes on forever and that safety and security are things that life owes us.

That’s just the way we all, some more so that others, some less so, come equipped into this life. We all have these tendencies within us. And we all have our unique combination of patterned (reactive, automatic) ways of habitually avoiding truth and avoiding reality.

And true mental health is the concerted effort to grow out of this state—meaning, becoming more conscious, learning how to think accurately and honestly, lessening our impulsivity, lessening our dependence (not being a parasite or predator, not exploiting or using others, but genuinely contributing and investing; becoming mature enough to be interdependent), developing our objectivity and conscience, lessening our denial and dishonesty, lessening our laziness and want of always having things easy, lessening our tendency to always want to be the center of the universe and have everything our own terms, lessening our dependence on always having to be comfortable or feel safe but instead learning how to tolerate insecurity and fear in order to do the truly right and healthy and loving thing (this is the true definition of courage).

True mental health is the ongoing dedication to all of these ideals irrespective of the cost to our own happiness or comfort or peace of mind.

If we’re not willing to sacrifice our own comfort and happiness for a while in the pursuit of truly growing up and becoming mentally healthier, then we’re not really interested in becoming mentally healthy; we’re more interested in being comfortable, in having an easy life, as Gurdjieff put it. And you’d be in good company: 98% of other people are just like you; you’ll never be lonely. But you’ll also never truly love another, and you’ll never truly live, and you’ll never truly appreciate life and become what the gods or God intended either.

Jung wrote: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” Without pain.  True mental health means accepting certain pains and sufferings as being inescapable and unavoidable, and thus necessary for us to feel and to experience instead of always trying to run from them and avoid them and keep life on our (control-freak) terms.

Jung also wrote that “neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”

And the key word in that sentence is “always.”

Any time we cop out on seeing and facing reality and ourselves fully and fearlessly and honestly, we are choosing mental unhealth over mental health, we are choosing psychopathology or neurosis over the rigors of truth.

And we all have done this.

And most of us base our lives on continuing to do this—because this is what freedom means to us—to be free to be able to refuse to have to face reality, to be free to be able to not have to face whatever is most perilous in life and whatever threatens to wrest away our sense of control.

Whenever facing reality squarely, whenever seeing reality—and our place in it—seems too daunting, too overwhelming, too painful—we avoid it, and in doing so we are choosing to mental unhealth—some form of psychopathology or neurosis instead.

And we do so because the substitute seems less painful to deal with; it’s easier, it’s more immediately gratifying—or at least less immediately terrifying and makes us feel less out of control.

When given the choice between the easy wrong that allows us to feel in control and the difficult right that would force us to relinquish control, we will always choose the easy wrong because it allows us to stay in control and maintain the illusion of control. That’s just the way the human ego is built—needing to maintain control, to fight to maintain this, and to fight like hell (literally) to avoid having to give up control or surrender our need for control and to instead live and love on life’s terms (instead of our own self-protective control-freak terms).

But eventually life gets truly lonely behind these walls. And the substitute—the neurosis—eventually becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was originally designed to avoid. And the longer we hide out from life (and love) and truth and reality behind our walls, the more the human spirit in us begins to wither and shrivel and even become warped and malignant and go bad in us.

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

We shrink from suffering but unwittingly love and nurture its causes.” – Shantideva,

To be dedicated to reality at all costs means we must spare no expense, no consequence, to ourselves in quest for true mental health and the ability to break off and metabolize legitimately more and more of the harsh parts of this world and to learn how to suffer legitimately rather than illegitimately.

To be dedicated to truth (and not “our truth,” but “the truth”) and reality at all costs means that our own comfort cannot or pleasure or even safety cannot be the determining factor in why we choose to believe something or even in whether we choose to do something, if that something is the right thing. Meaning if we are truly dedicated to the truth and to reality at all costs, then the difficult right becomes for us paradoxically the path of least resistance, and the path of least resistance becomes for us the difficult, if not impossible, wrong.

And this represents a true metanoia—a true conversion or figure-ground reversal in the established order. It represents the fruits—or natural outward expression—of having undergone a true awakening, or a true change of heart and mind and life orientation. —Which is what we’re each called to do—to wake up, to convert, to give up our innate mentally unhealthy and even pathological and neurotic ways and instead become more truly mentally healthy and dedicated (committed) to reality and the rigors required in facing it—the unavoidable suffering that comes with it—squarely.

Self-preservation and avoidance and denial must decrease, facing reality squarely and honestly and heroically must increase.

This is the essence of mental health and of becoming mentally healthier.

Dedicating ourselves fully to the truth irrespective of the cost to us emotionally or to our own comfort, facing death squarely and really feeling it breathing down our neck and the necks of those we love, and learning what Love truly is: these three thins are the essence mental health and becoming mentally healthier—of what is best in us increasing and what is worst in us decreasing.

On a long enough timeline, self-preservation, avoidance, and denial, will each fail. And when they do, we will look back—some part of us, some sane part of us—whatever modicum of sanity we have left and that we haven’t corrupted—will look back in horror and shame at all the time we have wasted and how cowardly we lived our life. And at that point it will be too late to do anything about it. We will have wasted our one chance at life and love. We will have wasted this inexplicable gift.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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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

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“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

First Thoughts This Morning: What Does it Mean to Lead an Examined and Eyes-Wide-Open Life?


It is only in the face of death that man’s real self is born.” – St. Augustine

It is not enough in this life to be born only once; we must be born again, and from or into something higher and wiser and more stable than all of the accidents and contingencies that make up our first self—all of the fears and unchosen conditioning (“karma”) and things that others have done to us when we were young and defenseless, and that have set our basic wiring in place.

Dag Hammarskjöld wrote—

At every moment you choose yourself. But do you really choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one—which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed or your need for security, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life—is your ‘I’.”

Gurdjieff put it this way—

Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their ignorance, attached to their fear, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else. A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born. But how can they be made to die? . . . It is at this point that the possibility of awakening comes to the rescue. To awaken means to realize one’s nothingness, that is, to realize one’s complete and absolute mechanicalness, as well as one’s complete and absolute helplessness. . . . So long as a person is not horrified at himself, then a person knows nothing about himself or life.

So what does it mean to lead an examined and eyes-wide-open life?

It means to get up every morning (or nearly every morning) and think and reflect and contemplate for a while—and perhaps even write/journal/blog for a few minutes—on the idea that nothing in life is certain. Nothing, except death. Except loss. Except change. It means to think about our shared place in the scheme of things—the lot or predicament we all share. It means to be able to think about more than just our own personal problems and unhappiness, but the larger problems and unhappinesses and sufferings that all of us as human beings are heir to—sickness, old age, death, loss. It means to think about impermanence, how fleeting life and health and even wealth and love can be, how quickly things can change from good to bad. Or from bad to worse.

Thinking about such things—while perhaps on the surface appearing depressing or a “downer”—is the only true source of our humanity and humaneness. Our inhumaneness, our inhumanity—to ourselves, and, what is more often the case, to others, because it is almost always those around us who pay the greatest price for our shortfalls in courage and grit and goodness—lies in running away from these sorts of thoughts and considerations. In fact, running away from such considerations is the definition of what it means to be asleep or blind in life.

Yes, it’s human to run, to avoid what is unpleasant, difficult, distressing, but it’s also human—and much more human and humane—to stop running and to begin facing what we most fear.

What’s worst and weakest in us wants an easy life, a life free of suffering, a life of comfort and security and soft gentle touches and caresses. And when life stresses us out and or shows us its not so soft and warm side, that part of us spins out and pushes us (seduces us) to run—to break and sell out and run.

And so the more we do this, the more we set this precedent within us, the more we grease and lube those neural networks and make it all the more likely we will run all the more quickly and for even lesser reasons than we just did.

And if we do this frequently enough, not only do we cripple ourselves and hurt, even harm* those around us in our flight from ourselves and from life and reality and truth, we eventually damn ourselves, render ourselves irredeemable, become a ghastly flinchy, neurotic, largely conscienceless creature that no longer recognizes anything or anyone outside of itself and its own insatiable need for safety, security, comfort, avoiding stress, tension, pain. We become locked into a prison of ourselves, unable to stretch ourselves beyond our own most basic wants and needs. We may look human on the outside, but on the inside, we are regressing, living with less and less dignity and uprightness, becoming less and less of an adult, and more and more weak, crippled, asleep, living on our knees.

This is what life is like when we refuse to think about more than ourselves and our own fears and hurts and likes and dislikes. We become petty tyrants, little petty unjust despots, little devils, little banes in the lives of others. Partly human, but often hideously inhumane and atrocious to others.

But life looks different—much different—the more we slow ourselves and allow ourselves to reflect honestly on life’s inevitables—the inevitables that we are all heir to—loss, sickness, old age, suffering, death, impermanence, fragility.

As we begin to shift our thinking from me to we, from my own personal neuroses and misfortunes to the sufferings we are all prone to, then we begin deeply humanizing our thinking and ourselves. As we move from me to we, we begin to allow such things as genuine appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness, magnanimity, personal responsibility, mindfulness, wakefulness, Love (the real stuff—http://realtruelove.wordpress.com) to take real root in us.

We can begin (finally) asking ourselves—and more and more often—”Knowing that death cannot be avoided and that I (and those around me I love and care about) owe a death, do I still want to cave right now and run away from this lesser difficulty /fear and thus weaken myself even more in regards to my ability to live and die well?” And we can begin living this question—this very humane and humanizing question—and see what effect it has on us and how we show up to life—especially the difficulties inherent in everyday life.

Our essential “I”—our true self, our authentic self—lies in not running away from what most frightens us, but from struggling honestly and heroically to learn how to more truthfully face our deepest fears and compassionately integrate life’s unavoidables and inevitables into our daily and moment to moment decision-making apparatus. 

And one of the best ways to begin doing this is begin a habit of thinking about life’s inevitables compassionately and honestly when we wake up and before we get on with our day.

If more and more of us would do this—would spend 20 or 30 minutes reflecting first thing in the morning on Life, death, Love (the real stuff), impermanence, interconnectedness, suffering, loss, or reading something soulful and of substance, or writing/journaling/blogging on these themes—it will help to change things for the better and make us more humane and honest and awake.

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think . . . and think . . . while you are alive.
What you call “salvation” belongs to the time
before death.

If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will rejoin with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.

What is found now is found then.

If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the
City of Death.

If you make love with the divine now, in the next
life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that
does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

– Kabir “The Time Before Death,” translated by Robert Bly

———————–

* Just because we don’t see the long-term cumulative effects that our repeated acts of weakness and cowardice have on those around us, doesn’t mean we aren’t harming them, doing to them similar what was done to us and what has rendered us as we are—weak, dishonest, ashamed, hurt, wounded, flinchy, avoidant, cowardly, impulsive, ungrateful, parasitic.

Why Do We Think the Way We Think?


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Often, most of our serious “thinking” ends up being little more than an attempt to justify our current unthought-out conclusions and prejudgments.

Most of the time we already know where we want our thinking to take us—the conclusion we want to arrive at. And so our “thinking” merely falls in line with that preordained conclusion. —”The execution is over, all that’s left is the trial.”

So too it is with our own thinking most of the time: the conclusion is foregone, all that’s left are the rationalizations (rational lies) and lapses in logic that will get us there.

“People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by the heart which first dictates the conclusion, then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.” – Anthony de Mello

Defend it? Or pseudo-defend it and make our conclusion sound at least plausible and defensible?

And is this dictated by the heart? Maybe. Or maybe the ego. Or maybe these two things are closely related.

One way of looking at the ego is that it is armor, a protective shell that we use to cover over our heart and our sensitive raw and tender spots and emotional nerve endings. Meaning that it is largely a collection of defensive habits and tendencies that we employ unconsciously, automatically, reflexively, out of fear of getting hurt or having to feel or experience a past hurt again.

Thus I would render de Mello’s quote this way—

People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by their ego (their self-protective reality-denying apparatus) which first dictates which conclusion it thinks is most convenient and easiest to tolerate and least unsightly emotionally, and then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.

And much of our thinking occurs at this level—the level of ego or prejudice or emotion. It is emotional thinking, blatantly biased towards ourselves and towards justifying and defending our fears instead of forcing us to face them. —Which for us would represent a fate worse than death—or at least on par with it, because in many ways it is a form of death. Whenever we face something that truly frightens us and might possibly overwhelm us—whenever we force or coax ourselves to face and actually feel a deep-seated fear or terror—we are forcing ourselves (or some part of ourselves) to in some way die—we are forcing ourselves to die to what we know and what we are clinging to as safe and familiar and open up to something different—to what lies on the other side of that particular wall or barrier. Facing what frightens us or what might potentially overwhelm us or cause us a “nervous breakdown” psychologically is in many ways like facing our own execution or extinction.

“Let death—and let banishment, rejection, misfortune, and every other thing that appears appalling and terrifying and that you’d rather ignore—be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” – Epictetus

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.

“Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their thinking, attached to their patterns, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else. A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born. But how can they be made to die? They do not want to die.” Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218.

And it’s not that that fear is a part of us or something we’re attached to, it’s just that the fear is so great, so daunting, that we’ll do anything to avoid having to face it. We want to stay in control—in control, meaning, not having to face our fear. That “in control” apparatus—mostly if not completely defensive, avoidant, controlling, not to mention deceptive and often unscrupulous and manipulative and irrational and unobjective in its logic—is the ego. And it’s what drives our thinking most of the time, and especially when we get stressed.

“Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James

Or justifying them.  Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely trying to avoid dealing legitimately and honestly with their fears. 

Most of our thinking is defensive, self-protective, avoidant, and narcissistic. Most of the time when we think, we don’t so much think as we do justify our own prejudices and immaturities and patterned ways of facing our fears honestly. When we think we do so in order to justify our preset conclusions and underlying need/want of validation, safety, security, and the path of least resistance and least emotional upset and pain. And we’ll never be at a loss for finding and creating and developing arguments to support our prejudices/avoidant tendencies when we’re in this mode (or when our thinking is at this level).

So what’s the solution or alternative to having one’s thinking being driven by one’s ego or one’s false-/comfort-zone- self?

The overall solution is to learn how to think with one’s conscience (what’s best and healthiest and most sane and honest in oneself) and to let one’s conscience guide and or inform one’s thinking.

Which requires above all that we learn how to become (much) more objective and aware of and honest about our own thinking.

But this likely will not happen until we can slow down and look at our own thoughts and thinking from a different angle or from a less self-certain and in a more suspicious and skeptical light. Until we can take one of our own most cherished pet theories/conclusions/biases and play devil’s advocate—or what is more likely, God’s advocate—with it, meaning fight as fiercely to disprove our pet theory (or at least consider fiarly and honestly that the point of our line of reasoning may be to support what’s weakest and wounded and most avoidant and even pathological in us), we haven’t yet begun to actually think. We’re still just reasoning emotionally and immaturely, defensively and dishonestly.

I could not think without writing.” – Jean Piaget

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” – Flannery O’Connor

Love means to learn 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, from the poem “Love”

And the root of the majority of these “various ills” is our basic narcissism or egocentricism. And learning how to think objectively—learning how to step outside of ourselves, put some emotional distance between ourselves and our pet conclusions, learning to be not be so attached to the conclusion we want to reach or feel that we need to reach, but being more willing to reach a conclusion that is truer and more encompassing and actual—is what will free us from various ills. It’s thinking honestly and playing devils advocate with our own thoughts that will free us from various ills.  It may not feel at first like it is going to free us; at first being honest with ourselves and facing ourselves and our fear may feel rather terrifying and unsettling—we’re going to see all sorts of things we’d rather not see and face and feel—but—but—if we have the courage and grit and determination to stick with it—to stick with the truth and to stay honest and open and dedicated to reality—then the truth will set us free.  Not only that, it will become a source of genuine strength for us.

Writing is one of the best ways to start this process. It’s the first step in putting some actual tangible distance between ourselves and our thoughts. When we write or journal, when we put pen or pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, we literally are getting outside of our own head. We are externalizing our own thoughts.

And when we put our thoughts in writing or on a computer screen, we can then start to think about our own thinking and examine it and critique it and do so differently—we can look at it as something no longer inside us but now outside us, an object. We can literally place it alongside other people’s thinking.

A few additional keys to thinking better and more clearly (in addition to writing) would include:

1. Learning about “projection”— reversing the situation and trying our judgments or criticisms of other on ourselves first for size;

2. Reality-testing the way we’re possibly justifying or rationalizing (rational lies) one of our courses of actions by seeing if the situation were reversed would we want what we’re doing to another done unto us, or what we’re not doing to another not done unto us—if we wouldn’t want it done or not done unto us, then we’re not thinking fairly and maturely, but unfairly and immaturely, we’re actually doing something that is likely wrong, if not evil;

3. Paying attention to our choice of words and look for unwarranted or nonfactual all or nothing, black or white, throwing the baby out with the bath water thinking. And also pay attention to our use of words and phrases such as “need to,” “have to,” “can’t,” et cetera.

4. Learning to identify when we’re stressed and or anxious and afraid, and learn to be more suspicious of our thinking during those times. The greater the stress, the more defensive and less true and less rational our thinking and the more prone it is to being hijacked by our amygdala.

Growth, Change, & Death


What will it take for you to change and grow?—for you to become what God or the gods intended?  What will it take for you to manifest what is godly or divine-like in you and to live from that place?  For example, immature people, as well as bad people, do not know how to take good care of the things in their life.  They don’t know how to be “responsible”; they do not know how to love and care for what life gives them (or brings into their life) that is good and decent.  They are too invested in their pathology or immaturity and laziness to change.  They are too use to always taking the path of least resistance and or having things handed to them (again and again). 

So how does a person like that “change their stripes”? 

God’s Grace?  Luck?  A teacher or guru?  A book? . . .

Most of us are born this way—in a fallen or “less than” state—as cute and cuddly and smiling as we are, we’re also born with the tendency to be irresponsible, selfish, lazy, to take without asking, to whine and complain and blame and lie, to be exploitive; many (most?) of us seem to come into this life without a work ethic, acting like the world owes us, as if the world was made just for us and revolves us and our wants and impulses—no discipline, no giving back, no real charitable impulses.  Paraphrasing the movie “Shadowlands”—Most of us “think our childish toys will bring us all the happiness there is and that our nursery is the whole wide world.”  This tendency or possibility is what seems to be within all of us.  In fact, the tendency to be either good or bad, to awaken or to sleepwalk through life, to manifest virtue and compassion and psychological health and great mindfulness or to manifest disorder, selfishness, impulsiveness, greed, thoughtlessness seems to be possible within each of us, and it’s up to our environment, especially our parents, to determine what we will become.  This is what immature and emotionally/psychologically stunted people manifest—immaturity, selfishness, chaos, confusion, greed, grubbiness, pettiness—this is how they act; and it’s also what bad people do.  Immature people and bad people set fire to the world around them—they exploit, manipulate, lie, confuse, use—they exploit the world and use those around them—they treat those around them as props, not as real fellow human beings just like themselves and deserving the same consideration and care as themselves, but as props—props in their own personal sick dysfunctional psychodramas and unconscious patterns.  No personal responsibility.  No real care or concern.  Just the self-centeredness of looking out for number one.  Just “me first, everyone else a distant second—unless I want/need something from you and you might serve my pet ego projects or suffice as a pleasant distraction for a while.”  But no real love.  No real affection.  No real giving.  Just a long trail/pattern of exploitation, using, lying, deceiving. 

And Gurdjieff knew this.  He knew it well.

Which is why he had “Only he who can take care of what belongs to others may have his own” inscribed high up on the walls of his study house—his dojo—the place where his students would travel to from all corners of the world in order to try to awaken.  Waking up—real change and growth—was not possible for those who were irresponsible, exploitative, self-centered, lazy, without a work ethic—those who were bent on drugging themselves (anesthetizing and numbing and distracting and dissipating themselves) on silly books, TV, frivolous soulless relationships (Gurdjieff knew that the interpersonal was the ground and the path, and that there could be no separation).

Gurdjieff had looked into the heart of man.  He knew that most people we exploitative and irresponsible and had been raised by people who were the same, and who themselves had been raised by some version of the same, et cetera.  He knew what we was up against—how difficult it is to teach irresponsible and exploitative and poorly-parented people to actually have a work ethic, to wake up from their sleep of unawareness and running on the botched and chaotic programming of their upbringing and their innate selfish and impulsive and reactive and avoidant tendencies.  Gurdjieff knew how extraordinarily difficult it is to re-parent people and help them overcome both their nature and nurture.  Gurdjieff knew very well how “effed for life” most people were.

And he knew how difficult it would be for them to wake up and for him to help them in that—for all of his learning and sagely advice not just to be water down their lovely little dysfunctional drains.  He knew that deep down the vast majority of people were not going to be loyal to him or his teaching or “The Dharma” or whatever you wish to call it, but rather were going to be most loyal to what is most familiar to them—that that would be “home” to them—no matter how dysfunctional or toxic or twisted that original home was.  It would still be home to them.  And getting them to leave home—i.e. grow up and leave those dysfunctional parts of themselves—would be a severely arduous and uphill battle. 

Gurdjieff knew the deep meaning of these words of Jesus—“If anyone comes to me without hating his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—and even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  That without this level of deep dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s life and what one grew up in, there could be no real openness for something new and healthy—that whatever Jesus had to say, whatever Gurdjieff had to say, whatever any great spiritual sage or teacher would have to say, would just be water down the drain and be drowned out by all of their listener’s pathology, faulty and warped programming and upbringing, closed and frightened heart and mind.  Gurdjieff, like Jesus—and like Fromm— knew that most people never really leave home and break what Fromm described as the incestuous psychological and limbic ties to family and what is familiar and what they grew up with.

Moreover, Gurdjieff knew, like M. Scott Peck (see “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” pp. 138-149—“The Case of Spider Phobia” [The case of Billie]) that most people were destined/doomed to become modern day Maguas (“The Last of the Mohicans”)—an imitation of what had twisted them—that they would, even in spite of themselves and their best intentions (if they had these), twist themselves even more fully into the shape of what had first twisted them and becoming living monuments to those who first and most deeply wounded them.

Gurdjieff knew that waking up from all of this dysfunction and conditioning and pathology as well as innate narcissism and immaturity would be for most a fate worse than death, because for most people it would be a death—the death of so many parts of themselves, the death of their ego, the death of their personality, their first self—which most people are attached to neurotically, pathologically, “egosyntonically”—meaning even if that self is pathological, sick, wounded. 

Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else.  A person must first free himself from attachment.  Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person.  These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born.  But how can they be made to die?  They do not want to die.” (Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218)

Changing oneself is the last thing people will willing do.  It’s a case where cure that is worse than the disease.   Most need the threat of execution, the threat of imminent and painful death, before they will get serious about “changing their ways.”  Most people would sooner live in the squalor of their own disease and amputate themselves from everything and everyone around them, even family, even children, than face and deal with themselves and make some real changes inside the self and to their patterns of thinking and perceiving and reacting.  Most are hoarders when it comes to the immature and dysfunctional parts of their psyche—and they are not going to give up these parts without a fight—without kicking and screaming and firing off all of their many defenses frequently and grandly and throwing others under the bus, et cetera.  Most people would simply rather hack away idiotically and self-centeredly at the branches all around them and prune this and that and try to make their pathology livable (“Each human being must keep alight within him the sacred flame of madness. And must behave like a normal person.” – Paulo Coelho) or even gussy it up a bit and make their dysfunctional patterns and tendencies look like some sort of Bonsai tree than get busy hacking away at the roots and really start growing up and become who and what they were intended to be, and to do so passionately and joyfully. (As Gurdjieff wrote, “The energy spent on active inner work is then and there transformed into a fresh supply, but that spent passive work and distraction is lost forever.”  And M. Scott Peck speaks in his books how therapy becomes a joy and even sometimes playful when the patient [disciple] allows him or herself to become open and trusting and vulnerable [pregnable] to the therapist; it’s then that the real work of healing and growing begins in earnest and the preliminary work of getting [seducing] the patient to this point is over. [See “People of the Lie” pp. 158-9 and “The Road Less Traveled” pg. 55.])

Which is why Gurdjieff eventually become quick to cut to the chase and put things in no uncertain terms

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

He didn’t say one way, he said the sole way, the only way.  This is his ax for the frozen sea within us, strictest attention-getting, whack us with a sledgehammer, in your face, cut to the chase, no bs equivalent of Luke 14:26.  If you really want to change, you have to know, not think, but know, feel viscerally, emotionally, in a white-hot terrifying searing way, that you—and all the people you love, and all your pet ego- and immortality-projects, and all of the pet rats you keep (a reference to an episode of “Hoarders”— http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsITgqGQgj4)—are going to die, and that there’s no getting around this, that death is certain, that loss is certain, and you and your little groveling pathetic inner control freak cannot do thing one to change it—not will all of your bs, escapist reading, self-numbing, et cetera.  There’s no place for you to run or hide.  You will die; someday you and all those you love will play out that scene, and so what are you doing right here and now to prepare for that—for that greatest of partings?  “Only he who has freed himself of the disease of ‘tomorrow’ has a chance to attain what he came here for” (Gurdjieff), and “the best means for arousing the wish to work on yourself is to realize that you may die at any moment.  But first you must learn how to keep it in mind” (also Gurdjieff).

There’s no real change, no real growth, possible for us without facing our own mortality and really feeling now what it will feel like some day when we’re told we only have a week or months to live, or that, God forbid, one our children or a parent has died.

Otherwise we’re just wasting time.

As Augustine put it, “It is only in the face of death that man’s (true) self is born.”

Short of this level of honest and open relationship with our own mortality, we’re living the false life of a false self.

If You Only Knew . . . .


The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

.

If You Knew” – Ellen Bass

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

.

“We all have to say goodbye to everything eventually. All of us are here only for the time being, tumbling along as we all are in the river of time, on our way to the endless ocean. We will each wake up one morning and realize that a whole period of our life—our youth, our career, our marriage, our health—is no longer what it was, and has passed. We are vulnerable—intrinsically vulnerable—to sickness, old age, and death. Nothing will save us from this, our common fate. However puffed out our chest may be, however booming that voice of ours, however many tall buildings or stocks we own, we too are exquisitely, excruciatingly exposed to the fact that, sooner or later, our place in this life will be cleared and we will be gone.

“When we remember this, something softens in us. Our judgments soften, our hurry slows down a little, our worries return to proportion. We breathe a little deeper and more meaningfully. After all, every one of us is in the same leaky old boat. Everyone we meet, everyone around us—the wise, the foolish, the saintly, the murderous—all of us alive today are heading together, in one great fellowship, toward the final waterfall—even as we argue or lash out at each other, care for each other, love each other, betray or reject each other, support or affirm each other—regardless of what it is we do or don’t do.

“This is why ours is an exquisite vulnerability. It is exquisite because it is so touching, so life-affirming, when we see through the shell of a person—our own or another’s—to the tender reality beneath. One of the women I pass in the café most mornings was in the local supermarket the other day. We had sometimes smiled in recognition, but never spoken. She always seemed busy and brisk to my eye; in charge of her day and what she was doing. When we bumped into each other in the supermarket I greeted her by saying how colorful she looked in her bright blue shirt. She said her husband had died recently, and it was the first day since then that she had felt a little alive. I am so sorry, I said. She burst into tears and clung to my shoulder, sobbing. The wave of her grief washed through and over me.

“I had had no idea.

“I would never have known.

“She was not in charge at all. She was just trying to do what she could to get through.”

– Roger Housden, adapted from his October 18, 2011 blog post—

http://rogerhousden.com/blog/

http://rogerhousden.com/read/

Gurdjieff on Self-Deception and Truth


One must learn to speak the truth.

This may sound strange to you.  It may seem to you that it is enough to wish or to decide to do so. 

But it isn’t.

People comparatively rarely tell a deliberate lie.  In most cases they actually think they speak the truth.  Yet they lie all the time—both when they wish to lie and when they wish to speak the truth.  They lie all the time—both to themselves and to others.

Therefore nobody ever understands either himself or anyone else.

Think about it—could there be such discord, such deep misunderstanding, such animosity and hatred towards the views and opinions of others, if people were able to understand one another? 

Of course not.

So people cannot understand because they cannot help lying.

To speak the truth is the most difficult thing in the world; and one must study a great deal and for a long time in order to be able to speak the truth.  —The wish alone is not enough.

To speak the truth one must know what the truth is and a lie is, and first of all in oneself.

And this nobody wants to know.

(G.I. Gurdjieff, in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 22)