On Truth, Personal Responsibility, Love, and the Face of God: Lessons from the film “Dead Man Walking”


(Warning: Contains spoilers!)

If you’re not familiar with the movie, “Dead Man Walking,” watch it. It’s an incredibly well-acted and beautifully written and moving film; a film that will likely linger with you (long) after it’s over.

In the film, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), befriends a death row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), who reaches out to her by mail initially under the auspices that he’s not guilty of the horrific crime he’s been sentenced to death for. But as she continues getting to know Poncelet and his story, she soon begins to suspect that what he’s told her about his part in the crime is not the truth. And so as the last minute appeals are denied one after another, Prejean’s task becomes one of helping to redeem Poncelet and help him to die well—that is, to die with dignity, with a clear conscience, with no hatred or lies in his heart.

It’s a beautiful film, with a message for all of us, meaning that even though most of us have done nothing even in the heinous ballpark of what Poncelet did, we all have our “sins”—meaning, bad, even wicked conscienceless hurtful things we’ve done to others in moments of weakness and fear, that we probably ought to own up to before we die/before it’s too late. Because the reality is we’re each dead men (and women) walking. We all owe a death; it’s the final installment or payment on being alive—and likely the costliest and most difficult installment to pay well.

And part of living a truly meaningful and dignified and decent life means taking responsibility for our actions. It means not get sucked into an easy out—an “easy out,” meaning, a path of lessor resistance, a path which curses the effect on us of our past actions and yet at the same time sows more seeds of future suffering. And the easiest easy out is to get sucked into continuing to blame others or society or even our upbringing for the quality of our lives. As Bruno Bettleheim put it: “Blaming others or society is the child’s privilege, but if an adult continues to abnegate responsibility it is yet another step in personal disintegration and destruction.” To live a meaningful and dignified and worthy life, we have to begin living more consciously, more honestly and self-awarely, stop making so many excuses for ourselves, and begin facing the reality that all along we have been making choices—and that oftentimes the choice was to blame others and pretend like we didn’t have a choice or make a choice. And this is perhaps the most damning lie that we can tell ourselves—that it wasn’t possible for us to choose otherwise—because it absolutely brings to an immediate halt and undercuts any attempts at personal growth and changing one’s life for the better. As Stephen Covey put it, “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, ‘I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,’ that person cannot say, ‘I choose otherwise’” (from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). More to the point, that person cannot change and truly grow and heal.

From: “Dead Man Walking“—this is my slight rewrite of the movie, I have done so in order to help translate the film to print

The scene: Near the end of the movie, a cell on death row, about 28 hours before Poncelet’s scheduled execution the following night. Poncelet and Prejean are alone in the cell.

Prejean: Let’s talk about what happened. Let’s talk about that night.

Poncelet: I don’t want to talk about that.

Why?

Because I’m pissed off! I’m pissed at the kids for being parked. I’m pissed at myself for letting Vitello (his accomplice) get them kids. . . . And I’m pissed at their parents for coming to see me die. . . . Oh l got a thing or two I want to say to the Percys and the Delacroixs.

You want your last words in this life to be words of hatred?

Clyde Percy wants to inject me himself!

Well, think about it, Matthew; think of how angry he must be. He’s never gonna see his daughter again. He’s never gonna hold her, love her, laugh with her. You have robbed these parents. They have nothing in their lives anymore but sorrow and unimaginable pain; no joy. And that is what you gave them. . . . So why were you in the woods?

I told you, I was stoned!

Don’t blame the drugs, Matthew. You had been harassing couples for months before this happened. So what was it?

What do you mean?

Did you look up to Vitello? Did you think he was cool? Did you want to impress him?

I don’t know.

You could have walked away.

He woulda went psycho on me.

Don’t blame him! . . . Matthew, you blame him, the government, drugs, blacks, the Percys, the Delacroixs. You blame the kids for being there. But what about you?—what about Matthew Poncelet? Where’s he in this story? What?—is he just a victim?

I ain’t no victim.

But you’re not taking responsibility, Matthew. Time’s ticking away. You’ve got death breathing down your neck and you’re still playing your little con-man games and looking for loopholes.

The scene: It’s the next day, the same cell on death row, only hours before Poncelet’s scheduled midnight execution. Poncelet is alone in his cell, Prejean enters. She looks at him, Poncelet looks different, and he is looking at Prejean differently.

Prejean: What, Matt? What is it?

Poncelet: (thoughtful) Earlier today when I was saying my goodbyes, my mama kept saying, ”It was that damn Vitello.” She always regrets that I got involved with him. But I didn’t want her thinking that—that it was him and not me. Something you said got me thinking, Sister. . . . I could’ve walked away. . . . But I didn’t. I didn’t. . . .. I wasn’t a victim; I was a fucking chicken. He (Vitello) was older than me and tough as hell. And I was just boozing up and trying to be as tough as him. But I couldn’t. He was bad; but I didn’t have the guts to stand up to him. I told my mama this—that I was yellow. But she kept saying, ”It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you.”

Your mama loves you, Matt.

But it was me, Sister. It was me. I had a choice. I made a choice. You know that boy—

Walter?

Yes, Walter— 

What? What Matthew?

Well I killed him. I shot him in the back of the head. I shot him like he was nothing. I shot him because I wanted to prove how tough I was. I shot him because I was too scared to stand up for myself. I shot him because I was a coward. I treated him—Walter—like he was nothing at all because I was a coward.

Oh Matthew. . . . And Hope? 

No, ma’am.

No? . . . Did you rape her?

Yes, ma’am, I did. I did horrible things to those kids.

Then you’re taking responsibility, Matthew?—for both of their deaths?

Yes, ma’am. (Sobbing) Yes ma’am, I do. (Sobbing) . . . . When the lights dimmed last night, I kneeled, and I prayed for them kids and their families. I ain’t never done that before. I felt so alone. I feel so bad for them. How could I have done what I did? Why did I have to do it? Why? . . .

Oh, Matthew. There are spaces of sorrow that only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible, hideous thing. You ended two young innocent lives and you robbed those two families of their children. You treated those kids—those human beings—like they were disposable to you, you treated them like they were here for you to do what you wanted with them. But they weren’t. . . . And now you’re facing the truth, Matthew, and doing so has set you free—the truth has made you free. You’ve known the truth all along, but now you’re admitting it, facing it finally, not lying any more about it. And because you’re doing this and taking responsibility for your actions, Matthew, there’s real dignity in this: You have a dignity now. And nobody can take that from you. You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.

Nobody ever called me no son of God before, Sister. I’ve been called a son of you-know-what lots of times, but never no son of God. . . . l just hope my death can give them parents some relief.

Maybe the best thing you can give to the Percys and the Delacroixs is this is to let them know this remorse and regret that you feel—to feel their pain, and not hide from their anger—the anger that you brought into their lives. You can give them that, Matthew, and a wish for their peace.

If I could, I would do things differently; I wouldn’t do what I did. I’d be stronger, you know. I never had no real love myself. Never loved a woman or anybody else. I would want to love. It figures I’d have to die to find love.

Matthew, I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. You look at me. And I’ll be the face of love for you.

Yes, ma’am. Thank you, for loving me.

Thank you, Matthew.

 

To truly love another person is to see the face of God.” – Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables

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Confession—a truly heartfelt and thorough confession—what in recovery circles is referred to as making a full and searching and fearless moral inventory—is the first step to real personal growth and true mental health and healing. The truth will set us free. But only if we face it and confess it fully. To confess the truth partially is to still to lie, and lying will not set us free.  But admitting the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth, and taking personal responsibility—ceasing to grumble and blame society, others, our upbringing, et cetera, but instead focusing on ourselves and the choices we’ve made and are making, becoming conscious of these choices instead of denying them—is what will set us free.

Yes, to be sure, external things as well as the past certainly exert an influence on us and have-wired us limbically and even intellectually a certain way. But they do not get the last word in who we are—they do not get the last word in who we become.

We get the last word in who we become if—if—we take responsibility for ourselves, for our choices, and face the (potentially terrifying) truth about how we’ve lived, what we’ve done, the choices we’ve made, and who we’ve become. —And the worse and less courageously we’ve lived, the more terrifying the truth will be for us. As John wrote in his Gospel (paraphrasing): “The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were wicked. For everyone who does evil things hates the light and is ashamed, and so in his shame 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’re all dead men and women walking. We all owe a death. The problem is that unlike Poncelet, for most of us the hour of our death is unknown. And that uncertainty as to when—not if, but when—is what gives us the wiggle room that allows us to live badly, to lose perspective and live and make choices as if life goes on forever (or at least a lot longer than it likely will). Castaneda said that death is the only wise advisor we have. I would revise that statement and say that death is one of only two wise advisors we have—the other being God or God’s point of view—what’s best in us, what does our conscience say, asking honestly what is the Loving and truly mature and courageous thing to do. If we learn how to consult both of these advisors more and more in life—and more and more when we’re making decisions—especially potentially big decisions, then we’ll be crafting a habit that will serve us well. We will be learning to begin with the end in mind—the end, meaning death and what will be important to us at that moment. And thus we will be living and making decisions more truthfully—and honorably.

 

Let death and banishment and rejection and misfortune and every other thing that appears dreadful 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

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You know, Westmoreland made all of us officers write our own obituaries during Tet, when we thought The Cong were gonna end it all right there. And, once we clued into the fact that life is finite, the thought of losing it didn’t scare us anymore. The end comes no matter what, the only thing that matters is how do you wanna go out, on your feet or on your knees? I bring that lesson to this job. I act, knowing that someday this job will end, no matter what. You should do the same.” – from the motion picture “The Kingdom

 

There’s no way out of this alive. No one gets out of here alive. We all have to die. And all of those we love and depend on also will die. And we must not let the uncertainty as to when we and others will die provide us with the wiggle room to live and love badly, pettily, to use others, to run from ourselves and our fears, to lie, to live and love like we’re not dead men walking and like we and those we love will never die. Because once we lose perspective and start living a life unmindful of the end—a life of denial, avoidance, dishonesty—we become shameful creatures and we leave the door open in ourselves for evil, for real inhumanity and abuse and cruelty—and all in the name of preserving our comfort and not having to face our fears and be overwhelmed by them—by what will one day unavoidably have the upper hand on us. Carpe diem—seizing the day—isn’t about living a frenzied life, ramping up our living in denial and living more hedonistically and superficially. Just the opposite, it’s about facing reality, beginning with the end in mind, and not living superficially, not living as a coward, not tranquilizing ourselves with what is trivial and will not mean anything to us as we’re dying or when we get the cancer diagnosis or one of our children has died. Carpe diem—living deeply and sucking the marrow out of life—means living very consciously, deliberately, mindfully, with gratitude, appreciation, kindness, openness, honesty, depth, substance. It means not worrying so damn much about our own comfort. It means getting out of the shallows and into the depths where life reveals its secrets (Rilke).

Confession—his level of honesty and perspective—is a huge part of being reborn, of a metanoia—of a profound change of heart and mind and life direction—or, if you don’t want it to sound so biblical or religious, then just call it growing up and being a better human being.

Confession—confessing our sins, really feeling the pain in others that we’ve put there because of what we’ve done, making our amends, correcting the past, sincerely desiring to exchange places with those we’ve hurt (meaning genuinely being willing to take the bullet or the hit, instead of making someone else take it for us)—is a sign of real growth, real psychological and spiritual health and strength. And it’s a sign that we’re not lost—that we haven’t lost perspective, but instead have found it, that we’re finally putting ourselves on some really truly solid ground, instead of the fleeting groundlessness of living in denial and living superficially.

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The Truth—Will it Set You Free or Will it Completely Fry Your Ass and Undo You?


Your life is the mirror of what you are. It is in your image. You are passive, blind, demanding. You take all, you accept all, without feeling any obligation. Your attitude toward the world and toward life is the attitude of one who has the right to make demands and to take, who has no need to pay or to earn. You believe that all things are due you, simply because it is you! All your blindness is there! Yet none of this strikes your attention.

None of this strikes your attention because you have no measure with which to measure yourself. You live exclusively according to “I like” or “I don’t like,” or “I feel like” or “I don’t feel like.” You have no appreciation except for yourself. You recognize nothing above you—theoretically, logically, perhaps, but in actuality no; you submit to nothing except your own desires and subjectivity. That is why you are demanding and continue to believe that everything is cheap and that you have enough in your pocket to buy everything you like. You recognize nothing above you, either outside yourself or inside. That is why you have no measure and live passively according your impulses and likes and dislikes.

Yes, this lack of appreciation for anything and anyone except for yourself blinds you. It is by far the biggest obstacle to a new life. You first must get over this threshold, this obstacle, before progressing even one step further. This crux alone is what divides human beings into two kinds: the “wheat” and the “chaff.” No matter how intelligent, how talented, how gifted, how brilliant a human being may be, if he does not change his appreciation of himself, there will be no hope for real inner development, for a work toward honest self-knowledge, for an awakening. He will remain such as he is now for his entire life.

The first requirement, the first condition, the first test for one who genuinely wishes to work on oneself is to change his appreciation of himself. And he must not do this theoretically—he must not imagine, not simply believe or think; rather he must do this in actuality: he must see things in himself which he has never seen before—which he has never had the nerve or courage to see before. And he must see them fully. A person’s appreciation of himself will never change as long as he or she sees nothing new and untoward in himself.

Today we have nothing but the illusion of what we are. We do not respect ourselves. In order to respect myself, I have to recognize a part in myself which is above the other parts. And my attitude toward this part should bear witness to the respect that I have for it. But so long as I treat all parts of myself equally, I think too highly of myself and I do not respect myself, and my relations with others will be governed by the same caprice and lack of respect.

In order to see oneself, one must first learn to see. This is the first initiation into genuine self-knowledge. In order to see ourselves realistically, we must see all the ways in which we habitually over-estimate and over-appreciate ourselves. But you will see that to do this is not easy. It is not cheap. You must pay dearly for this. For bad payers, lazy people, parasites, there is no hope. You must pay, pay a lot, pay immediately, and pay in advance. You must pay with yourself; you must pay with sincere, honest, conscientious, disinterested efforts. And the more you are willing and prepared to pay without economizing, without cutting corners, without cheating, without falsifications, the more you will receive. Because from that moment on you will become acquainted with your nature. You will begin seeing all of the tricks, all the dishonesties that your nature resorts to in order to avoid paying with real cash, real effort, real expenditure, real sacrifice, real cost to oneself. Because up till now, you like to cheat, you like to cut corners; you like to try and pay with your readymade theories, your convenient beliefs, your prejudices and conventions, your “I like” and “I don’t like”; you like to bargain, pretend, offer counterfeit money.

Objective thought is a look from Above. A look that is free, that can see. Without this look upon me, seeing me, my life is the life of a blind person who goes her own way, driven by impulse, not knowing either why or how. Without this look upon me, I cannot know that I exist.

I have within me the power to rise above myself and to see myself freely—and to be seen. My thinking has the power to be free.

But for this to take place, my thinking must rid itself of all of the garbage that holds it captive, passive, unfree. My thinking must free itself from the constant pull of emotions. My thinking must feel its own power to resist this pull—its objective capacity to separate itself and watch over this pull while gradually rising above it. For it is in this moment that thought first becomes active. It becomes active while purifying itself.

If we cannot do this—if we refuse to do this—our thoughts are just illusions, something that further enslaves us, that we use to numb and avoid ourselves, a snare in which real thought loses its power of objectivity and intentional action. Confused by words, images, half-truths, fantasies, falsehoods, it loses the capacity to see. It loses the sense of “I”. Then nothing remains but an organism adrift, a body deprived of intelligence and seduced by any- and everything, and wholly at the mercy of “I like” and “I don’t like.” Without this inner look, without this inner seeing, I can only fall back into automatism, and live under the law of accident and nature.

And so my struggle is a struggle against the passivity of ordinary thinking, being seduced and led astray and obliterated by it. Without struggling against ordinary thought, a greater consciousness will not be born. At the heart of this struggle—to create order out of chaos—a hierarchy is revealed—two levels, two worlds. As long as there is only one level, one world, there can be no vision. Recognition of another and higher level is the awakening of thought.

Without this effort, without this struggle, thought falls back into a sleep filled with seductive and consoling words, images, preconceived notions, approximate knowledge, dreams, fantasies, and perpetual drifting. This is the thought of a person without any real intelligence. It is a terrible thing to realize that one has been living for years without any intelligence, without a level of thinking that sees what is real, with thinking that is without any relation to the real world. It is a terrible waste to think this way.

But without realizing this—without realizing that perhaps one has been thinking for years without intelligence—there is no hope for awakening.

Try just for a moment to accept the idea that you are not what you believe yourself to be, that you overestimate yourself, in fact that you lie to yourself. That you always lie to yourself every moment, all day, all your life. And that this lying rules you to such an extent that you cannot control it any more. You are the prey of lying. You lie, everywhere. Your relations with others—lies. The upbringing you give, the conventions—lies. Your teaching—lies. Your theories and art—lies. Your social life, your family life—lies. And what you think of yourself—lies also.

But you never stop yourself in what you are doing or in what you are saying because you believe in yourself. You never doubt or suspect yourself. You must stop inwardly and observe. Observe without preconceptions, accepting for a time this idea of lying. And if you observe in this way, paying with yourself, without self-pity, giving up all your supposed riches for a moment of reality, perhaps you will suddenly see something you have never before seen in yourself until this day. You will see that you are different from what you think you are. You will see that you are two. One who is not, but takes the place and plays the role of the other. And one who is, yet so weak, so insubstantial, that he no sooner appears than he immediately disappears. He cannot endure lies. The least lie makes him faint away. He does not struggle, he does not resist, he is defeated in advance. Learn to look until you have seen the difference between your two natures, until you have seen the lies, the deception in yourself. When you have seen your two natures, that day, in yourself, the truth will be born. You will finally be born.

– Jeanne de Salzmann, abridged and adapted and at points modified from “Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teachings,” pp. 2-6.

What Kind of Horse Are You?


What kind of horse do you want to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stick my finger in existence—and it smells of nothing.  Where am I?  Who am I? How did I come to be here?  What is this thing called life? What does it mean?  Who is it that has lured me into the world and why was I not consulted?” – Søren Kierkegaard

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did ashes and dust get so proud?

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to Love Oneself and the High Cost of Not Doing So—of Not Waking Up & Not Being Honest With Ourselves


What does it take to grow/mature as a person emotionally and psychologically and intellectually?

One of the most important first steps is that we must be able to identify our feelings—especially our negative emotions and feelings—what feeling is driving us at this moment and what’s behind that feeling, what’s motivating it—what fear, what insecurity, what past transference, et cetera.

For example, when we’re out at a restaurant with our spouse/partner and children and we’re feeling overwhelmed and getting stressed out, are we able to identify in real-time what we’re feeling—stressed, overwhelmed—and are we able to identify in real-time or near-real-time why we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Is it because our kids are driving us nuts and we sense our partner to be getting uptight or, just the opposite, that he or she is being too lackadaisical and uninvolved? Or is it because we’re out in public?—the kids are acting up, and we’re stressed out because we think everyone is looking at us and secretly thinking bad negative nasty things about us in their heads, and so what we’re really afraid of is the sense of shame and embarrassment and of being criticized by “all” of the restaurant’s other patrons that is lurking beneath the surface of our awareness and that we’re trying to stuff out of our awareness because what we really don’t want to have to deal with is feeling like we’re being invalidated or criticized or thought of poorly or thought of as a bad or incompetent parent. And so we get angry at our kids not because it’s necessarily the right thing to do or in our children’s best interest to get angry at them, but rather, we get angry because we’re so stressed out by and so afraid of a roomful of strangers thinking badly about us and or giving us condescending looks and sending us nasty-grams with their eyes, and we have great difficulty dealing with and tolerating and metabolizing feelings of shame and inadequacy and not-OK-ness because we haven’t yet learned to self-validate and self-soothe very proficiently, and we don’t yet realize that it’s not what other people think about us that really matters nearly as much as it is what we think about ourselves; and that the best way to think independently and well of ourselves is to live life nobly and honorably, which in part means consistently doing what is right for our children and correcting them lovingly and helping plant and nurture the seeds of good virtues and principles in them.

And so that moment is also about realizing that right now, at that very moment, we are reaping what we’ve been unknowingly been sowing—both in ourselves and our children—for years, and that what we’re reaping is the product of past unconscious seeding or past neglects—that we haven’t been planting and nurturing enough seeds of perspective and self-discipline and self-soothing in ourselves—we haven’t been reading enough decent books, writing, journaling, meditating—and we haven’t doing enough inner work. And we haven’t been practicing for eating out at restaurants by using mealtimes at homes as practice sessions for proper behavior, good manners, learning please and thank you.

Neglect costs. Neglect exacts its toll, one way or another. And if we try to play games of denial or postponing paying up or passing off the costs and consequences onto others of our neglect, we make matters even worse for ourself—our future self—and make the costs of our neglect even higher and more difficult to pay and manage.

LARGE part of loving ourself means learning to love ourself not just right now, in the moment, but also learning how to love and be good to our future self and not saddle him or her with a bunch of debt incurred in the present moment because of our fears and denial and lust for comfort, escape, immediate gratification.

Whenever we give into irrational fears and or we opt for immediate gratification in the form of indulging our want of escape and denial, we are giving a big eff you and who cares to our future self. It’s a cry for help, really. Every time we opt to neglect thinking about our future self and refuse to be aware of why we’re really angry or feeling stressed out and instead indulge these emotions by acting out on them instead of investigating them mindfully and honestly, we are not loving ourself—either now, in the moment, or in the future—our future self. Instead, we are either hating or neglecting or being callous to ourself—for certain our future self, and in all likelihood, our present self and our present relationships as well.

To love ourself means to love our future self, to treat our future self like a child, and thus to parent ourself wisely right now, in the present moment, so that we can make that better life for ourself in the future by doing what is most necessary and required: making a better and wiser and more loving and courageous and honest self of ourself right now. That is how we love ourself—by loving ourself both now and in the future, and integrating those two selves, by making good choices now, by working harder on ourself right now than we do at our job or our schooling or our leisure (“Work harder on yourself than you do on your job”–Jim Rohn)—that is the indisputable way that we show our love for ourself—by how much we are willing to work on becoming a better version of our self—a more honest, courageous, noble, patient, virtuous, kind, trustworthy, giving, gracious self.

Why Are You Pissing Your Life Away Asleep and Living as if Life Goes on Forever?


How do you view yourself and your life?

Do you see yourself and your life and your actions as an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light, within yourself?—your good and healthy inclinations versus your unhealthy and bad inclinations?—your inclinations to stay comfortable and have an easy life opposing your inclination to grab life by the stones, to wake up and live courageously and much more honestly and with heart- and mind- and eyes-wide open?—to get yourself up out of the muck and mire and live in a much more ennobling and virtuous and wise and—dare I say it—”Godly” way?

How do you see yourself and your one little precious life?

Some of us are very good people, some of us are very bad, even evil, people, but the vast majority of us are somewhere in between.

We might therefore think of human good and human evil as a kind of continuum. And as individuals we can move ourselves one way or the other along the continuum. With sustained effort—right effort—we can move ourselves more and more toward the good, and with sustained denial and neglect and abnegation of responsibility we can move ourselves further and further away from the good and closer and closer to the bad or toward evil.

Just as there is a tendency for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, so too there seems to be a tendency for the good to get better and the bad to get worse, the wise to get wiser and the foolish and unhealthy to get even more foolish and mentally unhealthy.

(Adapted and elaborated on from M. Scott Peck’s “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,” pg. 88)

So what accounts for this?—what is necessary or required for us to move ourselves along the continuum in the right direction, from less healthy psychologically to more healthy psychologically, from less goodness to more goodness? 

Two things, in my estimation.  The first is awareness—call it mindfulness, self-awareness, self-consciousness, being “awake,” leading an examined life; it’s the capacity to realize what we we’re doing while we’re doing it.  Without this capacity, life is either a senseless blind descent into the ground, or always lived in retrospect and only understood by looking back, never by looking clearly at what’s in front of us and where we are right now.  This sort of awareness requires intelligence, as well as tremendous honesty and inner grit/courage, and a good bit of humility—swallowing our pride and denial, not being afraid to admit when we’re wrong, not being afraid of feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, less than; because if our self-esteem is so low that we are afraid to take these hits—bear these narcissistic injuries and slights to ourself—then we will continue on the path of excessive and malignant emotional self-protection—avoidance of feeling badly about ourselves at all costs, even when it means hurting others and forcing them to take the hit emotionally rather than ourselves

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13)

And some degree of external necessity.  Few of us will come to great levels of self-awareness and wakefulness and wisdom by virtue of inner necessity alone; we will need to have our hand forced, compelled, or even guided by something outside of us—Grace, a teacher or mentor or guru, a path, a religious or spiritual path (meditation, the Dharma, a twelve step program), a great loss or series of losses, great pain, a near-death experience, a cancer-scare or heart attack, something along those lines that will force us to cut through our crap and start the habit/discipline of looking squarely and directly at ourselves and leading much more honest and examined life.

Some people—a very small minority— are compelled by inner necessity to wake up and get serious about living much more honestly and sincerely.  They are graced (cursed?) with powerful, even horrifying, glimpses of their own impermanence and fragility and brevity—the impermanence and fragility and brevity of all things—that there is nothing in this world to cling to, that we are born without any real idea why we are here or for how long (“I stick my finger in existence—it smells of nothing. Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? What does this world mean? Who is it that has lured me into the world? And why was I not consulted?” – Søren Kierkegaard), that talk of God and an afterlife is largely some combination of hand-me-down stories and inner wish-fulfillment and desperation.  And a glimpse such as this—all at once searing and piercing and terrifying—of oneself and one’s lot is enough to get some people to cut the crap and to get busy living more honestly, sincerely and in a much more awake and responsible fashion.

But most people are not graced—or cursed—with such experiences or glimpses into the way things (likely) really are.  Instead they live asleep behind a curtain of words and ideas and social conventions and expectations, anesthetizing themselves on drink, relationships, Sunday church, a Monday through Friday routine of 8-5 work then a commute home for dinner and an evening in front of the TV, conversations about sport, gossip, politics, and other trivial matters, facebook, web browsing, dissipating and numbing themselves constantly in a thousand different ways all so that they never have to come up against or feel and face the likely truth of their existence.  Instead they’d rather “tranquilize themselves on the trivial” (Earnest Becker’s term, from “The Denial of Death”), focus on the little happy sounding things in life—building self-esteem rather than character, being happy rather than being good, being comfortable rather than being awake and fully born, being content rather than having a mature conscience and an active soul, fitting in the status quo rather than growing up as much as one can emotionally and psychologically and spiritually.  It is these people who will require some sort of external inducement or aid to help them wake up and live more sincerely and honestly and mindfully.  They will require a guru or teacher, or some sort of calamity, or hitting rock bottom in some way, before they will have the impetus to get living in a more courageous and noble way.

“If you will but stop here and ask yourself ‘Why am I not as pious as the first Christians were?’ your own heart will tell you the answer: that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” – William Law

Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice in life.

The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions (i.e. taking the easy way out, the path of least resistance—choosing the easy wrong over the difficult right, choosing the easy and quick-fix wrong over the difficult and more long-term right, choosing comfort over truth, opting for half-baked solutions and easy answers, scapegoating, abdicating responsibility, blaming others, spinning out emotionally, refusing to look at ourselves, being hypersensitive to honest criticism and scrutiny, et cetera)—and refuse or are unwilling to see our decisions as such, the more our heart will harden (our heart will have to harden in order to keep out the light and keep us in the dark and keep us in denial).

On the other hand, the more often we make the right (courageous, noble, virtuous, honest) decision, the more our heart softens—or perhaps better, comes alive.

Each step in life which increases my courage, my honesty, my integrity, my conviction, and my wisdom also increases my self-confidence, my discernment, and my capacity to choose the desirable alternative (the difficult right over the easy wrong), until it eventually becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable wrong (the easy way out) rather than the desirable right.

On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice—each time I blame/scapegoat others and or life and refuse to master myself and my own reactions and emotions and avoidant (drapetomaniacal) tendencies, and instead reactively opt to abrogate or abnegate responsibility—weakens me, opens the door to further acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.

Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme where I have lost my freedom to right action and parent or govern myself in a healthy and conscientious way, there are innumerable degrees of freedom of choice.

In the practice of life, the degree of freedom emotionally (limbically) and psychologically to choose is different at any given moment.

If the degree of freedom to choose the good is high, then it requires less effort from me to choose the good.

However, if the degree of freedom is small, then it requires either favorable circumstances, help from others (borrowed functioning, emotional support, other-validation, encouragement), or it requires great effort on my part—grit, self-mastery, a productive character orientation, honesty, courage, inner reserves and resourcefulness, a strong conscience, a strong and well-developed ethics of personal responsibility, and so on.

Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide.  They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers.  Then with each step along the wrong road, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road—most likely because that would require them (a) to admit to themselves and others that they are on the wrong road and (b) that would further burden them to admit that they must go back to their first wrong turn, atone and make their amends and reparations, and (c) accept the fact that they have wasted a lot of unnecessary energy and time living pridefully and in fear of feeling ashamed, embarrassed, not good enough, et cetera.

(Adapted and modified and elaborated on from Erich Fromm’s “The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil,” pp. 135-138)

.

The resolve to awaken requires the integrity not to hurt anyone in the process.  Dharma practice cannot be abstracted from the way we interact with the world.  Our deeds, words, and intentions create an ethical ambiance that either supports or weakens our resolve.  If we behave in a way that harms either ourselves or others, our capacity to focus on our work will be weakened.  We will feel disturbed, distracted, anxious, uneasy, and our practice will less and less effect. . . .

Ethical integrity requires both the intelligence to understand the present situation as the fruition of former choices, and the courage to engage the present moment as the arena for the creation of future consequences (karma).  It empowers us to embrace the ambiguity of a present that is simultaneously tethered to an irrevocable past and yet still free for a future that is not wholly determined.

Our ethical integrity is threatened as much by attachment to the security of what is familiar and known as by fear of what is unfamiliar and unknown.  It is subject to being remorselessly buffeted by the winds of desire and fear, doubt and worry, distrust and anxiety, fantasy and egoism.  The more we give into these things, the more our integrity and resolve are eroded, and the more we find ourselves being carried along on a wave of psychological and social habit.

(Adapted and modified from Stephen Batchelor’s, “Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening,” pp. 45-48)

Trust, Transparency, Honesty, and Mental Health


Trust is an interesting concept—when we open ourselves up and trust another enough to show him or her ALL of our unsightly spots (however many or few there may be) and ALL of our secrets and develop transparency, we are also thereby surrendering control.  No longer will we be in the power position of being the only one able to watch and oversee and monitor all that we say and do, and thus only be accountable to ourselves, we will have now exposed ourselves to another—our partner or spouse—and thus we are also voluntarily making ourselves accountable to that person as well, and to his or her standards.

When we trust, we are, on the one hand, trusting the other person to be fair and just and reasonable in his or her standards and expectations, because we are opening ourselves up to the other person’s feedback, ideas, perspective, scrutiny, questions, even criticisms. 

On the other hand, when we trust another, we are also trusting ourselves to be consistent and to be able to maintain our identity or sense of self and not to be so fragmented or compartmentalized and internally divided and inconsistent that we’re always fighting ourselves such that our right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, or that we’re always reverting back and forth between our healthy self and our sick self.  Trust, first and foremost requires—as well as helps to reinforce and foster—a consistent and coherent sense of self—a consistent and coherent healthy and growth-oriented self. 

Lack of trust in a relationship is a serious issue.  If we are in an intimate relationship and we honestly can’t trust our partner because he or she is unreliable or un-conscientious or un-principled or unstable and or has burned us repeatedly in the past and has done nothing to take responsibility for those violations of trust and correct them and re-earn and re-establish trust, then how truly intimate—or healthy!— can or will that relationship ever be?

And if we’re the person in the relationship who can’t trust ourselves because we’re internally divided and inconsistent and have not yet developed a largely coherent and integrated self or identity, then by being in a relationship and not being honest, open, transparent, and seeking to become more and more trustworthy, we are simply hiding out and enabling the sick and weak part of our self that wants to keep us internally divided and inconsistent.  Because, ultimately in such a situation, trust is a matter of conscience—it’s inexorably connected to the growth and development of a healthy conscience—and so to opt not to try and become a person worthy of trust is to be making the choice—either consciously or unconsciously—to forsake growing up and maturing emotionally and developing our conscience and developing a healthier self.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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