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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are these two ways?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kid you not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Good That I Do Not Do & the Wrong that I Do Do


The good that I should do, I do not do; and the wrong that I should not do, I do do.” (St. Paul, in Romans 7:19)

Why?

Why is this so?

Isn’t this the very definition of being asleep? Or of being “wretched” (Pascal’s word)?

Is it better to live ignorant of our doubleness than to have the brief moment of consciousness (self-awareness) and conscientiousness that shows this about ourselves?

Because what then comes next? Knowledge such as this certainly creates obligation.  Or at least a lot of tension!

So next comes either the awakening, —or the frantic desperate attempt to, at every turn, suppress and eradicate this information and keep it from one’s own awareness.

Why? Because of the tremendous amount of emotional pain (regret, remorse, sorrow, guilt, shame, embarrassment, horror) inherent in doing so.

And because of the tremendous workload then associated with really changing one’s life. (“No matter how much a person changes, they still gotta pay for the things they’ve done. So I’ve got a long road.” – from the motion picture “The Town”)

What allows us to see or glimpse ourselves as we are is our conscience. But our conscience is the last part of us on the scene developmentally. First we are born a bundle of chaotic blind impulses and emotional reactivity all clamoring for immediate gratification. Next arrives the age of thinking and reasoning. The level of conscience and self-awareness that sees us as we are comes to us much later in life; after we’ve already set up deeply embedded and well-practiced habits of not thinking clearly, not looking at ourselves honestly and or objectively, avoiding difficulty, abandoning people, lying to ourselves and others. As Gurdjieff put it: “There stands behind most of us many years of wrong living—years spent catering to and indulging in all kinds of inner-weaknesses and therefore reinforcing these, years of self-deception and lying to ourselves, years spent shutting our eyes to our own errors, striving to avoid all sorts of unpleasant truths, blaming others, and so on, and so on.”

Our conscience and that type of self-awareness that goes with it are like a teeny tiny little squirt gun trying to deal with the conflagration that is our innate inner life—full of contradiction, dissonance, hatred, anger, self-preservation, looking out for number one, lying, avoidance, emotionality, reactivity.

For most of us by the time anything difficult or stressful reaches us we’re already in over our heads and spinning out in our maladaptive ways of trying to deal with stress and difficulty illegitimately and immaturely and counterproductively. And our conscience—those nerve-endings and synapses—stand no real chance of firing or impacting us. We have been hijacked—for days, weeks, months—by our amygdala and our limbic system.

For the vast majority of us our nervous system is not our friend but our enemy—and it’s Public Enemy Number One.

And so knowing this intuitively, we have two choices: the easy way or the hard way. One way will wake us up, the other will make us more comfortable and lessen our stress—at least temporarily, until something sets us off and sends us in a tailspin again—which will happen—because we’ve never learned real self-control; we’ve only learn roundabout self-control—trying to control ourselves by controlling our environment, which is really just self-avoidance.

We have to understand that extreme situations expose us; they show us who we really are, they show us our true self which gets to stay in hiding when things are fairly comfortable and or familiar. Which is one reason why most people prefer to do what they’ve always done—doing the wrong they ought not do, and not the good they ought to do. Good is foreign to us. Courage is foreign to us. Honesty is foreign to us. Integration is foreign to us. And in most cases, these things have to enter a person and take a person over like a Trojan horse, or by complete force, or by a near-death experience, or by grace, or by hitting rock bottom. The vast majority of people just cannot heal or grow themselves, no matter how much willful or deliberate intent they muster—they will always regress and backslide once their surroundings allow it (ease up on them) or compel it (some new stress hijacks their amygdale and sends them spinning out into the far reaches of the universe for weeks or months or years).

If extreme situations expose us, and comfort and familiarity and low stress allow us to hide from ourselves and believe in our pretty little veneer and our whitewashed hothouse version of ourselves, then it’s no wonder that so many of us will fight tooth and nail (or like a caged animal) for our comfort zones and not for real change and real growth.

If anything should trigger the machine and push a person/machine outside its comfort zone, the machine will try its hardest—and by seemingly any means necessary—to restore in itself a sense of safety and comfort and equilibrium.

This is how the vast majority of people are.

But in order to truly grow and awaken and observe oneself as one is, one must become reconciled to this tension and stress and discomfort and agonizing helplessness, and die to one’s smaller self or smaller I.

Because only by actually experiencing and tolerating this level of discomfort can a person really observe himself and begin to actually change and grow.

Thus for anyone who wants to awaken, there is the question: what do you want—a quiet life or to actually work oneself? If a machine wants a quiet and comfortable and safe life, he must fight to protect his comfort zones and keep himself from extremes, for even though he may feel bad about himself in his usual repertoire, he nonetheless will feel comfortable and safe because as bad (even unhealthy and pathological) as it might be, it is still familiar and known.

But if a person sincerely wants to work on himself and awaken and cease being a machine, he must first of all do one thing: destroy his hankering for peace, safety, comfort, an easy life. Until he actually does this, all of his attempts at change will be futile and doomed to fail.

To have comfort and growth, safety and growth, familiarity and growth, comfort and courage, comfort and honesty together is in no way possible.

A person must make a choice.

A person must take a stand—against himself and his own hankering after peace and comfort and security and safety—if a person truly want to awaken.

But what usually happens when choosing is that a person chooses talk, a person chooses deceit; which is to say, a person in words chooses “growth” but in reality he does not want to give up (or surrender) his comfort and safety and peace.

The person will not be willing to do what is necessary to awaken.

And the result is the most wretched and unfortunate position of all: A person does no real work on oneself at all, and at the same time he or she gets no real comfort whatsoever.

To really work on oneself and to sustain the work that one is doing oneself is incredibly difficult, in part because however difficult a person’s life may be, it still runs smoothly enough. Even if a person considers himself and his life and his ways bad, he is still accustomed to it and to that level of a workload. And so it is better for things to be bad and yet known, than for them to be new and more difficult and unfamiliar and awkward and unknown and even more stressful and full of doubt and to not even know if the desired result can be had from it or not.

Which is why the vast majority of people regress and backslide and continue not to do the good and right and growth-oriented things that they ought to do, but instead continue to do the self-defeating and familiar and played-out and maladaptive and self-deceptive things that they always do.

[T]he aim of a genuine spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a person’s spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go of his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and want of a comfortable life go in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites and his petty resistances.

 

The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life when it is most difficult to do so and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

 

When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and welcome the fears and anxieties and demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some object as a protection against such forces.

 

Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of discomfort and annihilation can our contact with what is Divine, and with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable. The more we learn wholeheartedly to confront the world and a patterned way of living and reacting that threatens each of us with isolation, the more the depths of our own being will be revealed to us and the more the possibilities of new life and inner transformation will be opened to us.

 

(From “The Way of Transformation,” Karlfried Graf Durchheim, pp. 107-108)

Short Term Life Review


So how has life been for you the past 2 or 3 months?

How have the last 2 or 3 months of your one precious little life been for you?

How about for the past several years?

How is your life behind what may be the bars of the latest cage you’ve made for yourself?

Are you offended by the suggestion that you might be living in a prison of your own making?

The Panther” – Rainer Maria Rilke (my rendering)

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

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

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

Only from time to time do the curtains
of the eyelids open on this muted life
and an image rushes in, winds its way
through the taut silence of the frame,
only to vanish, forever, in the heart.

That’s what Rilke is suggesting here . . . that each of us is more less living like this panther—that we are each living a “muted” life, a life that’s unnecessarily losing its color, because the way in which we live actually stunts our courage and atrophies our will and make us more afraid (hence imprisons us; we unwittingly imprison ourselves).

We go for comfort, we go for safety, we go for security, we go for easy, we go for the easiest side of the easy, and we do so at every turn, and we do so at every turn, and we never grasp what, on a long enough timeline, this does to us, which is to say, what we unwittingly do to ourselves.

We live far away and remote from anything that daily requires us to act courageously or in a fiercely determined way. We live far away from God, from real Love, from death, from anything that requires and nurtures and forces our courage and wisdom. We live and love remote from these things. And so we do these things badly, very badly. We live the mysteries and bigger questions of life badly, very badly, immuring ourselves from them, hardly giving them even the faintest hint of a thought.

And so we live asleep, blind, partially born, dead, mechanically, reactively, sleepwalking. Pick your figure of speech, because they all equally apply.

And at best we may make occasional laughable attempts (truly, how can we call them laughable in light of all of the senseless destruction we leave behind in our wake?) to break out and flee our self-made prison, but our attempts at escape are invariably misguided, misdirected. Comedies. Exercises in self-humiliation and personal disintegration.

The only thing in life that will bring us freedom is freeing ourselves from what’s worst in us—the prison of our own fears and aversions (“in the end, it is our unshieldedness on which we depend” – Rilke). As long as we insist upon always trying to absolve ourselves and shift the blame to our surroundings, and then trying to break free from our external surroundings (geographic cure), yet insist on packing and taking our same sad self identical to the one we fled with us, nothing will have changed; we’ll just end up making another cage for ourselves in our new home temporarily elsewhere (until we get restless and need to flee again).

Sometimes life isn’t just a series of bars, of bar upon bar, penting in our gaze, limiting our sight—and outside the bars, nothing any more; and inside the bars, a wilting self-caged partially alive, partially born creature that runs the same or slightly varying courses away from itself, day after day, because its will and courage have been stunted so much by the accumulated effects of living so avoidantly and uncourageous day after day, year after year, for so long, and so now this once possibly magnificent creature has been reduced to leading a muted life, a life where its existence has been reduced to a series of daily escapes from the truth about itself and its own existence.

Sometimes there’s more to it than just the bars. Sometimes the world is reduced to a series of bars because the world around us is also a series of triggers—thing after thing that triggers us and reminds us how we have failed here or been devastated or hurt here or hurt ourselves and others at this place and then at this place, et cetera. Sometimes it’s not just about playing it safe; it’s about not being overrun and overwhelmed by our own emotions and inner upheaval, so we try desperately to control the world around us, keep out anything that might set us off or unnerve us. Sometimes living in the real world is just too painful. It’s just one useless sadness after another, one more reminder after another of how much life we have wasted out of fear, lack of courage, how much life we have wasted and are continuing to waste by running away from ourselves and from the truth about ourselves. So much wasted life lays around us, so much life wasted because of fear, because we can’t stand facing ourselves. And because we can’t stand facing ourselves and telling ourselves the truth, we double and deepen our misery and our lostness, as well as our honing even more our skills at being avoidant, discursive, afraid, timid, and so life becomes for us a series of bars and escape attempts, followed by a new prison and then another escape, et cetera.

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Even the most courageous among us only rarely has the courage for that which he really knows.” – Nietzsche

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Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know”. – Eric Hoffer

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Growing up and having real faith and real trust in life means we prefer truth when it hurts us to falsehood when it comforts or profits us.” – Hadrat Ali

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All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.” – James Thurber

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Breathe.

What’s going to save you or me from ourselves (from what’s worst in ourselves) isn’t someone or something outside of us. It’s only us; only our self; only what’s best in each of us. It’s that small still part of us deep inside that still recognizes truth and that hasn’t been wounded or corrupted or made neurotic and avoidant and afraid by this world. Our conscience—our true conscience. That’s what will save us each—recognizing it, listening to it, living it. That, and only that. And to fail to recognize this and respect it and listen to it—to spend our lives trying to drown it out or numb and deafen ourselves to it by surrounding ourselves with music and discursive thinking and idle chitchat and other forms of incessant noise—is to waste our lives.

We can’t corrupt our kill our conscience; it’s always in there, alive, whispering, even after we’ve tried again to cover it over, bury it, stuff it down, drug it, drug ourselves, numb ourselves to it, and escape and avoid it. It’s still there, it’s telltale heart still beating beneath the floorboards of our life, telling us in whispers and in dreams that we’re better than this, that we’re braver than what we’re showing, that we’re more Loving, that we already know what the truth is about ourselves if but we would only stop running from it and just once act with courage and beauty.

We each can save ourselves—but it depends on our capacity to recognize the truth about ourselves, to discern true from false, and to listen to this still small voice. —And more importantly it depends on how willing and fiercely determined we are to do all of this. Yes, the irony is very obvious—asking creatures in whom a will now stands stunned to act with fierce determination and courage. And impossibility, is it not? The formula is inalterable and not negiotable: No determination, no change; know determination, know change. If we’re not horrified by our own existence and by how dishonestly and avoidantly and uncourageously we are living and have lived—if we’re not horrified by this and ourselves to the point of retching, to the point of full bodily heaving and nausea—then no change will take place. Whatever emotion we feel short of this—short of being utterly horrified by ourselves—won’t carry with it the escape velocity necessary to free us from the immense gravitational field of habit and the familiarity—however unhealthy—of our current self and all of its, which is to say, our, avoidant and self-deceptive tendencies.

But how can we expect frightened timid creatures—creatures who are afraid of their own negative emotions most of all—to look at themselves so honestly that they well up in guilt and shame and horror over how they’ve lived and what they’ve become and unwittingly done to themselves and made themselves into? Yes, the irony is very obvious.

The vast majority of people are only as good as they are compelled or forced to be. (“Men will always prove bad unless necessity compels them to be good” – Machiavelli, “The Prince,” chapter 23). Otherwise the vast majority of us will always prove bad and we will break down, sell out, betray each other and what’s best in ourselves, overheat emotionally, lie, deceive, self-deceive, avoid, act meanly and icily coldly and hard-heartedly and do whatever we need to with methodical calm (like an assassin) in order to preserve our self, stay in charge, maintain our fragile equilibrium, and stave off being overwhelmed completely by reality, anxiety, and our own emotions.

Life around us doesn’t force our hand or compel us to be very good. We don’t live in a totalitarian regime of philosopher-kings and spiritual warrior princes and princesses where we are forced to overcome our weakness and avoidant tendencies. Rather, we live in a quotidian wasteland of the lowest common denominator, a terrain bereft of any real honor, integrity, Love, maturity, courage. And so time and time again we have no problem proving to be bad.

The reality is that only great necessity—only the constant threat of agonizing pain or impending death—can liberate our spirit and loose the egoism completely ingrained in each of us. . . .

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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

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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

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

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Do we want to actually change our lives or just talk about it and stay at the level of desiring change but not actually wanting to do the work, feeling the fear, sweating the inner bullets, and going through all of the emotions and real-world rigors that real change requires?

Do we want to actually change our lives tangibly for the better or just talk about doing so and stay trapped in the infinite loop of always planning and talking but never actually doing?

How sincere are we? Do we really want to wake up from the dream? Or do we just want to be like all of those inwardly dead and asleep people and just talk about it and think about it and theorize about it and just stay asleep and dream and fantasize and intellectually masturbate and self-medicate to thoughts of waking up? . . . “Oh how wonderful life will be when I wake up! oh how much more uninterrupted joy, how many more hearts and flowers and unicorns there will be! Everyday will be full of rainbow-colored horsies and chocolate frosting!”

That’s the question: how sincere are we? Are we truly motivated—truly horrified by ourselves? Or are we just a little bit unhappy and waking up sounds like something interesting to explore and ponder?

Only death can wake us up. Only death can jar us and rouse us to action. Only death is big enough and horrifying enough to put the horror that we will see when we look honestly at ourselves and how we’ve lived—escapistly, avoidantly, timidly, meanly, dishonestly—into perspective and keep it at a manageable and workable and motivating level. If looking at ourselves honestly is the biggest source of horror and anxiety in our life or that we’ve experienced, then we’ll never do it; we’ll never scale that tower. But if we’ve recognized or gone through something even worse—if something even more immense, like honestly and deeply contemplating our own mortality, has already popped our cherry—then looking at ourselves honestly and courageously shouldn’t be nearly as frightening and overwhelming.

Most people don’t have the level of being (differentiation) necessary to support sustained contact with reality or with what’s best in them. But contemplating and recognizing the brute fact of our own death is what frees us and gives us perspective. Facing our fear of death, becoming more and more cognizant emotionally as well as intellectually that we will die, that life is short, that nothing is certain, and then taking up permanent residence and dwelling in these and similar thoughts, is what gives us the strength to face ourselves and live as true spiritual warrior. It is what gives us strength indefatigable.

It’s ineluctable: the further we live away from death and from thoughts of our own and others’ mortality and fragility and life’s fleetingness, the more we live badly and timidly and necessarily self-deceptively. To be an honest human being means without exception to face the fact, in fear and trembling, of our own and others’ mortality, and not in some sterile abstract way, and to do so each and every day and let ourselves be overwhelmed by it, perturbed by it, horrified by it, assaulted by it. And then to live and make choices each day in light of this greater reality.

Almond Trees in Full Bloom” – Rilke

(Almond tress in blossom—the most we can achieve here is to know ourselves fully and fearlessly in our earthly appearance.)

I always gaze at you in wonder, you blessed ones,
at your composure, -you who know
how to bear and delight in our transience,
your perfect demeanor in the face
of our vanishing beauty.

If only we knew how to truly blossom
we would race out beyond all lesser dangers
to be safe in that single great one.

To the extent that we live blindly, asleep, ignorant of and walled off to our mortality, we will also have to live in many other ways and in many other areas of our life ignorantly, blindly, impulsively, avoidantly.

The two things are inexorably interconnected. Know death, know honesty. No death, no honesty. And if we don’t know death, if we deny it, then we not only avoid death and anything related to death and dying, we also avoid ourselves, life, Love, growing up, and instead we basically live and love like a coward, dying a thousand little deaths in order to spare ourselves the big one, and having to continually concoct and tell more and more lies to keep the old ones viable. Exhausting, isn’t it? And a completely waste of life. Living in the shadows, behind bars in a self-made self-imposed cage is an utter waste of life.

And this basic dichotomy, this fundamental dilemma or position in life that we each must stake out—either consciously or by default and avoidantly—can be thin-sliced in a myriad of ways. . . . For example: we can look our own and other’s relationship to difficulty and learn a great deal about ourselves and others. We can learn how deeply internalized a person’s life principles are versus how susceptible to stress and anxiety a person is and how easily he or she will break and sell out and loose her inner demon of self-protectiveness and emotional self-preservation on others in order to avoid feeling the fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, tension, et cetera.

The barrier between who we are and who we want to be and can be at our best isn’t simply knowledge, if it were, then the world would be full of fully awake and virtuous people. Rather the great barrier, the great divider that separates the psychospiritual pretenders from the real contenders, and that separates each of us from our best self, is suffering, plain and simple, and in all its raw and distressing and unpleasant and overwhelming forms. The barrier or membrane between us and waking up is one of intense pain, despair, anxiety, panic—fully feeling these as they arise (“fully feeling the fear”) and doing what ought and needs to be done anyways.

And a map of all of this won’t take us anywhere on its own. And a map of all of this, no matter how accurate and detailed, certainly won’t take us there effortlessly or painlessly. The map will only lead us to those pains that are essential and that must be faced. The map will only help us avoid getting even more and more lost.

Midway in the journey of my life, I awoke to find myself lost in a darkened forest where the true path had been wholly lost. How wild and dense the woods, how overgrown and frightening, how difficult and dark. The right path was no longer anywhere to be seen or found. I was truly lost. How afraid I was. Dying could have hardly have been thought worse or more terrifying. I was in the middle of the road of my life, and I could not say when or where I had entered the wood or at what point or place I had abandoned the true way, the one straight and direct path. I was so full of sleep. I had fallen asleep somewhere. I was in the dark in a wild and frightening place where the sun was silent.” – Dante, from the beginning of “The Inferno” (my rendering)

Again, a good map will only show us the way out. We will still have to stand on our own and we will still have to cover the distance and suffer our fair share of fear and trembling. . . .

No matter how much you change, you still have to pay the price for the things you’ve done. So I got a long road.” – from the motion picture “The Town

The cost of admission to experiencing a much happier and more integrated and truly loving way of life is pain. There’s no way around it. It’s what separates the pretenders and daydreamers in life from the real contenders—those who truly can come more to life, live more mindfully and awake, and live and love not as slaves to themselves and their fears, but as gloriously self-conquering heroes and poets. There will be guilt, there will be shame, there will be despair, there will be black moods and black days, there will be suffering.

If there isn’t, then we’re not really waking up and giving birth to our real self; instead we’re going more to sleep.

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

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[T]he aim of a genuine spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a person’s spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life go in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.

The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life in all its vastness and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and welcome the fears and anxieties and demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some object as a protection against such forces.

Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of discomfort and annihilation can our contact with what is Divine, and with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable. The more we learn wholeheartedly to confront the world and a patterned way of living and reacting that threatens us each with isolation, the more the depths of our own being will be revealed and the more the possibilities of new life and inner transformation will be opened to us.

(– Karlfried Graf Durchheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pp. 107-108)

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It should be clear at this point that just as crucial and essential as our capacity to recognize the truth is and will be in helping us to heal and grow and hence “save” ourselves, our capacity to cope emotionally with truth and reality will be essential and requiring addressing. Because it’s not just about how willing we are to see the truth about ourselves and others and life. Rather, it’s about how willing we are to cope with it emotionally—how willing we are to take the hit, bear the full brunt of the narcissistic injury, the laceration to our pride and comfort and tenuous sense of security and fragile sense of self. Peck defined mental health as an ongoing dedication to reality regardless of the cost emotionally to ourselves. Meaning, our own emotional comfort and tolerances for stress cannot be the determining factor (limiting belief) in how much of life and truth we bite off—we can bite off or we ought to bite off. When it comes to truth, our eyes have to be bigger than our stomach—bigger than what we can take in and digest emotionally. We have to be gluttonous toward the truth, let ourselves be overwhelmed by it, flooded by it, fall to absolute pieces because of it, if that’s what’s in the cards for us. Because every bit of truth about ourselves that we spare ourselves or put of for some future imaginary tomorrow when we think will be strong enough for it, leaves more and more room now for more lies and for further dishonesty to take root in us. More weeds, more rocky soil. If we’re not getting busy saving ourselves, then we’re getting busy further damning ourselves—we’re just making more and more room in our life where fear and self-deception can take root and enter and reenter and cover over our still small voice of conscience and love—that small part of us that recognizes truth and thrills to it and aspires heroically to it—irrespective of the consequences to ourselves.

What Peck is telling us by defining mental health as an ongoing dedication to truth and reality irrespective of the emotional cost to ourselves, is that we are stronger than we think we are. How strong or not strong we think we are is what gets in the way of revealing the truth about how strong we actually are or could be if we just once had the courage to act bravely and beautifully just once and get outside of our own heads and let what wants to happen to us happen to us—if we did this, it would in all likelihood show us that we are each stronger than we think. That what limits us each more than anything else is our own minds, our own preemptive apprehensions, our fear of fear, our own fear of being overwhelmed, our own fear that we’re not strong enough. If we just had the courage to get out of our way and get out of our head and let life press us to the test, we’d see—and we’d see differently afterwards because of it—for having acted just once with courage and beauty—that alone nudges our level of being up a bit, and increases our level of differentiation. . . .

Gurdjieff said that people won’t change or grow or wake up until they are horrified about the truth of who they are and how they’re living. It’s only the truth and being fiercely dedicated to it and fiercely determined to listen to it and hear it and withstand the perhaps oftentimes fierce leveling blows it strikes to our comfort and pride and self-deceptive self-image that will set us free—you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. For most people, truth, reality, is too tough and too rigorous of a subject matter to cope with emotionally—the truth about themselves, their life, their possible place existentially in the universe in the grand scheme of things—these ideas are too overwhelming, too disorienting, too stressful to consider fully and honestly. And so in order to protect themselves, most people have to do two things: they have to dramatically cut back and limit how much of life, themselves, their actions, their motives they’re willing to see and take in and consider and reflect upon (which means in general that they must live a more superficial and distracted life where they never really have any “free time” to think about these things—these things that they actually have no interest in thinking about because they are so

And secondly they have to start lying to themselves, deceiving themselves, bullshitting themselves, spinning their own behaviors, telling themselves all sorts of rationalizations (rational sounding lies); basically they have to corrupt themselves, avoid truth, light, reality, and cripple themselves, make themselves even more unfit for life, cage themselves up in a myriad of ways, a live like Rilke’s “Panther.”

For the vast majority of us, our weaknesses will always be the best predictor of how much we can grow and wake up in life. In love, the person who loves the least controls the relationship. In regards to ourselves and our own relationship with ourselves, it will be what’s worst in us that will run and hijack the show, not our strengths.

Unless. . . . unless we get so fed up with ourselves, so fiercely determined, we cut off all ties with all of the lies in our past and live only and only in the truth, like Jim Carrey’s character in Liar, Liar, or Jeff Bridge’s character in “Fearless” (I don’t want to tell any lies”).

Death can do this for us. It can end all of our bullshit.

Two people have been living in you all of your life. One is the ego—garrulous, demanding, hysterical, calculating—; the other is the hidden voice of wisdom you have only rarely heard or attended to.” (Sogyol Rinpoche, in “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”) And death will lay bare these two voices, these two aspects of our being, and finally fully expose ourselves to ourselves for what we truly are. This is judgment day—when we finally get to see ourselves fully revealed for who and what we are, and either suffer the final and eternal damnation of being horrified by ourselves and what we’ve done in life and how timidly and avoidantly and deceptively and meanly we have lived, or when we will see ourselves as we are, with love and pride, like a proud parent looking upon their child who has succeeded in some hard-fought and long pursued endeavor. That, the latter, is heaven.

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So what do you think the last 2 and 1/2 months—the past 14 years—have been like for me if thoughts like these no longer phase me. How much of my own and the world’s horror have I likely had to take in to no longer be phased or overwhelmed by such thoughts—by thought that most people would consider too heavy or depressing or grim or glum? To me, these thoughts are the easy part. The hard part is how to help bring myself and others to the point where we’ll actually live them and translate them into action.

As I wrote elsewhere, several days ago, for most of us, by the age of thirty, we have lost most of our psychological plasticity and our character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

Thus, if we often falter in life and flinch or fail in giving our best effort when life or difficulty puts us to the test and we consistently bail out and opt for the easy way out (the path of least resistance, whatever partially-baked solution most seems to promise some gain of immediate gratification and or tension-relief) of whatever sticky situation we’ve put ourselves in, before we know it our integrity and our will (the effort-making capacity in us) will be gone in us, and our wandering attention will wander and mislead us with even more skill and tenacity, and our fears and insecurities and weaknesses (what’s worst in us) will direct us with even greater skill into all sorts of even more debilitating dilemmas, crises, and calamities that are of our own making, that are self-chosen, that we have brought upon ourselves and those around us who we purport to “love” and “care” about because of our own highly honed and highly-toned avoidant and self-protective tendencies.

And in order for us to find ourselves at all bearable to live with in such a condition, we will have to become very, very proficient at lying to ourselves, very, very skilled at deceiving ourselves, at avoiding by any means necessary the truth about ourselves.

We will have to divorce ourselves completely and perhaps irrevocably from any realistic sense or assessment of ourselves. We will have to take up full-time residence in a full-fledged fantasyland.

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

“Really?”

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

“Why? I won’t believe you.”

“Yes you will.”

“Why?”

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

(from the motion picture “The Town”)

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Unless—unless—we have the courage to enter into a very honest and remarkably truthful conversation with ourselves—or to enter into such a conversation with another, a friend, a therapist, a guru. If we have the courage and willingness and desperation to write tender, agonizing, explicitly honest and probing letters to ourselves about ourselves out of sheer frustration, exhaustion, horror, and then read these letters back to ourselves and see—face—withstand see ourselves for what we are and bear the full force of our own words staring back at us, there is hope for us. But if we cannot do this—converse in someway honestly and deeply with ourselves—or with another about ourselves—then we will never change. Never. —Or at least not until it’s too late—not until we’re on our deathbed or trapped inescapably in a plane plummeting to the ground—in which case it will be too late, because we will have wasted our lives, wasted our time here on earth, avoiding ourselves, protecting ourselves emotionally, deceiving ourselves and others; we will have been nothing more than just another confirmed troubled guest that darkened the earth during his or her brief time here.

The hell to be endured after this life that theology tells us about is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves and others in this world by habitually fashioning our character in the wrong way and unleashing it—which is to say—ourselves—on the entire world.

The City” (That We Each Are) – C. P. Cavafy

You said, “I will go to another land,
I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found,
One better than this.
My heart, like a corpse, is buried.
How long must I remain
In this (self-made) wasteland?
Wherever I turn here, wherever I look
I see the scorched and blackened ruins of my life
Where I have spent so much time
Wandering and wasting away
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You will find no new lands,
You will find no other seas.
The city you are
and constantly trying to flee from
Will follow you everywhere.
You will roam the same streets elsewhere
Age in the same neighborhoods
Grow gray in the same houses.
Always you will arrive again and again
At this same doorstep
In this same city.
Do not hope for any other.
For there is no ship for you,
There is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner,
you have ruined it in the entire world.

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

“Why? I won’t believe you.”

“Yes you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers. . .”

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Who sits down and writes and journals and has conversations like this with themselves? Who can emotionally cope with having such a conversation with oneself—a conversation where we will fucking hate the answers—a conversation of that honesty and depth and truth? Who is brave enough or daring enough or exasperated and desperate enough (has hit rock bottom and doesn’t have still some shred of pride that prevents us from admitting so) or horrified enough to risk this honest and transparent of a conversation and not let oneself lie to oneself? Who can emotionally cope with having this raw of a conversation with another?

It’s easier to have conversations where we just bullshit ourselves with ourselves, where we just feed ourselves (delude ourselves with) the facile easy answers that we want to hear, and ask slushy softball type questions that we can go to town on and have a heyday with. Who doesn’t, when they come to talk to themselves or journal and stand in front of their emotional and psychological mirror, in some form ask of themselves, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, show me all of my good points, make me feel good.” Who doesn’t do this? Who wants to see themselves warts and all, take in their full potential and actual loveliness as well as horror, the good and the bad and the wretched?

What must life get to for you for you to be this honest with yourself? What must it have been like for me to have gotten me to this point?

What will it take you for you to get even more serious about living more honestly and courageously? Will it take finding a lump? Will it take a near-car accident? Will it take the undeniable hardened crushing steel of an actual accident to wake you up, to remove the cake of scales from your heart and eyes? Will it take a diagnosis? Will you have to be in a doctor’s office and hear him or her tell you that there’s nothing they can do, that you have only months to live? Will you have to be struck down by news like that and turn white and ashen and ghostlike before you will actually wake up and get serious about actually inhabiting your life and being fiercely honest with yourself? Is life for you destined to be wasted and misspent and just one big bullshit-fest until something catastrophic and inescapable seizes you and leaves you no wiggle room? Or will you always find wiggle room no matter what and opt to turn white or faint or go numb or go into shock or deny the truth, deny reality, right up until and through your last breath?