Love, Impermanence, Uncertainty, Fear: Which Wins?


I read this on another blog—an advice column blog called “Dear Sugar.”

This is the question that was asked:

Dear Sugar,

I’m 29 and dating a man that I adore; we’re planning to move in together soon. I have a stable job that I hate, but I hope that I’ll one day find something I enjoy. I have family and friends and hobbies and interests and love. So much love. And I’m desperately afraid that I’m going to have cancer.

I’m terrified that sooner or later, I’ll be diagnosed. My mother had breast cancer when I was in college. She survived hers, but in some ways, she didn’t. It broke her, Sugar. My father died of liver cancer when I was in high school—he was never lucky enough to be counted “a survivor.” My grandmother had a brain tumor when I was a newborn; she didn’t live to see my first birthday. As much as I take care of my health, as much as I try to be careful, I have this niggling doubt that my genes are setting me up for failure.

I know you can’t tell me whether or not I will have cancer, and I know you can’t tell me when. But what I’m struggling with—what I need help figuring out—is how to make the decisions in my life while keeping this possibility in mind. You know the decisions I mean: The Big Ones.

How do I decide whether or not to get married? How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it? I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself? How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through? How do I prepare myself?

Scared of the Future

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And this is the answer I would have given:
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Dear Scared of the Future,

Those questions you asked are REALLY good questions—or can be—if—ifyou don’t let them make you totally neurotic. Meaning, if you can achieve and maintain some precious *balance*—accept the wisdom and perspective and appreciation for life that these questions bring, but refuse the neuroticness and craziness and shrinking from life that they also tempt us with.

And it’s very a tough balance to find and maintain.

Most people don’t think too much about death, and so they tend to make decisions without much perspective, clarity, and or wisdom: they live and love as if life goes on forever—or if it’s at least supposed to go on for a very very long time into the future.

And living in this way invites people to live rather badly and superficially—to skim the surface, to take themselves and others for granted, to consume and shop and buy and spend, to live for themselves, to become greedy, to lust for power, prestige, status, et cetera. In short, to live in denial, and in a way where they are forced to limit and guard their awareness and what they will permit themselves to think about.  Only the safest and superficial things are permitted to be thought about and talked over.

And then if they’re lucky, they get some sort of wake-up call at midlife or soon thereafter—some sort of brush with death and their own mortality. And if that wake-up call actually wakes them up, then they live better, make changes, rethink their life, have a metanoia, live with more grace and appreciation and kindness and perspective. Death does that. Or at least it can.

But this is not your lot, SotF. Living in denial is not your predicament. You’ve been touched by death—by the death and near-death of those nearest and dearest to you. Losing your father in high school? Unbelievably tragic. Your mother’s battle with breast cancer while in college? That was strike three. The verdict: Life can’t be trusted; life is tenuous, fleeting at best; we are fragile, I must be next.

You are wrestling with some pretty profound questions and realizations, SotF. Questions that wise people have wrestled with and become wise for having had the courage to wrestle with—while not letting themselves lose their passion and wonder for life.

The Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” Sickness, old age, death: these things cannot be avoided. But most people try—try desperately, try to avoid these, try to avoid thinking about these dark shouters, these inevitables. It’s called self-preservation: and it’s hard-wired into our DNA; we’re riddled with it. Yet because of this—because of how avoidant most people are in terms of facing their own and other’s mortality—most people wind up impoverishing themselves, leading lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. Leading lives where they try to distract and anesthetize themselves in a myriad of ways—addictions, relationships, sex, shopping, impulsivity and fanaticism of every kind, mindless reading, elaborate new age metaphysics and soft-minded mumbo-jumbo. And they live and love poorly, badly, superficially, because of it. Because they lack courage. Because they are afraid—and too afraid to face (and really *feel*) how afraid (and lost) they are. There are numerous ways in which we human beings check out from the full intensity of living and loving. There are numerous ways we humans have devised in order to try and avoid suffering and feel like we have some control over our fate and over death.

“There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” – R. D. Laing

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”

But, again, this is not your lot, SotF. Your situation is different: How do you find (and maintain) balance between the lessons that having death over your left shoulder is teaching you (“carpe . . . carpe diem . . . seize the day, make your life extraordinary . . . !”), and not letting death and the uncertainty you feel in terms of your own remaining life-span make you totally skittish? How do you live and love well and fully amid all of this uncertainty and fear? For you, the question is not: How would I live if I knew I only had one year (or 5 years) to live? It is: Now that I know not to take anything and anyone for granted in life, what do I most want to experience, and who (if anyone) do I most want to experience that with? Who do I want to go through time with—whatever time I have left and he has left? How do I most want to spend myself and my time?

Death is certain; the time of death is not. This is true for us all. Maybe (perhaps even likely, I don’t know) because of the history of cancer in your family, the odds are a bit increased that your time may be up a bit sooner rather than later. But death wins and life loses if you go too far and swing to the opposite side of the equation—if in ways you don’t even realize you are shrinking from living and loving and refusing the gift.
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How do I decide whether or not to get married?

If you love this man deeply, if knowing him has changed your life in ways you could not imagine and still cannot fully fathom for the better and vice versa, if knowing each other is bringing you both more alive, then you look him in the eyes and promise to love him with all that you are for as long as you can and then you go out and do this. Every day. That is the essence of carpe diem.

Read Schweitzer’s essay “Overcoming Death” in “Reverence for Life” (pp. 67-76), read chapter 14 (“Sex, Love, and Death”) in Schnarch’s book “Passionate Marriage,” read C. S. Lewis’s words in the chapter on “Charity” in “The Four Loves.” And watch “Shadowlands,” watch “The Notebook,” and if this is how you feel about your beloved, if this is who you are and who you aspire to be at your core, then marry him, give yourself fully to him, and LOVE him with all that you are and aspire to be.
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How do I look in to the face of this man I adore and explain to him what he might have to go through if I am diagnosed? And worse, if I don’t make it?

If he loves you, if he truly loves you, he will consent to all of this; he will sign on for it. Love is not about sparing someone else inevitable pain or trying to shield them from the brute inevitable facts of life. Love is about facing reality bravely, courageously, with grit, resolve, kindness, compassion, depth, understanding, openness.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” ― C.S. Lewis, “The Four Loves”

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I’ve already decided not to have children. How can I saddle a child with something that I don’t even think I can face myself?

Then death may have already won and claimed you. Consider that. Consider with what you are saying here whether death may not have already won. Consider that.
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How do I plan for the future when there may be no future to plan for? They say “live your life to the fullest because there may be no tomorrow,” but what about the consequences of “no tomorrow” on the people that you love? How do I prepare them for what I might have to go through?

It’s not your job to prepare your spouse or to protect him from your death. Every person has to prepare themselves for their own death and for the death/loss of those they love. Every person has to do this for themselves. No one can do this work for anyone else in life. And having to do this work and prepare for one’s own death and for the deaths of those we love is a horrific thing to have to do; but the alternative—trying to avoid this and spare ourselves and others this—is even more horrific. It leads us to live superficially at best and badly at worst.
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How do I prepare myself?

Be gentle with yourself, treat yourself kindly, and read (Pema Chödrön’s books would be a great place to start), think, write/journal, contemplate, talk, listen, love, live, walk, observe, participate, develop a spiritual practice, meditate, appreciate, be grateful, cry, weep, be open, smile, laugh, breath. Most of all breath. Be good to yourself, be kind to yourself, let yourself love and be loved—yes, this most of all—let yourself really love and be deeply loved.

Nothing is guaranteed. This is so difficult to accept, and like everyone else you are having difficulty accepting this, but you are approaching this from a much different starting point than most. But the crux is still the same: to accept that life does not offer guarantees, and thus to learn how to live and love on life’s terms, and not your own. Acceptance means surrendering some of the control you are so desperately craving; it means relinquishing this, easing up your grip on the proverbial wheel; it means learning to live and let live—it means to let yourself live and truly live.
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And this is the answer that Sugar gave:
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Dear Scared of the Future,

There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth.

Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in ration and reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?

Is there credible evidence that my friends secretly don’t like me very much or were they all simply deep in conversation when I walked into the room and it took them a beat to say hello? Was the acquaintance who said, with class sizes that big, I’d never send my son to public school, actually saying that I was a second-rate mother, recklessly destroying my children because there are thirty kids in their classes, or was she simply sharing her own complex parenting decisions with me? When I receive letters from people who disagree passionately with a particular piece of advice I’ve given in this column is it true that it would be absolutely impossible for every reader to agree with me on every point or that I’m a stupid piece of know-nothing shit who should never write again?

If you asked me to draw a picture of myself I’d draw two. One would be a portrait of a happy, self-confident, regular-looking woman and the other would be a close-up of a giant gaping mouth that’s ravenous for love. Many days I have to silently say to myself: It’s okay. You are loved. You are loved even if some people don’t love you. Even if some people hate you. You are okay even if sometimes you feel slighted by your friends or you sent your kids to school someplace that someone else would not send her kid or you wrote something that riled up a bunch of people.

I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.

So will yours if you let it, sweet pea.

You have my deepest sympathy and my most sincere understanding, but you’re not thinking clearly on this. You’re granting the crazy lady way too much power. Your sorrow and fear has clouded your ability to be reasonable about your mortality. And if you continue in this vein it’s going to rob you of the life you deserve—the one in which your invisible inner terrible someone finally shuts her trap.

You do not need to look into your lover’s eyes and “explain to him what he might have to go through” should you be diagnosed with cancer. Tell him about your family’s experiences with cancer and about how you made it through those difficult times. Share your fears with him, and your grief. But don’t make the illogical line from your relatives’ real illnesses to your nonexistent one. Only the crazy lady is pretty convinced you’ll get cancer and die young. All the rest of us are entirely in the dark. Yes, you need to be aware of your risks and monitor your health, but do so while remembering that in most cases a genetic history of any given disease is only one predictor of your own likelihood of getting it.

Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You are a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be when and of what.

That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we’re all part of whether we sign up to be or not—the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong.

You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.

Yours,

Sugar

http://therumpus.net/2011/12/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-92-your-invisible-inner-terrible-someone/

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You’re the Same Today As You Will Be in Five Years Except for TWO Things…


I came across this quote somewhere in the blogosphere/twitterverse today.

You’re the same today as you will be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read. Think about it.”

And after thinking about it for a bit—yes, thinking—I responded:

Interesting and very thought-provoking statement (from Charlie Jones). But I don’t find it to be a completely true statement, only partially true—the statement is certainly an overstatement (just like “we are what we read”). But, nonetheless, it is still a fairly profound quote and a good reminder to watch what we read—and not waste time reading mediocre books but instead be daring enough to read something that is truly substantial—and also to perhaps live and love and (be)friend (instead of de-friend) a bit more widely than we might otherwise be apt to do.

Think of it this way—are you the same person today as you were five years ago except for the books you have read and the people you have met in that interim?

I know that I’m not.

At least not completely.

Two years ago my mom died after a 10 month battle with cancer that I witnessed and supported her through firsthand. So certainly deaths and losses and life crises (earthquake, tornado, hurricane, job loss, health crisis, divorce, et cetera) can have a very significant influence on us (and, yes, of course their influence depends on the thoughts we think, which arguably are largely influenced by the books we read and the people we meet as well as the people we surround ourselves with.)

In the last five years, I’ve also deepened my photography skills and traveled a fair amount, especially through the Southwestern US (AZ and UT and Southern CA in particular) and consider myself fortunate enough to have seen some very sublime sights and to have taken some perhaps fairly sublime photos. And that too has changed me fairly significantly, it has deepened me as a person, helped me become even more patient and creative, not to mention attentive (especially to details).

Turret Arch through Window Arch at Sunrise; Arches NP, UTTurret Arch seen through Window Arch at Sunrise, 2008, Arches NP, UT (my photo)

And these are just two examples from my own life that do not fall in line with the quote from Charlie Jones.

But I do get the gist of what he’s saying—Read small and live small and isolate yourself and you will largely waste the next five years of your life—and likely develop a neurosis or two to show for it. On the other hand, open your heart and your mind a bit more, live and love and befriend a bit more courageously and live the questions, and you will likely have (much) more to show for the next five years of your life. The choice is yours. Think about it.

What I’m saying is that I think the statement would read better and truer if it were rendered along the lines of: “In five years, you’ll largely be the same as you are today except for the books you read, the thoughts and ideals you think about and focus on and strive and extend yourself for most often, both the people you decide to love and surround yourself with as well as the people (and causes and ideals) you decide to dislike or hate or take a stand against, and, lastly, the crises and transitions you face. Think about it.”

Not nearly as quotable, but certainly much more true and realistic.

“‘You are the same today as you’ll be in five years except for two things, the books you read and the people you meet.’ Read all you can. Think about what you read carefully, and carefully think about what you’re reading. If you read nothing but comic books, you’ll get nothing but expert comic book knowledge. Read history books. There is nothing you can’t learn from history and biographies.

“Reading builds your mind and expands your thinking. In a world where the average American reads one to two books a year, if you read just one book a month you’ll be ahead of the pack ten fold. Remember though, that you have to think about what you read. Apply it to your life and realize how it could impact your own experiences. Learn from it. Finally, share it. Knowledge is nothing if it is not given away freely. If you give because you have, you’ll develop a greater capacity to give. Share everything you learn and always be thankful. The first sign of greatness is thankfulness.” Scot Giambalvo and Charlie Jones, http://www.modeweekly.com/1996/0896/0896CharlieJones.htm, http://tremendouslifebooks.org/tv/about-being-tremendous

The heart of my life is books. My favorite saying is this: ‘You are the same today you’ll be in five years except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read.’ In every turning point and crisis of my life, there’s always been a book that helped me think and see more clearly and keep laughing and keep looking up and keep my mouth shut. . . . When people come to my office, they come to talk to me. Instead of conversing with me like they think they are going to do, I get them reading. I pick out some great books and have each person read three or four sentences. I just received another email from a person recounting how his life was changed by learning the power of reading together—rather than talking. I just can’t get over the power of a little book—sometimes only 30 or 40 pages—that literally turns and shapes an entire lifetime. Yet most people say, ‘I don’t read.’ My heart aches for those people since I remember when I didn’t read because I was so ignorant. In my case, I was always blessed because I was ashamed of my ignorance; most people are proud to be ignorant. . . .

“This is how it all started. Years ago, I discovered that people throw away your business card. I could never imagine that people would be dumb enough to spend money on something that people throw away. I am not brilliant, but I am not dumb either: I gave away books as a business card and wrote my name and phone number in the book. People never threw them away! So I have given away hundreds and hundreds of thousands of books over the years and people remember me around the world. Many people say, ‘You’re the first person who ever game me a book.’ What makes you different is not what you have in your head, it is what you have in your heart. It is reading that helps you see more clearly and grow: You can not be interesting if you do not read.” – Charlie Jones, http://www.leadernetwork.org/charlie_jones_february_06.htm

Albert Schweitzer on Love, Death, and Gratitude


(This is my abridgment and arrangement and adaptation of pp. 67-76 of “Reverence for Life.” It comes from a sermon Schweitzer preached Sunday, November 17, 1907, at the morning service at St. Nicolai’s Church.)

A man and a woman who love each other have not experienced everything together in life unless, looking at each other, the questions have occurred to each: What would become of you without me? And what would become of me without you?

Something deep and sanctifying takes place when people who belong to each other share the thought that every day, each coming hour, may separate them.

In this awareness we always find that the initial anxiety gives way to deeper and very important questions: Have we given each other everything we could? Have we been everything we might have been to one another? Is there anything we would like to undo, something we wished had never happened or that we had not said?

We sense that perhaps we can better bear the parting if we have treated each other with such love.

What a different world this would be if we dared to look deeply at each other, if we kept in mind the prospect of being torn unexpectedly from each other. We each would become more sacred to one another because of death. So much of what we value, so much of what captivates us and engages us, so much of what we fight over and bicker about, is only of temporary worth. In an instant, in the very next hour, it may become utterly valueless.

We all pretend toward one another that the possibility of each other’s death or our own could never happen. No other rule of behavior is so scrupulously observed as this. Most people around us still live in bondage to death. They won’t mention death’s name, and they refuse to think about it. You as well as I can see the unnaturalness of this conspiracy—this conspiracy of silence by which death asserts its rule over modern man. Let us observe ourselves at this very moment. Look at our involuntary embarrassment. We know each other; we share the thought that we all must die. And although we feel this strange embarrassment, I believe that we also can share an awareness that can help us to overcome the thoughtlessness with which death is usually ignored.

Often, as we look at ourselves and others, we realize how poorly and disjointedly we have been living at times. This is because we have not yet made it a practice to think honestly about death and therefore we have not achieved an inward from the unessential things in life.

We must each become familiar with the thought of death if we want to grow into really good people. We need not dwell on it every hour or even every day, but let us not close our eyes to it either.

Thinking about death in this way produces a true love for life. When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as the gift that it is. Only if we are thus able to accept life—bit by bit; as something we owe of ourselves, instead of something owed us—does it become precious.

Only familiarity with the thought of death creates true, inward freedom from material things. The ambition, greed, love of power, lust for security that we keep in our hearts, that shackles us to this life in chains of bondage, cannot in the long run deceive the person who looks death in the face.

Rather, by contemplating our end and the futility of so many of our pursuits, we eventually can be purified and delivered from our baser selves, from material things, as well as from the fear and hatred and jealousy that isolate us from our fellow men and women.

So how can our normal lives and interactions be transformed? By regarding, in moments of deepest concentration, our own lives and those who are part of our lives as though we already had lost them to death, only to receive them back for a little while.

The person who dares to live his life in this way, with death before his eyes, the person who receives life back bit by bit and lives as though it did not belong to him by right but has been bestowed upon him as a temporary gift, such a person has much freedom and peace of mind because he has come a long way in overcoming death.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we cannot make these choices with impunity.

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

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

(Thomas Merton)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we all have done this.

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

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

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

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

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

The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” – Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does Spirituality Mean to You?


Do you have a spiritual practice?  And is it truly a spiritual practice?  And how can we know if what we consider to be a spiritual practice, truly is a spiritual practice?  What is the proof?  What are the fruits?

For me, a true spiritual practice is a practice or discipline that allows us to truly take on and deal with what is worst and weakest in ourselves–and others–and contend with it in a fairly mature and loving/compassionate way, and even overcome it and not let it run and or ruin our lives. 

And so for me, a spiritual practice means organizing my life and my days and my thoughts around certain key ideas and principles/virtue: courage, Love, truth, goodness, self-transcendence, impermanence, death, loss.

Ultimately self-preservation is a flawed strategy. Self-protectiveness will always only be temporary successful.  As will avoidance. What we most fear will one day have the upper hand on each of us will indeed one day have the upper hand on us.  Perhaps sooner rather than later.  And there is no escape from this fate. There’s no avoiding this eventual reality. On a long enough timeline self-preservation, self-protection, and avoidance will always fail.

So what else does spirituality mean to me? It means sobriety—meaning in this sense not necessarily living free from drugs or alcohol, but living free of the inebriants of lies, distortions, and crazy discursive cloudy confused thinking.  Spirituality means clarity; it means thinking very clearly as well as seeing very clearly; it means not living in denial, not perpetually numbing and deluding ourselves and taking up residence in an avoidant world of fantasy and lies and distortions and self-protective isolation—isolated from what might undo us, from what threatens to bring us face to face with ourselves, from whatever lies outside our carefully controlled comfort (i.e. control-freak) zone.

A true spiritual practice seems to be the only means we have of trying to transform and transcend our self-protective and avoidant tendencies. A true spirituality (as opposed to all of the false pseudo-spiritual practices and religious dogma that are around) means learning how to squarely face life’s losses—life’s inevitable and necessary losses—including our own and others’ deaths—and not shutting down or isolating ourselves in response to these losses and the threat of these losses, and living an uncourageous closed-off life of perpetual avoidance and self-deception and denial as a result of our fear, anxiety, nervousness.

The reality is is that there is a clock ticking for each of us.  As well as for each one of those we love and depend on and care about.  And a true spirituality begins with this in mind—with the end in mind—and does not cheat on or cheapen this.  And it keeps this end in mind as often as possible; so much so that it actually makes a difference in our lives and in how we make decisions—we consult our own and others’ deaths, we think about what will matter when all is said and done. We get down to the heart of the matter and cut through our own bullshite and denial. If we are living and loving as if life goes on forever, as if it’s still early on in the first quarter of the game of life and we have all the time in the world, then we’re living and loving in denial. We are asleep. We are spiritually blind. We are just another troubled guest darkening this earth and causing more nonsense for ourselves and others because of our denial, our escapist tendencies, our reality- and truth-avoiding tendencies.

Spirituality also means learning how to truly Love. It means how to transcend the smaller self—the weaker and errant and even evil and malignant and toxic parts of the self (instead of trying to protect and save and preserve and keep them). It means surrendering our smaller self, giving it up instead of preserving it, holding on to it, and remaining attached malignantly to it.  It also means committing ourselves fiercely to becoming our best self and to loving and living more passionately and deeply and mindfully (with much greater awareness). To allow ourselves to be anything less than our best or near-best at any moment is to be wasting that moment of our life. It is to be living in denial of our own and others’ mortality. There is simply no time to lose. When we waste time we are living in denial. When we allow ourselves to be sidetracked, distracted, anesthetized, intoxicated by unessential and trivial things, we are living in denial–in denial of the ticking clock.  When we live without appreciation and gratitude and love for those around us, we are wasting that moment of our life. Life is short and capricious; there simply is no time to lose, no time to waste. We cannot truly love another if we do not have the relentless ticking clock near-constantly in mind and understand that the clock could run out suddenly, without warning, at any moment. To live in a way other than this is to live in denial; it is to be asleep; spiritually blind; to be wasting our lives.

Already the ripening barberries are red
and the old asters hardly breathe in their beds.
Whoever is not rich now will wait and wait

and never be himself.

It’s all over for him, he is like a dying man.
Nothing else will come to him; no more days will open
and everything that does happen will cheat him.
—Even You, my God. And You are like a stone
drawing us each daily deeper into the depths. 

-Rilke

Ultimately the refusal to face ourselves and to face what most truly frightens us in this world is a refusal to grow. It is to make fear our master and send love to the gallows. This world is full of lost and sleeping and frightened souls who build their lives around convenience, playing it safe, the path of least resistance, who habitually confuse the easy way with the right way, who cannot get their mind and heart out of the prison of their own self-protectiveness and fears; people who when they make a mistake go to even greater lengths to avoid correcting their mistake, and in doing so make even more senseless and unnecessary mistakes.

Any wine will get us drunk, wrote Rumi. So many things in life will numb and anesthetize us and titillate the little monkeys in our mind.  Only truth and genuine love combined will truly sober us up and free us from ourselves–from what’s worst and weakest in ourselves.

So what does spirituality mean to you?  What (spiritual) practices do you have that are not just bringing you peace of mind, but also bringing you closer to reality and to being able to handle life’s inevitable losses with greater equinamity, efficacy, grace and perspective?

The person who, being truly on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world, will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive. Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it, thus making of it a “raft that leads to the far shore.”

Only to the extent that a person willingly exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.

In this lies the dignity of daring.

Thus, the aim of a 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 truly spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broke and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let go his futile hankering after harmony, surcease of pain, and want of a comfortable life 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 and encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and face and confront the demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some objects as a protection against such forces. Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation, can our contact with what is Divine, with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.

The more a person learns whole-heartedly to confront a world and way of living that threatens him with isolation, the more are the depths of the Ground of Being revealed and the possibilities of new life and Becoming opened for him.

(Karlfried Graf von Durckheim, “The Way of Transformation,” pp. 107-8)

What “Carpe Diem” Really Means


I posted this on another person’s blog in response to her post. Here’s a snippet of her post. You can read the full post here

2011 Lesson #2 : Don’t Carpe Diem

Every time I’m out with my kids – this seems to happen:

An older woman stops us, puts her hand over her heart and says something like, “Oh- Enjoy every moment. This time goes by so fast.”

Everywhere I go, someone is telling me to seize the moment, raise my awareness, be happy, enjoy every second, etc, etc, etc.

I know that this message is right and good. But as 2011 closes, I have finally allowed myself to admit that it just doesn’t work for me. It bugs me. This CARPE DIEM message makes me paranoid and panicky. Especially during this phase of my life – while I’m raising young kids. Being told, in a million different ways to CARPE DIEM makes me worry that if I’m not in a constant state of intense gratitude and ecstasy, I’m doing something wrong.

And I posted the following response–

Carpe diem isn’t about enjoyment, it’s about appreciation, first and foremost, and from that deep appreciation much more enjoyment will flow.

It’s about having more and more of what you call “Kairos” moments each day. That’s carpe diem.

But you’re young. And young people aren’t supposed to have a lot of perspective and be able yet to truly appreciate what they have. That’s just the way we’re built are as human beings. We’re built very myopically, with a lot of blind spots. That’s just how we come equipped into this world.

In order for any of us to truly appreciate what we have we first have to lose things, people especially. We have to have our hearts broken and wrung, we have to know that tomorrow is not a sure thing, that our own health is not certain, that the health of those we love is not certain, that accidents and tragedies do happen and can happen at any time on any day, even a bright blue sunny day. Otherwise, we will tend to live blindly and not really get how lucky we are and how good we have it.

Frankly, we’ll come across as a little spoiled.

The other route we have to learning how to better appreciate what we have is to develop a genuine spiritual practice that encourages us everyday to realize what we have and realize how quickly it can all change (for the worse) and be taken from us. This can be mediation first thing in the morning, reading something of substance, journalling and blogging, et cetera. But it needs to be some sort of spiritual practice that allows us to get perspective, to come closer to the bigger questions and issues in life, to get down to the “heart of the matter”—to what really matters in life. It needs to be a practice that encourages us to begin with the end in mind, to begin with our own and others’ fragility and mortality in mind. That’s what “carpe diem” is all about—

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying

This same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying. That’s the essence of carpe diem, or “seize the day.” Not living in denial. Not choosing the path of least resistance—meaning the path that doesn’t trigger our insecurities and fears.

Yet carpe diem—appreciating what we have—is also completely contrary to how we’re built and how we’re hard-wired. We’re never satisfied. We always want more, want newer, want better. But more importantly we live and love blindly, myopically, as if death and loss are far away and far off things that will never touch or at least aren’t suppose to touch us now. But I guarantee if they’re not touching you today or tomorrow, they’ll be touching someone else in a way that you don’t want to imagine and with a pain you cannot begin to comprehend.

This world is heartbreaking, yes. It’s beautiful and brute-iful. You have that right in your lovely “Meet Glennon” essay. And, agreed, it would be great to be able to go through this life armored up against the pain and tragedy inherent in this world. And people still try. They still go for armor. And the ultimate armor is our minds, how we use our own thinking to help us deny the pain in this world and anesthetize us to it—how we invent stories and reasons why we don’t have to get perspective, why we don’t have to think about death or tragedy. The human mind is a never-ending source of wonderment when it comes to inventing rationalizations (rational lies) that will support it in not having to face reality or deal with painful truths.

My suspicion, Glennon, is that you don’t like what those people are saying to you not because it’s not true, but because it is true and you recognize that, but you would prefer not to have to deal with the consequences of admitting that life and health are fleeting. You don’t want to face the pain of thinking about what these strangers’ words (including my own) really mean. You don’t want to have to feel those feelings right now—what it might mean to permanently lose someone you love or to see your children grown and gone and this chapter of your life closed. You don’t want to have to feel that sorrow and process those intense emotions.

But who does?

But life is always in the right and always gets the last word. We’re going to have to face certain brutal truths sooner or later, so why procrastinate about it?

Especially when doing so sooner rather than later is what will likely allow us to live better, more deeply, more humanely, more lovingly, less selfishly, less blindly, with eyes and heart more rather than less open.

The tag line to your blog is “Stepping Back, Slowing Down, and Focusing Up.” That might be very apropos here in reference to what you wrote. A great idea might be to rewrite the post, and revisit the subject, but this time from a different perspective. Visit a hospice ward, think about what it’s like to be 40-years old and married and in love (not necessarily a contradiction in terms, lol) and struggling with infertility; think about what it would be like to be a parent who has lost a child; go to a nearby children’s hospital or Ronald McDonald house. In other words, play devil’s advocate—or, really God’s advocate—with your own thoughts and what you wrote here today.

Because as unpleasant and even horrifying as those sorts of things are to think about, it’s thinking about them that may well allow you to really appreciate the good fortune you have. That’s what these strangers are suggesting to you. because if it’s not happening to you, then it’s happening to someone else in the world—someone else is losing a child, losing a spouse, losing a pregnancy, losing their family, finding out they have cancer, et cetera.

There but for the grace of God go you and I.

That’s the essence of “carpe diem“—being truly grateful and deeply appreciative—Tony Robbins Personal Power type gratefulness; “great news the cancer is in remission” type joy and appreciativeness, the plane isn’t going to crash today gratefulness.

So why take the easy path and be cynical about “carpe diem“? Why not question yourself and your own thinking and see if there’s something you might not be able to learn from these likely well-meaning strangers and elderly folk. Why argue for what perhaps may be a fairly significant blind spot in your own thinking and your approach to life.

As the poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you can know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.”

It may be the same for appreciating what we have.

That’s what all this carpe diem “live like you’re dying” stuff is really all about . . . about not actually having to lose things and people, but getting real with ourselves and really thinking about certain things ahead of time and while there’s still time. How would you feel tomorrow morning if you got up and something in your life had suddenly changed for the worse—your health, your husband’s health, the health of one of your children? How would you feel? That’s the essence of what these people are saying to you—Carpe, carpe diem, Glennon, don’t wait till it actually happens, don’t just enjoy what you have, be profoundly heartbreakingly earth-shatteringly grateful for it, as you’ll likely wish you would were to actually lose someone.

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


Or “Get Busy Loving or Get Busy Dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and laziness are deeply interconnected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.” ― Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Again there’s no neutrality in this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Either we get busy loving or we get busy dying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I am a safety-first creature.

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

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

But not to my conscience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A person must make a choice.”

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Why love if losing hurts so much?

I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived.

And twice in that life I have been given the choice:

As a boy . . .
. . . and as a man.

The boy chose safety.
The man chose suffering.

The pain now is part of the happiness then.

That’s the deal.

( – from the motion picture “Shadowlands“)

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

.

 

“The Truelove” – David Whyte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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