What Does It Mean to Be “Awake” in Life?

Is This True

What does it mean to be awake in life?

In large part it means being able to ask, “Is this really true?” when speaking to oneself, when speaking to others, or when others are speaking to you (or when reading what another has written).

Being asleep in part means not being able or willing to evaluate the truthfulness of statements and one’s own or others’ thoughts.

Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, the blogosphere — all of these are exploding with person after person sharing their “wisdom” and posting their pithy bon mots and platitudes. And many of these platitudes are simply not true, or only partially true or occasionally true, yet many appear as categoricals/universals, not situationals.

To me, being “awake in life” is synonymous with leading an examined life–a life of ever-increasing awareness, noticing, observing, attention, paying attention, commingled with reflection, pausing, contemplating, pondering.

And such a life is, when it comes to listening to others (or even ourselves and our own stories–narrations of reality and statement of the (facts”), in large part based upon being courageous and inquisitive and aware enough to ask the question: Is this really true?

Is this really true?

If we can’t/won’t ask this question, much less try to answer honestly, then we are subject to whatever lies, bias, propaganda, slant, deception, is being sold or marketed to us.

We live in a world that is becoming more and more fake and fraudulent, more and more driven by deception, sleight-of-hand, unauthentic-ness / inauthenticity, bullshit.  Deep down I suspect that many of us want real connection, real trust, real intimacy, for someone to have our back and for us to have someone else’s back just as much.  But we are living amidst a culture of false advertising, a culture of trickery and deception.  What we see on TV isn’t real.  We don’t see real life, but heavily edited and directed reality shows.  We see products being sold that over-promise on what they claim to be able to deliver.  We see people gussy themselves up behind make up, toupees, et cetera.  On-line dating sites are full of people not being real but claiming to be real and claiming not to be into games.  Without being able / willing to pause and ask “Is this really true?” we’re an easy mark–we’re highly gullible and suggestible and manipulable.

Is this really true?

This is such a large (and ignored) part of what being truly vulnerable *really* means: Being vulnerable actually means openly stating what we believe, putting out there (for all to see and to debate and even criticize) our deepest convictions and opinions and principles, and then having the courage and the respect to allow others to ask of us (in their own way): Is this really true?  If we don’t allow others to question us, if we hide behind platitudes such as “it doesn’t matter what others’ think” or “forget the haters and the naysayers, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter won’t mind,” then we’re not really “daring greatly” and we’re deceiving ourselves about living out loud, or living vulnerably.

The proof of truly living openly and vulnerably is in whether the person is open to receiving criticism.  And being open to criticism means being able to deal with it by pausing and asking “Is this really true (what the other person is saying)?”–this is the only way of legitimately dealing with criticism / a different point of view.

Is this true?

The Pursuit of Happiness Doesn’t Always Make You Feel Happy—and, in Fact, it Shouldn’t; and Here’s Why

Becoming a “better” person—becoming more centered, emotionally mature and stable, principled, conscientious, (yes, all of these nice adjectives and virtues I like to list), pensive, reflective, composed, affable, joyful, (you’re almost at the end of the list o’ adjectives), good-natured, kind-hearted, generous, patient, courageous, humorous, happy—isn’t always an easy or a happy and joyful process.  At times it can be quite difficult, quite a struggle—and even make us feel bad.

Gretchen Rubin, in her book “The Happiness Project,” sums up this seeming paradox up quite nicely—

“Six months into my happiness project, although each day I felt more joy and less guilt, had more fun and less anxiety, the areas that had been toughest for me when I started were still the toughest.  I was continuing to struggle to keep my temper and to be generous.  In some ways, in fact, I had made myself less happy; I’d made myself far more aware of my faults, and I felt more disappointed with myself when I slipped.  My shortcomings stared up at me reproachfully, in the form of X marks instead of checkmarks, from the page of my Resolutions Chart.

“One of my secrets to adulthood is ‘Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy,’ and  a heightened awareness of my failings , though salutary, wasn’t bringing me happiness in the short term—but in the long term, I was sure, I’d be happier as a consequence of behaving better.  I was comforted by the words of my model Benjamin Franklin, who reflected on his own chart: ‘On the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been had I not attempted it.’ ” (pp. 163-4)

Sincerely trying to become a better person will indeed help you become a better person—likely a *much* better person— than had you not tried focusing on becoming a better you.

It’s like taking up golf or tennis.   You become a better golfer or tennis player by actually playing the sports—picking up a racquet or set of clubs and hitting some balls.  You won’t become a better golfer or tennis player—you won’t even become one, period—unless you first pick up a racquet or set of clubs and start hitting some balls.  If you want to be become a better person—more mature and stable emotionally, more brave and courageous and persevering, more composed and reflective, more kind and affable—then you have to make the decision to start, to take up the challenge, to make the attempt—to try and start behaving in those ways (the ways of a better person) more and more often.  You have to practice those behaviors and patterns and attitudes that lead to betterment, clarity, wisdom, happiness, perspective, moral goodness.

It’s really that simple.

And that difficult.

The theory is simple—and really inviolable.

But the practice and application are more difficult—perhaps even much more difficult, depending on where we’re starting out from—i.e. our current level of psychological fitness, our upbringing, our emotional state.

Practicing behaviorally the behaviors of a better version of ourselves will require mindfulness, focus, resolve, initiative, proactivity, a good memory, will-power, some modicum of discipline, et cetera.  Just a thimbleful at first is all that is needed.  Just 20 seconds of raw courage.  Just some shred of self-discipline—because that’s the irony about developing self-discipline: it requires some iota of self-discipline, or some external discipline and outside motivation, to develop it.

And some of us, by virtue of good genes and or good upbringing, may have a head start over others, who because of not as good genes and or a tougher and less favorable upbringing, may have the deck stacked more against them.

But regardless of how favorably or unfavorably our deck is stacked, action—doing—getting off our butts and our buts (excuses, rationalizations, justifications)—is essential.—

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.  This is the case with the virtues: by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.  The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; rather it makes a very great difference: it makes *all* the difference.” – Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 1 (http://nothingistic.org/library/aristotle/nicomachean/nicomachean08.html)

You—me, any of us—becomes a better person simply by *trying* to become a better person—by making the sincere effort and decision to become a better person, and by starting now to do the things that a “better person” or a better version of you would do.

And one of the first things to do is to admit or acknowledge or realize that a better version of yourself does indeed exist and is possible.

Which means paradoxically some form of self-rejection.—

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This goes for ourselves as well.  Too much self-acceptance—I am this way or I am that way and I can’t change it, it’s just the way I am—can be a bad (or stultifying) thing.  Life is change.  Change is certain; but growth and deepening in response to all / some of that change is *optional.*

Granted, self-acceptance and self-rejection tend to be touchy subjects.  Self-acceptance—especially “radical self-acceptance” tends to be en vogue in certain new age and self-improvement circles.  But the concept of “self-acceptance” tends to be a muddy and ill-defined one—even one that is inherently and internally contradictory.  The truth (ok, my opinion; —but it may also be the truth too) is that we can’t—or won’t—grow without the right mix or *balance* of self-acceptance and self-rejection.  Too much self-rejection and we go off the deep-end and plummet into a dismal spinout cycle of violence and or substance abuse or depression, et cetera.  But if we over-correct or if we go for too much self-acceptance, then we will never really change or grow much, and we may well find ourselves surrounded / insulated with people who are as neurotic as we are—people who are blind and or hurting in a way similar or compatible with how we are hurting and or blind, and also opting for more self-acceptance and comfort and healing—and possibly stagnation—than growth and change and depth.  (Maslow divided people into two types: deficit and repair oriented, or growth-oriented.  He posited that most people—the vast majority of people—were deficit and repair oriented; and that perhaps only 2% of people were truly growth-oriented.)

If we can ease up a bit on the throttle of our inner-critic and inner-fault-finder, become a bit more gentle and kind with ourselves as we (hopefully) would if we were mentoring a child, if we can learn, paradoxically, to think more clearly, and improve our own critical thinking skills (perhaps what is often most needed in terms of dealing with one’s inner critic and to silence him or her is to start thinking critically about that voice!), and we can find a healthy and wholesome balance between self-acceptance and self-non-acceptance, then we will have done much to set the stage for some genuine growth and self-betterment.

In fact, just getting this balance right or more in balance is itself a major feat of personal growth.

And success—perfection—becoming a perfect is never the goal—even though the Bible does make mention of this (I tend to suspect that in this day and age, were Jesus to see the poop-storm that the term “perfection” typically unleashes, he might have qualified his words.  Maybe he wouldn’t have, but I tend to suspect he would have).  Instead of perfection—which is something that is outside of our control—i.e. scoring 100% on a test can be done, but likely requires some luck, a couple of good / educated guesses, et cetera; but getting an A on a test should be more doable—so instead of perfect, aim for excellence or improvement.  And maybe something modest, maybe 10% improvement.

In other words, get acclimated to the idea up front that becoming a better person may mean failing, it may mean faltering and stumbling, it may mean some missteps and wrong paths; it may mean feeling bad or guilty or regretful about things you have done or not done.

—And all of this is par for the course.

All of this is to be expected.

None of it is unusual.

You’re going to see a lot of things about yourself that you may not like—that you never did like, but that you were anesthetized to (perhaps in part because of who you had surrounded yourself with—people who didn’t expect much out of you, or people who expected *much* out of you but didn’t have much to offer you in terms of direction and support).

Part of becoming a better person almost always means *losing the blinders,* having the scales removed from our eyes, becoming less desensitized to what we perhaps ought to have been very sensitive to in the first place.

And this is the sort of thing that doesn’t make us feel good or happy when it happens—but that can and likely will lead greater—far greater??—happiness in the future.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

(Which means that a lack of excellence is likely also a habit.)

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

“Ideals (and principles) are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you reach your destiny.” – Carl Schurz

Cultivating the Mind: Resolve to Master Something Truly Difficult (& Worthwhile!)

(Much*—much*—of the following essay has been borrowed, adapted, rearranged, added to, edited, excerpted, taken word for word, from a post Greg Swann wrote on a blog titled “freetheanimal”—http://freetheanimal.com/2011/12/guest-post-greg-swann-and-resolving-to-master-something-difficult-in-2012.html. I want to make this perfectly clear at the outset: MUCH of this post is not my own.  The arrangement of it is; the additions to it are, but much of this post has been excerpted and adapted from a post that Greg Swann authored. And so what I am doing here is displaying the way my mind works—how I process something I read.  First, I read it, and then if it has some wisdom or insight to it and piques my interest, I will sometimes rewrite and edit what I have read so that it squares more with my own experiences and temperament, and so that it says even more what I think is true.  To me, this is an inescapable part of what it means to read actively and critically.)


What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?



Is there anything you can think of that you did in school or college that you’re truly proud of now? —Away from athletics or the school play, was there anything in your academic life where you gave everything you had? Was there anyone else who did that?  Was there any class that you took—ever—where you had to bust ass every day or risk getting hopelessly lost?

And moreover, the reality is that virtually all of us were denied the kind of education that was a matter of expected routine for our grandparents.  To have graduated from high school in the United States in 1880 or 1910 was to have acquired an education far beyond that attained by all but the smallest few college graduates today.

And irrespective of why this may be and how times have changed, we are still largely responsible for the education we received.  Too often we were grade-greedy glib-and-lazy eff-ups who were just phoning it in, doing the minimum necessary to get the grade we desired or that was expected of us from our parents, and not looking to be challenged in school—not looking to take AP or Honors Level courses.  So I absolve myself of nothing in this.  I know how much of the time that I could have spent acquiring an education was wasted on trivia instead, or on tendentious cant, or on outright lies, or on plotting my social life.


And yet the fault is not entirely our own.  So many (some? at least a few?) teachers are of the cash-greedy glib-and-lazy eff-up type—those who by default and not as a vocation or a calling decided that teaching was their best option—an option that gave them the summer off, and a few more vacation weeks throughout the year.   Certainly there are teachers—a lot? some? a few?—who do little to nothing more than the minimum necessary to get the money from and meet the standards of the glib-and-lazy politicians who employ them.

Put another way, how many teachers did you have or even know who pushed you like the teacher in the poem at the head of this post or who inspired you like Mr. Keating did many of his students in “Dead Poets Society”?  How many teachers demand nothing less than your best from you?  How many pushed you beyond what you thought you could?  How many consistently expected and demanded exceptional work from you?

And you weren’t just cheated of an education when you were young, you were cheated out of the full awareness of your own humanity.

Bottom line: You were cheated of an education. And, yes, you were complicit in cheating yourself—with every daydream in class, with every gossipy note you passed, with every sneer, every snicker, every spitball you shot at a clueless teacher or fellow student. With every half-assed, half-stepping, half-hearted effort you turned in, hoping it was just enough to get by—you were cheating yourself of an education that likely was already cheating you.

But that’s over. The past can’t be undone.  So what to do about it? The future is yours to make of it what you will.  You can start changing things with just one resolution:

Resolve to master something difficult.

Tell the truth:  Every time you see a musician performing—popular music or classical—don’t you wish you could do that, too?

The good news is, you can. All it takes is commitment and effort—and time—maybe 10,000 hours.  Maybe more, maybe less.

Mastering a demanding new skill will take a while.

How much progress can you make on any resolution in a single day?  Almost none.

How much progress can you make in a year’s worth of serious, daily effort?  You’d be amazed.  The desire for instant results is how all resolutions, including New Year’s resolutions, get abandoned.  But to learn a serious discipline will require your time every day—an hour or more a day of serious, dedicated effort.  I like the idea of working every day, since, if you take no breaks from the work, you won’t have to resist the temptation to extend a break by one day and then another and another.

The benefits to be realized by putting the time in mastering something difficult are huge—far beyond anything you might be expecting.  First off, you’ll be better for having improved your mind.  You’ll be a better person, too—more independent, more competent, more whole, better able to focus and persevere, less of a whiner and a complainer.  You’ll be better for the effort.  Not to mention wiser, and more confident.  You’ll be more independent, too, more indomitable.  And you’ll be more admirable—to your spouse, to your children, to your family and friends—and to yourself.

Plus, you’ll learn firsthand how to learn something.  You’ll learn about your own resistances, your own blocks, your own laziness.  You’ll also see for yourself just how important resolve, grit, determination, self-discipline, showing up every day, putting the time in, doing your best, pushing yourself, practicing, studying, really is.  After all, mastery of a truly difficult discipline can ultimately *only* be done alone.  Your teacher can help, and, as always, we stand on the shoulders of giants.  But it’s only your brain, working all alone, that can distinguish educere from educare in Latin.  Because in Latin, we can say, “Educere est educare“—to bring up is to bring out.  To cultivate the mind is to liberate it, to lead it forevermore away from the slavery of ignorance.

So no matter what your pedigree, unless you were very lucky, you were cheated of an education when you were young.  And right now you can begin to amend that deficit.



One of the blogs I follow and on occasion read is a blog titled Analyfe. Erin, the writer of the blog, is an intelligent 20-something year old, who lives somewhere in Arizona, and who has an undergrad degree in psychology (I think). I stumbled on her blog a year or so ago (or maybe vice versa, she stumbled upon one of my blogs; I don’t know or remember), and what I enjoy most of all in her writings is her “searchiness” and the time and thought she puts into her posts. I don’t always agree with her posts or her conclusions, but I am very appreciative that she actually has depth to her thinking and writing; and so even if I disagree with something she has said, it often will end up as good food for thought for me—which is really what I want most of all out of a blog I read—I want food for thought—whether it takes the form of something profound I’ve never thought of, or whether it takes the form of something that I disagree with but that has been intelligently written, makes little difference to me. I value the food for thought.

What follows is my recent comment on one of her posts—on the surface it’s about upgrading to spiffy new state of the art 4G cell phone, but it’s really more of a musing about living in the moment and the quest for human connection.

Her original post can be viewed here (http://www.analyfe.com/2012/11/12/a-bittersweet-upgrade/).

And here is the comment I left—

Interesting as always, Erin! A lot of food for thought!

And at many points while reading what you wrote, I wondered, Is this really true? (That’s what I do in general when I read: I find myself asking often—is this really true?) And not just true for you, but is it really true in general? Much of what you are expressing is certainly and arguably a fairly popular contrarian / counter-culture point of view. But is it really true?

(And before I go into this, you wrote, “I’ve started writing little notes in Evernote on my phone, instead of in my notebooks and journals. . . .” Just as a heads up, if your phone crashes or gets submerged in water, those notes may be unretrievable.)

At one point, you write about the human connection void—

“I go to the park to read and then feel inclined to share an incredible picture of the lake and trees, because I can. And that bothers me. . . . When I glace up to the trees–still green and lively–and then look around, I notice that I’m alone. Everyone else is fiddling around with the smart phones. I can’t help but wonder: what am I missing? Nothing. I know that’s the answer, yet I pull out my phone and feign productivity. I pretend not to feel the extreme existential disconnect of being in a group where no one pays the slightest attention to anyone else. We’re attempting to fill the human connection void with technology. We’re fooling ourselves into thinking that the feat is even possible.”

Maybe we are. Maybe some people are. But this all begs the question: what does it mean to actually really connect with another human being? What does it mean to reach that essential common uncommon common-ground with another human being?

Over a hundred years ago—meaning well before cell phones and PDAs and the Internet, et cetera—Rilke wrote: “And to speak of solitude again, it becomes clearer and clearer that fundamentally this is nothing that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all. But how much better it is to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization.” (“Letters to a Young Poet, letter # 8)

Yes, even to begin from this realization—existential disconnect, the human connection void—this is our lot: we *are* solitary. As C. S. Lewis wrote (in “A Grief Observed”)—“Alone into the alone.” We are born alone and we die alone. And we may partner up, develop a few seemingly deep friendships, even get married and have children, and still be utterly barrenly irremediably alone—with those supposedly closest to us utterly incapable of understanding us, “getting us,” penetrating us, accessing our inner solitude. And we may be just as helplessly incapable of understanding them and penetrating them to their core. Which begs the question: are we even able to access our own inner depths or core? Most people aren’t. Most people haven’t. Most people are incapable of doing so—understanding themselves let alone another, connecting deeply and meaningfully with themselves (with what is essential in themselves) or with another (connecting with what is essential or deepest in ourselves seems to be a prerequisite to connecting deeply with another).

And is this because of technology or an excess of technology?

Is this because of the widespread availability and use of cell phones, obsessive twittering, facebook updating, pinteresting, even blogging, et cetera? Are we dummying ourselves down through all of this to the point of being ineligible for connecting with others, never mind ourselves?

Is this, in fact, even a new predicament that we modern humans find ourselves in?

Not according to Rilke. Or Thoreau—

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. . . . A stereotyped but unconscious desperation is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them. . . . Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand. . . . Simplify, simplify. . . . Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? . . . For my part, I could easily do without the post office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life—I wrote this some years ago—that were worth the postage. . . . And I am sure I have never read any memorable news in the newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned down, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up . . . we never need to read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications? To a philosopher all “news,” as it is called, is gossip. . . .” (“Walden“)

It would seem that we were solitary and disconnected long before technology made us apparently even more so.

Being disconnected and unable to connect deeply seems to come with the territory of living in denial. To the extent that we’re living in denial, we will be unable to connect deeply with others; and to the extent that we are no longer living in denial, we will be better able to actually connect deeply with others (who are also no longer living in denial), but in reality we will find ourselves still alone—and perhaps even more alone— because the mass of our fellowmen and -women will still be living in denial, still leading lives of quiet desperation (or not so quiet desperation—see Lesley Carter’s blog: http://lesleycarter.wordpress.com), and thus flitting along the surface and dissipating themselves with whatever distractions their particular culture and epoch provides. . . .

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? . . . As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of these things at all. . . . The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, distraction; and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” – Pascal, Pensees,” #’s 167-171, 205 (circa 1660 AD)

I tend to think that the human connection void is due to much more than the prevalence of cell towers, cell phones, PDAs, the Internet, FaceBook, twitter, Pinterest, video games, et cetera. I think these things are merely the latest scapegoats. The reality is most people aren’t in touch with their deeper or more authentic selves, most people aren’t very self-aware, most people don’t lead very examined lives, most people don’t think very critically—especially about their own assumptions and biases and thinking (and I could be a prime example of this), and most people are afraid—afraid of death and living in denial—especially those who say claim they aren’t (in my experience most of those people are living in la-la land; they haven’t truly faced death or a real brush with death or had a long cancer scare—things that might actually lend some credibility to their claims).

Switching subjects, Erin . . . at another point in your essay, you write—

“It’s wonderful that you were able to capture Allison’s first steps or Derek’s first school play, but while focused on manipulating the camera, were you really present in the moment? I went to a concert recently and watched as a girl in front of me snapped several photos, then proceeded to post the pictures to every social networking site and tag everyone she was with. Ten minutes of an enjoyable event was spent broadcasting to her networks that she was out living life. But in those ten minutes, she wasn’t really there. Modern society–myself included– look forward to enjoying memories of these moments but, in doing so, sacrifice enjoying the actual moment. Rather than being present, we choose busyness–completing mundane and unnecessary tasks. We live in an era where most people view playing Angry Birds as a better use of time than sitting quietly at the park to hear the birds sing. Life becomes some big display. Each of us a caged animal–we spend our days priming and posing and trying to impress everyone else. While busy flaunting every tiny detail of our lives, we begin missing out on the big adventures. Worse yet, we set out on spectacular journeys and come back unchanged, but for a few neat photographs. The moments captured, are also moments lost. It seems we so fear losing our experiences–the youth of our first born, an incredible trip abroad, a new relationship, or the shifting seasons–that we make the ultimate sacrifice and step out of those noteworthy events in order to take notes…notes that may hold no future relevance.”

What does it mean to you to be really present in the moment? Why does recording the moment and savoring it later not count as being even more present in the moment? Regarding the girl in front of you at the concert—maybe she was posting pictures on FaceBook or what have you to get her ego strokes and reflected sense of self, but what would her really being there at those ten minutes have really been like? And what would she have after that? Would she be changed deeply as a person because of those 10 minutes? Would she have a deeper memory of the experience? But even memory is fallible. So many studies have been done regarding the unreliability of memory. In my experience. the more we remember something, we often end up remembering our memories and not the actual experience. It’s like making a cassette recording or a cassette recording, or opening a JPEG in photoshop and working the photo and saving it again as a JPEG. Each time the file is saved and compressed—or each time a cassette duplicates a duplicate of a duplicate, et cetera, cassette, quality is lost from the original recording or JPEG. Personally I prefer fact to fiction, so I do plan to take lots of videos of little Allison’s or Derek’s first steps and first kindergarten play. I want to be able to savor the original 20 years from now, should I live that long. And I want to be able to give those recordings to my child(ren). I wish my parents had taken videos of me when I was a kid. I wish they had taken videos of an average day around the house or on a Sunday afternoon outing to the beach. Think of how much those recordings would change the psychotherapeutic process—to not just have to take a client/patient’s word for what their relationship with their mom and dad was like, but to actually be able to get some sense of it. I would love to see with my 40-something-year-old eyes what my childhood was actually like!—the way that my mom and dad tried to parent me, interact with me, how I interacted with my brother and sister, what kind of kid I actually was. Instead all I’ve got to go on are a lot of memories—a lot of very subjective and likely distorted memories.

Thanks as always for the interesting post, Erin, and the food for thought! I hope you are well.

Kindest regards,


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

Active v Passive Reading

There are two ways to read a book: The right or correct way, and the wrong or incorrect way. There is the way a book ought and deserves to be read, and then there is any other way than this.

Most of what is out there waiting to be read—the vast majority of magazines, books, et cetera—has been written either purely for entertainment or for “infotainment”–a quick lively/clever/witty summary of a given subject or idea.  And because most of what is written tends to be lacking in depth and substance, the best way to such material is to read it quickly, without wasting much time—or life—on it.  Much of what is out there vying for our reading time and attention really has little to offer other than the consumption of our time and the weakening of our attention.  Most books aren’t written to be read: they’re written to be skimmed.

Many books may help us to become more clever or entertaining or witty, they may give us something to talk about with others at work or at lunch or at a social gathering, but other than that, most books really don’t offer us much in terms of helping us to become better persons—maybe a more entertaining person, perhaps a more superficially happy and anesthetized person—but not a better and wiser and more substantive person.

The same holds true for why and what to read:  Don’t just read for escape or so that you’ll have something to talk about with others, read stuff that helps make you a better and wiser and more courageous and loving person.

Realizing this long ago has made reading much easier. Why read a given book (an 8 or more plus hour time commitment) if I can watch the movie (a 2 or 2&1/2 hr commitment)? Do I really have so much time left on the clock in my life that I can afford to spend much of it on reading entertaining or infotaining books and magazines? My free time is precious; reading for pleasure (light reading)—which honestly hasn’t been something I’ve done or wanted to since my preteen years reading “The Hardy Boys,” “Encyclopedia Brown,” and “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators”—just doesn’t pique my interest any more. I’d much rather be spending time with my family, or out in nature practicing my photography, or out exercising riding my (mountain) bike or playing tennis. And if I need to be entertained, I’d rather watch a movie than read the book the movie was based on.

So what does all of this have to do with Active versus Passive Reading?

Since most of what is out there waiting to be read is mostly for infotainment or dissipation/escape/anesthetizing, then reading it quickly and passively (skimming it) is completely apropos. Life is too short, too precious.

But when it comes to wisdom books, advice books, poems—potential change your life type stuff—reading these sorts of materials passively is the wrong way to read them.

When we read something passively, we read it quickly, undeliberately, more or less in a way tantamount to skimming it. When we are reading passively, we are not allowing ourselves room to think, to question ourselves, to question our own reactions, to question the author, to dwell and reflect on what is being communicated to us (which may be very little).

In other words, to read passively is to read uncritically and in a unthinking manner.

To read something Actively is to read it not just critically, but deeply, and in a way that encourages and nurtures our own thinking, imagination, awareness.

When we are reading something Actively, we read it slowly. We don’t mow through 50 pages in one sitting—that is evidence enough of having read something Passively or something purely entertaining. Instead when we read Actively, we may be lucky to make it through 5 or 10 pages in one sitting. When we read Actively, we read like a tortise, not the hare; we read deliberately; we read with highlighters and pencil in hand or nearby. We stop—by necessity—every few lines or so because we have read something that is so packed with insight and revelation that we need to pause and read the sentence again, and let our mind wander over and rummage the idea, sit with it for a while, give our own thoughts time to evolve, give ourselves time to ponder and ask questions. Or we stop every few lines or so because something we’ve read has triggered in us several thoughts that we need time to jot down, journal about, ruminate over, contemplate, et cetera. There’s no finish line we’re racing towards. The journey is the destination. The development and exercising and increasing of our thinking, awareness, perspective, is what we’re after.

“The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your meditation has begun.” – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg. 215

If we are truly reading something actively, we will have to stop and consider what we think, explore what we think.

And writing and or journaling our thoughts is a crucial part of this process—the process of Actively reading or digesting something.

In fact, in my experience, once one learns to read Actively, it’s hard to read passively again—or to read things that are written to be read passively. Those faculties that develop and strengthen by reading Actively like to be continue being developed and strengthened, like to be exercised, in fact long to be exercised and used, and not wasted or numbed or atrophied by reading things meant to be skimmed and that do not reward Active reading.

When we learn to read Actively, we have given birth to something in us—to a new nexus of characteristics and capacities within us—and those capacities and characteristics want to live, want to grow and strengthen. They have a will to live all of their own, and because of that, this part of us wants to be well used and not wasted on reading books that are not full of insight and wisdom and rev

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” – George Bernard Shaw

This applies to reading as well. The true joy of reading is not in reading for escape and pleasure, but reading actively, for the exercise of our mind and heart and soul—for our betterment and enlarging our perspective and points of reference.

In some ways, reading is like skiing. Everyone has to start from zero, learning the basics—reading simple books, practicing skiing on the bunny hill. But once you learn to ski well, the bunny hill just doesn’t hold much appeal; you want to test and exercise your skills by skiing a trail that is more in keeping with your level of skill. And eventually you want to try your hand at being a force of nature on the slopes, swooshing down a black diamond run.

In my experience, the same holds for reading once a person has learned how to read Actively; once one has been introduced to wisdom books, other (and arguably lesser) books and materials just don’t hold the same appeal or interest.

Other posts about reading and about books that might be of interest:


Self-Criticism, Mental Health, and Genuine Personal Growth


To me, these excepts all seem to be saying very much the same thing. What do you think?


The very purpose of spirituality is self-discipline. Rather than criticizing others, we should evaluate and criticize ourselves. Ask yourself, what am I doing about my anger, my attachment, my pride, my jealousy? These are the things we should check in our day to day lives.” – the Dalai Lama, Facebook status update, Fri 27 Jan 2012


They call you “Little Man” or “Common Man.” They say that your age has dawned—the “Age of the Common Man.” And the future of the human race will depend on your thoughts and actions.

A doctor, a shoemaker, mechanic, or educator has to know his shortcomings if he is to improve in his work. Yet your teachers and masters rarely tell you what you really are and how you really think. No one dares confront you with the one truth that might make you the unswerving master of your life, because you banish, bully, malign, ostracize, cut off, wall out, exile, crucify anyone whose opinion you don’t agree with. You are indeed “free” little man, but in only one respect: you are free from the self-criticism that might help you to better govern your own life. . . .

Don’t run away: Have the courage to look at yourself.

I can see the question in your frightened eyes, hear it on your insolent tongue: “By what right are you lecturing me?!”

You are afraid to look at yourself, little man; you are afraid of criticism, you afraid of who you can become. You are afraid to think that your self—the person you feel yourself to be right now—might someday be different from who and what she is now—truly free rather than cowed; candid and honest rather than manipulative and scheming; capable of truly loving in broad daylight instead of stealing affection like a thief in the night. Secretly you despise yourself.

You differ from a great person in only one respect: a great person was once a little man, but he developed one very important trait: he learned to recognize the smallness and narrowness of his thoughts and actions.

Under the pressure of some great task which meant a great deal to him, he learned to face himself and see how his own smallness and pettiness endangered his own happiness. In other words, a great man knows when and in what way he is a little man.

A little man does not know this and is afraid to know this.

(Wilhelm Reich, adapted from “Listen Little Man,” pp. 5-7)


Judge not, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not cast pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7: 1-6)


Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps of reality only when we have the discipline not to avoid that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to the truth. That is to say, we must always hold truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more crucial, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant, and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean?

It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine ourselves, the examiner. . . . Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within, and it is certainly because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the majority steer away from it. Yet when one is dedicated to the truth this pain seems relatively unimportant—and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther one proceeds on the path of self-examination.

A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy, rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion. Yet, because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity.

The tendency to avoid challenge is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature. But calling it natural does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior. It is also natural to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth. Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until the unnatural becomes itself second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural. Another characteristic of human nature—perhaps the one that makes us most human—is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.

(M. Scott Peck, abridged from “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 50-53.)