The Waiting


waiting-room - 2

My mom died from metastatic melanoma a little over 3 years ago.  She found her first lump in mid-Feb of 2009 and she died about 10.5 months later.  She lived here in town near me, we had a good relationship, so I accompanied her through the entire process-through all of the consultations, appointments, treatments, et cetera.  I was there at her bedside much of the time during her last weeks, including when she died.

I learned a lot about waiting during that time.  Most obviously, there were the many waiting rooms where I would wait with my mom before her various appointments.  Then there was the waiting for test results—PET scans, MRIs, CAT scans, blood counts, et cetera.

And then there was the waiting that took place during the last couple of weeks of her life when it was clear that all of her treatment options had been exhausted, that the cancer was incurable, and the end was nearing quickly.  During that time, when I was at my mom’s bedside and she was sleeping, I would try to wrap my head around the concept that there would soon come a time when my mom would no longer be here.  There was going to be a clear and absolute division, a time in my life before my mom’s death and then the time after that.  And that time was coming soon.  It was a lot to try to wrap my head around, not just emotionally, but even intellectually.

And then one day it did indeed happen.  My mom did indeed die.  And then life with my mom ended, and life after my mom started.

I don’t have a grand philosophic point in mind as I am writing this.  Just a sense of similarity, but in a different direction.  I am waiting again, in a very turning-point sense again.  This time for the birth of my first child.  At 45-years old, my suspicion is that one appreciates this much more and much differently than when one is 25 or 30—or had this happened for me when I was 25 or 30.  45-year old me has lived more and seen more and read more and thought (and written) more—thought (and written) a lot more—than the 30- or even 35-year old me.  30 or 35-year old me hadn’t yet lost his mom, hadn’t yet had Rilke’s writings open up to him like a 3-D picture because of the ending of a particular relationship.  35-year old me wasn’t yet into photography, had only begun exploring Bowen and Schnarch’s writings on “differentiation of self,” was just starting to get a sense of what the world (and many of its inhabitants—human inhabitants) were really like beyond the façade and the veneer.

At 45-years old, becoming a first-time father means something more to me because there’s more of me for it to mean something to.

As Rilke put it, “The richer/deeper we are inwardly, the richer/deeper too is all that we experience.”  Something like that.

As I said, I have no grand philosophic insight in mind in writing and sharing this, no pie-in-the-sky Eckhart Tolle-like living in the now while still waiting take on this.  Just the simple observation that waiting for a new life has something in common with waiting for a death.  Just the simple observation that while my daily life is going on and while I am making preparations for this new member of the family, I am also temporarily in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for this latest crescendo-like turning point in my life to actually occur—this next *life-will-never-be-the-same-again-afterwards-as-it-was-before* type event, but in an opposite and much more joyous direction.  Hopefully.  Hopefully, meaning my child is not yet born, my wife has not yet gone through this labor and emerged healthy and having given birth to our son yet.  But so far, everything looks good, very good.  Any day now.  Any day now and my life will change in ways that I cannot fathom.  Any day now, and that line will be crossed—the line separating the time when I was not yet a biological father and was still waiting to become one and the time when this new chapter of my life will start.

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The only tidbit I have approaching a bit of advice is this:  Wise people think about death.  Their own and others’.  They have a realistic relationship with their own mortality and thus with others’ mortality as well.  It’s not a depressing relationship or a morbid one, but a very life-enhancing and perspective-giving one.  As in the real meaning of carpe diem—being very grateful for and appreciative of what one has, not sweating the small stuff, not going through life childishly and angrily with a hole in one’s soul that nothing can fill.

We live in a society where the concept of growth has been usurped and externalized to mean improvement and is measured in material ways—home improvements, lifestyle status improvements, social improvements (“How to Win Friends and Influence People”).  Advertising has us convinced that if we improve the externals of our situation—take a vacation, redecorate the kitchen, put on a new coat of paint, get a fancier car, travel here or there, somehow gain more attention adulation and fame—then we’ll be happier, or then we’ll finally make it—or at least get closer to this.  And for some this does seem to work to some extent and perhaps for a while.  But it’s my experience that for this strategy of roundabout self-pseudo-improvement to work, there has to be a fair amount of self-delusion and self-deception in play, as well as some sort of psychic numbing and placating in addition to the shopping and consumerism—alcohol, antidepressants, et cetera (arguably even with some people religion).

Our own mortality and fragility and brevity is a lot to wrangle with.  And at first, this wrangling can be very very unsettling—very anxiety-provoking and or very depressing and nihilisitic (life has no meaning, paint it all black)—anything but life-enhancing and perspective-giving and empowering at first.

And clearly this is where many people get caught.  We get our first brush with death—someone close to us dies, or we start being haunted by thoughts and intimations of our impermanence and cosmic brevity—and we spin out, dive headlong into a superficial life of appearances, of psychic numbing, of distractions and dissipation, of the pursuit of status and advancement and travel, of checking things of our bucket list—self-indulgent things that we think are ultimately important but that in actuality likely really won’t be.

Or maybe our dive isn’t headlong; instead we just go along even more fervently with the crowd: no else seems to be integrating their own mortality into the fabric of their everyday decision-making, everyone else seems to be chasing after the wind in one form or the other, so why not join the crowd and chase after it too?—after all, what else is there to do in life with one’s life?

But there also seem to be those who have endured the first line and very powerful dissuaders of depression and anxiety and who instead of turning aside from a more realistic relationship with life and with their own and others’ mortality and fragility and brevity, have stuck with it, wrestled with and through the depression or fear and panic, and who have come to some deeper and more abiding sense of perspective and wisdom.

And it’s this realistic relationship with death has much to do with their wisdom, with having made them wise.  Arguably, a realistic relationship with our own impermanence, with our own brevity and fragility, is the only source of real compassion—compassion that doesn’t merely involve the limbic system, but that also includes the higher brain—the neo-cortex, the frontal lobes, our conscience and our consciousness.

When we are living in denial, when we live and love and fight and argue as if life goes on forever, we live and love without perspective, and arguably, without much depth or appreciation.  Real compassion, real wisdom, stem from developing a realistic relationship—instead of a denial-based relationship—with our own mortality and with our place is the universe.  Mortality is a lot to haul; it’s a lot to wrestle with; it can be unfathomably frightening and unsettling and disorienting, but it might just be what ultimately saves you, or lets you avoid living a life of quiet or unquiet desperation and un-appreciation.

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Denial & Impermanence


“We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it. We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration. We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death. We don’t like it that our bodies change shape. We don’t like it that we age. We are afraid of wrinkles and sagging skin. We use health products as if we actually believe that our skin, our hair, our eyes and teeth, might somehow miraculously escape the truth of impermanence.” – Pema Chödrön “The Places That Scare You

Life 101


The Ideas of the Shipwrecked” – Jose Ortega y Gasset

Take stock of those around you and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life.

These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.

…….

Dragon-Princesses” – Rilke, August 12, 1904, Borgeby gard, Fladie, Sweden (from “Letters to a Young Poet,” letter no. 8; this is my combination and paraphrasing of separate translations by Stephen Mitchell and M. D. Herter Norton)

To speak of solitude again, it becomes clear that at bottom this is not something that one can choose or refrain from. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. But that is all.

Yet how much better would it be to recognize that we are alone; yes, even to begin from this realization. It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes are used to resting on would be taken away from us, there would no longer be anything near us, and everything far away would be infinitely far. It would be as if a person were taken from his room, without any preparation or transition, and placed on the heights of a great mountain range; he would feel something of the sort: an unparalleled insecurity, an abandonment to something inexpressible that would almost annihilate him. He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces. And what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses!

This is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly, and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, extraordinary imaginings and strange new sensations arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable.

But it is necessary for us to experience that too.

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can. Everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.

That human beings have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.

To say nothing of God.

But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we don’t think we can cope. For it is only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude anything, even the most incomprehensible and enigmatical, who will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we think of the existence of an individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners. And we have little reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is likely not against us. If it has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses in all likelihood belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. If only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien may become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps many of the dragons in our lives are actually secretly princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So try not to be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloudshadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. So why would you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions might be doing inside of you?

……..

And this is my slight paraphrasing of something else Rilke wrote in “Letters to a Young Poet” (in letter no. 4, I think )–

I would like to beg you, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. And try not to be too overwhelmed in your search for answers, many of which probably could not be given to you yet at this point, because you would not be able to really live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. And then perhaps someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action


Your Personal Philosophy—the Examined or Unexamined Life in Action

I suppose I could have also titled this post: “The Truth—will it set you free or will it cause you to break cleanly with reality and go bat-shit crazy?”

We all have a personal philosophy. Our personal philosophy is simply our approach to life—our way of approaching life and dealing with what we encounter. There are really only two ways to approach life: either we approach life—all facets of it—in a thoughtful and examined way; or we opt not to. —Meaning, at some point we unconsciously decide that thinking will open up too many painful doors and bring up too many terrifying and unanswerable questions, and so we decide to limit that part of ourselves (the thinking and conscious part) and we try instead to lose ourselves in work, play, relationships, Facebook, et cetera. Essentially, it’s the “any port in the storm” approach to life—a life of hiding out from what we fear most—the emotions that most frighten us—terror, panic, anxiety, shame, inadequacy—and the thoughts and experiences/situations that will likely trigger these emotions—these intense and overwhelming emotions.

And sadly, such an approach limits our humane-ness as well as our growth and development. It is the ultimate act of self-limiting—to opt to curb one’s awareness and one’s thinking and instead lead a timid and an unexamined life and hide from what most frightens us.

Yet it’s what almost all of us instinctively and naturally do. It’s our default. A default that’s been bred into us through thousands upon thousands of years of natural selection. Self-preservation—the will to survive—is our default. And nothing helps us more in this than automatically seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Thus our personal life philosophies have been instinctively built around avoiding and retreating suffering and difficulty and discomfort and anything that might cause us mental anguish or unsettle us, and chasing after good vibes and good feelings. . . .

But . . . there tends to be a problem with this approach to life . . .

“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”

There are certain sufferings that likely cannot be avoided—sickness, old age, loss of love, death. But in our youthful exuberance, ignorance, naiveté, and feelings of omnipotence, we think we actually can play hide and seek with the dark parts of life and avoid suffering—at least for a very long time into the future.

And so part of doing so involves automatically limiting our awareness and our thinking—not exposing ourselves to thoughts and ideas that might cause us to suffer. Who in the spring or summer of their life wants to think about the inevitable coming winter? Who wants to think about death and loss and sickness and old age and poverty and the pains and sufferings of one’s upbringing?

It’s easier to just sweep all of that stuff under the psychological carpeting and out of our conscious mind, and keep the party bus approach to life rolling.

We’re all afraid. That’s a given.

And certain amount of suffering is inevitable; it’s unavoidable; it’s part and parcel of being alive and living.

Thus our dilemma.

Either we approach our lives very honestly, in fear and trembling, and with eyes and mind wide open; or we do so with eyes and mind frightened and quickly closing and shutting down, always squinting, always nervous and apprehensive about what they might see around the next bend or read in the next book or blog post.

In my early-teens through my early twenties I used to routinely avoid TV shows like “Cosmos” or anything that mentioned the Big Bang and the ultimate fate of the Universe. If the Universe began and ended like this, then what’s the point? Everything comes to naught. Why live? Why live for anything other than as much immediate and overwhelming pleasure and ego-gratification and enlargement as possible? Why not try to lose oneself in pleasure and the stream of life and try to lose oneself completely—after all, the alternative is too much to face, too much to bear? And as for God, where is there room for God in such cosmology? 13 or 14 billion years ago, the Universe blasted itself into existence, and millions and millions of years of evolution took place and have all come to this point—this point where I am alive, aware of myself, aware that I will die, aware that before me there was an eternity of nothingness, that before the beginning of the Universe there was what?—and that I will die, perhaps in a hideous or random way as will those around me, and then everything will fade to black, and there will be an eternity—an eternity upon eternities—after me; the Universe will turn cold and motionless, or it will perhaps collapse upon itself—and perhaps start again and everything will repeat itself exactly, again and again; or perhaps everything will be different the next time through. Or perhaps the Universe won’t start again, and me, my life—whatever I am, whatever I make of myself and my life—will be swallowed up and lost in the folds of all of this, just like everything and everyone else.

Those were the questions of my youth and young adulthood. And they still are, except they don’t fill me with me as much terror; things don’t seem as bleak and or grim. I still don’t hold out much hope for an afterlife—not that I wouldn’t relish being proven wrong.

I think that what’s changed for me—or in me—are two things. Firstly, I tolerate the questions better—I think that a bit of “desensitization” has taken place—not that I still am not occasionally filled with terror at all of the above and spin out in panic; I just don’t spin out as dramatically or for as long—or as easily. So a bit of desensitization has taken place. Plus, I’m 44; I’m “over the hill”—I’m likely past the halfway point in my life—and perhaps well past it. I’m less afraid across the board than I was 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve watched firsthand as my mom wasted away and died from melanoma a couple of years ago; I watched as my grandfather wasted away and died of old age and some age-related disease that I can’t recall the name of; I’ve had a woman who I thought was my best friend betray me; I’ve experienced other break-ups and losses and betrayals and disappointments in love. In other words, I’ve taken my fair share of dings and nicks and dents in life. One headlight. My nerve-endings and emotions are generally just not as sensitive and raw as they used to be—they’ve been broken in; I’ve been broken in. I just don’t get as surprised as often as I used to (not that I still can’t be surprised!) The blinders are largely off—I know how hideous and weak people can be and what they can do to another because I’ve been on the receiving end of this several times. I’ve watched people do to me and to others unconscionable horrible things—all in the name of illegitimately avoiding their own suffering—and things I was powerless to stop. Live long enough and honestly enough and that’s just the way it is—life does this to everyone—tries to break us each, or at the very least, it breaks our engine in. The question for us is: do we join in the decline of western civilization and start mistreating others because we have been mistreated and so pass on our pain onto others? Or do we take a stand against this way of life and try to metabolize and soak up some of the pain and misery in the world and make something decent of the suffering that is given us—do we try to make art, wisdom, something beautiful of it and or ourselves? Do we become one of life’s works of art—whether others appreciate it or not.

In my late teens and early twenties, I had no problem passing my pain onto others—I was running from myself, from life, from the big questions in life; I was afraid, weak, underdeveloped, out of shape psychologically, ill-equipped emotionally for life (not that I still may not be; just perhaps a bit less so, hopefully!). I had no problem hitting the bars, mistreating my body with cigarettes and alcohol and fast food, and looking to meet a woman who was mistreating herself similarly and see if she wanted to go home for the night and metabolize a little of our avoidance and stuffed down existential pain together. . . .

That’s a snapshot of me in my late teens and early twenties—just going along with the prevailing winds, doing whatever the other largely mindless, soulless, unthinking nitwits around me were doing. Basically I was leading an unexamined life; I wasting my mind—at least trying to—and perhaps wasting my life.

And then I went through a very painful break-up and betrayal. And the best way I can describe it is that the pain of that experience—the pain of those months of my life (the summer of ’97)—was worse than the rest of the pain I had been running from. And those pains that summer turned out to be labor pains—or perhaps I turned them into labor pains. I’m not sure how to attribute it. Either way, I had a Jerry Maguire type birth of conscience and a different way or level of thinking and of seeing the world. Something clicked in my mind and I could see very clearly that I had been running from a lot of things in my life and that that running was all in vain; I saw myself very objectively, very clearly, and I saw very clearly how all of my previous ways of trying to deal with pain by not actually dealing with it but by passing it on to others and spreading my misery or emptiness or unhappiness around had rendered me as a pretty weak and cowardly little shell of a person.

I had unwittingly been participating in my own demise; I had unwittingly been making myself in many ways an emotional wimp.

But, during my twenties I had also done some things that would ultimately save me from all of this—save me from myself, from what’s worst and weakest in myself, and from living like a weak little nitwit who reactively tried to eschew everything difficult and uncomfortable and ultimately unavoidable in life from his plate.

One of the things I did was to go to college and get my degree—degrees actually. I got my degrees in two fields that interested me the most—philosophy and psychology; and I almost got a third degree in religion/religious studies.

In the course of my studies I took a course on Buddhism where I learned about a way of life where people actually (!) faced life and faced honestly what was unavoidable in life—sickness, old age, death, loss, parting.

I also took two English classes where I was required to keep a journal and write 5 or 10 handwritten pages a week (this was in the olden days!) on anything I wanted to write about. It was a habit I would return to frequently throughout my schooling and after I graduated—and I’m so thankful I did!

I also took a class on poetry—a class where we were forced to write a poem every few days if we wanted to pass the class—that was the seeding of another fortuitous habit/hobby!

I also started reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, and a little of Kierkegaard and Rilke (though I didn’t start really “reading” Rilke until I was in my late-30’s after another painful break-up/betrayal. All I really got from Rilke in my 20’s was that immortal line: “You must change your life.” I knew that for sure. That line hit me over the soul with a sledgehammer).

I also was trying to read M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“—but by and large, the books that have impacted me the most were not books that I came across in college, but were books that I read after I graduated. Nevertheless, along the way, some seeds of conscience and intellectual and emotional honesty and courage and self-awareness were replanted and re-nurtured through some of what I was introduced to in the course of my studies in psychology and philosophy and a few of the teachers I had during those years.

And then everything that had been planted in me—or that I had helped plant in me—all came to fruition—into bloom—and how fortunately!—in the summer of ’97, in the midst of all of my inner turmoil and agony over the ending of a 3.5 year relationship.

In the midst of all of that pain, I read and wrote and thought voraciously—I read and wrote and thought for my very life! And after about 3 months of doing this—and getting very little sleep each night—something clicked for me. I had what the Buddhist’s term “a moment of satori“—or great insight and clarity—about myself, my life, life, and how flawed my up till then approach to life and difficulty and suffering had been. It was for me the psychological equivalent of what in Christianity is termed a “metanoia“—a deep paradigmatic shift, a radical figure-ground reversal, a complete change of heart and mind and life direction.

And since then I’ve found my soulmates—the books that have more than their fair share of tell it like it is / in your face truth—M. Scott Peck (anything by him); “How Could You Do That!?” “Ten Stupid things Women Do To Mess Up Their Lives”; “A Return to Love”; anything by Krishnamurti; Rilke, Rilke, Rilke, and more Rilke; “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”; C. S. Lewis—his essay and nonfiction books; Thoreau—especially his section on reading in “Walden”; Emerson; Kierkegaard; Jacob Needleman; Gurdjieff; James Hollis; David Schnarch; Murray Bowen; Maslow; “The Denial of Death” by Earnest Becker; Simone Weil; “The Little Prince”; Pema Chödrön; Chögyam Trungpa; the Buddha; The Gospel and First Epistle of John; the Old Testament Wisdom books; Montaigne; “The Nicomachean Ethics”; Roger Housden. And the list goes on.

Our lives are the way they are in large part—if not wholly—because of how we think / the way we think—about ourselves and our lives. Our lives bear witness to our thinking—as well as to our lack of thinking and thus our fears. What we are afraid of—what scares us, terrifies us, threatens us, stresses us out, might potentially undo us—we don’t think about—we don’t permit ourselves to think about.

But some of us having something in us that likes to play with this fire—with this fire of truth—that knows that we need to get a little bit closer to this fire and even get burned by it—perhaps even risk getting annihilated by it.

This fire—the fire of truth—is the only fire worth playing with. It’s the only thing that will really warm us. And it’s the only thing that will potentially save us—from ourselves, and from the sufferings inherent in life.

Philosophy—the real stuff, not the stuffy academic nonsense—is fundamentally about wisdom and creating the conditions that will allow for the transmission of wisdom. Meaning philosophy at best is about learning how to think—both logically/reasonably, and also humanely. It’s about learning to have the courage to ask and perhaps even to try to provisionally and tentatively and humbly even answer the big questions in life—why are we here? for how long? what happens after we die? why is there something rather than nothing? is there a God? and if so, what is he or she really like and what does he or she want out of me? how am I to live so that when I come to die (or when get a terminal diagnosis) I’m not filled with terror and fear, or I don’t look back on my life with regret, and realize that I have wasted my life out of fear and convention and servicing other’s expectations of me (just filling a role)?

Our lives are the way they are because of our personal philosophies—our beliefs and ideas about what is and is not worthwhile in this life, what will make us happy, and what we need to avoid or eschew in order to stay safe and content. And how thought-out and examined or unthought-out and unexamined these beliefs and ideas are.

Our lives are philosophy in action. Each of our lives is either the examined or unexamined life, the heroic and courageous or the avoidant and timid life in action. And thus as a whole or in parts it may well serve as a cautionary tale to the dangers or the excesses of one or the other way of life.

The Buddha said, “All we are is the result of what we think; with what we think we make a life.” Something along those lines.

There’s either the more or less examined life, or the more or less unexamined life; a life of learning and growth, or a life of fear and comfort and avoidance.

There’s really no neutrality in this.

There’s no avoiding this choice—try as some (or many) of us may.

Either we think and deal heroically with the pain that comes from thinking honestly and seeing life as it is; or we live thoughtlessly, forsaking thinking and the largest part of what makes us most fully human and potentially humane, and we try to pass as much of our fear and suffering and cowardice onto others and make them pay, in place of us, the cost of our living.

The Last Taboo—Thinking Honestly and Deeply About Oneself and One’s Life


We arrive here with few clues as to where we came from, and even fewer clues as to where we’re headed.  Our time here on earth is but a fleeting tiny little stopover; the only certainty before us is death.   Whether we claim to be religious or nonreligious matters little.  I think what matters more, much much more, is the extent to which we have reflected on our lives and acted upon the fruits of those reflections with sincerity, commitment and courage.

Dealing directly with philosophic and religious issues of death and dying and the meaning of life brings us face to face with what may be the last and greatest taboo of American life.  These subjects are seldom the topic of conversation at the typical American dinner party, or even in intimate discussions among friends, where people are much more likely to focus on work, family problems, the economic and political issues of the day.  Discussions about moral and spiritual questions are seldom encouraged; and if you do bring them up, you run the risk of offending your host or putting off people.

This aversion to spiritual and existential matters makes sense.  We want answers, not problems; and we certainly do not want uncertainties.  And I think we realize—even if perhaps only subconsciously—that when dealing honestly with spiritual and moral questions we are dealing in mysteries, the insolubility of which we find deeply discomforting and unsettling.

And much of what we call daily American life is about this discomfort and the manifold ways we seek to deny or avoid it—a problem that is further magnified by the many subtle and not so subtle ways that our capitalistic advertising-driven society discourages reflection in order to promote impulsivity and spending and encourage consumption.   As Roy Walsh, a psychiatry professor in San Francisco, put it—

“[Y]ou can see that basically our lives are, to a large extent, spent in avoiding confrontation with ourselves. And then you can begin to make sense of the enormous amount of our culture’s daily activities that attempt to distract us from ourselves, from deep reflection, from deep thinking, from existential confrontation. There’s a wonderful phrase by the philosopher Kierkegaard, ‘tranquilization by the trivial.’ And I think our culture has mastered this better than any culture in history, simply because we have the wealth and means to do so.”

(Abridged and adapted from Phillip L. Berman, “The Search For Meaning,” pp. 5-6)

Gurdjieff on Self-Deception and Truth


One must learn to speak the truth.

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

But it isn’t.

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

Therefore nobody ever understands either himself or anyone else.

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

Of course not.

So people cannot understand because they cannot help lying.

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

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

And this nobody wants to know.

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