Short Term Life Review


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

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

How about for the past several years?

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

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

The Panther” – Rainer Maria Rilke (my rendering)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant into their presences a new organ of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can destroy the egoism that is now completely crystallized in them.” – G. I. Gurdjieff

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Let death—and let banishment, rejection, misfortune, and every other thing that appears appalling and terrifying and that you’d rather ignore—be before your eyes daily, but most of all death, and you will never again think anything petty or cowardly or mean, nor will you ever desire anything discursive or extravagant again.” – Epictetus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almond Trees in Full Bloom” – Rilke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

“Why? I won’t believe you.”

“Yes you will.”

“Why?”

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

(from the motion picture “The Town”)

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

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

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

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

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

“Why? I won’t believe you.”

“Yes you will.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning How to Deal Better with the Full Intensity of Life by Becoming More Awake and Enlightened AND Conscientious


(This is an updated version of something I posted on Jan 7th of this year on my http://www.realtruelove.wordpress.com blog regarding how to become more awake and enlightened and conscientious. . . .

http://realtruelove.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/becoming-more-awake-enlightened-and-conscientious/)

We do not become enlightened by avoiding what is unpleasant and difficult to look at and to acknowledge about ourselves; rather we become enlightened by becoming more honest and aware of our own weaknesses and darkness. We become enlightened by letting light and truth into those dark dank places within ourselves that we are ashamed of, that frighten us, that we feel are too sensitive or too raw or too overwhelming to look at, those places that make us feel bad about ourselves or inadequate or guilty.

As Jung put it (paraphrasing): “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter alternative, however, is extremely disagreeable and difficult and therefore very unpopular.

Genuine personal development and growth requires courage—real courage—real moral courage. It takes incredible grit and inner resolve to let the light come in, to not run and hide from it or close our eyes to it. It takes incredible courage and inner resolve and stamina to genuinely transform oneself, to fess up to and face our own fears and anxieties and weaknesses (to have that honest conversation with ourselves), and to cease the nonsense of habitually and unconsciously always reflexively acting out from this place and loosing these parts of us on others and the world. (“The undisciplined person doesn’t wrong himself alone—he sets fire to the whole world.” – Rumi)

Personal growth is a moral issue. How much we actually grow as persons is inexorably tied to how much of ourselves we are willing to see—to see honestly as well as clearly. So not only is personal growth tied to our level of thinking and the amount of clarity we have (“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Einstein), it is also tied inexorably to our level of moral development—our level of conscientiousness and how much we are able to refine this and further develop it.

It is our conscience—the level and intensity of our moral reasoning—that when we are exposed to stress and strain, temptation and difficulty will either hold and allow us to rise above the mammalian and reptilian parts of our nature and brain—and thus actually be better than what’s worst and weakest in us—or it is what will not hold and what will compel us even though we see a path to the better to follow a path to what’s worst and succumb and give in to what’s worst in us. (“The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.)

It is our level of moral reasoning and the intensity with which we have internalized this part of ourselves and identify with it (egosyntonic) that will allow the center to hold and allow us to be better than our weakness and negative emotional reactivity.

But if we are underdeveloped or too “conventional” morally, when difficulty and temptation come, the center will be less likely to hold, and we will spin out or give in to temptation (set fire to ourselves and the world). Moreover, we will lack the internal impetus that will compel us to become the best or near-best version of ourselves that we can be.

So much so-called “personal growth” and so many so-called “gurus” and “life-coaches” and self-help authors ignore this fact and try to affect deep and lasting change without addressing their client’s or student’s or readership’s level of moral development, moral reasoning, moral courage, personal integrity and trying to deeply increase these.

Which is why so much so-called personal growth is short-lived, superficial, and never really sticks.

Because unless we change deeply and fundamentally in terms of our level of moral reasoning and development and courage—in terms of our level of conscience—we will not grow deeply and fundamentally as a person in terms of our level of being or differentiation. Nothing significant will have changed in us. Everything will be water down the drain—seed thrown on rocky arid soil.

Absolutely Clear” – Hafiz

Don’t surrender your loneliness
so quickly
Let it cut more deeply into you.
Let it ferment and season you as few
human or divine ingredients can. . . .
Something’s missing in my heart tonight
and that something has made
my eyes so soft,
my voice more tender,
and my need of God
absolutely clear.

Suffering some sort of personal loss or setback is just the beginning. It is only the first impetus for us to either wake up and live with more courage and clarity and force, or to dig in and try to entrench ourselves even more deeply and fervently in a life of even greater avoidance and escapism and comfort.

We need some sort of pain or hardship or heartache to get us off our butts and off our buts. It is essential. We need some sort of personal setback or tragedy to rouse and jar us from our respective dogmatic slumbers. We need some sort of personal loss or some great defeat to get us off the sidelines and get us into the game and start living more passionately, honestly, sincerely, and authentically.

As Rumi put it: “Organs and capacities respond to necessity, so therefore increase your necessity.” Without the impetus of great psychological pain we would just stay content in wasting away in our respective little comfort zones, craving more and more comforts and pleasures and escapes and distractions.

So some sort of pain or great loss is an essential and inescapable first step. Some sort of deep pain or great loss is necessary to jar us, to stop us in our tracks, to crack the crust or the walls of our egoism (the self-protective “frozen sea within us”).

Grief is so often the source of the spirit’s growth.” – Rilke

Something (bad, distressing, catastrophic, traumatic) has to happen to us to shake our tree, get our attention, and hopefully wake us up.

Wanting people to listen, you can’t just go up to them and tap them on the shoulder anymore. You’ve got to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you have their strictest attention.” – from the motion picture “Se7en

At some point in our lives, when we meet a real tragedy—which could happen to any one of us—we can react in two ways. Obviously we can lose hope, let ourselves slip into discouragement, alcohol, drugs, unending sadness, and go more to sleep. Or else we can wake ourselves up, discover in ourselves an energy that was hidden there and act with more clarity, more force.” – The Dalai Lama

The second and equally inescapable and essential next step is to develop our conscience.

Without the development of our conscience—without taking our level of moral reasoning and courage to the next level (Kohlberg’s stages 5 and 6 of moral development), we will never grow as persons, because we will not properly operate on whatever tragedy life has beset us with. We will never be able to stay and stick and actually face what happened to us; instead we will always run, hide, avoid, wall up, go numb, lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, in order to preserve ourselves emotionally and not have to feel the full brunt of the pain of what we experienced and its aftermath and possibly flood limbically. We sense ourselves to be too weak to be able to deal with the full intensity of whatever life is dealing us, and so we shut down, go numb, wall up, or run and evade.

The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to life and to other people is that they trigger a confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.” – Pema Chödrön (paraphrased a bit)

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything—even the unprecedented—must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. For it is not inertia or indolence alone that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before anything new and inconceivable, any experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another human being as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being and draw forth his actions from there.” – Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet” (letter no. 8)

And so in shutting down and shying away from the pain and fear and the full intenisty of life, we never force ourselves develop perpendicularly as a person; we never deepen, we never increase in virtue, in patience, in integrity (integration), courage, transparency, trust, inner strength, willpower, self-discipline, endurance, perseverance. Instead we increase our own flightiness and evasiveness, our own weaknesses, and the likelihood that our character defects and flaws (what’s worst in us) will run the show, will run our life, especially when the going gets tough. . . .

With will, fire becomes sweet water; without will, even water becomes fire.” – Rumi

.

The Panther” – Rainer Maria Rilke & me

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

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

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

Only from time to time do the curtains of the eyelids
open on this muted life and an image rushes in, winds its
way through the taut silence of the frame, only to vanish,
forever, in the heart. And we left here watching
wondering how different or similar we are with our own gaze.

.

Call it will, call it courage, call it conscience, call it perspective (realizing that you have nothing to lose because death will claim everything soon enough), call it character, call it whatever you want; the point is not to back down, not to run, not to give in to our mammalian and reptilian brain, our monkey mind, our fear, what’s worst in us, and sentence ourselves to life of not living and not being able to give and receive love in a healthy and ennobling way. The point is to heroically stick and stay, to learn how to deal with ourselves, to learn how to feel the fear and do whatever needs to be done anyways, and to stop living as if life goes on forever and as if life is something just to be survived.

Because in most of us, by the age of thirty, we have lost most of our plasticity, and our character has set like plaster, and will never soften again, unless—unless—some great tragedy or suffering or catastrophe strikes us and levels us, devastates us, softens us completely in body, mind, heart, and soul, and forces us to start again from scratch and make some real changes in our life. . . .

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

Thus, if we often falter in life and flinch or fail in giving our best effort when life or difficulty puts us to the test, and instead we consistently opt for the immediate gratification and quick tension-relief of the easy way out (the path of least resistance), before we know it our integrity and our will (the effort-making capacity in us) will be gone in us, and our wandering attention will wander and mislead us all the time, and our fears and insecurities and weaknesses (what’s worst in us) will get the best of us constantly and lead us into all sorts of dilemmas, crises, and calamities that are largely of our own making, that are self-chosen, that we have brought upon ourselves and brought upon those around us who we claim to “love” and “care” about.

And in order for us to find ourselves at all bearable to live with in such a state, we will have to become very proficient at lying to ourselves, deceiving ourselves, avoiding by any means necessary the truth about ourselves, any realistic sense of ourselves. We will never have the stones to have an honest conversation such as the following with ourselves or with another person about ourselves. . . .

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

“Really?”

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

“Why? I won’t believe you.”

“Yes you will.”

“Why?”

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

( – from the motion picture “The Town“)

Unless we have the courage to have such a conversation with ourselves or to enter into such a conversation with another, we will never change. Never.

And unless we start nurturing and keeping the faculty of deliberate effort and heroic self-overcoming alive in ourselves by “a little gratuitous exercise every day,” we will never change either. Meaning, unless we take up a practice of systematically living a bit more ascetically and acting heroically every day or two in little unnecessary ways, and begin forcing ourselves to do a few things here and there for no other reason than we would rather not do them, our lives will never change. Never. Because every time the hour of dire need finds us, we will spin out and run because it will find us unnerved and untrained and incapable of standing straight and emotionally stomaching the test. But for a person who has “daily inured him- or herself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, heroic self-overcoming, and self-denial in unnecessary things,” he or she will “stand like a tower while everything rocks and crumbles around the person, and when his or her softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. . . . The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology informs us, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way” (William James, adapted from “The Principles of Psychology,” chapter 4, “Habits”).

.

Lessons” – Walt Whitman

There are those who teach only
the sweet lessons of peace and safety;
But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,
That they readily meet invasions, when they come.

.

This is about not living life as a fool or a coward, not living a life without real love, not living a life where we are forced to stay asleep out of fear and anxiety and past hurts and wounds and conditioning. This is about not wasting our one little life because we’re living as if we think life goes on forever and because we’re always contenting ourselves with just talking about making a change and growing up and taking a leap and planning our jumps, but never actually doing.

Without facing and addressing our level of moral development and courage and improving these, we will never make a real change; we will never grow genuinely as persons—we will never increase in virtue, we will never increase in integrity, we will never increase in honesty and real self-knowledge and self-awareness, we will never increase in courage, we will never increase in patience and endurance and perseverance, we will never develop willpower and emotional stamina; we will never develop a genuine inner work ethic.

As James Hollis put it—paraphrasing:

The capacity for personal growth depends on one’s ability to internalize and to take personal responsibility. If we forever scapegoat, blame others, see our life as a problem caused by others, no change will occur. If we are deficient in courage, no real growth can occur. As Jung wrote:

‘[Personal growth] consists of three parts: insight, endurance, and action. Psychology is needed only in the first part, but in the second and third parts moral strength plays the predominant role. . . . The Shadow side of ourselves represents a moral problem that challenges the whole of the ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the Shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark and anxious aspects of the personality as present and real.’

“What is not made conscious in us will continue to haunt our lives—and the world. The tendency for each of us to privilege our own position, be biased in favor of ourselves, fail to see consequences, and be unaware of hidden motives, is fundamental in us each. It takes a strong sense of self and a lot of courage to be able to examine and take responsibility for the darker parts of ourselves when they turn up. It is much, much easier to deny, scapegoat, blame others, project elsewhere, absolve ourselves, and or just bury it and keep on rolling.

“It is these moments of human frailty and inner stress and strain when we are most dangerous to ourselves, our families, our society.

“Examining this material when it comes up (or soon after it does) is an act of great moral importance, for it brings the possibility of lifting our stuff off of others, which is surely the most ethical and useful thing we can do for those around us.

“What do we each the owe the world? Simple: respect, ethical behavior, and the gift of one’s own best self.

“Our capacity to deliver on this—as well as our quality of life—will ultimately be a direct function of the level of awareness and moral courage and clarity we bring to our daily choices.