How to Become a Genius in Life (or: “Life Isn’t Hard Because You’re Doing It Wrong, Life Is Just Hard”)


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Life isn’t easy.

We want it to be. We wish that it were.

But it’s not.

Life is fundamentally not easy.  Life is hard.

But look around and listen to people, listen to ourselves, listen to what we say to ourselves in the privacy of our inner monologues—listen as we complain, as we bitch, as we whine, as we grumble and act cranky. And even though on the surface the object of our complaining, bitching, whining, crankiness, grumbliness may seem different, beneath it all resides the same assumption—that life is supposed to be easy. We feel justified in acting bitchy, grumpy, cranky, ornery, like a jerk, because deep down we think—wish, hope, believe, hold, assume—that life is supposed to be easy. One big gravy train. And somehow right now, at this moment when we’re being bitchy or acting like a hothead, life is somehow treating us unfairly, singling us out for no good reason and giving us a raw deal. Our kids are being difficult. Our job is too difficult (or tedious). Our clients are being difficult. The other drivers on the freeway are being difficult. Our partner or spouse is being difficult. Trying to understand him or her is too difficult. And so on.

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.” – Robert Fulghum

And our greatest desire is to make it all go away—all, meaning the difficulty of it. When people say they can’t take “it” any more, the “it” to which they are referring isn’t life but the difficult nature of their lives—the poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, fear, and so on.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

But “it”—whatever the “it”—is difficult. Loneliness is difficult. Loss is difficult. Losing a job is difficult. Wrestling with our own mortality is difficult. Trying to be our best is difficult. Emotions are difficult. Relationships are difficult. Wrestling with our demons and not so savory tendencies is difficult. Chemotherapy is difficult. Rehab—rehabbing an injury or from an addiction—is difficult.

But that’s life.

Life is suffering,” said the Buddha. “Life is dukkha.”

Life is difficult,” wrote both Rilke and M. Scott Peck.

Love is difficult,” wrote Rilke.

Life isn’t pleasure, it’s constant struggle driven by relentless tension,” said Richard Rose.

Life is complex. . . . There are no easy answers,” wrote M. Scott Peck.

And yet as evident by the vast majority of our complaints we spend much of our time trying to live diametrically opposed to this truth—the truth that life is difficult.

We bitch and we whine and we lash out and we complain—and more importantly, we feel justified in doing so—because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, simpler than it is, a lot less messier than it is, more pleasurable and fun than it is.

And when it’s not we get indignant about it, we mumble and grumble—or worse—about it.

For example, we get grumpy and self-righteous and indignant with elderly people—if not directly, then indirectly—who dare tell us (how dare they!) to relish our time with our children and enjoy it because this too will pass. And we get grumpy and indignant not because of what they’re saying to us but because fundamentally we’re living at odds with the fact that life IS difficult. We’re living in denial. If we actually knew life was difficult, then we’d be much more likely not to sweat so many things and not lose our cool so often and so easily. But because we think life is supposed to be easier than it is, because we’re living in denial, we think we are in the right and that it’s appropriate to bitch and complain about anyone who won’t sympathize with our plight whenever we’re feeling moody and give us a consoling there-there pat on the shoulder whenever we’re having a rough go of it with the kids, et cetera. We act as if our hardships and difficulties are unique and unprecedented on all the earth and thus our complaints—and our bitchiness and grumpiness—are entirely justified and appropriate. We think no parent has ever had so tough a go of it as we are having right now with our kids running amuck in the living room or in the aisles of Target or WalMart. How dare someone suggest that there might be a better way of looking at things!? How dare someone butt into our lives and tell us to enjoy these moments of parenthood because it all goes so fast!? That’s exactly what we want—for it—and this moment in particular—to go fast, to go much faster, for us to be able to go elsewhere, a place where life is easier, where we can sit down and rest and enjoy a little peace and quiet and a glass of red wine and something funny on the television, et cetera.

Easy, easy, easy. That’s our heart’s deepest desire—wishing things were easier, wishing that life wasn’t so (as in sooooo) difficult.

It’s been remarked (fairly often) that for we humans, one of the biggest pains (or difficulties) we have to deal with is the pain (or difficulty) of a new idea. And the idea that life actually is fundamentally, inescapably, and unavoidably difficult is at some point in each of our lives both a new and a painful idea. It comes as a quite a shock to us that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be that easy.

So what do we tend to do with this new and disturbing idea? What are we who have been raised and groomed on the assumption that life is supposed to be easy and that it can almost always be made easier to do with this idea that perhaps life actually is quite difficult?

Do we accept the idea with grace and equanimity? In other words, do we accept it easily?

Of course not.

If life is difficult and if accepting a new and potentially disturbing new idea or paradigm (way of looking at things) is difficult, why should accepting it and living in congruence with it be easy? Obviously acceptance too should be difficult—something quite difficult.

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, “Economics, Peace and Laughter” (1971), p. 50.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and accepting that life is difficult, versus proving that life is not difficult, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

And for the vast majority of us that attempt at proof goes no further than our daily litany of complaints, laments, “why me?” moments, and frequent “ugh!” and “arrghh” and other much less civil not to mention much less printable yet sometimes quite colorful expressions and outbursts.

Life is difficult. And so is learning not to whine so much about it and become impatient and overheated—that too is difficult. It’s easier to live in denial and bitch and complain and vent and lose perspective and forget (deny) that life is difficult and messy and oftentimes requires a lot of effort and work and sacrifice and grit. Accepting that life is difficult—and learning (developing the self-control and perspective) not to whine and bitch and complain and take out our foul moods and weak-mindedness (ultimately that’s what it is, after all) on others—is not easy; it’s difficult—very difficult.

But—but—once we accept—actually, once we begin accepting more and more (because more often than not acceptance is not some grand pie in the sky moment, but a bit by bit, inch by inch, turf war) that life actually is difficult, once this becomes our mantra, once this becomes what we more and more tell ourselves or realize when our children or our partner or life is stressing us out, the paradox is that life becomes a bit less difficult. (Because we’re no longer making things even more difficult for ourselves than they already are through how we react to life.)

If our first thought in the morning was “Life is difficult. I’m ready for another difficult day. I want to rise to the challenge of my life and do my best and be my best. I wonder what difficulties and challenges I will be presented with today. I wonder what opportunities for bettering myself and others I will find or create amidst these difficulties?” that would set our hearts and minds in the right direction.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” – Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning

But this way of thinking is likely the farthest thing from most of our hearts and minds first thing in the morning.

More likely we’re unconsciously hoping for an easy fun day.

Yet if we can begin by at least considering the idea that perhaps life isn’t supposed to be easy— and that if it were, we would never become who we’re supposed to be because we would never have cause to get stronger or wiser, and instead we would atrophy, soften, and become spoiled—if we can begin considering this and keeping this a bit more in mind, then perhaps life might paradoxically become a bit easier for us.

And not only might life become a bit easier the more we extend this realization and acceptance into different facets of our lives and live increasingly in alignment with it, life also might become proportionally a bit more joyful and wonderful. Because instead of our minds being bogged down so often bitching and complaining and wishing that life were easier, we would free up more space in our minds so we might actually enjoy (or embrace) life and some of its messiness and unease a bit more.

It’s a lot like that Seinfeld episode where George decides to be celibate for while his girlfriend (Louise) who has mono recuperates. . . .

[At Jerry’s apartment, George is sitting on couch, watching Jeopardy and playing with a Rubik’s cube while Jerry is talking to him.]

GEORGE: What is Tungsten or Wolfram?

ALEX TREBEK: We were looking for ‘What is Tungsten, or Wolfram’.

JERRY: Is this a repeat?

GEORGE: No, no, no. it’s just lately I’ve been thinking a lot clearer. Like this afternoon, (To television, “Jeopardy” is on) what is chicken Kiev, (Back to Jerry) I really enjoyed watching a documentary with Louise.

JERRY: Louise! That’s what’s doin’ it. You’re no longer pre-occupied with sex, so your mind is able to focus.

GEORGE: You think?

JERRY: Yeah. I mean, let’s say this is your brain. (Holds lettuce head) Okay, from what I know about you, your brain consists of two parts: the intellect, represented here (Pulls off tiny piece of lettuce), and the part obsessed with sex. (Shows whole lettuce head) Now granted, you have extracted an astonishing amount from this little scrap. But with no-sex-Louise, this previously useless lump, is now functioning for the first time in its existence. (Eats tiny piece of lettuce)

GEORGE: Oh my God. I just remembered where I left my retainer in second grade. I’ll see ya. (He throws finished Rubik’s cube to Jerry and he exits. Kramer enters)

So too it is with us. The space between our ears is for rent. And most of us unknowingly rent it out most of the time to what amounts to the lowest bidder—the path of least resistance, that part of us that wants life to be easy and simple and complains vocally whenever it isn’t. We live in an increasingly easier era where more and more things are being made easier, more convenient, more fun, et cetera. More and more of us are searching out ways to lose weight easier, to have more efficient and easier work-outs that will yield maximum results, to be able to eat more and more gluttonous sweet and or fatty foods without the consequences to our bodies.

So many of the things we take for granted—plumbing, refrigeration, microwaveable foods, drive-thrus, automobiles—were things that were unknown and even unimaginable to previous generations

And the dark side of it is that not only has all of this convenience and ease and abundance made life easier for us, but it likely has made us softer—another difficult idea to consider and accept.

“Wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names . . . the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railway, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and easier. . . . You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must with the same humanitarian enthusiasm as others, undertake to make something harder. . . . When all combine in every way to make everything easier and easier, there remains only one possible danger, namely, that the easiness might become . . . too great.” – Soren Kierkegaard, in “A Kierkegaard Anthology,” ed. Robert Bretall, pg. 194.

Yet as we begin to more and more accept that fundamentally life is not easy, things begin to shift inside for us. Instead of the part of our mind that is grateful, kind, loving, and that finds joy in life being relegated to a few tiny slivers of lettuce while the rest of the head is obsessed with assuming life to be easy and trying to make things less stressful and then spinning out and complaining whenever they aren’t, things begin to shift, the balance of power begins to shift within us. We begin to find our sanity. Life isn’t easy. We’ve been to see that we’ve been duped; we’ve been lied to; life was never supposed to be easy or simple or uncomplicated. And so the assumption that life ought to be easy no longer runs the show, is no longer our fundamental operating assumption and guiding thought. Instead more and more parts of our brain (more and more pieces of lettuce) are freed up to begin more deeply appreciating more of the little things in life that we’ve been missing and overlooking for so long because we’ve been mistakenly assuming that life was supposed to be easy!

Life is difficult. Write this a thousand times. Try repeating this to yourself a thousand times a day. Make this your new ground zero. Say it to yourself whenever the kids are trying your patience or your partner is getting on your last nerve. Life is difficult. Or “this too shall pass.”

In doing so—in realizing that life is difficult—it frees our minds up for more kairos (or vertical or soulful) moments of appreciation and wonder and gratitude.

The more we live expecting life to be easier than it is, the more we will miss these potential moments of real peace and perspective and grace.

“There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, “The Revolt of the Masses,” pg. 15.

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty, so that, when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But, if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”– William James, “The Principles of Psychology,” Chapter 4, “Habit,” pg. 126.

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Why Do We Think the Way We Think?


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Often, most of our serious “thinking” ends up being little more than an attempt to justify our current unthought-out conclusions and prejudgments.

Most of the time we already know where we want our thinking to take us—the conclusion we want to arrive at. And so our “thinking” merely falls in line with that preordained conclusion. —”The execution is over, all that’s left is the trial.”

So too it is with our own thinking most of the time: the conclusion is foregone, all that’s left are the rationalizations (rational lies) and lapses in logic that will get us there.

“People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by the heart which first dictates the conclusion, then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.” – Anthony de Mello

Defend it? Or pseudo-defend it and make our conclusion sound at least plausible and defensible?

And is this dictated by the heart? Maybe. Or maybe the ego. Or maybe these two things are closely related.

One way of looking at the ego is that it is armor, a protective shell that we use to cover over our heart and our sensitive raw and tender spots and emotional nerve endings. Meaning that it is largely a collection of defensive habits and tendencies that we employ unconsciously, automatically, reflexively, out of fear of getting hurt or having to feel or experience a past hurt again.

Thus I would render de Mello’s quote this way—

People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is actually done by their ego (their self-protective reality-denying apparatus) which first dictates which conclusion it thinks is most convenient and easiest to tolerate and least unsightly emotionally, and then commands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.

And much of our thinking occurs at this level—the level of ego or prejudice or emotion. It is emotional thinking, blatantly biased towards ourselves and towards justifying and defending our fears instead of forcing us to face them. —Which for us would represent a fate worse than death—or at least on par with it, because in many ways it is a form of death. Whenever we face something that truly frightens us and might possibly overwhelm us—whenever we force or coax ourselves to face and actually feel a deep-seated fear or terror—we are forcing ourselves (or some part of ourselves) to in some way die—we are forcing ourselves to die to what we know and what we are clinging to as safe and familiar and open up to something different—to what lies on the other side of that particular wall or barrier. Facing what frightens us or what might potentially overwhelm us or cause us a “nervous breakdown” psychologically is in many ways like facing our own execution or extinction.

“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

What does man want?—A quiet life or to truly work on himself? If he wants a quiet life he must never move out of his comfort zones, because there, in his usual roles, with his usual repertoire, he feels comfortable and in control, at peace. But if he wants to work on himself—if he truly wants to awaken—then he must destroy this sort of peace. Because to have both together—comfort and truth—is in no way possible. A person must make a choice.” – Gurdjieff, paraphrased from P.D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 240.

“Human beings are attached to everything in this life; attached to their imagination, attached to their thinking, attached to their patterns, attached to their stupidity, attached to their fears, attached even to their own suffering—and possibly to their own suffering more than anything else. A person must first free himself from attachment. Attachment to things, identification with things, keeps alive a thousand false I’s in a person. These I’s must die in order that the big I may be born. But how can they be made to die? They do not want to die.” Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky’s “In Search of the Miraculous,” pg. 218.

And it’s not that that fear is a part of us or something we’re attached to, it’s just that the fear is so great, so daunting, that we’ll do anything to avoid having to face it. We want to stay in control—in control, meaning, not having to face our fear. That “in control” apparatus—mostly if not completely defensive, avoidant, controlling, not to mention deceptive and often unscrupulous and manipulative and irrational and unobjective in its logic—is the ego. And it’s what drives our thinking most of the time, and especially when we get stressed.

“Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” – William James

Or justifying them.  Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are merely trying to avoid dealing legitimately and honestly with their fears. 

Most of our thinking is defensive, self-protective, avoidant, and narcissistic. Most of the time when we think, we don’t so much think as we do justify our own prejudices and immaturities and patterned ways of facing our fears honestly. When we think we do so in order to justify our preset conclusions and underlying need/want of validation, safety, security, and the path of least resistance and least emotional upset and pain. And we’ll never be at a loss for finding and creating and developing arguments to support our prejudices/avoidant tendencies when we’re in this mode (or when our thinking is at this level).

So what’s the solution or alternative to having one’s thinking being driven by one’s ego or one’s false-/comfort-zone- self?

The overall solution is to learn how to think with one’s conscience (what’s best and healthiest and most sane and honest in oneself) and to let one’s conscience guide and or inform one’s thinking.

Which requires above all that we learn how to become (much) more objective and aware of and honest about our own thinking.

But this likely will not happen until we can slow down and look at our own thoughts and thinking from a different angle or from a less self-certain and in a more suspicious and skeptical light. Until we can take one of our own most cherished pet theories/conclusions/biases and play devil’s advocate—or what is more likely, God’s advocate—with it, meaning fight as fiercely to disprove our pet theory (or at least consider fiarly and honestly that the point of our line of reasoning may be to support what’s weakest and wounded and most avoidant and even pathological in us), we haven’t yet begun to actually think. We’re still just reasoning emotionally and immaturely, defensively and dishonestly.

I could not think without writing.” – Jean Piaget

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” – Flannery O’Connor

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”
– Czeslaw Milosz, from the poem “Love”

And the root of the majority of these “various ills” is our basic narcissism or egocentricism. And learning how to think objectively—learning how to step outside of ourselves, put some emotional distance between ourselves and our pet conclusions, learning to be not be so attached to the conclusion we want to reach or feel that we need to reach, but being more willing to reach a conclusion that is truer and more encompassing and actual—is what will free us from various ills. It’s thinking honestly and playing devils advocate with our own thoughts that will free us from various ills.  It may not feel at first like it is going to free us; at first being honest with ourselves and facing ourselves and our fear may feel rather terrifying and unsettling—we’re going to see all sorts of things we’d rather not see and face and feel—but—but—if we have the courage and grit and determination to stick with it—to stick with the truth and to stay honest and open and dedicated to reality—then the truth will set us free.  Not only that, it will become a source of genuine strength for us.

Writing is one of the best ways to start this process. It’s the first step in putting some actual tangible distance between ourselves and our thoughts. When we write or journal, when we put pen or pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, we literally are getting outside of our own head. We are externalizing our own thoughts.

And when we put our thoughts in writing or on a computer screen, we can then start to think about our own thinking and examine it and critique it and do so differently—we can look at it as something no longer inside us but now outside us, an object. We can literally place it alongside other people’s thinking.

A few additional keys to thinking better and more clearly (in addition to writing) would include:

1. Learning about “projection”— reversing the situation and trying our judgments or criticisms of other on ourselves first for size;

2. Reality-testing the way we’re possibly justifying or rationalizing (rational lies) one of our courses of actions by seeing if the situation were reversed would we want what we’re doing to another done unto us, or what we’re not doing to another not done unto us—if we wouldn’t want it done or not done unto us, then we’re not thinking fairly and maturely, but unfairly and immaturely, we’re actually doing something that is likely wrong, if not evil;

3. Paying attention to our choice of words and look for unwarranted or nonfactual all or nothing, black or white, throwing the baby out with the bath water thinking. And also pay attention to our use of words and phrases such as “need to,” “have to,” “can’t,” et cetera.

4. Learning to identify when we’re stressed and or anxious and afraid, and learn to be more suspicious of our thinking during those times. The greater the stress, the more defensive and less true and less rational our thinking and the more prone it is to being hijacked by our amygdala.

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

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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”).

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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.