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Choosing Sides & Making a Change


No revolution in outer things is possible without prior revolution in one’s inner way of being. Whatever change you aspire to in your affairs must be preceded by a change in heart, an active deepening and strengthening of your resolve to meet every event with equanimity, detachment, and innocent goodwill. When this spiritual poise is achieved within, magnificent things are possible without.” – From the I-Ching (Book of Changes), # 49

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MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” – Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude,” Part Two, Chapter II

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Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can often become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.” – Henry Miller

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Open Hands
(written by Nietzsche; arranged & edited by me)

It seems to me
the rudest word,
the rudest letter
are still more benign,
more decent
than silence.

Those who run away
and or remain silent
are almost always
lacking in delicacy
and courtesy
of the heart.

Not to see many things,
not to hear many things,
not to permit many things
to come close—
the usual word
for this instinct of self-defense
is taste.
It commands us
not only to say No
when Yes would be “selfless,”
but also to say No
as rarely as possible—
to detach oneself,
to separate oneself
from anything
that would make it necessary
to keep saying No.

In all of these matters—
in the choice of nutrition, climate,
residence, recreation, relationships—
an instinct of self-preservation
of comfort and safety—
issues its commands.

When defensive expenditures,
be they ever so small
(our great expenses
are composed of
our most frequent small ones)
become the rule
and a habit,
they entail an extraordinary
and entirely superfluous
impoverishment.

Warding off,
not letting things come close,
involves an expenditure—
let nobody deceive himself about this—
energy wasted on negative ends.

Having quills is a waste,
when one can choose
not to have quills
but open hands.

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We MUST Choose, Part 2: Conscience and Reality and the Dark Side of Daydreaming and Fantasy


We MUST Choose, Part 2: Conscience and Reality and the Dark Side of Daydreaming and Fantasy

The opposite of sanity is insanity.  The opposite of truth is lying, which includes self-deception, lying, half-truths, rationalizations, denial, scapegoating, transference, projection, i.e. the vast majority of our defense mechanisms. 

It’s clear that truth will not only make us free, it will make us sane, because the more we lie to ourselves and others and avoid reality, then the more mentally unhealthy or less sane we are.

Thus one of the best ways to become healthier and more sane, decent, and loving, is by beginning to nurture our conscience and to focus on developing our character and our reality principle (three very interrelated things).

Because one of the other marks of not very healthy or decent people is that they really don’t have a healthy and functioning conscience—or the conscience they have is very twisted and malignant—meaning, their sense of right and wrong is very twisted and malignant and subjective and not open to any real investigation and or scrutiny (what they say goes, just because they think or feel it, and without any real discussion or deliberation).  And thus they are able to freely warp and spin things and lie to themselves and con themselves into believing at some level that their bad behavior is actually secretly really good or decent or noble.  (This is one of the things about mentally unwell people—they love their secrets and abhor accountability and transparency and honesty.  In order to maintain their self—their sick self and level of mental unhealthy—they need to live in the dark and avoid the light of disclosure, openness, transparency, scrutiny, feedback, and critical thinking.)   What bad people and not very good people and unhealthy people share is that they are just not that dedicated to truth or reality—which is why their conscience is so warped, and which is why they prefer alternate fictional fantasy pseudo-realities to the real world—often elaborate fantasy worlds replete with intricate yet absurd and irrational metaphysics and beliefs.  They prefer to exist in these fantasy worlds because at some level they find the real world too demanding, difficult, stressful, painful, complicated.  The real world terrifies them, stresses them out, makes them anxious, makes them feel too vulnerable, makes them feel out of control, insecure, exposed, inadequate, inferior, insubstantial, without purpose or meaning.  The real world is not meeting their basic needs—for survival, esteem, uniqueness/specialness, love, belonging, safety, security, meaning—and so they are faced with a choice—the choice to grow and become stronger and attuned themselves and their thinking and their conscience to reality and to truth, or escape into denial and fantasy and do some serious damage to their psyche/soul. 

And the vast majority of people opt for the latter—always have, and still are doing so. 

And the sicker and more neurotic and less sane they or we are, the more we will opt for this solution—opt for escaping into a world of fantasy and unreality instead of attuning ourselves to reality—in order to survive and self-preservate. 

“I believe that the root of evil, in everybody perhaps, but certainly in those whom affliction has touched and above all if the affliction is [psychological], is day-dreaming. It is the sole consolation, the unique resource of the afflicted; the only solace to help them bear the fearful burden of time; and a very innocent one, besides being indispensable. So how could it be possible to renounce it? It has only one disadvantage, which is that it is unreal. To renounce it for the love of truth is really to abandon all one’s possessions in a mad excess of love and to follow him who is the personification of Truth. And it is really to bear the cross.

“[I]t is necessary to recognize day-dreaming for what it is. And even while one is sustained by it one must never forget for a moment that in all its forms—those that seem most inoffensive by their childishness, those that seem most respectable by their seriousness and their connection with art or love or friendship—in all its forms without exception, it is falsehood. It excludes love.  And only love is real.” – Simone Weil, from “The Simone Weil Reader,” “Letter to Joe Bousquet,” pg.90

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.

And this proof is often an escape into some alternate fantasy world/universe.  The proof that there’s no need to change one’s mind or to grow and mature psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, comes in the form of the false-growth of conspiracy theories and concocting elaborate new agey fantasy worlds to inhabit with one’s mind and to believe in.  And for the sake of these false-realities and in the name of these elaborate fantasy worlds—in the name of helping to build some imaginary fantasy utopia—all sorts of bad and even evil things can be perpetrated and rationalized (rational lies) away.

Why do sane people allow themselves to be duped like this—by their own least healthy thinking, by what’s weakest and worst in themselves?  Why do they actually opt to dupe themselves in this way and cooperate in pulling the wool over their own eyes?

Because of all of the pain, difficulty, suffering, complexity, and stress, of life in the real world—meaning the full intensity of life, the full intensity of truth and reality and the demands that true mental health and growth require and would make on us—and all of the ego-threatening negative and anxious feelings they (which is to say that many of us) are hoping to avoid and evade.

And because what’s best in them—their conscience, their reality principle, their inner truth-detector, their character, their core self, their capacity for reasoning and for looking at things fairly and objectively and impartially—is so weak, so malnourished and underdeveloped, that it doesn’t offer much in the way of protest or defense or objection (dialectical thinking), or its objections and protestations cannot be heard above and distinguished from of all of the internal blather and incessant inner chattiness and discursive thinking.  Their conscience is just a fleeting, unidentifiable voice or very occasional strand in their discursive, unorganized inner monologue.  They may have a very healthy or noble or sane thought here and there, but because there is so much falsity also zipping through and taking up their inner monologue, they no longer really notice it or pay attention to it.  It’s in one inner ear and out the other and quickly followed by something that is less demanding, less truthful, and makes them feel better, happier, or is more familiar, even if it is unhealthy and discursive and unrealistic.   

The Buddha said that most people’s eyes are so caked shut with the dust of denial and self-deception that they will never be able to awaken or grow.  Most people’s thinking—their inner monologue—is so cluttered with falsehoods, unexamined thoughts, escapist thoughts—that there’s no hope for them to ever wake up from that degree of sleepwalking or sleeping-death.

Slowing down and really paying attention to our own thoughts and really listening to what we’re saying to ourselves (the deeper implications, the underlying assumptions in our thoughts, the escapist/avoidant/self-numbing tendencies that are likely rife in it, et cetera) is one way of trying to break the cycle of mental unhealthy.  (Why would anyone want to do that though!?) And consciously beginning to try to see at least two points of view with our own thinking—to begin thinking more dialectically and scientifically and logically—in terms of thesis on the one hand, and antithesis or what would disprove our thinking or prove it to be fallacious, on the other hand—and to begin playing devil’s (or God’s) advocate with our own pet theories and fantasies and start trying to see the other and less ego-flattering and more difficult to emotionally stomach side of things is another way of kick-starting our journey to sanity and mental health.

Peck defined mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs” (“The Road Less Traveled,” pg. 51), meaning that in order to get healthy psychologically and truly grow we must start choosing truth over our own comfort, waking up over a comfortable life, the difficult rights over easy wrongs, reality over fantasy and daydreaming and other forms of escapism, and that we must doing so ever more consistently and heroically. 

Only truly mentally healthy individuals—or those truly on the path—can or will dare to do this.

Those of us who are not very healthy will spend much of our free time avoiding reality instead of facing.  And the more we do this, the more we make ourselves sick, or if you will, psychologically out of shape and gluttonous—it’s like doing to the mind what a steady diet of fantasy—cheeseburgers, chocolate, potato chips, fast food, French fried, friend foods, Twinkies, and a lot of time on the couch in front of the TV and no exercise—does to the body. 

Again, there’s no neutrality in life.  We must choose our allegiance—to one side or the other—to either growth and mental health and truth and reality, which apparently will set us free; or stagnation and regression and escape and avoidance—i.e. falsehoods, denial, self-deception, discursive thinking, the unexamined life, excessive daydreaming—which will put us more and more to sleep and make us less healthy, less sane, less fit for life, less good, less loving, and eventually may even seal our fate, damning us, making us unredeemable.

We must choose: sanity or insanity, truth or lies, mental health or pathology, growth or comfort, growth or familiarity, what’s best for us v what tastes/feels good right now.

There is no middle road in this; there may be a middle road once we choose one side or the other, but there is no middle road or balanced way beforehand.  There may be, and likely is, a way where we exercise our mind, stretch ourselves, and then gives ourselves some time to recover and lock in those gains, before once again stretching ourselves, growing, taking on more truth and reality, but doing so little by little, as we would if we were working out and slowly adding more weight or resistance to our work outs over the course of weeks, while cutting back on the fatty escapist comfort foods and not watching as many escapist TV shows, et cetera.

We Must Choose


We MUST Choose

This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Shakespeare, “Hamlet

Yes, but what part of thine own self to be true to?  What’s best in oneself?  Or what’s less—sometimes even much much less—than best in one’s self?

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

There’s no neutrality in life. 

There are only two possible states of being, two ways of orientating ourselves. 

One is complete submission to God or to God’s will or influence, the influence of the Tao, the Dharma, Truth, goodness, virtue, Love.

And the other is incomplete submission—or the refusal to truly submit ourselves—to anything, to any influence, beyond our own will—beyond our own narcissism and our own scattered disorganized impulses, desires, and feelings—a refusal which automatically opens the door to the forces of evil. 

Because at every moment we ultimately belong to either God or the devil, to good or evil, to one influence or the other.  Paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch around us and every split second of our lives is up for grabs, to be claimed by God or the devil, and to be claimed by us for either God or for the devil.” 

And to attempt to avoid this dilemma by trying to stand exactly halfway between the two—halfway between God and the devil, uncommitted to either—to either goodness or utter selfishness—is to risk being torn apart and split forever into two beings, to become a house divided, permanently at war with ourselves, vacillating forever between two influences, forever fighting ourselves, fighting within ourselves, and having that infighting spill out of us into the lives of those around us.  Because, ultimately, even trying to choose not to choose and to not align ourselves with one influence or the other is still to choose, it is still to choose not to submit to anything beyond the self, beyond one’s own will and wants.  

Christ expressed this paradox when he said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).  

Yes, we are always free to choose, but ultimately we are free only in this sense: in the sense of choosing which influence, which form of enslavement, we ultimately will submit to: God’s or the self’s, God’s will and influence or ultimately nothing more than our own; what’s best and highest and noblest in us or a free-for-all where we give into and submit to any impulse or desire that occurs to us.  

We must choose: —One form of enslavement or the other. (the previous eight paragraphs were abridged and adapted and elaborated on from M. Scott Peck’s “Glimpses of The Devil,” pg. xvi)

And most people do not so much choose their form of enslavement as they just go along with what happens to them and what feels natural without questioning much, without really thinking much or examining themselves and searching out their own heart and mind and conscience and paying much consistent attention to themselves and what path they’re really on and why.

This is our fundamental choice in life and to make each day and at every moment—who and what to live for and why?  To live on the autopilot of emotions and impulses and desires and wants and pet ego-projects and whatever gets us through the day and anesthetizes us, numbs us, titillates us, distracts us, momentarily makes us drunk*; or to live more mindfully, more deliberately, with more grace and composure and perspective and order?  To live for ourselves and nothing greater or more than the self and our ego and aggrandizement and survival (narcissism); or to live for something more, something that transcends the self—some ideal, principle, path or way (Tao), some force or Spirit—God, Love, Truth? 

Again, there’s no neutrality in life. Every day, in every moment, and with every choice we make—of what to do with ourselves in that moment, with how to spend that moment—we are declaring our allegiance and we are doing something to ourselves . . .

 

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

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

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

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

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

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*There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all highs are the same!
Drink from the jars of saints,
not from other jars.
Be a connoisseur,
taste with caution,
discriminate like a prince.
Any wine will get you high;
choose the purest,
one unadulterated with fear.
Drink a wine that moves your spirit.
– Rumi

The Present Moment


The Present

The past is history,
The future a mystery,
All we have is this moment—
It’s the Universe’s gift to each of us;
That’s why it’s called The Present.

This moment—the present moment—is all we have. How many present moments we each have in life, and how much presence we each have to the present moment, will vary from person to person.

But the present moment is where all the action takes place in life.

It’s where we can determine what influence the past will have on us, or, if we are not very present, it’s where the past will determine and influence us (karma, conditioning, reactivity).

The present moment is the only place where a better future can begin—where a better future can be sown, where it can be nourished, take root, blossom and grow—that is to say, where we can sow it, nourish and nurture it, help it take root, blossom and grow.

We are what we think. We are what we read. We are what we do most often in the present moment. What we are now is the result of all we have thought, read, done; the choices we have made, or the choices we failed to make whenever we acted out on the default of our feelings—which is to say our conditioning/karma.

What we are now is also a result of how present we have been to the present moments in our past—how mindful, aware, open, discerning, insightful, observant, focused, or how vacant, scattered, diffused, discursive, avoidant.

To have a future different from our past and to get more and better than we’ve got, we have to become than we are and were. Unless we change who we are, we’ll always get what we’ve got.

If we are to plant a different future in our present now, we will have to become better stewards of our present moments, make better choices on what to think, what to read, what to do. We will need to learn to make better and more consistent and noble and courageous choices, again and again, even under stress and duress, even when flooding emotionally, even when we feel anxious and afraid.

To create a future that is different than our past, we will have to do things differently now, in the present. If we keep doing what we’ve done in the past—if we merely attempt new variations on our usual theme of running, evading, avoiding, shutting down, spinning out, walling up, rationalizing (telling ourselves rational sounding lies), manufacturing false evidence, making false cases against our self and others, playing the victim, scapegoating, abnegating and or diffusing responsibility, taking the path of least resistance, et cetera—then, at best, we will merely continue manufacturing and sowing a victim mentality in ourselves, and, at worst, we will be flirting with becoming evil.

The past gave us a wealth of experiences, good and or bad, joyful and or traumatic, that are now memories and that can and do and will define us if we continue to do nothing differently now, now, now, in this present moment. All the intentions in the world that we might have to create a better future for ourselves and for those around us that we hold near and dear to ourselves are irrelevant and will come to naught if we are not deeply attentive and aware and able to remain courageously present and deeply aware and attentive now—right now—in this present moment and remain courageously committed to what’s best in us, to our highest self.

“All you are now doing, thinking, desiring is not yourself. . . . Your real nature lies immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take for yourself.” – Nietzsche

The more often we cave and sell out on ourselves and what’s best in us, the more we sow and reinforce and strengthen the habit of having what’s worst and weakest and most wounded in us—or at the very least, what’s mediocre and lukewarm and tepid and banal and ordinary in us—show up and make decisions for us. And thus the more we make it easier to break and sell out again and again in the future on our highest potential and what’s best in us whenever we’re tested or tempted by those “dark shouters” stress and fear and anxiety. And thus the lower we set our standards for ourselves and those around us, the more we slide into depravity and deceit and rationalizations and spin—meaning, the better we get at lying to ourselves and excusing/justifying our own cowardice and lack of conscience and courageous action.

“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis comes along and shows us what we have become.” – Brooke Foss Westcott

“Some day, in years to come, you will be wrestling with the great temptation, or trembling under the great sorrow of your life. But the real struggle is here, now. . . . Now it is being decided whether, in the day of your supreme sorrow or temptation, you shall miserably fail or gloriously conquer. Character cannot be made except by a steady, long-continued process.” — Phillips Brooks

Archie Gates: “You’re scared, right?”

Conrad Vig: “Maybe.”

Archie Gates: “The way this works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of first, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.”

Conrad Vig: “That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.”

Archie Gates: “I know. But that’s the way it works.”

(from the motion picture “Three Kings”)

There’s a saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates). In reality, the unexamined life is a life where a person isn’t even really living; it’s a life where a person is merely existing, where a person is asleep at the wheel or sleepwalking through his or her life (pick your metaphor) and blindly living out the conditioning and karma of his or her past.

The present moment is the only place we have where we can actually examine our life. Thus it is the only place where we can rewrite or amend or heal the past.

If we do nothing differently now and we just exist, and just “be” then whatever has been uncritically written in us by life, by others, in the past, will be our present, and will become our future, because who we are—our level of personal development or lack there of, how many self-capacities we have developed or failed to develop—will be the most important determinant of the quality of our lives and our level of inner peace, composure, and happiness. Who we are—the level of self-development and personhood that we each carry around with us wherever we go and that we can’t escape or outrun—is more important, more essential, more powerful, than what’s around us.

That’s why grass on the other side of the fence that was once so green and attractive and compelling never remains so once we get there.

Why?

Because it takes work, love, attention, nurturing, consistency, stability, the consistent gift of our best self to maintain and keep the grass beautiful.

And if what’s inside us—and what we’re always unknowingly trying to run and get away from—is rot and decay and filth and something that is festering and not healing—our own unproductive, wounded, damaged self and the bad karma/conditioning of our past—then we will always carry that with us wherever we go (read: flee), and it will always rise up and re-infect our present and our current surroundings.

“We can escape a situation we’ve created (temporarily), but we cannot escape ourselves.” – David Schnarch, “Passionate Marriage,” pg. 51.

“Calamities sent by heaven may be avoided, but from those we bring on ourselves there is no escape.” – Eastern Proverb

“He who travels to escape or travel away from himself grows old and dilapidated even in youth among old and ancient things. He carries ruins to ruins. Such traveling is a fool’s paradise. We owe our first journeys of discovery to the discovery that place is nothing, that with a little work and creativity here can be as good as there. At home I dream that at Naples or Rome I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, bid farewell to my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples; and there beside me is the same stern fact, the same sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go. The rage of traveling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole of the intellect and action. The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home.” – Emerson, abridged and adapted from his essay “Self-Reliance”


“[T]he plague bacillus never dies or disappears completely; it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves. And thus perhaps the day will come again when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, the plague will rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” – Camus, “The Plague”

“The City” – 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 wasteland?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look here
I see the scorched and blackened ruins of my life
Where I have spent so much time
Wandering and wasting away.”

You will find no new lands,
You will find no other seas.
The wasteland you are in
Is one you have created.
You have cheapened and reviled the whole.
The city you are
and are 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 your same door
In the same city.
Do not hope for any other.
There is no ship for you,
And there is no road.
For as you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner,
you have ruined it all over the world.

The only time and place we have to correct or amend or heal or rewrite the past is here and now in the present. This is the only place where we can stop running from ourselves and our past—in the present; not the future. If we run now, we will run then, for that will be what we will have just sown and reinforced.

The only way to truly heal the past is by examining it. And we can only examine the past and ourselves, our life and the way we’re living—and learn how to more honestly and truthfully examine ourselves and our life—and heal and correct our past, right now, in the present.

We cannot examine our life in the future; we can only intend to examine it then.

The actual examining and the learning and practice of mindfulness and more honest and examining is something we have to choose now, now, now, in the present. And it is something we have to choose to do again and again and again.

And we cannot put it off if we are to ever truly start it. The present moment is all we have; there’s no time to lose. We can do it now.

We can make the choice right now. We have all we need right now to make the choice to begin living more mindfully and honestly.

Living more mindfully, living a more honest and examined life, is something we have to choose to do by going against the grain of the inertia and all the dark shouters within us—laziness, anxiety, fear, the lust for comfort, the lust for security, the path of least resistance—that bid us to just keep our blinders on and continue just existing and surviving.

The more fearful and afraid we are then the more likely it is that we will be living a closed-minded and closed-hearted life—in other words, the more likely it is that we will be leading the unexamined life.

Why? Because we will be operating on our feeling system, and our feeling system will cause us to feel like examining ourselves and our life would be a dangerous thing to do—that it would be too unsettling and anxiety provoking.

“People wish to be settled, but insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” – Emerson

The less afraid we are—and the less afraid we are of our own emotions and of having intense emotional experiences in life (and thus the less need we have for comfort and security and “control”) then the more comfortable we will be with uncertainty and “living the questions,” and the less we will be ruled by those dark shouters, those false gods, fear and anxiety and excessive self-protectiveness and comfort, and the more likely it is that we can lead a more examined and mindful life—something approaching a truly divine life.

The present moment is all we have. It’s the only time and place we have where we can examine our attitude and our philosophy about life, death, relationships, ourselves, love, work, play, others. The present moment is the only moment where we can begin ventilating our belief system and opening it up for inspection and begin examining our fundamental assumptions and motives and attitudes. Basically we can either dissipate ourselves, go for comfort, vege out in front of the telly, live in some brain-dead escapist fashion, or we can get to work doing some serious honest thinking and introspecting. The choice is ours: use our brain or misuse and abuse our brain. Right now in this unrepeatable present moment is the moment where we can begin examining fundamental assumptions, our metaphysics, our spirituality, our religious beliefs, and why we have chosen to believe what we believe. The present moment is the only moment where we can either opt for the safety and security of a belief system that is essentially someone else’s answer to life’s mysteriousness and unfathomableness, or where we can relax our need for security, relinquish our need for comfort, and start opening up the doors and windows to our heart and mind a bit, ventilating things, letting things air out and breathe, letting out the stale frightened air, and start “living the questions” a bit more.

No one knows why we’re here. No one. All we have around us are other people’s more or less best guesses, their more or less educated or uneducated guesses, motivated either by fear and mindlessness, or by openness, courage, and mindfulness.

What we have are the stories—the stories and explanations others have come up with—some of which may sound more plausible than others, but they are still stories nonetheless.

The reality is that we live in the midst of an unfathomable mystery. And all of our metaphysics and religion and spirituality are just a more or less blind groping for the security of an answer to save us from the discomfort and even terror of the unknown and of feeling the full brunt of our aloneness and lostness and whatever other intense emotions may be stirred up in us and which we feel unable to cope.

All we have is the present moment wherein we can evaluate and examine the reality or truthfulness or plausibility of statements such as the one above and of the conclusions and beliefs others have come up with (their metaphysics and religion and spirituality and belief systems).

And all we have is the present moment where we can attempt to examine our own reasons for believing what we believe—how much we believe what we believe out of fear, or how much we believe what we believe out of a truly open and inquisitive and courageous and less fearful mind—a mind that’s truly trying to live the questions and keep the heart that it’s tied to open and loving.

The openness or closedness of our heart is no one’s responsibility but our own; it’s ultimately the result of a choice we must make again and again in the present. If we make the choice often enough again and again in the present to keep our heart open whenever we are tempted to play it safe and shut down and wall up and avoid the full intensity of life and the present moment, then we are sowing the seeds of and creating the habit of true openness.

Now, in the present moment, is the only place where we can amend or correct our karma, our conditioning, or tendency to spin out, avoid, run, play it too safe too often.

Maybe when we were small and less strong and more dependent, the choice to open or close our heart was in many ways made for us (or dictated) by others and our environment because we lacked not only the stature but the self-capacities to keep our heart open (many of which are the very same self-capacities that will either allow us to live a truly examined life or whose absence will prevent and preclude us from doing so). Not only that, we also still developmentally lacked the capacity for many of the self-capacities that would allow us to keep our heart open. In a sense, many of us had to choose fear and self-protection when we were younger and more vulnerable and dependent in order to survive and move on.

But now that we’re older, we can change all of that. And we can change all of that now, here, in the present moment, in the only moment we really truly have, by examining our attitudes and beliefs, and by examining why we believe what we believe and feel what we feel. Not only that, we can even examine why we settle on (read: choose) the explanations or stories that we do.

In other words . . . we can begin metacognizing.

Metacognizing—thinking about thinking, examining why we believe what we believe, why we choose as we choose, why we settle on the stories and or explanations that we do, why we feel what we feel—is the hallmark—and the only possible proof positive—that a person is living a truly mindful and examined life.

If we are not near-constantly metacognizing and thinking about and examining honestly and as objectively as possible our own thinking, then we are not truly living a genuinely mindful and examined life.

Instead we are fooling ourselves.

The examined life is one of ongoing and continual dedication to metacognition—thinking about our own thinking, examining our own belief systems and assumptions, examining our own feelings, asking why—why we think the way we think, why we feel the way we feel, why we choose the stories and explanations and beliefs that we do. It’s even a life of asking why we ask why. It is a life of perpetual self-monitoring and openness and inquisitiveness and intellectual and psychological curiosity and inner exploration.

And the answers we find and come up with will only be as good as the sharpness of our own mind—i.e. the quality of our own thinking—how well we have learned how to think, not just how well we have learned what to think. All of which will be a reflection of how we have used or misused and abused so many of our recent present moments which are now in the past, but whose legacy affects and inhabits and limits the quality of our present and our current thinking.

Our present bears witness to our past. If we are leading an examined life now, or starting to, it is because someone or something planted the seeds of mindfulness, self-examination, self-monitoring, self-confronting, honest self-awareness—metacognition—in us in the past and these seeds were watered and cultivated either by others, ourselves, or life itself, or God (depending on your belief system).

And if we are not leading a truly examined and metacognitive life, then it’s because it was never suggested to us or inculcated in us or etched into us to live that way. We were never taught how to live a truly mindfully and practice an honest and a reflective and philosophical approach to life, and so our life right now bears witness to that fact—to that lack of conditioning, to the karma of that lack of conditioning. It’s ineluctable.

Now is the only moment we have where we can make this shift, this metanoia, this deep and radical and fundamental change of heart and mind and life direction where instead of sowing the seeds of discursiveness and mindlessness and distraction and dissipation, we begin sowing the seeds of attentiveness, focus, attention, mindfulness, and learn to begin metacognizing and truly parenting ourselves in a healthy and emotionally mature way.

Now is the only moment we have where we can begin sharpening the saw—and begin planting the habit of sharpening the saw—and monitoring ourselves and asking why, and why we even ought to ask why, and where we can begin thinking about our own thinking and why we make the choices we make and act the way we act.

Now is the only moment we have where we can make the shift—the metanoia—from leading a more or less reactive and unexamined life to much more mindful and examined life—a life of metacognition and greater presence and accountability in our own life and the present.

Making a Different Choice: Choosing a Different Way of Responding Rather Than Our Patterned Way of Responding


The fusion of emotional and intellectual functioning that is prevalent in people at the lower end of the differentiation of self scale, means that, at those lower levels, much of behavior and thinking is emotionally driven.

The emotions are so powerful that when a fusion of emotions and intellect occurs (“amygdala hijacking”), intellectual functioning—which is not reliable in the presence of strong emotions, especially anxiety, anger, and fear—loses out.

Since those with lower levels of differentiation inherited a greater quantity of innate anxiety and reactivity from the relationship fusions they grew up in (their family of origin), their intellectual processes will be adversely affected by that fusion.

Whenever intellect is influenced or made less effective by emotional forces, thinking is not logical or reliable. And the finer abilities of human beings, such as abstraction and the ability to consider consequences of behavior, are lost.

Thus decision-making is impaired.

And poor decision-making means more life problems. And since most of us bring on most of our life problems ourselves, for people at the lower end of the scale, that tendency is multiplied, sometimes exponentially, by emotionally driven (irrational) decision-making. Behavior is impulsive and not well thought-out and thought-through. Life troubles abound.

There are also many relationship difficulties, partly because of the load of anxiety that people at this level carry with them. Their greater anxiety leads them to repeat relationship patterns and stances, as they tend to “take it out on their partner,” through distancing, emotional cuttoff, triangling, under-functioning.

People at this end of the scale live with an excessive amount of worry and distrust. Their whole world is one of relationships and either positive or negative emotional reactivity to them. There is little to no time or energy left to think about the wider world or improving their relationships through greater self-observation because of the amount of fusion between their emotions and intellect.

People higher on the scale have less ambient anxiety to carry around with them. This results in a more stable and less reactive nervous system.

Because they took on less anxiety in their family of origin years, they gain and lose less self in relationship fusions.

That means that their brains work better for decision-making as well as all kinds of complex intellectual functioning. Being less mired in the emotional/intellectual fusions, the brain is freed of the intensity that holds it back from functioning at its best. Better decisions are possible. And because of that, there are fewer life problems. Relationships work better. There is less unnecessary worry.

Though we are stuck with the amount of undifferentiation we leave home with, it is possible to nudge it a little by concerted effort, developing a “new lens,” and active and sustained coaching or therapy with someone has been wearing that same lens for much longer.

That is the bad news.

The good news is that any movement at all up the scale means living a life that is all but unrecognizable from before.

It only takes accurately seeing the emotional process and beginning to focus on the contribution of self to the pattern and changing that, to dissolve the whole pattern. (Making a different choice.)

But if the change is simply changing from one pattern to another, as when people in conflict become tired of conflict and retreat into emotional distance or all the way to cutoff, then the anxiety will not be resolved. Replacing one pattern with another pattern will provide no resolution of the anxiety.

Cutoff is the most extreme form of the emotional distance pattern. A marriage or long-term relationship that is distant is often cuttoff into divorce or no-contact. Such people often have no idea how to handle criticism or complaints and frequently withdraw into depression, which leads to inefficiency at work and around the house. Whenever they perceive anything resembling an “attack,” they have no idea how to address the problem directly and calmly; so they tend to leave the situation or relationship instead of talking things over.

With coaching or therapy, highly emotionally reactive people can learn a different way of responding to perceived criticism and slights. They can learn to accurately evaluate whether the other person’s anxiety (and hence criticism) was triggered by one’s own anxious posture or behavior or not. And if the concerns raised are valid, then the person could learn something about oneself and work on change. And if the criticisms were unfounded—that is, if it was more about the person making the complaint than about anything objective and factual—then the person could realize that, still stay connected with the other person and not react, and discuss things calmly. Learning to observe one’s own inner processes and think critically and objectively about what is said, allows a person not to be so reactive and decimated by criticism and other intensities and retreat into another cutoff.

Cutoff is such a part of the world we live in that it can be difficult to recognize at times.

Cutoff is the extreme form of the posture of emotional distancing. When a relationship becomes sufficiently emotionally intense, at some point, some people will cut off internally or geographically. Communications cease.

Cutoff often leads to symptoms, but is seldom recognized for its part in the problem.

Why? Because cutoff feels wonderful in the beginning—“such a relief!” One is free; one is rid of the problem.

But cutoff does not solve anything. So while it feels good initially to be rid of a troublesome relationship, cut off, like all other maladapative relationship patterns, creates anxiety. And anxiety, as we have seen, leads to symptoms. In the long term, anxiety sets in, in the form of depression or other symptoms.

But it will not be seen as related to the cutoff. Why? Because in the first place, the cutoff felt so good; and, secondly, the onset of symptoms is often so far removed in time from the beginning of the cutoff, so the logical connection is not made. In other words, because the negative symptoms of cutoff appear so long after the initial cutoff, they don’t get identified with it.

But when we see cutoff for what it is (and what it does to self and others), we can begin to work on our cutoff tendencies.

The rewards for this kind of effort are great: a tangible movement up the scale. Life afterwards becomes all but unrecognizable from life before once one addresses their own tendencies to emotionally distance and cutoff.

A large part of differentiating oneself in relationships while still staying in contact and not cutting off is in “being able to observe accurately and see the part that the self plays, and to consciously control this programmed emotional reactiveness.

“The observation and the control are equally difficult.

“Observation is not possible until one can control one’s reactions sufficiently to be able to observe.”

(And controlling one’s emotional reactions is not possible until one can observe and see those reactions accurately, without “the intrapsychic processes of denial and isolation and or physically running away.”

In other words, one cannot control one’s reactions sufficiently until one is able to observe; and one cannot observe until one can begin to control one’s reactions, soothe one’s anxieties and upset, and face up to one’s own patterned ways of thinking and reacting when stressed.

It seems like a hopelessly negative self-perpetuating cycle. But, Bowen assures us,

“The process of observation allows for more control, which in turn, in a series of slow steps, allows for better observation. It is only when one can get a little outside of one’s patterned ways of responding (and the accompanying inner intellectual and emotional fusion) that it is possible to begin to observe.” (Murray Bowen, M.D., “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” pg. 480.)

Excerpted and adapted from “Extraordinary Leadership” and “The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory” by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D.

The Difficulty in Making Better Choices (or: What We’re Each Up Against—What’s Worst in Ourselves)


Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about its own existence.” – David Schnarch

(Or, as I prefer to paraphrase it: “Only the best in us can talk about what’s worst in us; what’s worst in us lies about itself and its own existence.”)

From “A General Theory of Love” “The Difficulty of Making Better Choices and Breaking Our Habitual Ways of Reacting”

Whenever an emotional chord is struck, it stirs to life past memories of the same feeling. While sifting through the sensory present, the brain triggers prior knowledge patterns, whose suddenly reanimated vigor ricochets throughout the network. Old information comes alive; the person then knows again what he used to know. A depressed person effortlessly recalls incidents of loss, desertion, and despair. Anxious people dwell on past threats. Paranoia instills a retrospective preoccupation with situations of persecution.

If an emotion is sufficiently powerful, it can quash opposing neural networks so completely that their content becomes inaccessible—blotting out incongruent and disconfirming incidents and even whole sections of the past. Within the confines of that person’s own subjective inner experience or virtuality, it’s as if those incongruent events never even happened. But to an outside observer, the person seems oblivious to the whole of his own history.

For example, severely depressed people can “forget” their former, happier lives, and may even vigorously deny them when prompted by well-meaning people trying to inform the situation with greater context and accuracy.

And momentary anger and rage afford hatred an upper hand that is likewise obtuse, sometimes allowing a person to attack with internal impunity and self-righteous justification those he has temporarily forgotten that he actually loves.

The consequences of painful emotional reverberation in the brain’s networks reach beyond selective amnesia during a dominant mood.

A childhood replete with suffering lingers in the mind as bitter encoded traces of pain and a free-floating seemingly ever-present sense of anxiousness and alertness.

Even a tangential reminder of that suffering can spur the outbreak of an overwhelming onslaught of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, anticipations. As if he had accidentally bumped a sleeping guard dog, the adult who repeatedly suffered abuse as a child may feel the fearsome jaws of those negative memories close in all around him after he glimpses the merest possible intimation of his former circumstance. In sad empirical confirmation, maltreated children flipping through pictures of faces exhibit a hugely amplified brain wave when they encounter even the slightest angry expression.

Other people are troubled by emotional-memory networks that are simply too ready to pass around the signals that comprise negative feelings. Such a person finds that he or she can’t shake an unpleasant emotion once it gets going. Instead of dwindling and winding down within minutes as they should, an emotion and its associated repercussions may drown out the person’s entire mind for days or weeks.

That kind of limbic sensitivity makes the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is naturally heir to well-near unbearable for some people.

Remedies do exist for those whose networks engage in excessive emotional reverberation: some psychopharmacologic agents act as the damper pedal on a piano does, applying gentle, restraining influence on buzzing strands. Emotional chords are quieted and fade sooner.

For those whose limbic networks are high-strung, the relief can be life saving and positively life-altering.

For instance, one person related how every minor setback made her ruminate for days. “I know it doesn’t make any sense,” she said, “but my boss corrected my spelling on a report the other day, and I before I knew it, I spun out; my mind just wouldn’t let up and stop: he thinks I’m incompetent, I’m not good enough, my work isn’t good enough, I’ll lose my job. And all of that is ridiculous, I know—at some level I realize this—but it’s not enough to change my feelings. I know I’m the best manager he’s got. But whenever anything goes wrong, I just can’t shake the awful feeling.”

And so prominent was her sensitivity to emotional slights that she even retreated from intimacy. No matter how cautious her partner was, he was bound to do or say something that inadvertently hurt her feelings, and then she’d be so hurt that she’d feel terrible for weeks. Being in a relationship, she said, was like “trying to dance barefoot”—eventually her toes would get stepped on or bruised and she would flee.

However, a touch of the right medication diminished her emotional twanging to a normative range. For the first time in her life, she was able to feel and experience a minor pang as a just a minor pang. She could be upset for half an hour or so, and then get on with her day. “Is this what life is like for everyone else?” she asked. “No wonder they can all be in relationships!” With her vulnerability and excessive sensitivities reduced to more manageable and livable levels, she was much readier for love. As she said, now she was dancing with shoes on.

If the early experiences of a limbic network exemplifies healthy emotional interaction, it will serve as a more or less reliable guide to a world of workable relationships in adulthood.

But if a diseased love is presented to a child, his limbic system will encode it and force his adult relationships into that same Procrustean bed. Even if the world around a person dramatically changes, a person’s emotional experience of the world may not budge. He or she may remain trapped, as so many are, within a virtuality of thoughts and feelings constructed decades ago—and, as Twain observed, a person can no longer depend on the eyes when the imagination is out of focus.

Limbic networks spawn a vexing and fascinating aspect of human emotional life—“transference,” Freud’s terms for the universal human tendency to respond emotionally to certain others as if they were actually figures from one’s past. Transference exists because the brain remembers with neurons.

Because human beings remember with neurons, we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear anew what we have already heard most often, and think just what we have always thought. The sine qua non of a neural network is its penchant for strengthening neuronal patterns in direct proportion to their use. The more often you do or think or imagine a thing, the more probable it is that your mind will revisit its prior stopping point. When the circuits are sufficiently well-worn and repeated that thoughts and emotions fly down them with little friction or resistance or self-observation, then that mental path has become a part of you—it is now a habit of speech, thought, action, attitude, mood.

A good therapist does not merely wish to discern the trajectory of an emotional life, but to actually help determine it and re-steer it. Helping someone escape from a restrictive virtuality means reshaping the bars and walls of a prison into a home where love can bloom and life, happiness, and stability can again flourish. In the service of this goal, two people come together to change one of them into somebody else.

Few agree on how the metamorphosis occurs. “Where id was, there ego shall be,” was Freud’s battle cry. Increasing awareness, bringing light to the darkness, replacing chaos with consciousness, vanquishing the mind’s dark undergrowth with insight and intellect, is indeed an encapsulation of the talking cure and part of the process.

But therapy, as is true of love, is not only a fancy neocortical skill; it also belongs as well to the older realm of the emotional mind, the limbic brain. Indeed, people do come to therapy unable to love and leave with that capacity restored. But love is not only an end for therapy; it is also the means whereby every end is reached. The neocortical brain collects facts quickly. The limbic brain does not. Limbic networks shrug off insight but yield to a different persuasion: the constancy of another person’s limbic patterns reaching through the doorway of a limbic connection. Psychotherapy works because the limbic patterns of one mammal can restructure and alter the limbic brain of another.

Awareness is necessary but ultimately not enough to help people to desire a certain form of relationship. The requisite neural framework for performing these activities is not something that coalesces itself in one fell swoop. Describing healthy relatedness to someone, no matter how precisely or how often, does not inscribe it into the limbic neural networks that allow for or create the capacity to love.

Self-help manuals are at best like car-repair manuals. You can read them all day, but only reading them doesn’t actually fix or change a thing. Working on a car means rolling up your sleeves and getting under the hood, and you have to be willing to get dirt on your hands and grease beneath your fingernails. Overhauling emotional knowledge is no spectator sport; it demands the messy experience of yanking and tinkering that comes from a limbic bond.

If someone’s relationships today bear a troubled imprint, they do so because an influential relationship left its mark on a child’s mind.

When a limbic connection has establish a dissonant neural pattern, it takes a different limbic pattern and connection to revise it.

A determined therapist does not strive to have a good relationship with his patient—it can’t be done. If a patient’s emotional mind would support good relationships, then he or she would be out having them. Instead a therapist loosens the grip on his own world and drifts, eyes open, into whatever relationship pattern the patient has in mind—even a connection so dark that it touches the worst in him.

The therapist has no alternative.

When he stays outside the other person’s world, he cannot understand or affect it. When he steps within its range, he feels the gravitational pull of foreign limbic patterns. The patient’s limbic mind was formed within the highly charged environment of parental and familial dysfunctional limbic patterns and networks. The patient’s time-locked limbic network equip him with the intuition that relationships feel like this, follow this outline or patterns. The dance between the therapist and the patient cannot trace the same path that the latter wants or expects, however, because his new partner moves to a different rhythm. The therapist’s missions is wait for the moment to move the relationship subtly in a different direction, and then to do so again and again, ten thousand times more. Progress in therapy is iterative. And the therapist’s task is to take up temporary residence in other person’s emotional world not just to observe but to alter, and in the end, to overthrow.

Through the intimacy that a limbic exchange affords, therapy becomes the ultimate inside job.

A crucial part of healing involves the patient allowing him or herself to be limbically known. Not everyone can do it. A patient has to stomach the proposition that many of his emotional convictions are but fictions—and that someone else’s might be better. A patient has to have that modicum or trust, courage, or even desperation/exasperation. A person from a childhood with emotionally hazy and inconsistent parents finds trying to know himself like wandering around a museum in the dark: almost anything could exist within its walls. He cannot even be sure of what he senses. But those who begin to succeed in revealing these parts of themselves to another find the dimness to begin receding from their own visions of self. Like people awakening from a dream, they slough off the accumulated ill-fitting trappings of unsuitable lives. The mutual fund manage may suddenly become a sculptor, or vice versa; some friendships lapse into dilapidated irrelevance as new ones deepen and take shape; a city dweller moves to the country, where he finally feels at home, or vice versa. As limbic clarity emerges, a new way of life takes form.

People who need limbic regulation often leave therapy sessions feeling calmer, stronger, safer, more able to handle the world. Often they don’t know why. Nothing obviously helpful happened—after all, telling another person about your pain and the most intimate details of your life doesn’t sound like a recipe for relief. And the feeling inevitably dwindles, sometimes within minutes, taking the warmth and security with it. But the longer and more often a person can talk bravely and honestly and let himself be more and more fully known, the more his stability swells, expanding infinitesimally with every session as length is added to a woven clothe with each pass and contraction of the loom. And after he weaves enough it, the day comes when the person will unfurl his or her independence like a pair of spread wings. A spontaneous capacity germinates and becomes a new and natural part of the self, like knowing how to ride a bike or tie one’s shoes. The effortful and courageous beginnings fade and disappear from memory.

……………….

C.S. Lewis on “Choice & Self-Development

We shall never get a Christian society until most of us become Christian individuals.

Which will not happen until the majority of us begin the task of seeing how “Do as you would be done by” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” can be applied in detail to modern society, and until the majority of us also simultaneously begin the task of becoming the sort of people who would actually apply it if we saw how.

Christian morality claims to be a technique for doing this—for putting the human machine right and making it capable on both accounts.

Another technique makes a similar claim—namely, psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis itself—its medical theories and technique, separate from all of the philosophic additions that Freud and others have made to it—is not in the least bit contradictory to Christianity. Its technique overlaps with Christian morality at some points, and it would not be a bad thing if every parson, priest, or minister, knew something about it.

But it does not run the same course all the way, for the two techniques are doing rather different things.

When a person makes a choice—a moral or significant life choice—two things are involved.

One is the actual act of choosing.

The other is the various feelings, impulses and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the “raw material” of his choice.

Now this raw material may be of two kinds.

Either it may be what we would call normal: it may consist of the sorts of thoughts and feelings and impulses that are more or less common to all men.

Or else it may consist of quite unnatural feelings and impulses and thought patterns due to things that have gone wrong in his upbringing or his subconscious.

A fear of things that are really dangerous would be an example of the first kind of raw material.

An irrational fear of kittens or spiders would be an example of the second kind.

The carnal desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind.

The perverted desire of a man for an animal would be of the second kind.

What psychoanalysis undertakes to do is to remove the abnormal feelings, impulses, and thought patterns and reactions; that is, to give the person better raw material for his acts of choice.

Morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves.

Now suppose a psychoanalyst gets involved and cures a person of his irrational, exaggerated fears, and puts the person back into the position of having only the ordinary natural range of fears of danger that any average person has.

Well it is just then that the psychoanalytic problem is over and moral problem begins—of subduing natural fears and urges and temptations by moral efforts in order to become a braver and better person.

Because however much you improve a person’s raw material, you have still got something else remaining: the real, free choice of the person on the material presented to him to either put his own advantage first, last, or on even regard with others.

And this free choice is the only thing that morality is concerned with.

Bad raw psychological material is not a sin but is a disease or a deformity; it does not need to be repented of, but cured or healed.

And this, by the way, is very important to understand.

Human beings judge one another by their external actions.

God judges them by their moral choices.

When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of kittens forces himself to pick one up for some good reason, it is quite possible in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy person may have shown in overcoming his ordinary fear of some legitimate danger.

When a person who has been abused from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny kindness, or refrains from some cruelty or lashing out that he might have committed, and thereby risks being vulnerable or feeling foolish, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you or I would if we gave up our very life for a friend.

It is well to put this another way.

Some of us who seem to be quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of our own good heredity and good fortune and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends.

Can we be quite certain of how we would have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit and bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler?

That is why Christians are told not to judge until they have accounted for and removed the wooden beam or self-bias and blindness to self from their own eyes.

We see only the results which a person’s choices make out of his raw material.

But God does not judge a person on the raw material at all, only on what he has done with it.

Most of a person’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body. When his body dies, all of that will fall off of him, and the real central person, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will finally be revealed and stand naked and alone.

All sorts of nice things which we took to be part of ourselves, but were really just due to good digestion, good heredity, good upbringing, will fall off of us. And all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health or bad upbringing will fall off others.

We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he or she really was.

And there will be surprises.

People often mistakenly think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.”

But I do not think that that is the best way of looking at it.

I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.

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

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

To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

All of which explains to me something that always used to puzzle me about Christian thinkers and writers: they seemed to be so very strict at one moment and so free and easy at another. On the one hand they talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important, and then on the other hand they talk about the most frightful treacheries and murders as if you have only got to repent and all would be forgiven.

I have come to see that they are right.

What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to either endure—or enjoy—for ever.

One person may be positioned such in life that his anger sheds the blood of thousands. And another positioned such that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at.

But the little mark upon the soul may be very much the same in both. Because each has done something to himself which, unless he slows down, faces it, admits to it, and repents of it, will make it even harder for him to keep out of anger and rage the next time he is tempted or triggered, and will only make the anger and rage worse when he does fall into it.

Each of these persons, if he or she seriously turns to God and the Holy Spirit, can have that kink in the core of their person straightened out again.

And each is doomed in the long run if he or she will not.

The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.

One last point. Remember, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a person is getting better he or she understands all the more clearly the evil that is still left in him or her.

When a person is getting worse, he understand his own badness less and less. Pride and denial and self-protectiveness form more and more of impenetrable, irredeemable wall around him.

This is common sense, really.

Good people know about both good and evil, cowardice and bravery, virtue and vice; bad people do not know about or acknowledge any of these.

(abridged and adapted from “Mere Christianity,” pp. 84-88.)

The REAL Power of NOW!


The following story is adapted from Pema Chödrön, “The Wisdom of No Escape,” pg. 29.

Once upon a time there was a woman who was arrogant and proud. She decided she wanted to attain enlightenment, so she asked all the experts how to do that. Finally one told her, “Well, if you climb to the top of this very high mountain, you’ll find a cave there. Sitting inside that cave is a very wise old woman, and she will tell you.”

“Very well,” thought the woman, “I’ll do that. After all, nothing but the best.”

So off she went.

She endured great hardships getting up the mountain, but finally she found the cave. And sure enough, sitting there was this very gentle, spiritual-looking old woman in white clothes who smiled at her beatifically.

Overwhelmed with awe and respect, the arrogant proud woman prostrated herself at the feet of the sagely-looking woman and said, “I want to attain enlightenment. Show me how.”

The wise woman looked at her with her beatific smile and asked, “Are you sure you want to attain enlightenment? This may not be as easy as you think. It likely will be much more difficult, incredibly stressful really. Do you think you are up for this? Are you really sure you want enlightenment?”

The woman said, “Of course I’m sure.”

Suddenly the gentle old hunched woman stopped smiling, straightened up, and turned into a hideous demon brandishing a big stick and started chasing the woman all around the cave, saying “Now! Now! Now!”

And for the rest of her life, that woman could never get away from the demon who was always saying, “Now!”

But yet that’s just what we’re trying to do when whenever we give in to the auto-pilot of acting out on our fearful emotions and stressful feelings or just going along with our resentful, ornery, petty moods and impulses—we’re just running away from our inner demon of fear, embarrassment, shame, pride, inadequacy. And whenever we automatically react in this way and run from ourselves and from stress and fear, we’re not living mindfully; we’re asleep.

Now, now, now. We always have a fundamental choice available to us to make, even in times of stress and anxiety. Perhaps even especially in times of stress and anxiety. Any intense and frightening moment can be a defining moment. Or not. Meaning, we can do what we’ve always done—we can even redouble our efforts doing what we’ve always done—and repeat the past in the present and try to make our present and future just like our past, choosing yet again to run and hide, give into our stress and the anxiety demon that chases us, and empower it even more. Or we can make a different choice, define ourselves differently, set a different trajectory for ourselves, courageously and heroically go against the grain of our habits and the stress and uncertainty we’re feeling and the normal way we react to it; we can be honest with ourselves and others, drop the narcissistic and vain proud and arrogant act, become much more tender and vulnerable and open and frank about what we’re experiencing.

That’s the real power of now. Choice. Recognizing that we have a choice. And that we can choose differently, that we can make a different choice. That our conditioning and fear doesn’t have to be our destiny. That while horrific and crazy things may have happened to us or been done to us in our past, we don’t have to react and act out in destructive, fearful ways and take our fear and stress out on those around us—especially those we claim to love and care about.

To refuse to give into acting out on stress and fear and trying to run from these is nothing less than to create a seminal defining moment for ourselves. It is to finally take a stand. It is for our budding strengths to finally stir and emerge and become active. And it is to focus ourselves forward on our possible strengths and building on these, instead of focusing on the past and pandering to our weaknesses yet again. (Because whenever we do that and do what we’ve always done and run from stress and fear, we reinforce our fears and weaknesses, empowering them, making them even stronger and more likely to fire even more quickly and more fervently the next time.)

We always have the choice. Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we are willing to admit it or not, we always have a choice:

We can react mindlessly to stress and let it overrun us, and in doing so feed the beast and make the stress demon stronger.

Or we can go against the grain of what we’re feeling and respond more mindfully, more courageously, with greater tenderness and open-heartedness and vulnerability.

Whatever we’re given in life can either wake us up or put us more to sleep.

That is the real power of now. Making a choice. Making a very conscious, deliberate, strategic, mindful, eyes- and heart- and mind-wide-open choice. Deciding whether to wake up or go more to sleep.

To choose not to decide or to pretend that we don’t have a choice is to go to sleep.

Whenever we run away and avoid and diffuse responsibility, we go to sleep.

When we stay and remain open and present and curious and investigate more mindfully what we’re experiencing as well as our thoughts and feelings about it, we are beginning to sow seeds of wakefulness.

Even when the stress is the greatest and the temptation to fly of the handle and lose it is most alluring and familiar, we can still go against our pride and habits and self-protectiveness, and let ourselves soften and breakdown and not be so fearful of appearing weak, needy, vulnerable, insufficient, hurt, and in need of a little (or a lot of) tenderness, compassion, kindness, soothing.

After all, that’s usually the real fear behind the stress whenever we act out harshly and self-protectively on it—the fear of appearing inadequate, the fear of facing up to and admitting our own powerlessness and inadequacy, the fear of hitting rock bottom and admitting that we’re helpless and much less than what we thought, the fear of being rejected and pushed away by another in a moment of weakness and frazzledness if we were to reach out to another and ask for compassion, tenderness, mercy, kindness. That’s the real fear.

To run away and avoid difficulty, is to try to go to back to sleep—it is to try to avoid ourselves, to set our life in such away that we avoid facing ourselves, that we avoid taking responsibility for ourselves, that we avoid dealing with our pride and having to feel inadequate, not together, uncertain.

In a moment of stress and fear, this fundamental choice is always there for us. The choice is always there to choose love or give into fear. To give into our reptile or to lead with our spirit and what’s best in us. We can either reject ourselves and others and lash around and act out like an alligator or a demon-like reptile, or we can make friends with ourselves and our unpleasant feelings and not reactively or automatically run from them whenever they frighten us with their intensity or heat, and we can lead from our spirit, what’s best in us, our potential strengths.

That is the real power of now, realizing that whatever we’re presented with in life can either wake us up or put us more to sleep. That we can always choose love over fear. That we can choose to sow love, or we can just react, go with our amygdala, act out of fear, cave and give into and empower stress. We can either maintain perspective or lose it. We can either go crazy or we can go sane. “When we find ourselves in a mess, instead of feeling guilty or stressed, we can reflect on the fact that how we relate to this mess now will be sowing the seeds of how we relate to whatever happens next. We hold the power to make ourselves miserable or make ourselves strong. The amount of effort required will be about the same. Right now we are creating our state of mind for tomorrow, not to mention this afternoon, next week, next year, and all the years of our lives.” ( — Pema Chödrön)

Now, now, now! Whenever the going gets difficult and stressful, we’re also simultaneously presented with another incredible opportunity yet again—the opportunity of yet another potentially life-altering “defining moment,” depending on how we decide to respond. The Chinese character for crisis is also the same symbol or character for opportunity. And that’s the reality of what any moment of stress and anxiety might mean for us. Because these moments of crisis are also our greatest potential moments to define ourselves differently, to make our future different from our past, if—if—we can heroically take the leap and make a different choice. We can always run; we always have that choice available to us to avoid or to wall up. But we can also choose strength, choose what’s potentially best in us, and try to stay and remain open and break our habitual ingrained self-sabotaging, self-protective, maladaptive, unproductive patterns and reactions by trying something new and making a different choice . . . the choice not to run and hide and annihilate and act impulsively without considering the consequences of what we’re doing, the seeds we’re sowing, the precedent we’re setting or reinforcing yet again (more fear, more bad karma, more fear and negative consequences, less strength and capacity and willingness to deal with stress head-on).

We can either stay and learn to deal with ourselves and deal with the consequences of what all of our past choices and past avoidances have done to us; or we can run from ourselves some more and make others deal with the consequences of our craziness and our shortfalls in courage and goodness. We can either bravely, humbly, even desperately learn to deal with ourselves, including what’s weakest and worst and not so savory in us; or we can run from those situations and persons and relationships that bring out the worst in us and expose all the crud and dross in us and mindlessly fantasize about a future that will be different from our past not because we’ve changed who we are but simply because we’ve changed where we are and who and what’s around us. Because the real power of now comes from acknowledging that we must be the change we wish to see. The real power of now comes from admitting that the geographic cure is not a cure at all, not even close, that it’s not a part of the solution, and that it’s actually just another fundamental part of our basic problem—that we don’t deal well (if at all) with ourselves and our fears and stress, that we just don’t fundamentally relate well to ourselves, we are not a good steward and friend to ourselves.

It is possible for us even when the stress is the greatest and the urge to self-protect and flee is the most compelling to do something completely different, something completely unprecedented—it is possible for us to make a different choice—it is possible for us to not automatically shut down and self-protect and close our heart and mind, but to instead remain curious, daring, courageous, open, inquisitive, audacious, compassionate, and soothe our own frazzled emotions, not let them capture and blind us, but instead to remember what’s best in us and refocus our attention on it, and smile at fear, make friends with uncertainty and anxiety, not continue to relive the past in the present. Now is here. Now is the time. Now is all we have. Now is when we can make a different choice. Now. Now. Now. That’s all we have. Every now is sowing something in us, just as every now in the past has sown something in us and made us into the person we have become and are right now, including the way we react to stress and fear and deal with ourselves emotionally (or stubbornly refuse to deal with ourselves). If we want to legitimately feel good about ourselves by being braver and more centered in the future when the fearful stress demon comes again, we need to make different choice now than the ones we’ve been making in the past whenever we’ve gotten stressed out and obliterated situations, run from relationships and commitments when the going got tough, and taken out our stress on others.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,

My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

( — Hafiz)

It’s not just feelings of loneliness that we perhaps need to not run from so quickly when they visit us, perhaps it’s also those feelings of shame and embarrassment and even horror over who we are and what we’ve done (to others and ourselves) and what we’ve become that we also need to not surrender and not run from, but instead let cut us even more deeply, let ferment and season us, and let begin to finally transform us and awake us to some new sanity. . . . A sanity where we can make different choices. . . . More courageous choices. . . .

And if we’re going to grow and make our future different from our past we need to make different choices. More courageous choices. And Now. Now. Now. Because that’s all we have. If we’re idle and discursive and unfocused in our now, living haphazardly, dissipating our energy and our awareness, scattering ourselves, further fragmenting ourselves, not committing to anything other than homeostasis, the path of least resistance, and the comfort of moment, then we’re just seeding more future misery and unhappiness and instability for ourselves and others, and a future that will continue to look a lot like our past. We’re not sowing strength, bravery, attention, mindfulness.

But if in the moments of calm that we have now between moments of agitation we live more mindfully, take up meditation, yoga, writing, self-examination, self-analysis, reading decent books, studying and learning more and more about the dharma, the Tao, engage in more meaningful and wholesome and honest conversations (instead of discursive low-level ones that further scatter our attention), and we learn to begin sitting quietly with ourselves like a friend, like a best friend, like our a soul friend or anam cara, and patiently listen to ourselves, then we are planting different seeds, seeds of mindfulness, seeds of courage, seeds of bravery, seeds of better decision-making, seeds of more lasting happiness, seeds of honesty, seeds of friendliness, seeds of virtue, seeds of goodness, seeds of openness, seeds of wakefulness, seeds of transformation; —we are planting a future for ourselves that will be different than our past—a future that will be happier because we will be more eligible for happiness, because we will (finally!) be braver, happier, less afraid, more open-hearted, more inoculated to stress and anxiety.

But we can only do that if we are wise about our nows and make different choices now, now, now.

Because that’s the real power of now—it’s in the choices we make and the actions we take. Thinking and talking and daydreaming about it isn’t enough.

Because all of our nows, all of these moments of decision, taken as a whole, make up our lives and the sum quality of our lives, rendering us each either more and more eligible and fit for greater and greater happinesses, or less and less fit for life and thus leaving us weaker, more afraid, more miserable and isolated and alone, less able to be open and loving, and more and more ineligible for happiness and peace of mind and heart.

Some day, in years to come, you will be wrestling with the great temptation, or trembling under the great sorrow of your life. But the real struggle is here, now. . . . Now it is being decided whether, in the day of your supreme sorrow or temptation, you shall miserably fail or gloriously conquer. Character cannot be made except by a steady, long-continued process.” — Phillips Brooks

[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.

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

To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.

Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.

— C. S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” pg. 87.

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