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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.

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Real Intimacy versus Other-Dependent (or Other-Validated) Intimacy


Real Intimacy versus Other-Dependent (or Other-Validated) Intimacy

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

(The following is adapted and modified and riffed on from David Schnarch’s book, “Passionate Marriage,” chapter 4, “Intimacy Is Not for the Faint of Heart“—or Psyche)

For most people to be intimate and open psychologically and even sexually expressive and free with their partner, they have to know in advance that that they will be accepted and made to feel safe and comfortable—even comforted and soothed if needed. “I have to know in advance that you won’t reject me for what I’m saying.” This is not real intimacy but dependency; it lacks the courage and honesty of real intimacy; and because of that it leads to manipulation, bargaining, distortions, deception, lying, and extortion.

Real intimacy involves both self-disclosure and self-confronting. It hinges on our capacity for self-awareness, self-development, self-reflection, our ability to use complex language, to make self v. other distinctions, and to know who and what we really are and stand for. It requires the ability to think clearly, honestly, and courageously—which means it requires the ability to be objective about ourselves (as much as this is possible), to confront ourselves, to be deeply and radically honest with ourselves, and to be very aware of ourselves. —Which means it requires that we have a well-developed conscience.

All of these are processes and capacities that are part of the neocortex.

Thus, until the neocortex is developed sufficiently—or until we develop our neocortex sufficiently—we’re not eligible for or capable of real intimacy.

Real intimacy is not just a capacity or process of the limbic system; it’s not just driven by our need to connect emotionally with others. Rather, it’s driven by our need to connect meaningfully, substantially, deeply with another or others.

Emotional immaturity (low differentiation, an underdeveloped neocortex) encourages a particular view of intimacy and a way of life and interacting with others that actually blocks an awareness of others and then reinforces this blindness/lack of awareness. People whose neocortex is underdeveloped misunderstand “intimacy” and view it as involving acceptance, validation, reciprocity, and trusting one’s partner more than oneself, because these are all things that poorly differentiated people want if they are going to disclose important personal information.

This dependent “other-validated” intimacy sounds something like this: “I’ll tell you about myself, but only if and when you tell me about yourself first. If you don’t, I won’t either. But I really want to feel good and feel close to somebody, so if I open up a little about myself, then you have to too. I’ll go first, that way you’re obligated to disclose also—after all, fair’s fair. But if I’m to go first, you have to make me feel secure and create a safe space for me to tell you who I am and hold that space—you can’t reject me or later throw what I tell you back in my face; I have to be able to trust you. And if you do do all of this for me, there’s no guarantee that I’ll actually do it for you because I may not like what you have to tell me about yourself when you open up to me—I may like the fantasy I have about you (and all of the good things I’m projecting onto you) much more than the reality of you; so I still fully reserve the right to reject you.”

Real intimacy, on the other hand, is much much more courageous and daring. It hinges on our ability to courageously self-disclose, as well as our ability to courageously face and confront ourselves honestly and deeply and call ourselves on our own shite or weaknesses or issues, as well as our capacity to soothe our own hurts and negative emotions. Real intimacy sounds like this: “I love you. And that means that I don’t expect you to agree with me or to validate and reinforce and support me—you weren’t put on this earth to orbit around me and to pander to my insecurities and fears and anxieties and neuroticisms and my every little want. I want you to really love me; but you can’t really do that if you don’t deeply know me—or if you’re not capable of deeply knowing me (or any human being)—or if I shade the truth about who I am and what I’m really thinking and feeling and wanting. I don’t want to be rejected by you, in fact in many ways it may be easier for me to reject you first before you potentially reject me, but that’s a dishonest and cowardly way to live and to avoid dealing with my deeper fears and insecurities and issues. So instead I’d rather face the possibility of showing you who I really am and having you reject me for it than I would live a lie and be loved for someone I’m not by showing you only the familiar and easy to accept parts of myself. if I’m ever to be truly loved and accepted by you and feel secure in this relationship, it’s high time I bare myself to you and confront my own mortality and separateness. I want to know and be known by you. One day when we’re no longer on this earth, I want to know that you actually knew me and got me.”

Real intimacy hinges on our capacity to stand on our own emotionally and to support and soothe ourselves and validate ourselves (self-validate) rather than “trusting” our partner to make us feel safe and accepted (to create and hold a “safe space” open for us).

This latter common notion of intimacy panders to what I call “the tyranny of the weak.”

The “other-validated” or other-dependent intimacy prescribed by most marital therapies and therapists just gives poorly differentiated people a prescribed way to hold onto their low level of differentiation (emotional immaturity, low level of neocortical development) by prying validation and disclosures and acceptance and security and soothing out of their partners in the name of intimacy and having their “limitations” and immaturities honored and respected by having them catered to. A dependence on other-validated intimacy only reinforces dependencies and weaknesses in general and thus interferes with the development of the self-capacities necessary to support real intimacy and living and loving on life’s terms—self-capacities such as self-soothing, standing on your own emotionally, self-confronting, honest self-awareness, self-validating—all neocortical capacities which we must develop if we are to live and love on life’s terms and ever fully know and be known by another human being, and not end up simply having visited this world.

Almond Trees in Full Bloom” – Rilke (written Dec 1912 – January 1913)

(Almond trees in full bloom—: The most we can achieve here is to know ourselves fully in our earthly appearance.)

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

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

The Four Agreements. The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally


    The Four Agreements
    The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally

I get the gist of what Ruiz is trying to communicate with his advice of “Don’t take anything personally,” and there’s certainly some wisdom to it, but unfortunately he’s trying to make an absolute out of something that likely isn’t meant to be an absolute, and that if it were an absolute would render human interaction and human relationships meaningless; every relationship and every interaction would be completely self-referential and solipsistic and narcissistic; other people aren’t real and there’s no real contact or communion possible between people.

Let us imagine an ordinary husband and wife—well, not completely ordinary; let’s imagine a husband and wife who have read “The Four Agreements” and who are following Ruiz’s advice. . . . (down the rabbit hole we go . . . )

Husband: “What a lovely morning. It’s such a joy to wake up next to you each morning. I love you so much, my dear, thank you for being a part of my life. But don’t take any of that personally.”

Wife: “I love you too, darling, sooo much. My life is so much better with you in it. But don’t you take that personally either.”

Husband: “Now let’s get up and wake the kids and tell them that we love them but not to take it personally.”

What an absurd relationship that would be. And what a delightful little brood of antisocial rugrats they would be contributing to society. Nothing would mean anything. Nothing that anyone said to them or that they said to another. Everyone would just glide along in their own little solipsistic and narcissistic insular self-protective Teflon bubble or monad (Leibniz). What a world. And what an utter waste of life.

These are Ruiz’s own words: “Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, don’t take it personally. . . . Don’t take anything personally. . . . Even at the extreme” (pg. 53).

And, “Whatever you think, whatever you feel, I know is your problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, not with me” (pg. 51).

And, “Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give . . . come from all the programming they received during domestication” (pg. 49).

But earlier he writes, “Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally. . . . [I]f I see you on the street and I say, ‘Hey, you are so stupid,’ without knowing you, it’s not about you; it’s about me” (pg. 47).

The first problem is that Ruiz is not being impeccable with his word: “without knowing you”—why add that phrase? Because it would seem to imply that if he knew someone well enough and then called the person “stupid,” then the remark would no longer just be about Ruiz himself, but actually about the other person, and perhaps even have merit. His wording and thinking seem, at the very least, a bit muddled here.

Secondly, he’s clearly taking everything off the table—not just words, but feelings, and actions. Ruiz wants his readers to take nothing that others say or do to us personally. Nothing. He’s using the categorical word “anything”—as in “Don’t take anything personally.” He didn’t say, “Don’t take too much stuff personally”—which would actually be sane, thoughtful advice.

Now I can appreciate the benefits of each of us trimming our need for, or our dependence on, social mirroring and what Schnarch terms “reflected sense of self” (or external validation). There’s much to be said about learning how to self-validate and form our own opinions and ideas about ourselves that are realistic and accurate. It just encourages a more examined and reflective way of life; it encourages honest self-awareness and emotional maturity and mindfulness; it encourages better and more accurate observational skills; and it encourages better critical thinking skills. And there’s also much to be said as well about not disempowering ourselves by putting ourselves in a reactive position where we are dependent on other people to define us and thus to make us feel a certain way (namely good about ourselves and who we are). Seen from this perspective, Ruiz is indeed correct when he writes that, “taking things personally is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me’ ” (pg. 48). It is an example of what’s worst and weakest in us—and what we all must face and deal with if we are to actually grow; it is an example of what Ruiz, later in the book, will refer to as our inner “parasite” that we must confront.

I also agree with Ruiz that allowing others to define us is in many ways a very unwise and sketchy endeavor because most people are inherently dishonest and lie to themselves and thus to others, so therefore they are highly unreliable in their mirroring; they are highly unreliable narrators—they are not objective and fair and honest and free of distortions; so what they have to say about us will be highly distorted and warped, and we will end up with a reflected sense of self that looks like something out of amusement park funhouse. We will not see ourselves as we truly are, but in a highly bloated and distorted way. And how can we make our way through this world with grace and dignity and goodness when our map of ourselves is so inherently flawed and distorted from the getgo? Our map of reality, of the external world, will also be similarly botched and bungled and distorted. So Ruiz is right on the money when he writes: “Wherever you go you will find people lying to you, and as your awareness grows, you will notice that you also lie to yourself. Do not expect people to tell you the truth because they also lie to themselves” (pg. 57). But he misses the mark wildly in the very next sentence when he malignantly advises: “You have to trust yourself and choose to believe or not to believe what someone says to you.”

The only basis we have for trusting ourselves is the quality of our thinking and discernment—how deeply honest we are with ourselves, how up to snuff our critical thinking skills are. It’s not a question first and foremost of trust; it’s a question of the quality or level of our critical thinking. If our discernment (sense of judgement) and critical thinking skills are razor sharp and we are willing to be honest with and stringently examine ourselves and our own motivations and emotions, then a legitimate and abiding sense of self-trust is warranted. But to blithely advise people to trust themselves when their quality of life and the happiness and goodness of their relationships is a product of their own best thinking—which usually means a marked lack of any real rigorous, honest, courageous thinking—does his readership a grave disservice.

The reality is we need others. We all have blindspots; we all have areas of ourselves where we are ignorant. As Ruiz acknowledges elsewhere: “[W]e need truth to open the emotional wounds, take the poison out, and heal the wound completely. . . . Truth is like a scalpel. The truth is painful, because it opens all of the wounds which are covered over by lies so that we can finally be healed. These lies are what we call _the denial system_. . . . [T]he denial system . . . allows us to cover our wounds and still function. But once we no longer have any wounds or any poison, we don’t need to lie anymore. we don’t need the denial system, because a healthy mind, like healthy skin, can be touched without hurting. It’s pleasurable for the mind to be touched when it is clean” (pp. 115-6).

Truth means seeing ourselves as we are, or allowing ourselves to be seen as we are—which takes great honesty and courage and critical thinking skills—as well as helps to create and build these. Being truthful means getting rid of the blinders and overcoming our appetite for softeners, sweetness, having things soft-pedaled to us. It means really showing up and being present in our relationships and friendships: “Relationship is self-revelation; it is because we do not want to be revealed to ourselves that we run away and hide in comfort” (Krishnamurti). It means calling ourselves out on our excessive and bloated need for comfort, security, compassion, mildness, ease, fun, enjoyment, as well as denial, softeners, et cetera. It means weaning ourselves from the nipples that provide us sweet and easy to digest half-truths and developing the stomach (and the stones) for some solid food and solid thinking. “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think” (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Amen to that!

The danger with following Ruiz’s admonition to not take “anything” personally and to absolutize this portion of his advice is that it actually stunts our thinking—especially our critical thinking skills. It promotes the development of individuals who are now even more closed-minded and avoidant and frightened—and who now have a neat new way of “legitimizing” it and rationalizing it! Instead of encouraging his readers to become better critical thinkers and to operate on insults and compliments legitimately, honestly, with calm reflection, Ruiz is encouraging his readers to dismiss them all in one fell swoop—to throw the baby out with the bathwater, not to bother trying to separate wheat from chaff, but just throw it all out—wheat and chaff together.

Not sound or mature thinking at all, on Ruiz’s part.

Why not suggest something more emotionally mature and intellectually honest? Why not suggest that instead of people not taking “anything personally,” instead advise them to honestly and fairly and calmly and dispassionately and objectively evaluate any criticism or compliment as well as the other person’s motivations for saying such a thing to us or about us? Why not suggest a path that is more truly empowering and thoughtful? Why instead suggest a path that cuts corners and that doesn’t encourage people to become more aware and to deal with things with more emotional maturity and self-control and objectivity? After all, sometimes the ugly things, the critical things, the things that are said to us in anger, maybe the truest and most accurate—

Never forget what a man has said to you when he was angry. If he has charged you with anything, you had better look it up. Anger is a bow that will shoot sometimes where another feeling will not.” (Henry Ward Beecher, “Life Thoughts,” pg. 190.)

It is one of the severest tests of friendship to tell your friend his faults. If you are angry with a man, or hate him, it is not hard to go to him and stab him with words; but to so love a man that you cannot bear to see the stain of sin upon him, and to speak painful truth through loving words,—that -_is_ friendship. But few have such friends. Our enemies usually teach us what we are, at the point of the sword.” (Henry Ward Beecher, “Life Thoughts,” pg. 146.)

If we truly want to learn and grow as person psychologically and spiritually and emotionally then we to let more and more of this world in and show us who and what we are. And we also simultaneously need to learn how to raise our level of thinking and to think more critically—fairly, objectively, honestly; we need to lead a very examined and self-aware life; a life of ceaseless and tireless dedication to the truth and to reality.

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