Pascal on Truth, Flattery, and the Ego

From the “Pensées,” pp. 348-350, Penguin edition.—

It is no doubt an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and unwilling to recognize them, since this entails the further evil of deliberate self-delusion.

We do not want others to deceive us; we do not think it right for them to want us to esteem them more than they deserve; we do not think it is right either that we should deceive them and want them to esteem us more than we deserve.

Thus when [others] merely reveal vices and imperfections which we actually possess, it is obvious that they do us no wrong, since they are not responsible for them, but are really doing us good, by helping us to escape from an evil, namely our ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be annoyed that they know them and despise us, because it is right that they should know us for what we are and despise us if we are despicable.

These are the feelings which would spring from a heart full of equity and justice.

What then should we say of ours, seeing it quite differently disposed? For is it not true that we hate the truth and those who tell it to us, and we like them to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are? . . .

This aversion for truth exists in differing degrees, but it may be said that it exists in everyone to some degree, because it is inseparable from (unhealthy or immature) self-love (narcissism). It is this false delicacy which makes those who have to correct others choose so many devious ways and qualifications to avoid giving offense. They must minimize our faults, pretend to excuse them, and combine this with praise and marks of affection and esteem. Even then such medicine still tastes bitter to self-love, which takes as little of it as possible, always with disgust and often with secret resentment against those administering it.

The result is that anyone who has an interest in winning our affection tends to avoid rendering us a service which he knows to be unwelcome; we are treated as we want to be treated—we hate the truth and so it is kept from us, we desire to be flattered and so we are flattered, we like being deceived and so we are deceived.

This is why each rung of fortune’s ladder which leads us up in the world takes us further from the truth, because people are more wary of offending those whose friendship is most useful and whose enmity is most dangerous. . . . [T]elling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it. . . .

[The ego] conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and which convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed.

[Thus] human life is nothing but a perpetual illusion; there is nothing but mutual deception and flattery. No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence. Human relations are only based on this mutual deception. Few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately.

Man is therefore nothing but disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy, both in himself and with regard to others. He does not want to be told the truth. He avoids telling it to others, and all these tendencies, so remote from justice and reason, are naturally rooted in his heart.


Facing Oneself

Facing Oneself

Anyone who is interested in learning the truth about oneself (which in Buddhism we call the dharma), anyone who is interested in finding out about him- or herself, is basically a warrior. If someone is willing to look at him- or herself, to explore and practice honest wakefulness (real self-examination and honest self-awareness) on the spot, then he or she is a warrior—a warrior, meaning, a person who is truly brave.

Warriorship is based on overcoming the biggest obstacle that we as human beings have to face—ourselves. And namely our cowardice and our sense of being wounded or hurt or entitled.

Many approaches to spirituality and life in general are influenced by cowardice. For example, if you are afraid of seeing yourself as you are, you may use spirituality or religion as a way of looking at yourself without seeing anything of yourself at all!

Or you might convince yourself that there is some religious discipline that will allow you to pass directly into spiritual ecstasy. You might convince yourself that the real world does not exist; that only the realm of spirits exists. However, eventually some tragedy or disappointment will bounce back on you, because we cannot cheat on the basic norm, which is known as “karma,” or the law of cause and effect. We cannot cheat. Trying to cheat on this is what we call “spiritual bypassing.”

Or if you are really interested in working on yourself, you can’t lead a type of double life—adopting spiritual ideas, practices, techniques, and concepts of all kinds, simply in order to get away from yourself. That is what we call “spiritual materialism”—hoping that you can have a nice sleep, under anesthetics, and by the time you “awaken,” everything will be sewn up and have been done for you. And everything will be healed. And you that you didn’t have to go through any pains or problems. Which would also mean that you didn’t have to develop any of the real honesty, courage, wisdom, compassion—the so-called “spiritual fruits” of the journey—required to contend with and resolves these pains and problems.

In a genuine spiritual discipline, you cannot do that; you cannot cheat. You have to face yourself. And you have to face yourself directly, as you are, without backing down, without any softeners. You have to face yourself honestly, squarely, fully, courageously.

Because ultimately becoming a warrior and facing yourself is a matter of honesty. Honesty plays the central part. But so does courage. And so does being resolute and committed. Because in looking at yourself, you may find that you’ve been bad, you may begin to feel ashamed and terrible about yourself, you may begin to feel wretched and completely pitch-black, like the black hole of Calcutta, about yourself and your life. But rather than condemning yourself, the idea is to simply just face the facts—face the facts resolutely, courageously, honestly. Just see the simple straightforward truth about yourself. Simply discover what is there; simply see that, and then stop! Don’t condemn yourself! Because that would just be pride, our sense of wounded vanity or hurt speaking. Rather it’s important to just look; it’s important to be matter-of-fact.

When you see yourself and your life in this way, you begin to be a warrior; you begin to develop a genuine gut-level sense of truth.

One of the main obstacles to fearlessness is the habitual patterns that allow us to deceive ourselves. Ordinarily, we don’t let ourselves experience ourselves fully—we have a tremendous fear of facing ourselves. Experiencing the innermost core of their existence is embarrassing, shameful, incredibly unsettling to the vast majority of people. And so many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but where they can still liberate themselves—liberate themselves from themselves!

In truth, that is an impossibility. It cannot be done.

We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to see our gut, our bile, our shit, our excrement, our most unsavory and undesirable parts. We have to see that. Because this is the only real foundation for warriorship, and this is the only real basis for conquering fear.

In facing ourselves, we will have to face quite a lot. And we will have to give up a lot. You may not want to, but still you will have to, if you want to learn to love yourself and befriend yourself. It boils down to that.

On the other hand, if you want to hurt yourself by indulging in your neurosis and keeping your heart armored and closed off, that is your business and nobody else’s. Because nobody can save you from yourself. So go ahead. Indulge your neurosis. But you are bound to regret it later on. And profoundly so. Because by then, you may have collected and piled up so much garbage within yourself that it will be almost impossible to undo the situation.

And that would be a very wretched place to end up.

But often, that’s what some people do.

Often we prefer to hurt ourselves. It seems to feel better to pursue our habitual patterns than to help ourselves. It’s more comfortable to continue living in a blind, uncourageous, timid, self-deceptive, dishonest way, than to risk living in a much more courageous, fearless, honest way. To some people, their habitual patterns are so comfortable, so familiar, that it’s like home to them. A broken home. But a home nonetheless. The only home they’ve ever known. And may ever know. Because it’s what they make every new home and relationship into.

So sadly it’s a home they’ll likely never wind up leaving.

If we are to ever leave home, we have to face our fear, we have to face what we fear most: we have to face ourselves. We have to look directly at ourselves. We have to learn how to sit with ourselves and see ourselves for who and what we are.

If we put one hundred percent of our heart into facing ourselves, then we will connect (reconnect) with our original unconditional underlying goodness.

But if we put only fifty percent of our heart into the situation, then nothing very much will happen.

(Abridged and adapted and elaborated on from “Smile at Fear,” by Chögyam Trungpa; pp. 1-10.)

Spiritual Bypassing

Spiritual Bypassing

(This is something that I have abridged and elaborated on that was written by John Welwood and appears in his book “Toward a Psychology of Awakening,” pp. 11-13)

THERE is a widespread tendency to seek out and use spiritual practices to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional unfinished business—all of those messy matters and psychological wounds that weigh us down or hold us back. I call this tendency to attempt to use spiritual practices to avoid or illegitimately transcend and rise above both our basic human needs and fears, as well as our personal and emotional issues and developmental tasks, “spiritual bypassing.”

Spiritual bypassing is particularly tempting for people who are having difficulty navigating life’s developmental challenges. In a time and culture like ours, what once were considered ordinary marks of adulthood—earning a livelihood through dignified work, raising a family, keeping a marriage together, belonging to a meaningful community—have become increasingly elusive for more and more people. While still struggling to find themselves, more and more people are being introduced to spiritual teachings and practices of a dubious nature that attempt to convince their practitioners that the real world is significantly other than it is, and that certain developmental tasks are completely unnecessary.

As a result, they wind up misusing legitimate spiritual teachings—or using illegitimate and pseudo-spiritual escapist nonsense—to create a new “spiritual” identity—a false- or pseudo-self—which is actually just their old dysfunctional identity that was based on avoidance (of unresolved psychological issues), denial and escape (of or from these unresolved psychological issues and of life’s inherent difficulties and losses and developmental tasks), and impulsivity (a willful and habitual lack of self-control and discernment and solid thinking), repackaged in a new shiny guise that they can buy into and that they can try to convince others into buying into.

Used in this way, spiritual teachings and practices (or pseudo-spiritual practices and teachings) become a way to rationalize old defenses and reinforce old and avoidant habits and ways of reacting and responding. Many of the “perils of the path”—such as spiritual materialism, narcissism, delusions of grandiosity or excessive specialness, or groupthink (uncritical acceptance of a group’s ideology or of any spiritual teaching or practice*)—result from people trying to use spirituality to shore up or illegitimately mask (bypass) developmental deficiencies.

It’s not a stretch to say that just as the adult entertainment industry thrives on being able to exploit women who were abused sexually as children, so too the new age movement depends on exploiting women (and perhaps men equally) who were neglected or abused physically and emotionally and thus are so overburdened by unacknowledged past pain that they can nary handle any more stress and or any more reality and so they crave and seek out a philosophy of life that ultimately will turn out to be largely vacuous, soft-minded, feel good, escapist, and highly unrealistic. They end up courting the spiritual equivalent of romance novels. As Hazat Inayat Khan put it: “People are not only ready to profit by your wisdom, power, and greatness, but they are also eager to take advantage of your ignorance, weakness, and inability.” Not to mention our woundedness. And in this day and age in particular, people are lined up around the block ready to take advantage of our ignorance, woundedness, weakness, and flaws.

Legitimate spiritual and transformative traditions speak of three basic tendencies that keep us tied to the wheel of suffering: the tendency to reject what is difficult, very realistic, and or painful; the tendency to grasp onto things (teachings and practices included; this is what is meant by “spiritual materialism”) for comfort and security and support; and the tendency to desensitize ourselves so that we don’t have to face or feel the whole extent or depth or burden of our basic existential predicament—suffering, aging, disease, the body, loss, sorrow, pain, rejection, separation, isolation, lostness, anxiety, fear, and namely the fear of being overwhelmed or flooded by our own emotions and reactions.

Spiritual bypassing is symptomatic of the tendency to reject or avoid what is unpleasant and difficult—such as the sudden unexpected shifts and roller-coaster-like changes of the weak and underdeveloped ego. When a person isn’t strong enough or doesn’t feel him- or herself to be strong enough to deal with the inherent difficulties of this world—difficulties made all the more difficult by childhood wounds and abuses—then the person will try to find ways of illegitimately avoiding having to deal altogether with their personal issues and deficiencies as well as conditioning, habits, and reactions/reactivity.

This is a major pitfall of the spiritual path—attempt to avoid facing the unresolved issues of the conditioned personality. And attempting to avoid unfinished or even unstarted developmental tasks and the unresolved pains and wounds in our past is only what keeps us caught even more firmly in their grasp. Whatever we run away from runs us. Whatever we deny or suppress comes back to us as fate, as destiny. There is a part of us that would rather take it easy, sink into some comfortable and automatic groove, not have to think too much or too deeply or critically, and basically get through this life with as little effort and challenge and stress as possible. This leads to our common addictions—to mindless television and escapist books and blogs, consumerism, alcohol and drugs, even religion and pseudo-spiritual practices—these are all ways of numbing ourselves and avoiding facing reality and the rawness, the messiness, the difficulties, and the anxieties of being more fully alive and awake and present.


* As the Buddha put it:

Rely on the teaching, not on the person;
Rely on the meaning, not on the words;
Rely on the definitive meaning, not on the provisional;
Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary mind.
Do not accept any of my words solely on faith, Believing them just because I said them.
Instead be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns,
And critically examines his product for authenticity.
Only accept what passes the (reality) test.