We are what we read.
We also are how we read.
The only honest way to read an insightful and stimulating book is to read it very very slowly and honestly. If you want to read a great book for maximum gain, then you have to read slowly, giving yourself time to really think about what’s being shared, and—this is where the honesty part comes in—trying each bit of information on yourself for size first, and doing so fairly (honestly).
And this takes time.
The dishonest part of us (the ego, our defenses, our self-protectiveness and walls), plays fast and loose with the truth and relies on speed and discursiveness, rushed answers, quick-and-easy half-baked solutions, and inculcating even more in us the equivalent of an outbreak of “attention-deficit disorder” in us. The dishonest part of us—what’s worst in us—relies on skimming, reading quickly and hastily and superficially and not allowing us time to really try things on ourselves first and honestly for size.
What’s best in us, however, wants and needs to read things more slowly. Our defenses are always in a hurry, in a panic, pushing us forward in spite of ourselves, like a hand in our back at a pie-eating contest. What’s best in us, however, requires time, time to breathe, time to calm, to center, time to remember what’s really important, time to begin with the end in mind, time between stimulus and response, time to think, to look at things from a variety of angles, time to go through the discomfort and embarrassment and awkwardness (even sometimes the humiliation and shame and self-doubt) of trying things on ourselves first for size. And all of this takes time. So much time. And such great courage. Heroic courage, really. And tremendous honesty.
And it also requires such an intense inner desire to truly grow and learn.
When we truly desire to learn and grow, it shows. It shows in our open and thoughtful approach to life. And it shows especially when we are challenged or criticized or met with opposition.
When we truly desire to learn and grow, we don’t run from criticism or distance ourselves from it. Because to do so would be an anxious and a poorly differentiated response. Instead, we slow ourselves down, we cool and calm ourselves and self-soothe; and then we think, and we begin operating on the incoming information fairly and reasonably, all the while also noticing whether our thinking is frantic or calm, honest or discursive, hasty and all over the place.
To listen and think like this is a differentiated response. And to even add a modicum of this to our way of dealing with criticism and opposition is to begin differentiating and redefining ourselves, and setting our life on a different trajectory.
To truly grow and learn—even from something harsh or critical—requires that we slow down, reflect, humble ourselves, become more open and docile and thoughtful, that we become less defensive, less hurried, and above all, less certain.
And to truly learn and grow requires that we also read (books of substance) like this. Think like this. Speak with others like this—with honesty and openness and an invitation to have to our own thoughts and maps challenged or questioned. And that we listen like this as well—honestly, slowly, calmly, non-reactively, non-avoidantly, non-discursively.
What’s worst and weakest in us is always frightened and in a hurry, always in perpetual flight—from itself, from truth, from honesty, from reality, from what’s best in us, from what’s best in others. What’s worst in us likes to obscure things, kick up a lot of dust, use a lot smoke and mirrors and misdirection, go for quick-fixes, go for the quick easy cheese and for low fruit understandings.
And this is because what’s worst in us is also what’s most poorly differentiated in us.
It’s the anxious frightened part of us, the part of us that hijacks our thinking, loses perspective, gets caught up or swept up in living and thinking discursively. It’s the rebellious, closed-minded, highly reactive, won’t look at itself part of us that obstinately doesn’t listen (because it’s too afraid to listen), and that won’t allow us to really try things on ourselves first for size (because of how bad it fears it will make us feel).
What’s worst in us is our tendency to make mountains out of molehills, to overreact, to make our fears and anxieties much more real than they are. This is the ultimate purpose of the ego—to get us to overreact and over-self-protect before we know it and are even aware of what’s happening! (mission accomplished!) . . . to scare the shit out of us by convincing us (and others) that whatever we’re afraid of is really real and really worth being scared shitless about and thus avoiding no matter what!
“Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about its own existence.” – David Schnarch
I would elaborate on that statement and expand on it only ever so slightly. Only the best in us can talk about what’s worst in us, because what’s worst and weakest in us lies about itself and its own existence.
The way what’s worst in us reads is like plundering marauding troops (as Nietzsche put it). It seizes only on what it can use and misuse. It reads dishonestly, hastily, without really thinking about what’s being read or giving it any real chance to be internalized, to become blood, to become glance and gesture and no longer distinguishable from us (part of the lens we us to perceive the world, part of our interpretive structure; and then part of how we reliably act and show up in the world; and thus ultimately part of our core or solid self). Successful reading at the level of the ego is if we make it through a potentially life-altering passage or chapter or book with minimal heat, discomfort, stress, honest self-reflection, anxiety, and we get to the end of it and we get the relief. . . . Wheeew! That was a close call! I almost slowed down enough to actually think about what I was reading and to really try to see how much that stuff might apply to me. Thank God my stubbornness and auto-pilot way of life saved the day and kept me safe and my walls in tact!
This is successful reading—and living—for the ego: in one ear and out the other. Never internalizing or becoming what we read. Never slowing down and trying things on ourself first for size. Never allowing our own understanding or life-maps to be challenged.
So what is the alternative to this?—to reading and living defensively, dishonestly, fearfully?
In terms of reading, it is as I mentioned above: by beginning to learn (to force yourself??) to read slowly. And then to read very honestly—to read as if your worst enemy or critic was reading this same passage and trying to fit everything in it on you for size.
A philologist is a teacher of slow reading. And in the end one also writes slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also my taste no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is in a hurry. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it ‘lento.’ And for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today—in the midst of an age of ‘work,’ of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every book, old or new. Philology does not so easily get anything done; it teaches to read well, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers.
My patient friends. This book desires for itself only perfect readers and connoisseurs of the word: learn to read me well! (Nietzsche)
And need he repeat: Learn to read me very slowly and deeply and thoughtfully?
It is better for the sake of one’s soul and the sake of one’s own psychological and spiritual growth to read slowly and deliberately and thoughtfully four or five pages of something of substance during the course of an entire day, than it is to race through many pages of deliberately written and potentially life-changing material and try to swallow them whole.
To read slowly and thoughtfully and carefully is a supreme act of differentiation.
To read quickly and to not try things on yourself for size and to not allow yourself to explore your own thoughts and then to not challenge these thoughts, is to read in a very poorly differentiated and very emotionally fused way.
The purpose of a book of meditations (such as this one) is to inspire you to think. Its purpose is to help teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it straight through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because your work—your meditation—has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake. It may happen that his conclusion does not apply to you. God may want you to end up somewhere else. He may have planned to give you quite a different grace or insight than the one the author suggests you might be needing. (Thomas Merton, very slightly modified from “New Seeds of Contemplation,” pg. 215)
Thus we can now answer Rilke’s query: Must you write? Yes. If you truly want to grow. Writing is an essential part of internalizing something that we read, wrestling with it honestly, and making it our own, instead of just keeping it on the level of ego and mis-using it as dogma.
If a book (of substance) is to be read well, it must be read slowly and critically, i.e. thoughtfully, mindfully, honestly. It must be read with highlighters and pen/cil and notebook in hand, and with writing and self-exploration frequently ensuing.
It must become an honest discussion and exchange of ideas between the author and his or her words on the page and what’s best in you.
And hurried discursive reading (that is, anxious, frightened reading) simply will not support this.
You must give yourself time for your soul or depths to come in contact with the author’s soul or depths. Because a well-written book is something that is written by what’s best in another. And it deserves or ought to be heard and read by what’s best in us, and not hastily under-read and skimmed by what’s most frightened and anxious and closed-off in us.
And so a thoughtful, well-written book is intended to help that budding inchoate sense of self and what’s best and potential strongest and most courageous and honest in us develop and deepen even more. It is intended to speak directly and honestly to what’s best and most authentic and deepest in us—our capacity for reason, objectivity, goodness, discernment, critical thinking, real growth, courage, honesty, Love, wisdom.
A book of substance is intended to be read by a reader—or that part of a reader—that is intent on more deeply developing one’s own “I” or sense of solid self—an “I” that perhaps is already stirring and developing unbeknownst to them and awakening within them.
But these same books of substance can also easily be misread and butchered and mangled and bastardized if they are read fearfully or if they are sped through and read hastily and unreflectively—or if one reads just for the sake of the rush of some new ideas to thrill to or to titillate one’s thinking. Or to cover over one’s emptiness and to make a person feel less restless and bored.
This is what often happens when people of a low level of emotional maturity read religious or spiritual books. Or psychology and self-help books. Et cetera.
So not only are we what we read; we are how we read. What as much as how we read makes us what we are, and either increases our level of differentiation or reinforces and perpetuates our level of fusion and undifferentiation, and thus sows the seed of even more anxiety and dysfunction and symptoms for ourselves and those we love (our family, partner, spouse, children).