“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, from “The Brothers Karamazov,” Part I, Book II: “An Unfortunate Gathering,” Chapter 2: “The Old Buffoon”
“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
“Only in relationship can you know yourself, not in abstraction and certainly not in isolation. The movement of behavior is the sure guide to yourself. It is the mirror of your consciousness: the mirror will reveal its content, the images, the attachments, the fears, the loneliness, the joys and sorrow. Poverty lies in running away from this. . . .” – Krishnamurti
“Relationship is a process of self-revelation; relationship is as a mirror in which you begin to discover yourself, your tendencies, pretensions, selfish and limited motives, fears, and so on. In relationship, if you are aware, you will find that you are being exposed, which causes conflict and pain. The thoughtful person welcomes this self-exposure to bring about order and clarity, to free his thought-feeling from isolating, self-enclosing tendencies. But most of us try to seek comfort and gratification in relationship; we do not desire to be revealed to ourselves; we do not wish to study ourselves as we are, so relationship becomes wearisome and we seek to escape.” – Krishnamurti
“The understanding of the mind is possible only in relationship – in your relationship to property, to people, and to ideas. At present that relationship is reaction, and a problem that is created by reaction cannot be solved by another reaction; it can be solved only when the whole process of reaction is understood – which is the self, the ‘me’. Then you will find there is an action which is not reaction. . . . ” – Krishnamurti
“[R]elationship can be a means of self-discovery. Relationship is a mirror in which I can see myself. That mirror can either be distorted, or it can be ‘as is’, reflecting that which is. But most of us see in relationship, in that mirror, things we would rather not see, and things we want and hope to see; so we do not see what is.” – Krishnamurti
“If we examine our life, our relationship with another, we shall see that it is a process of isolation. We are really not concerned with another; though we talk a great deal about it, actually we are not concerned. We are related to someone only so long as that relationship gratifies us, so long as it gives us a refuge, so long as it satisfies us. But the moment there is a disturbance in the relationship which produces discomfort in ourselves, we discard that relationship. In other words, there is relationship only so long as we are gratified. This may sound harsh, but if you really examine your life very closely you will see it is a fact; and to avoid a fact is to live in ignorance, which can never produce right relationship.” – Krishnamurti
In the choice between distorted self-knowledge and genuine self-knowledge, most of us choose distorted self-knowledge, because it’s more comfortable–the distortions make life easier, more comfortable; the distortions make it easier for us to live with ourselves as we are, and to keep doing what we do.
And so as long as life doesn’t get too challenging, too difficult, and we can remain in control in our comfort zone, this self-deceptive approach to life will “work” for many of us.
How does this apply to our relationships? It means that when a relationship exposes more of ourselves than we want to see, then we will sever that relationship and emotionally cut the other person out of our life. In the choice between keeping distorted self-knowledge about ourselves versus facing uncomfortable truths about ourselves, we will keep the distortion and get rid of anyone who reflects things about us that we’d rather not see, that we’re not ready to face.
In the choice between love and self-preservation, most of us choose self-preservation. In the choice between growing and giving up our distortions and self-deceptions versus keeping these and ending a relationship, many of us would rather end the relationship and keep our distortions rather than give up our distortions and illusions and grow into a more genuinely loving and honest relationship with another and ourselves.
“Only the best in us talks about the worst in us, because the worst in us lies about itself and its own existence.” – David Schnarch
“Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” – Doris Mortman
“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” – André Berthiaume
“The purpose of our lives is to give birth to the best which is within us.” – Marianne Williamson
And what’s best in us, I believe, is our humanity, compassion, capacity to get outside of ourselves and truly try to understand another. What’s best in us is our conscience–a healthy conscience. What’s best in us is our honesty–the courage it takes to be that raw and honest with ourselves.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman
This is the first principle of personal growth and self-awareness and the examined life–ceasing to deceive/hoodwink ourselves. Until we have learned to be honest like this with ourselves, we will never be capable of being truly honest with another, and we will never reach the ground of our authentic or core self. The first principle in real growth is this degree of fierce honesty with oneself–not just what we’re feeling or what we want, but why we want what we want and why we’re likely feeling what we’re feeling.
Until we have some durable sense of this, we’re asleep. We’re fooling ourselves, and we’re fooling others with our self–with our false self. We’re fooling ourselves most of all with our false self.
It’s quite an unpleasant dilemma to be in–to be so adept at fooling oneself that one can’t be sure when one isn’t fooling oneself.
The truth we most need to hear is the truth we least want to hear and face. Yet that’s the truth that will most help us to grow. In fact, being able to sit still long enough to actually hear that truth at all would marks a significant bit of growth.
“The undisciplined person doesn’t wrong himself alone—
he sets fire to the whole world.”
If we’re not living an examined life—a life where we look deeply at our own actions and reactions and try to gain some real clarity about why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it impacts others—then we are the undisciplined person that Rumi is speaking of.
Self-examination—looking at oneself clearly, objectively, without bias and softeners—is what separates genuine adults from psychological children in adult bodies.
It is such a rare thing to come across in this world—a human being who is really willing to look fearlessly and fiercely at oneself, to confront oneself, to want to see oneself accurately and without flattery and distortion.
Many people in the world have very high standards for other people but do not hold themselves to those same standards. They let themselves off the hook. They live life as if they’re living behind a one-way mirror, conducting experiments, trying to discern what other people are really like, who’s trustworthy and who’s hypocritical, all the while betraying others, exploiting others, manipulating others, and acting even more hypocritically and duplicitously.
This is how wounded and hurt people go through life—so concerned with other’s trustworthiness that they take no care for establishing and working on their own trustworthiness. And so they end up adding more untrustworthiness to the nexus of human relationships by their own inconsistencies and untrustworthiness.
The world needs more people who are willing to live transparent lives where they are as they appear and appear as they are. And this level of integrity requires much self-discipline, self-honesty, clarity, and rigorous self-examination.
But every little bit helps. Why not be that person? Why not be the type of person that world needs so badly. Not another fun-loving flighty reactive mindless consumer and plaything of circumstance flitting over the surface of life, terrified of its depths, and setting fire to the world in the name of self-avoidance and not having to face and feel one’s fears and sorrows. Rather, why not live more deeply and authentically? Why not lead a much more contemplative and examined life? Why not lead a life of greater integrity and simplicity?
Life is short. No one gets out of here alive. So why get so caught up in gratifying one’s id and one’s lesser and discursive and escapist desires and fantasies?
- What Is Essential in Life . . . (realtruelove.wordpress.com)
- Differentiation, Love, and Living with Integrity (realtruelove.wordpress.com)
- Lying, Self-Deception, Resistance to Truth & Reality, and the Pain of Real Growth (theplacesthatscareyou.wordpress.com)
- Getting Real: How an Honest Reality Check will Improve Your Life (passingthru.com)
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” – Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, pg. 49.
We know we’re getting healthier as a person when we can start admitting the truth about ourselves—and about our own falseness—aloud, and not only to ourselves but to others.
The quickest and surest—as well as toughest and most demanding—route to mental health is to dedicate ourselves fearlessly and fiercely to truth and to reality—to the way things really are, and to the way we actually are.
The goal at first isn’t to change ourselves, because such attempts at changing ourselves will be inherently flawed until we have made it a real priority to dedicate ourselves to truth– and to practice choosing and living this priority so often, so fearlessly, so ruthlessly, that it becomes second nature to us.
If a person truly wants to “wake up” in life and not die asleep and die an unlived inner life, then complete dedication to reality and to truth is the answer—it is both the path and the destination. That is the essence of waking up—seeing the truth about ourselves and having the courage to finally admit it; no more bullshit, instead a fierce and unceasing dedication to truth and reality. Waking up means that we are seeing ourselves and reality and our lot here for what it is, and that we’re not escaping behind a façade of religious dogma, new age pablum, and other escapist avenues (i.e. drugs, even so-called “enlightenment” type drugs, which ultimately too are an escape and an avoidance of the rigors of real growth).
The most pivotal and life altering decision we as human beings can make in life is this most basic one—to voluntarily give up our illusions, buffers, deceptions, bullshit, softeners, and start taking a fierce and hard-nosed look at ourselves, our fears, and life itself—including death—and no hiding out from death behind the hope for reincarnation or an afterlife—because to do so is not to live the question, but to uncourageously avoid asking it.
As we begin admitting the truth about ourselves and our fears and about life to both ourselves and to others our life and our relationships will begin undergoing a powerful and radical transformation, for instead of our daily life and our daily interactions being based on comfort, escapism, avoidance, psychological numbing, hedonism, they will now begin to be based on truth and grounded in reality.
I read (scan) a fair amount of blogs, especially some where I know the person writing it has a form of mental illness. And in very few—make that almost none—do I find the level of fierce dedication to truth that I am describing here—posts where the author takes real responsibility using “I” statement to describe in lurid detail the bad things that they have done. There are plenty of posts on the bad things that have been done unto them—and some of these things are indeed hideous—but few to no posts describing their own errors and the wrongs they have perpetrated on others. Too often instead there are posts full of rationalizations and excuse-making with lots of supportive “I understand”s and such—which all makes sense because we live in a culture where “nonjudgmentalness” and “acceptance” and “tolerance” are king, and where our wrongs can be explained away and excused because of this or that past trauma, and where we all need some emotional support and validation—no matter how questionable to source—if we are to feel OK enough to make it through the day without collapsing or having a nervous breakdown.
There are very few real truth tellers and very few people fearlessly and fiercely dedicated to truth and reality. Most people are dedicated to something much less—and much less honorable and noble—comfort, convenience, location location location, ease, “happiness,” pleasure, hedonism, the path of least resistance, avoiding truth, and avoiding difficulty. And so if we sense that we “need” support and validation in order to make it through the day and not collapse psychologically then we have yet another reason to dummy ourselves and our capacity for truth and reality down in order to “fit in” and gain approval, acceptance, validation, support.
What use is it if a person gains the world—or gains a lot of emotional support and validation—yet loses his or her soul?
And all of the psychological explaining away that we as a species do is stultifying our character and retarding the development of our consciences. It is not the route to real mental health and true personal growth; instead it’s just a perpetuation and deepening of mental unhealth.
The twelve steps are a way of life based on truth and dedication to reality. The twelve steps basically reduce to this:
1. Admit the truth. Admit the truth that you’re an addict; admit what you’re addicted to—alcohol, drugs, sex, lying & manipulating; admit that you’re helpless to overcome this on your own; admit that you’re your own worst enemy; admit that your own “best” thinking and efforts haven’t made a dent in this and in fact usually make it worse; admit that you need help.
To be able to cleanly admit all of this is an example of dedication to truth and dedication reality in action.
And such a moment is not enough. It has to be done again and again and again. It has to become a way of life. It has to be practiced constantly and unceasingly until it becomes habit, second nature, one’s new nature.
2. And then this truth has to be admitted or confessed to others in the form of our taking a searching and fearless moral inventory, admitting our wrongs—not just to ourselves, but to others—to those we actually wronged, lied to, stole from, used, et cetera—and then humbling ourselves and making real amends—doing some real repair work and making our contrition, showing real remorse and sorrow, and asking forgiveness.
All of which is incredibly difficult. Which explains why there is so little of it (truth, remorse, honesty) in general in the real world.
It’s easier to lie and bullshit ourselves and live in denial of our own mortality and transience when we’re surrounded by others basically doing the same—escaping life, escaping stress, escaping anxiety, reading shitty escapist books and magazines, having gossipy trivial conversations, et cetera.
The vast majority of human beings would prefer to be validated for their bullshit rather than be ostracized for being too truthful and too truth-loving.
And so the decline of Western civilization and the perpetuation and spread of mental illness and unhealth. . . .
Escape sells, reality doesn’t.
We are all have our resistances to truth and reality. In other words, to some extent, we all lie.
And the more we lie, the more likely we are to lie (especially to ourselves) about why we’re lying.
If we lie rarely, then we’re likely to be fairly clear about why we’re lying (or not telling the whole truth). We’ve likely thought a fair amount about why we’re withholding parts of the truth and, if we’ve done our thinking and internal debating and self-examining honestly, then we’ve likely already cross-examined ourselves and played God’s or devil’s advocate with our own reasoning and motivations (and tried to see them in the least flattering light possible).
But if we’re still at the relatively low level of consciousness and low level of being (low level of differentiation) where we lie frequently and easily—where lying is our “go to” way of problem solving (actually, further problem making)—then we also likely are lying to ourselves about why we’re lying. In other words, we have little to no idea why we’re lying. The reasons we’re telling ourselves—the justifications—for our lies are also lies, fabrications, psychological sleight-of-hands pulled on ourselves (by what’s weakest and worst in us).
This is the position that many of us are in in life. We are deeply resistant to truth and to living with any real concerted attempt at integrity (integration). We routinely prefer half-baked answers and quick-fix escapist schemes to real thinking and honest self-examination. We prefer obfuscation and confusion and secrecy and hiding to openness and clarity and honesty. The former seems easier—and indeed it may be in the very short term, but it is also cowardly; the latter route—clarity, honesty, openness, transparency, trust-building—is more painful and difficult up front and requires greater courage and self-soothing and grit, but reward us with an increase in each of these.
When we are a person of the lie and prone to lying routinely, we resist honest inquiries and perceive them to be “attacks” or “criticism” or “judgment.” Many of those who campaign for “peace” and nonjudgmentalness and acceptance are those who are hiding out from life and most of all from the rigors of a life of dedication to truth and real self-examination. They seek nonjudgmentalness, kindness, acceptance, and to avoid conflict and disagreement at every turn because it’s less threatening and less potentially disruptive to their very limited self-honesty (i.e., their self-deception and denial).
Many of us show little difficulty in taking great ideas and profound life principles and reconfiguring them so that they support and justify and perpetuate our particular weaknesses and or pathologies. We have little difficulty in taking profound, life-altering ideals and concepts that could help us gain clarity and true inner peace and equanimity and watering them down and diluting them and deluding ourselves with our warped version of their “real” meaning. Instead of raising ourselves and our thinking to their level, we warp them and handle them dishonestly and dummy them down to our level. Instead of being guided by life principles like objectivity, self-examination, Love, differentiation, conscience, virtue, the dharma, and trying to practice and live and embody these concepts on their terms, we twist them to suit us as we are and to justify us as we are now. We twist these great ideas and principles so that they support our staying as we are and our not changing or growing or doing anything too uncomfortable and challenging and honest.
Many, if not most, of us resist truth and honest self-examination on a daily, if not moment to moment basis. We are constantly fleeing from ourselves, trying to numb ourselves from ourselves, from god, from our conscience, from looking at ourselves from the point of view of objective narrator or witness. We are constantly lying most of all to ourselves about why we’re deceiving others, not loving others, running away from life, constantly playing it safe.
Most of us the vast majority of the time are just not that interested in truth and honesty. We’ll tell ourselves (and others) that we are, but such self-talk is cheap and tends to be highly self-deceptive. If we simply observe ourselves impartially (objectively, honestly) as we go about the day, we can notice how little time and thought we actually devote to truth and honesty and cultivating honest candid self-awareness. Most of our time goes into cultivating and practicing the opposite—mindlessness, distraction, multitasking, living undeliberately, dishonestly, numb. Most of the time throughout the day is not spent living a life of virtue or real personal growth or improving our mindfulness and honesty. Instead, most of the time we prefer to be numbed out or distracted—trying to make ourselves momentarily feel good or numb—anything but having to sit alone quietly and honestly with ourselves and our inner discomfort and unrest and incessant discursive chatter and dissatisfaction and greediness (greed for security, novelty, quick easy happinesses/gratifications). We’d rather watch TV or surf the web or go out and buy something than spend time slowing down, focusing ourselves upwards on something that transcends the ego and our constant cravings, and either quieting the mind or reading deliberately something of real worth and substance—something full of solid insights and truth. So much of our TV watching, excessive gregariousness, wine drinking, bar hopping, web browsing, shopping, magazine reading, is our resistance to truth and reality in action. Truth and reality frighten us, so we’d rather numb ourselves or read or watch or listen to or even participate in what is half-true, if not much less than half true.
If we—if any part of us—sincerely wants to experience truth, then we will likely need to begin seeing how deeply resistant we are to truth—how we have set up our lives in a way that is diametrically opposed to truth and to quiet honest contemplation and to cultivating solid honest thoughts.
The following is abridged (and slightly modified) from M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled“—
Truth is reality. That which is false in unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world—the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions.
What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore the new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.
This process of active clinging to an outmoded view of reality is the basis for much mental illness. Psychiatrists refer to it as “transference.” Transference is the set of ways of perceiving and responding to the world which is developed in childhood and which is usually entirely appropriate to the childhood environment (indeed, often life-saving) but which is inappropriately transferred into the adult environment.
Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say that we must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.
What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean? It means a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.
Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within. And it is certainly because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the majority steer away from it. Yet, when one is dedicated to the truth, this pain seems relatively unimportant—and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther one proceeds on the path of self-examination.
A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy, rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion.
Such honesty does not come painlessly. The reason people lie is to avoid the pain of challenge and its consequences. We lie, of course, not only to others but also to ourselves. The challenges to our adjustment—our maps—from our own consciences and our own realistic perceptions may be every bit as legitimate and painful as any challenge from the public which is why most people opt for a life of very limited honesty and openness and relative closeness, hiding themselves and their maps from the world.
It is easier that way.
The ways in which transference manifests itself, while always pervasive and destructive, are often subtle.
Yet the clearest examples must be unsubtle.
One such example was a patient whose treatment failed by virtue of his transference. He was a brilliant but unsuccessful computer technician in his early thirties who came to see me because his wife had left him, taking their two children.
He was not particularly unhappy to lose her, but he was devastated by the loss of his children, to whom he was deeply attached. It was in the hope of regaining them that he initiated psychotherapy, since his wife firmly stated she would never return to him unless he had psychiatric treatment. Her principal complaints about him were that he was continually and irrationally jealous of her and, yet, at the same time aloof from her—cold, distant, uncommunicative and unaffectionate.
She also complained of his frequent changes of employment.
His life since adolescence had been markedly unstable.
During adolescence he was involved in frequent minor altercations with the police and had been jailed three times for intoxication, belligerence, loitering, and interfering with the duties of an officer.
He dropped out of college, where he was studying electrical engineering, because, as he said, “My teachers were a bunch of hypocrites, hardly different from the police.”
Because of his brilliance and creativeness in the field of computer technology, his services were in high demand by industry. But he had never been able to advance or keep a job for more than a year and a half, occasionally being fired, more often quitting after disputes with his supervisors, whom he described as “liars and cheats, interested only in protecting their own ass.”
His most frequent expression was “You can’t trust a goddam soul.”
He described his childhood as “normal” and his parents as “average.” In the brief period of time he spent with me, however, he casually and unemotionally recounted numerous instances during childhood in which his parents were inconsistent and had let him down. They promised him a bike for his birthday, but they forgot about it and gave him something else. Once they forgot his birthday entirely, but he saw nothing drastically wrong with this since “they were very busy.” They would promise to do things with him on weekends, but then were usually “too busy.” Numerous times they forgot to pick him up from meetings or parties because “they had a lot on their minds.”
What happened to this man was that when he was a young child he suffered painful disappointment after painful disappointment through his parents’ inconsistency and lack of caring. Gradually or suddenly—I don’t know which—he came to the agonizing realization in mid-childhood that he could not trust his parents. Once he concluded this, however, he began to feel better, and his life became more comfortable. He no longer expected things from his parents or got his hopes up when they made promises. When he stopped trusting his parents the frequency and severity of his disappointments diminished dramatically.
Such an adjustment, however, was to be the basis for many more future problems.
To a child, his or her parents are everything—they represent the world. The child does not have the perspective to see that other parents are different and frequently better. He assumes that the way his parents do things is the way that things are done and that their way represents the way of the world. Consequently, the realization—the “reality”—that this child came to was not “I can’t trust my parents” but the gross overgeneralization that “I can’t trust people.” Distrusting people in general, therefore, became the map with which he entered adolescence and adulthood. With this map firmly in place and operating, and with an abundant store of resentment resulting from his many disappointments fueling him, it was inevitable that he came again and again and again into conflict with authority figures—police, teacher, employers. And invariably these conflicts only served to reinforce his feeling that people who had anything to give him in the world couldn’t be trusted. (He never considered once that he might be the larger part of the problem and the chief instigator of these conflicts!)
He had many opportunities to revise his map, but they were all passed up.
For one thing, the only way he could learn that there were some people in the adult world he could trust would be to risk trusting them, and that would require a deviation from his map to begin with.
For another, such relearning would require him to revise his view of his parents—to realize that they did not love him, that he did not have a normal childhood, and that his parents were not average in their callousness to his needs. Such a realization would have been extremely painful!
Finally, his distrust of people was a realistic adjustment to the reality of his childhood because it worked in terms of diminishing his pain and suffering. And because this adjustment had worked so well once, because it had immense proven survival value, it was extremely difficult for him to give it up. Thus he continued his course of distrust, unconsciously creating situations that served to reinforce it, alienating himself from everyone, making it impossible for himself to enjoy love, warmth, intimacy and affection. He could not even allow himself closeness with his wife, because she, too, could not be trusted.
The only people he could relate with intimately were his two children. They were the only ones over whom he had complete control, the only ones who had no authority over him, and thus the only ones in the whole world he could trust.
When problems of transference are involved—as they almost always are—psychotherapy is, among other things, a process of map-revising. Patients come to therapy because their maps are clearly not working.
But how they may cling to them and fight the process every step of the way!
Frequently their need to cling to their maps and fight against losing them is so great that therapy and growth and healing become impossible.
“We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it. We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration. We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death. We don’t like it that our bodies change shape. We don’t like it that we age. We are afraid of wrinkles and sagging skin. We use health products as if we actually believe that our skin, our hair, our eyes and teeth, might somehow miraculously escape the truth of impermanence.” – Pema Chödrön “The Places That Scare You“
“All too many people are content with a soft mind. Soft-mindedness is expressed in a person’s gullibility. A soft-minded person believes anything. Soft-minded people are susceptible to belief in all kinds of superstitions. Almost any irrational fear can invade a soft mind without any sign of resistance. There is little hope for us in our personal or collective lives until we become tough-minded enough to rise about the shackles of half-truths and distortions. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of being soft-minded. Hitler realized that soft-mindedness was so prevalent among his followers, not to mention humankind as a whole, that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and I reserve reason for the few.’ A nation of soft-minded men and women is purchasing its own spiritual death and destruction on an installment plan. It is a rarity to find someone who is willing to engage in hard, serious thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than the idea of having to think.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (this is my abridgment from his sermon “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart“)
I have a lot of reservations about dichotomizing the heart and head and trying to separate the two completely. The whole heart/mind dichotomy strikes me as a bit of a false dilemma and also a dangerous and misleading one to present people with—that it’s somehow better to live from the heart rather than the mind. —After all, wasn’t it the heart getting wounded in the first place that necessitated it armoring itself up?
I would bristle less if the dichotomy were presented in terms of living from the heart versus living from the ego, or even better, living from the soul versus living from the ego. That last one, in fact, makes the most sense to me. I actually am a big fan of the mind; I like the human intellect a lot—especially when it’s not driven by too much ego or blindness to oneself. And I like it even better when it’s working in unison with what’s best in our hearts. (I’m not sure how pure our hearts are to begin with; I’m not willing to chalk everything up to bad parenting and bad societal influences; I tend to suspect the human heart is much less than all-pure and all-innocent and all-good.)
To try to dismiss the head in order to “live from the heart” seems, well, to be perfectly honest (and blunt), rather foolish, if not regressive. It seems to be yet another case of all-or-nothing thinking, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
It seems to me that the ideal for each of us would be to couple a soft, open, compassion, loving and kind heart with a wise and discerning and insightful mind. Martin Luther King Jr. seems to have seen it that way—that the ideal that each of us as human beings should strive for (and thus that we each owe to ourselves and to the world) is the actualization of both a tender heart and a tough mind—
“All too many people are content with a soft mind. Soft-mindedness is expressed in a person’s gullibility. A soft-minded person believes anything. Soft-minded people are susceptible to belief in all kinds of superstitions. Almost any irrational fear can invade a soft mind without any sign of resistance. There is little hope for us in our personal or collective lives until we become tough-minded enough to rise about the shackles of half-truths and distortions. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of being soft-minded. Hitler realized that soft-mindedness was so prevalent among his followers, not to mention humankind as a whole, that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and I reserve reason for the few.’ A nation of soft-minded men and women is purchasing its own spiritual death and destruction on an installment plan. It is a rarity to find someone who is willing to engage in hard, serious thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than the idea of having to think.”
A soft-heart is no protection against a soft-mind. The heart can be easily misled and manipulated and suckered into believing all sorts of cons and ruses and appeals to its sympathies.
Yet shutting down the heart and or armoring it up extensively is no better a solution.
The ideal, it seems to me, would to be for each of us to become as wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16)—to have both a soft-heart and a wise and tough mind (that is, to be able to think critically and objectively and without bias—which means being able to look at ourselves discerningly as well!). Not one or the other, but both. Because one without the other is (likely) a recipe for personal, if not societal, disaster. “To have serpent-like qualities devoid of dove-like qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dove-like qualities without serpent-like qualities is to be sentimental, gullible, aimless, and empty” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
“I didn’t make you do anything that wasn’t in you already. People are such hypocrites. They walk through their whole lives playing innocent until the day they die; but they’re not innocent. I showed you that.” – from the motion picture “Bad Influence”
“I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.” – Nietzsche
How much do any of us really know about ourselves and what we’re really capable of unless we’ve been tried and tested at the extremes, or at least outside of our comfort zone?
We gain knowledge and glimpses of who we are and might become whenever we’re forced outside our comfort zones.
But most of us fight tooth and nail for our comfort zones and to not have to leave them. We fight for safety, comfort, routine, security. And thus in many ways, these fights are for our own survival—for the continuation of who we think we are—the idea or concept we have of ourselves, and fights against new and likely deeper self-knowledge. Instead we tend to fight to stay in our comfort zones and for the reinforcement of the limited information we already possess about ourselves.
Thus what we know of ourselves may really be knowledge of a very limited self—and thus it is a false- or a pseudo-self, a mask.
“The being of man is situated behind a curtain. . . . What he can know of himself is only what is lent him by circumstance. My ‘I’ is hidden from me (and from others).” – Simone Weil, “Gravity and Grace,” pg. 85
“Our shortcomings are concealed from us as long as luck helps us.” – Hadrat Ali, “Living and Dying with Grace,” pg. 8.
“Through changes in circumstances the essence of individuals is known.” – Hadrat Ali, “Living and Dying with Grace,” pg. 41.
What we are know of ourselves is likely a “cloistered” or “hot house” version of ourselves. It’s not a very full or large version of ourselves—not a self based on a wide breadth of exposure to different difficulties and circumstances, but rather a self likely based on a rather limited exposure to life and circumstances.
Who we truly are, deep down, likely requires us to be exposed to a wide variety of circumstances and experiences, so that we can better become aware of our potentials and tendencies and traits.
To discern our essence, to unmask ourselves, likely requires that we live and think and read somewhat more broadly than we are now—that we consider this phrase of Terrence’s a bit more closely : “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“—”I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.
Which doesn’t mean that we just start throwing ourselves around willy-nilly into every life situation and difficulty that we can, irrespective of consequences and dangers, but perhaps that we start to understand better the possible consequences of honoring our comfort zone and saying no to difficulty and new things too much.
[E]ach human being has a set repertoire of roles which he plays in ordinary circumstances. He has a role for every kind of circumstance in which he ordinarily finds himself in life.
But put him into even only slightly different circumstances and he is unable to find a suitable role—if only for a short time—and for that short time he becomes completely himself.
Each person’s repertoire is very limited. And each person is not one “I” or role; each person has at least five or six I’s or roles—one or two for his family, one or two at the office (one for his subordinates, one for his superiors), one for his friends when he’s out on the town with them, and perhaps one who is interested in high-minded ideas and likes intellectual conversations.
And at different times the person is fully identified with one of these I’s and is unable to separate himself from it.
To see the roles, to know one’s repertoire—particularly to know its limitedness—is to know a great deal.
But more important than that is that, outside his repertoire, a person feels very uncomfortable should something push him, if only temporarily, out of his usual routine or accustomed ways, and he tries his hardest to return to any one of his usual roles.
Eventually, and usually sooner rather than later, he falls back into the rut, and everything at once goes smoothly again, and the feeling of awkwardness and tension disappears.
This is how it is in life.
But in order to grow, one must become reconciled to this awkwardness and tension and to the feeling of discomfort and helplessness. Only by allowing oneself to experience this discomfort can a person begin to really observe himself.
And it is clear why this is so. When a person is not playing any of his usual roles, when he cannot find a suitable role in his repertoire, he feels that he is naked, undressed. He is cold and ashamed, vulnerable and exposed, and he wants to run away from everybody.
The question then arises: what does he want? A quiet life? Or to work on himself?
If he wants a quiet, comfortable life, it’s clear what he must do: he must certainly first of all never move out of his repertoire. Because in his usual roles he feels comfortable and at peace.
But if he wants to work on himself, he must forsake his own comfort and destroy his own peace. Because to have them both together—a quiet life and to work comfortably on oneself—is in no way possible.
A person must make a choice.
(G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky “In Search of the Miraculous,” pp. 239-40.)
“Sigmund Freud once asserted, ‘Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge.’ Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, [in Auschwitz,] the ‘individual differences’ did not ‘blur’ but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.” (Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” p. 178)
As anyone who has ever been in serious psychotherapy is well aware, the process of personal growth isn’t always easy. We must face our own ugliness. . . . You end up seeing things about yourself that maybe you’d rather not see. We have a lot of armor that has accumulated in front of our hearts—a lot of fear self-righteously masquerading as something else. . . . [And usually] [w]e . . . must become painfully aware of the unworkability of a pattern before we’re willing to give it up. It often seems, in fact, that our lives get worse rather than better when we begin to work deeply on ourselves. [But] life doesn’t actually get worse; it’s just that we feel our own transgressions more because we’re no longer anesthetized by unconsciousness. We’re no longer distanced through denial or dissociation from our own experience. We’re starting to see the truth about the games we play.
This process can be so painful that we are tempted to go backwards. It takes courage. This is often called the path of the spiritual warrior—to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.
– Marianne Williamson, “A Return to Love,” pp. 132-133