Facing The Fire
“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.” - Socrates
Civilized humans have been living in a dichotomy since the early stages of cultural development. On one end, we need to become “cultured” so that we can fit in, associate and work with others. This approach is one massive advantage that the human species has above all other animals - large scale cooperation through common cultural/societal norms. The other side is the individual. The wild, messy, and chaotic inner world of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The second portion is closer to a primitive person. There were many fewer cultural norms in the time of cave people. This era was when groups were much more whimsical, and in tune with nature as a force. We humans have so strongly developed culture and societal norms based on capitalistic materialism with the driving force of scientific inquiry as an explanation for all phenomena, that we have created small, individual mental prisons. This disconnect has diminished our ability to truly, fully and authentically express ourselves in the human experience. We must fit into a certain box we are told, and if we do not, then we are “odd,” or “weird” and those are deemed bad qualities.
What does all of this culture and denial of our true selves do? We create a chasm between who it is that we show the world and our authentic selves. Now, this is a careful balancing act because if we choose to follow our authentic self and it is diametrically opposed to society, we must fully comprehend the impact of our actions. If we become counter to societal and cultural norms, there are consequences, which could be in some cases dire. Luckily, we don’t have to abandon completely - nor should we - the standards of culture and society. By becoming aware of the structure or game that we must operate in, provides us with a tremendous amount of ability, power and to some extent freedom.
Now, we can ask, where do we start on a conquest to understand ourselves and act more genuinely? There should be some caution used here. Taking a hard, and honest look at ourselves is painful. As painful as it is, it is the MOST significant thing that we can do in our lives. As Jordan Peterson says - there are four things that we need to know in life 1) Where we are, 2) Where we are going, 3) How to get from where we are to where we want to go, and 4) What that means. Here we will focus on step one because it is arguably the most important and toughest step. Many people set goals without truly knowing and understanding where it is that they are. The first step is to start deep within ourselves. We must begin to cultivate honesty and authenticity.
“Give me beauty in the inward soul; may the outward and the inward man be at one.” - Socrates
When we leave our houses every day to head off to work, school or wherever, we place on a mask. This Carl Jung defined as the persona. This concept is the cloak that we form in our minds to show others what we believe that they want to see. In other words, it is the identity that we create in an attempt to be social, culturally and societally acceptable to others. This fabrication is inherently being dishonest with ourselves. It is a projection that consists of cultural and societal norms. Often it is in no way connected to our true inner selves. This split starts a deep-seated discomfort within our lives.
The White Lie
“Are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul?” - Socrates
If we are too identified with the persona, we will do whatever it takes to try to preserve it. This facade is the ego trying to protect itself, trying to bolster it’s perceived level of importance. Often, people will start to lie to save face. This small flaw is how it starts. One small dent in the pristine armor, one small piece of psychic energy not able to flow. This psychic energy builds up slowly like a damn. By creating these little pieces of dishonesty, we begin to degrade our perception of ourselves. It is interesting to note that most people who are chronic liars, do not trust others. Most likely they know how much they lie, so in their mind, everyone else lies the same amount. In the end, we may be thinking, well a small lie won’t hurt anyone. This concept is wrong. At the very least, it will create some inner turmoil for us, for our mental landscape. We have to remember more when we lie. Truth is paramount because, without a life rooted in this value, everything can slip into arbitrariness or relativism. This divorce from truth is a frightening place to be.
“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” - Socrates
So then, if we recognize the importance of truth, and honesty, what is it that we should do? As always, it is critical to start with a thorough examination of our inner landscape. The first step is to watch ourselves. How often do our thoughts (intentions), words and actions align? If we are careful, we will begin to see the divide between our intentions and actions. There is also a similar chasm often present between our words and our actions. This realization can be disturbing if we have never gone to this place. If we label ourselves as an authentic or honest person and we realize our intentions are nowhere near our actions, we can feel a sort of internal degradation or lowering of self-worth perhaps. This slip should not be the case. The very fact that we can become aware of this phenomena and use our mental faculties to create a shift is enough hope and support to be motivated to change. By driving toward this change, we can start to become more authentic and genuine both toward ourselves and others.
“Be as you wish to seem.” - Socrates
Why do we hide our authentic selves? Perhaps, when we were vulnerable, someone hurt us. It could be the case that most people we loved have hurt us. At the center of all of this is trust. We have to step out on a limb to be able to trust someone else. There is no guarantee that they will not hurt us. However, trust is a pre-requisite for authenticity and likewise, love. It is a personal choice, but perhaps it is better to have trusted, been hurt, but have loved, then to never have loved at all. It does seem reasonable that our entire lives we are on a journey of self-discovery so that we can know ourselves enough to be able to love another. It may take a great deal of time to master our inner landscape sufficiently to be able to attract love into our lives. Being authentic to ourselves is an essential first step. Building self-confidence would be another. Finally, the ability to completely trust and be vulnerable toward others seems to be a logical conclusion.
“The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be; and if we observe, we shall find, that all human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice of them.” - Socrates
It's such an easy thing to do when it's always been our default setting. When someone has hurt us, made us feel unlovable - the natural thing to do is to run. We can physically run away or move deep inside. There in the center, there is nowhere to hide. If we are careful when we retreat inward, we can see and feel all of our pain. It is essential to note that the most powerful and transformative experiences are had through pain. Most people spend their lives trying to avoid pain, but it is a crucial tool, a powerful driver/motivator for change.
Pain develops when we face something new, and it becomes overwhelming. When we encounter too much at any given time, we can become inundated. When we get to this point, our emotions dysregulate, they become unstable, unbounded. When we run, the unfamiliar, fear-ridden situation lives on as unexplored territory. Fear is not learned, but the opposite unlearned through exploration and overcoming adversity. If we are not cognizant, not careful, this can become our default setting. When we want to reach out, when we need to reach out, we don't. This pathway is an action put in place by a rule. When we feel uncomfortable, we run. Because we are weak or a coward, we run. This pattern can become a habit and a self-fulfilling one at that.
Going with The Flow
“Every action has its pleasures and its price.” - Socrates
One way that we can deal with pain is by “going with the flow.” This idea is to say, be driven by something known as the pleasure principle. If we move toward what brings us happiness, joy, and pleasure in the present moment, in theory, we will avoid fear, pain, and suffering. This, however, is only partially true. Often, going with the flow implies seeking short term, instant gratification or hedonic tendencies. When we live a life like this, it is likely to become impulsive. Instead of seeing visions of a better future, and delaying gratification to work toward that goal, we cash in all of our chips now. Take alcohol as an example. We are willing to feel good now, and for a few hours at the cost of feeling terrible tomorrow. It’s like a happiness loan. We borrow happiness, to use now, at the expense of tomorrow.
Additionally, often when we go with the flow, we allow others to determine our destiny. We no longer make decisions for the steering of our ship. We as humans are natural and inherent goal setters. Delaying gratification in the aim of a future goal or reward has been shown to be far more satisfying than the constant short-lived, short term gratification produced by the pushing of our dopamine buttons. We become weak, flaccid, volatile, and even belligerent.
There is also a juxtaposition to entirely going with the flow. When we become too disciplined, we force ourselves into a mold of who it is that we think we should be. This notion goes back to knowing where it is that we are, where we want to go, what the path is between the two points and what that all means. If we are born 5’0” this is not to say that we will never make it into the NBA, but it is important to realize that it will be much like climbing Mount Everest with a single leg. The real question here is, what do we want more than ANYTHING else in the world?
Perhaps if we examine ourselves deeply, we will find that we have some other well-adapted gifts. So instead of tyrannizing ourselves into doing something that we were not meant to do, we can capitalize on our strengths and move in a more natural direction. Because if we wrap ourselves too tightly, we will surely crack under stress. We can push too far and become self-imposed tyrants. I know this from experience.
We must also be careful to question our motives. Are they from a space of love or fear? Are we acting because we love the pursuit as much as attainment? Alternatively, are we operating because we fear not being worthy of love unless we achieve some level of success? Now if we are placed between these two juxtaposing lifestyles - go with the flow vs. self-tyranny - what is it that we are to do?
The Balance, The Way, The Dao
“If you don’t get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don’t want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can’t hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.” - Socrates
The previous two scenarios are opposing ends of a spectrum. As any pendulum brought to its extreme, it will inevitably fall and as a result, overcompensate. It's like the light that burns twice as bright, but only half as long. We can let ourselves go entirely to be a sailboat mercilessly falling victim to our inner ocean of stormy thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Alternatively, we can force ourselves to carry out tasks that we don't want to do or worse yet, hate. Sometimes these choices are primarily situational. We become a result of our past experiences if we do not take care to be mindful.
There is some middle way, some balance. We can find the tip of the spear, the ultimate point of rest. This idea is known in the ancient Daoist texts as “The Way” or “The Dao.” This concept is the final flow of life, of reality. There is an additional term, known as Wu Wei - or to not force. The combination of these two is a more balanced approach to life.
All Perfectly Flawed
We must realize that we are here now, being supported by the ENTIRETY of the cosmos. We are all EQUALLY and PERFECTLY flawed! We must not only intellectualize and recognize, but feel this to our core with the full acceptance of our soul. We as a human species are damaged by our karma, the unconscious actions that were laid upon us before we could see. It is now our time and place to recognize that trauma and suffering for what it is - life itself. We are born alone, and we will die the same. The only thing that we can do is to give ourselves for the betterment of others while we have the time. This action is the most selfish, and simultaneously selfless act that we can commit. We feel good, and so does the other. Now the world is a better place. By working on ourselves - becoming more authentic, honest and genuine - we are better able to help others. By helping others, we can better ourselves - become more authentic, honest and sincere. This approach is a cyclical process that cannot be achieved in isolation. Others are mirrors to reflect our shortcomings. We all should be mirrors for each other.
“Our prime purpose in life is to help others. If you can't help them, at least do not hurt them.” ― Dalai Lama XIV