(This is an updated version of something I posted on Jan 7th of this year regarding how to become more awake and enlightened and conscientious. . . .
We do not become enlightened by avoiding what is unpleasant and difficult to look at and to acknowledge about ourselves; rather we become enlightened by becoming more honest and aware of our own weaknesses and darkness. We become enlightened by letting light and truth into those dark dank places within ourselves that we are ashamed of, that frighten us, that we feel are too sensitive or too raw or too overwhelming to look at, those places that make us feel bad about ourselves or inadequate or guilty.
As Jung put it (paraphrasing): “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter alternative, however, is extremely disagreeable and difficult and therefore very unpopular.”
Genuine personal development and growth requires courage—real courage—real moral courage. It takes incredible grit and inner resolve to let the light come in, to not run and hide from it or close our eyes to it. It takes incredible courage and inner resolve and stamina to genuinely transform oneself, to fess up to and face our own fears and anxieties and weaknesses (to have that honest conversation with ourselves), and to cease the nonsense of habitually and unconsciously always reflexively acting out from this place and loosing these parts of us on others and the world. (“The undisciplined person doesn’t wrong himself alone—he sets fire to the whole world.” – Rumi)
Personal growth is a moral issue. How much we actually grow as persons is inexorably tied to how much of ourselves we are willing to see—to see honestly as well as clearly. So not only is personal growth tied to our level of thinking and the amount of clarity we have (“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” – Einstein), it is also tied inexorably to our level of moral development—our level of conscientiousness and how much we are able to refine this and further develop it.
It is our conscience—the level and intensity of our moral reasoning—that when we are exposed to stress and strain, temptation and difficulty will either hold and allow us to rise above the mammalian and reptilian parts of our nature and brain—and thus actually be better than what’s worst and weakest in us—or it is what will not hold and what will compel us even though we see a path to the better to follow a path to what’s worst and succumb and give in to what’s worst in us. (“The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King Jr.)
It is our level of moral reasoning and the intensity with which we have internalized this part of ourselves and identify with it (egosyntonic) that will allow the center to hold and allow us to be better than our weakness and negative emotional reactivity.
But if we are underdeveloped or too “conventional” morally, when difficulty and temptation come, the center will be less likely to hold, and we will spin out or give in to temptation (set fire to ourselves and the world). Moreover, we will lack the internal impetus that will compel us to become the best or near-best version of ourselves that we can be.
So much so-called “personal growth” and so many so-called “gurus” and “life-coaches” and self-help authors ignore this fact and try to affect deep and lasting change without addressing their client’s or student’s or readership’s level of moral development, moral reasoning, moral courage, personal integrity and trying to deeply increase these.
Which is why so much so-called personal growth is short-lived, superficial, and never really sticks.
Because unless we change deeply and fundamentally in terms of our level of moral reasoning and development and courage—in terms of our level of conscience—we will not grow deeply and fundamentally as a person in terms of our level of being or differentiation. Nothing significant will have changed in us. Everything will be water down the drain—seed thrown on rocky arid soil.
“Absolutely Clear” – Hafiz
Don’t surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deeply into you.
Let it ferment and season you as few
human or divine ingredients can. . . .
Something’s missing in my heart tonight
and that something has made
my eyes so soft,
my voice more tender,
and my need of God
Suffering some sort of personal loss or setback is just the beginning. It is only the first impetus for us to either wake up and live with more courage and clarity and force, or to dig in and try to entrench ourselves even more deeply and fervently in a life of even greater avoidance and escapism and comfort.
We need some sort of pain or hardship or heartache to get us off our butts and off our buts. It is essential. We need some sort of personal setback or tragedy to rouse and jar us from our respective dogmatic slumbers. We need some sort of personal loss or some great defeat to get us off the sidelines and get us into the game and start living more passionately, honestly, sincerely, and authentically.
As Rumi put it: “Organs and capacities respond to necessity, so therefore increase your necessity.” Without the impetus of great psychological pain we would just stay content in wasting away in our respective little comfort zones, craving more and more comforts and pleasures and escapes and distractions.
So some sort of pain or great loss is an essential and inescapable first step. Some sort of deep pain or great loss is necessary to jar us, to stop us in our tracks, to crack the crust or the walls of our egoism (the self-protective “frozen sea within us”).
“Grief is so often the source of the spirit’s growth.” – Rilke
Something (bad, distressing, catastrophic, traumatic) has to happen to us to shake our tree, get our attention, and hopefully wake us up.
“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just go up to them and tap them on the shoulder anymore. You’ve got to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you have their strictest attention.” – from the motion picture “Se7en”
“At some point in our lives, when we meet a real tragedy—which could happen to any one of us—we can react in two ways. Obviously we can lose hope, let ourselves slip into discouragement, alcohol, drugs, unending sadness, and go more to sleep. Or else we can wake ourselves up, discover in ourselves an energy that was hidden there and act with more clarity, more force.” – The Dalai Lama
The second and equally inescapable and essential next step is to develop our conscience.
Without the development of our conscience—without taking our level of moral reasoning and courage to the next level (Kohlberg’s stages 5 and 6 of moral development), we will never grow as persons, because we will not properly operate on whatever tragedy life has beset us with. We will never be able to stay and stick and actually face what happened to us; instead we will always run, hide, avoid, wall up, go numb, lie to ourselves, deceive ourselves, in order to preserve ourselves emotionally and not have to feel the full brunt of the pain of what we experienced and its aftermath and possibly flood limbically. We sense ourselves to be too weak to be able to deal with the full intensity of whatever life is dealing us, and so we shut down, go numb, wall up, or run and evade.
“The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to life and to other people is that they trigger a confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.” – Pema Chödrön (paraphrased a bit)
“We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything—even the unprecedented—must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. For it is not inertia or indolence alone that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before anything new and inconceivable, any experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another human being as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being and draw forth his actions from there.” – Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet” (letter no. eight)
And so in shutting down and shying away from the pain and fear and the full intenisty of life, we never force ourselves develop perpendicularly as a person; we never deepen, we never increase in virtue, in patience, in integrity (integration), courage, transparency, trust, inner strength, willpower, self-discipline, endurance, perseverance. Instead we increase our own flightiness and evasiveness, our own weaknesses, and the likelihood that our character defects and flaws (what’s worst in us) will run the show, will run our life, especially when the going gets tough. . . .
“With will, fire becomes sweet water; without will, even water becomes fire.” – Rumi
“The Panther” – Rainer Maria Rilke & John F. Kirk
(in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris; & the Corona Ave apartments, in Dayton, Ohio)
His seeing, wearied and vacant from being locked away
for so long behind bars, adheres to nothing anymore.
To him the world is just bars—the flashing glint
of bar upon bar—penting in his gaze, numbing his sight.
A hundred thousand bars. And beyond the bars, nothing.
The supple restless swinging stride
of the smoothen black silky flank
has been reduced to a tiny ring—a dance
of potential lithe energy around a center
in which a great will now stands stunned.
Only from time to time do the curtains of the eyelids
open on this muted life and an image rushes in, winds its
way through the taut silence of the frame, only to vanish,
forever, in the heart. And we left here watching
wondering how different or similar we are with our own gaze.
Call it will, call it courage, call it conscience, call it perspective (realizing that you have nothing to lose because death will claim everything soon enough), call it character, call it whatever you want; the point is not to back down, not to run, not to give in to our mammalian and reptilian brain, our monkey mind, our fear, what’s worst in us, and sentence ourselves to life of not living and not being able to give and receive love in a healthy and ennobling way. The point is to heroically stick and stay, to learn how to deal with ourselves, to learn how to feel the fear and do whatever needs to be done anyways, and to stop living as if life goes on forever and as if life is something just to be survived.
Because in most of us, by the age of thirty, we have lost most of our plasticity, and our character has set like plaster, and will never soften again, unless—unless—some great tragedy or suffering or catastrophe strikes us and levels us, devastates us, softens us completely in body, mind, heart, and soul, and forces us to start again from scratch and make some real changes in our life. . . .
“You know, people get up every day and tell themselves they’re going to change their lives. They never do. I’m going to change mine.” – from the motion picture “The Town”
Thus, if we often falter in life and flinch or fail in giving our best effort when life or difficulty puts us to the test, and instead we consistently opt for the immediate gratification and quick tension-relief of the easy way out (the path of least resistance), before we know it our integrity and our will (the effort-making capacity in us) will be gone in us, and our wandering attention will wander and mislead us all the time, and our fears and insecurities and weaknesses (what’s worst in us) will get the best of us constantly and lead us into all sorts of dilemmas, crises, and calamities that are largely of our own making, that are self-chosen, that we have brought upon ourselves and brought upon those around us who we claim to “love” and “care” about.
And in order for us to find ourselves at all bearable to live with in such a state, we will have to become very proficient at lying to ourselves, deceiving ourselves, avoiding by any means necessary the truth about ourselves, any realistic sense of ourselves. We will never have the stones to have an honest conversation such as the following with ourselves or with another person about ourselves. . . .
“Listen . . . listen to me for a second. I will never lie to you again, ok?”
“Yes, I promise you. Ask me anything you want. I’ll tell you the truth.”
“Why? I won’t believe you.”
“Yes you will.”
“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers. . . Think about it, all right? . . . I will never lie to you; I will never hurt you; and if I lose you, I will regret that for the rest of my life.”
( – from the motion picture “The Town“)
Unless we have the courage to have such a conversation with ourselves or to enter into such a conversation with another, we will never change. Never.
And unless we start nurturing and keeping the faculty of deliberate effort and heroic self-overcoming alive in ourselves by “a little gratuitous exercise every day,” we will never change either. Meaning, unless we take up a practice of systematically living a bit more ascetically and acting heroically every day or two in little unnecessary ways, and begin forcing ourselves to do a few things here and there for no other reason than we would rather not do them, our lives will never change. Never. Because every time the hour of dire need finds us, we will spin out and run because it will find us unnerved and untrained and incapable of standing straight and emotionally stomaching the test. But for a person who has “daily inured him- or herself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, heroic self-overcoming, and self-denial in unnecessary things,” he or she will “stand like a tower while everything rocks and crumbles around the person, and when his or her softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. . . . The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology informs us, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way” (William James, adapted from “The Principles of Psychology,” chapter 4, “Habits”)
“Lessons” – Walt Whitman
There are those who teach only
the sweet lessons of peace and safety;
But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,
That they readily meet invasions, when they come.
This is about not living life as a fool or a coward, not living a life without real love, not living a life where we are forced to stay asleep out of fear and anxiety and past hurts and wounds and conditioning. This is about not wasting our one little life because we’re living as if we think life goes on forever and because we’re always contenting ourselves with just talking about making a change and growing up and taking a leap and planning our jumps, but never actually doing.
Without facing and addressing our level of moral development and courage and improving these, we will never make a real change; we will never grow genuinely as persons—we will never increase in virtue, we will never increase in integrity, we will never increase in honesty and real self-knowledge and self-awareness, we will never increase in courage, we will never increase in patience and endurance and perseverance, we will never develop willpower and emotional stamina; we will never develop a genuine inner work ethic.
As James Hollis put it—paraphrasing:
“The capacity for personal growth depends on one’s ability to internalize and to take personal responsibility. If we forever scapegoat, blame others, see our life as a problem caused by others, no change will occur. If we are deficient in courage, no real growth can occur. As Jung wrote:
‘[Personal growth] consists of three parts: insight, endurance, and action. Psychology is needed only in the first part, but in the second and third parts moral strength plays the predominant role. . . . The Shadow side of ourselves represents a moral problem that challenges the whole of the ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the Shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark and anxious aspects of the personality as present and real.’
“What is not made conscious in us will continue to haunt our lives—and the world. The tendency for each of us to privilege our own position, be biased in favor of ourselves, fail to see consequences, and be unaware of hidden motives, is fundamental in us each. It takes a strong sense of self and a lot of courage to be able to examine and take responsibility for the darker parts of ourselves when they turn up. It is much, much easier to deny, scapegoat, blame others, project elsewhere, absolve ourselves, and or just bury it and keep on rolling.
“It is these moments of human frailty and inner stress and strain when we are most dangerous to ourselves, our families, our society.
“Examining this material when it comes up (or soon after it does) is an act of great moral importance, for it brings the possibility of lifting our stuff off of others, which is surely the most ethical and useful thing we can do for those around us.
“What do we each the owe the world? Simple: respect, ethical behavior, and the gift of one’s own best self.
“Our capacity to deliver on this—as well as our quality of life—will ultimately be a direct function of the level of awareness and moral courage and clarity we bring to our daily choices.”