Vase or Faces: Is Life Fundamentally Easy; Difficult; or Both?



How do you view life—as something that fundamentally is supposed to be easy (which means that difficulty and hardship are aberrations)?  Or is life something that is essentially / fundamentally difficult and painful, a struggle (“life is suffering” said the Buddha), and thus joy and happiness and comfort and ease are sporadic and more aberrant?

And not how do you *want* to see life or how do you hope that life is.  But rather, deep down, what do you really suspect / assume that life is—is it supposed to be on the whole more easy than difficult, more comfortable than stressful and hard, more pleasurable than painful?  Or life is life basically difficult?

Ortega y Gasset wrote:

There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, pg. 15

Maslow said that less than 2% of human beings are truly growth-oriented; the vast majority are deficit-and-repair oriented—more interested in finding comfort.

Pema Chodron wrote:

There’s a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and to just try to get comfortable.

You can see this even in insects and animals and birds.

All of us are the same.

A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet.  To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms—to lead a more passionate, full, and interesting life than that—we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, just how the whole thing really is.

If we’re primarily committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run, and we’ll never know what was just beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.

(“The Wisdom of No Escape,” pg. 3)

And at the beginning of his seminal book, “The Road Less Traveled,” M. Scott Peck wrote—

 Life is difficult.

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Most do not fully see this truth, that life is difficult.

Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race, or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.

Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?

Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.

What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems, depending upon their nature, evoke in us frustration of grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or fear or anxiety or anguish or despair. These are uncomfortable feelings, often very uncomfortable, often as painful as any kind of physical pain, sometimes equaling the very worst kind of physical pain. Indeed, it is because of the pain that events or conflicts engender in us all that we can call them problems. And since life poses an endless series of problems, life is always difficult and is full of pain as well as joy.

A paradigmatic shift is an experience where our view of life and our primary assumptions are turned on their head.  It’s a new way of seeing that once we start really seeing things in this new way, we can’t unsee.

For example, if we look within ourselves and see—actually truly see—how pervasively and deeply we assume and expect and want life to be easy, fun, relatively pain-free and low stress, and then we suddenly grasp how very incorrect this may be, how perhaps life isn’t something that can always be made easy and more comfortable, that perhaps life is at bottom difficult, uncertain, that stability and certainty are the exception, and only temporary, and that on a long enough timeline sickness, old age, death, loss, difficulty, loneliness, aloneness, all these grim things, are inevitable, inescapable, that would be a paradigmatic shift.

It would be tantamount to looking at the above figures and only seeing the vase (or the faces), and then suddenly seeing the opposite.  A figure-ground reversal has taken place.

What these authors and thinkers are attempting to communicate is how deeply engrained our assumptions and expectations are that life is supposed to be easy, comfortable, low stress, and that that assumption / expectation exacerbates and compounds so many of our problems, it makes life even more difficult, makes us even more unhappy and anxious.

The reality is that vast majority of us, of we human beings, go through life only seeing the vase (or the face, whichever we see most naturally and often), assuming that life is supposed to be this way, this vase-like experience of comfort, happiness, pleasure, ease, low stress, no loneliness and no awkwardness.  This *IS* what we all assume, it’s our default setting, it’s how we’re hard-wired—that comfort and ease and safety and the absence of stress and uncertainty and fear is how life is supposed to be.   We’re each born with this built-in expectation that life is supposed to be an easier and a more pleasant and happier affair than it likely is.

And so again and again, at nearly every turn, and with nearly every choice, we opt for the path of least resistance, the option that promises greater comfort and ease rather than challenge and difficulty.

In our relationships we’d rather be ruined by praise and flattery than perhaps bettered by a little criticism or debating a differing point of view.  We rarely slow down in life enough to really examine ourselves and to work on our conscience and our character.  We salve and numb ourselves with wine and drink, shop our stresses away, read frivolous books, turn to yoga and meditation, all in an effort to escape / lessen the background hum of whatever pain and stress and unhappiness and anxieties we might have.  Life is supposed to be happy and fun; love is supposed to be about romance, not work.  We are supposed to feel excited and cheery.  Days are supposed to be temperate, full of blue skies and puffy white clouds, not cold, damp, overcast, drizzly.  Again and again we work to tilt the balance toward fun, easiness, certainty, comfort.

What the above authors and thinkers are saying is that if we can begin to see life differently, if we can cultivate a paradigmatic shift in our way of seeing ourselves and life, then everything may paradoxically change for the better for us.  We may find more inner peace, become more grateful, a bit more easy-going, relaxed, less tense, less of a struggle.

How does it happen?  As an epiphany or an a-ha moment?  Or gradually?


Do you see the sharks?

My experience is that paradigmatic shifts tend to be epiphanous a-ha moments—breakthroughs, metanoias, startling figure-ground reversal type experiences.  Your life will never be the same afterwards as it was before.

One day something happens.  Something helps to break in the shell.  A heartbreak, divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, a significant rejection or loss or blow befalls us in some form.  Usually something negative, devastating or near devastating.  Something happens to us that’s a shock to the system, that causes us to begin delving deeper, to begin asking why, to begin examining our lives and ourselves.

Or at least it can.  Because the old ways and the old temptations are still there—the path of least resistance, self-numbing, going for ease and comfort and playing it safe.

So that’s the crux:

Do we rise to the occasion and begin asking these questions that normally we’re too timid too, that are taboo, that we don’t ask or speak of in polite company, that normally would frighten us (and those around us)?  Do we start looking for real answers, start reading the right effin’ books?

Or do we shrink from the questions and numb ourselves even more urgently out of even greater necessity, and thus go for comfort again?

Or do we opt for half-baked answers, turn to conventional solutions, start reading the comfortable feel-good books?

The old ways and the old temptations will still be there, wanting to be tried, again.

Or do we get it?  Does something change in us, change fundamentally, radically in how we look at life, ourselves, others?  Do our thinking and our perception change, does their level change, increase, deepen?  If it does, and if changes us fundamentally, changes how we relate to life and life’s difficulties, changes how we think and process things, changes our perspective, changes our heart and mind, then we may have just had a metanoia or a moment of satori.

Archaic Torso of ApolloRainer Maria Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.  But his torso
still glows from inside like a lamp, in which
his gaze, now only slightly turned down, still

shines in all its power. Otherwise the curve of
the breast wouldn’t dazzle you so, and from the
light twist of the hips and thighs a smile wouldn’t
flow into that dark center where the generative

powers flared; otherwise this stone would stand
defaced under the transparent fall of the shoulders,
and wouldn’t shine like a wild animal’s fur;

it wouldn’t be breaking out, like a star, on
all sides.  For there is no place on this stone
that does not see you.  You must change your life.



About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in Buddha, Critical Thinking, Difficulty, Jose Ortega y Gasset, M. Scott Peck, Pema Chodron, Personal Growth, Perspective, The Examined Life, The Road Less Traveled, Truth, Waking Up and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Vase or Faces: Is Life Fundamentally Easy; Difficult; or Both?

  1. Mark Beken says:

    A wonderfully apposite post, and the Rilke poem is simply sublime. This post, like so many others of yours, has given me much to reflect on and, perhaps paradoxically in view of the content above, great comfort at a time of profound personal change.

    Let us never lose our spirit of enquiry!

    Thank you for being such a rare, resonant and timely voice.


    • John says:

      Hello Mark,

      Thank you for your very kind comment. I do appreciate it, and I’m glad you find my posts worthy of reflection (as in, Wow! someone has actually taken the time to read through all of one of my posts. I get the sense that most people do not do that). And I am also glad that it has provided comfort and encouragement in the midst ofyour time of profound personal change.

      I went through my first very profound period of personal change and loss back in ’97. Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled,” even though I had read it before, took on a whole new level of meaning and poignancy.

      During another period of profound personal change and loss back in ’08, I was reintroduced to Rilke, and again something similar happened. I had read some of Rilke before, but when I started re-reading him and going through his poems and many letters (“Letters to a Young Poet” is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his letters, and so many of his letters are so profound!), I had an a-ha sort of experience. And I think it was the poem that I posted above that I really went a-ha to!

      But it might have been this one as well–

      I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
      so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
      that a storm is coming,
      and I hear the far-off fields say things
      I can’t bear without a friend,
      I can’t love without a sister

      The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
      across the woods and across time,
      and the world looks as if it had no age:
      the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
      is seriousness and weight and eternity.

      What we choose to fight is so tiny!
      What fights us is so great!
      If only we would let ourselves be dominated
      as things do by some immense storm,
      we would become strong too, and not need names.

      When we win it’s with small things,
      and the triumph itself makes us small.
      What is extraordinary and eternal
      does not want to be bent by us.
      I mean the Angel who appeared
      to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
      when the wrestler’s sinews
      grew long like metal strings,
      he felt them under his fingers
      like chords of deep music.

      Whoever was beaten by this Angel
      (who often simply declined the fight)
      went away proud and strengthened
      and great from that harsh hand,
      that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
      Winning does not tempt that man.
      This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
      by constantly greater beings.

      Or as Nietzsche put it, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

      To me, they all remind me of the same thing–we get strong in life by increasing our necessity, by not taking the path of least resistance. That Archaic Torso of Apollo that Rilke used to study and stand before for hours at a time represented someone who knew little of taking the path of least resistance and of avoiding difficulty and challenge. That’s how he became so immense.

      And that’s how we get there too.

      Thanks for reading and for such a kind comment, Mark. I do appreciate it, and I wish you well in navigating the changes you are experiencing in your life.

      Warmest regards,


      • Mark Beken says:

        Hi John

        Thanks for such a generous-spirited response, and I take tremendous heart from what you say. Yes, this Rilke poem is amazing, something akin to being washed clean in a thunderstorm while listening to Wagner!

        I wonder if you wouldn’t mind my sharing a poem of my own – not, I hasten to add, that I am remotely holding myself in the same company as Rilke, but I am likewise attracted by the idea of surrender. The poem is at least in part inspired by the eighth-century wealthy Chinese merchant Pang Yun, who one day tied all the possessions he owned to a raft which he sank in the middle of a lake, so that he could live the rest of his life ‘like a single leaf.’


        Breasting still
        blue water
        back to shore,
        the leaves
        of autumn aspens
        glittering gold
        like grandma’s ashes
        when we cast
        them gently
        from the boat;
        the shaking out
        of dust gathered
        from old roads;
        trying to be
        a single leaf.

        Thanks again, and I will definitely look up some of Rilke’s letters.

        There are uncountable blessings available for those who have the eyes to see them.

        Warmest wishes


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  3. Clark Palmer says:

    A google search led me to this. I found your post to be helpful, well-written, timely, and thought-provoking.

  4. Kent says:

    Peck is thought provoking to be certain. More important he can be theraputic. The ideas is to stop fighting the things that don’t feel good. If we do not, we cling to the ensuing battle untill it nearly spiritually kills us. But acceptance, which is the option, is usually beyond our reach. Certainly for those of us who are wired to conquer our lives, Acceptance is not in our nature. Instead, we react and become overwhelmed by knee jerk feelings. Those cause us to crash and nearly burn. The only hope is to think and practice another way.

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