Dealing with Fear of Rejection

(About a 22 minute read)

One of the mysteries of my life is that sometime between my 37th and 39th birthdays, I lost my fear of rejection.   It simply disappeared, evaporated, without my having done much of anything to overcome it.

It’s been about twenty years now, and I can only recall a single instance of the fear returning during that time.  That happened six years ago, and though the memory of it is still vivid for me, the fear lasted only a few hours.  I was visiting someone from my childhood, an older man that I had looked up to, and whose rejection I was always afraid of incurring.  It was more of a flashback to old fears, than the emergence of new ones.

Now, it seems to me possible that I’ve had other episodes of the fear during the past twenty years, episodes I no longer remember.  But if so, it does not seem likely they are many.  Instead, my memories are of doing with ease things that would have once made me feel awkward or embarrassed — or that I would have once never risked doing at all for fear of rejection.  To be clear, I can’t say rejection has never concerned me in all that time, but I think I can safely say that any concerns I’ve felt have very seldom risen to the level of fear.

Which is a good thing because the fear can be debilitating.  It can significantly influence your daily life, causing you to behave in ways you might not otherwise behave.  Among other things, the fear of rejection can impact your partnership and marriage prospects, your friendships, your other personal relationships, your career, and the quality of your life in general.  You can pay for it not only in lost opportunities, but also in anxiety, acute self-consciousness, social awkwardness, and even emotional suffering.  It is even for a few unlucky people, significantly more traumatic than hearing my poetry sung aloud!

The Science of Rejection

So far as I can find out, scientists have been studying rejection for about two decades now, but the focus of most of their studies has been on rejection itself, or the pain and suffering it causes, and not on the fear of rejection per se.  In this post, however, I will do the opposite by focusing more on the fear of rejection than on anything else.  Still, let’s start out with a few things the scientists have discovered.

One fascinating discovery has been that the brain by and large does not distinguish between the pain of rejection and physical pain.  Instead, it uses pretty much the same neural pathways to process both kinds of pain.  In brain terms, a broken heart and a broken arm aren’t all that different.

In fact, this is so much the case, that Tylenol can actually work to lessen the pain of rejection.  In one study, scientists placed a group of people on a daily regime of Tylenol for three weeks.  Then, in the actual fun part of the study, they brought the people into the lab, where they arranged for them to be cruelly rejected.  By placing these lucky people in an fMRI scanner, the scientists discovered that the folks taking Tylenol suffered significantly less pain from being rejected than the folks taking sugar pills.  Again, the brain treats a broken heart and broken arm much the same.

One difference, however, has to do with memory.  That is, we can relive and re-experience the pain from rejection much more vividly than we typically re-experience the pain from physical injuries:

Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too).  [Source]

So why is emotional pain in the case of rejection so closely linked to physical pain and — at least in our memories — even more vivid than physical pain?

The short answer is, because we’re social animals.  The slightly longer answer is that for millions of years during our evolution, we and our ancestors lived in circumstances in which getting kicked out of our community meant nearly certain death.  Humans generally don’t survive all that well outside of groups, except in the fictional imaginings of some authors, adolescents, and ideologues.  Consequently, those individuals who became our ancestors — that is, lived long enough to have offspring — were the folks who suffered the most from rejection, thus making them the same folks who took the most care to avoid being rejected by their groups.

  Obligatory Warning Lable

The science, while fascinating, is still very much emerging, and does not — so far as I can find — thoroughly address the question of how to deal with the fear of rejection, which I think can be at least as consequential in its own ways as the pain of rejection.

Naturally, at this point, I would like to be in a position to tell you that my years of relative freedom from the fear of rejection have provided me the “the seven secret insights” into how you, too, can overcome the fear of rejection, and that those powerful insights can be yours for only $29.95!  But the fact is, I can’t.  The best I can offer you is a mix of science and personal observation virtually guaranteed to mess up your life that might or might not prove useful to you.  In other words, it’s up to you to test these things for yourself.

Three Things That Probably Won’t Work Alone

Going through the online advice on how to deal with the fear, I repeatedly came across three things that I believe — based on both science and personal experience — are unlikely to work.  As I see it, if you try them and they do in fact work for you, then you’ve beaten the odds.   With that said, here they are in no particular order:

• Overcome your fear of rejection through willpower alone!  This is what I tried for a number of years with limited success.  For instance, when I young, I made a point when attending parties to introduce myself to as many women as I could.  However, it took an act of will to make myself do it, because I was actually rather shy back then.  I did find out, though, that I could indeed now and then will myself to do it, and that it did indeed pay off on occasion.  So why do I say “it probably won’t work”?

Overcoming fear through sheer force of will is problematic for a few reasons.  First, it requires a sustained, conscious effort.  You need to keep reminding yourself, pushing yourself “all night long”, as it were, to stick with it.  If you stop pushing, you stop doing it.  Which means that it’s fairly easy to just give up at some point — especially if you are not met with immediate success.

Again, all the while you’re pushing, the fear is still there.  You are at best overcoming your fear, rather than bringing about an end to it.  And that means you are constantly feeling your fear no matter how hard you push yourself to act in despite of it.  That’s fine and dandy if you’re a masochist, but not so good if you prefer to  live without sweaty armpits.

Last, there’s the backsliding. You can be successful on Tuesday, and yet a disaster on Friday.   Again, this is because you have to keep pushing or you stop overcoming.  Put differently, sheer willpower doesn’t appear to have a positive learning curve.   In my experience, merely willing to overcome fear lasts about as long as most New Year’s resolutions before the backsliding sets in.

To be sure, I’m speaking here of willpower alone.  It should be noted, however, that it can be a vital first step when combined with other techniques.

• Overcome your fear through studying the causes of it!  It’s quite tempting — almost instinctual — to search for the causes of your fear in your past.  People who do this tend to discover any number of life events that caused their fear.  Everything from a hyper-critical parent to social rejection suffered in middle school.   But so far as I can see, all such analyses suffer from at least one major problem: They aren’t solutions.

No matter how accurately you identify the personal causes of your fear, the knowledge by itself does little or nothing to resolve the issue.  So something further is needed, but what?  Frankly, I’ve yet to come across in popular advice a “something further” that seems likely to work.  One author, for instance, advised conjuring up your memories of past fears, and then having the “adult you time travel back in your mind to reassure the child you that everything will be alright in the end”.  Somehow, I seriously doubt that will work for large numbers of us.

To be sure, I do not wish to discourage self-examination.  Knowing yourself is key to so many good things in life, but in this case, it’s just not enough unless or until it can be combined with some other technique that will render it effective.

 • Overcome your fear by focusing on the good things that will come from acceptance rather than on the bad things that will come from rejection!  The problem that I see with this nugget of advice is fairly simple.   Just imagine you’re in a poker game.  You’ve got $100 bet, and your feeling mighty anxious you might lose it.   Would the sensible way to overcome your anxiety be to bet another hundred?  Or a thousand?  Or ten thousand?  As you can see, the more you jack up the potential cost of losing, the more anxious you are likely to become.  So why should “focusing on all the good things that will come from acceptance” make you much more than acutely conscious of how much you’ve got to lose if you are indeed rejected?

To sum up, each of these three things seems to me unlikely to work all that well alone.  Yet, in combination with other techniques, I believe they can often enough make a contribution.

Therapies

Encounter therapy is a standard tool of psychotherapists.  Not to be confused with encounter group therapy, which is a very different thing, encounter therapy involves overcoming one’s fears by physically encountering them, over and over again, if necessary.  For instance, a psychotherapist might encourage an especially shy person to walk up and down a busy sidewalk bouncing a basketball in order to draw attention to themselves.  The shy person is thus forced to confront their fears.

Encounter therapy appears to be at least fairly effective, although I doubt it works for everyone.  For instance, back in the day when I was approaching women at parties, it never did get much more than temporarily easier to do so.  That is, it tended to get a bit easier as the night wore on at any given party, but by the time of the next party, I was back to square one.

 It seems to me that encounter therapy is best combined with play.  Put differently, it’s best to make a game out of it.  For instance, instead of bouncing a basketball down the street — which is for merely shy people — decide to directly confront your fear of rejection by setting yourself the goal of getting rejected by a stranger at least once or twice a day.  Setting a goal turns it into a game. Then go out and find a stranger.  Ask him or her to, say, give you a ride across town.  If by some odd chance they accept your offer, then find another stranger.  And keep at it until you get your coveted daily dose of rejection.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?  The fact is, it has actually worked for some people, and in my opinion, it most likely would work for most of us.  But it won’t work unless you begin by making yourself do it — and that’s where sheer force of will comes in.  Apparently, it’s best to keep at it for perhaps 100 days, maybe longer, in order to see decisive results.

If it seems rather daunting to bounce out of bed tomorrow morning on a mission from Café Philos to achieve being rejected by strangers twice before midnight, then perhaps you can ease your way into such a noble pursuit by beginning with visualization.

The basic idea here is to face your fears.  That may sound cliché but it’s actually a fairly effective technique.  You begin by, as vividly as possible, imagining a situation in which you are rejected.  Here, your memories can come in handy.   What was the worse rejection you ever experienced?  Drag that sucker up as vividly as you can recall it.  It can help to write it down in alarming detail.  The point is to get make it as real as you can.

Now intensify it!

Yup, you heard right!  Make it worse!  Think of some way it could have been even worse than it was, and then vividly imagine how you would feel if that actually happened to you.

Next, do it again!  Make it worse than the worse you thought it could be.  Rinse and repeat this fun game for an hour or more daily.  Spend at least ten minutes on each stage in the progression.  And remember — writing it all down is better than just thinking about it.

The astonishing fact is that is a science-backed method for putting a significant dent in your fear of rejection.  Your goal should not be to stop with visualizations though.  You should, when you’re ready, progress to actual encounters.

Frequent readers of Café Philos may be forgiven if — up until this very post — they thought I didn’t know anything about how to have fun.  I am quite certain, however, that I have by now laid that myth to rest once and for all.

A Cognitive Landmine

In general, I’m a great fan of the notion that we are more efficiently changed through our actions than through our thoughts.  Put simply, a hundred days of seeking a rejection or two a day is, in my opinion, more likely to ameliorate one’s fear of rejection than a hundred days of contemplation.

Yet, I have also noticed that sometimes no amount of experience will do the trick because the experience is being interpreted in a counter-productive way.  So I’m now going to mention one belief in particular that has the potential to undermine one’s efforts to deal effectively with the fear of rejection through action, or for that matter, through any other means.

The idea here is fairly simple: Emotions, very much including fear, are reactions to the world as we see it.  But the world as we see it is by and large informed by our beliefs about it.   “Was she laughing at me or with me?’  The answer I give to that question might say more about my beliefs about her, and about people in general, than it says about her in fact.  With that in mind let’s forget all about this stuff, break open the beer keg, and party till it’s Christmas! turn to a belief that could be the cognitive foundation of one’s fear of rejection.

First, I would suggest you carefully examine yourself to see if in anyway you might harbor the desire that everyone like you.  That can be a bit tricky to do because it requires great self-awareness.  Time and again, I’ve heard people say that they do not desire everyone to like them, only to turn around moments later to say something that directly contradicts that notion.  It seems to be a frequent mistake.

In fact, the desire for everyone to like you — whether you are conscious of it or not — is one way to create the fear of rejection.  That’s because desire and fear are companions.  To desire something is to automatically fear that you won’t get it.  To fear something, you must see it as capable of thwarting a desire, unless your fear arises as an instinctual, knee-jerk reaction to, say, a sudden noise.  Otherwise, fear and desire travel hand-in-hand.  So, if you desire for everyone to like you, you fear rejection from anyone and everyone.

Now, the desire for everyone to like you is based on the unrealistic belief that it is actually possible for everyone to like you.  Think about this carefully.  Even though people routinely say they desire the impossible, they don’t really do that.  At least not in any significant way.

For a desire to get hold of you, you must — at the very least — think that it is remotely possible for it to be realized.  You may tell yourself that you truly want to walk through walls, but you don’t fear that you won’t be able to.  You don’t ache when you see a wall you can’t walk through.  You don’t feel frustrated that the wall is solid.  In fact,  you show few if any signs of genuinely desiring to walk through walls.  Thus, if you come to an honest belief that it is impossible for everyone to like you, you will cease to desire that everyone will like you — and with that cessation, you will no longer fear rejection from everyone.  You might still fear it from some people, but not automatically from everyone.  At least, that’s been my experience.

It is important that this is more than a mere intellectual exercise to you.  Instead, the truth that it is impossible for everyone to like you must be real to you.  As real to you as a memory of an actual experience.  So, if you wish to take this approach to your fear of rejection, you must be willing to study the issue until you can all but see the truth.

Once you have become clearly aware of the various reasons not everyone can like you, you will find, I believe, that you have not only lost your desire for everyone to like you, but also quite often your desire for this or that person in particular to like you.

For instance, one reason not everyone can like you is because there are intractable personality conflicts between people that you or they are powerless to change.  But once you see that, you are very likely to recognize when you have encountered someone with whom you have such a conflict.  And you are no more likely to believe they can like you than you are likely to believe everyone can like you.

The bottom line is that if you harbor on any level a belief that everyone can like you, you need to root out that belief if you are to deal effectively with the fear of rejection. In my experience, if you can do just that much, you will have gone a long way toward solving the problem.

Gleeful Summary

There is much else that could be said about this subject but lucky for you, a blog post is not a book.  However, I’ll briefly mention some further ideas you might want to consider:

  • Try setting your expectations of being liked low, but not too low.  Put them in neutral, so to speak, rather than in forward or reverse.
  • Avoid end of the word thinking about rejection.  I have too many friends who bump up their fear of rejection by fantasizing that the actual experience will be far worse than such things tend to be.  Yes, it can be painful, but you’ll survive.
  • Check your motives for wanting someone to like or accept you.  Are they honorable.  Unless you are a fairly wicked person (in which case, we should get together for coffee), dishonorable motives will backbite you.  That is, the intention to, say, exploit someone will increase your fear of being rejected by them.
  • For much the same reason, avoid being hyper-critical of people.  If you are, you will tend to take it on faith that any rejection you suffer from them is because of some flaw of your own.  This is absolutely not true the vast majority of the time.  But if you believe it’s true, it will surely increase your fear of rejection.
  • Even if and when someone rejects you for yourself, try to see it as a compatibility issue, rather than a condemnation of yourself.  “She didn’t like your sense of humor”?  That says little or nothing about the quality of your sense of humor, and everything about her own tastes in humor, and how incompatible her tastes are with yours.  If you see it as a condemnation of you, your fear of rejection will blossom like a weed in your heart.
  • There are over seven billion humans on this planet, and perhaps a few million more politicians, too.  That’s a lot people, human and otherwise, and with that many people, there is no real reason you can’t find at least a few — say a million or more — who genuinely like you or even love you as a person.  But how to filter out the ones who do from the ones who don’t? Try looking at rejection as a filter that is actually helping you to do that very thing.  This might not decrease the pain of being rejected all that much (there is science to suggest it won’t), but it can in my experience at least decease the fear of being rejected — if you take it to heart.
  •  Now, if you take none of my advice save for one thing, then take this: Never, ever universalize rejection.  If someone tells you they’re dumping you because you’re “too kind”, never conclude that means everyone, most people, or even a significant fraction of the world’s seven billions will think you are “too kind”.  Never!  Such thinking is totally barking up the wrong tree, hounding down the wrong trail, sniffing the wrong crotch, humping the wrong leg.  Get my drift?  And worse, it will increase your fear of rejection nearly astronomically.

There ain’t no good guy.
There ain’t no bad guy.
There’s just you and me,
And we just disagree.
— Dave Mason, We Just disagree

Nine times out of ten, Mason is right.

I’m turning the conversation over to you now.  This is your BIG opportunity to cheerfully tell me how wrong I am!  Please feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and stories in the comments section!

Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You

(About a 26 minute read)

If words were characters in a novel, the word “mysticism” would be the whore with the good heart.  Like the whore, mysticism has a bad reputation.  People, both religious and non-religious, look down on her.  Reactions to her range from deep suspicion to shocked disbelief, often followed by rumor-mongering, gossip, and slander.

Some folks, such as most of the Catholic scholars of mysticism, try to reform her. Though they might love her, their efforts to bring her into the respectable fold of Catholic theology are doomed from the start: She’s wild is mysticism.  You may love her, but you’ll never tame her.  There are schools of Hinduism that acknowledge her, even claim her as one of their own; but so often — not always, but so often — they too want to tame her, bring her into the fold of their theologies just as much as the Catholic scholars.

Many Muslims, who usually know her by the name of “Sufism”,  deny she’s properly one of them at all.  The New Agers like to claim her as their own, but frequently think her many, often gaudy, accessories are the true her.  Fundamentalists of any religion generally claim to have never themselves been so improper as to have even met her,  although a few certainly have “snuck out at nights”.

“Spiritual, but not religious” folks are everywhere on the board when it comes to her. Some have never had a thing to do with her, while others have written all over their faces: “Just got laid”.  And then there are the scornful non-believers.  Not just any non-believers, but the non-believers who have plenty of cheerful vile for all religions.  They quite frequently conflate mysticism with religion — when they’re not busy conflating it with sheer madness — and condemn both with happy, if blind, zeal.

Like all proper outcasts, mysticism has her true lovers, the folks who as best they can, fundamentally accept her as she is  (for how can you truly love someone you also labor to fundamentally change?).  Historically, Siddhārtha Gautama, the man who become the Buddha, was probably one of her earliest known lovers.   Meister Eckhart was a famous lover from the late European Middle Ages. So, much more recently, was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who some say was the final, promised reincarnation of Siddhārtha.  Still alive today, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh are among her more internationally famous contemporary lovers.  But she has millions of other lovers, mostly unrecognized,  mostly ordinary men and women in every culture and society on the planet.

For that’s the thing about mysticism: Like a whore, she is to be found everywhere.  Never the mainstream anywhere, she is nevertheless ubiquitous.  

So, the lady mysticism presents us with a problem.  How can we see her for who she is when who she is, is masked by so much slander, gossip, and rumor?  Is it even possible to see her in a fresh light now?  Or are we so set in our ways that such a thing is as improbable as reforming her?  And what are her prices these days?  Not that I’m interested in her prices for anything but purely scholarly reasons.

Towards a Fresh Look

I suspect one way for many of us to take a step towards gaining for ourselves a fresh look is to begin by recognizing the crucial role played by experience in mysticism.   One of the several ways mysticism is different from religions — at least, so many religions — is that thought, belief, knowledge, theology, dogma, are not even close to being core to it.  At the very best, those things play a merely supplemental role.

Instead, I think the core of mysticism is experience.

As it happens, there are a small number of experiences that are often called, “mystical”.  Those experiences range from such things as predictive dreams and visions to what I very creatively, almost poetically,  call “the mystical experience” (“the”, because the mystical experience seems to be in several ways the most life changing experience of them all).   But in all cases,  “experience”, and not “mystical”, is in some ways the most important word in the expression, mystical experience.

As I see it, no amount of knowledge about mysticism or about mystics themselves, no matter how comprehensive or accurate it is,  can make one a mystic.  Only a mystical experience can do that.  And especially, the mystical experience.

Many people, however, use the term “mystic” more inclusively than me to include, not just folks who’ve had the experiences, but anyone who merely studies or advocates mysticism.  And that’s fair.  That’s not how we do things around my cottage, by golly, but it’s fair.

[Insert Section Title Here.  Don’t Forget, Paul!]

One summer’s morning, around the age of 13, I was biking down a leafy tree-lined street in my hometown when I happened upon someone I had not seen in awhile. He was a boy a year younger than me, and he had a reputation for being wild.  I suspect his reputation was owed more to his frank honesty, though, than to his actual wildness.  In that small town, you tended to collect all sorts of reputation  — if you were honest.

He and I entwined the handlebars of our bikes — a trick that stabilized the bikes nicely, allowing us to sit them without needing to put our feet down to stay upright.  Then we were off telling each other all the news fit to forget.  And I have indeed forgotten most of it, but the one thing I still vividly recall came towards the end of our conversation when my friend confided that he’d recently had an experience of indescribable bliss. I had never heard of the word, “bliss”, and had to ask what it was.

As he spoke, his face took on a radiance somewhere between happiness and joy.  He told me he didn’t know the right words to describe his experience, but it had to be what adult‘s meant when they talked of being “seized by the Holy Spirit“.  Though only twelve, he was completely serious.  And he was certain — absolutely certain — he’d discovered life’s greatest and most precious gift.

While I was skeptical of his claims to being seized by the supernatural even at 13, I could not ignore his sincerity. Consequently, I hung on every word until the very moment I suddenly recognized he was talking about his having discovered masturbation.

Although I wouldn’t have put it quite this way at the time: That was the first time in my life I heard someone insist that a non-mystical experience was actually mystical.  Of course, it has not been the last. It’s a curious fact that many of us who have not yet had a mystical experience are nevertheless inclined to think our biggest, most moving experiences to date must be — absolutely must be — what the mystics are talking about.  I suppose there is something very human in that.

Although many people have tried, it is virtually impossible to communicate the content of the mystical experience to people who have never themselves had one.  The experience is radically different from normal experiencing.  And it is so extraordinarily difficult to communicate its content because of the nature of words.

There is a profound sense in which words do not refer to “things”, but to shared experiences.  When I say, “I saw a barn”, you either get my meaning or not to the extent you share with me some kind of experience of a barn or barns.  If you have no experience of barns then I must resort to trying to find some shared experience with which to suggest a barn to you.  “Barns are large buildings used to house animals and to provide a place where farm boys and girls can smooch in privacy.”  But what if something is so radically different from anything else that it’s incomparably different?

For instance, sometimes the word “blissful” is used to describe the content of the mystical experience — and that might mislead some of us into thinking that we can imagine this bliss by mentally multiplying joyful feelings, say, a thousand times.  But mystical bliss is not one end of a joy continuum.  It is altogether something different.

Later on in this post, I will now and then drop a word or two about the reported content of mystical experiences, but please bear in mind that those words  should not be taken as representations of the content, but instead as interpretations.

The Mystical Experience

I first became interested in mysticism some forty or so years ago when I was studying comparative religion at university.  I noticed that a group of people — mystics — seemed to be describing more or less the same sort of experience despite  the fact they were as individuals from cultures and societies as diverse as 500 B.C.E. China and Medieval Europe.  To be sure, they weren’t saying exactly the same things.  But they were close enough that it was like reading the different opinions of people experiencing, say, looking at the same cat.

That struck me as unusual.  I knew enough about religions at the time to appreciate how different they can be one from the other.  And yet, here were these strange people more or less agreeing with each other!

I won’t recount here all the false trails and dead ends I went down over most of the next 40 years after that initial insight.  Suffice to say one of the few truly fruitful things I did with all that time is listen to people, perhaps a surprising number of people, when they told me of their own strange experiences.

Studies performed in Britain and the United States have found that about a third of the people surveyed in each country report having had at least one exceptional or extraordinary “spiritual or religious” experience.  What percentage of those experiences are the mystical experience is anyone’s guess.  But I have met quite a few people who’ve had the experience.  I have also learned that you can develop a sort of nose for who is likely to have had such experiences, and that you can sometimes — not always, but sometimes — gently coax then into talking about their experiences.

 So far as I can see, the mystical experience can be characterized as coming about when normal subject/object perception comes to an abrupt end while some form of experiencing yet continues.

Subject/object perception is the kind of normal, everyday perception that we’re all familiar with as waking consciousness.  Specifically, it is the part of consciousness that divides the world into us and not-us.  Us is the subject.  Not-us are the objects.   I look at a tree.  I do not merely see the tree, though.  I also “see” that the tree is not me, that it is distinct, other than me.

When that way of perceiving the world breaks down, you apparently enter a radically new world where instead of sensing division, you sense unity or oneness.  You become one with the tree.  Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all…”.

Mysticism and God

Now, this One seems to be easily characterized as deity:

The self, when confined into the usual wakeful state of consciousness, is human, but when enters into the transcendental state of Absolute Oneness, becomes God. ― Abhijit Naskar

It is easily characterized, or interpreted, as god because, if you think about it, what can possibly be bigger than the oneness of all things?  There appear to be other reasons as well for why the experience is frequently interpreted as an experience of god, but that one in particular is a biggie  (pun shamelessly intended).

Yet, the experience need not be interpreted as such.  The Dao De Jing (or Tao Teh Ching, for old foggies like me) implies that it is an experience of The Way, an apparently non-sentient “something” that is superior to the gods and proceeds them, but in some sense permeates all things.  And while theistic mystics seem to be in the majority, there are plenty of atheistic and agnostic mystics too.

If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A master says: “If I had a God that I could understand, I would not regard him as God.” If you understand anything about him, then he is not in it, and by understanding something of him, you fall into ignorance.  — Meister Eckhart

Even with many theistic mystics, one gets the impression that their use of the word “god” is more like a placeholder for a mystery than it is like a description for something known.  It is as if they are using the world for lack of a better one.

“God is not the name of god, but an opinion of him.”

The Ring of Pope Xystus, based on The Sententiae of Sixtus, a Pythagorean.

 

One of the most common criticisms of mystical experiences is to claim they are “hallucinations”.   But mystical experiences don’t fit in neatly with what psychologists know about genuine hallucinations.  For one thing,  people who suffer an hallucination realize it was an hallucination the moment it’s over.  But people who have a mystical experience usually claim that it still seems real to them  even years or decades later.

For another thing, hallucinations tend to involve a single sense. One hears a disembodied voice.  One sees Jesus.  One feels the presence of something.  But mystical experiences typically affect, in one way or another, the entire, or nearly the entire, perceptual field, just like normal experiences.

Last, hallucinations can be frequent and recurring.  But mystical experiences tend to be rare.  One is “lucky” to have had one.  To have a few is exceptionally lucky.  To have had more than a few is almost unheard of.

Basically, it might be open to debate what mystical experiences are of, but that they seem real — at least as real as anything else — is pretty much indisputable, so far as I can see.

Both from reading the often fairly well known writings of mystics, and from private talks with mystics, I have form the impression that mystics, as a group, are a bit on the wild side when it comes to harboring “proper” beliefs about gods.  They tend not to reference, say, holy scriptures as authoritative guides to what to believe about deity.  When they reference such things, it is most often done in the spirit of “and here’s something that sounds surprisingly like what I experienced”.

Police, lawyers, and psychologists are all acutely aware of the fact that, if there are 20 witnesses to the same car accident, there are likely to be at least 21 versions of what exactly happened.  Witnesses to the mystical experience are no exception to that rule.

Some will tell you they experienced god, some will tell you they did not, or are not sure that they did.  Perhaps more significantly, some witnesses seem more reliable than others, just as with witnesses to anything else.   It’s my impression that the more reliable the witness, the more hesitant, cautious, and circumspect they are when arriving at any interpretations or conclusions about what they’ve experienced.

Last, the mystical experience seems to transform people, often profoundly, and often along certain familiar lines.  I have learned there is a bit more general agreement  among mystics who give some indication of having been transformed by the experience than there is among mystics who give little or no indication of having been transformed.   Just so, mystics whose experience or experiences were drug induced seem to me, at least, to show fewer signs of any lasting transformation than mystics whose experiences arose spontaneously.

We shall now turn to those transformative experiences.

The Transformative Nature of the Mystical Experience

By a single such experience of only a few moments’ duration a man’s life may be revolutionized. He may previously have found life meaningless and worthless, whereas now he feels that it has acquired meaning, value, and direction, or his attitude to life may sometimes be radically and permanently changed.  — W. T. Stace

I spoke earlier of having developed over time a “nose” for mystics.  Much of that nose seems to involve picking up on clues so subtle or slight as to be difficult to easily describe.  A “lightness” when dealing with beliefs about god, for instance.  And, so far as I know, no one clue in itself is a notably reliable guide to who is or isn’t a mystic.  I’ve learned to wait for a number of clues before guessing that someone might be a mystic.   In fact, I’m never certain who is or isn’t a mystic until they tell me their stories, and even then, not always.

It does seem to me, however, that mystics tend to be transformed, permanently transformed, by their experiences, except perhaps in the case of most drug induced experiences.  I should make clear here, though, that I am now speaking specifically of mystics who have had the mystical experience.  There are other mystics who’ve had other experiences, but not the mystical experience.  Of those mystics, I am not at the moment gossiping rumor mongering talking about for the simple reason that their experiences do not seem to me all that transformative.

It also seems to me that some non-mystics are also “transformed”, but by what I don’t know.

I do know, however, that there are people who in most or every respect seem to be mystics, except they claim to have never had any such experiences.  So it does not seem to me that one must necessarily be a mystic to be like a mystic.  But it sure does help: For every normal person I’ve met who is very much like a mystic, I have met several actual mystics.

One of the things I believe I have noticed about mystics (and some non-mystics) is that they are somewhat unusually aware of their ego and how it behaves or operates in practice. Almost no mystic I’ve come across (except, once again, in the case of drug-induced mystics) is notably unaware of, say, the ways in which their ego distorts their views and understanding of reality.  Moreover, most mystics seem to me to be less egotistical than the average member of our species.  They tend to be  more modest, more willing to laugh at themselves, and less trapped or led around by their ego than most (but certainly not all) non-mystics.

In general, mystics are what I call “spiritually advanced”.  But I mean that in a very off-beat way.  My definition of “spirituality” is rather unconventional.  It is “the manner and extent to which a person deals with their psychological self”.  I go into that in much greater detail here.

Not every mystic has an especially profound love, appreciation, and respect for nature, but most of the ones I know do.  Their love, however, is not usually of the sentimental sort that romanticizes nature, and sees only its positive aspects.  Rather, they tend to be very realistic about it.  They know and accept that nature can be unpleasant at times and that it has horrors.  Yet, mystics tend to treat nature with reverence.

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.  — Thich Nhat Hanh

A few have told me that, like Thich Nhat Hanh, they find it easier to feel “alive” in nature than in towns and cities, or even in their own homes.  As one young man passionately told me, “Nature is my church”.

Mystics on the whole also seem to me to be notably less likely to complain about — or to be defeated by — misfortunes than the rest of us.  They appear to be a resilient lot.  They very seldom turn cynical or bitter even though they seem to have suffered as much as is usual for a human.   This might have something to do with W. T. Stace’s observation that the mystical experience tends to give people a sense of meaning or purpose in life, even if they had no such sense before.  It seems that people, both mystics and non-mystics, who feel they have a purpose or meaning in life are generally more resilient than those who don’t, and mystics usually seem to have an enduring sense of purpose or meaning

The most psychologically healthy people I personally know are every one of them mystics. Yet, that does not mean all mystics enjoy good psychological health.   I have known plenty of mystics, for instance, who suffer from depression or other disorders.  Maybe the one thing I haven’t known, so far as I can recall, is a depressed mystic who was suicidal.  Again, perhaps that has something to do with an enduring sense of purpose or meaning.

There are mystics of every religion and of no religion at all.  As a general rule (with exceptions) they tend to wear their religions (or non-religion) lightly.  Mystics, by and large, are almost the opposite of fanatics.  Even when they believe they’ve experienced god, they overwhelmingly tend to be unwilling to impose their views or beliefs about god on others.  The non-believing mystics I’ve met tend to be just as reluctant to impose their views or beliefs on others as the believing mystics.

The relatively rare exceptions usually seem to be people who were very quick to arrive at firmly held interpretations and conclusions about their experiences.  That same group, incidentally, are more likely to be members of a particular religion, more likely to interpret their mystical experience(s) in terms of that religion (e.g. “I didn’t just experience god, I experienced God, the God of the Bible.”), and more likely to come from a fundamentalist background within their religion.

As a group, mystics do not strike me as notably more moral than other people.  But they do strike me as overall a bit more humane.  They tend to treat others with decency, even others they don’t particularly like.  And they tend  to strongly disapprove of unnecessary cruelty.  I have not yet known a mystic to seriously advocate murder, rape, assault, or even mistreating someone in any significant way.  I assume, however, that it’s possible there are mystics in this world who are exceptions to the rule.

There are some other ways that mystics seem to me to stand out at least a bit from the crowd.  But most of those ways are rather difficult to describe, so I haven’t tried to do so here.

Mystics themselves will very often tell you that their experiences absolutely changed everything, or at least everything important, about them.  It’s not only Christian mystics, for instance,  who speak of their experiences as “being reborn”, and as “the start of a new life”.  Plenty of others do too, including non-believers.

In my experience, however, this seems to be an exaggeration.  Those mystics I have not only met, but gotten to know well, do not seem to me to be radically changed.  They seem changed in some ways, but not in every way, and not so much that they might be fairly called “radically” changed.   But I have no access to their psychological interiors, so it’s quite possible they are much more changed than I myself can see.

Also — and I think this is most important — I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting someone along the lines of Pema Chodron , Thich Nhat Hanh, or Jiddu Krishnamurti. By almost all accounts that I’ve read or have heard told of these people, to know them is an extraordinary experience in itself.  Had I met someone like them, I strongly suspect I would now be telling you that, in my experience, the mystical experience can be radically transformative.

It seems to me that the differences between mystics and the rest of us are matters of probability.  Things on the order of, “Forty-six percent of non-mystics are X, but ninety-three percent of mystics are X”.  That, rather than non-mystics are X, and mystics are Y.

It would be quite interesting if some science were done of this.  My own impressions are just that: Impressions, and probably as full of inaccuracies as is humanly likely.  Nevertheless, accurate or not, my impressions are that mystics  — with notable exceptions — are less egotistical, more spiritual, more resilient, psychologically healthier, and more humane (among other things) than most of the rest of us.

The Physiological Basis for Mysticism

When I first became  interested in mysticism, almost the entire library of published scholarly books on the subject could have been carted around in a single student backpack with space left over for copies of the Bhagavad Gita, a collection of Rumi’s poetry, and a few other primary works.  Over the past twenty or thirty years, that’s changed dramatically.

Some of the most significant changes have been coming from the field of neuroscience, which seems to be rapidly discovering the physiological basis for mysticism.   So rapidly, in fact, that my own information on the subject is very likely outdated by now.  So, I won’t go into the details here, but I do plan to post on the subject at a later date, once I’ve had time to read some recent books I’ve purchased in order to get reasonably up to date.   Meanwhile, I’d like to mention two things here.

First, regardless of whether one thinks the mystical experience is of god or not, it is now more than clear the experience crucially involves the brain.  This might disappoint those of us who were hoping  that the experience would somehow provide evidence for a disembodied consciousness. or even evidence of being produced by a miraculous intervention by deity.  I myself never hoped for either thing, but I know people who have.

Next, it should be noted here that the mere fact there is a physiological basis for the experience does not logically imply that god is nothing more than a brain fart.  To say that it does is just as illogical as saying that, because we have largely discovered the physiological basis for vision, everything we see is an illusion.

Stay tuned to this blog for a future post or posts on current findings in the physiology of mystical experiences!

Other Mystical Experiences

In addition to the mystical experience, there is a whole host of other experiences — or alleged experiences — that folks routinely call “mystical”.  These include, but are not limited to, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and apparitional experiences.  The Zen monks call these experiences “makyo”, and sometimes say that almost all of them are illusions, but that now and then someone has one that is for real.

But are any of them really really really real?  They do not seem to be reliably verifiable through any current methods of intersubjective verification, and are therefore outside the realm of the sciences — which are generally speaking our most reliable means of inquiry.  Moreover, whenever it’s been possible to subject any single experience of those sorts to scientific scrutiny, the result has been either to debunk the experience or to find little or no support for regarding it as real.

However, none of that absolutely rules out the possibility that some such experiences — perhaps only a few — are indeed for real.  It just makes it unlikely that they are.

Those of us who hope or believe that at least some of those experiences are real can take heart in Saint Elmo’s fire.  Saint Elmo’s fire, it is now plausibly suspected, is a rare, but naturally occurring plasma.

That explanation, however, would not have been at all possible a few hundred years ago when the “fire” was spotted hovering around the dome of Sophie’s Cathedral on the eve of the battle for Constantinople.  The key thing to grasp here is that no one — not even the finest most knowledgeable people on the planet at the time — could have discovered the cause of the fire.

Let me repeat that for emphasis: Under no likely circumstances could the cause have possibly been discovered back then.  That is, it wasn’t just a matter of no one did the right research.  It was a matter of no one could have done the right research.  The gulf between the knowledge of the time and the necessary knowledge to explain St. Elmo’s fire was simply unbridgeable by the technology of the day.

One might ask then, is there a natural explanation for at least a few paranormal events?  Are they as real as St. Elmo’s fire, but as inaccessible to us today as the fire was roughly 500 years ago?

I think it quite likely that, if any such events be real, they have natural explanations, although we might be years or even centuries away from when such explanations will be possible for us to formulate.

Trenchant and Insightful Summary

I must now confess that I’ve had my own mystical experiences, including what I so wittily call the mystical experience. There was a time, when I was much younger than I am today, when I thought my experiences were definitive.  I have since been thoroughly disabused of any such notion.

Today, I see myself as like one of 20 witnesses to the same car accident, and if I stand out in any particular way from any of the other 19 witnesses it’s merely that I might be a bit more unsure of my own accounts and interpretations of the events in my life than they are of theirs.  That uncertainty comes to me largely through having talked with so many other witnesses, a few of whom even impressed me as much better witnesses than myself.

There is so much about mysticism that I have left out here.  This certainly should not be taken as a comprehensive essay on mysticism.  Anyone who wants to read more of my thoughts on the subject should go here.  Meanwhile I’d appreciate any comments you would like to share on mystics or mysticism.

Thank you for reading this!  As usual, any cash donations in appreciation of this post will be immediately forwarded to Uncle Sunstone’s Cottage Refuge for Wayward Dancing Girls.  You can be absolutely confident your money will go to buying the girls the g-strings they need to stay warm during sudden cold spells this Spring and Summer, and also to replace the strings that somehow so frequently wind up stuck in Uncle Sunstone’s teeth.

It’s quite a mystery how that happens.

Be Yourself! A Guide From Why to How

(About a 30 minute read)

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:  “Zusya, what’s the matter?”

And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

If a wily pirate could hide his gold anywhere — even somewhere fanciful — he’d be wise to hide it beneath a cliché, because almost no one digs very deep beneath a cliché.  They are the nearly perfect mask for whatever truths they might express.  I believe it was Hegel who somewhere said, “Precisely because something is obvious, it is not at all well known”.

It is also easy to ridicule clichés.  I think that might be because, over time, they accumulate so many different interpretations of them that you’re sure to find a few that are ridiculous.  “Be true to yourself” is no exception.  “Hi! I’m Ronnie, the successful author and self-help guru who is here to help revolutionize your life!  If you’re like me, you have wondered at times:  Is the feeling I have of something moving deep down inside me calling me to a new life, or is it just intestinal gas, and is there a difference?  Well, you’re in luck!  Now you, too, can be true to yourself, discover your inner purpose in life, and improve your bowl movements, all for the low low price of $29.95!  Simply call…”.   Yet, the notion that one should be true to him- or herself is unlikely to go away.

For one thing, it seems even those who make the most fun of the notion feel just as much disappointment as nearly everyone else when they fail to be true to themselves.  Simply apply for a job you don’t want, but need: it’s only human to feel “this isn’t right for me”.  Marry the wrong person, same feeling multiplied.  Just sucking up to someone is likely to induce such feelings to some extent.  For many of us, something as slight as wearing the “wrong” clothing can trip our sense of self — and regardless of what we think of the cliché itself.

It runs deeper than that, though.  Infants are born incapable of self awareness, but then, generally between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they develop a sense of self.  For the rest of their childhood, they are defining and re-defining that sense of self.   “Mommie,  I’m not like that!”

During adolescence and young adulthood, the search for self intensifies.  The “13 to 30 group” is in some ways even more experimental than children in defining and re-defining their sense of self.  At times they seem to test everything — fashions, music, literature, hobbies, jobs, even friends and lovers — against the standard of “is it me or not me”.

Midlife seems to be a time when most of us deepen our commitments to things that match our self-images — or feel trapped in lives that seem not our own.  It is often during midlife that many people, perhaps for the first time, see with some clarity just how powerfully their upbringing influenced or determined their sense of self, and how much their sense of self has had to do with their choices in life.

During our elder years [Author’s note to loyal reader Teresums: I’m not there yet, Teresums.  So shuddup!], we tend to become increasingly reflective, and our reflections so often turn to whether we lived true to ourselves.  These reflections can become especially poignant as we lay dying.  Bronnie Ware is an Australian author who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying.  Typically, she was with a patient for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

This was the most common regret of all.  When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

“Be true to yourself” is a cliché, but it seems to be one cliché that’s well worth digging into.

Why be true to oneself?

But why should one try to be true to oneself — apart from merely trying to avoid being disappointed in old age?  As it turns out, being true to oneself, or authenticity, correlates well with life satisfaction and a sense of well-being.  That’s not only psychological well-being, but physical well-being, too.

In addition, it fulfills the human desire to stand out a bit from others.  And it also correlates with greater realism, mindfulness, vitality, self-esteem, goal pursuits, and coping skills.  In contrast, those who score relatively low on psychological tests of authenticity “…are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.”

Beyond those points, authenticity seems to be an absolute requirement for a genuinely intimate relationship.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be loved for who you are when you are, in fact, hiding who you are.

Last, there is a subtle, but still observable beauty to authentic people.  I don’t know whether this is evident to everyone — aesthetic things tend not to be — but I myself at least have noticed that people who are mostly true to themselves tend not only to radiate a sort of beauty (and charisma), but they also tend to be inspiring, even at times liberating, to be around.  And these qualities do not seem to depend on their physical appearance per se.  I’ve noticed these things in conventionally plain or ordinary, and in conventionally pretty or handsome, people both.

Living as authentically as ethically possible can have it’s downsides — for instance, it might alienate us from folks who fail to approve of our real selves — but it certainly has its upsides too.

What are the obstacles to being true to oneself?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. –Oscar Wilde

As it happens, there are more obstacles to being true to oneself than there are reasons to be so.  One of the biggest of those obstacles is the fact that so many of us have quite rigid and inflexible notions of ourselves.  Notions that at the very least hamper our understanding of who really are.  I have written extensively on that issue here.  A second, and I think, equally important obstacle can be broadly summed up as “society and/or culture”.

“Society and culture” cover quite a number of things.  Obviously, social pressure to conform is among those things.  Also among those things are the various ideas and expectations of who we should or should not be.

It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others.  Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small.  A friend of mine — someone I very much admire — is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own.  And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family’s fundamentalist religion.

For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.

Today she is discovering — one step at a time — her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are.  It is easy to tell such a person, “Be true to yourself”.  But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.

Yet, we do not need to be first abused — as she was — before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that — the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves — but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves.  We are social animals.  Profoundly social animals.  Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list dozens of ways in which our noble species of poo-flinging apes manifests its social nature.

It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship.  When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.

Yet, our social nature can be turned on us to alienate us from ourselves.  If nearly anyone of us could list dozens ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list hundreds of ways in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone’s expectations.

The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.  ― Jim Morrison

Closely related to the sometimes alienating influence other people’s expectations can have on us is the fact that authenticity can bring on the judgement and condemnation of others.  I have found that the people most likely to object to someone behaving authentically are those nearest the person who, under certain circumstances, might perceive such behavior as a threat to their relationship with the person.  Suppose, for instance, that you had gone years without really being very true to yourself.  Then you start changing.  That can cause quite a bit of consternation among the people who have up until then relied on your false front.  In my experience, though, if you’ve always been down to earth with someone, they are more likely to be attracted to your authenticity than concerned by it.

Authenticity crucially depends on accurate self-knowledge.  Yet, self-knowledge is something many of us would prefer not to have too much of.  We like the “good parts”, the fact we can be kind, intelligent, industrious, creative, witty, honest, and so forth.  But we wish to ignore or deny the rest of it, the fact that we can also be cruel, petty, malicious, cunning, lying, cheating, and so forth.  If we are very good at denial, then we’ve never done any of those latter things at all!

Yet, authenticity not only requires us to be honest with ourselves, it also tends to eventually require of us to do something far more difficult than be honest.  There can come a day when it requires us to accept ourselves as we are, without condemnation or praise. For any kind of judgement, in the end, distorts what we see.  Ultimately, the surest knowledge of ourselves comes from seeing ourselves as dispassionately and non-judgmentally as we might look at the tree in our neighbor’s yard, with the eyes not of a moralist, but of a sage.  This, however, is extraordinarily difficult.

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

There are other obstacles to being true to oneself, but those seem to me the most mentionable.  (Consequently, I have mentioned them.  You can trust me to do things like that.)   I think becoming aware of the obstacles is a step towards surmounting them.

What is the self?

It is one thing to say, “Be true to yourself”, but what is the self that one should be true to?   “Who am I?”, is perhaps the second oldest question on earth, next only to, “Why the hell did we elect that guy?”

Perhaps the most popular Western notion of the self — the notion most of us in the West would subscribe to today were we asked about it — is that we have some essential core, some single, stable core self, that makes us, us, and that is more or less constant through-out our lives.  In some profound sense, we are born, live, and die the same person.  In Western philosophy, for instance, that notion dates at least all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.  The Christian and Muslim concepts of the soul reflect it.  It is not, however, an ubiquitous notion.

In Japan, for instance, there are many people who believe the self is like an onion.  You can delve deeper and deeper into it, layer after layer, until you reach — not a core, for an onion has no proper core — but nothingness.  The peoples of at least several Native American nations were accustomed to change their names more or less periodically through-out their lives to reflect the changes they had undergone in themselves (as were some Japanese).  And not even every ancient Greek believed in a permanent core self.  As Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Near as I can see, Walt Whitman was getting at the truth when, in Song of Myself, he proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes”.  And I think Anaïs Nin must have been seeing much the same thing as Whitman when she said, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”

The self,  simply observed, and without analyzing it further than to observe it, seems to resemble nothing so much as a mess: Layer upon layer of often conflicting memories, sensations, impressions, ideas, desires, fears, emotions, sentiments, and behaviors unified only by a constant current of horniness running though-out all of it.

But a messy self fails to satisfy most of us, who seem to think of ourselves in the old way when it comes to being true to ourselves.  Ask a person who he or she is, authentically is, and they do not usually respond, “a contradictory, incoherent  multitude”, unless of course, they’re either drunk or are for the first time in their lives asking someone out on a date.

Is it possible to discern in all that mess a core or true self?

I think so.  What is necessary is to look for factors — such as behaviors, emotions, etc. — that can be considered “traits” in the sense of being sustained across situations and at least somewhat over time.

A good example of a trait might be a talent or aptitude for something, such as music, athletics, mathematics, and so forth.  Generally, talents seem to endure through-out life.  The skills built on them can fade with disuse, but the talent itself — the predisposition or aptitude for something — seems to last.

Another example might be how consciousness basically works.  Here, I do not mean one’s fleeting awarenesses, which come, shift, and go moment to moment, but rather the fundamental workings of consciousness.  For instance, consciousness quite often ranks things according to some measure of superiority or inferiority.  It can be barely noticeable that it does this, but it does it rather frequently.  On my way to the store today, a homeless man introduced himself to me with the words, “You look like Arlo Guthrie!”

The first thing my consciousness did was pat itself on the back for being compared to such a distinguished gentleman, but some part of it also noted that the homeless man didn’t mention an even more distinguished gentleman than Mr. Guthrie.  What?  I don’t rank a Brad Pitt?  There are fundamental, predictable ways in which consciousness works.  Just as I consider consciousness itself a trait of my core self, I also consider its basic workings traits of my core self.

A third example of our core traits might be any reasonably enduring desires and fears we have, such as a desire for fame, health, money, or to be favorably compared to Brad Pitt.  Such desires need not last a lifetime for us to consider them part of our true selves during at least some phase of our lives.  They are, however, more likely to change over time than, say, our talents.

To say that our core or true selves are comprised of traits is to imply that more fleeting or limited behaviors, emotions, sensations, ideas, etc. are not actually our core or true selves.  That only seems to make sense to me.  We all have moments, days, and even longer periods when we are “not ourselves”, meaning we are feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that are uncharacteristic of us.  That are not traits of us.

What does it mean to be true to ourselves?

Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. — Meister Eckhart

When I recall the appearance of various people in my life,  I seem to remember some for their smiles, some for their laughter, others for their bodies, still others for the voices, and so on.   But Paul Mundschenk I remember for his shrug.

It was a shrug that I once described as “hinting of nature’s perfect indifference, but without any coldness”, and I still think that’s a pretty good description of it.  As I recall, Mundschenk, who was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, was especially apt to shrug when anyone said something to him about himself.  “Thank you, Dr. Mundschenk, that was very kind of you!”  Shrug.  His words would say, “You’re welcome”, but his shrug would say, “I’m more or less indifferent to myself”.

Most of us, when we’re in our teens, can detect a fake from across a room.  We might not know how we ourselves can be authentic (largely, I think, because we don’t yet know ourselves well enough) but we can sure tell when someone is faking it.   As teens, we tend to have little sympathy for fakes.  Especially adult fakes.

We still think that, the older you get, the truer to yourself you are able to become, as if being true to yourself were as easy as growing into new privileges, such as staying up late, or getting to borrow Dad’s car.  It hasn’t occurred to us yet that most adults are under tremendous, sustained pressure to be false to themselves.  Nor has it usually occurred to us that we will soon enough feel those pressures too.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Paul Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Anything but contrary.

There are people who are naturally contrary, or naturally defiant, and they are often mistaken for being authentic, even exceptionally authentic.  But their “authenticity” is more of a reaction to others, an opposition to them.  True authenticity comes not in reaction to others, but comes from oneself, and comes irregardless of others.

Rather than being some sort of defiance, Mundschenk’s notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any masks or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform, if that wasn’t what he already wanted to do.

What then, was at the heart of Mundschenk’s authenticity?  For our purposes here, we may define being true to oneself,  or authenticity, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true- or core-self in one’s daily enterprise”.

The definition is not my own, but comes from the work of Micheal Kernis and Brian Goldman, two of the most notable pioneers in the psychology of authenticity.    Kernis and Goldman believe that authenticity is comprised of four components:

  1. Awareness: Accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge along with a willingness to learn more.
  2. Unbiased processing:  Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information, be the source internal or external.
  3. Behavior: Acting on the basis of one’s internal values, needs, and preferences, and not as a consequence of any external goals.
  4. Relational Orientation: Revealing one’s true self in close relationships.

There can be no such thing as a step-by-step guide to how to become more authentic.  The process is too variable, too much dependent on the individual involved. Yet, I believe Kernis’ and Goldman’s “four components” offer a generalized point of departure for us.

First, authenticity is virtually impossible without we know ourselves. Unless we have accurate, up to date knowledge of who we are, very little else can be accomplished.

That’s not to say we will ever completely know ourselves.  I don’t think that’s even possible. But we can we can usually get a fair understanding of ourselves, an understanding sufficient to guide us in being true to ourselves.  A key thing is to keep it up to date, stay open to changing our self-image as we ourselves change.

Some people prefer to introspect in order to discover themselves, but I have found introspection to be unreliable.  For every genuine fact about myself that I’ve discovered through introspection, I’ve discovered a dozen things that merely had the misleading appearance of fact.  Better than introspection for me has been to as dispassionately as possible watch how my consciousness responds in relationship to the things in my environment, very much including the people.

If that is difficult for you to do, it can be made easier by keeping a daily journal for a month or so in which you write down your thoughts, feelings, and behavior towards the things in your environment whenever you have an opportunity to do so.  Be as comprehensive and as honest as you can be.  Then review the journal each evening.  You will soon enough see patterns emerge, insights you’ve never had before, and your understanding of yourself will most likely be multiplied (unless your attention is divided.  Division, as everyone knows, is the opposite of multiplication).

Second, as much as decency and your circumstances will permit, act according to your own needs, wants, desires, preferences, and values. Avoid, if possible, acting according to the expectations, preferences, etc of others. Again, this can require a great deal of self-knowledge to accomplish.

Last, if you do not already have friends with whom you can be yourself, find and cultivate such friendships.  This is more important than it might sound at first.  For one thing, it can be difficult getting to know yourself if you do not have in your life anyone you can be open and revealing with.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I discuss some aspects of this matter more fully here.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in a “close” relationship with someone who you do not feel comfortable being yourself with, seriously consider distancing yourself, or even ending the relationship.  Do not be afraid of being lonely for awhile.  In my experience, there is no greater loneliness than that felt when in a relationship with someone who fundamentally rejects you.  You are most likely already feeling as lonely as you’ll ever feel being by yourself.

Self-knowledge, self-directed behavior, and appropriate relationships are all key to being true to ourselves.

  The Limits of Being True to Yourself and the Nature of Abuse

The ideal adult human in my view is an authentic, functional individual who is socially and environmentally responsible.  Social and environmental responsibility potentially place restraints or limits on his or her authenticity.  I see those limits as necessary, even though they might amount to alienations of oneself.  Otherwise, a serial killer, say, might justify their crimes as “being true to themselves”.  But I have  written more about that here.

Also in my alarming opinion, the very heart and core nature of all manner of abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — is to unnecessarily alienate us, or tend to unnecessarily alienate us, from our true selves.  I haven’t written much on that elsewhere, so I can’t link you to anything.  At least not yet.  You are so lucky!

Fancy Summary

Authenticity or being true to oneself is not for the faint hearted. It can be a taxing and difficult road to travel requiring sacrifices, the least of which might be estrangement from folks who disapprove of you, the real you.  However, I have found that such things are far easier to take and cope with when you are being true to yourself than when you are being false and they reject you anyway.

That seems to me to tie into something else I’ve noticed:  When we do our best — which varies from time to time — we regret failures so much less than when we fail while “slacking off”.  This seems true to me not only in accomplishing tasks, but in such things as far afield as romantic love.  And I suspect something of the same principle is at work with authenticity.  When we are being authentic, we are inevitably doing our best.

In this single blog post I have tried to offer up my ideas about the reasons why we try to be authentic, the major obstacles to our being authentic, the nature of our core self,  the meaning of authenticity, and a hint of the limits to being authentic.

Naturally, there is so much more to it — all of it — than can be covered in a mere blog post, even a long one.   Anyone interested in more of my own writings on the subject can find some of them linked to here.  I would suggest Danielle Goes to an Erotic Dance Club as a good place to start because it provides a relatively unique, out-of-the-box perspective on authenticity.

Thank you for reading!  Please feel warmly invited to comment on this post!  I would love to hear your own thoughts and feelings about authenticity!

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.

Tara Lyn: Leaning Into the Light

(About a 10 minute read)

At the time I knew her, Tara had but one passion in life: People.  Specifically, the people she personally knew.  I don’t recall her ever mentioning someone as remote to her as a celebrity or some other personage she’d never met, but she was just as fervent in discussing her friends and acquaintances as any newlywed is about discussing their beloved.

Indeed, perhaps the only really significant difference between a newlywed and Tara was that a newlywed tends to ignore any faults or flaws in their beloved, while Tara seemed incapable of ignoring anything about the people she was so fascinated by.  That’s by no means, however, to imply she was overtly critical of people.

As a rule, she was not.  Or at least, she appeared not to criticize people.

It took me awhile to catch on to her because she would say things about people, such as “Brian is so jealous of Sammy”, that I assumed meant she was judging them.  That is, I assumed she believed, as I did, that jealousy is a negative emotion, and that she must therefore on some level disapprove of it in Brian.

Gradually, however, I learned that Tara was oddly — quite oddly, when you think about it (for it is human nature to judge) — rather on the dispassionate side when it came to communicating her thoughts about people.  Almost as dispassionate, I sometimes thought, as a chemist reporting on the interaction of sodium and chlorine.

Of course, I’m sure she did in fact judge people.  How could she not?  But the fact is, she seldom expressed judgment.  She spoke of the commonplace and the outrageous in the very same tone of voice, the very same body language.  She could say — and this is a true example, near as I can recollect it now — “Danny hit Rene last night because she said something he didn’t like about his getting a job.” — and sound just the same as when she once idly mentioned that Rene and Danny were moving in together.

The one time I can now recall Tara actually expressing disapproval — if that’s what it indeed was — was when she told me about a young woman who, at the age of 14, had been raped by her step-father.  Tara ended her otherwise dispassionate account with something along these lines, “She was always telling jokes and laughing before that happened.  Then she kept to herself a lot, and never much laughed again.”  I have a fairly vivid memory of her saying that because it was so rare of her to express disapproval.  But she expressed it so subtly, so gently, that I think you would have needed to know her as well as I did by then to detect the disapproval in her voice.   Disapproval or sorrow, I’m still not sure to this day which.

Tara was one of those very rare people who seemed to more or less embody Spinoza’s statement, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”  She would not, however, have ever heard of Spinoza, and had I quoted him to her, her first question would surely have been, “Is he a friend of yours?”

She could show surprising general insight into people, even though she herself seldom spoke of people in general terms.  I once shared a poem with her that I’d written about a fictional “Kathy”.   After I’d read the poem to her, Tara fell silent, looking deeply perplexed.  “What do you think of it?”

“I don’t know.” Tara said.

“You didn’t like it?”

“No, it’s not that.  It’s just that I’ve never known anyone in my life like Kathy.  Did you make her up?”  I no longer have the poem to test it, but I’d wager eight in ten people would not have so quickly realized Kathy was a fictional character.

I hired Tara as my “secretary” in my final year in business.  “Secretary” was a bit of a stretch; she had almost no real secretarial skills; and she served instead as my data entry clerk.  That’s to say, I hired her with the expectation I could train her up right and whole to be a real secretary, an expectation she proved to have little or no interest in fulfilling, just as she had little or no interest in anything other than the people she knew.  I eventually resigned myself to her much needed help with data entry, for that she was willing to do, and do well.

Tara also resisted any urge I had to keep to a strictly formal employer/employee relationship.  A mutual friend once told me, “Tara says you’re more of an uncle to her than a boss”, and I had to admit, that was how she treated me.  There came a time, for instance, when she made a habit of calling me each evening in the office.  Around nine o’clock the phone would ring, Tara.  For the next forty-five minutes to an hour, she would fill me in on what everyone had been doing since she her last update during her working hours.  It took her that long because Tara so seldom, if ever, generalized.  Instead, she recounted details.  All the details.

It also took her that long because she quite often asked me for advice.  I once questioned her about that, and she replied, “You’re the only one who gives me good advice.  Everyone else just says things like, ‘Go burn his house down’, but you give me things I can really do.”  Which was ironic because, by that time, I had discovered that — of the two of us — Tara was the wisest.

No, she didn’t know she was wise, but she was.  And she was wise in a very special way — a way that is often neglected or under-valued by Westerners. For we in the West so often think of wisdom as something shown through a person’s words.  So far as I recall, the closest Tara ever came to saying something that might pass as wise with many of us was perhaps when she one day told me, “Boss, I don’t worry about doing the right thing or the wrong thing like you do.  I just try to do the best thing.”

Somewhere in his book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez mentions that the Inuit word for “wise person” literally means, “Someone who makes wisdom visible through their actions or behavior”.  The word has nothing specifically to do with what a person says or doesn’t say, except as that might be accounted a part of their overall behavior.  Rather, the emphasis is on visible actions (and perhaps equally telling moments when one chooses not to act).  Tara, I came to believe, was a wise person in the sense of the Inuit word.

It was quite a long haul for me to arrive at that conclusion about her.  For one thing, I had to overcome my prejudice that wise people spout wise sayings.  The thought that a wise person might not say many wise things at all was simply foreign to me.  Another prejudice I needed to overcome was that someone who routinely asked me for advice might actually be wiser than me.  But when I finally got around to observing how skillfully Tara appeared to be negotiating her life, as compared to how clumsily I seemed to be negotiating my own, it revolutionized my understanding of her.

For instance, at about midpoint during the year I employed her, Tara’s boyfriend abruptly decided to cheat on her.  Tara spent all of three days and nights crying on her couch, waiting for him to come home.  Then she had, as she put it, the revelation that, “I was doing no one any good, least of all myself, by feeling sorry for me”.  With that, she picked herself up, and returned to her circle of friends.  The ache was not over for her, nor were any of the issues involved resolved.  But she was firmly set on getting on with her life, come what might of the boyfriend business.

I doubt Tara had ever heard of — or at least had absorbed — the expression, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”, but no one had to have told her that, because she lived it.  Not just when her boyfriend cheated on her, but in one manner after the next.  Tara could drop an emotional burden as spontaneously as a child can let go of a grandparent’s hand to run play on a swing.  I believe the metaphor of a child is correct because hearts as resilient as hers usually belong either to children or to sages.

But was Tara really a sage?

I do not think she would compare with the Buddha, nor even, perhaps, with a few other people I actually know.  I saw her falter more than once; that is, I saw her do something I regarded as foolish, sometimes terribly foolish.  But it seemed to me that each time she faltered, she picked herself up, and made the best of her new situation.  Sage or not, I am fairly certain she was at the time I knew her, wiser than me.  Yet, only if you looked at, not what she said, but at what she did or did not do.

Barry López again:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

I mean it as no criticism when I say that Tara would not have fully understood Lopez’s words.  She wasn’t educated well enough to entirely grasp what Lopez might mean by “finding darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself”, for instance.  And life’s “great pressing questions” never seemed to me to cross her mind, at least not in any abstract way.

But Tara was as level-headed, as dispassionate as anyone I’ve known when it came to seeing people as they are, seeing both the light and darkness of them.  And she was surely empathetic, although I’m not certain that her empathy often rose to the level of compassion.  It might have, but I just don’t know.  She did, however, in so many ways, “lean into the light”.

I never discovered even a hint of malice or cruelty in her.  She was forgiving perhaps to a fault (unless one understands her willingness to forgive as a refusal to emotionally cling to things she had no control over).  She strove to tell the truth when talking of the one thing that really mattered to her, people.

Her circle of friends and acquaintances included many people whose behavior can be clinically described as “dysfunctional”, people full of petty hatreds, foolish envies, habitual cowardice towards the more powerful, and just as habitual bullying towards the less powerful then they; people who never seem to value what they have, nor ever get what they want.  Tara lived in that world, but she was not of it.  It did not turn her.

Instead, she was to some remarkable degree true to herself, albeit not like a stone, but like water.  She didn’t oppose things that were not her, she flowed around them, under them, or over them.  I would not call her a sage at the time I knew her, more than twenty years ago, but I would not be at all surprised if I’d call her that today, should we ever meet again.  Last I knew, she was married to a man she loved and the mother of six children.

What is Spirituality?

(About a 9 minute read)

The word “spiritual” annoys some people.

Annoys them like the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to practice her lines by the emotionally dim light of a single candle in her impoverished, but charismatic attic apartment, so that she rushes to the window, furious now as a Trump tweet, and ready to throw her shoes at the cat, but instead in the darkness trips on the lethally upturned edge of her oriental carpet, a gift of her mothers, then falling, falling, falling her head hard on the window ledge, splits open her skull: Death in the night.

Annoys them like that.

Or maybe it really annoys them, if you know what I mean.

Perhaps the reason it annoys them is because the word so often refers to vague, intangible things that are hard to grasp or get a feel for.  Then again, on different tongues, the word means different things.  When you hear someone talk of their spirituality, it can be very frustrating or even impossible to sort out what they might actually mean.

That can be annoying.  Just as annoying as the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to…   Oh, never mind.

So I decided to take a brief look around the net to see what definitions of “spirituality” I could find:

  • A sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, typically involving a search for meaning or purpose in life.
  • The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material things.
  • One’s sense of awe, wonderment, and reverence towards nature or the universe.
  • Self-transcendence achieved through the recognition of one’s connection to the All.
  • One’s freedom from the illusions of the self.
  • The search for meaning, purpose, and direction in life.
  • Our innate drive to evolve, to improve, to learn, to continuously grow, to push our boundaries, reach our full potential.
  • A drive to live a life authentic to one’s truth, cultivate virtues, and expand one’s consciousness.
  • Seeking happiness and peace internally, within oneself.
  • Moving beyond the sense of being a person, an individual, and merging with god.
  • Serving people, uplifting them to make a difference in their lives.
  • Finding the answers to questions like, “Who am I?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What else is there?”

Those dozen definitions came up after a brief search.  One scholarly article I came across stated that an apparently more thorough survey than mine had found “twenty-seven explicit definitions of spirituality that showed little agreement between them”.

The sheer number of explicit definitions might be important in light of the fact that somewhere around 80% or 90% of all intellectual arguments are the equivalent of two people arguing over how far they can “throw a ball” while one of them is thinking of a baseball, the other is thinking of a gala dance, and neither of them is aware they are talking past each other.

By the way, that’s not just my opinion.

Back in pre-internet days, a couple of philosophy professors got curious how many intellectual arguments are actually no more than semantic disputes. Borrowing their methodology from the sciences, they studied the issue and discovered that (as near as I can recall now) the figure was around 80% or 90%.

Given the many definitions of “spirituality” I would not be surprised if any arguments over the nature of it were even more often semantic than those figures.

When I think of all of the above, it sure makes me want to pile on with my own definition of “spirituality”.  After all, if there are at least 27 explicitly different definitions already, and those definitions are likely to cause more idle semantic disputes than all the exclamation points used by the world’s total teenage population within any given year, then why shouldn’t I get in on the fun?

Besides, starting another round of semantic arguments looks to me even more entertaining on the face of it than sitting beneath some poor actresses’ window making cat noises — which is what I usually do for fun.

So here’s what I mean by the word “spirituality”:  A person’s spirituality is the manner and extent to which they deal with their psychological selves.

What do I mean by that?  Hell, why am I asking you, dear reader?   I should be asking myself that question!  Ok, then.  Here’s what I mean by that.  First, by “psychological self”, I mean our “I”, our “ego”, our normal waking consciousness.  Those three terms have somewhat different meanings, but I see the psychological self as a sort of combination of all three concepts.  Looked at as the I,  it is who we think we are.  Looked at as the ego, it is the psychological function that provides us with the sense of self that we can then defend against threats.  Without that sense of self, we would not know what to defend.  And looked at as normal waking consciousness, it is the thought process.

I most recently went into much greater detail as to what I consider to be the psychological self in a post, One Reason We Oppress Ourselves, and there is little reason in repeating myself further here.

The fact that our noble species of super-sized chimpanzees has a psychological self provides us with many benefits, but also with many challenges.  The most notable benefit is, as I just mentioned, that it allows us to identify and respond to certain kinds of threats we might not otherwise be able to identify and respond to.  Again, I go into that in much more detail in my earlier post.  Among the many challenges, on the other hand, are these:

  • Seeing threats where there are none.  Which can easily result in anything from unnecessary touchiness or defensiveness to outright violence.
  • The inherent drive of the psychological self to preserve or maintain the status quo, to stay constant and the same, can lead to a relative inability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior, beliefs, and attitudes to changing circumstances, new information or facts, or different and better perspectives.
  • It’s inherent drive to aggrandize itself (in so far as that is compatible with maintaining stable sense of self) can create or at least inflame all kinds of excesses, such as greed, lust, gluttony, arrogance, and so forth.  That is, it always wants more than it actually needs, so to speak.
  • It’s tendency to be fascinated with itself can lead to self-absorption, self-centeredness, and narcissism.

To my mind, then, our spirituality can be summed up as the manner and extent to which we deal with those (and other) challenges, as well as deal with the benefits of the psychological self.

For example: An old acquaintance of mine, Chuck, once walked in on his wife and his best friend in bed together.  Twenty years later, Chuck still hadn’t gotten beyond it.  He spoke about it in such fresh terms that, for the first two weeks he and I worked together doing light carpentry, I was under the impression that it had all happened sometime within the last six months.  I also discovered that not a day could go by without him making at least one reference to the event.  But far worse, he had generalized from his wife to all women, and was absolutely certain that every woman on earth was either disloyal, or capable of becoming so at the slightest opportunity.  You could not reason with Chuck about it.  These were views and convictions that he clung to as firmly as if his very life depended on his holding them.

Of course, I would not say Chuck’s ego was the sole and only cause of his problems.  It’s possible he suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, but if he did, then it was a peculiarly focused disorder, because Chuck was pretty much normal in every other respect that I was aware of.  On the other hand, Chuck’s problems fit the pattern I’ve come to recognize as behaviors associated with the psychological self.  As I see it, the event and all that surrounded it had become a part of Chuck’s self-identity, his sense of who he was as a person, and hence his willingness to go to extraordinary lengths preserving it.

It is along those same lines that I would describe Chuck’s spirituality.  That is, I would say that his ego was attached to the event in much the same way as some Buddhists would speak of “attachment”.

It seems to me, some people not only have more and stronger attachments than others, but that they also seem to be less skillful at dealing with them than others.  For instance, Chuck’s view of women seemed to thwart him from finding women who would not betray him.  That is, it became, so far as I know, a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Chuck and I worked together on and off for about three years or so.  Most of that time, there was no woman in his life.  But twice, for relatively short periods, he found someone.  Both of his flings ended when he discovered the women were cheating on him.  Perhaps he was just unlucky, but I got the impression he might have seen a woman highly likely to be loyal to him as something of a threat to his self-identity, and then passed them by for women he could “better relate to”.

What made Chuck’s behavior unskillful was that he was working against himself.  On the one hand he would tell me he wanted to “settle down with someone”.  On the other hand he seemed to pick the most unlikely candidates for it.

Einstein once remarked that, “The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” It is not entirely clear from the context in which he made the statement exactly what he meant by “self”, nor what he meant by “liberation”.  But Einstein was at least a little familiar with Buddhism, so his notions of those things might have been informed by Buddhist ideas of them.  I myself am sympathetic to Buddhism, albeit I’m far from considering myself a Buddhist.  Instead, I consider myself God’s gift to women, something no Buddhist would ever do. I do not believe however that many Buddhists would entirely agree with Einstein, for I do not think many Buddhists believe human worth depends on how liberated a person is.  If that’s the case, then I agree with the Buddhists: Chuck’s basic value as a human is equal to my own — as well as to all the world’s other folks.

Liberation from the self might be the spiritual goal of many people, especially, I think, in the East.  Yet for me that personally seems improbable to the point of near impossibility.  Others might obtain it, but I do not suspect I will.  So for me the ideal is to wear my self as lightly as I can.

By that I mean to deal with, as skillfully as I can at any given moment, my psychological self.  Naturally, I do not intend my definition of “spirituality” to replace the other twenty-seven plus definitions on the internet.  I am not arguing that my definition is the defi….

Umm…please excuse me a moment, there’s a cat howling outside my window.

No, wait…that sounds exactly like that annoying actress who lives next door to me.  She’s always doing that!  Making cat noises beneath my window like some pathetic fool idiot or moron.  And only because I started it all last fall.  Damn her!

Before I grab my shoes, I must ask, so how do you personally define “spirituality”?  What does the word mean to you?  Your opinions, observations, notions, wisdom, and generous donations of catnip are most welcomed!

Late Night Thoughts: Love, Realism, Talents, Happiness, and More.

(About 7 minutes to read) 

Terri, who occasionally comments on this blog, pointed out the other day in a discussion about compassion that some feelings or emotions are as strikingly beautiful as anything physical.  Of course, that is true not only of compassion, but also of love.  And to me, one of the most beautiful things about love is how it so often creates in us both a desire to improve the lives of our beloved, and a sensitivity to ways that might genuinely improve their lives.

When I composed the following poem, I had in mind more the desire to improve, than the sensitivity to know what would improve.  Still, I think the poem works in its own way.

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

Should love — any kind of love — really be thought of as a single emotion?  Is romantic love just one emotion?  Erotic love?  Mature or deeply attached love?

Perhaps erotic love is but a single emotion, lust, but how can you make the same case for the others?  Romantic, mature, and other kinds of love do seem to have many characteristics, rather than just one.  For instance, in addition to making us desire to improve someone’s life, don’t both romantic and mature love also make us feel greater tolerance for the differences that might exist between us and our beloved?

It’s a tricky question, I think, because perhaps they only make us overlook the differences, rather than actually make us willing to tolerate the differences.  Or are those the same thing?

Most people, I believe, stubbornly accept reality just as conscientiously as they accept their religion.  That is, only when it is convenient to do so, but then conscientiously.  Realism is not our main strength as a species.

Have you noticed that humans so seldom are what they want to be?  Yet so much of our happiness, I think, comes from accepting ourselves as we are.

All that striving to be what we are not seems to produce more unhappiness than anything else, because — while we can change ourselves around the edges — we have much greater difficulty changing our core nature.

But then, what is our core nature?

I don’t think I have the complete answer to that question, but surely part of the answer is that our core nature includes our talents.  By “talents” I do not mean our skills, but rather our raw predispositions to such things as athletics, mathematics, music, drawing, writing, dance, mechanics, etc.

A good way to tell if you have a talent for something is to ask yourself two questions.  First, “Do I like doing this?”  We usually like doing what we have a talent for doing.   Second, “Does it come comparatively easy to me?”  I think the key word here is “comparatively”.   If you don’t have a talent for, say, mathematics, but do have a talent for music, you will usually find that music comes a whole lot easier to you than math.   Answer those questions honestly, without wishful thinking, and you will most likely gain a pretty good idea of where your talents lie.  At least that’s been my experience.

In my view, pursuing one’s talents in life by working to turn them into actual skills is — all else being equal — not only conducive to happiness, but perhaps more important, conducive to a sense of meaning.

Now, all of this might seem commonsense, and so obvious it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I have met far too many people who were more or less clueless about their talents for myself think “it’s just commonsense to know your talents”.

Why have so many people been ignorant of their own talents, though?

I think the single most important reason is that, in this matter, most of us listen way too much to the advice of others.  They usually mean well, but they don’t know you nearly as well as you yourself could — if you took a dispassionate look at yourself — know you.  Most often, other people of good will want what’s best for you, but their idea of what’s best for you is very heavily colored by what they know about what’s best for them.

The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.  — Ayn Rand

The main reason I think of Rand in something less than an entirely negative light is because several of my female friends have told me over the years that Rand helped them psychologically liberate themselves from the oppressive expectations and indoctrinations of the religious cults they grew up in.

While I think there are better — much better — authors than Rand for helping with that, I’m glad she did indeed help my friends realize just how greatly they had been lied to about their worth and potential as women.

Having said that, my overall impression of her is that she is squarely in the buffoon class of philosophers and social critics.  Indeed, I even think it was pretentious of her to have called herself a “philosopher” at all.  She did very little to push the envelope of rational thought, such as the great philosophers have done.  But that’s a minor peeve of mine.  A greater reason for calling her a buffoon is that she could not laugh at herself.  Have you ever known a buffoon who genuinely could?

I am of the view that humor, in general, evolved as an adaptive mechanism.  To put it somewhat superficially here, it seems to me that humor greatly facilitates logical reasoning and attention to empirical evidence.   More specifically, it can play a key role in helping us to overcome our innate cognitive biases, egotistical attachments to our beliefs, and general intellectual inertia, in order to change our minds when we are wrong about something.  And changing our minds when we are wrong about something can have obvious benefits to our survival, albeit it is quite often extraordinarily difficult for us to do — and nearly impossible for those who lack any appreciable sense of humor at all.

In that regard, self-deprecatory humor is no different than humor in general.  So far as I can recall, I’ve not yet in my sixty years met a man or woman who “took themselves too seriously” and who greatly understood themselves.

There used to be a saying among fire fighters that, for all I know, might still be current.  “Never fight fire from ego”.  Both myself and the men I worked with in the few years that I fought fires profoundly distrusted anyone who “fought fire from ego”.  We knew they could too easily get themselves killed — or far worse, someone else killed.

Today, forty or so years later, I still haven’t found anyone — whose ego has such a firm grip on them that they can’t laugh at themselves — that I would trust at my side in even a moderately demanding situation, let alone where my life might be on the line.  Yes, I know, I’m only thinking of myself here, but so be it.

Of course, you might want to make up your own mind about all that, rather than simply swallow what I say.  I have, after all, been certified as crazy by a group of scientists.  Personally, I don’t think the space alien scientists who have contacted me through my microwave know what they’re talking about, but it might still be reasonable of you to take my words — or anyone’s words, for that matter — with a bit of reflective thought, rather than reflexively.