Ultimately, our lives end for us all with an unavoidable stage right exit—Death: The end of our physical existence as we know it… An ocean crossing scales with the wind…
We are carbon-sparked stories pulsing in the cosmic filament strung through space and time. When we are gone—awakened, perhaps, in some other side of consciousness—someone may take care to memorialize our lives with an obituary. If our lives are especially profound, perhaps they may receive the special honor of a statue or biography. Ultimately, who’s to say how to evaluate the worth of a human life.
This need not be grim. Don’t reach for the gothic wardrobe yet. The pharmacy-fueled emotions wired to our survival instinct are not required prescriptions for our illuminated being. On the stage of life, we don’t need to understand how or why we shine to make a lasting, meaningful appearance. There is no dress rehearsal. Forget the curtain call.
Whatever neighborhood, nation, or galaxy we come from, our personal growth should be motivated not because we’re aspiring to collect an achievement or surpass someone else, but because any movement forward might as well be driven into greater heights (or depths) of our awareness.
If this all sounds a little mystifying, it may help to contemplate our journey with applied realism. Understanding that it’s easy to distort our evaluation of ourselves and rationalize our progress, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl warns us about putting our ends before our means, “… self-actualization can only fall into your lap automatically once you have fulfilled a concrete meaning, done the best of a situation. Then you actualize yourself as a byproduct.” Fortunately, we don’t need to survive a death camp in order to experience transformative meaning within our lives.
Throughout the history of humanity, the world’s diverse religions and spiritual practices have offered profound wisdom with which to guide our lives. Beyond the sacred texts, the spark of the divine exists everywhere. Even the field of military philosophy can instruct us about how to live a better life. The Book of Five Rings, written by the legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, discusses martial arts strategy in a way that is equally relevant for everyday civilians. Cutting to the existential quick, he sums up the warrior’s philosophy without pretense, “Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” Likewise, it seems to me, the Way of the wise man involves resolute acceptance of one’s mortality, the inevitable departure, while pursuing the greater potential of our shared humanity—and divinity.
Musashi’s reflection about the philosophy of the warrior continues, “The Way of battles is the same for man to man fights and for ten thousand a side battles. You must appreciate that spirit can become big or small. What is big is easy to perceive; what is small is difficult to perceive.” The battlefields of the warrior and wise man may differ in terrain and tactics, but they share a common characteristic: The method we use to measure the movements of our spirit influences how we conduct ourselves on the battlefield.
Some appreciable differences do exist, however, between the lives of soldiers and civilians. While the goal of the warrior is victory, the defeat of an opposing power through attrition or cunning, the wise man aspires to peace through harmony, a goal that can only be realized by surrendering to a purpose greater than one’s survival instincts.
The types of conflict that we confront are more or less universal. Even though societies have changed throughout time—consider middle-class life in 21st-century U.S.A. versus aristocratic life in 2nd-century Rome—human nature largely remains the same. Ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, commanded an empire by day while reflecting by night on human nature. In his bedside journals (which were later published posthumously as a book, Meditations), Aurelius wrote insightfully about how the governance of others can function as a natural extension of ourselves: “To grow together like fellow branches in matter of good correspondence and affection; but not in matter of opinions. They that shall oppose thee in thy right courses, as it is not in their power to divert thee from thy good action, so neither let it be to divert thee from thy good affection towards them.” The ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism promotes self-governance as a central virtue within their system of ethics. As responsible citizens, we have a duty to conduct ourselves in conscious attunement with the world. Stoics believe that choices, not passions, should lead our lives. Pleasure and happiness are byproducts of willed virtues; they are not passive experiences to be pursued in isolation. When we abide by the disciplines of logic and self-control, we can prevent needless suffering—physical, mental, and emotional—that we cause ourselves and others.
Elsewhere in his journals, Aurelius introduces an ethical concept he calls meekness. Meekness is a virtue at odds with the Western concept of power as control over other people. Instead, meekness implies a transcendent control over ourselves, “… meekness is a thing unconquerable, if it be true and natural, and not affected or hypocritical. For how shall even the most fierce and malicious that thou shalt conceive, be able to hold on against thee, if thou shalt still continue meek and loving unto him; and that even at that time, when he is about to do thee wrong, thou shalt be well disposed, and in good temper, with all meekness to teach him, and to instruct him better?” It’s not easy to respond with love to the world’s ill intentions. We understand this implicitly. What we don’t grasp with equal conviction is that we each have a bountiful kingdom within us that can be led, and misled, only by ourselves. While world-appointed authority employs power as a means of leveraging control over other people, genuine power is unassailable by the world’s authority, resting securely in the birthright of its sovereignty. With an iron-clad claim to the throne, we are tasked with overseeing peace and order within the kingdom of our soul.
Whether we abide by the meekness of Stoicism (also referred to as temperance), the equanimity of Buddhism, or the divine grace of Christianity, each school of thought grants a person freedom through practices of self-awareness and self-control. When we experience resistance between ourselves and the world, we are wise in not yielding compulsively to our triggers or passions. Instead, conflicts can encourage us to liberate ourselves from ourselves—even, or especially, in our lowest moments.
Although our lives are all inseparably connected, our growth is always our solitary right and responsibility. We cannot change other people. It’s hard enough to change ourselves. Nevertheless, we can influence change in the world through the nature of our interactions with it.
In contrast to the conflict-free life that we may prefer, every battlefield upon which we stand offers us an opportunity to grow alongside other people. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy novel which has been adapted into a contemporary movie, a large cast of characters are pressed to the limits of their faith and courage, repeatedly forced to discover themselves anew in order to succeed in their journey. The lead character, Bilbo, is an unlikely hero among a group of adventurers who all set out to save the world from an expanding empire of monsters. In a moment of vulnerability early in his adventure, Bilbo confesses to the wizard Gandolf his hesitation about going into battle, “I have never used a sword in my life,” Bilbo says. Gandolf, wise as his beard is gray, responds first with compassion, “And I hope you never have to,” before adding a crucial qualification, “But if you do, remember this: True courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.”
Wandering further into the realm of fantasy-land analogies, some video games involve battles that can’t be avoided. It’s a common incentive within some games for players to collect rewards throughout their virtual adventures. Typically players level up (or improve) their characters by defeating opponents, gaining experience points and treasure by doing so. The algorithm for payoffs is consistent: The greater the challenge, the greater the reward; adventures that culminate in battles with boss characters, opponents that are noteworthy for their special powers, are especially rewarding. That’s all good and simple in videogame fantasylands, however, conflicts in real life are not quite so clearly marked.
In the battlefield of real life, we don’t always win or lose as gracefully or graciously as we believe every hero should. Sometimes other people may perceive us to be the opposing boss confronting them in their journey. Sometimes, when confronting an overwhelming challenge, we may be wise to cast the treasure we possess to the pool of our shared humanity. Alluding to the theme of conflict resolution in everyday life, an insightful tweet by the video game developer Xbox rings as a moral call to action, inviting us to accept the times when it’s beneficial to override our ego for the greater good: “Be the kind of person who would drop epic loot after a boss fight.”
One particularly meaningful form of treasure casting involves surrendering something precious that we idolize. Our attachment to idols can be tangible, including people, places, or belongings; or they can be intangible, including ideas, beliefs, or feelings. We can also form attachments to problematic behaviors and habits. Sometimes our idols can get in the way of our growth. Sometimes, although it seems counterintuitive, we can turn the subjects of our pain and suffering into idols, guarding them jealously.
Whatever it is that we encounter as we move through our journey of self-actualization, as author and Soto Zen roshi Gerry Shishin Wick advises us in The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koan, “We can’t heal wounds by “trying to put them behind us” or by “just moving on” or “letting go”—we have to go right into them.”
Unfortunately, we often struggle to evaluate our wounds with equal clarity and compassion. As research professor Brené Brown puts it on The Happiness Lab podcast, “People will do just about anything to avoid pain, including cause pain.” If left ignored, unresolved pains tend to multiply, emerging all the toothier elsewhere in our lives where they are even less welcomed.
Acknowledging the pains we cause ourselves and other people is a responsibility best braved without condemnation. A healthier approach to owning our accountability is to replace self-judgment with a more sustainable motivation: self-compassion. As self-help author Kristin Neff discusses on The Psychology Podcast, people who develop more self-compassion tend to take more responsibility about their past transgressions; not less. This may seem contradictory to some people who associate responsibility with austerity: the proud burden of power in the absence of affection. She explains, “If you shame yourself and criticize yourself, it’s not safe to take responsibility and you’ll want to blame it on other people, because it’s too painful. So what self-compassion does is it actually increases your ability to take responsibility, it increases your motivation to improve; but it does it for a different reason.” Rather than improving ourselves because we believe that we are inadequate, we can do so because we care about the wellbeing of ourselves and other people. Compassionate responsibility, therefore, involves acting in everyone’s best interest.
Furthermore, Neff discerns different types of compassion and different ways to apply them. While fierce self-compassion can help motivate us to make difficult, and necessary, changes in our lives, tender self-compassion accepts us, unconditionally, as we already are. The dance between this yin and yang dynamic recalls Carl Rogers’s insight about the psychological paradox that the more we accept ourselves the more we are able to change ourselves. Anticipating pushback from critics, Neff clarifies what’s at stake here: It is not letting ourselves off the hook, “Quite the opposite. You need to be brave and strong to say, that hurt so badly.”
Avoiding the cycle of pain also requires us to disarm various traps of self-deception that we employ for our egoic benefit. These traps often involve lowly strategies like short-cuts, dismissals, or wishful thinking. We use such traps when we try to skip the journey for the treasure. However, before we can realize moving-on-ness, the gleaming treasure we desire, we must first resolve our moving-through-ness, the uncertain journey from here to there. This isn’t a truth we can engage with the magic of intellectual abstraction. We must undergo this truth experientially, attend to its infinite upwelling beneath our finite understanding.
As spiritual teacher Michael Singer explains in his workshop, Living From a Place of Surrender—which is based upon his best-selling book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself—there’s invaluable wisdom in accepting our experiences as a gift. Our personal experiences are unique, unrepeatable occurrences taking over 13.8 billion years of galactic evolution to arrive at. Considering the magnitude of this scale, why would we fight against that which gave us life? When gazing at a starry sky above, how can we not feel inspired to live with greater purpose, or, at least, a little more awe?
Please take a moment to appreciate the unfolding of our existence within the history of the cosmos. How amazing! Never mind your mind; feel this miracle between your gut and heart.
As I close this sprawling monologue, I should clarify that I’m speaking to myself here, dear visitor. I have been from the start.
While I developed this text tenaciously over the last two years, I took care to field-test the guiding principles that I’ve written about until I could embody them with some iota of conviction off the page. More than a casual blog entry, I pursued this project with zealous devotion—eventually doing several 40-day dietary cleanses and a couple of silent retreats to motivate a conclusion.
I’d like to think that I found a little more peace and acceptance in the process. Of course, my struggling continues. However, I know that I struggle in good company. As I continue to wrestle with this blog’s themes off the page, hopefully whoever encounters this imperfect testament of my lived journey will find some value in its offering. Meanwhile: I can speak only of what I now know and believe. So, follow if you dare!
This is not a disclaimer. There’s surely a danger in appearing as an authority on a subject then failing to follow the standards that one represents. And this responsibility is even greater when the subject is life itself, or, rather, how to live life well.
Those who know me in real life should bear no surprise in my disclosure that I’m human, and, therefore, imperfect. So, where my words don’t always match my behaviors, I ask you not to hold me blameless, but to refrain from collectively dismissing the wisdom I’ve tried to express. Besides constillating thoughts and feelings into shapes we call words, it’s a slippery task separating one’s idealized message from the pains, limitations, and biases of one’s lived experiences. This is an admittance; not an excuse. We are responsible for the life we steward.
Sometimes pursuing the noble why of life—that is, the drive for meaning behind why we do what we do—requires making life-sized sacrifices. In the Bible, Jesus talks to his disciples about the sacrifices involved in following him. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus commands his disciples with a message that would constitute a career-ending speech by even the most audacious dictator. Instead of offering consolation for what ails us, and promising a brighter future with less suffering, Jesus challenges his disciples to renounce their lives in order to follow his thorn-crowned example. The life Jesus offers does not come with the taglines of extra conveniences, safety, or national pride. The cost is great. Jesus speaks boldly, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” What Jesus promotes is not an obliviousness towards one’s self, rather an awareness that the pursuit of righteousness lies in contrast to one’s self-serving preferences.
My self-serving preferences are numerous. I don’t need a legal team to protect me from this statement. Short of achieving sainthood or enlightenment—and perhaps even then—a human life contains inevitable discrepancies and contradictions. Still, this is no reason against trying to live one’s best life. Nor is this reason against sharing our humble wisdom with each other as we find it, however thorny it may be.
But we should take care. When we communicate about a subject beyond our mortal reach, like the elusive ideals with which we pursue, our wisdom can be lost in our efforts. A classic Zen image of a person standing on Earth pointing at the moon above them can remind us not to mistake our striving for the end itself. The purpose that we reference, whether in words or actions, hangs always overhead like a beacon guiding our way towards a better way of living. As Patrick Buggy puts it, “It’s never about the finger. It’s about seeing for yourself what the finger is pointing at.” In order to discern the difference, we must learn “to intuit the Real in itself.” Language is a slippery construct that both leads and misleads us. Still, there’s something irreducible within our messages, like our beliefs, that permits them a life of their own. With or without case capitalization, what constitutes the Real or True for you? How will you recognize it when you see it? And are you willing to follow it even if the cost is great?
Wherever I have stumbled in my practice of living, wherever I have fumbled in the delivery of my messages, I request your grace. Please don’t give up on me. And please don’t disregard the moon towards which I’m aiming; salvage any speck of wisdom you can from its hazy image. I see no way out from this bind—negotiating roles as man-who-proclaims-to-know and man-who-struggles-to-follow—than building bridges in fellowship towards our continuous unfolding.
We each choose our path onward. We each choose how to measure our growth. It matters little if we actualize, realize, develop, explore, transform, transcend, deny, or accept our inner being. It matters little if we define the core of the self as a boundless field of consciousness, an indivisible, tailor-made soul, or an evolutionary program of finite biology. What matters is how we carry on in good faith, cultivating, each in our own way, greater courage, humility, and kindness in our lives.
So, dear visitor, here’s to many more years of open-hearted path walking. And here’s to recognizing value in our conflicts as they come, including good, clean fights when needed and, hopefully, just as many reconciliations.
Whoever you are, whatever your struggles may be, know that you are human. You are no mere aftermath of unlikely statistics. You are something far more profound. Whether you exist as a voice of divine love or an eruption of stardust sentience, you are an unique expression of consciousness that precedes and exceeds human understanding.
While navigating the heights (and depths) of your consciousness, tend to the soil of ancestral wisdom within you. Don’t pick the fruit of your spirit out of season; you will reap the harvest of your labors when the time arrives. Be kind to yourself and others. If your conscience is clean, round up: Accept that you’re a good person, despite a few weaknesses, and, with equal conviction, offer the same benefit to other people.
Occasionally, the conflicts of life may entangle you. That’s okay. Unravel your attachments to attachments, especially the sticky ones, like resentment and bitterness, that hinder your flourishing. Press into the pain of loss with curiosity and compassion: You will discover grounds for healing if you persist.
It may be tempting to idolize the aches of adversity. Instead, face them directly, embracing the changes with an open ease of being. Remember, you can move on with peace only after you move through what confronts you. The landscape for growth spans your mind and heart, yet continues far beyond. As often as possible, in troubled times and otherwise, give gratitude the wings of generosity: Appreciate the gifts you’ve been given; and befriend what should have been—we aren’t built to carry conclusions like tombstones.
When you feel stuck, take one step forward. Again. And again.
Careful—your soul is not an assembly line. Spend a day without chasing your goals. If they are worthy, they will still be there when you return.
Now sit. And close your eyes.
Breathe in. Humor yourself when you are alone.
Pause. Yes, your unfortunate haircut will soon fade.
Breathe out. No, you can’t get your money back.
Attention! Are you waiting for a miracle? Remember, you are a miracle: your very existence and the way you live it.
Now go. Nobody grows by dwelling in departures.
However you find yourself strung in space and time—with or without grand design—honor your wild glowing on this earthen stage. Accept that all that you cherish will change form eventually, leaving you without your permission. Count each season as a lesson in arrivals, a blessing from an unseen host, a whispered hello among the rustled leaves above:
You are awake… You are complete… As you have always been…
(The featured image is used by courtesy of Tara Winstead on Pexels.)