The title of this post may sound like a pretentious philosophical treatise, and you may think, ‘Oh just get on with it!’ but this is not theory. It’s a niggling incertitude that drives me through each and every day. I know I’m not alone. After sifting though the suggestions and requests from our recent call to readers for feedback, I saw that I write this blog — and you read it — with a common purpose: we’re all trying to respond to this inner drive ‘to be’ with more reflection, less automaticity.
The modern world is geared towards how to get. It’s not a preoccupation we can avoid, but it’s not enough for us. You and I want more — or is it less? Something else, anyway. We are a minority, often regarded as odd even by ourselves. That draws us together even more than shared ideas. My fondest monastic memories are of the glorious eccentrics who paraded through our temple doors. Some days it was like a Fellini movie. For the first time in my life, I belonged.
In the heart of every recluse lies pain,
and in that pain, opportunity
The need to belong is visceral. Logic hardly penetrates. Until we find a real place, we may make halfhearted friends, settle for people we neither love nor respect. We may even join cults. I suspect the fear of loneliness causes more suffering than loneliness itself. It did for me.
To find a real home — to ‘be yourself’ as the new age exhorts — is not so simple. We must first abandon all make-believe homes of compromise and clinging. So hard is it to admit how vulnerable we are that usually, we don’t. Rather than examining our instincts, we blindly follow them, hoping for the best. Things may work out for a while, but left untended they eventually crash. That’s when we turn our great intelligence to the dirty work of denial and blame.
Old habits pose as instincts — even as the True Self
This is not the best version of how to be, but it is the starting point. If we rise above the impulse to brush aside disappointment, it can motivate us towards full consciousness. It exposes our illusions for what they are. In the heart of every recluse lies pain, and in that pain, opportunity.
‘How to be’ while grasping that opportunity is with integrity. Remove the word’s moralistic crust and it simply means, ‘whole’ or ‘sound.’ There are no pre-mapped pathways to integrity, only guidelines. Do no harm. Look into things. Find yourself — not elsewhere but here and now, inside this skin.
Then the tricky part: when you find it let it go, lest it fall under its own spell. Old habits pose as instincts — even as the True Self; they’re treacherous. They tell you that you’re great, or you’re awful. They know nothing, yet because of them we inflict incalculable damage on ourselves and others, all on auto-pilot.
The challenge is not to find security but to sail on without it
Ignorance is not bliss. These mechanisms are the product of a make-believe past. In the suffocating familiarity of routine moments we won’t be found; we barely exist. The place to seek ourselves is where we’re renewed — in each circumstance, as it happens.
Seeing that we’re capable of infinite nuance is one step towards integrity. Only one though; it’s just an idea.
Process that idea and in time we learn that nothing we conceive of is fixed. We’re not autonomous individuals but entwined currents in a torrential life. There is no cease. There is no dry ground that might not crumble along with all we’ve built. The challenge is not to find security but to sail on without it.
The truth in this description is not profound. We see and read about it every day, in our life and in the news. All history bears witness to it.
Still, it’s a problem — and a big one. For some reason we keep preparing ourselves for a world in which things are steady, in which satisfaction is around the next corner and happiness can be arranged. Convinced that somewhere there’s an ultimate answer to the question of how to be, we latch on to someone like the Buddha, or Socrates or Saint Augustine, expecting life’s formula on a silver platter. Then we reverentially hand down our wishful thinking to the next unsuspecting generation.
I can’t sit around waiting for the world to change. I’m driven to become as fluid and unexpectant as I can. Why I set off on this path I really can’t say, but any other is now out of the question. I’ve seen too much. The only way I know of to make sense of life is to honor my streak of oddness, and to reflect it in these pages.
Aren’t we all odd, every living one of us? Not everyone likes that thought, but I find it comforting. Perhaps you do too.
12 thoughts on “How to Be”
Excellent article – nicely put! The more I learn to ‘go with the flow’, no matter what that flow is, and just ‘be’, in each and every moment, the more I realize a sense of freedom, calm. Only one thing in life is certain – change. And with this awareness, I must be mindful to live each moment in full and open honesty. That’s the hard part, but the most rewarding.
Thanks again – love your writing!
Sounds about right. Surely I’m very comforted by the thought that you are odd. Me, somewhat less so, but at least it’s mutual.
Some of the words here flow along the path as I experience it and others twist in contradiction.
“I can’t sit around waiting for the world to change. I’m driven to become as fluid and unexpectant as I can. Why I set off on this path I really can’t say, but any other is now beyond question. I’ve seen too much. The only way I know of to make sense of life is to honor my streak of oddness, and to reflect it in these pages.
Aren’t we all odd, every living one of us? Not everyone likes that thought, but I find it comforting. Perhaps you do too.”
Oddness is another chain that binds us to self, no? The process that I have been taught seeks to remove labels. Given that I understand the essence of oddness comes with the struggles of the path to produce results and how isolating that path can be. My sense is that we need support in this the path that produces groundlessness in ways that are not always accepted in the West. I guess I find myself becoming more human and less odd as I move along this path and so the post is in contradiction to what I experience.
Ellen: you can’t use language without falling into contradiction.You speak, for example, of “the path that produces groundlessness,” although it makes no sense to speak of producing a a non-thing. Still, I like the contradictory image of a path to groundlessness, as if the end result is to topple off a cliff.
Anyone proposing to deliver your path to you is a charlatan, and yet we can fruitfully nudge one another along the ….
See, I almost did it again!
I have a love hate relationship with your blog. An unavoidable dichotomy I am constantly dodging. To Think or not to Think. So I am in a peaceful zone of being, there you are stirring the pot of dilemmas. Don’t get me wrong, I love conceptual challenges, they give me PURPOSE (haha).
I had to be in New York City last W.E. and had to go through Time Square. That was quite an enlightening moment. People like ants all over a dead carcass. I mean I have seen major crowds but to BE within countless organisms roaming around somewhat aimlessly yet determined, allowed me to see the scamming Creator (oh yeah I am a fervent believer) sitting back, with a cynical grimace on his face, laughing with his warped sense of humour and thinking what pitiful little creatures.
Now I am (erroneously) angry at Nature/God/Cosmos/ no idea, about this discrepancy between environment and Mind. Either the whole world is Frigged up (only according to the human mind), or looking beyond this particular species specific dilemma (no other creature has ever questioned the status quo) the MIND itself is Frigged up. A “COG” cannot look upon itself and claim the whole machinery is not running on its specific schedule, that is absurd. Therefore, the Human Mind is absurd.
Now we can, with this nascent talent we have, claim any pathetic story line (some more worthy than others, especially for the SELF) that confirms our purpose outside the actual streaming of the Cosmos. Yet, call it a purpose (after all, we live within our MIND).
Funny, that the conscious aspect of our mind, is the only system within our organism that DEMANDS change, yet, the rest of our biological being necessitates Homeostasis… Go figure that one.
Ralph: As usual, I don’t know where to begin with you. First of all, what came first, your fervent belief in the Creator or your anger at Him? And, is the world frigged up just because the terms of language keep leading us into contradiction? The point of purpose is not that it be rational but that it be felt. Rationality is not guaranteed, and it’s certainly not beyond abuse. Therefore, it is possible to be at peace with absurdity.
How d’you love/hate that?
Born into a hard core porn (oops I mean Catholic family with an omnipresence of little Creepy figurines of angels, pictures of blinding haloes crowning the heads of some bearded creeps proclaimed saints by the most regressive contemporary institution called the Vatican.
I am angry at god because I have a brain that will not leave my existence at peace. “Accepting” is a luxury I cannot seem to swallow. My synthetic mind and my chaotic environment simply do not fraternize well. The chip on my shoulder (born into a privileged family) had to be knocked off, and my most successful approach was demeaning my ego by demeaning the world of mind and regressing back to the constituent molecule of MATTER.
We are an amalgamation of things that emerge into other things ad infinitum.
Therefore sir, I have blabbed away enough and thank you for your patience with my chronically nihilistic bend. Apologies, yet thank you for your interesting topics of thought (Grrrr), (oops) that was subconscious.
Stephen, I think if we’re lucky this question of how to be just wears out like an old tyre. But sadly, to study the self isn’t always to forget the self. Often it simply leads to becoming more and more self-obsessed.
David: We’re even more likely to become self-obsessed if we have the goal of forgetting the self. That’s both impractical and absurd. We all need a healthy ego. The problem occurs when we expect too much of it or, in this case, too little.
…….”if you have integrity NOTHING else matters….if you “DON’T have integrity NOTHING else matters” …I came upon this quote many years ago and I cling to it whenever I am confused especially regarding spiritual matters and questions that come about from studying -The Buddha- and sometimes Jesus.
After reading this blog and wrestling with the search for certainty and truth, I realize that experientially life is more suited with the metaphor on sailing better than most other analogy’s …so the quest for the “experience” of freedom on a moment by moment basis continues and this blog is a “valuable” barometer to keep me honest on this exploration/journey!
Thank you Richard. My wife Caroline is also a fan of my metaphors, though a cautious one. I appreciate you taking it one step further!