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.