Turning Grief into Blessings

Like most men, I am incapable of providing comfort to someone who hopes to find a patient ear for their grief.

My default response is to provide a remedy. To pick them up, brush off their dust, wipe their tears, pat them on the back and spur them forward. It’s instinctive. Honed during hundreds of thousands of years during our life as hunters, it is an inherent male trait. Just imagine where our species would be had we sat by one of our fallen comrades to listen to their hurt. There was no time for that. The survival of those back at camp depended on our stoic courage. We had to get on with the hunt or else.

So when asked to lend a patient ear, I itch to offer solutions, and for that lifesaving instinct, men are often called tone-deaf, callous, and insensitive.

My shoulder is not to cry on. Do not look at me for relief. Come to me only if you wish to regain your footing and find a way out of your misery.

“Your bodily soul wants comforting,

The severe father wants spiritual clarity.

He scolds, but eventually leads you to the open.

Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.

Flies collect on a wound. They cover it;

those flies of your self-protecting feelings,

your love for what you think is yours.

Let a teacher wave away the flies

and put a plaster on the wound.

Don’t turn your head. Keep looking

at the bandaged place.

That’s where the light enters you.”

— Spiritual Master Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

My approach to grief, however, is conflicted. On the one hand, I know it’s essential to avoid getting stuck in melancholy, but I also often find its source in humanity’s deluded insistence on permanence. Of wanting things never to change. For loved ones to be immortal, comforts eternal, hardship nonexistent, suffering but something which should only afflict others.

We live in a contingent universe. Death and loss are part of the bargain. Reject those and you will be denied life’s blessings. Run away from the pain and you’ll remain in pain. Better confront it, speak to it, listen to it, and you will soon hear its call to a path of greater purpose. If a period of mourning serves for little else than to wallow in self-pity, the ‘gift of the wound’ will be squandered and the light Rumi talks about will never enter.

I’m not suggesting one can or should overcome a loss but to transmute it into a lavish bestowal of blessings. Of using our pain to heal others. To honor our losses by using them as fertile soil for regenerative deeds.

“Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, says writer Maria Popova, “is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy.”

On the morning of December 14, 2012, the world withdrew its mercy from the lives of Jessica Lewis and her six year-old son Jesse who was slain that day along with 19 of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Talk about unspeakable grief.

Despite my previous stern and stoic assertions, I’m not so sure I could pick myself up should I lose one my daughters. I do, however, find inspiration in what Jesse’s mother decided to do with her anguish.

In one of the most heart-wrenching videos I have ever watched, Jessica says that when she went back home to get Jesse’s clothes for the funeral, she walked through the kitchen on her way out and noticed three words Jesse had written on the kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died:

NURTURING — HEALING — LOVE.”

That was Jessica’s calling.

“These words were a message of comfort for his family and friends and an inspiration for the world,” Jessica says. “And I knew I’d be spending the rest of my life spreading this message.” Today, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is spreading its healing love across the entire country and the world.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

These are the words of Viktor Frankl, who, in 1942, was interned in a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife, parents, and other family members. He spent three years in four camps, including Auschwitz, and was the only member of his family to survive.

Frankl surmounted the experience because he realized that there was an important task he needed to complete: a manuscript he had been working on which later became one of the most influential books of the post-war period — ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a “will to meaning,” which equates to a desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.

For people who think there’s nothing to live for, the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them. — Viktor Frankl

In 1982, African American Archie Williams received a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. On DNA evidence, he was released 37 years later.

Speaking of his stay at Angola State Penitentiary — classified as the bloodiest prison in the United States — Archie said he had a choice: “Either be strong, or weak, because you will be tried and tested.”

When asked how he coped, he said, “Freedom is of the mind… I went to prison, but never let my mind go to prison.”

Like Viktor Frankl, Archie had a dream for his future. He loved to sing, and he’d watch America’s Got Talent in jail imagining himself on that stage. On May 19, 2020, Archie brought the show’s audience and judges to tears and a rousing ovation while singing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.’

Unspeakable loss into world healing… horror into meaning… darkness into song; the transformational stories of Jessica Lewis, Viktor Frankl, and Archie Williams are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit once we choose to gift ourselves to the world and transmute our grief into courageous, all-embracing love.

So when in grief, let its fire burn through you, but not all the way to your soul. Just enough to ignite a white spark of inspiration you can cup in your hands and carry with you to bring spiritual clarity, hope and healing to those who await your blessings.


Related Reflections:

The Beauty in Hardship

The Unhappiest Place in The World

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times

“You’ll Figure it Out”

People Don’t Want to Change

It doesn’t seem so anyway

No matter what they say, most people don’t want to change.

Or at least, if they do, they don’t want to put-in the work. Instead, they thirst for a quick potion to magically solve their dilemma. All in vain. For proof, 11 billion dollars are wasted every year by Americans on such ‘remedies,’ yet a growing number remain stuck in stagnant swamps of despair.

Askhole (n): a person who constantly asks for advice, but always does the opposite of what you tell them.

I just wanna be happy!’ they clamor, but pressed to define what they mean, they draw blanks, like dazzled deers.

I wanna be loved!’ they cry like sniveling infants, without once taking the time to define love.

I need more friends in my life!’ they lament, like so many lonely Americans, but asked what they mean by friendship, they’ll give you a flummoxed stare.

I hate my job and wish I could find my passion,’ they bemoan, but lack the courage to break free to seek it.

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Greek philosopher Socrates — infamously known as the ‘Gadfly of Athens’ — was condemned to death for urging his fellow citizens to think for themselves and arrive at clear and useful definitions — for happiness, love, friendship, work, beauty…

How the hell will you ever find anything if you don’t know what you’re looking for?

But that’s too hard… it’s just too much work, right? And who has the time? So people rather have someone else tell them what these things mean and how to find them, preferably by writing them a 3-step prescription for bliss.

I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t work that way. You must establish your own values, then stack them, from most important to least.

Once guided by your deepest values, the first step on the road to real transformation is to define the kind of life you want to live (in vivid detail), and then examine the chains which shackle you to the life you loathe.

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. — Samuel Johnson

Fear not, they can be broken, but it requires sacrifice, a word which seems as abhorrent to Americans as a steaming turd.

Eww… you mean I have to give up something?… Yuck! Why can’t I just have it all?’

I see your point. The path to bliss is certainly not for the covetous and lily-livered. As French novelist Romain Rolland said: “He who has freed himself from the bonds and gags of an old rotting world; from its masters and gods, must show himself to be worthy of his new liberty, capable of bearing it; otherwise, let him remain in chains!

In his ‘Song of the Open Road,’ American poet Walt Whitman extended his hand and invited people to journey with him to a place of greater joy and a more meaningful, spirited life. Yet, to whomever wished to accept his invitation, he issued this warning:

He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance.

Come not here if you have spent the best of yourself.

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes.

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn and achieve.

Whoever you are, come forth!

You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it.

Out of the dark confinement! Out from behind the screen!

Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces, behold a secret loathing and despair.

Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under their breast-bones, hell under their skull-bones,

Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of [themselves], speaking of anything else but never of [themselves].

Allons! the road is before us!

It is safe — I have tried it.

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!

Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the money remain unearn’d!

Comrade, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?

Whitman could’ve well have written this in 21st century America for the “secret loathing and despair” he saw in people more than a century ago remains alive and well in the unhappiest place on Earth.

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller

The key to your prison turns with a paradigm shift.

You will be happy once you realize happiness doesn’t exist.

You will find the love of your life, but not until you have properly defined what love means, and only once you begin to lead the life you love.

You will be embraced by true friends once you accept that most of the ones you have don’t measure up to the true definition of friendship.

Passionate and meaningful work will forever elude you as long as your values and priorities are ass-backward, and money remains your holy grail and banner of success.

You will never ‘find yourself’ until you stop trying to be someone else, and even then, you never will. For we are each a river with a particular abiding character but show radically different aspects of our Self according to the territory through which we travel. “Today’s identity,” says writer Sam Keen, “is tomorrow’s prison,” and only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living, added Virginia Woolf.

Finally, you’ll never travel the Open Road unless you welcome sacrifice and see the path for what it is —  a sacred pilgrimage reserved for the stout of heart and lavish of soul. This will require you to welcome and embrace uncertainty, give up hope and expectations, and vanquish man’s biggest fears: The Fear of Want and The Fear of Death.

Whoever you are, reading this now, I can attest to one thing Whitman was wrong about. The open road is not “safe” as he claimed. It is anything but safe and secure.

But if “safety” and “security” are the watchwords by which you want to live your life, by all means, go ahead, don’t change a thing, and forever remain wallowing in the stagnant pool with all the rest. Just don’t ask me for advice.


Related Reflections:

I Don’t Want to Be Happy

How do I find the love of my life?

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

Crying Over Spilled Milk

Is the only way to die with few regrets

They say there’s no use crying over spilled milk, and I couldn’t disagree more.

The use in crying lies in what’s left in the glass and in figuring out how you spilled it in the first place.

Careless, inattentive and unaware, we spill our years under the delusion that we’re eternal. In fact, we often kill time by waking up late to shorten the hours not knowing what we’d otherwise do with ourselves with so much time on our hands. “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” said Henry David Thoreau.

Just wait a little, wait a while’… we tell our hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long, long road, and time waits for no man.

And then one day, you wake up and realize there is more spilled milk than what’s left in the glass and the spilling won’t stop.

You panic, cry, regret… What’s the use?

The use is in making sure that whatever milk is left, trickles, instead of spilling. And the trick to the trickle is to live attentive and aware from that moment on.

When Australian caregiver Bronnie Ware wrote a blog in 2009 listing the five things that most haunted her terminally ill patients, she had no idea it would become an internet sensation. The blog took on a life of its own. By 2012, more than eight million people had read her post.

No one, it seems, wants to die with these 5 regrets:

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

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

At 54, I realized how much milk I had spilled, and then and there, decided not to allow one more drop to fall without my awareness. And the only way I felt I could do this was by setting fire to the life I’d been leading up to that point and journey into the unknown on the knife-edge of uncertainty.

That was four years ago… 48 months that have felt like an eternity and I don’t regret one second.

One by one, I’ve examined these 5 venomous regrets and worked-out the antidotes.

Authenticity

Death, says philosopher Alain de Botton, is a terrifying agent of authenticity.

When you take stock of the milk you’ve spilled and how little remains, you realize there is no time left for pretense. No time to show up on stage wearing an ill-fitting costume and mask. Not a second more to waste on pleasing others by denying yourself. The only time you have is for growing into your own plumage, brightly, and end the weary, and ultimately fruitless charade of trying to be someone you are not. As written in the Bhagavad Gita, “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly.”

Seeing how our modern world is hellbent on making us blend-in like sheep, it is one hardest battles you will ever have to fight. But if you don’t wage it, you will be voicing this regret once your last drop of milk is about to spill. Authenticity, I’ve also discovered, is one of love’s most powerful aphrodisiacs.

Overworked

I don’t think it’s a matter of too much work but the type of work on which we devote our time.

What many call “burnout,” “stress,” or “depression,” author Sam Keen examines under a more useful light.

Burnout, Keen warns, “is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.

Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it’s a symptom that you are living someone else’s life (Regret #1).

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.”

Purposeful work, that which matches your talents and passions to a particular need in the world, is one you will never tire of.

A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation. — Playwright William Herzog

But what if you’re still uncertain what you’re passions are and are stuck in a job you hate, like 70% of Americans?

Consider it then as a means to an end; one that can subsidize a period of exploration until you feel a spark. “Seek and you shall find,” said Jesus.

Expressing feelings

I assume that what Bronnie’s patients meant by this regret is what Mary Evans referred to at the end of this poem:

If there be sorrow

let it be

for things undone

undreamed

unrealized

unattained

to these add one:

Love withheld

… restrained.

Also what writer Anaïs Nin wrote in one of her journals:

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of wounds, weariness, of witherings and tarnishings.”

And, finally, what Erich Fromm wrote in The Art of Loving:

Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.

Beyond love for others, we also betray ourselves by not having the courage to express and actualize our deepest longings. We repress them out of fear of what others may think… the fear of having our dreams judged unrealistic, impractical, fanciful — even childish.

As we age, life has a cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky and no longer dare the impossible.

Genius, said French poet Baudelaire, is childhood recovered at will, and I have since killed the old cynic in me.

Dying without this 3rd regret, then, requires us to love with abandon, selflessness, attention, and supreme care, and to give voice and wings to our dreams.

Not staying in touch with friends

Today, more than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship.

The key lies in the last word of the previous sentence: “companionship,” which, at root, means breaking bread together, and springs from the same source as the word “compassion,” or suffering together.

When I finally broke free, I realized how encumbered I had been with frivolous acquaintances, most of whom had only showed up in my life when times were good. The few that did appear when feeling blue, did so with the intent to feel better about themselves and their own fortune.

Approaching my 60th birthday, I’ve since discarded those unworthy of the name “friend” like one would discard a pair of tight-fitting shoes or the unwholesome leaves of an artichoke. I am down to one, but oh! what a companion he is; showing up —both— on sunny and stormy days, patiently watching me spill my guts without once casting judgment as we break bread together.

You know you are in the presence of an empathic man when you feel you have been given permission to be yourself. — Robert Bly

Like Sancho Panza to Quixote, he rides by my side — in victory and defeat — loyally serving me as the voice of conscience when I stray, and not once allowing me to wallow in self-pity or complacency. He is the thorn on my side, not my echo.

“Do not seek friends,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, “seek comrades in arms!” And you will find them once you understand the meaning of friendship, dare to be true to yourself, and work on something which nurtures your passions.

I wish I had let myself be happier

Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy; happy in the being and the knowing, that is beyond happiness, that is bliss! And if you have any sense, you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it. — Henry Miller

Happiness is not a pursuit, as the nation’s founding fathers have led you to believe. It’s an orientation, steeped in awareness, as Henry Miller discovered. It’s mindful attention to what exactly gives us joy, pleasure, and delight. It’s counterbalancing our unpleasant moments with a heavy dose of gratitude and by recalling positive experiences in the most vivid language we can.

Since the moment of my reinvention, I have sustained an almost daily practice of writing down 3 things for which I am grateful, along with a recent positive experience. A year ago, I tallied and categorized the 118 positive moments I had recorded up till then. This I did to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion, strong and memorable enough, to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, but not surprising.

A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), or simply making someone happy, or involving ‘meraki,’ a word modern Greeks use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, and love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones. These kind, loving gestures, however small and seemingly insignificant, will prevent me from being forgotten, something that to ancient Egyptians was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A second third had been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future — with all its hopes, wants, and wishes — was annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ‘ataraxia,’ a lucid state of equanimity characterized by freedom from distress and worry, which, in my case, usually occur out in nature.

One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.

Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which time seems suspended while doing something immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, like William Herzog.

Moments when I displayed grit and discipline when tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.

A similar proportion was when I rewarded myself, say, with a double latte as a prize for a small victory.

I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.

I discovered what truly brought me joy.

I wish I would’ve savored every moment

This regret is not on Bronnie’s list but I’m sure that, if prodded, her dying patients would have nodded in agreement.

As I recently wrote, when first becoming conscious of the little milk I had left and the much spilled without awareness, I was gripped by unspeakable terror, especially when realizing that many of my past experiences would never repeat themselves. As writer Maria Popova says, “one of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts.”

I now live with the urgency of the terminally-ill, hurried by what Germans term Torschlusspanik— literally, “gate-closing panic”- the feeling that opportunities are shutting down. But rather than panic, I now think of it this way: Every time I’m about to experience something, whether a solitary walk, a kiss, caress, or moonrise, I assume it won’t happen again and savor each blissful drop. Every act, then, acquires a heightened intensity and deeper meaning, leaving behind an indelible soulprint.

No doubt, I will die with some regrets, but I’m on a spirited quest to do so with the least amount possible.

What about you?

Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver


Related Reflections:

I’m Aging Really Well

Dad Died Last Night

I can’t find my passion and purpose in life

 

 

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times

Vanquishing our fears

As humanity throbs with muted agony and chokes breathless in the grip of fear, a way forward breaks through the muck, lit by the timeless wisdom of those who came before us and prevailed against the dark.

Twin dragons guard the gateway to deliverance: Our Fear of Death and our Fear of Want. Vanquish those, and you’re free.

Before the great flaming battle, though, you must first rid yourself from the deluded chain-armor of immutability — the foolish insistence that things return to how they were before Covid-19.

“To resist change, to try to cling to life and non-existent certainties, is like holding your breath,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts in ‘The Age of Anxiety.’ “It must be obvious from the start that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a Universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. If you want to be secure — that is, protected from the flux of life — it means you are also wanting to be separate from life. A society based on the quest for security and permanence is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is taut as drum and as purple as a beet.”

Show me a static system in nature and you will have shown me a dead one. Best steer clear from stagnant waters for they breed nothing but pestilence.

Granted, the pain the pandemic has brought to the world is bitter. But equally distasteful were the dishes served to humankind by past plagues, wars, famines, great depressions… Life, my friend, is not a buffet where we get to choose what to eat. It’s a sit down dinner where we must eat what we’re served. If you refuse this universal truth, there is no point in reading further.

But assuming you accept this fundamental principle, let us charge ahead and lock horns with the twin dragons of death and want.

Many people walk through life dismissing death as nothing but an unfounded rumor. They imagine themselves as granite pillars, meant to last forever and so squander precious time in meaninglessness. Waste time, kill time, dither and delay. ‘Just wait a little, wait a while’… they stall their hoped for dreams and repressed longings. But while and while have no end and time waits for no man.

“Some people forget to live as if a great arsenic lobster could fall on their heads at any moment.” — Federico García Lorca

If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not ‘someday’, but at any given moment. On every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a stirring reminder that our precious life can end in a blink.

“Let that determine what we do and say and think,” counseled Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for there is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion, added Carlos Castaneda, centuries later. These profound truths should suffice to make us purge the flashy items in our bucket list and replace them with what truly matters.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? — Mary Oliver

It helps if one sees life as a book, says American poet Stephen Crane. “Just as a book is bounded by its covers — by beginning and end — so our lives are bounded by birth and death. You can only know the moments in between. It makes no sense to fear what is outside those covers and you needn’t worry how long the book is or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”

As with death, so we must vanquish our fear of want.

When I was 36, my world was upended when I lost everything in a financial crash and found myself adrift in exile in a foreign country with less than a penny to my name, no safety net, and solely responsible for the well-being of my wife and two young daughters. That was twenty years ago. I figured it out, so can you.

I learned that fortune is a capricious, deceptive, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty, and the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. Although it took me a while, I finally adopted the worldview Stoic philosopher Seneca did centuries ago. “Never have I trusted Fortune,” he declared, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” Seneca added. “Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? First, to have what is necessary, and, second, to know what is enough.”

A poor man is someone who fears poverty. — Nikos Kazantzakis

I no longer fear for want, having learned the hard way what poet Mary Ellen Edmunds wisely noted: “that you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.”

Now that Covid-19 has upended my life one more time, it finds me calm and serene, lit with that inner peace Greek philosopher Epictetus said “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’”

I’m like an old anvil, if you will, laughing at the many broken hammers which keep trying (and failing) to break me. I remain unperturbed, like the carefree poet Walt Whitman who waxed defiant in his ‘Song of the Open Road’:

“ME imperturbe!” he scoffed “Standing at ease in Nature, aplomb in the midst of irrational things. Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, and crimes less important than I thought. Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies! To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as trees and animals do.”

Whitman wisely detached himself from his problems. “That’s the idea! said writer Henry Miller. “Why try to solve a problem? Dissolve it! Bathe it in a saline solution of neglect, contempt, and indifference.”

This rugged soul also lived his eternity in the here-and-now. He hoped for nothing, feared nothing, and was therefore free. “Healthy, free!” he exulted. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing!”

On his spirited journey, Whitman put the sword to the dragons blocking the gateway to blissful aliveness: the twin fears of death and want.

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

There’s no point, I’m afraid, in pining for life to return to normal after the pandemic ends. No time to bury our heads in the sand, there to entertain false hopes and illusions. “Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world,” said Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.

But while we can’t go back and change the beginning, we can start where we are and change the ending. Seeing we’re all teetering on the edge of uncertainty, why not consider the edge as a point of transition? as Sam Keen suggests in ‘Learning to Fly.’

“We are filled with seeds,” he says. “With potentialities, promises, talents that lie dormant for half a lifetime waiting for the right time to germinate. As a place to live, the edge combines risk and promise, fear and desire. It is a place of openness to what is new; of a willingness to expand our sense of the possible; a place where the ego is constantly dying and being reborn; where constriction gives way to inspiration.”

Rather than with paralyzing dread, why not confront this moment of suffering with a swelling sense of promise and adventure and seize the opportunity to write a new chapter in our lives?

What grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult, but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet. — Maria Popova

In the muck of our present tumult, let’s steel ourselves by gracefully accepting the invitation extended by Puerto Rican poet José de Diego:

If sorrow beats you down,

if weariness numbs your limbs,

do like the dead tree: grow green again,

or like the buried germ: throb!

Reemerge, cheer, shout, march, fight,

vibrate, sway, growl, sparkle.

Do like the river when it rains: swell!

or like the sea against the rock: break!

At the irascible push of the storm,

you are not to bleat like a feeble lamb,

instead you are to roar like a wild beast.

Rise, resist, provoke!

Do like the corralled bull: bellow!

or like the bull that can’t bellow: charge!

As our lives and world tumble, heave and toss in the storm, there seems little else we can do but rise, roar and charge, slay the twin dragons, and sail bravely through the gateway onto seas of adventure.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book and warrior’s manual for boys meant to initiate them into an evolved expression of manhood and train them on the character strengths needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose. Follow the book’s heroic journey to publication.

Related articles:

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

You’ll Figure it Out.

Warriors Wanted to Save the World!

In ‘Saviors of God,’ Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said he wanted to find a single justification to live amid the dreadful daily spectacle of disease, ugliness, injustice and death.

Coming out of the horror of a concentration camp twenty years after Kazantzakis’ woeful plea, Viktor Frankl provided such justification: “For people who think there’s nothing to live,” he said, “the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them.”

He who has a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’ — Friedrich Nietzsche

Cowering inside our homes as most of us are today amid a world in shambles, it is easy to want to cry out for one good reason to keep going. If my daughters were still young and in need of support, the reason would be clear. Now that they are self-reliant, I have found a new purpose — to serve the world.

My quest wasn’t hard to find. I simply searched for a need in the world I could become passionate about, then found a way to use my talents to serve that need. While the journey hasn’t been easy, I would not trade it for anything.

Happy the man who hears the Cry of his times and works in collaboration with it. He alone can be saved. What, then, is our duty? It is to carefully distinguish the historic moment in which we live and to consciously assign our energies to a specific battlefield. — Nikos Kazantzakis

In recent years, there have endless debates about men’s purpose. Some have even dared suggest we are on our way to the scrap heap of historical obsolescence, there to lie buried along the VCR, the pay phone, and the floppy disk. But that was 2020 B.C. — before Corona.

Covid-19 now presents us men with the opportunity to rise and prove our mettle and worth, just like the menace of fascism in the 1940s roused men to save the day making them win the accolade of ‘The Greatest Generation.’

Our chance for glory has arrived! This is no time for cowering.

In ‘Fire in the Belly,’ Sam Keen says “the dispassionate, post-modern man is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new age man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth a candidate for heroism. It is an illusion to believe that the virility men have lost can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion.”

“Virility” is a word you don’t hear much anymore. “For most of history, though, it was normal to praise exemplary men as virile,” writes Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker. “In fact, only in the past century has the word virility been displaced by the more anodyne ‘masculinity’ and ‘manliness.’ In Ancient Rome, virilitas migrated to the center of male identity. The virile man wasn’t just sexually assertive, powerfully built, and procreative, but also intellectually and emotionally levelheaded, vigorous yet deliberate, courageous yet restrained. The virile is not simply what is manly. It’s an ideal of power and virtue, self-assurance and maturity, certitude and domination, courage and greatness accompanied by strength and vigor.”

Swirling around the modern-day debate about men’s purpose is a confusing cacophony of opinions as to what it means to be a man. I’ll now try to settle this matter, once and for all, by way of definitions.

To be ‘Male’ is a matter of biology.

Masculinity, or more accurately, ‘Mask-ulinity,’ is a mannerism. It’s an affect, the extremes of which are found in the macho swagger of a ‘John Wayne’ type and a Japanese ‘Herbivore Man.’

Manhood, however, is not a given, as playwright Norman Mailer said. “It is something men gain by winning battles with honor.”

Where are those battles?

As I recently wrote, the current pandemic has not only toppled humanity’s most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control —  but like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness to which Kazantzakis referred: the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.

It’s time to dare the impossible and bring about a new promise for the world!

“Centuries from now,” Kazantzakis prophetically wrote, “this epoch of ours will possibly be called a middle age, not a renaissance. As one civilization becomes exhausted, loses its creative strength and crumbles, a new Breath carried by a new class of men toils with love, rigor, and faith to create a new civilization.”

I’ve already proposed what this “new class of men” should be like, so won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I’ll summarize the spiritual exercises Kazantzakis laid out for any man wanting to change the world.

Consider it your Warrior’s Training Manual.

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers
Epitaph on the grave of Kazantzakis in Heraklion: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!

The Preparation

Discipline is the highest of virtues so may strength and desire be counterbalanced and for the endeavors of man to bear fruit.

Let us give a human meaning to the superhuman struggle.

Conquer the last, greatest temptation of all: Hope.

Say farewell to all things at every moment. Surrender yourself to everything. Our body is a ship that sails on deep blue waters. What is our goal? To be shipwrecked!

The March

This is the moment of greatest crisis. This is the signal for the March to begin. If you do not hear this Cry tearing at your entrails, do not set out.

Someone within me is struggling to lift a great weight, to cast off the mind and flesh by overcoming habit, laziness, necessity.

I put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared.

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly so that — all light — it may devour darkness.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless. I feel in my heart all commotions and all contradictions, the joys and sorrows of life. But I struggle to subdue them to a rhythm superior to that of the mind, harsher than that of my heart, to the ascending rhythm of the Universe.

You are my comrade in arms. Love danger. Which road should you take? The craggiest ascent. In that ascent, do not seek friends; seek comrades-in-arms.

Be always restless, unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, smash it! The greatest sin of all is satisfaction.

You are not a slave. As soon as you were born, a new possibility was born with you. Whether you would or not, you brought a new rhythm, a new desire, a new idea.

Gamble the present and all things certain, gamble them for the future and things uncertain.

Free yourself from race; fight to live through the whole struggle of man. Gaze on the dark sea without staggering. Confront the abyss every moment without illusion, or impudence, or fear; battle to give meaning to the confused struggles of man.

It is this ascension — this battle with the descending countercurrent — which gives birth to pain. But pain is not the absolute monarch. Every victory, every momentary balance on the ascent, fills with joy every living thing that breathes, grows, loves, and gives birth.

The ultimate most holy form of theory is action. Action is the widest gate to deliverance. Not to look on passively while the spark leaps from generation to generation, but to leap and to burn with it!

My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman: ‘give me and I shall give you.’ My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’

Whatever it might be, we fight on without certainty, and our virtue, uncertain of any rewards, acquires a profound nobility.

Die every day. Be born every day. Deny everything you have every day. Impose order, the order of your brain, on the flowing anarchy of the world.

The soul of man is a flame that shouts: ‘I cannot stand still, I cannot be consumed, no one can quench me!’

We can no longer fit into old virtues and hopes; into old theories and actions. Today, the only complete and virtuous man is the Warrior!

Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. — John Eldredge, ‘Wild at Heart’

If you were looking for a ‘why’ to live, the havoc Covid-19 has wrought on our world and the many fault lines it has exposed in its wake has just opened up many fronts which call for the fierce warrior energy in men.

The vocational passion called for by Sam Keen is the one Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. I discovered mine… now go find yours!

The world is starved for heroes. It needs virile and passionate men now more than ever. I say it’s time we draw our swords and give the world a solid reason to name us ‘The Bravest Generation!’


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book and warrior’s manual for boys meant to initiate them into an evolved expression of manhood and train them on the character strengths needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose. Follow the book’s heroic journey to publication.

A Blinding Passion

Is seldom what it seems.

Defying monster waves, abandoning your marriage, an illicit affair, quitting your job, buying a Ferrari…

Is seldom what it seems.

Dig deeper, and under each sweeping impulse you’ll find a common thread: the burning desire to feel intensely alive.

Most of us could care less about the ultimate meaning of existence, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. What we truly yearn for is the experience of being alive, so that our day-to-day existence, on the physical plane, resonates with our innermost self to awaken rapture — a word that, at origin, means to be carried away, snatched away… swept away!

It’s the longing many us feel at different points in our lives and project onto the intimate screen of our wistful day dreams.

Like the sultry one of being trapped inside the elevator with our sexy coworker who’s charmed with that irresistible dimple, healthy lack of inhibition and naughty disdain for company policy.

The carefree fantasy of a life in sun-drenched Tuscany, or the melting desire to be ravished by a Venetian, black-eyed gondolier.

The stirring wish to find a job posted online by a band of pirates looking for a daredevil shipmate for their next raid out on the open sea. “No swashbuckling experience required. Booty guaranteed!”

The barefooted dream on a white sand beach swaying on a hammock watching our slick sailboat bobbing nearby with no other care in the world than charting the next leg of our intrepid voyage.

It’s that ultimate yearning to be whisked away from our tedious lives, dispassionate relationships, boring locales, dispiriting jobs, or saved, if only for a day, from the death lock of monotony.

Bemoaning the apathy and deadening conformity of the 1950s, Beat writer Jack Kerouac captured his generation’s seething urge for revolt through the personal lens of his disquietude:

“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”

In today’s regimented, rat-racing world, I imagine many must feel like they ought to check their pulse now and then just to make sure they’re still alive.

Not long ago, at the heels of a dangerous dalliance with a married woman, I quit my well-paying job and walked away. I had reached the point of numbness, a state of mind and spirit made worse by seeing the hourglass of my life more than half empty and the sand accelerating its fall.

‘Now or never!’… I finally broke free to fulfill my boyhood dream of becoming a writer; one I unwittingly buried to join the ladder-climbing sheep of my generation. In my early twenties, much too young and unwise to second-guess my impulse, I donned the mask, the suit and tie, and got busy pursuing other people’s tinsel fantasies. So convincingly did I play the role that after fifteen grueling years working long hours finally made it to the top.

It all came tumbling down in a flash.

Like Sisyphus, I spent the following two decades rolling my heavy burden uphill just to see it roll back down to start all over again. Paycheck to paycheck, one humdrum job after the other, escape was morally untenable. By then, I was honor bound to my family so bowed my head and kept going through the motions like a shackled, limp marionette. Breaking free only became possible once I launched my two daughters into self-reliance. At long last, I heeded the call of my boyhood passion and allowed myself to be swept away, and for the past three years, have been doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.

But something’s missing…

While most of my hours hum and zing with a spirited charge of aliveness, I still find myself longing for that sense of rapture Campbell and Kerouac so poignantly described.

Is it just me?

Am I the only one cursed with abiding dissatisfaction? Might my affliction be living proof of the hedonic treadmill theory? The one that says humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes? Are we just inveterate desiring machines; nothing but incorrigible dopamine addicts? Or is our restlessness caused by our awareness and fear of death? “We love life,” says writer Sam Keen, “so death is an insult to our spirit.”

“There is something highly erotic about living in a conscious relationship to danger and fear,” Keen writes in ‘Learning to Fly.’ “The presence of danger makes us feel intensively alive and allows us to take an inventory of our fears, gives us an index of our courage, and forces us to develop grace under pressure (like bullfighters). On the other hand, if ‘security’ and ‘safety’ become the watchwords by which we live, the circle of our experience gradually becomes small and claustrophobic.”

Perhaps this is what I’m up against; the dreadful recognition that my life is again losing its edge, becoming small and stifling. Still too safe and secure, I’m like a sheltered ship at harbor, yet know that is not what ships are meant for. Maybe this is why I lately find myself daydreaming of purchasing a one-way ticket to a foreign country and moving there with only loose change in my pocket. What could possibly go wrong? Would I really end up starving to death in some squalid, rat-infested neighborhood swarming with pimps, prostitutes, and knife-wielding assassins? Or might I instead discover within me a previously untapped fount of courage and butt-saving street-smarts? One thing I am certain of is that those who live closer to the bloody floor of life’s slaughterhouse know no boredom. Like animals on the hunt, their hides must quiver, alert and alive.

No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

For all my present confusion, though, there is one more thing I know well, and that is myself. In such state of vulnerable unease, I know I am easy prey to a new blinding passion so must remain vigilant and keep the stamping and impetuous bull inside me locked in its pen until I figure this out.

Those lacking self-awareness are the ones who succumb to subconscious urges making them bolt from their marriages, abandon their children, buy Ferraris, have affairs, or quit their jobs on a whim.

Knee-jerking is for fools. Wise men simmer. They shine the light of reason on the wild and dark recesses of their minds before deciding to act on a bubbling impulse. When they do act, they make sure the remedy for their itch is the right one and not some fleeting opiate they know won’t work. A sexual obsession, for example, is a sign of repressed spirituality, as Sam Keen wisely notes.

Having singed my wings to feel the burn far too many times, I have proven what Keen says about using self-indulgent risk taking as an antidote to boredom — it is a dangerous drug.

Slowly then, I’m beginning to sense that serenity, perhaps even rapture, can only be experienced when we become part of something greater than ourselves. A worthy, selfless quest must surely be life’s most powerful aphrodisiac.

Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy. – Maria Popova

Facing danger — even death — in loving service to others and the world may be as close as we can get to meaningful and intense aliveness. It is also the only path to immortality, one forever etched in the memories of those whose lives we heal and inspire by the touch of our grace.

A Black Swan and a Dark Age

Changing course before it’s too late.

There was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before. Major cities were destroyed, diplomatic and trade relations severed, whole civilizations fell…

2020?

Not exactly.

The events narrate the near-sudden collapse of the world’s great civilizations of the Bronze Age (3000–1177 BCE) which plunged humanity into its first Dark Age.

A concatenation of events, both human and natural — including climate change and drought, seismic disasters known as earthquake storms, internal rebellions, and systems collapse — coalesced to create a perfect storm of calamities that brought this age to an end. — Eric H. Cline, ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed’

The parallels between this historical event and the modern-day are striking. Now, as then, the world is intimately linked through global trade, travel and diplomacy, and the downfall of one nation affects the fortunes of every other. As Cline notes, “in a complex system such as our world today, [a tipping point] is all it might take for the overall system to become destabilized, leading to collapse”

We have now reached modern history’s first tipping point — a Black Swan event.

It is likely that once the worst of the pandemic is over, the world will gradually get back on its feet, bruised and battered, ready for the next round. But the blows will keep coming and growing ever more powerful. “The international COVID-19 pandemic is many things,” writes astrophysicist Adam Frank in the online journal ‘Think,’ “but its impact may be fostering a recognition that [the] machine of civilization is a lot more fragile than we thought. And that is why, in the long term, the coronavirus will one day be seen as a fire drill.”

The eerie similarity between the events which led to the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations and the state of our world today are worth repeating: climate change, natural catastrophes, growing social stratification and inequality, class warfare, over-dependence on global trade, and the migration of large populations displaced by poverty and conflict.

Ignorance is lack of knowledge. Failing to act on knowledge is lack of wisdom. And those who do not learn from history, warned philosopher George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that continuing with business as usual once the pandemic ends could well plunge the world into the next dark age. The only thing that might prevent it, I believe, is a substantive shift in human consciousness. Post Covid-19, our priorities, our values, the way we think, consume, invest, vote, educate our young, and interact with other groups and the natural world will determine our future.

Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the entire wheel.

Amid humanity’s first dark age, a series of guiding lights began to flash. Around 800 BCE, with no obvious cultural contact with each other, the world witnessed the emergence of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the rational philosophies of ancient Greece. Like navigational stars showing us the way out of darkness, these new stories spoke about balance and temperance, about compassion and nonviolence, about tolerance and acceptance, and reason over ignorance. In short, about living right. Known as the Axial Age, it was “one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, and philosophical change in recorded history,” notes scholar Karen Armstrong in ‘The Great Transformation.’

The transformation, in other words, begins from within. It starts with each one of us.

“The Axial sages,” says Armstrong, “were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift after which they could return, with renewed vigor, to their ordinary self-centered lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.”

From the look of it, it is clear that the bulk of humanity chose to ignore their wisdom. The Black Swan event of 2020, much like the shock therapy used to treat manic disorders, might make us think twice about burying our heads in the sand once again.

A self-centered person is one who is willfully ignorant and callous about the consequences of his actions on the rest of the world. So long as his ego and status are propped up, his insecurities temporarily assuaged, and his addictions satisfied, the rest of the world and the planet can pretty much go fuck themselves.

My cell phone, for instance, contains about 62 different types of metals. But had I ever bothered to find out where these metals come from, how they’re mined, and the impact their extraction is having on the people who mine them and their environment? Not at all. Not until the Black Swan shocked me. I’ve since learned that the tin used as a solder in our phones’ circuit boards has all but destroyed the paradisiacal island of Bangka where excessive tin mining has dramatically changed the natural landscape, leaving acidic craters in place of lush forests, and making clean drinking water harder to come by.

Tin mining Indonesia
Bangka Island, Indonesia

A self-centered person is one who doesn’t think twice about drinking an elixir made from a tiger’s carcass left to rot for years in a vat of rice wine just to ease his sexual insecurities.

“The tiger wine is good for men,” says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. “It makes a man strong in the bedroom.” — Extract from Hereward Holland’s National Geographic report: ‘China’s Expanding Middle Class Fuels Poaching, Decadence in Myanmar’

Never mind the tiger and its almost certain extinction. The possibility of infecting the rest of the world with a deadly virus from the consumption of wild animals never occurs to a self-centered individual.

Today, an eight-year bottle of tiger wine will set you back $290. The Samsung Galaxy S20 5G: $1600. A pair of Buscemi Diamond Sneakers: $135,000.

A self-centered existence at any expense — human and ecological — was precisely what the sages of the Axial Age were trying to warn us about.

Perhaps the most obvious change during the Bronze Age was the rise of the privileged. It is hard to think of this process in terms other than those of aggrandizement of the few. — J. M. Coles & A. F. Harding : The Bronze Age in Europe

I can think of no better symbol for the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations than the vast deposits of crushed shells from the mollusk bolinus brandaris found on the coasts of Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. Driven to near extinction in ancient Phoenicia, these medium sized sea snails were used to extract the purple dye used to color the garments of the elite. According to historian B. Caseau, 10,000 snails were needed to produce one gram of dyestuff worth more than its weight in gold. Tyrian purple became a status symbol representing power, prestige and wealth.

Yesterday’s sea snails are but today’s sea cucumbers, now being driven to extinction to boost the weak sexual libido and indulge the palate of the wealthy few.

Amid collapsing economies, mass layoffs and mass burials around the world, the insights of the sages of the Axial Age are more relevant than ever:

The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire. — Buddha’s second truth

Desires unsettle the heart. — Chuang-Tzu

Nothing in excess — Confucius’ Golden Mean

Racing, chasing, hunting, drives people crazy. Trying to get rich ties people in knots. The wise soul watches with the inner eye not the outward. — Lao Tzu

Covid-19 has placed a deathly pause on humanity’s intemperate, unbalanced and frenzied existence. “We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going,” says author Yuval Harari in ‘Sapiens.’

The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations tells us exactly where we’re headed.

It seems wise, then, to use this period of isolation to detoxify ourselves from our addictions which are placing inordinate strains, not just on the environment and its life-sustaining systems, but on our physical and mental well-being.

This is not a fanciful call to asceticism. I’m not suggesting we all wear saffron robes and roam our neighborhoods carrying begging bowls once allowed back out. But neither do we need purple robes and diamond-studded sneakers. My call is for judicious consumption. For balance and temperance. To slow our pace, reorder our priorities, and, critically, to allow this shocking period of collective suffering to crack open our hearts, thereon extending our concern beyond the center of our own existence to encompass, both, our planet, and the lives of the less fortunate whose future has been further blighted by the Black Swan of 2020.

Walking Away From It All

Escape with purpose.

You’ve probably heard some version of the story of the father who left the house one night to buy cigarettes and never came back.

Most would call him a ‘douche,’ and would be right, in some cases. But what about the others? What compels them to walk away?

You cannot tell me you’ve never felt the impulse. Late at night, perhaps, after a hard day, looking out the window by a sink full of dirty dishes and glasses trying to catch your breath, wondering if there is not more to life, and longing to leave everything behind to find out.

This unease led Siddhārtha Gautama to leave the comforts of his father’s palace, his wife Yaśodharā and newborn son Rāhula toward a spiritual journey to discover the causes and remedies for human suffering.

Call the Buddha an enlightened deadbeat, if you must.

The world would not have Paul Gauguin’s exquisite painting ‘Orana Maria’ had he chosen to remain by his family’s side in Copenhagen, making no money selling French tarpaulins to a Danish market who did not want his tarpaulins instead of risking everything to travel alone to Tahiti in search of a new vision in art.

Orana Maria

On the same year and country my father was born, George Dibbern left his wife and three daughters and sailed his 32-foot ketch ‘Te Rapunga’ toward New Zealand to reunite with his Maori spiritual Mother.

The world was marching toward a second world carnage. Unemployment in Germany had reached four million. Suicides were a daily occurrence. Idle and in despair, the citizens of the Weimar Republic of the 1930s were besieged by a dizzying number of political parties spouting their competing ideologies, each claiming to have the answer to their predicament.

In the middle of this maelstrom stood George Dibbern, unable to subscribe to any of them.

Te Rapunga’ means longing, or seeking, and is referenced in the third step of the Maori creation myth — the predawn moment of anticipation.

While still in Germany, Dibbern tried to make ends meet by operating a shipyard with his cousin. But the business was failing. To raise money, he twice sold the ‘Te Rapunga’ only to have it returned to him when the buyers could not come up with the cash to pay him.

Think about it: Dibbern tried twice to rid himself of his longing but it kept coming back. Having twice denied mine, every time I think of this part of his story, I recall this poem by the Greek Constantine Cavafy:

“Like the beautiful bodies of those who died before they had aged,

sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,

roses by the head, jasmine at the feet — 

so appear the longings that have passed

without being satisfied, not one of them granted

a night of sensual pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.”

The shipyard business failed and Dibbern had no other choice but join a rock-breaking crew. At the end of his rope, he considered:

At present, I can no longer be a member of one nation, only a member of a larger group —  humanity. I cannot grow roots here; I think so differently from everyone else. I am not meant to be what I am now. What is the good of adapting myself ninety-nine times.

What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? — Theodore Roethke

One night, back from his back-breaking job, George entered the kitchen, looked at his wife, and asked: “What would you do if I were dead?”

Faced with her stupefaction — quickly morphing into rage and despair — George tried to clarify what he meant: how he already felt dead, but dead in life.

A few weeks later, he set sail.

Te Rapunga

Writer Henry Miller said this about Dibbern:

“He takes the path in order to become the path. Some might think that George was unadaptable, a man unfit for human society. This is not true. If anything, it is society which is unfit to accommodate itself to a man like Dibbern. It is the purity and integrity of men like Dibbern which make it difficult for them to fit in our world. Living his own life in his own way, Dibbern makes us realize how much life can be enjoyed even on the fringe of society. It is not his ideal; he is striving desperately to participate, to be at one with his fellow man, but on the best terms, i.e., on the terms of his own best self. Nor did he wait to lead the ideal existence until some mythical day in the future. He lived the ideal life right then — as much as he dared and could. And that is the difference between a rebel and a man of spirit.”

As Dibbern was saying goodbye to his three young daughters, he thought:

Perhaps it is more important that, someday, I may be an understanding comrade to my children than be a provider now.

Pretty gracious, if you ask me.

For of what use is it to children to see their father return from work with a lifeless look in his eyes as he contemplates all his denied longings pustulating like unstitched wounds? To hear him vilify his boss, ridicule his co-workers, recount the office skullduggery, complain about the long hours and the commute, or fret about the bills as he finishes his third glass of wine while mindlessly thumbing his cellphone.

Many fathers exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the suffocating anguish of their dispassionate marriages, the festering anger of their unfulfilled desires, and the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence.

No surprise most children fear growing up, or rebel against their elders.

In that wretched state, what wisdom can a father impart if he hasn’t taken the time to grapple with the thorniest questions of existence, or the courage to journey through the dark and malodorous corridors of his psyche until coming to terms with the angel in himself and the devil in himself, or the humility to challenge all the mythologies he has half-wittingly accepted as truth? In that state, it would be more benevolent if he met each of his children’s questions with: “I don’t know,” rather than playing God twenty-four hours a day.

Soon after sailing, believing a flag represented one’s beliefs and principles, George Dibbern refused to fly the obligatory Nazi flag with the swastika and raised one of his own design. He later rejected his German passport and created his own with the following declaration:

“I, George Dibbern, through long years in different countries and sincere friendship with many people in many lands, feel my place to be outside of nationality, a citizen of the world and a friend of all peoples. I recognize the divine origin of all nations and therefore their value in being as they are, respect their laws, and feel my existence solely as a bridge of good fellowship between them. This is why, on my own ship, I fly my own flag, why I have my own passport and so place myself, without other protection, under the goodwill of the world.”

Here’s the thing about walking away, though. If it serves no other purpose than to run away from responsibility, it is as pointless and futile as taking a vacation to “recharge.”

All successful escape artists have one life saving trick: they know all about their chains.

Most of us don’t.

That’s the reason our escapes are fleeting.

So very few ever think of taking leave that they too might enjoy the fruits of paradise. Almost invariably they’ll confess that they lack the courage or imagination. “Too late” he probably murmurs to himself. How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to! What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish his chains seems like a sacrifice. — Henry Miller

Walking away (from work, the rat-race, the place you live, your relationship, etc.) is meaningless unless you arrive at a new orientation to life. Otherwise, it’s just like any other vacation, for which, under your shorts, Tommy Bahama shirts, flip-flops, sunscreen and hat, you fold and pack your same old prejudices, addictions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and hungers, and then, upon returning, you realize you never took the time to unpack, air-out, inspect, and transform all that junk, so when you pop open your suitcase it all comes flying back out again, back into your closet, there to continue haunting you until your next escape.

I know this well, having attempted it a few times with disastrous consequences.

But the latter, during which you reorient yourself to life, that is a spiritual journey, which begins when you doubt the conventions and deals of the mundane world and walk towards an unknown destination — like Buddha to the Bodhi Tree, Gauguin to Tahiti, and Dibbern to the open sea. The real escapist, you see, is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to. It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society, said Krishnamurti.

And it is not just doubting societal conventions but realizing how many you’ve half-wittingly adopted as your own. What’s essential is to examine each shiny trinket you have received as part of your initiation into the modern world, and above all, to discover what treasure you’re giving up in exchange. Your entire life?

For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul — Jesus

A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. A new world is not simply made by trying to forget the old, Henry Miller proclaimed, but made with a new spirit, with new values. Contrary to what many believe, it doesn’t require you to go anywhere. In fact, it’s often the case that a “change in scenery” only creates further distractions that will lead you astray.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes, said writer Marcel Proust, and it’s one that is yours alone to undertake.

“It cannot be undertaken other than by ourselves,” said famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. “In the story of the Arthurian knights, each set out in search of the Grail (a spiritual, rather than a material goal) by ‘entering the forest at its darkest part,’ that is, at the place where no one has cut a path before.”

Most never break free, leaving it up to the next generation, as Rainer Maria Rilke poignantly rendered in this poem :

“Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his children have to go far out into the world

toward that same church, which he forgot.”

Buddha showed us a path away from suffering.

Gauguin gave us the Orana Maria.

Dibbern left us a chronicle of his spiritual journey in his book ‘Quest.’

If you are to remain “inside the dishes and in the glasses,” unable or unwilling to break free, the next time you hear a story of a man who did, think twice before you judge him, for he may one day return with a gift for you and the rest of humankind.


Read my escape story.

Why Are We Here?

What’s our purpose?

In some regions in Mexico, the hummingbird is known as ‘Porquesí,’ meaning “just because” — a wonderful and poetic name for what seems but a caprice of nature… a jeweled whim!

In Oaxaca, they call it ‘Biulú’, or ‘what remains in the eyes,’ for once seen, no one can forget this ecstatic little bird plumed with divinely superfluous beauty.

God, the great Ecstatic, speaks and struggles to speak in every way he can, with seas and fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, that he may establish his ecstasy. — Nikos Kazantzakis

Asked by theologians what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane answered: “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

350,000 known species!

Just because.

beetles

The Western, scientific mind, however, appears incapable of apprehending this superfluous beauty without demanding a functional answer for its purpose.

At what cost, I wonder?

Does knowing that the hummingbird flaps its wings 12–90 times per second, or that it’s the only bird that can fly backwards, or that it makes a single migratory journey of 2000 miles in Winter make it more beautiful or memorable? Or does it have the opposite effect? Isn’t the magic spoiled once we discover the magician’s secrets? While we might still be impressed by the magician’s sleight-of-hand, would we not be thereon barred from becoming enraptured? a word that, at origin, means “carried off bodily.”

Piglet: “How do you spell love?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it, you feel it.”

If we, for instance, knew every biological change occurring in the male and female bodies during sex, would we ever again move “out of our minds” to be lost in sensation? Might knowing everything about the function actually provoke disfunction? Might knowing, say, that 87% of adults in Greece report having sex at least once a week not cause anxiety among U.S. adults where only 53% do?

Tell me… how often do you have sex? Are you performing like a Greek? Should you? Can you?

What’s the purpose of sex among humans anyway? Reproduction?

Not only, says Mexican poet Octavio Paz. It is so much more… “it’s an erotic ceremony in which sex is transformed into metaphor. In this sense, it is similar to language. The agent that moves both poetry and eroticism is our imagination. Poetry erotizes language as imagination transforms sex into a passionate erotic ritual.” Passion, says David L. Norton, is but an arabesque upon animal sexuality. Focus on the mechanics and you’ll kill Eros, or ardent desire.

Wanting to know is part of our cultural DNA. Our curiosity has helped advance the human adventure. But I can’t stop wondering if our insistence on dissecting, measuring, inspecting, prodding, analyzing, labelling, and trying to discover the purpose of everything precludes an embodied participation with the rest of creation.

Do not “all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy?” asked Edgar Allan Poe.

What Do You Do?

After losing all my wealth, I dreaded accompanying my wife to parties. We lived at the time in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. and I had had little success finding a job. I dreaded parties because of the unease I felt when asked the trite question: “What do you do?” — a question actually used to measure us against an arbitrary standard of value and success.

Infuriated by this insistence on wanting to pigeonhole my humanity, I soon came up with this answer: “As little as possible to enjoy life as much as possible.” As you can imagine, I wasn’t invited much thereafter.

Had they instead asked me, “What’s your story?” I would’ve kept them spellbound for hours.

But having a story doesn’t neatly answer society’s demand for a purpose-driven narrative so perhaps it’s time we change the term ‘human being,’ to ‘human doing.’

In Paulo Coelho’s ‘Manuscript Found in Accra’ he says that if we were to ask a river if it feels useless because all it does is flow in the same direction, it will answer, ‘I’m not trying to be useful; I’m trying to be river.’ Ask a wildflower if she feels useless for just making copies of herself and she’ll answer: ‘I’m beautiful. Beauty is the sole purpose of my existence.’

Ask a poor person in my native country about his purpose in life and he’ll likely answer, “to survive,” before punching you in the nose.

An [American] reporter from a local newspaper came to our house to interview my wife about the Japanese tea ceremony. This reporter continually asked, “What is the meaning? What for? Why do you do that? What is the purpose for that?” This kind of question was directed at everything in the making of tea — at every gesture, every implement. Without thinking or deliberating, my wife finally replied, “No meaning… meaningless meaning. It is purposeless purpose.” — Buddhist Gyomay Kubose Sensei

In Taoism, a Chinese philosophical tradition dating back 3000 years, there is a principle called Wu-Wei, or purposeless action. The Western mind, as I said, has a hard time with this. I say this because I still do.

Without a concrete purpose, what would motivate action? Without the need for nectar, what would propel the hummingbird toward the flower? Without goals, what would get us out of bed? Where would I, say, find the motivation to write my book if not for my express purpose of wanting to help boys become good men.

Like in sex, I think the crux lies in spontaneity. By not trying too hard. By focusing on the process (erotic ritual) not the target (orgasm).

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.” — Eugen Herrigel, ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’

In ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu,’ Thomas Merton says, “the true character of wu-wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action. In other words, action not carried in conflict with the dynamism of the whole — or Tao (The Way) — but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed rightly — in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is not conditioned or limited by our own individual needs and desires. It is complete free because there is in it no force and no violence.”

Forgive me for bringing sex back into the picture, but I cannot avoid imagining how rapturous the sexual experience would be under wu-wei.

Chuang Tzu vividly conveys the wisdom and efficacy of spontaneous action — or going with the flow — in this story:

At the Gorge of Lu, the great waterfall plunges for thousands of feet, its spray visible for miles. In the churning waters below, no living creature can be seen.

One day, K’ung Fu-tse [Confucius] was standing at a distance from the pool’s edge when he saw an old man being tossed about in the turbulent water. He called to his disciples and together they ran to rescue the victim. But by the time they reached the water, the old man had climbed out onto the bank and was walking along, singing to himself.

K’ung Fu-tse hurried up to him. “You would have to be a ghost to survive that,” he said, “but you seem to be a man, instead. What secret power do you have?”

“Nothing special,” the old man replied. “I began to learn while very young and grew up practicing it. Now I am certain of success. I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power. That is all.”

To allow oneself to surrender and go with the flow can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view, our most cherished beliefs are precisely those which lead us to a state of disharmony and imbalance — that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations and that our role is to conquer our environment and progress.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. — Edward Abbey

“Humans cling to progress,” says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs,’ “not so much from genuine belief, as from fear of what may come if they give it up.” Gray calls humanism, not science, but religion — a doctrine of salvation.

If progress is an illusion, how are we to live?

Gray says the question assumes that humans can live well only if they believe they have the power to remake the world. The aim of life, he said, is not to change the world, it is to see it rightly.

The hummingbird does not struggle to change or remake the flower. Nature shapes its bill according to the flowers in its proximate environment. Therefore, its actions, as Merton said about wu-wei, seem effortless and spontaneous because performed in perfect accordance with its nature and its place in the scheme of things.

What happens when humans live in discord and dissonance?

I’ll let author Sam Keen respond:

“Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it is a symptom that you are living somebody else’s life.

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.”

One way I have found to place myself in harmonious accord is to ask myself “why” I do what I do, instead of “what for”.

“What for?” implies a specific target: The publication of my book, the notoriety, the acclaim, and the potential material rewards.

Asking “why” shifts my attention to subjective, but ultimately more lasting rewards. I am writing my book to help boys grow into good men. To restore balance and harmony to the world. Because while writing it, I enter a state of flow and never feel like I’m working. Because by nature, I have a talent for writing and have found a need in the world that can be served by it.

While still purposeful, this focus engages and activates my heart, body, mind and soul — Psyche and Eros.

One day, I hope to transcend even further, and answer the question of “why am I here?” like the hummingbird: “Just Because,” thus becoming unforgettable for having discovered that a spiritual life is not a search for meaning or purpose, but a release from both.


Happy Birthday J!

A Winter Solstice Meditation

I write this on the Winter Solstice as the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light. On this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.

Does that make me a Christian or Catholic?

No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist.

Does it matter?

It seems to me that walking away from a banquet just because we don’t like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes us lose out on a wonderful meal — we throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry.

That baby is Jesus’ message, now drowned in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, or co-opted and distorted on the other by religious dogma into petrified historicity and rarefied into canonical balderdash making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as a communion wafer. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded and that the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.

My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner far away from both the commercial din and religious sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet, no miracles or High-Priest authority and no translation necessary. Like a plain loaf of bread, his words are simple, yet all-nourishing.

A ritual is the enactment of a myth, a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.

The Winter Solstice marks the day when the sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

It never ceases to baffle me how, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is stirred once again, further drowning his message under inane calendrical calculations or through attempts to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.

Again, does it matter?

By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost, and we deny ourselves its gifts.

I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world. Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is great news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future once we’ve perfected our harp-playing skills.

When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is,’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here, with you.”

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus elaborates: “If those who lead you say — ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will go before you. The kingdom is within you.”

It’s the same idea contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ of the sacred Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE) — ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its primordial state, is identifiable with the Ultimate Reality and ground of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said, “we’re all stardust feeding off starlight.”

The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.

After Jesus delivers his simple truth, he offers the key to this inner realm:

“Change and become like little children.”

I take his words as an invitation to return to my primordial state. Back to the way I was before the blank slate of my innocence was scarred with the ‘thou shalls’ and ‘thou shalt nots of the world.

Back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly. When neither race nor station dictated who I could play with. When I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive. Full of passion and compassion. When I could cry without shame. When days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present. When everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awe and delight. When I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy. The time when I didn’t pretend to have all the answers and was thus humble and insatiably curious. When I was trustful, accepting, authentic, vulnerable, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder. That sublime stage in life when we still believe in invisible friends and dare build castles in the sky with magic bricks made of phrases like, ‘I wonder…, What if…, and If only…’

The lens through which most of us apprehend the world is what blocks our way back into that holy realm by being blurred by the blight and shadow of an endless Winter’s Solstice — the blight of cynicism, apathy, egoism, pretense, prejudice, intolerance, fears, false pride, vanities and our unbridled greed.

The Unconquered Sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.

“If an honest-minded man is really concerned about evil and injustice in the world,” proposed writer Fernando Pessoa, “he will naturally begin his campaign by eliminating them at their nearest source: himself.”

That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual — to illume my way back to the source. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you to sit at the banquet and feast.


I also invite you to join my mailing list.