Black crows

Black crows are silhouettes against a cotton sky.

There is light. And there is dark.

The dark cannot subsume the light. Shine a light, and the dark must give way.

Shadows are wholly dependent.

But light shines of its own accord.

Black crows are silhouettes against a cotton sky.

Ascending simplicity

It took some time, but they finally arrived, the thoughts leading me to hope again.

Here in the cold on a damp bench, water flows and ducks preen, and people walk past hand in hand.

I would gladly share this space, and yet I am gladly alone, I just am and they just are, and somewhere someone exists to sit beside me.

But now the flocks circle. And the traffic flows. Layers of sound like soft bandages wrapping my ears.

The birds. The cars. The voices. The laughter of children. Of men and women. Distant music. The rhythmic scraping of meandering soles on gravel paths.

I am trusting more and more in an ascending simplicity, spiralling out, perhaps, to a basic spiritual singularity.

Shall I name it? I do not dare.

For it exists between the soft wrappings of sound, in the spaces between things we can name.

Cold day. Damp bench. Alone.

It sits here, next to me.

Thought for food – 11 – a moral imperative

To change and develop in a positive direction one needs honest information. This is a reason why lies and deception are so injurious to well-being: they prevent the development of one’s full potential. Honesty to oneself and others is often painful, but so is birth, for mother and baby alike.

Switching costumes

This damn thing is an absurd joke.

Oh not again. Not again.

I’ve seen myself a thousand times and I have not changed a bit.

One day it will all end.

The ideals of a frightened boy: all smashed.

One day it will all end and the ideals will not save me.

We were made broken.

Now, as then, and tomorrow again.

And again.


Listen. I bore myself. And you too, I hope.

It has all been said.

What am I clinging to but broken space?

There is no substance here but hollow ideals.

And yet hear my cry: ‘Give me a war! Give me a goddamned war, and something to die for! Give me an ideal!’

I am an unbalanced pretender. And I always knew it. A goddamned unbalanced pretender, shooting a shot now and then, taking aim and shooting a shot now and then, to tip the scale in my favour.

Tip the scale, tip the scale. I lean too far I must tip the scale.

A pretender. Pretentious. A pretentious pretender pretending to be pretentious: pretentious squared: meta-pretense.

I am not even able to fail with grace. Not brave to fall off the measure. Scrabbling and clamoring to tip the scale. I’m sliding and falling off and I am not courageous. I do not dare…I do not dare!


Have you ever seen the beautiful truth, and had failed to act?

I have.

And don’t say at least I was aware enough to see; that most are too calloused to be aware.

Don’t tell me I should feel lucky to live; that most are never born.

Pretenders squander awareness; cowards squander life.

Oh, that I could BELIEVE! In something, in anything. To be calloused enough to not see, but to believe!

Oh, that I could fail to see, and truly believe!

But I have seen. And have done nothing.


Do you understand my words? Don’t make me spell it out.

The pretentious switch costumes until nothing of substance is left.

I need a war! – (to fall off I do not dare)

If you don’t get it….then get out!

You have been spared, and my envy of you knows no limits.

It knows no limits.

I need a war! – (to slide right off I do not dare)

This balance has tipped and I’ve shot my shot and my envy knows no limits.


One day this will all end. This ideal will not save me. Now, as then, and tomorrow again.

I dare not fall so I shall pretend. To wage war that I may believe, and callous my soul to regain relief.

I’ve shot my shot.

Oh that I were as calloused and deserving of life as you.

Thought for food – 10

I cannot go back in time. But I can do the next best thing: start making positive improvements in my life right now.

Here I choose to live

A new world opened before me. One overflowing with light and love. I am neither reluctant nor expectant to enter, for reluctance implies doubt, expectancy implies dependency; I neither fear what lies within, nor seek salvation.

I know this world is meant for me. I will take my time to explore and learn. I will live.

Let love reign

Please take these words, and cast them across a crimson sky. Let the whole world read what I have been led to see. There is no pain so great, nor fear too deep, that a breath of pure love cannot ease.

Allow love the day to seize. Let love reign, and be free.

Lyrics #10 – Nine by Sleeping at Last

Who am I
To say what any of this means?
I have been sleepwalking
Since I was fourteen.

Now as I write my song
I retrace my steps
Honestly, it’s easier
To let myself forget.

Still, I check my vital signs
Choked up, I realize
I’ve been less than half myself
For more than half my life.

Wake up
Fall in love again
Wage war on gravity
There’s so much
Worth fighting for
You’ll see.

Another domino falls
Either way.

It looks like empathy
To understand all sides
But I’m just trying to find myself
Through someone else’s eyes.

So show me what to do
To restart this heart of mine
How do I forgive myself
For losing so much time?

Wake up
Roll up your sleeves
There’s a chain reaction
In your heart
Muscle memory
Remembering who you are.

Stand up
And fall in love again and again and again
Wage war on gravity
There’s so much
Worth fighting for
You’ll see.

Another domino falls
And another domino falls.

A little at a time
I feel more alive
I let the scale tip and feel all of it
It’s uncomfortable but right.

We were born to try
To see each other through
To know and love ourselves and others well
Is the most difficult and meaningful
Work we’ll ever do.

Snapshot of meaning – 1

Plump gray bird on fallow field,

Beady brown eyes reflecting setting sun,

I bike past slower than an emotion,

Which fills the scene with infinite meaning.

Thought for food – 8

The hours, the days, they come, and they go. But the moment – it lasts forever.

I walk towards the dancing light

If there is no light, then there is no dark.

I have fallen into the dark; I have become despair, doubt, infinite dread.

The dark says, ‘Turn your back on the light, there is no hope there; the closer you are permitted to come to the light, the further you will inevitably fall. Stay here, on the bottom, for in the end, all is doubt, fear, death, nothingness.’

The dark says the light is but an ideal, one that you can never reach, and thus one that will always fail you.

And I answer: ‘If light is an ideal, then you must be as well. To turn my back on one demands I turn my back on the other. You say it is folly to choose the light for it is an ideal, but then surely it is also folly to choose you.’

And the dark shudders, and spits me from its maw.

In the distance a tiny light flickers.

Caught between two ideals; I walk towards the dancing light.

The divine ape

There’s a pain that only I may know.

If it is common why do I feel so alone?

‘There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.’

Has this wisdom failed me, or have I chosen not to see?

The love of two bound souls…the curves of hips and naked backs…mouths agape in mirrored arches of ecstasy.

We are apes, dammit! So how can we seem so divine?

We long desperately for what we cannot have-

and what we have we fail to see.

The divine is all around and deep within-

A fluttering butterfly tracing sinuous curves across the naked sky,

pulls a string in the poet’s heart making melodious melodies of the mundane.

The sun rises as it sets:

Pain and joy; loneliness and companionship; light and dark; ecstasy and agony.

An ape so divine.

The victim’s prayer

Dear Lord. Almighty mighty Lord.

You have graver grievances to attend, I am sure.

But Lord, hear me out. Listen to my (self)-pitiful pleas. Please.

They say there is no rest for the wicked.

I say what a load of shit.

(HORSESHIT my Lord.

The wicked rest wonderfully. Deeply. Soundly. Undisturbed by haunting visions of moral transgressions.)

—but I digress—(cough cough)

As I was saying:

Dear Lord,

Grant me the strength to be wicked.

Afford me the confidence to knowingly disrupt the cosmic balance.

Entitle me to take what is not mine.

Endow me with the strength to cheat and lie and steal.

Let me have my cake and eat it too, and perhaps, someday, return for seconds.

Thirds and fourths.

Oh Lord may my self-awareness remain deception,

May the muscles and sinew flexed in the mirror remain awesome,

And may I roll over this world as one so divinely entitled.

If I am lost, let me hurt others in my grasping.

If I am in pain, let me be nurtured from others’ resources.

Let me feed off the world’s goodness and take no measure of responsibility.

Make my ego so strong, so emboldened, that I make victims of others to spare my own suffering.

Let me believe I am more important, the most important.

Let selfishness and egoism and self-deception reign in my heart, my soul.

Let all roads lead to me.

And let my worldly success depend on this attitude.

And whatever you do, do not allow moral questions of right and wrong creep into my self-righteous bastions.

Thank you Lord.

Amen

2.0

Then come on out. You step heavily on the narrow ledges of cartilage ringing my throat. My invitation was mailed months ago. Come on out. Let me see you.

I have a friend. I have a friend who says my writing is no good. I have a friend who says my writing is no good and yet he won’t say a thing at all. This friend’s silence angers me. I lack the confidence to take a stand either way. And the doubt washes through me. Coats my cells with dull energy. If only my friend could feel, could see me. Could step inside me. Could be me. If only my friend could write a word, a sentence to describe me.

I have mailed an invitation and I lack the confidence to confront my friend’s silence and the truths buried therein. And the doubt washes through me and something fearful sits on my throat.

The sky is blue but sometimes it is gray. Clouds float like silent hordes across the blinding clarity of not-empty space, blocking out the sun. There is no sense in sense when each narrative fails to deliver, breaks its promise of braiding the myriad threads into something strong, believable, dependable.

Day runs into night as ink spilled on white cotton. Spreading and spreading, the oily slick of slippery promise. Sleep comes at high noon. The devil, you see, is in the details. I comb through them, I see his face; it stares down at me as I look at the dimpled whiteness of an all-to-familiar ceiling as the mosquitoes and moths bang against the window, drawn to the single light burning in my room.

Let us be done with it. Come on out and let us be done with it. I have nothing to offer. There is nothing on offer. The silence of confident silence, silent friends have assured me my words are empty. Why try to build a narrative? Let the electric threads spark and crackle. Voltage running the length of headless hydra arms. Wriggling and gyrating in black empty space. No landmarks to pin them. No compass to orient. The flailing and failing lines of narrative in death throes. (I ask in all sincerity: can you picture this?)

I can’t write.

I can’t feel anymore in words.

Abstraction has failed me.

I have lost all direction.

The cold beating of my jelly heart. My veins are poor substitutes for meaning. I might lift a foot as I walk. But the story ends there.

Thought for food – 6

Train the mind to dwell in the fraction of a moment after a conscious experience but before the naming of it. There the ego has yet to form; there salvation from the self can be found.

Blameless organic life

Life is organic; an unfolding web of cause and effect. Free will and the sense of self are illusory, and we all come laden with evolutionary, cultural, and familial baggage. Our neural networks are infinitely nuanced, such that no two people in a population of billions are exactly the same.

Life is staggeringly complex, seemingly irreducible, yet completely free of magic. We are simply blind to most causes. I am who I am, and where I am, right this instant due to an unfolding, organic dance of causal relationships, the majority of which I am ignorant. My ability to learn, to adapt (or not), are threads in the nuanced web of my life. Threads tugged upon, supporting, connecting the baggage of my birth, my personal inheritance and unique development.   

I did not create these threads: they created me.

The same goes for you.

Tell me: where in this picture could we, should we, insert blame?

Thought for food – 5

Laurels are the sled at the mountain’s top. Rest too long your weary legs, and unawares you will find yourself at the bottom looking up.

Why glimpse into the ether? – comment

In response to a recent query. I thought it worth sharing, as it highlights the motivation behind the seemingly tortuous mission to ‘know thyself’.


‘For me, I not only glimpse into the ether, I spend days, months, years, living within and breathing the ether. If by ether you mean the unknown, the fear and anxiety of your life, the world you dare not enter for it might be too terrifying, the truth too exacting. If by ether you mean the abyss. Why do I do this?

The uncovering and understanding of the deepest truths and realities about the cosmos and your place in it, is, I would argue, the source of everything worth holding on to, worth striving for. It is no mistake that one of the strongest and longest-lasting pearls of wisdom is ‘know thyself’. Knowing yourself requires you understand your relationship to reality, as part of who you are (indeed, perhaps all you are) is as a relational entity: you not only draw nourishment from water and molecules in food, warmth from the sun, oxygen from the air, but as an emotional and social creature you are defined by, and in relation to, others. In a very literal way you are the product of a web of causation stretching backwards through time and covering immense space and nodes of influence.

You can be ignorant. You may truly believe falsehoods and build them into your narratives. The universe doesn’t literally demand you know the truth. However, knowledge and wisdom is the source of everything and anything worth tapping into. Why? Because the universe might not literally care, but if you live your life blind to a deeper understanding you will run into problem after problem after problem. Or so my experience has taught me. Problems with relationships. Problems with self-confidence. Problems at work or in society. You will thrash and point the finger everywhere, absolutely everywhere, other than at yourself. But once you wipe that slate clean, be willing to start afresh, be dedicated to writing a new narrative for yourself, one whose plot better reflects the true nature of reality and your place in it, many of your problems will disappear, your confidence will grow, your relationships will strengthen, you will know when to stay or when to move on, you will stop blaming others (and yourself) and accept not only the cards that have been dealt you (I, for example, have serious anxiety issues, ones for which I routinely blamed the universe), but you will also find ways to work on the things that are in your power to change. Nobody can ask anything more of you, and you will find you are actually beginning to live a meaningful life.

And why not simply ignore and bury terrible truths? I say: there is no wisdom in wilful ignorance. In fact, I find the notion a paradox. Once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, there is no putting it back in. People try! Alcohol, drugs, running away, escape escape escape! But once the cat is out it will always find you. In bed late at night. In those moments of clarity when you look at yourself in the mirror. When you reflect on your life and realize it is dripping away and you have wasted most of it and the blame and pointing finger no longer saves you. When the universe no longer holds you up. And, for many people I imagine, the cat comes back on their deathbeds, stalking like a phantom the recesses of consciousness until the dark shadow fully envelops the mind. Don’t let that happen! Don’t die without ever knowing yourself and truly living!

Once you glimpse into the ether it is already too late! As in the Wizard of Oz, a peek behind the curtain is all that’s needed to shatter the fantasy. But as you peer ever deeper into the ether, you, like Dorothy’s companions, will find your courage, your strength, your wisdom, and, like Dorothy, your life.’

This is Water – David Foster Wallace

Note: this commencement speech was given in 2005. It was recently recommended to me by a close friend. It distills and conveys an approach to living that, in my mind, should guide each of us on our journeys.

YouTube audio can be found here.


“Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

Thought for food – 4

Each path a life; the worn and barely used alike. The majority of your fellow travellers rarely, if ever, escape their guiding illusions, their paths crisscrossing the world, forming wide corridors and highways of frenzied activity, leading nowhere. They may have tread many more an empty mile than you, but in your stubbornness and reluctance to step off the curb, in your relentless pursuit of self-awareness, you have actually made the longer journey.