Joseph Campbell once told an instructive story. “I was living in Bronxville when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to be eating out in the restaurants of the town for my lunch and dinners. And Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxville, so that all the families were out in the restaurants. And one fine evening, I was in my favorite restaurant there. It was a Greek restaurant. And at a table was sitting a father, a mother, and a scrawny little boy here, about 12 years old. And the father says to the boy, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the boy says, ‘I don’t want to.’ And the father with a louder voice says, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the mother says, ‘Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.’ The father looks at her, and he says, ‘He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do.’ Said, ‘If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me, I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.’ ... And that’s the man who never followed his bliss.”
Far too often we are put upon by others. People tell us what to do with our lives. They suggest colleges, jobs, ideas, beliefs, worldviews, etc. But the worst of it is that we too often happily sign up to BE put upon by others, signing up for responsibilities and tasks and empty pursuits that takes us away from our true and best selves. We go in the direction that is created for us, not necessarily the direction ultimately best for us. As Spock says to Admiral Kirk in Star Trek, “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.”
The world will always happily distract us with that which doesn’t serve us. We can distract ourselves with sex, drugs, food, social media, promotions, etc. and the world will keep spinning. We can work long hours, volunteer to work overtime, fill our schedules up with parties, games, family events, virtually anything to avoid confronting ourselves and the work we are meant to do. We become great employees, but terrible humans. It is a daunting thing to stare at yourself knowing you are not living up to your potential.
Meanwhile, our talents lie dormant. Cages can be comfortable, can’t they? Nothing much is demanded of us as slaves. We know what to do. Every day will be the same. Little anxiety. No dark night of the soul. Our fate is known.
But for some of us the cage is abhorrent. Where others see money and success and fame, we see the bars for what they are. With freedom, of course, comes anxiety, and we will gladly face it if it means discovering who we are and what we are meant to do. Often this means moving in opposite direction of our culture. After all, culture is very often the height of mediocrity, and to fit in, to cope, means assuming mediocrity.
Facing ourselves is the paramount task before us, and yet, nothing else will save us EXCEPT facing ourselves. Not money, not fame, not love. It will mean very little if at the end of our lives we die and did not discover who we were, our treasures left buried in us. We would die as another person, a lesser person, a person not worthy of us. If this sounds tragic it’s because it is.
And so, here we are.
We wait our entire lives for the day when it will all come together, when the weather is just right, when we have exactly the right amount of time, when we feel 100%, when our loved ones support us completely, when...when…
The day will NEVER come.
If you waited a thousand years it wouldn’t come. We begin where we are with what we have. You’re not always going to feel 100% (when have you ever?). You’re never going to have enough time. We’re never going to be supported completely. And so what?
Life doesn’t care what you have to sacrifice to succeed, only that you.
We think we need permission from others to become who we are. Like Dumbo’s “magic feather” we use others for courage. But it’s a false kind of courage because it’s not yours. It’s borrowed.
If we wait for permission, we’ll never get it. Don’t wait. You being alive is all the permission you’ll ever need for anything.
You’re much stronger than you think you are.
—Superman from Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman
Behold, I teach you the superman. The superman is the meaning of the earth.
Superheroes you ask? Yes. And I mean it. Bear with me; it’s not as crazy as it sounds, or maybe it is. I’ll let you decide. The 20th century gave birth to many things—the airplane, telephones, television, computers, the internet, but one of the few things that rarely gets mentioned, one of the best things human beings have ever created, is superheroes. They are the archetypal reminders of humanity’s highest aspirations manifested in fictional form.
Superheroes were born with the publication of Action Comics #1 in June 1938 written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, which featured the first appearance of Superman, the father of all superheroes. Superman could not yet fly nor was he as strong as he would eventually become, but his appearance in Action Comics was the birth of the superhero as superheroes are currently thought of today. He was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. . . .” There had never been a character so powerful in comic books or novels outside of religious texts.
When Superman burst on the comics scene in 1938, the world changed. All the mythical gods of the past may have been declared dead, but here was a new kind of god, an American god almost literally draped in the American flag, who represented not only democratic ideals, but truth and justice. Sure, there had been heroes of the past, gods that human beings aspired to be like, but never had there been a secular metaphor so powerful, so uniquely American whose popularity rivaled that of religious icons. You show a picture of Superman’s chest anywhere in the world and people will tell you exactly who he is. He may have begun as purely an American icon, but he now belongs to the world.
There has never been a character quite like Superman. He is the physical expression of a higher way of being, a totem if you will, symbolizing humanity’s tendency to evolve. His sense of morality and justice is unerring in its acuity. Jerry Siegel, in describing how he created Superman, says, “All of a sudden it hits me. I conceive of a character like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I had ever heard of rolled into one—only more so.” It’s the “only more so” part that is interesting because Siegel and Shuster created Superman with mythological archetypes in mind in terms of super strength (as well as borrowing elements from Moses’s and Jesus’s own literary origins), but they took their character a step further and eventually imbued him with an unerring sense of morality and justice aided with almost god-like powers and near invulnerability. They created Superman with the evolved ethical and moral codes that the best of humanity exhibited and others attempted to exemplify. Superman is a new kind of myth; he is a god on earth come to protect the weak and the powerless and to show human beings that we can become more than we are. He embodies humanity’s greatest ideals so deeply that he has internalized them, becoming humanity’s living conscience.
On the website The Best Article Every Day, a young woman posted a short article titled, “You Don’t Need to Exist to Inspire People: Why Superman Is My Hero,” describing her personal experience with the Man of Tomorrow as he appears in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. Her experience, perhaps not so different than many readers in her valuing of superheroes, is a profound example of why Superman and superheroes are important to readers and why they remain ever popular in not just American culture, but human culture.
I have struggled with depression ever since I was ten years old. It had crippled me emotionally. I was 27 years old, no college degree, no job and no will to live. I decided to kill myself after Christmas. And then my sister’s boyfriend loaned me these comics. Superman is dying of radiation poisoning and is trying to complete all of his tasks before he dies, but he still takes the time to save a young girl who is about to jump off a building. I cried for hours after reading this. I identified with that girl so much, and I could almost hear Superman telling me that I’m stronger than I think. Now every time my depressesion [sic] starts to rear its ugly head, I just repeat his words and imagine him hugging me when I’m standing on the edge. It works better than any medication or therapy I’ve ever had. Now I’m in college and top of my class. I have friends. I have a life. And I don’t care that he’s a fictional comic book character. He still saved me.
Superman has remained the brightest star in comics for over seventy years not only because he was the first and greatest superhero, but because he represents the highest human potential. Over the last seventy years institutions have changed, politics have changed, governments have changed, cultures have changed, but Superman has remained virtually constant. He remains the idealized human being absent of any moral or spiritual flaws. Superman is human perfection incarnate and represents the evolutionary impulse in human beings to become better, more complex, more ethical, more spiritual, more loving, more compassionate, and more whole. He invites us to evolve. He invites us to become like him—to become a superhero.
Of course, we can’t match the Man of Steel’s physical superpowers (although in the future who knows?), but we can aspire to match his spiritual superpowers. To live up to our fullest human expression would indeed be superheroic. To treat one’s life with the serious care and concern necessary to develop oneself along many of the major lines of development from moral, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, even kinesthetic, is an engagement with the world on such an intimate level that one not only transforms oneself but changes the world as well. What Superman suggests is fully alive transcendent human beings engaged in the world at a high level of consciousness. The world needs us to be evolutionaries. The world needs us to be superheroes.
If the 20th century gave birth to fictional superheroes, the 21st century will give birth to real ones, men and women who are not afraid to grab evolution by the head and lead it; who will make a commitment to Spirit and see that it unfolds through humans into higher states of being and better ways of becoming; who will sacrifice their lower selves on the altar of their highest selves; who will have enough divine pride to stand where they are and say, “I am what the world has been waiting for. I can help. And I begin with making myself the best I can possibly be.” The world needs to be reminded that giants still walk the earth, that human beings possess almost limitless power, that on our best day we accomplish miracles. The world needs to be reminded that the power and responsibility to make our lives better is ours and always has been.
Superheroes derive their strength from inner authority, their superpowers metaphorically representing their spiritual strength. This is why they will never go out of style or be so deconstructed they collapse as the cultural symbols and moral signifiers they are. Superheroes, in their transformative and moral dimensions, are like Superman—bulletproof. They inspire readers to become more than what they are. They inspire us to take responsibility for our lives and cultivate the necessary human agency that will bring about our mutual liberation. The time for superheroes is now.
We must remember what Nietzsche implored us to do: “But by my love and hope I beseech you: Do not throw away the hero in your soul! Hold holy your highest hope!” Superheroes are the cultural seeds of transformation. It is superheroes as transformative catalysts that inspire readers to live their own heroic lives of self-actualization, service, and truth and justice too.
Capes are optional. Becoming a superhero is not.
“I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us?
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!”
― Emily Dickinson
“Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You'll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.
Except when they don't
Because, sometimes they won't.
I'm afraid that some times
you'll play lonely games too.
Games you can't win
'cause you'll play against you.”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!
The whole aim of the world is to be known, to be seen. We all want to be held in another’s gaze, recognized, considered, affirmed, and acknowledged. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and even Myspace. All the likes, the status updates, the comments, the notifications, all are simply a means to see and to be seen. This human need is taken to a pathological degree in our celebrity culture where people will do just about anything to be seen, to be acknowledged, no matter what the reason, whether notorious or ignoble. In 2019 the individual, which once was at the forefront of American ideals, has been overwhelmed. The individual, that fundamental building block of democracy, has been silenced, ignored by the corporate-owned media, kept in poverty by corporations in league with our corrupt politicians, robbed by insurance companies, and bankrupted by the higher education system and the healthcare industry. The rise of “reality” television has charted the disenfranchisement of the individual. The very name “reality” show is an attempt to further undermine the dignity of the everyday lives of people, who begin to think that if they are not the star of their own show, feel they may be doing something wrong. Why are they not rich? Why are they not living in a mansion? Or in the words of the Talking Heads, “Where is that large automobile? You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife…”
If we are not rich and famous we MUST be failures.
The last refuge of the self in the midst of all this denial of self is to flail, to whimper, to cry out on some tasteless reality television show either competing against other contestants for a husband or eating cow testicles from a glass tank. This is what we have been reduced to: sad and empty beings devoid of higher values, our humanity reduced, commodified, sold to the lowest bidder, often given away for free. We live in a society where corporations are made into people and people are reduced to numbers. What once was a virtue is now made vice. In our heightened obscurity, we grow desperate. We grow needy. We want to be SEEN. We want to be known. We want to be famous. How else will our individuality be known in the cacophony of voices vying for prime time? It is not enough to be known by our families, our loved ones, our friends. In a culture where excess is the norm, escalation is the rule. We want to be stars. And now.
Our present state of affairs is scandalous. Everyday people are famous. Largely unjustified—Andy Warhol’s prediction come true. We fight, scrape, scramble our way to the top of the trash heap for 15 minutes of fame in an ephemeral culture that is incapable of long-term memory (a kind of cultural alzheimer’s), a culture that values escapism, frivolity, and distraction. But reality television is not the only phenomenon to chronicle the de-valuing of the individual—the rise of spectator sports also provides testimony. Noam Chomsky writes, "And what all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don't have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things. Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way -- so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports. You're trained to be obedient; you don't have an interesting job; there's no work around for you that's creative; in the cultural environment you're a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they're in the hands of the rich folks. So what's left? Well, one thing that's left is sports -- so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter." We are cogs in a corporate wheel—expendable. Numbers on a ledger. Kant’s nightmare come true: we are merely a means to an end. Tools. Tools in the hands of immoral or amoral monsters.
So what’s left to do? Become famous or infamous, retreat obsessively into social media, abandon the culture altogether, or perhaps the healthiest option of all: Temet nosce... know thyself.
It seems to me the kind of knowing that social media and celebrity culture often offer is a poor sort of knowing. All surface, no depth. Is it being seen? Is it seeing? Is it truly holding others in our gaze? There are certainly ways to authentically connect with social media. I’m not sure the same can be said for celebrity culture. But we can certainly be skillful about the ways in which we connect online. But more importantly what I see in our current culture of unjustified fame and celebrity is a reminder of who I am. I’m brought into relief more clearly the more I see the extravagance of celebrity culture and the demi-gods of social media. I do not see them clearly and they do not see me. Shows like Catfish are popular because who really knows who it is behind a face, an image, a profile? It is always uncertain. We all are a little uneasy about who we connect with virtually. But one thing we can be certain of, and one thing that our culture seems to be preventing, is knowledge of self. Instead, we retreat into fantasy both of our own making and that of others’ making. We stare out through the only eyes that will ever know us, and instead of delving deeper into ourselves, we disappear online into that hall of mirrors distorting all of our realities.
The serial killer. The socialite. The celebrity. Those famous for being famous. All placed on the same altar of fame. Ours is a culture turned upside down. As Howard Zinn writes, “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy turvy. That things are all wrong…I start with the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.” Our culture is dis-eased. We are diseased from the inside out, and the outside in. We are bombarded from all fronts. Merit starves while mania prospers. Infamy is equated with achievement. It doesn’t matter how or why we are famous, so long as we are. It doesn’t matter how we become rich, only that we are. Jiddu Krishnamurti reminds us, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." We are indeed sick.
Exhausted by celebrity culture and social media, I have opted to minimize my time spent on social media. I no longer have cable, so celebrity culture is less of an influence, and I ignore most news reports about the life of stars. How does knowing that some celebrity has broken up with her boyfriend or has once again been arrested add meaning to my life? It doesn’t. I don’t need that kind of distraction. The more time I spend consuming information like that the less time I spend living and experiencing my own life in a constructive and meaningful way.
Philip Seymour Hoffman died several years ago, an actor whose body of work I followed from the very beginning. I loved his acting and his ability to create a character that both repelled and attracted the viewer. His commitment to a character was workman like, and yet, at the same time, transcendent. But as much as I love his work, his tragic death really does not affect my life. Will I miss his films? Yes. Will I lament in some fleeting moment in the future, perhaps over a glass of wine with friends, the films and characters he might have created? Undoubtedly. But I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman. And he didn’t know me. And this is crux of the matter: knowing. I would much rather know myself intimately for one single moment than be distracted or entertained by the lives of other people for ten thousand years. My life is inherently more valuable to me as is yours to you. Being truly known and truly knowing others is beautiful and one of the most wonderful parts of being alive.
Knowing ourselves is the whole point of living. If we do not engage in knowing ourselves, we risk missing the whole journey of life, which is essentially becoming who you are. In the poem, “In the End,” Tara Sophia Mohr writes:
“In the end
you won’t be known
for the things you did
or what you built,
or what you said.
You won’t even be known
for the love given
or the hearts saved,
because in the end you won’t be known.
You won’t be asked, by a vast creator full of light:
What did you do to be known?
You will be asked: Did you know it,
this place, this journey…”
Do you know your life? Do you know your place in the world? Are you alive to every step of your miraculous human journey?
Do you know yourself?
Since 2011 the character Doctor Strange created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko became very important to me. He’s a rather odd sort of character that really should NOT work in narrative form. His only power is his magic. He doesn’t possess super strength and he’s not terribly flashy by today’s superhero standards. Last but not least, writers always run the risk of making his magical powers a deus ex machina, which makes him a difficult character to write for, hence his rather sporadic publication history. All the things most people dislike about him, I actually love. I love weird characters. He’s not an easy character to love, mind you. You have to have a rather eclectic background to have an appreciation for Doctor Stephen Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts. I for one probably love him for very different reasons than most readers. For me, it comes down to magic. Real magic.
My interest in magic came pretty early in life, perhaps 12 or 13. Now, I wasn’t one of those kids who pulled rabbits out of hats or tried to wow friends with cards tricks that only worked half of the time and were still boring whether they worked or not. I was more of a Platonic magician, which is to say, I loved the IDEA of magic. But more precisely, I loved the idea of magicians. I loved Houdini first and foremost. His absolute and unswerving commitment to his craft was inspiring to that poor farm boy in North Carolina who was learning how to wade into the world of ideas. But what most people would call his magic was secondary to me. For me, the real magic took place BEFORE he performed his magic tricks. The real magic happened during all the solitary years he prepared himself to become arguably the world’s greatest (and certainly most famous) magician. To see his will expressed so elegantly, to witness his keen mind manifested in death-defying feats of physical and spiritual skill, was nothing short of sublime. I checked out every book from the local public library and even managed once to watch a documentary about him at my cousin’s house (who lived in town and had cable). Here was a man who through his will and sustained commitment transformed himself from Erik Weisz, one of seven children born in Budapest to Harry Houdini, magician-superhero. Becoming Harry Houdini was in many ways his greatest magic trick. Who he became was his highest creative act and a genuine work of art. All one has to do is look at a photograph of him at the height of his powers displaying his chiseled physique and his palpable grace and power, the external referents to his inner magic. So, magic and self-creation was linked in my mind from an early age.
Later when I was maybe twenty or twenty-one I discovered Doctor Strange. I can’t say for sure how I became aware of Doctor Strange, it’s one of the (pardon the pun) strange phenomenons where once you are aware of something it seems you were never NOT aware of it. If memory serves I thought he was a quirky character, one of Marvel’s B-listers for sure, and certainly very different from my most beloved DC superheroes like Batman and Superman. But there was an instant appeal, most of it on an intuitive level. Something about him spoke to me. Part of it I know now was Steve Ditko’s otherworldly artwork.
Ditko’s art was beautiful and unlike any I had ever seen. It was almost surrealistic with his depiction of the mystical worlds Doctor Strange travelled in. Shapes were twisted and space itself imbued with a shifting nature that it became almost a psychedelic experience to look at it. Many readers just KNEW Ditko was tripping on acid or mushrooms (this was the early 60s), and so, Ditko and Doctor Strange became a kind of symbolic hero for the hippie counterculture (of course, little did they know that Ditko was a staunch conservative who avoided all things remotely trippy). But his artwork was the stuff of magic itself—it created a space where the surrealistic beauty of the art alone was enjoyable. For me, his work became archetypal in its symbolic roots, and the formal qualities of his art represented in pictorial form what the inner worlds of consciousness vying with itself looked like.
He depicted the inner life of the mind as it sought enlightenment.
Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts was the enlightened mind warring with its own shadow elements manifested as demons, monsters, extradimensional warlords, wraiths, and even Death itself. Each adventure was the enlightened mind overcoming the stumbling blocks of illusion, human frailty, ignorance, and even evil. The landscape of Doctor Strange was for me always the inner life of the mind. It was psychology (the psyche-soul) played out in the superhero genre. But as I said, Doctor Strange also represented magic itself. Real magic.
The kind of magic I’m talking about is the kind that many artists of the past have used, artists like Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Harry Smith, Austin Osman Spare, Kenneth Anger, Marcel Duchamp, and recently Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Real magic as I understand it is the manipulation of symbols, language, to bring about a result in the world. It’s a process of manifesting the will of the magician into the world by means of interacting with the subtle and largely mysterious metaphysical version of the morphogenetic and probability fields. One of the greatest magicians working right now is Alan Moore and he describes magic as nothing less than art itself. Art and magic are interchangeable. The earliest descriptions of magic usually referred to magic as “the art.” And rightly so, because that’s exactly what it is. Moore in the “Mindscape of Alan Moore” says that the magic and sorcery textbook called a “grimoire” was simply a fancy way of saying “grammar” and that when someone said they were going to cast a “spell” it literally meant they were going spell. Magic in many ways is the science of language (whether that is the grammar of words, visuals, or music). Moore sees magic as a transformative force that can change a human being, and in doing so, change a society.
In magic’s liminal building project of art, it destabilizes the consciousness of the experiencer and in this disorientation the consciousness then must reach to integrate this new experience. It is the consciousness’s reaching that creates a new space in which the world can be viewed (in fact the actual world becomes new—when the mind changes, so does the world). This new space is more whole, more inclusive, and more complete than the latter. What I’m talking about is transcendence, transformation, or at the minimum, a state of consciousness (or a peak experience) that can facilitate a transformation of consciousness. It is this function of art (magic) that can literally transform the world.
It is this idea of magic that informs my love of Doctor Strange. He is the personification of human spiritual potential in the realm of magic. But he is also like Houdini and all the other self-made people and fictional characters I have used as inspiration in my own self-making. Doctor Strange had to re-make himself after a terrible car accident. Stephen Strange was first a world-famous neurosurgeon, but he was selfish and narcissistic and only cared about money and his own notoriety. After his car accident, his hands were so badly injured that he could never perform surgery again. Alone, depressed, and quickly becoming broke, he travels the world to find a cure. Finally losing everything he had ever owned, his quest leads him to the Himalayas where he meets the being who will become his teacher and who he will inherit the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme from, the Ancient One. It is there in the desolate mountains that he learns what powers he innately possesses, and he masters the mystical arts, becoming who we now know as Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, Master of the Mystical Arts!
Magic, self-making, mysticism, spirituality, human potential—all these things I equate with Doctor Strange. Every time I pick up a Doctor Strange comic I never fail to get an instant feeling of inspiration and hope. Sure, most people don’t get it, and that’s okay. He’s not for everybody. For me however, he’s one of the best comic book characters ever created. He’s pure magic.
I remember when being fit was an end unto itself. It was about the discipline, the training, and the diet. It was about enjoying the hard work. Enjoying the sacrifice. And yes, enjoying even the occasional suffering. It was about taking what we learned about ourselves in the gym and applying it outside the gym. It was about making our lives BETTER. It wasn’t so much lifting more weight or running more miles (although that was certainly a part of it), it was enjoying the challenge and just trying to be better than you were the day before. As George Sheehan was fond of saying, “Don’t be concerned if running or exercise will add years to your life, be concerned with adding life to your years.” We really were trying to add life to our years. It was not about likes, comments, or seeking out unnecessary supplements. We did the work FOR ourselves. We didn’t need an inauthentic inspirational quote from books we’ve never read every time we touched a weight or ran a marathon. It was about showing up and training with no distractions, no need to document every workout, just old fashioned sweat and hard work. It was a necessarily solitary pursuit.
But social media changed us.
The rise of social media has with it elevated every good and bad thing about ourselves. Who we are shows up online, warts and all. Even what we choose NOT to post reveals something about us. So it’s little surprise that our insecurities and pathologies tend to take most of the bandwidth of our social media influence. If we are not healthy, our social media won’t be either. And looking at the average Instagram fitness model or athlete, we are sick indeed.
A few months ago I saw yet another Instagram fitness model showing her hard won chiseled abs, but in doing so she was lifting her breasts up as well (this has become a common way for women to show their abs), which as we all know is about as useful as holding a spoon at the same time as showing your abs. I thought, “I’m so old I remember when women showed their abs without touching their breasts.” What could have been a moment of displaying hard work and discipline became simply another tedious moment of sexualizing the female form (and don’t misunderstand, I don’t care what people do with their bodies nor am I telling women what to do with theirs, but when one’s message is attempting to demonstrate the rewards or hard work and discipline, and it becomes sexualized, the message is muddled, perhaps lost altogether). It becomes, in a sense, pornography (in the sense of Orson Welles's idea of pornography being antipathetic to films or higher forms because pornography is accomplishing quite a different aim than than any other project, in other words, pornography or the excitation of one sexually, cannot be introduced to any other project as it is its antithesis). The constant sexualizing of the body and in general just the fetishizing of “health” is one of my biggest pet peeves in the health and fitness industry of which men and women are both guilty. Why does working out and eating healthily have to be sexualized, so much so that too many people live “the lifestyle” for reasons not at all connected with health? But to leverage for endorsements? For sex? For fame? Health and wellness is largely accidental. It’s not for self-knowledge, not deepening one’s relationship to self, culture, and nature, not understanding who we are as humans, just a crass cash grab.
This is not new of course. Health and wellness can be used for all manner of reasons, but this seems to be a modern pathology of the 21st century. I see both men and women now hyper-aware of their image so much so that even in family photos family members are now “angling” or refuse to take photos at all because they feel they cannot live up to an impossible standard of beauty or fitness. It has reached the point that many people curate their online image so much so that if they were to be seen in real life no one would recognize them. We have a generation right now that if they became a Missing Person no one would ever find them because no picture of them actually resembles them! To be so hyper fixated on image is, I believe, unhealthy and not well. The opposite of health and wellness.
What we may be seeing is culture-created Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). It is well-documented that with the rise of the 80s action movies came with it a focus on physical culture and a new awareness of body image. We can simply look at the evolution of the G.I. Joe doll from an average looking healthy man to today, a hyper muscular super athlete. How does this make young boys feel? Studies show (see the illuminating work of Katherine A. Phillips, among others) it makes them feel absolutely horrible, so much so that by puberty boys already feel bad about their bodies, a phenomenon that simply didn’t exist decades ago when healthier images of men were the norm. And don’t even get me started with Barbie. We as a culture are undermining the self-confidence of our healthy children, indoctrinating them with impossible standards of beauty and body-image when they are the most emotionally compromised simply to sell them supplements, exercise programs, and beauty products as adults.
The rise of the Instagram fitness model is a direct result of this culture, many of them themselves suffering from BDD, and although by most standards appear to be perfect in appearance, inside they feel as if they are grotesque, fat, or weak. We are all right now locked in this cycle of impossible beauty and fitness standards. The models suffer, their followers suffer, and the culture at large suffers. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that we must look a certain way to be healthy and it’s making us all miserable. We are all spending hours in the gym when the rest of our lives need us. We are prioritizing the gym over relationships, over careers, over emotional, psychological and intellectual health, over many other pursuits that would provide value and meaning to our lives. Instead of living balanced complete lives, we are living in the gym, all our eggs in that one limited basket. This is to have completely missed the point of health and wellness. This is again neither healthy nor well behavior.
For far too many fitness models it’s not even about health, but appearance. How many people would still lift weights, do yoga, etc. if it turned out it made you slightly fatter (but healthier)? What if your idea of strong didn’t match up to what men and women think of as sexy? Would you still strive to be strong? Would you still be proud of your body and post pics of it? I doubt it.
Now, I see nothing inherently wrong with using sex to sell a healthier lifestyle or a deeper relationship with the body. But this isn’t exactly what’s happening. If you leave your dick out while you happen to be lifting weights or are half naked when running, knock yourself out. If you are suggestively touching yourself in your pics demonstrating your fitness, again, knock yourself out. But we can do better, can’t we? As an industry, we can be better can’t we? Why can’t we offer up content meant to nurture not only the body, but the mind and soul? Why can’t we value psychological health as much as physical health? Monitoring our emotional well-being as how much as our weight? Why can’t self-actualization be at the forefront of our goals? If it’s not, what point is being physically healthy? If we have arrested development in our moral, psychological, emotional, and intellectual lives who really cares if we have abs?
I see fitness celebrities all the time posting online as if they were teenagers, their asses poked out, their bodies at awkward angles to accentuate their body shape, filters on their faces, emojis on their naked nipples, and putting forth beliefs developmentally appropriate for 8 year olds. It is cringe-worthy.
We can do better. We can BE better.
Will it be more difficult? Definitely. Will it be as flashy? Nope. Will you lose followers and get less likes? Likely. But we will be on the onramp of a healthier and happier culture. The health and fitness industry can actually for once live up to its name. We can demonstrate a mature way of being, confident in understanding the nature of the self, striving to always create a deeper relationship to life and the kosmos. The body is but the vehicle. It is merely the means through which we understand ourselves and the universe. To mistake the vehicle for the universe, to simply keep it shiny, is to have missed the point of the body, which is to use it to delve deep within it and mine its treasures in order to make them known to the world. But if we never get past the flesh, the soul will forever be an undiscovered country.
The old Instagram fitness model is, as an idea, obsolete. In its place is a new kind of Instagram fitness model, embodying mindfulness, integrity, wholeness, psychological and emotional maturity, and authenticity. It will be some time before this new model is valued, but as a culture, we’re ready. With every new like, comment, and follow of the old Instagram fitness model, the need for a new one is further demonstrated.
The world needs you.
Human beings are the only species that does not die, but perishes. That is, we are fully conscious of our end. Of all the other animals-- we suffer. But because we are aware of our end we can achieve a relationship with life that no other animal can--we can thrive.
Death is right. Death is real. The warrior understands this and does not wish it to be any other way. Death makes virtue possible because you realize that there is no life beyond this one and so there can be no ulterior motive beyond doing good as an end to itself. The acknowledgment of our own mortality is the first step toward true autonomy, purpose, and virtue. It is only after we have understood that we are going to die that we can make sense of the world and find our place in it without delusion or fantasy, without false confidence or courage. Our most important priorities come into focus. Confusion becomes exceptionally rare. We love with greater intensity, feel with greater depth, and possess a greater capacity to experience wonder and awe. In short, we become attuned to both the suffering and ecstatic joys of the world, transmuting both into revelatory wisdom, insight, and strength. The warrior becomes the living embodiment of the tension between the Eternal and the transient, honoring both truths equally. It is the honoring of both that gives rise to a life that is truly purposeful.
Death concentrates our efforts and clarifies our intentions. Without it we cannot act purely. The first existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard, writes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” When we do not focus on death, our mind is divided, thinking about a great many superfluous and trivial things, and not focusing on what it is we are doing. When we are not one with each moment that arises, we are not present in our own lives. A multitude of sins slip in when we are not present, poisoning our efforts and our experiences. A single act is no longer a single act but an unfocused effort that is often unsuccessful or at the very least one having mixed results. If the unfocused mind was the strike of a sword, it would feel as if it were wielded by several swordsmen, awkward, uncoordinated, the swordsmen pulling in opposite directions, hands clumsily grasping over hands for the hilt—strength diluted.
There are no hidden motives, no double-mindedness once we have accepted our own deaths. Like the kamikaze, we simply act, not worrying excessively about outcomes because there is ultimately nothing we can do but what is in our immediate power to do. We are 100 percent in the present and nowhere else. In Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, he writes, “It is said the warrior’s is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” For us, the Way of the Sword must be the Way of our lives. There must be no difference. In the same way that samurai trained with their swords, we must train with our lives. The quality of our lives must have that sense of urgency, that sense of care and concern. Leave nothing on the battlefield, exhaust all your resources. You have but one life. Wield it as the sword it is.
Information overload. Notification fatigue. Decision fatigue. Virtually all of us all are experiencing these modern ailments. In one day we are inundated with more information that most of our ancestors ever had to process in their entire lives--much of it unnecessary. We are in a constant state of high alert. Notifications for everything (our body usually processes these as alarms, but the term “notifications” sounds a lot more innocuous doesn’t it?). Alarms to wake up, alarms to go to bed, alarms for texts, alarms for emails, alarms for social media, alarms for banking, alarms for shopping, alarms for dating apps, and on and on and on. Social media is the worst offender. It is designed to keep us in high alert, a notification for literally every activity. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we get a notification and we immediately react. Our adrenal glands are becoming attuned (and enslaved) to the social media algorithms siphoned to us by corporate masters we’ve blindly sold our data to in exchange for a promise of fuller connection to the world. I think we all now realize that promise was a false one.
Yes, it is now possible to be friends with thousands of people from all over the world, get information from all over the world, however, the connection is tenuous at best. At worst, a complete distraction from our real non-social media lives (which desperately are in need of our attention). This corporate-sponsored never-ending connection to social media is stealing our ability to authentically connect not only to each other, but maybe more importantly, to authentically connect to ourselves. It is stealing our ability to simply sit with our thoughts without being pulled in multiple directions at once. It’s no wonder many of us are suffering from anxiety, depression, or periods of mental and emotional exhaustion. We are being torn apart, our consciousnesses on the operating table of commerce, our attention spans dismantled and whittled down until they’re only able to process ads.
I don’t know about many of you, but I read far fewer books than I once did. I don’t write as much either, nor do I think as clearly or as deeply. I am swimming in the shallow end of social media activity, sometimes drowning from the shallowness. If it is affecting me I know it is affecting you too.
I hope we are not at the stage where we no longer have the attention spans to read books or watch movies or even digest news articles, but I worry, especially for younger generations. For nearly a decade I was an educator. For 2 of those years I taught AP Seminar at a local high school. Every once in awhile for holidays I would reward my students with a movie of their choosing on the last day before Christmas break. One day while we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas I remember looking out into the darkened classroom at a constellation of iphones. It was at that moment I knew something was wrong. Now, it doesn’t take much effort to watch a movie--it is, after all, a mostly passive activity for most viewers. But my students couldn’t even summon the attention span to watch a movie that they loved. They were on Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram instead.
Social media, whatever it’s original goal was of connecting us, has done the exact opposite. It is separating us. And from our own lives, which is the foundation of all other meaningful connection. The highlight reel that social media rewards with “likes” keeps us constantly “plugged in.” Our days often feel much like when we are lost in thought when driving and can’t remember how we got to our destination. Our lives become a stream of likes, memes, ads, and comments, none of which we remember at day’s end. It scatters our consciousness to the wind. We can no longer concentrate on one thing. When is the last time you watched a movie without checking your phone? How many of you have your notifications on right now for messaging, Facebook, Instagram, dating apps, banking app, emails, etc.?
If comparison is the thief of joy social media and all things designed to “notify” us is literally designed to make us unhappy. We are inundated by others’ highlight reels. We have all seen the Instagram model on vacation in the Bahamas (vacationing from what nobody seems to know) posting half naked pics of herself partying and the thousands of likes she inevitably gets. Social media has monetized our unhappiness and dissatisfaction (and they are in large part manufacturing our dissatisfaction by not allowing us to see all possible content but rather privileging the content that gets the most likes, and with anything that is based on the public appetite, we often get the very worst-- the “if it bleeds it leads” type of content). Social media companies may grow fat from the money it makes off of our interaction, but we are starved for attention. We are out of existential shape, malnourished of meaning and authentic connection, our real lives a wasteland of bad time-management and unhappiness. It is to social media we often turn to when we are bored or lacking in direction. Like the addict, we log in for the “fix” of likes and comments. For far too many, they would rather live a half-life on social media than take the larger risk of a real life. They crave distraction from their real lives, or worse, complete disengagement.
The startling thing is that I am no different than them for the most part. I sometimes distract myself and I definitely “multi-task” (a horrible term for simply being distracted). As I write this post Lethal Weapon 2 is on TV vying for my attention. Sure, I’m pausing it to write here and there, but for the most part it’s on and in the background (shamefully I just cut it off). We are all distracted. Instead of being completely dedicated to a moment we are doing several things at once, none of them particularly well. It’s not just our performance that is compromised, but our ability to enjoy the moment, to fully inhabit it. We often remember our vacations backpacking, hiking, or swimming in the ocean because we are fully in the moment. Not an ounce of our attention is elsewhere. Our lives take on a timeless quality we were are in the moment (at-one-ment). It’s the reason why our childhoods are so vivid. We were all in. No future thoughts, no past thoughts, just the ecstatic joy of living in the present fully.
We are now tied to social technology. The Rubicon has been crossed. The bell can’t be unrung. Some futurists have predicted that our brains will be directly interfaced with the internet within the next few decades-- 24-7 access to pure information. This may sound startling to some, however, the problem we will face will be much the same problem as what we face today: what information is good? What information is true? What information is beautiful? How can we filter what is truly meaningful? How can we find a healthy relationship with information?
What then can you do?
Well, one thing you can do is cut off your social media notifications. Instead of curating your social media life, curate your real life (because trust me, when you die the random guy who sent you a friend request in 2015 will not show up because he liked your meme about Cheesus Christ). As a real friend of mine once said, “Your real friends are the ones who show up when you need help moving.” Having virtual friends can be rewarding, but nothing is as rewarding as cultivating a life of meaning where you can interact in person, eye to eye, human touch to human touch, immediacy unfiltered by crafting a clever response, but enjoying each other’s company, and actually be fully present.
Read short stories. Read books. Read articles. Cut back on the meme-sized information. It’s usually neither wholly accurate or precise. Start rebuilding your attention span.
Listen to music without doing anything else. Music is often the backdrop of our lives at parties, while we wash dishes, etc.. How about we bring it to the forefront? How about we actually listen?
Learn to meditate. Sit in silence. There are few things as clarifying as meditating and engaging with your own mind. Doing so reveals just how much of a reflexive organ the brain truly is. It will likely create scenarios, movie scenes, regurgitate past events while you’re simply trying to count your breaths. But while realizing our monkey-minds it also shows us the work we have to do to center our attention.
Once a day put your phone away for an hour. Lock it up if you have to. Then see what happens. I promise you whatever you do will likely be more memorable than whatever notifications you would have received.
And when you do find yourself on social media ask yourself this: are you posting out of emptiness or fullness? Are you adding value to others’ lives or simply distracting yourself? Are you posting to prop up your ego or to help others?
We can make social media healthy again. But only if we are.
The earliest memories I have as a child are feeling completely overwhelmed by the world. I felt out of place, unanchored, alone. It was too big, too scary, and I felt like I was drowning in it. One memory I have in particular is in Kindergarten and crying and clinging to my mother’s leg as she left me in the classroom for the first time (this happened every day for weeks; I would eventually work my way to the teacher’s aid’s lap, and finally to my desk with the other children). But internally this wasn’t the normal “first day of school jitters” that most children feel. I felt absolutely destroyed. Abandoned. Devastated. This feeling, in some ways, has never really left me.
I’m sure nature over nurture played a part in my reaction to the world. Maybe I was built more afraid, or more attuned to my fear? Regardless, the world was for me as Wordsworth observed, “ too much with us.” Everything seemed to evoke fear and anxiety. Despite my loving parents and a nurturing home life, the world felt like a hostile place much of the time. At school I essentially didn’t talk or interact with other kids. I sat in the corner, silent. However, at home I was an absolute trickster, always outgoing, communicative, energetic, fearless, and annoyingly extroverted. The moment I walked out of the house...paralyzed.
This tendency, however, did not change that much after childhood and I limped into my 30s still feeling absolutely ill-at-ease in the world. I played small. I hid. I was the proverbial nail that didn’t stick up for fear of being nailed down. Apart from my passion of working out, poetry, philosophy, spirituality, movies, and art, I did not take any risks. I pushed myself in training, my writing, and academics, but that was pretty much where it ended. I was in arrested development, my emotional development ignored almost completely.
And it showed. I did not get into a meaningful relationship until I turned 30 (and it was the disaster you probably imagine). I avoided relationships and friendships almost entirely until then. I was basically a monk who read, wrote, and worked out. I made room for nothing else. To do so was too scary. The risk too great.
Of course, this stemmed from many more issues than my innate fear. I lost my left eye as a kid in a bb gun accident and was for as long as I can remember struggling with what I would later learn was Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I felt like a freak in just about every way imaginable. Who would ever love me? Like me? Nobody wants a fat, one-eyed, ugly guy as their boyfriend. No one would ever want to have me as a friend.
Perhaps my reaction to the world in the beginning is different than most people experience, but everyone feels ill-at-ease in the world at first. Change is always difficult. We feel threatened because it forces us to change. You may not have lost an eye or are struggling with BDD, but everyone deals with fear and anxiety. When we don’t mindfully confront it, we run the risk of never fully developing ourselves. Our stories go untold, our songs unsung, our voices silenced. In a sense, we never grow up, and worse, never grow into who we are meant to be.
Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey applies to us all. It is the framework for almost every popular myth cross-culturally. It is as if human beings throughout the entire world have found the underpinning of the shape of all our lives. If it were music, it would be almost as if every culture throughout the world started singing the same song.
The beginning of the Hero’s Journey is the Call to adventure. It’s typically “a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father's city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man. Examples might be multiplied, ad infinitum, from every corner of the world."
The call is ever asking us. In every moment in every day. It does not have to be Obi-wan Kenobi running into us in the desert or Gandalf knocking on our doors. The world is ever asking us to accept the call to adventure. How often do we ignore it, or train our ears not to hear it? For many of us fear has turned the call into white noise. We have become so locked into our fears and anxiety that the music of the call becomes a traumatic song that we turn off because it reminds us of all we are not becoming, all the potential we are not using. It was certainly this way for me. And so like many of us, I refused. Again and again I refused.
"Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire or renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration."
All that was in me I ignored. I sat on a whale and fished for minnows for a decade. And so, nothing happened. I was, in some ways, preparing for the call. I worked on myself and worked on myself until finally the pain of remaining who I was was too great and whatever potential hell awaited me on the other side was far more bearable than remaining the frightened and small person I was. I accepted. I embarked. It was baby steps at first. Baby steps are sometimes the most important steps and aren't small at all. In the very beginning each step is unsure, and therefore, courageous. We take them knowing everything is against us. I started seeking out those things that made me afraid. I started dating, I started seeking out friendship, I practiced to become more extroverted, I accepted a teaching position to overcome my fear of public speaking, I ran up mountains, and as always, I wrote and trained.
It was only through the ownership of my body (and so, my life) that I carved out a life that strived to overcome my weaknesses despite my fear. I delved deep. I threw myself into myself and lived out the Hero’s Journey as well as I was able.
A decade later I am still on that journey. I have written two books (one of which took 4 years), built a personal training business, ran over 36,000 miles, benched nearly 400 pounds, squatted 500 pounds, deadlifted 450 pounds, pushed over a thousand pounds on the sled, got a real estate license, earned two Bachelor's degrees and one Master's degree, became healthier, more emotionally mature, and hopefully become wiser. I have learned more about myself than I ever would have otherwise. And that’s the point is it not? We’re here to learn who we really are. After the clutter of culture, society, and arbitrary expectations have been pushed away, we are left with the space to become who we are. It is the only journey there is.
As I say at the end of my book, “The 21st century Body: An Essential Guide for the New Millennium,” “Finally, far too many people are slaves searching for masters, whether in their relationships, employers, governments, or religions. The demands of liberty are great, but it is far far worth meeting those demands on your feet, than meeting the paltry and unworthy demands of slavery on your knees. I can’t promise that you will always be safe on this journey, for that’s not mine to promise, but I can steady you with the knowledge that in your deepest moments when you are so far from the good opinion of others that their voices barely touch you anymore, you will find a solace you never knew existed. And within that solace, you will find your whole life.”
Every one of us has the potential to live extraordinary lives no matter who we are. It is a privilege to be alive and have the opportunity to live out our lives according to our ability. Don’t not take the risk. Everything awaits you on the other side of fear. Learn to just keep going, no matter what. And even if we fail, it will have been a far better life than remaining on the sidelines. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Live in the arena. It is the only life worth living.
Group exercise classes are quite popular these days and bring a level of comradery, mutual support, and even entertainment. For many, they can't think of any other way to train except with other people. We are social creatures after all, and using each other to remain accountable is sometimes necessary. We rely on others to externalize our commitment. However, with all the benefits that training with a group provides it doesn't do the one thing that is the most important to your life: it doesn't develop mental toughness. Borrowing the will of others is perfectly fine in a group dynamic but in life when you find yourself in the darkest possible place you're very often alone. It is in those darkest moments of our lives that we will necessarily have to draw upon our inner resources we have developed through hard training. There will be no one to keep pace with, no one to inspire us to lift more, no one to motivate us to dig deeper. It is only through solitary hard training where one confronts their own mind directly and learns to forge ahead despite discomfort, pain, weariness, exhaustion, that we learn to endure, and to excel. In this regard it's better to train alone, or at least prepare to be alone. Training alone and with a group are both beneficial, and I suggest both, but if you're training for more than just fitness and health and want to actually create the tools to flourish in an extremely difficult world, training alone is the crucible you seek.
Make no mistake about it: you are in a war. The war is our training. The war is our art. The war is our dreams. The war is our state of mind. The war is our spiritual practices. The war is our relationships. And you shouldn't wish for anything less than war. War is right. War is noble. War is what we're here for. And we should feel nothing less than humility and joy to be fighting and suffering. What higher joy is there? What else is worth our time? If you find yourself against incalculable odds, completely outnumbered, your back against the wall, thank your lucky stars. It's in this place warriors are born. Superheroes are made. This is where we discover who we truly are.
No warrior ever found himself in times of peace. No one ever evolved in paradise. Like the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, they evolved by leaving Eden. Not by remaining in it. Peace dulls our wits as well as our swords. Our paradise must be war. It's only on the battlefield in that crucible of fire and suffering that we recognize our best selves, that we discover who we really are. Again we must remember the Spartans: “The Spartans say that any army may win while it still has its legs under it; the real test comes when all strength is fled and the men must produce victory on will alone.” This is the kind of war we want and the kind of war we need. We have to be taken the very brink of death, not always a physical one, but the more meaningful one, to the death of our old selves. And learning to love suffering is how we get there.
We have an innate instinct to move towards wholeness. A critical intuition that moves us towards Spirit. Even the most troubled and destructive among us are still, in their own way, trying to be whole. And whether we consciously move towards it or not, Spirit, manifested as the world, drives us back to it. It is the natural order of things. Entropy is not the law of the universe. Wholeness is. Entropy is the waves of the ocean while wholeness is beneath the surface, in the depths, where nothing moves but just is. The unenlightened mind sees the waves and is tossed and turned and declares the world incomplete, fragmented, destructive, terrible. Imperfect. While the enlightened mind sees the waves and know them to be only the way the depths show themselves to the world, while beneath, what gives rise to those waves, is complete, whole, utterly still. Perfect. In the Absolute sense, there is nothing you can ever do to separate yourself from Spirit. Hitler could have gone on overseeing the murder of millions of other Jews and his connection to Spirit would have remained in tact. Spirit, in the Absolute sense, does not care one way or the other who or what you are. It could care less whether you’re a saint or a mass murderer. A prince or a pauper. An atheist or a Christian. In the relative sense, however, who we are is incredible important. Male or female, white or black, gay or straight, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, good or evil—think about how different your life would be were you one but not the other? How much of your identity is bound up in these relative dimensions of ourselves? Who we are in the relative sense is much like a computer. Let us imagine that all computers (us) have the exact same Hard Drive (Spirit). However, we’re all very different computers with different software. Some of us have software that allows us to function at a great capacity and efficiency while some are not very efficient or useful at all. Some computers are used for gaming and others for writing, some for porn and others for music, and some for all of these things. And yet, no matter what use we are for, we all share that same Hard Drive—Spirit.
If I had any spiritual advice, it would be simply this: be better than your religion. Be better than your pastors. Both are often the height of mediocrity, and the opposite of authentic spirituality. In other words, go it alone, if you can. Learn the contents of your own mind. Know yourself better than you know anything else in the world. That’s authenticity. That’s being spiritual. Thelonious Monk said, “A genius is the one most like himself.” That’s the goal. To not be Jesus or to be Buddha or to be Mohammad, but to be YOU. They were successful because they were themselves; how successful can you be pretending to be someone you’re not and were never meant to be? Cut it out. Life is too short. Get busy learning about who you are and you’ll be far better off than those still mimicking long dead saints and prophets who we know very little about anyway. Get busy remembering who you are beneath all your identities, stories, fears and doubts, confidences and joys. Spirit is who you are. Spirit is what you always were and always will be.
I enjoy the discipline. Like the Marine grunt, I enjoy suffering. The stricter the diet, the harder the workout, the longer the day, the more comfort I deny myself, the more pain and discomfort I feel, the happier I am. When I suffer I know I am living at the outer edge of my abilities, my talents, my will. How often do we feel that exquisite sharpness? The sharp edge of who we are and who we will become? How often do we avoid the reckoning? Getting used to loving the pain and discomfort is one of the most significant mindsets we can achieve. We know the good life is not easily lived. We know this in our bones. But how many have the strength and will and endurance to see that life through to its logical end? To know peace whether in pain or in pleasure? To understand that nothing befits us more than suffering, and in accepting it, transmute it to ecstatic joy.
Studies have shown that if we maintain an exercise and diet regime for at least six months the success rate for maintaining a life-long healthy lifestyle goes up dramatically. But how many do this? Why do they not see it through? Why do people quit after only a few days, a few weeks, a few months? Partly it’s because their mindsets aren’t calibrated to the life they are attempting to live. They throw their bodies into a program without ever preparing their mind. And it is in the mind that the war is fought. As Telamon of Arcadia wrote in the 5th Century B.C.E, “It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.” We study too much and do too little. We read countless fitness magazines with countless exercise routines and rarely put any of them into practice.
Make no mistake about it: you are in a war. The war is our training. The war is our art. The war is our dreams. The war is our state of mind. The war is our spiritual practices. The war is our relationships. And you shouldn’t wish for anything less than war. War is right. War is noble. War is what we’re here for. And we should feel nothing less than humility and joy to be fighting and suffering and striving. What higher joy is there? What else is worth our time? If you find yourself against incalculable odds, completely outnumbered, your back against the wall, thank your lucky stars. It’s in this place warriors are born. Superheroes are made. This is where we discover who we truly are. No warrior ever found himself in times of peace. No one ever evolved in paradise. Peace dulls our wits and as well as our swords. Our paradise is war. It’s only on the battlefield in that crucible of fire and suffering that we recognize our best selves, that we discover who we really are. Steven Pressfield writes in Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, “The Spartans say that any army may win while it still has its legs under it; the real test comes when all strength is fled and the men must produce victory on will alone.” This is the kind of war we want and the kind of war we need. We have to be taken the very brink of death, not always a physical one, but the more meaningful one, to the death of our old selves. And learning to love suffering is how we get there.
Loving is something we learn just as we learn any skill, like gymnastics or basketball or tennis. There are some naturally talented and others who must work harder at it. Regardless, it requires just as much dedication to learn to love properly as learning a new instrument or mastering an advanced martial arts technique, probably more. The 10,000 hour rule is applicable here. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he claims that to master any skill a practitioner must practice for a total of around 10,000 hours. Of course, there are other things to consider, but if we take his assertion at face value, how many dates must we go on before we master loving someone? How many relationships must be enter in before we learn to love adequately? How many heartbreaks must we endure before we learn the nature of loving? We mistakenly believe that we are great at love right out of the gate, but it’s not true. Love is work. And it’s often not very glamorous. It surely isn’t the romantic comedies we see on television where it seems everyone is automatically equipped with the tools for love and just need to overcome a comedy of errors to see them properly used. It’s deep personal work examining our fears, our past, and our pathologies. Shedding light on the darkness in our hearts is painful, gut-wrenching labor. But few things are so rewarding, and so rewarding because love is the chief work of our lives.
There is solace in understanding. At the heart of all fundamentalism is despair, whether in religion or fitness (and the two mindsets are not altogether different). When we train from our own understanding, whether we train the body, mind, or soul, we are immensely serene, calm, and sure. Who else knows our body like we do? Who else knows the contents of our own mind like we do? Who else knows the way of our soul if not us? When we disembark from all the trendy fitness programs we are entering a space of absolute authenticity where there are no road signs, directions, or maps. All that you know and recognize will necessarily come from within. To travel without such things is why so few people ever leave the known path, why year after year people train in the same way they always have, why year after year they buy into each new fad diet that rolls off the conveyor belt, why year after year they buy into belief systems that contradicts all that we know to be true and just and beautiful. Why do we trade our authenticity for such a paltry false comfort as community (and not all communities are created equally) and trade our independent wills for such a modicum of perceived safety (is there really such a thing as safety)? I can’t promise that you will always be safe on this journey, for that’s not mine to promise, but I can steady you with the knowledge that in your deepest moments when you are so far from the good opinion of others that their voices barely reach you anymore, that you will find a solace you never knew existed. And within that solace you will find your whole life.
Know thyself. To know ourselves is to know God because our true selves are God. Forget about everything anyone has ever told you about God or the Divine or anything you have ever read about God. Begin with yourself. Question everything you have been told. Let the world of ideas and concepts recede. Have the courageous curiosity to begin again. What do you feel? What are you experiencing right now? What we find when we are open to our bodies and to the experiencing of life without labels, filters, or concepts is a new way of experiencing, a new way of being. In this awareness what is mundane is also a miracle. What is horrific is also holy. What is tragic is also transcendent. As we navigate our existence and make qualifications about our experiences, there is also the higher Self underlying all that we see, feel, think, hear, touch, and smell. It is the Self that bears witness. It looks out through us on all that exists and sees no disconnect between us and the world, between us and our bodies—all is connected in a divine embrace. There is no difference between exterior and interior, between matter and mind, between heaven and hell, between nirvana and samsara. The Self has no opposite. There is nothing alien to it. It is All. And to see everything as connected, whole, is to simply see with the eyes of God.
Beginning a journey is never easy, especially one in which radical and transformative change is the goal. There is always fear that accompanies us on the journey. The German poet Goethe wrote, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Even though I don’t know you personally, I understand you. You can do this. If I can do it, so can you. Should you make the choice, together we will embark on a journey that is as rewarding and instructive as it is full of wonder, revelation, and joy. On the journey you will experience ten thousand little miracles a day that you would have otherwise missed. I can’t tell you about them—they must be experienced to be believed. As Henry David Thoreau reminds us, "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings." A new way of being awaits you.