Take it or leave it.

Friday, March 11, 2016


"All sorts of people have invested time in studying the worlds around them," writes computer scientist David Gelernter. "Most of us invest almost none in knowing ourselves." 

And those who do (turn within, meditate, renounce the world, take the road less traveled, etc.) are elevated above the common rung and given the status of sages and saints, increasing the distance from society that they by their actions (or inactions) have brought about. Or else they are ridiculed and crucified. Possibly their lot is to be dealt both fame and shame. Or neither. There are many we don't know about.

But anyone who chooses can learn about the depths of his own mind, by stepping back and viewing wandering thoughts as they come and go. Reflection is a skill that can be learned, and coupled with reason it makes us uniquely human. It's like language or math that way. We all have a knack. Some more than others, but the knack improves with solitary effort.

Society doesn't usually value the talent for being; the accolades go to doing. But there are those whose greatest contribution is simply being who they are, rather than doing this or that. These spiritually-minded individuals feel that they are part of something much larger than themselves, that there is more to life than what can be measured and classified. They (spiritualists, mystics, solitary wanderers, perhaps even you) have a sense of duty to all mankind, to all living things even. And though they are separated by geography, time and personality differences alike, you feel they are parts of a greater unity, which also includes you.

I've certainly struggled with the notion of being versus doing myself. Part of a culture that places a premium on material success, and raised in a family of high-achievers (father an attorney, grandfather a businessman who made his first million at 30 and retired by the age of 40), goal-directed behavior came naturally to me. Starting in the fifth grade I put great pressure on myself to be in the top 3 academically in my grade, and in sports to make the All-Star team every year I was eligible. This carried into high school, when varsity sports and honor rolls became my norm. These accolades brought popularity, another yardstick of success. And my most vivid memories are intimately connected with successes - as when, as a boy of 10, I gave a speech in front of an audience of 10,000 about the influence of the 5 human values (truth, love, right-action, non-violence, and peace); and when my baseball team made league history; when I won Homecoming King, medical school class valedictorian, the Maui Warrior Challenge. These have been my most exciting times. My motto being "I win, therefore I am."

It was in college that a girlfriend became critical of my achievement-driven bent. A life well-lived doesn't have to fit society's standards of success, she argued. There is more to living than merely making the grade. I didn't take her seriously. I don't think she even graduated high school. Besides, she fell in love with me when I was Homecoming King, which was not a coincidence. Because success in its various manifestations is sexy. 

But as I have grown up and grown older I see that being is not merely an alternative to doing, but the former holds benefits not found with the latter. Less time doing means more time reflecting, a sorely neglected human skill. A life of the mind, of the spirit, is quite satisfying. Yes I find myself justifying my life to friends and family, and often to myself. Is it really okay to spend hours merely watching my thoughts, or should I be out conquering the world? But conquering oneself is harder to do, and not only because it gets short shrift. You try taming your urges. Doing algebra is easy by comparison. 

I don't want to be one of those who strives until he dies (for material gain, that is). Who struggles and is never satisfied, and so keeps completing projects, earning money, churning out children, all in an effort to...what? Attain immortality? Hardly. Those who labor for physical riches do so under the illusion that they will never die, because one day you won't be around to enjoy the fruits of your labors, and then what? If you don't enjoy the labor itself, the business of life, the living of it, then it's not really worth it. So why accumulate? "You take none of it with you" is a cliche because it's probably true. I have learned this in my life of striving. Studying so hard that the book knowledge seems to brand itself on my mind, and then I ace the exam and as memorized facts make way for new information, I found I have forgotten what I once thought I knew like the back of my hand. Being an amputee is shocking. More shocking still is the realization that you can't know anything but who you are, and then only because knowledge, true knowledge, lies in being what you are.

Self-assertion is a necessary part of our development. It is integral to the formation of the personality. But at some point it must give way to self-awareness. And this usually happens around the time that we see we are more than just our personalities. We are something unfathomable. But trying to fathom what we are is part of the fun. In fact it beats the stuff out of scoring goals and hitting homers. The universe is university. It is in the world that we discover ourselves, partly by doing, and relating to others, and achieving, yes. But there is also much to be discovered and experienced by dwelling within. The uncharted realm of the mind awaits your exploration. 

Being is where I find myself now, and it is a heady place to be. And kind of sexy, at least to me. 

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