The Second Life

Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being….

Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt… This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life…

Contemplation is no pain killer. What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, cliches, slogans, rationalizations! The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential alter which simply ‘is’.

In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He may or may not realize that this is a great gain, because ‘God is not a what’, not a ‘thing.’ That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no ‘what’ that can be called God. There is ‘no such thing’ as God because God is neither a ‘what’ nor a ‘thing’ but a pure ‘Who’. He is the ‘Thou’ before whom our inmost ‘I’ springs into awareness.”

What a brilliant characterization of the spiritual path! So phenomenologically apt. So beautifully free of the usual dead-end conceptions of theism and atheism. Merton was a Catholic monk who was able to assert, more powerfully than most atheists, that there is ‘no such thing as God’ – and far from making me give up my Christianity, Merton’s comment makes me feel closer to God.

How true, how brave is Merton’s assertion that contemplation is “a terrible breaking and burning of idols” which consumes even ordinary holy conceptions and taken-for-granted religious pieties. An assertion worthy of Nietzsche. Even more, worthy of Christ.

Human life consists of a building up and a breaking down. This is obvious with the body: we nourish, nurture and grow it, only at some point for it to start declining, which we then do our utmost to delay, minimize and overcome.

There is a building up and breaking down of the identity as well. Except unlike with the body, the breaking down of identity is not headed only towards death, but towards a renewal – towards a building up of a new identity even as the physical body declines.

Often the question is asked how humans differ from other animals. And one key difference is looked for: language, reason, culture, etc. But what is missed is how there are many steps in between, say, chimpanzees and 21st century human beings. The assumption is made that there was a key point at which primates turned into humans, into us.

Of course this is not true. Primates turned into many different forms of hominids. A neanderthal was very different from a chimpanzee in that he had a robust cultural identity: he had clothes, fire, maybe even art. Each generation of chimpanzees have to rediscover their capabilities – the discoveries of one generation aren’t passed on materially to their offspring. But with homonids this was already possible. They were born into culturally practices which were passed on from generation to generation.

This meant that a homonid wasn’t just growing physically, but also gaining a cultural identity. The two forms of growth were interlinked.

And so it went for hundreds of thousands of years. In the process, homo sapiens came on the scene with greater sophistication of cultural growth. And yet, this much remained the same: there was no growth anew a second time of one’s identity. Goodness and greatness was defined by how well you realized the identity that you were brought up in: as a warrior or a farmer, or a priest, etc.

It is tempting to think of the Axial age 3,000 years as the olden days, and to mark modern days much more recently (like 500 years ago with the European Enlightenment). But we actually mark the Axial age as a new beginning, with the birth of religions as we now think of them (Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), because it is the beginning of a form of consciousness that is completely natural to us now, but which would have been unthinkable to even our homo sapien ancestors 10,000 years ago.

The key transformation of the Axial age is the development of a rebirth of one’s consciousness. That one can grow and be enculturated in one way into adulthood and even through the peak of one’s physical growth, and even then, as the physical growth starts to decline and so one’s identity rooted in physical capacities declines, one can grow yet again and so one can redefine one’s identity.

Socrates accepting death cheerfully. Lao Tzu leaving the city on the back of a buffalo. The Buddha renouncing his kingdom. Christ willingly sacrificing all on the cross. In each case the main point is the same, and it evokes something new in Earth’s history: a living creature which plumbs to the depths of its own mind and habits, and recreates itself!

This means that a human being like us is the being who is defined by two births. The first which happens to him physically, mentally and culturally and which he doesn’t, and cannot, consciously initiate. And a second which happens to him as he reflects on the first birth and the ensuing life, and seeks to craft himself anew.

The first life enables us to develop the capacities necessary for loving God. The second life is ours to fashion as we put in practice those capacities and so seek God and love Him.

In most of our life we teeter in between the hopes of the first life and the promises of the second life. Confident that the first life is enough, one wants to achieve the virtues and recognition that have been ingrained through one’s enculturation. “No, I don’t want to die to my first self! I want to perfect the first self! That is my true self! Death to the first self isn’t a prelude to a new beginning. It is just death! I will fight this death and resist it with all my might!”

And yet, a part of us also knows that the first life is incomplete. That it cannot be complete, for it is founded on the judgments of others when we were still physically and mentally immature. That there must be something more than what even I imagined for myself when I was not yet fully developed. That fulfillment and perfection can’t be just realizing the goals and ideals that were implanted in me culturally and which I internalized in a youthful energy.

No, my life begins when question everything I knew about myself and build a new life on a solid foundation. This rebirth is the transformation of Saul to Paul. It is the beauty and power of Descartes’ cogito.

Socrates said that philosophy teaches one how to die. What he meant is not just physical death, but more primarily, the death of the first self. One who has embraced the death of the first self and lives into the second birth is freed from the fear of physical death. We fear what we do not know. If I can’t accept my first death, then physical death looms as just the biggest form of death there is. But if I embrace my first death, then death becomes a friend. Not a robber of what is mine, but a gateway to a rebirth. To a chance to see the world anew, with fresh eyes. With the innocence and joy of a child.

To see the world as God sees it. To see myself as God sees me.

Body and Mind

I have a sweet tooth. Implicitly usually I am most looking forward to evening time after dinner when I can have dessert. Ice cream. Or cake. Some pie. Or chocolate. If I don’t have it, I feel like a soccer ball deflating. As if the telos for the day has been frustrated. When I skip having dessert for a day or two, I get antsy, easily annoyed, irritable. The usual withdrawal symptoms of any addictions.

I am going to try something for the next month. I will give up sweets. No chocolate. No donuts put out in the kitchen in the office. No after dinner ice cream.

One motivation is to improve my health. With the imminent arrival of my baby girl, I would like to take better care of myself. I even went to the doctor for the first time in many years for a physical, something I have avoided due to an anxiety I seem to have acquired from a childhood trauma of when my father had a heart attack. When I told the doctor of my impending parenthood, she nodded understandingly, indicating that it was common for parents to be to acquire new motivation to be healthier.

Another motivation is spiritual. Since I was in college, I have had, I now see, a very intellectual and abstract sense of philosophy and spirituality. As if these were mainly mental activities – something I strive for with my mind, far removed from how I take care of my body or cultivate habits of life. This was my attitude even when I was writing my PhD on embodied cognition and the essentially bodily nature of human consciousness.

This was of course reenforced by academic philosophy. Many of my colleagues took better care of themselves physically than I did. Running, biking, hiking, going to gym. But naturally all this physical activity was seen as outside the domain of philosophy. A life style choice matter but far removed from the work of thinking about the nature of consciousness or justice.

Certainly philosophy arguments don’t turn on the physical health of the people debating. But is being a reflective person improved by one’s ability to with stand addictions such as eating sweets?

I think so.

Now I am thinking that if I can control my urges and not give into my physical cravings, then it will improve not just my health, but also my ability to think more clearly. That the urges for sweets is like a covering over my eyes which makes me see the world through a kind of haze. No different in principle than if I were addicted to alcohol, drugs or sex.

This is of course an ancient idea: resisting the body, indeed even starving it a little, is a way to heighten one’s higher mental states. I think this is right.

For too long I have thought just with my mind. Now I want to think with my whole being, including my body. To enable that, I have to take better care of my body and take care of how I treat it.

What will my awareness be like if I can resist sweets for a month? I intend to find out.


Stress is discord between expectation and reality.

By instinct, we respond to stress by trying to change reality. If the world or others don’t confirm to my expectations, then I will make them conform. I will remove the discord by aligning reality with my expectation.

This instinct is pervasive. Deep seated. And often largely unconscious.

It also perpetuates stress. The more I try to make reality conform to my expectations, the more the discord increases. More stress rises.

The other extreme is to try to give up expectations altogether. A forced resignation to reality.

But this too leads to stress. Giving up expectations becomes an expectation, which conflicts with the reality of being unable to give up all expectations.

What then? If I can’t change reality to fit my expectations, nor give up expectations, how to respond to stress?

Be aware of it.

Don’t just act out of it. Nor try to dismiss it or cover it up. Be with it. With the sense of discord. With the tension between what you want and what is happening.

You can’t change reality however you want. Nor can you get rid of expectations by fiat.

If you sit with the discord, a third option arises: reality will slowly transform your expectations, which in turn will slowly work on reality.

If you don’t try to control how expectations and reality coexist, but give them space to exist with each other even in discord, they will slowly make friends with each other.

Expectations then won’t try to impose themselves onto reality. Nor reality try to bully expectations.

Both are equal partners. Stress arises when one is seen as more in control. When one is experienced as the aggressor and the other as the supplicant. Stress is the feeling of war between the two.

Peace is the experience of not taking sides. Not favoring reality or expectations. Seeing both as intertwined and inseparable.

Reality is reality. Vast. Uncontrollable. A wild bull which can’t be harnessed.

As a human, as a cognitive being, expectations are reality. Built into me through millions of years of biology, thousands of years of culture and decades of biography. My expectations are no easier for me to control often than I can control the wind or the lightening. Expectations flow through me like lava through an erupting volcano.

Expectations I can easily control are only surface expectations. The more the stress, the deeper the expectations in play and harder to be aware of them, let alone control.

The deep expectations are no more in my control than reality outside me. The deep expectations are just ultimately part of reality. The more I relate to them as reality, as something I can’t just control through my will, the less the stress.

The tension is really between reality and itself: outer reality and inner reality, both vaster than anything I can easily change. Stress is the identification with one aspect of reality over another.

Stress is like identifying with one wheel of a bicycle and seeing the other wheel as an antagonist. “I want it to move when i move, but how dare it makes me move when it wants to move!”

Leave to outer reality what is outer reality. Leave to deep habit and expectations what is deep habit and expectations. Identify with neither. Don’t get caught in their fights.

Give each space and observe them. Be friendly with both without trying to resolve their dispute. Don’t seek the happiness of an easy resolution. Open yourself to the peace of them working it out slowly over time. Be open to new, unexpected solutions and paths.

Stress is like greed: it’s pain and desire can’t be satisfied. Trying to satisfy it only leads to temporary satiation and ultimately to further craving and deeper pain.

Step outside of stress and just observe it. Don’t side with expectations or with reality.

Stress can’t be fulfilled. Through yelling or force or getting them to do what you want or you being better.

Stress can only be dissolved. Deflated through not identifying with it.

Stress can’t be overcome. It can only be side stepped.

Step to the side and let it pass. Observe it as it passes.

Observe the tangle between expectations and reality the way you would observe two wild animals locked in battle. With caution, with respect. Mindful of them and the space of their battle. And mindful to keep your distance and not be pulled into that space.