Stubbing Your Toe on the Philosopher’s Stone, or, ‘If It Ain’t Broke, You Can’t Fix It’

Echo and Narcissus (John William Waterhouse)

Note: The quoted material in this post contains a wee bit of adult language, so ‘caveat lector.’

“Golden Elixir is another name for one’s fundamental nature. There is no other Golden Elixir outside one’s fundamental nature. All human beings have this Golden Elixir complete in themselves: it is entirely realized in everybody. It is neither more in a sage, nor less in an ordinary person. It is the seed of the Immortals and the Buddhas, the root of the worthies and the sages.”

– Liu Yiming, “Wuzhen zhizhi”

“The Tao is clear, yet this clarity requires you to sweep away all your clutter. At all times watch out for your own stupidity, be careful of how your mind jumps around. When nothing occurs to involve your mind, you return to true awareness. When unified mindfulness is purely real, you comprehend the great restoration. The ridiculous ones are those who try to cultivate quietude – as long as body and mind are unstable, it is madness to go into the mountains.”

– Liu Yiming, “Wudao lu”

“After sudden enlightenment comes gradual application.”

– Thomas Cleary

In a weird twist of timing and coincidence brought about by the vicissitudes of my local public library’s hold request system, I’ve found myself reading, during this Lenten season, a number of oddly matched books, among them Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” a book which I’ve found strangely moving and insightful, despite the author’s salty language and often irreverent attitude (or perhaps because of it).

There’s a lot in the book that could be food for thought and reflection, but I think it’s fair to say that one of Manson’s primary theses is that, while human beings by nature have a hard time not caring about anything, most of us do a pretty terrible job figuring out what to actually care about and what to do as a result of that caring. Often we care way too much about things that are either ultimately worthless (like the many “false highs” we self-medicate ourselves with in our lives) or ultimately unattainable (like getting everyone everywhere to like and approve of us and everything we do).

I was particularly struck by the way he talks about “entitlement” as a kind of double-bladed sword that we often wield to rather ill effect – thinking we’re defending ourselves from our enemies when more often what we’re really protecting ourselves from are useful truths about ourselves and the world around us. In this way, entitlement – which can take both “positive” and “negative” forms, both “I’m so great!” and “I’m so worthless!” modes of expression – functions more as a defense of the false self, or of that stubborn, anxious, and fear-ridden version of ourselves that isn’t willing to face facts about who we really are. Entitlement, though it manifests as a sort of privilege and self-preservation, actually makes us brittle and, ultimately, incredibly fragile in the face of life’s difficulties.

Manson speaks about this in several ways, including the following example:

“Entitled people exude a delusional degree of self-confidence. This confidence can be alluring to others, at least for a little while. In some instances, the entitled person’s delusional level of confidence can become contagious and help the people around the entitled person feel more confident in themselves too. … But the problem with entitlement is that it makes people need to feel good about themselves all the time, even at the expense of those around them. And because entitled people always need to feel good about themselves, they end up spending most of their time thinking about themselves.”

When we’re unwilling or unable to face hard truths about ourselves and the world, we run the risk of getting stuck in a kind of twisted feedback loop, one that’s primarily self-centered and solipsistic.

As Manson notes:

“Entitlement closes in upon itself in a kind of narcissistic bubble, distorting anything and everything in such a way as to reinforce itself. People who feel entitled view every occurrence in their life as either an affirmation of, or a threat to, their own greatness. … Entitlement is impervious. People who are entitled delude themselves into whatever feeds their sense of superiority. They keep their mental façade standing at all costs, even if it sometimes requires being physically or emotionally abusive to those around them.”

He contrasts this with genuine “self-worth,” which isn’t so dead-set on preserving – at any and all costs – the false stories we so often tell ourselves about how things are.

“A person who actually has high self-worth is able to look at the negative parts of his character frankly … and then acts to improve upon them. But entitled people, because they are incapable of acknowledging their own problems openly and honestly, are incapable of improving their lives in any lasting or meaningful way. They are left chasing high after high and accumulate greater and greater levels of denial.”

I’ll offer one more passage from the book, regarding the difficult balancing act we face whenever we commit to the path of real growth.

“The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement. People who become great at something become great because they understand that they’re not already great … and that they could be so much better.”

This passage made me think first of artists – constantly striving towards greater and greater levels of mastery in a chosen craft – but it also reminded me of stories from the lives of the saints and sages of both East and West. Oftentimes, those who have progressed farthest along a spiritual path end up becoming the humblest and the first to point out and insist upon how far they still have to go. And it’s not necessarily a false modesty. As we come to see ourselves with deepening clarity, we become a bit like scientists, uncovering more and more questions with each new discovery, revealing further complications and complexities with each layer removed or each order of magnitude gained in our vision.

Perhaps because it’s Lent, it also made me think of the prayer of the fourth-century monk and hymnographer Ephrem the Syrian, commonly recited throughout the Lenten season by Orthodox Christians.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

Or, we could turn to the texts of Soto Zen Buddhism, where one often finds the following repentance chant included as part of the daily service.

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Borne through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

In each case, interestingly, the recitation or chanting is punctuated by full bows or prostrations – knees and forehead touching the floor – in what might be seen as a universal gesture of humility. We change our posture to change our paradigm.

In any event, I’m really intrigued by the idea of this “anti-entitlement” attitude that is able to recognize our own imperfections and weaknesses with openness, honesty, and compassion. Once we can drop the charade of needing to always appear as if we’ve got everything mastered and figured out, only then can we move beyond our fears and get down to the difficult, ongoing work of actually getting better at the things we really care about, and of actually figuring out some of the things we’ve been pretending so hard to have had figured out all along.

Growth and development are often really hard work – almost as much work as keeping up appearances of the false persona of perfection. And there’s the rub. The work involved in growth and the work involved in keeping everyone (up to and including ourselves) in the dark about who we really are – these forces are all too often diametrically opposed to one another. As long as you’re trying to do both, you’re like “a house divided against itself” and you cannot stand as such for long, certainly not forever.

And so, today, may you own your own weaknesses, not as an excuse to beat yourself up and denigrate yourself – because, when all is said and done, that might be nothing more than the dark side of entitlement – but as a kind of liberating clarity of inner vision and useful self-reflection. As long as we’re still breathing, we’ve still got interesting places to go, fascinating people to meet and spend time with, and plenty of things to do (and, perhaps, to do better).

There’s nothing wrong with finding ourselves a bit off-course “midway on our life’s journey.” At that point, the dangers lie in the twin fallacies of either (1) pretending everything’s perfect just the way it is, or (2) abandoning all hope and opting instead for soul-crushing despair and bitter resignation. Both of these responses are poison – they halt our progress along the way and make growth exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

So, are you broken in some way? Are you suffering? Have you fallen short of your own freely chosen values and ideals?

Because, if so, that’s okay. That’s actually where things start getting exciting. As Manson stresses in his book, our lives are often filled with problems, some of which we don’t get any say in, but many of which we get to pick and choose. Learning that we actually have some choice in what to “give a fuck” about – and that we don’t have to blindly adopt others’ values as our own – is itself pretty liberating. After that, a big part of the trick of living well is choosing interesting problems to work on.

After all, if it ain’t broke, you can’t fix it.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Elixir

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8 Responses to Stubbing Your Toe on the Philosopher’s Stone, or, ‘If It Ain’t Broke, You Can’t Fix It’

  1. “To suffer is Ok” by Burrito of WordPress :))

  2. Very good article:))

  3. Love this: there’s nothing wrong with finding ourselves a bit off-course “midway on our life’s journey.” :))

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