the eternal mystery, the infinite order, the illimitable spirit
revealed in astronomical arrangement
Excerpts from Albert Einstein’s “The World as I see It,” Galileo’s “The Essential Galileo,” Isaac Newton’s “The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” and Richard Feynman’s “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”
advanced computers mentally communicate using the power of possibilities
this technology is electrical, these signals change every millisecond as they pass through the skull, recreating internal imagery
the blood flow within the computer creates a mathematical Mona Lisa
Excerpts from Michio Kaku’s “The Future of the Mind”
Earth in the solar system
Earth of ancient geological time.
Could intelligent life happen in 4.6 billion years?
Excerpts from Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series
the stars in the flower
the geometry of space
interconnecting with all life.
Excerpts from Richard Feynman’s “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”
Life is perseverance in the historical dark
The old spirit of mind is the death of adventure
Excerpts from Marie Curie’s “Pierre Curie: With Autobiographical Notes by Marie Curie”
Man is descended from ignorance more frequently than knowledge
Excerpts from Charles Darwin’s “On The Origins of Species”
I write for a few hours when I wake up on Saturday mornings. I write in between shifts at work. I write before I go to sleep (which usually makes me too hyper to go to sleep). I write on vacations. I write before weddings and after funerals. I write in my tent on camping trips up to the mountains. I write on the balconies of hotel rooms. I write in the front seat of my parked car. I write in my local library.
I write novels on my computer and phone. I write poems in black journals that I bought from Five Below. I write random thoughts on yellow sticky notes. I think about writing on long rides home.
If I don’t write every day, I feel unsatisfied. There is a building up of energy that needs to be released. If I can’t express myself, where will that energy go?
When the stream is dammed up and can’t flow, the water will lose its vitality. It will stagnate. Otherwise the pressure will build, build, build, until the dam is broken.
I scrutinize the same sentence forty-seven times only to reject it. I tinker with one paragraph for an hour and then take a break from it. Three weeks later, it looks clunky again. I stare at lines of text until the letters blur together in the white spaces.
I figure out what I want to say by cutting out all the nonsense. Then only the essential message is left.
There are rejected novels within me. There are half-finished plays in the trash. There are poems that I’ve revised so many times that they’re like chewed up food. Countless pages have been abandoned and forgotten.
Many of my stories stiffened into pale corpses after I tried to give them life. Some stumbled a few feet before falling, while others turned into monsters that had to be poked repeatedly with a pitchfork.
For the past seven years, I have been working on the same novel. I hope to publish it when it is ready, even though no writing is ever ready. There will eventually be a compromise between me and my work. Rather than revising the same piece forever, after a long enough time, I have to let it go.
If I only wanted money or fame, I would have tried an easier challenge than writing books. For those of us who are addicted to playing the slot machine of the internet, working steadily on the same task for years is a form of insanity. There are so many entertainment technologies around to consume our time instead. They are made to distract us, to get our attention, with a constant intrusion of stimuli.
Despite all the noise around me, I’m still absorbed with my craft. For years and years, I have come back to the page. My joy comes from the writing itself. I prefer the slow quiet of creation.
For hours every day, I manipulate imaginary worlds. I don’t discuss these worlds with anyone. They are sacred and intimate. If I died, no one would know they existed.
Whether I’ve been working on a new piece or the same damn novel for years, my characters are transforming, becoming more with every draft.
Stories bubble up from deep in my unconscious mind. They surface from dreams and childhood memories, experiences and hidden emotions. Everything influences everything else like the beads in Indra’s net.
I write to learn who my characters are and discover myself through their struggles. Every villain is me. Every hero is me. Their meanings are everything I am becoming. I can’t control them after they reach a certain threshold in their existence. They show me where I need to go, but only if I listen closely enough.
I’m a writer who will never make enough money to buy a house through my writing. I doubt I will ever win a prestigious award or go on a talk show. For every Stephen King on the top ten lists, there are millions of writers like me.
Besides a couple of comments, none of my friends are going to cheer me on. My family will never urge me to quit my profession so I can write about circus performers or zombies or cage fighters or whatever interests me.
Every morning, I have to make the decision to sit down and write, even when I’m exhausted from a ten hour shift or want to laze around on the couch instead. If I don’t, nobody is going to care about whether I write except for myself. Some people may even smirk if I stop trying.
There are many of us who create out of compulsion or stubbornness or narcissism. Because we have chosen this craft, our free time has been sacrificed. Every day, we have decided to distance ourselves from the people closest to us so that we can write.
We’ve surrendered ourselves to make something meaningful. Sometimes our work is beautiful too. Most of the time, however, we learn about writing through our failures. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote to a group of high school students at Xavier:
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
For us writers, our stories may never go anywhere. Most of the time, they don’t. But when the world is busy, we dwell in solitude. We stack bricks on top of each other to build a house that may collapse.
To non-writers, our lives may seem like a boring routine. Every day, we have to go away to think. We write what we think and fix what we write.
I write because I need to write. The process of writing is the purpose, whether in my first or fifteenth draft. It is a spontaneous joy and a calculation. Clarity is ordered out of chaos.
When I’m done with a piece, I’m excited for a short period of time. But after that high fades, I lose not just what I wrote, but the bond that holds me to it.
Every end of a creation is an end in myself. When I sense that absence, I move on. I gaze at the blank page and begin again. There are possibilities there. Another beginning in the unknown.
To follow the Bodhisattva path, we have to practice for the liberation of all beings everywhere. If we are practicing for only ourselves, or for an abstract idea of enlightenment that is apart from everyone else, we are not following the Buddha’s teachings (39).
While we don’t have to be perfect, we can use our compassion to lessen the suffering of others and bring them peace.
When we meditate, we stop what we are doing to find the calm within ourselves (samatha) and look deeply into the nature of reality (vipasyana) (40).
Meditation is not as hard as we imagine it to be. As Ajahn Brahm said in “A Talk About Nothing,” all we have to do is do nothing.
We’re so used to being busy all the time that we are often uncomfortable with doing nothing. But when we can let go of our thoughts about the past and future, when we can rest in the space of the moment, not trying to gain anything, go anywhere, or become anyone special, we can find so much freedom.
When we misinterpret the Dharma, we bring a lot of suffering to ourselves and the people around us.
We don’t have to argue, show off, or struggle to selfishly achieve a higher state. We can attain liberation for everyone and everything.
But even after studying the Dharma, we should let go of it too (40–43). It’s not wise to not cling to its teachings.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
In the Snake Sutra, the Buddha also tells us that the Dharma is a raft we can use to cross the river and get to the other shore. But if after we’ve crossed the river, we continue to carry the raft on our shoulders, that would be foolish. The raft is not the shore (45)… If we try to make the Buddha’s teaching into a doctrine, we miss the point (52)… Do not become a prisoner of any ideology, even Buddhist ones (54).
When we look into impermanence, we begin to cherish our lives more. The present moment is precious to us, a fleeting miracle. Nothing will remain the same forever.
But in the ultimate dimension, there is no birth and death, self and other, here and there. We’re like waves in an ocean. As Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
When we look at the vast ocean, we see many waves. We may describe them as high or low, big or small, vigorous or less vigorous, but these terms cannot be applied to water. From the standpoint of the wave, there is birth and there is death, but these are just signs. The wave is, at the same time, water. If the wave only sees itself as a wave, it will be frightened to death. The wave must look deeply into herself in order to realize that she is, at the same time, water. If we take away the water, the wave cannot be; and if we remove the waves, there will be no water. Wave is water, and water is wave. They belong to different levels of being. We cannot compare the two. The words and concepts that are ascribed to the wave cannot be ascribed to the water. (100)
We are made up of elements that are not us. Just as a flower cannot exist without the conditions that are connected to it, such as the sun and rain and clouds, we cannot exist without the conditions that are connected to us. Without spacetime, without the pressure of gravity, without the confluence of events that came before us, we would cease to be. We are made up of the cosmos just as the cosmos is made up of us.
When we touch time, we touch space. When we are in the present moment, we are with our past and future. Everything relies on everything else.
When we take care of ourselves, we take care of others. When we take care of others, we take care of ourselves.
We are interconnected with all the elements in our environment such as the sun and sea and moon, flora and fauna. If we harm our environment, we harm ourselves out of ignorance and delusion.
Sometimes we cannot touch the present moment because we are trapped by our ideas, mistaking them for reality.
As Alan Watts said, “We confuse the menu for the meal.”
The Lotus Sutra taught that we have the capability to be enlightened. We can be free of our suffering and help others to be free too (58).
When we look into our impermanence, when we move beyond our conceptions, we begin to notice that there is no version of us that is separate from everything else.
We realize that we are “made of air, sunshine, minerals, and water, that we are a child of earth and sky, linked to all other beings, both animate and inanimate” (70).
We have to be skillful enough to use our ideas without being used by them (71).
When we are imprisoned by our cravings, hatred, and ignorance, when we cannot escape from our projections and prejudices, we will suffer (70).
Sometimes it is hard for us to leave behind our unwholesome habits. We are so used to sorting our experiences into mental categories and making judgments about them. We are unconsciously seeking out information that conforms to our beliefs while resisting information that goes against our beliefs. Most of the time, we mistake our narrow interpretations of reality for all of reality.
We can practice mindfulness while scrubbing the dishes, driving to work, walking, sitting, going to the bathroom, listening to a friend, and eating a meal.
Everything can be our teacher.
We can help others, not out of a desire to receive something in return, but to help in that moment.
We don’t have to struggle for peace when that peace is within us now. Rather than concerning ourselves with notions of freedom in the distant future, we can be free with our every breath and action. We only need to wake up to where we are.
Just as the conditions around us make up who we are, we make up the conditions around us too.
Thich Nhat Hanh said that if our mind is “filled with afflictions and delusions, we live in a world of afflictions and delusions. If our mind is pure and filled with mindfulness, compassion, and love,” we live in a world of mindfulness, compassion, and love (93).
We can help other beings through our love and compassion. We can cultivate a deep reverence for all of life. Our species depends on so many elements to flourish, from the society we live in to the clean air we breathe.
We need to protect our planet to save ourselves and everyone we care about. When we see how interconnected we are, and how much we depend on each other to survive, we will be motivated to help.
But it is not just up to us. We have to organize with each other. We need communities that are deeply committed to the practice of peace.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Cultivating the Mind of Love: The Practice of Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. Parallax Press. January 1, 1996.
Pathless: Reviews and Reflections is a collection of essays about Zen Buddhism, Taoism, mythology, existentialism, mysticism, skepticism, stoicism, and psychology.
“People have evolved to find patterns, even when there are none, and to look for threats, even when they don’t exist.”
“To be duped into joining cults and stupid fads, to be manipulated into voting for politicians who promote disastrous policies, to be fooled into ordering sham products, to be tricked into donating vast sums of money to charlatans, to waste decades trying out false solutions to medical ailments, to unwittingly spread misinformation to close friends, is not only unwise. It may ultimately be deadly for the ignorant. It may destroy the minds of the most vulnerable.”
“You are all the lives you have influenced. You are all your distant ancestors who survived for you to be born. You are all your descendants who will grow after your decomposition.”
“A mountain shrouded in mist is not hiding anything profound. There is no more wisdom on top of that mountain than there is anywhere else. It is just as sacred as a nap below the bough of a tree, washing the dishes, the sun fading over a meadow, belly laughter, a walk down a narrow path.”
“Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. Those who control the symbols have the power to control the people.”
“While the human brain seems physically small compared to the universe, inside the brain, the entire universe operates.”
“How many mistakes have we made, how many of our choices have led to unnecessary suffering, so that we could earn our wisdom?”
“Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.”
“When we aren’t aware of our biases, we can easily be fooled. Sometimes even when we are aware, we can be fooled. While our ignorance works against us, it can be profitable for those who wish to take advantage of us.”
The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers) Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Michael Shermer) Beyond Success and Failure: Ways to Self-Reliance and Maturity (Willard Beecher, Marguerite Beecher) The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now (Thich Nhat Hanh) Taking The Path of Zen (Robert Aitken) Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice (Shunryu Suzuki) The Way of Zen (Alan Watts) Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl) Prometheus Rising (Robert Anton Wilson) On The Shortness of Life (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)
Occupation: ultramarathon runner, triathlete, author, public speaker, wildland firefighter, retired Navy SEAL
Accomplishments: ultramarathon athlete (winning third place at Badwater 135), former Guinness World Record holder for pull-ups in 2017, author of two inspirational books, retired Navy SEAL who was “the only member of the U.S. Armed Forces to complete SEAL training, Army Ranger School, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller training”
The number one purpose in life is to better yourself.
If you’re not trying to better yourself, then you need to ask why.
Examine the intentions behind your goals. Don’t make excuses.
While most people can become better, they settle for mediocrity:
They “refuse to get off that couch, refuse to study a few more hours, refuse to go deeper and to go further… And that’s where I gain the advantage. It’s so easy to be great nowadays, my friend, cause most people are weak. Most people don’t want to go that extra mile. Most people don’t want to find that extra because it sucks. It’s miserable. It’s lonely” (Goggins, Williamson).
How do you stop caring about what other people think?
The more you progress, the more people will become aware of you.
The negative people who “usually critique you aren’t where you are” (Goggins, Rise Above). You may want to fight back or explain yourself, but it is more beneficial to get to a higher level of self-knowledge.
Look at the haters. Study their destructive patterns before you react. Because they are suffering, they will inflict their suffering on others. Instead of engaging with their negativity, be honest with yourself.
Before you criticize anyone, look at yourself. You’re a flawed human being just like them.
“There will be people out here who are commentating about people [celebrities] who are fucking up out here… and I don’t know how they’re able to do that when I guarantee your skeletons are not being out there. If I were to open up your fucking door, motherfucker…. People love to talk shit about somebody and keep themselves out of it” (Goggins, Rise Above).
How do you feel motivated when you are all alone?
“[I was] Alone. Alone out there running in cold, in heat; suffering in pools, trying to swim; in a room by myself, trying to teach myself how to read and write, how to study. You know, no one saw that. There was no video camera, there was no podcast. There was no ‘Who’s David Goggins?’” (Goggins, Inspiring Squad)
You are always going to bring yourself wherever you go. That is why you must discipline your mind.
To discipline your mind, you have to challenge yourself. Until then, you will always be searching for peace without ever finding it. You will be seeking out a teacher, guru, or some “nice kind book that guides you beyond all your personal suffering, and that miracles your fucking ass to peace” (Goggins, Inspiring Squad).
Discipline will bring you peace, even though it will be hard.
Most people want to be around other people. They want to party and chat and have fun.
But are they satisfied with their lives?
Sometimes it’s necessary to remove yourself from distractions like parties and social media. It’s more important to focus. You have to test your character by “going to war with yourself” (Goggins, Inspiring Squad). Only then will you be proud of what you have accomplished. Instead of wondering later on if you could have done more with your life, you should be doing more now.
What is your stretching routine like?
Create a routine that fits well with your lifestyle and body type.
Start with the fundamentals.
“Everything I do is very basic” (Goggins, Dreams Achieved).
Even though it will be hard to find the time to stretch, you have to do it. It is too easy to come up with excuses for not being disciplined. But “life is all about sacrifice to get what you want” (Goggins, EsM).
Be consistent with your routine:
“I’m in the best shape of my life right now from stretching out… I stretch every night for two hours….” (Goggins, EsM).
If you can, learn from practices like yoga:
“Yoga is the shit. I have kind of invented my own yoga for what my body needs. I have done hot yoga several times. I’m big into holding [my poses] for a long period of time… I’m trying to get a full range of motion” (Goggins, EsM).
What is your diet like?
“The biggest thing for me is timing…. I shut off meals at 6:30 PM…. For breakfast, I’m a big believer in having small meals throughout the day with protein in every one of my meals. Very little carbohydrates unless I’m running big mileage” (Goggins, Dreams Achieved).
People tend to worry too much about their diets. They think that they have to follow an elaborate plan or hire a trainer. While some people will benefit from those options, they can start their training right now. They can make progress by going for a walk or cutting down on their calories. Everyone can take simple steps to be better than the day before. It’s just a matter of commitment.
A lot of people are afraid of doing something wrong with their diet or exercise routine. They’re afraid of overtraining but “you gotta train first before you can overtrain… Get out of your own head. Stay hard.” (Goggins, Motivation 4Us).
If you don’t want to change your life, if you don’t want to improve yourself, then continue to follow your same unhealthy patterns. Eat junk food and drink beer if it makes you happy. Not everyone can be David Goggins.
What is your advice to young people?
Learn about who you are. When you try to fit in with the group, you will lose yourself. You can’t pick the conditions you were born into, but you can become better. When you hide from your past, you will only suffer more.
“Don’t try to be David Goggins. Just try to be your best self. If people at school or in life don’t like you, hey, you are probably doing something good. And if you don’t mind them not liking you, you are a million steps ahead of everyone else because you have confidence in yourself to be who you want to be” (Goggins, Dreams Achieved).
“Monks, a friend endowed with seven qualities is worth associating with. Which seven? He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you’re down & out, he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”
Aṅguttara Nikāya, The Book of the Sevens, (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
Types of Friends:
1. Seek the friendship of those who are noble in character. Look for individuals with integrity. Do not associate with people who are cruel and wicked and cause division. (The Dhammapada, 77 and 78, translated by Walpola Rahula; Chapter 25 of the Tibetan Dhammapada, translated by Gareth Sparham)
2. Don’t become close companions with gamblers, drunks, drug addicts, frauds, cheats, and violent troublemakers. These people can ruin your life and the lives of those around you through their greed/lust, hatred/anger, and ignorance/delusion. (Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala, translated by Walpola Rahula)
Bhikkhu Bodhi once wrote about some of these friendships:
“If we associate closely with those who are addicted to the pursuit of sense pleasures, power, riches and fame, we should not imagine that we will remain immune from those addictions: in time our own minds will gradually incline to these same ends. If we associate closely with those who, while not given up to moral recklessness, live their lives comfortably adjusted to mundane routines, we too will remain stuck in the ruts of the commonplace. If we aspire for the highest — for the peaks of transcendent wisdom and liberation — then we must enter into association with those who represent the highest. Even if we are not so fortunate as to find companions who have already scaled the heights, we can well count ourselves blessed if we cross paths with a few spiritual friends who share our ideals and who make earnest efforts to nurture the noble qualities of the Dhamma in their hearts.”
Greed, hatred, and ignorance are the three poisons (or fires) that can lead you to suffer. The opposite of these poisons are the qualities of generosity, loving-kindness, and wisdom. You can water your wholesome qualities while extinguishing the fires of your unwholesome qualities.
As the Buddha said in The Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon Discourse, “All is burning… Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, burning with the fire of hate, burning with the fire of delusion.” (Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon, translated by Ñanamoli Thera)
In The Sigalovada Sutta (translated by Narada Thera), he said:
“Whoever through desire, hate or fear, Or ignorance should transgress the Dhamma, All his glory fades away Like the moon during the waning half. Whoever through desire, hate or fear, Or ignorance never transgresses the Dhamma, All his glory ever increases Like the moon during the waxing half.”
3. Some people pretend to be your friends while they are really your enemies in disguise.
“The Taker” takes but rarely gives. They expect more from you than you expect from them. Any relationship that you form with them will always be to their advantage and not yours. They will only be there for you when they want something. When they don’t want something from you, you will not see them anymore.
“The Talker” uses empty words to praise you but they will never be there when you need them. They are always going on about old memories, about getting together in the future, but their words are meaningless.
“The Approver” encourages your bad deeds as well as your good deeds. They will compliment you when you are around. When you’re not around, they will talk badly about you to others.
“The Evil Helper” will accompany you when you are drinking, gambling, and partying, but they will not help you when you want to better yourself. (Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala, translated by Walpola Rahula)
4. Associate with goodhearted people.
“The Helper” will protect you and make sure that you’re safe. They will guard you from your own poor decisions. They are generous, even when they don’t have to be.
“The Enduring Friend” will reveal their secrets to you and keep your secrets private. They will never abandon you when you are in trouble. They may even risk themselves to save you.
“The Counselor” will support you and listen to your troubles. They want to help you become a better person. Sometimes they will challenge you, or admonish you, so that you will follow a wiser path.
“The Compassionate Friend” will delight in your good fortune and grieve with you over your misfortune. They will talk about your good qualities and restrain others from speaking badly about you. (Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala, translated by Walpola Rahula)
How to Be a Good Friend:
1. Before you criticize others, look at your own mind. It is easy to find the flaws in others, but it is much harder to find the flaws in yourself. (The Dhammapada, 252).
2. Do not speak ill of anyone. Do them no harm either. When you can keep to the good and avoid the bad, you will be happy even among those who are hateful. If you can cultivate wholesome qualities, and purify your mind, you will be your own refuge. Then you will not succumb to the foolishness of hatred and ignorance and greed. (The Dhammapada, 185, 191, 269, translated by Walpola Rahula). Those who hate may influence you, but hatred will never cease by hatred alone. Love is the only way to defeat hatred. (The Dhammapada, 5, translated by Walpola Rahula).
3. Abide in loving-kindness. Do not make a habit of unwholesome thoughts, words, and behaviors. Watch yourself moment to moment, guarding against impurities. Do not let greed and hatred and ignorance drag you down into misery. As the Buddha once said, “There is no fire like lust; there is no grip like hatred; there is no net like delusion; there is no river like craving.” (The Dhammapada, 232, 233, 234, 239, 248, 251, translated by Walpola Rahula).
4. When you are skilled in goodness, when you walk the path of peace, you will treat all beings with loving-kindness. Be humble, gentle, amiable in your speech, and content with what you have. (Mettā Sutta, translated by Walpola Rahula)
Treat every living being with respect. Wish them happiness and peace and safety. It doesn’t matter if they are strong or weak. Cherish everyone with a boundless heart. (Mettā Sutta, translated by Walpola Rahula)
As it is said in the Mettā Sutta (translated by Bhante Gunaratana):
“One should cultivate for all the world a heart of boundless loving-kindness, above, below, and all around, unobstructed, without hate or enmity.”
Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together With Its Commentaries (the Teachings of the Buddha). Wisdom Publications, 2017.
Sparham, Gareth. Dharmatrata. The Tibetan Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications. January 1, 1986.
Thera, Ñanamoli. Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon. (SN 35.28). Translated from Pali. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 13 June 2010
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition With Texts From Suttas and Dhammapada. Revised, Grove Press, 1974.
*Note: I’ve reflected on various translations of the suttas. My main translations were in the expanded version of “What the Buddha Taught” by Walpola Rahula. Some other translations came from Acharya Buddharakkhita, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ñanamoli Thera, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and Bhante G.
“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”
There are many Western intellectuals who claim to be against the evils of oppressive structures while: (1.) hiding in the isolation of academia, (2.) benefiting from those unjust structures without doing anything meaningful to challenge them, (3.) “helping” the oppressed on a superficial level without addressing any deeper systemic issues, (4.) perpetuating the ideas of the oppressors themselves.
Noam Chomsky wrote about these types of intellectuals in his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” He said that intellectuals, unlike the average citizen, are a privileged minority who are in a unique position to influence society. They should seek to “speak the truth and expose lies’’ rather than remain silent and apathetic. Yet they often fail to meet these moral standards.
Even though in the Western world, intellectuals have the right to freedom of expression and have access to more information than those in other nations, they often represent elite class interests. They maintain the status quo, and support the current ideologies in power, while neglecting to criticize the unjust policies of their own countries.
In traditional education, intellectuals are primarily trained for conformity. The institutions that they work for, according to Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” focus on socialization, conditioning students to follow a certain social order. Students who question those in authority too much are filtered out over time. They are not supposed to critically think about, or act against, the structures already in place. Traditional education is not about a radical transformation in consciousness. It is more about a subservience to power.
According to Freire, education is never neutral. It is either on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. While the oppressed are dehumanized, treated as abstractions or disposable objects or inferior beings, those who oppress are dehumanized through oppressing others.
Oppressors depend on the low position of the oppressed to maintain their power. They form exploitative relationships, taking advantage of unfair conditions for their own gain. They have a mentality of more for themselves and less for everyone else. Oppressors want the oppressed to feel unworthy, helpless, and isolated, because under those states, they are easier to control.
After years of teaching literacy to peasants and laborers, after being put into prison and then exiled, Freire came to believe that education should liberate people instead of imprison them.
The oppressed have to reclaim their humanity for themselves, even though at times, they may fear taking on responsibility, internalize the values of their oppressors, or follow charismatic leaders more than their own consciences.
Freire attacked the passive methods of learning in education as well. Students are often seen as ignorant while teachers are seen as authorities. Students are taught to take in information, to rote learn, to listen so they can regurgitate answers on exams, rather than participate in relevant issues.
When schools value the humanity of their students, learning is done in collaboration and with mutual respect. There are open possibilities for individuals to grow. Themes connect to the existential struggles in people’s lives, helping them to overcome their unjust circumstances.
Education has to help the oppressed to reflect on the causes of their oppression. Even though oppressors have tried to limit the critical thought of the oppressed, people need the freedom to learn about themselves and make their own choices.
bell hooks, in a similar fashion to Freire, argued in “Teaching to Transgress” that education should be (1.) communal in spirit, (2.) rooted in the values of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, and (3.) promote the well-being of the individuals involved.
Students caught in oppressive circumstances often feel powerless to make a difference. They are alienated from their communities. They are conditioned over time to see themselves as inferior to their oppressors.
hooks, on the other hand, argued that education should be about fostering an open space where different perspectives are shared, students are encouraged and not belittled, and everyone is respected.
hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) experienced both educational environments when she was raised in the segregated south, when she was bussed into a majority white school during integration, when she attended college, and when she taught at different universities. Freire’s work helped her to clarify her own feelings of marginalization and shame under those oppressive systems.
Freire also learned how unjust conditions could impact a person’s ability to learn. He grew up in Northeastern Brazil around poor rural families. During the Great Depression, he suffered from extremes of poverty and hunger. He even had to temporarily drop out of elementary school to work.
In Gadotti’s book, “Reading Paulo Freire,” Freire said, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”
People ultimately want to be free. They want to grow and change and live authentically. But they are constantly being undermined by the interests of interconnected power-structures. hooks called some of these power-structures the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
From an early age on, whether through violence or propaganda or censorship or other means, people are trained to obey their masters. They are taught about their inferiority rather than their intrinsic value, fractured rather than united, and dehumanized rather than treated with dignity.
Those in power usually shift the burden of proof onto the powerless, pressuring them to prove that they are worthy of their basic rights. But these systems, which have so much control and influence, need to justify their legitimacy to the people. If they fail to do so, then they should be changed or dismantled.
Sometimes, though, when the oppressed rise to power, they carry over the violent patterns of their former oppressors. That is why there needs to be a radical education of self-discovery and inclusion and critical thought, a place of transformation for everyone who seeks to learn. When people aren’t united, when they aren’t free, then the same oppressive practices will resurface.
Freire believed that people have to learn how to be themselves. Education is a process, a path of critical effort. Individuals must seek out the “whys” of their existence. They must be free to choose their own paths.
“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways — the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
“All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values–everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact–now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego. The endless series of shadow and doppelgänger figures in mythology, fairy tales and literature ranges from Cain and Edom, by way of Judas and Hagen, to Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde in the ugliest man of Nietzsche; again and again such figures have appeared and made their bow before human consciousness, but the psychological meaning of this archetype of the adversary has not yet dawned upon mankind.”
Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic
“People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.”
Horror attracts us while it repulses us. We are confronted with our most hidden taboos in sinister forms. We investigate our shadowy dreams and terrors, seeking out the Other, anxious before the strange and unknown. We face forbidden ideas, lurking beneath the sewers and deep in the woods, unspoken, uncomfortable ideas, in the darkness of ourselves.
Our monsters reflect the most terrible aspects of our nature. They are our unconscious rejections, our atrocities against one another, our insatiable greed and consumption and narcissism. They return to haunt us, to torment us, when we foolishly believe that we are gods, when we transgress the laws of all humankind.
Horror sickens and disgusts and nauseates us. Yet our hearts tremble to the pleasure beneath our fear, to the endorphins of our near death, to the tragedies that we cannot help but stare at.
Horror teaches us the consequences of when we take too much and care not enough for others. It shows us what happens when we deceive and murder and destroy our sacred idols.
We must take on the embodiment of evil, whether it afflicts us in the realms of the supernatural or natural, literal or metaphorical. Through our struggles, we may be releasing the ghosts of our past or preventing the apocalypse of the near future.
Even if we pretend that we are going to remain young for eternity, we are flesh, we are bones, we are blood and pus and aging and disease and death. We are part of a cosmos we don’t fully comprehend. We don’t know what our fates will be as individuals in a community, as a species, as organisms on a planet.
We are temporary, vulnerable. We are primates lost in the vastness of space. We struggle for an illusion of control, a sense of familiarity, so that we can feel safe and secure, while knowing that nothing will ever last. We fear the threat of what we don’t know, the possibility of future anguish.
There are dangers inherent in everything we do, existing on different scales, from driving our cars down a highway to walking alone at night, from polluting our atmosphere to declaring war on a neighboring country.
We are agonizingly aware that we are going to die, that everyone we know will die, even if we distract ourselves with parties and drugs and work and fashion and games and sex and religion and politics. We are filled with an existential dread that we try to alleviate with meanings beyond ourselves. Yet there is always the possibility of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe and societal unrest. There is always the promise of the undertaker.
Horror is a safe place for our fears, our anxieties, to express themselves under the guise of a chainsaw-wielding maniac, a zombie horde roaming through the mall, a cannibal, ghoul, goblin, snake, slasher, demon, or vampire that casts no shadow.
We can look at our inner darkness rather than hide from it. We can grapple with the unknown rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Only when we are honest, when we burn our light through the chasm of darkness, can we be liberated from our suffering.
Horror disturbs our sanity, shocks us out of our comfort, mocks our hypocrisies, exposes our underlying insecurities. We need horror to awaken us out of our complacency, our smug delusions of perfection, and let go of false certainties.
We must find a way to grieve for our losses, to turn toward the truths that scare us, to participate joyfully among the sorrows of the world. We are human beings, achingly conscious, here for a short time with each other. Our life on this earth is precious and fleeting and uncertain. We can withdraw from the unknown, clinging onto normalcy, wallowing in our most mundane days, or we can free ourselves to the mysterious.