‘That’s Too Good For Me’

Who here hasn’t been prideful? Who, right here, isn’t prideful still?

Who hasn’t said: “That’s too good for me”? Who hasn’t gotten huffy, murmuring under one’s breath: “That’s beneath me.” Whose anger isn’t slowly brought to a simmer, only to remain on a low boil?

In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre must have seen pride as the great vice of that sovereign self, the one with emotivist colorings. In After Virtue, he points out that the Aristotelian account of teleological ethics had three components. One, a state of “untutored” human nature. Two, the proper telos for an excellent, full human life: a condition of (call it) “cultivated” nature. And, three, the salient virtues, which–make no mistake–are not just the ethical “means” by which one is transformed from untutored to cultivated but also that through which one is constituted. The virtue of caritas drenches us in love, in loving charity.

Pride, so lauded among the Classical Greeks and rightly criticized by medieval Christians, has, in modernity, become the accompaniment to human beings’ inviolable autonomy and autarchy. As a result, untutored nature remains untutored, glorifying at the same time in what were once vices: greed (now calculating self-interest), vanity (now fitness and physical attractiveness), excessive wealth (now financial freedom and then some), lust (now perfectly ‘natural’ sexual desire’ to be satisfied by porn or in the flesh), and envy (now, for the one so envied, ‘impressiveness’ and influential-dom).

Of course, the remedy for pride is humbling the heart. But from what source today? Which Zen master or Benedictine abbot will humble the young, headstrong one? Who–tell me: who–will mop the floors? Which leader in the C-suite will just listen as others stumble over their lines (unless, to be sure, he has learned that it’s part of “vulnerable leadership” to be engaged in “appreciative inquiry”)?

Pride, giving a free pass to the tyranny and ubiquity of the ego-self, is sanctified in liberalism and libertarianism. The former upholds pluralism, the latter the inviolability of the body and the freedom of the mind. Consequently, anything goes.

Without regnant, widely shared conceptions of the good, for what, in view of what will we humble ourselves? For what reason?

Joined by ignorance, pride sees that there is nothing whatsoever the matter. Wisdom, were it to be heard, would tell us otherwise.

The Best Thing Is To Be Told That You’re Full Of Shit

The best thing another can do for you is to tell you that you’re full of shit.

And now, alas, for all the carats and qualifiers…

  1. The one telling you this shouldn’t be acting out of ill will, anger, or aggression. Buddhists call this “the second poison.” Instead, he or she should be acting with a wholesome intention.
  2. Moreover, this person must really see something that you do not. What he or she sees is the truth.
  3. And that truth should be expressed at the right time. Remember: timing is almost everything.
  4. And you must have ears to hear. That is, you must be really ripe to the point of being open and ready to hear it and, in waves, to take it in.

Suppose 1-4 are the case. Then what is revealed is not just how clueless you are about the matter at hand but also the fact that you’ve been pretending to yourself and to others that you aren’t clueless.

And what is the gift being offered here? To show you your bullshit. To give you the opportunity to see how often this piece of bullshit spews from your mouth. To stop bullshitting yourself and others, at least about this matter. To experience genuine humility and for that humility to reorient you away from looking smart and toward caring about the truth. Perhaps, above all, to be overcome, if only momentarily, by a sense of helplessness.

Helplessness? For just in that moment when you hear it, you may be pierced deeply: I am totally clueless; I don’t really know how to live my life; I am powerless. The veil of autonomy, which had led you to believe that you are the sole agent responsible for your life, may, if only for a moment, be lifted. And that is the best gift of you.

The Confessors

The confessors out there do love their confessions. I don’t know who we have to blame for this shadowy development. The Romantics from whom the cult of interiority began? Or, as we come to our native soil, Emerson, who once wrote, “Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to this or that; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it”)? Or, back to the Continent, the existentialists, so taken as they were by authenticity? Or the Freudian and post-Freudian heritage of endless self-analysis? However it happened, here we are, with countless people, in private and public (what’s the difference anymore, right?), confessing what are now open secrets–revealed, broadcast, recorded, and archived.

Whether it’s the recent Kanye West disclosure of his bipolar disorder diagnosis or whether it’s former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug’s recent tell-all about her passing as Black doesn’t, for the purposes of my discussion here, make a difference. All these confessionals, I submit, are of a piece; all bare the contents of mind, or soul, in a way that indicates a peculiar combination of torment, pride, anguish, desire, vanity, supreme self-centeredness, and–dare I say?–shallowness. Perhaps, right here and lest we think the phenomenon in question is just a topic for celebrities, we do well to remind ourselves of the subtler, and more mundane, confessionals written daily on Instagram: the struggles with looking good, with feeling good, with experiencing moment by moment joy (as if such were humanly possible!), with that nebulous notion of “spiritual growth,” or, really, with whatever.

The truth is that the confessors are living in a groundless moral universe without knowing it. We are all: knowledge of that groundlessness I call “the meta-crisis.”

Blind to this groundlessness, confessors anchor themselves to the constant manufacturing and production of a certain kind of self, one that can be displayed, jeered at, lauded, envied, gawked at, whatever: perhaps it does matter, but in a way it hardly matters. The best confessors are the best performers. To them, it’s all theater.

Except that, uncannily to them, it’s not. The best confessional actors are, n doubt, the most convicted; for them, can it really be theater all the way down? Groundlessness, accordingly, is hidden by the endless theatrical performances and by the masks that, to the confessors, long ago ceased to appear in the form of masks.

When the common good and the life of contemplation were, over the long march of modernity, slowly eroded, guess what came in their stead? In therapeutic culture, the influencers, the therapeutically well-versed, the life coaches, and the therapeuticized facilitators all, likely unbeknownst to themselves, have an agenda: to get the rest of us to become confessors too. That way everyone can finally become a star.

Is Zen About Exerting Oneself To The Point Of Tears?

It is a common misunderstanding to think that Zen practice is so effortful that one must exert oneself to the point of tears. This is not so, yet it is is understandable.

Chan (Chinese Zen) masters have, especially in the work entitled The Chan Whip, impressed upon their students the need to remain vigilant at all times. For what could be more important, what more urgent than realizing, right here and now, one’s Buddha nature? The stories we read, the exchanges we come across, the antics we’ve heard about: are these not signs that Rinzai Zen is trying to get you to whip yourself until you “break through” and recognize your “primal face”?

Not exactly. To help us see this, let me distinguish between “life-urgency” and “resting into being.” A true Zen teacher is indeed seeking to tighten the screw on you until you vividly experience the life-urgency of the path of enlightenment: you need to feel, at each moment, the Great Matter of Birth and Death. Never forget it. Keep it within oneself when walking and while defecating.

So much for life-urgency.

While in a seated position and indeed while walking, however, the Zen student is invited to let himself sink, or rest, completely into being. The more the one seeks, the more one sees that one is going the wrong way. For what is the ground of being but precisely what is beneath one’s seat, one’s thighs, one’s feet? Can that ground ever move? Yes and no: wherever I go, it goes while itself going nowhere. And if I stop resisting it?

I think we can now see that Zen is not about manful, muscular determination. Rather, the sense of resolve, which flows out of life-urgency, won’t let you drop or let go of what has been most real yet also still elusive. You can’t escape what is here for you, within you, and this inescapability we call “the koan.” And yet, that resolve must be sweetened so that it can melt, more and more, into subtler and subtler manifestations of being. Effortless grace. Complete surrender. Seamless letting go. QED.

We’re Groundless

You can doubt pretty much everything today. There are Flat-earthers who doubt that the earth is a sphere. There are carnivore dieters who reject all food except for beef (or liver), salt, and water. There are anti-vacciners for whom the injection of COVID-19 vaccine, were such to exist, would be tantamount to poisoning one’s children. There are, in no apparent order, climate change deniers, anti-statists, polyamorists, and atheists.

In some cases, to doubt this is to be convicted of that, yet in others it is, more simply, to heap doubt on whatever it is that is at hand. It seems that we–there’s a doubt! who is this “we,” huh?–can’t agree on much of anything, not even on “agreeing to disagree.” Nor do we very often converge on shared understandings. The doubts, tossed into the air, remain, corroding any possibility of mutuality.

Any appeal to a common standard is also subject to doubt. As is clear in the cases above, you can’t very readily appeal to tradition, science, reason, or revelation to decide the matter unless you want to have the experience of someone questioning tradition, science, reason, or revelation, respectively. Many on the left think that “experience” or “lived experience” cannot be cast in doubt, but in time that too will be just as untenable a basis for claims as any other. The birth of the psychological term known as “gaslighting” suggests as much.

Here’s the truth (do you wish to doubt it?): we’re groundless. Yet we are like Wile E. Coyote who, running off a cliff, only falls once he realizes where he is. Until that time, he’s free-floating. But then, someone might interject, maybe gravity is a fiction, right?

It’s not just that we’re groundless; it’s also that we’re clueless, helpless, and lost. We don’t know how to live, we don’t know that we don’t know how to live, and if we did know that we don’t know how to live, then we’d come face to face with our meta-crisis. And were that to happen, we’d cease being merely groundless and start being clear about how clueless, helpless, and lost we really are. And that, in my book, would be a very good start.