Dead Samurai, Indiana Jones and the futile search for relief....
Besides discomfort, the one constant, recurring theme in my life is failure. I’m a failure. That’s a fact. That’s all there is to it. Some people get upset with me when I tell them this. When I’m honest and vulnerable and forthcoming, and I tell them, “I’m a failure.” They want to fight with me about it. They argue things like, “You can’t be a failure. Look at where you’ve come from. From poverty to a Master’s degree. You’re a licensed professional, well-respected in your field. You have a beautiful wife and a beautiful family. You’re healthy. Blah, blah, blah.”
But it’s not that simple. They never ask where I’m getting my conclusions from. Whence do I know that I have failed? They judge me based on their own measures of my success.
And sure, they’re right in some regards. I have been lucky, or blessed, or whatever else you want to call it. I’ve lived a good life. Not much to complain about. Sure, there have been painful moments, sometimes quite long, quite extended painful moments. But that’s true for all. Nobody makes it out of life unscathed. Everybody has scars.
It’s better that way, really. In modern American society--and perhaps in most societies throughout the history of the world--we value comfort and the avoidance of pain or discomfort. I feel like a lot of people have this ambition to live a life utterly devoid of inconvenience, and that all the misery you see on a day-to-day basis--the daily misery, as opposed to the traumatic miseries that often occur--is that people are simply inconvenienced. They experience discomfort, and sometimes pain. Then they’re disappointed by that. Then they’re miserable. And it all stems from the misguided notion that life is supposed to be comfortable.
I know all of this because I speak from experience, and, still, there continues to be an unceasing tension inside. The Stoic side versus the Epicurean. Should one have the courage to embrace the pain of existence, or should one have the courage to make the sacrifices necessary to increase the experience of ease and comfort?
Are the two mutually exclusive?
See, this is why I’m a failure. Because I’m miserable just like everyone else, and I don’t know the solution to the problem...also like everyone else. I’m just a normal shithead… like everyone else.
I’m fine with that. I’m fine with being a loser. I’ve embraced it. I’ve embraced my ambivalence about what a useful, practical philosophy is, as well as my persisting inability to implement one.
I think, though, at least in my own case, that the failure to recognize and implement a practical philosophy is simply a matter of a lack of nerve. And I suspect this is true of most everyone, because there are plenty of sound, practical philosophy that have been bandied about for thousands of years and yet we're all still miserable.
When I was in high school, somewhere along the line I stumbled upon Miyamoto Musashi’s Dokkodo. The Dokkodo is a list of 21 precepts Musashi threw together on the eve of his death to instruct others how to live a fulfilling, meaningful life. Musashi, of course, is best known for authoring the Book of Five Rings, which is perhaps the greatest martial treatise ever composed. He was also known for being an indefatigable samurai who lost not one duel in 300. He was a wise, powerful warrior who had figured how to take what he had learned from battle and apply it to everyday life.
Anyhow, like many young men, I went through my adolescent power-fantasy phase, and I really threw myself into topics such as Shaolin monks, and the Spartans, and, of course, the Samurai. It was probably through such studies that I stumbled across Musashi and his Dokkodo. Dokkodo, by the way, translated into English, means, roughly, “The Way of Walking Alone.” Which struck a chord with me, because, beside my adolescent power-fantasies, I was also going through that adolescent, “I’m alone and special and no one understands me” phase, and felt...well… alone.
One really nice thing about the Dokkodo is how brief it is. Here is the entire thing, in its entirety:
1. Accept everything just the way it is.
2. Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
3. Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.
4. Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
5. Be detached from desire your whole life long.
6. Do not regret what you have done.
7. Never be jealous.
8. Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.
9. Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself or others.
10. Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.
11. In all things have no preferences.
12. Be indifferent to where you live.
13. Do not pursue the taste of good food.
14. Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
15. Do not act following customary beliefs.
16. Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.
17. Do not fear death.
18. Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
19. Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.
20. You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honor.
21. Never stray from the Way.
Another really nice thing about the Dokkodo is its simplicity. Anyone who knows me now knows how oblivious and obtuse I can be about literally everything. While I admit that I’m a little “book smart” in some really specific situations, I’m so devoid of what that ever elusive “common sense” that I think it’s a minor miracle that I haven’t, you know, like choked to death on snickers or wandered absent-mindedly into traffic and into my own death. Now, picture how dumb I am now and imagine how dumb I must’ve been as an inattentive and sex-crazed 16-year-old.
Even with all that, however, the Dokkodo was simple enough for even adolescent me to understand. So I--because this was still a time before the internet and all its attending conveniences had become ubiquitous--hand wrote the 21 precepts and hung them in my locker to remind me every day what I was meant to do and be.
Needless to say, I failed to follow the precepts with any degree of fidelity then, and when I look at my life now, I’ve failed to follow any of the real useful ones in any way. And that probably explains why I and my life are sort of always a mess.
This is the thing about failure--how do we define it. What does it mean?
The philosophers of old, back when philosophy actually meant something--back when it was practiced with the intent of helping people live happy, fulfilling lives instead of something a bunch of bantha brains do to impress other bantha brains--were smart enough to recognize that the quality of one’s life seemed to correspond pretty directly to how true one was to one’s chosen and stated values. So the real question was which values were worth dedicating oneself to.
Dedicating oneself to anything is hard work--whether a partner, a job, a religion or a philosophy. Dedication is hard. That’s why so few people are truly dedicated to anything. However, the thinking must’ve gone that if the values were true and fruitful, they would be easier to dedicate oneself to. Presumably, if the values were true and fruitful, a person would see the boons and rewards of dedicating oneself to a given set of values, namely--you know… fucking happiness and contentment before one’s inevitable submission to annihilation. Life is short and doomed, so it would seem to make sense to make the most of it while you can. It’s like dancing or sex or watching a movie--you know all these things will end sooner rather than later, but if you dance well or sex well or watch a good movie, you still feel fulfilled. At least for a moment or two. And so it stands to reason that expecting something similar for the duration of one’s brief life wouldn’t be all that much to ask.
Seeing how much rides on determining which values are the most dedicating oneself to, it becomes clear why this was such a major bone of contention amongst philosophers the world over, for literally thousands of years. If one could find a set of values worth following, and then follow them, one should pretty much have solved the biggest problem of life--not being a miserable human being, in thought, deed or action.
With all that in mind, we should be able to see the beauty and elegance of Musashi’s formula. Most philosophers spent thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of words trying to delineate their formulas, and the consequence of all those words was merely to obfuscate and muddle their ideas. Musashi made it clear in 21 short, sweet, clear sentences.
What does this have to do with counseling?
I don't know. Probably nothing. But it seems relevant because most of the clients I have met in my life are just normal people struggling with some shit. Despite what the pharmaceutical companies want us all to believe, most people--to me at least--don't really seem to be as out of control of their moods and perspectives as they might seem to be. Most people are just struggling to find a direction in life. Quite frankly, most people are struggling to find the nerve to do something they don't want to do.
Like dedicate themselves to something bigger than themselves. Some idea, some purpose, some...story. There's a complete and utter failure to see daily life as an adventure. That we go to movies to watch heightened, exaggerated, metaphorical, symbolized versions of the very things we cope with every single day of our lives.
Indiana Jones (is this a dated reference? Or do people still watch Indiana Jones movies?) isn't just some dude on a movie screen. He's you, and me. We're all searching for the Holy Grail, and we all have our fear of snakes and our treks are all impeded by Nazis. Well, maybe not by Nazi's necessarily (although this is far more probable in the days of President Mango Unchained then it was even three years ago), but maybe it's some dipshit co-worker, or some dipshit relative, or some dipshit system in which you find yourself embroiled in because of your occupation. Who knows. It doesn't really matter.
The fact is you're Indiana Jones. But you don't see yourself as Indiana Jones. You don't see all the discomfort and pain and turmoil Indiana Jones goes through is just an analog for your own struggle. We love Indy because he addresses his struggles with charm and charisma and he seems to have fun punching Nazis in the face and watching their faces melt.
But why don't we do the same in our real lives? Why do we shrink from the challenges? Indiana Jones is such a good movie precisely because of all the bullshit he goes through. But we expect our lives to be eventless, pointless, easy, drab narratives? But they're not. Every day is an adventure and you either find the nerve to see it that way and to rise and meet the challenges, or you become depressed or anxious or addicted because life isn't supposed to be hard.
That's a fool's assumption. And it's a weak person's assumption. And this was the genius of the old philosophers and the old samurai like Musashi--that if you have a code, if you have a belief system, it gives you a direction for how to act when shit gets weird and it centers your narrative. What does the code say I should act in this situation? Do I have the nerve to act as my code tells me to? How am I adhering to my code? Did I do a good job? Did I fail?
And if you get through the day able to say you adhered to your code--whether it be Stoic, or Epicurean or Musashi-an, then you've won for the day. No matter what happens.
The big, important question is, how do I know my code is "true"? How do I know it's a code worth adhering to?
So I suppose that's what we'll address in the next blog post.