Since I became a priest, and today as a professional counselor, people buy me little, popular wisdom books. By “little” I mean small. Sometimes as small in dimension as a CD, and not much thicker. By “popular” I mean the book is written by someone that has been a guest on Oprah, or have otherwise achieved commercial and popular momentum. By “wisdom” I mean the book is written by someone who has achieved some celebrity for leadership and/or genius in wisdom and spirituality. In my lifetime, for example, there has been Ram Dass, Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson, and the like.
The writers of these books present themselves to the world as spiritual teachers. To a man and woman, they are Hindu-y, Buddhist-y and decidedly logocentric. What I mean by “Hindu-y” and “Buddhist-y” is they are not necessarily actual Hindus or Buddhists. They tend to be Americans or at least born and raised in western civilization. Somewhere along the way they studied Hinduism or Buddhism which they ‘piece and part’ into a little, popular wisdom book. Hence, I think of them as Hindu-y. Buddhist-y. (Just as I think of modern, American civil religionists as Christian-y.)
Logocentrism is a spiritual/philosophical teaching advancing the literal idea that thoughts and words create reality. You remember Rene Descartes saying “I think, therefore I am.” A logocentrist says “I think, therefore it is.”
This year, 22 years after the fact, I receive Don Ruiz’s book “The Four Agreements” (1997).
The first agreement is “Be impeccable with your word,” but he means something more than I would mean, using that same language. I would mean speak with integrity. Say what you mean and ‘own’ what you say. Ruiz pushes the word impeccable to embrace some dimensions of logocentrism, saying human beings are constantly “dreaming” thoughts and ideas, ordering their attention to certain priority thoughts and ideas, and then ultimately “agreeing with” particular thoughts and ideas.
Got it, Mr. Ruiz. Rehearsing (and ‘agreeing with’) bad ideas is consequential and ill-advised. I can roll with that.
But, I struggle with Ruiz’s second agreement: “Don’t take anything personally.” Like a lot of people who toss me this advice, I think Ruiz is desperately overstating his case. He says it literally, but he can’t possibly mean it literally. Or can he?
As I read that chapter, I glean from Ruiz an idea – a very good idea – which, in my own words, goes more like “Be very, very discerning about how seriously you take the words and behavior of others, always weighing the qualities of the relationship, always on the lookout to distinguish between authentic, useful feedback vs. regurgitated psychological projections. It is not necessary to personalize everything, because not everything is personal.”
But that’s a far cry from “Don’t take anything personally.” Reminds of unfaithful husbands or wives who likewise philosophize to their betrayed mates: “This isn’t personal. It wasn’t about you. It had nothing to do with you. It was just my own personal mid-life crisis.”
See, I’ve never heard a husband or wife on the receiving end of this manifesto whose response was, “Oh. I see. I feel ever so much better now, knowing that you boffing the bimbo behind my back wasn’t personal.”
Betrayal is personal. Very, very personal.
Then there is a quote from Byron Katie who, until I got the book “Peace In the Present Moment,” I had never heard of before:
Reality is always kind. It’s our story about reality that blurs our vision, obscures what’s true, and leads us to believe there is injustice in the world. When you believe that any suffering is legitimate, you become the champion of suffering, the perpetuator of it in yourself. It’s insane to believe that suffering is caused by anything outside the mind. A clear mind doesn’t suffer. That’s not possible.
Huh? Seriously, I’m either the least enlightened person ever, or …
Find yourself a time machine, Ms. Katie. Go to Auschwitz, circa early 1940’s. Inside a gate is a Jew whose hands have been tied behind his back. Then hands are then lifted by a rope pulled over a scaffold. Up, up, until the prisoner is lifted off the ground. It’s a kind of crucifixion. The weight of the body would often dislocate the shoulders.
Walk over. Sorry, you’ll have to bend down and look up if you want to talk to them eye to eye. Tell the prisoner that no suffering is legitimate. Tell him he’s “insane” because he thinks the pain he is feeling is not caused by his thoughts but by his sadistic captors. Tell him that you’re here to help him “clear his mind,” so that he doesn’t have to suffer.
Seriously. I wanna see you do it.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at email@example.com. Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest who writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)