Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.
Do the thing you do to the best of your ability. Work hard to perfect it, for its own sake and for yours. Fall down again and again, learning how to do better. Take feedback and advice from those who have walked in your shoes, especially from those who have tried and failed. Learn, and learn, and keep learning and following the call in your heart.
But do not bend to please others or to make it fit. Do not bend to avoid criticism or ridicule. Do not be afraid of being strange. Do not allow your confidence to be shaken by those who are threatened. Because if you do your thing well, they will be threatened, and they will try to tear you down. Do not hold back in fear of what others think of you. If you do, you will betray your own soul.
You seek too much information and not enough transformation.
When faced with the prospect of having to feel difficult feelings, of processing pain, grief, or shame, naturally we all prefer avoidance. It’s understandable and perfectly human to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
Some of us go to great lengths to avoid dealing with negative feelings all-together. With the right numbing mechanisms and mindset, one can spend his entire life trying to outrun the pain.
But spirituality is oriented in the opposite direction – it is fundamentally about turning towards the feelings, confronting the negative difficult material, and working through pain and suffering in order to heal.
During that process, the pain is transmuted into wisdom, leading to maturity, soul growth, and evolution of consciousness. The practice, at its heart, is one of profound transformation.
One would think that on the spiritual path avoidance wouldn’t happen. And yet, one of the most common traps is avoidance by a certain kind of intellectualism, by that I mean the seeking and collecting of knowledge and information pertaining to spiritual matters, without the actual implementation of them. It is an academic approach, which remains entirely in the mind, and refuses any sort of authentic transformation.
Having the appearance of spiritual work and seriousness, this is a form of distraction at best, and an ego-feeding mechanism at worst. Spiritual work is about real tangible transformation, from the inside out. Too much information, too much intellectual spinning around abstract concepts, becomes a hindrance to the real inner work, not an asset.
The just man is not the product of a day, but of a long brooding and a painful birth. To become a power for peace, a man must first pass through experiences which lead him to see things in their different aspects: it is necessary that he have a wide horizon, and breathe various atmospheres–in a word, from crossing, one after another, paths and points of view the most diverse, and sometimes the most contradictory, he must acquire the faculty of putting himself in the place of others and appreciating them.
We must be careful not to confuse spirituality with political ideology. They are not the same thing. Being “awakened” does not necessarily mean alignment with progressive political ideals. Truth and justice (and moral governance) lie across the political spectrum.
Strong political alignments represent merely an external expression of internal psychological experience.
A proper spiritual journey will take a person across political landscapes, so that he or she may experience life from various internal points of view.
With deep inner work the psychological landscape changes, and with it the conscious belief system and its political affiliations will find themselves shifting as well. Sometimes these shifts will be shocking, causing tremendous internal upheaval. The practitioner’s political views will necessarily swing wildly, first one way, then back, again and again like a pendulum, until a balance point is reached.
The authentic practitioner must experience this shifting from within, to genuinely know and understand various views, positions, and dogmas. They must be able to actually feel and understand other points of view, rather than guess and intellectually condescend to them.
This experience of expansion of mind allows for the inclusion of all viewpoints, with real compassionate understanding, without resistance or rejection. This is the path towards a genuine non-duality, which is inclusive of all that is.
If one would have a friend, then one must also be willing to wage war for him; and in order to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy.
This is an unexpected piece of wisdom. On the surface, the suggestion of enemies and solidarity in warfare seems to run counter to spiritual ideals of peacefulness, unity, conflict resolution, and mutual understanding.
However, as we navigate the rich depths and practical nuance of peace as an ideal, we find some very surprising counter-currents. It turns out that the road to peace is full of virtue-cultivating battles.
There are circumstances in life when the call of justice transcends the need for quiet restraint, bringing the issue of unavoidable conflict into our lives. I’m focusing here only on the microscopic minutia of internal psychological dynamics and interpersonal relations, not large political questions or issues. What happens externally is a reflection of what’s going on within, and large political issues are often just reflections of what’s happening “at home,” so to speak. The depth of this teaching is speaking to something within ourselves and externally in our intimate relationships.
This instruction is asking us to deal with conflict avoidance, which can masquerade as peace-keeping behavior. Generally, peacekeeping is seen as “good,” but if the behavior is rooted in fear it can cause unjust harm, and is not considered virtuous. There are dysfunctional forms of peace-keeping which can be just as abusive as outright hostility. Thus this issue needs to be honestly seen and grappled with, if we are to talk about attaining real peace.
The call of justice means that sometimes we must embrace conflict, and stand in solidarity with what is right, and as an enemy to what is wrong, turning towards the conflict in order to overcome our fears and learn its lessons. This seems like an obvious concept, and yet in practice, in the reality of human relationships, this is much more difficult to do than it appears.
Fearful conflict avoidance usually manifests itself as the consummate diplomatic peacekeeper. We can think of this expression as a particular type of person, or as an attribute in each of us (if we look deeply enough). That fearful diplomat is the intended recipient of this particular wisdom; it is calling forth his fear, and is elevating it to the surface, so that it may be seen and reconciled.
We must set aside for a moment the destructive types – those who love conflict, confrontations, and chaos, the people who are constantly taking sides, creating divisions, hate-mongering, and demanding school-yard types of solidarity. They are not the audience for this wisdom, and their form of solidarity is not what’s at issue here.
This wisdom is for the “nice person,” the one who is always running around smoothing things over. His aim is always to appease everyone, and calm things down whenever conflict erupts. He is the first one to jump in with a distracting joke, a phony string of patronizing compliments, a categorical demand for compassion, or some other mechanism of invalidation, typically in order to to divert attention from the conflict-producing issue. He seeks to de-escalate at all costs, and unwilling and unable to take sides, will often unjustly silence the weaker party who is more easily oppressed. His actions, though seemingly well-intentioned, create a false moral parity between victim and aggressor, even at times when there is no moral ambiguity. This adds great harm to the victim and unfairly and prematurely absolves the wrong-doer.
This sort of diplomacy, though lauded in our social consciousness, is not a virtue. This person suffers from blurry moral vision on account of tremendous fear, often leaving him unable to distinguish right from wrong, nor stand firmly on the side of justice when that’s required of him. This kind of peacekeeper is deeply traumatized by dysfunctional conflict, and is therefore very viscerally conflict avoidant. He doesn’t have the capacity to actually consciously take sides. He can’t. Being embroiled in conflict, being an enemy to someone, being hated by someone, runs counter to his dire people-pleasing needs. Being a proper enemy, not in the heat of reaction, but in a considered and tempered way, is internally an untenable position.
And because he can’t stand to be hated, because he is so blinded by his own fear and urgent need to silence the discomfort of conflict, he cannot see what morality dictates in any given situation. He unwittingly ends up siding with the bully/aggressor. We know him sometimes as the abuser’s enabler. He cannot consciously discern the bully from the victim, and even if he could, standing up to the bully isn’t “nice,” and will escalate conflict, so he won’t be doing that anyway. He is incapable of being an enemy, really, even when justice requires him to stand strongly in solidarity with the victim.
This person is easy to identify within any small social group, and is pretty obvious externally, but he exists first and foremost inside the mind. We see him outside because he exists inside. Finding him within is the primary focus here, because learning how to “take sides” internally with what is right and true, and standing in solidarity with that (with the inner victim, the small true self) against the bullying egoic voice is the real battle. To be a loyal friend to our inner child, to be a friend to the heart and the soul, we must become an enemy to the ego. We must take sides, and go to war when necessary, and stand in integrated solidarity with what is true within, even when that means we will be hated by others.
This wisdom is calling out this pattern in all of us. It’s asking us for courage and discernment. It’s asking for moral fortitude, rather than people pleasing fear. It’s asking for solidarity with our inner victim, our inner truths, against the bullying force of the ego, and its external reflections in our lives.
For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment preceding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.
St. John of the Cross
As far as I can tell, there are two distinct meanings to these words, depending on the depth of spiritual work.
The first is the admonishment against attachment to ritual and sacred material objects, over the substance of those things. It is extremely easy to get lost in spiritual materialism as it distracts from the difficult and painful parts of the path. Those who become too focused on the symbols, as ends in and of themselves, end up reducing spirituality (and the quest for real liberation) to religion and indoctrination. Ritual can be helpful, to focus the mind and intention, to set aside dedicated time and space for the work, but perfecting rituals it is not the goal of the work.
The second meaning is significantly deeper. Given St. John’s writings about the second dark night, and the excruciating purgations of the spirit which take place there, these same words take on a deeper meaning. It is an instruction to the monastic-level practitioner, and echos quite a bit of the buddhist teachings on this subject as well.
It has to do with the internal separation from egoic investment in mystical experience – the substance of the experience is representative, a reflection, symbolic. It is not ultimate truth. It is personal truth, intended to further the discovery work.
Getting attached to the content of mystical experience, using the experiences themselves to feed self-worth or status, turning the content into vanity is also a distraction. We must utilize the content, understanding that it is purely personal, and then detach from the content. We must come to understand the mystical experiences as a visit to a house of mirrors – reflecting for us, in grand design, our own hidden selves, so that we might see ourselves more clearly. To mistake the symbol for the substance, to mistake the experience for the truth, is in fact an error.
Killing off the aspects of ego that cling and attach to mystical experience is part of the process of perfection and purification.
In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram – impersonal and unattainable – the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, and alive.
Most of modern academic philosophy, to its detriment, remains in the sphere of the mind. It is concerned with intellectual ideas, and then naturally, who has the better ones.
Mysticism is an entirely different endeavor. It looks like philosophy, because in order to share it we must use words and ideas to describe truths. But the nature of mysticism is a relationship, a real and complicated evolving relationship, with an intelligence that is beyond human comprehension. It is internal and external. It is relational, as much as personal. It is tangible. It is transactional. It is more real and concrete than any material thing, and it manifests in and through the material.
The mystic is swimming in an actual sea of truth and wisdom that is unseen and unseeable by others. His experiences and observations aren’t theoretical ideas, they are the very sources of truth. His inner work and experiences are his personal laboratory and gym, in which he learns, tests, and derives depth of understanding, while training in courage, fortitude, and faith. And because the process is transformative and aimed at virtue and higher consciousness, the experiences and truths exist on the strangest and most distinct polarities. They are contradictory and paradoxical by their very nature, which ought to be understood correctly and patiently, rather than used as a basis of invalidation.
For the mystic, whose work is terrifying and often extremely painful, the neat and structured ideas of philosophers are silly. It’s not a matter of arrogance, only a matter of fact. There is nothing neat or structured or logically cohesive in the sphere of mystery (not by human standards, anyway).
Mystics go authentically to the source of what philosophy holds as its aim – the love of wisdom via the search for truth. Mystics risk everything. They lose everything. They pay the highest price for their discoveries and experiences. It’s something most academic philosophers can’t begin to understand…
The work of authenticity is supposed to feel very vulnerable and scary. If this process is not terrifying, one has not yet begun to approach the truth.
It works in a somewhat backwards or negative fashion. You don’t technically become something; it is a peeling away so that something else can emerge, rather than a becoming something entirely new. It works by a continuous recognition of where we are not being authentic or truthful, and then the awareness and healing work to fix it. So we are actually learning at each step by failing. The ideal standard is to “be fearlessly real,” and the actual work is the constant recognition of where we fall short. For some people, the very nature of this constant sense of failure is enough to demoralize them and drive them away, but that’s the only way it works.
While it does get easier with time, at first it is really complex and dangerous. With each new deeper level of truth that seeks expression, fear is triggered again and again, until it is processed out and a comfortable equilibrium is reached. In this way, the process of authenticity is also helping us to conquer a whole bunch of fear.
I’ve met a few people over the years who claimed that they are “ego-free” and “totally authentic.” Surprised by their assertions, I asked them to share a bit more of their work with me. It turned out (each and every time) that they just “decided one day” to “stop being fake” and “got real.” Or they had an “ego-death” experience, and that was it. Just like that, with a snap of a finger, they magically stopped having an ego… Silly, right? That’s not how any of this works, but people have an endless capacity for self-deception. God bless them. (I find it’s better not to engage with them or make any attempt to explain anything. Just let them believe whatever they wish to believe and back away slowly. Trying to convince them that they’re confused doesn’t ever work out.)
Back to those of us who are engaging in real spiritual work…
The ego, by that I am referring to the false self, is formed in childhood as a response to fear and pain. As aspects of our personality emerged and were rejected or scolded, we learned to hide those feelings, behaviors, and expressions. The false self then is the collection of traits, behaviors, and expressions we learned that we must be, in order to feel safe, accepted, and loved, because the real version is not acceptable or leads to pain. The more hurtful and oppressive the childhood, the stronger and broader this false self is. (This makes sense, right? The more you experience rejection of the various parts of yourself, the more you learn to hide those parts away, until the only thing left on the surface is the acceptable pleasing version.). So the false self is really a game of pretend, designed to seek love and approval from others, while the real version, the truth of who we are, stays buried deep inside.
To now unmask the real version (which, absent a psychosis experience, happens very slowly in stages) and to emerge as that person, is going to naturally trigger all of the original pain of rejection. It will also trigger fear of it all repeating, and it will likely even bring up lots of childhood trauma.
The real version, with authentic feelings, is going to threaten existing relationships and dynamics, which have been comfortably stable up until now, even if they were dysfunctional. It is going to threaten careers and livelihood, and the relationship to work. It is going to bring up and revise the entire value system, and likely with that existential questions and moral concerns will arise. It is really nothing short of a revolution of one’s entire life. And all of this doesn’t even begin to touch the mystical arena (which is a far grander and infinitely deeper area of work).
This basic process of becoming real is very hard. And it takes a lot of time, effort, and dedication. It’s also filed with incredible joy, satisfaction, soulful meaning, and the healthy pride and confidence of personal achievement. There are experiences of real freedom and liberation of the spirit. There is a growing sense of love and belonging (often to a new community of like-minded folks). There is inspiration, creativity, hope, and healing, and most importantly, the sense that one is finally “on the right track.”
Being ego-free or totally authentic all the time is an impossible ideal. No one is that through and through. But getting to some imagined ideal isn’t the point. It’s not about being or becoming something perfect. The point is really each tiny step we can take in that direction. That’s perfectly enough. This is precisely what the evolution and transformation of consciousness is about.
The feeling of faith (the authentic experience of it in consciousness, not the mental construct), arises slowly through the healing of trust wounds. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, but it can be cultivated.
At first, it feels like a miraculous mystical condition, an incredible gift that you want to hold on to forever. But for the practicing mystic, there is a very real mechanical process associated with it. The more the process is performed, the purer the consciousness becomes, the more permanent and sustainable the feeling.
There is a returning quality to it; one returns to faith, so to speak, because it is a return of consciousness to a pre-wounded condition. It’s not a denial nor a naivete, but a repairing and removing of a barrier, which prevents the experience of faith. It is only accomplished through healing.
If a person is full of wounding, unhealed betrayals, unprocessed heart-aches, etc., and is fearful of trusting, this will stand as a barrier to the feeling sense of faith.
Then, absent the authentic feelings, mental constructs can be created and emotions can be generated with the mind temporarily, if one “believes” hard enough or keeps dogmatically repeating to himself how much he “believes” or “ought to believe.” This is what most religions teach lay people. But quickly that kind of faith breaks down, as it’s a very fragile sort of house of cards. The mind undermines itself in these matters often, and doubt prevails. Underneath that mental construct, full of trust wounds, the pain and fear and skepticism remain. No amount of belief can change that. This is why the real inner work is necessary.
Genuine faith is the serene and effortless surrender to the Divine will. It is neither blind nor ignorant. It is not attained through affirmative prayer, nor by the rejection of reason. In reality, it is a courageous path of negation; a purgative process requiring the arduous grappling with fundamental doubt and fear, and a healing of all the betrayals that caused the loss of faith in the first place. The more trauma one carries in the sphere of trust, the more difficult the journey.
Aristotle defines moral virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. We learn moral virtue primarily through experience, habit, and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction.
This is also called the middle path, or the middle way, and restates the concepts of balance and harmony.
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
In my view, the growth process towards virtue is the most difficult challenge any person can undertake. It also happens to be the most important at the soul level (if you believe all the great philosophers, sages, and mystics).
First it requires an intimate and careful self-study; with the aim of becoming ever more aware of ourselves – our behaviors, our desires, our emotional reactions, our repeating patterns of life. We seek to get more closely familiar with ourselves and understand our default settings, so to speak.
Then comes the investigation into how those settings came to be – the wounds, traumas, experiences, and resulting system of beliefs that created those internal settings and maintain them in their current state.
Then the deepening recognition and contemplation that the settings aren’t in their ideal state, being out of alignment with our higher truths and authentic selves. It is here that we study the wisdom teachings, learning the tools and their proper application to begin changing the settings.
And then the slow life-long process of healing and re-calibration of those settings – a movement towards the center or mean, as Aristotle calls it. The extinguishing of desire, the relinquishing of attachments, and the dismantling of fear.
The end result is internal peace – in the mind and in the emotional body. (This is the elusive state of enlightenment, freedom, liberation, etc.) In this condition, there is no longer a pull of internal desire in any extreme, and no longer any fear driving deficiency/avoidance.
The attainment of virtue (or more accurately the striving towards it) isn’t about becoming a “good” person. That’s not the goal. Some things that are called good, or socially sanctioned as good, are in fact deeply polarized, fear-based behaviors, which are not considered virtuous. The pursuit of virtue is more about the attainment of internal peace and fearlessness, in surrender to the Divine will.
What we know as goodness: love, empathy, compassion, fairness, generosity, justice, fortitude, temperance, and wisdom arise as a result of the pursuit of virtue. They are an inevitable and natural byproduct of the healing and balancing work.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
The primary focus of spiritual work and the purification of consciousness has to do with the eradication of fear, which underlies all the false egoic tendencies we call desire. The practice of this eradication involves determining internally which actions/responses are being driven by fear at their core, and working to dissolve those barriers. The more barriers we dissolve, the more we liberate our authentic selves to freedom.
The external actions we take are not especially relevant, as they are really only a byproduct of the internal process. It is one’s own inner work that is of primary importance, not how one appears externally to others. (For this reason, it is nearly impossible to evaluate another’s spiritual progress by merely observing their conduct or behavior.).
External peace between people is a beautiful thing. But real external peace cannot exist if there is internal turmoil and fear. Discontent can be suppressed and silenced, or negotiated or compromised away, but that is a false facade of peace, not authentic peace. In this sense, external peace becomes a kind of utopian ideal towards which we strive, but rarely achieve. Those who do achieve the virtuous ideal become spiritual masters and titans of humanity.
Many of us are conditioned from childhood to remain silent, or to refuse to engage in a provocation with an aggressor, in order to keep the external calm and social order. This serves to maintain a necessary social cohesion and quell unrest and chaos, without which there would be anarchy, but it is not peace. The authentic ideal requires a much more arduous and complicated journey.
When we embark on the spiritual path, we are initially taught not to engage in interpersonal combat, and to remain silent in the face of provocation. That is a wise initial teaching. By not engaging and refraining from combat, we have the space to turn the focus inward, and work through all of the triggered feelings and beliefs that the provocation activates. This work happens in layers and takes years and years to complete. As our competency in this area matures, we come to see the incredible value of this teaching. By refraining from engagement and using the provocations (so plentiful in our world) to fuel the work, we are able to travel to great internal depth and really discover ourselves fully. A seasoned practitioner of this process will actually arrive at gratitude towards his aggressors, because the attacks illuminated the wounding that was in need of awareness. That is how provocations (and evil at large) serve us, and that is why we ought to “turn the other cheek” in our usual practice.
There comes another stage of spiritual work and purification that asks us to externally work through our fears. Here we are called to a different sort of activity. In this area, having healed all of our primary wounds, we must now work on developing courage. The approach to provocations here is different, taking on a combative nature. This is the other side of the spectrum, which involves bringing increasing awareness to our self-oppression and self-silencing in order to “keep the peace” and “avoid rocking the boat,” because those things aren’t “nice.” We must recognize the places where we remain silent and refuse engagement out of fear of confrontation and avoidance. Then we must reconcile the fears, and find our voice, our anger, and learn how to utilize those tools effectively. They are vital parts of our humanness, and through proper expression they must be brought into balance within.
In some spiritual communities speaking up, engaging when provoked, standing up for oneself or against injustice, or using appropriate expressions of anger are shunned and shamed as “not spiritual.” This is a mistake. Those communities remain stuck in the initial beginner level teachings, rather than advancing to the more mature stages of spiritual growth. They impose “peace” and “calm,” which often becomes abusive and oppressive to the members, especially when malevolent actors are at the helm.
In this more spiritually mature arena, in order to claim that we are consciously choosing to remain silent and forbear when attacked, there must be a valid and viable alternative. That means that responding, or not responding, must be equally available paths of actions. Then it can be said that there is a legitimate choice being made between two paths. If responding to the provocation is not an available path, it is because fear is standing in the way, and then the decision not to respond is not a choice, but an avoidance. We can even call it a cowardice, succumbing to fear, rather than acting on our authentic feelings.
In this part of the work, we must choose very carefully when to respond or not respond, and how precisely to respond to the correct degree, determined mostly by which path scares us most. The responses must never come from a place of vengeance or the pursuit of power or domination. They must always be underpinned by justice and ethical decision-making. By recognizing the fear that blocks us, working through it, and then moving forward in that direction conquering the fear, we will win. That is what is really meant by this piece of wisdom. The one who masters this process wins.
The winning does not have to anything to do with what happens externally. The practitioner doesn’t necessary win against his opponent in physical reality. His external opponent and the external outcome of the fight do not matter. What matters is if he is internally making the right, courageous, wise choice – utilizing the provocation in the best way possible, pushing himself further and further towards the conquest of fear, and responding in just the right way. If this is carried out correctly, he will win, and the victory will be of the most important kind.