Spirituality

Mind your own business


“Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change anyone else.”

Richard Rohr

A little bit of spiritual experience and understanding can be a dangerous thing. Novices or initiates who are first introduced to the teachings always seem to think that they will take the mysteries and somehow manage to change the world. We’ve all been there, me included. They immediately turn into missionaries of the worst sort. Full of pride, a sense of superiority, and dominating energy, they go out into the world to impose their new found discoveries on others.

Those who have a stronger ego take on a messianic aggressive fervor, believing that they are ushering in some kind of new kingdom on earth. It’s an intoxicating belief for the ego, full of hope and idealism, they believe that they are working towards some utopian future. It allows them to dismiss and ignore the present, justifying the avoidance of life as it is here and now, with all its challenges, difficulties, fear, and messiness. Instead of focusing on the rich material that is here to be used for evolution and transformation, they prefer the escapism of their new kingdom fantasies. It’s very common, in many different manifestations.

With that, a very tempting desire arises to crawl into the mind and soul of another (any other), and to begin dictating to them how they ought to be, or what they ought to do. One can’t build a new kingdom by himself; you must have like-minded converts and followers, right?

This never ends well… It quickly turns to disillusionment, frustration, and then a hopeless despairing rejection of the original awakening intent.

And all the while, wisdom continues repeating to us that everything is already perfect precisely as it is. But the ego hates that idea. It cannot bear the world as it is, with all the suffering and injustice, poverty, warfare, and illness. And yet, those conditions have always been part of the human story; ultimately illusory, they are the obstacles for soul growth, and an infinite number of other extremely valuable human experiences.

It is normal and heartfelt to want to undo them or remove them, and working towards that is important and also part of the growth, but first the human condition must be accepted and understood fully for how it serves. This takes a long long time and a lot of arduous inner work. But without that, trying to change the world out of a sense of rejection of it, doesn’t work. (That which we reject and resist always persists).

Religion is, and always has been, in the proselytizing business. Seeking power, control, influence, it demands a constant flow of new adherents. One cannot be a shepherd without a flock. Spirituality doesn’t do this; it doesn’t need to do any of those things. Spirituality is there for those who awaken, it’s not pro-actively in the business of awakening others. (In humble truth, it knows that awakening comes by Grace, and not by human doing anyway. Taking credit for it only feeds the ego.). Screaming at someone to “wake up,” doesn’t work, just as it wouldn’t have worked in our own cases when we were asleep. Forcing it on someone else never works. The teachings, the teachers, the practices are there to be found by the seeker, not imposed on someone who is not intrinsically seeking it.

Spiritual practice is an internal personal matter, an individual calling between the practitioner and his/her God. It is not a program by which we fix others. In fact, attempting to fix someone else (or wake them up) is philosophically contrary to all of the wisdom teachings. Each person lives exactly as they are intended to live – our spiritual work is to learn how to accept that, make peace with it, and love it (especially when it’s contrary to spiritual principles.).

Spiritual or psychological insight into another person is not to be used as a weapon or method of power or control. This is not ok. Insights, accurate or inaccurate, into the inner life of another, are only meant to be a part of compassion work. If they are used to feed a sense of superiority, to sit in judgement of “their” unconsciousness, they are being mis-used in egotistical ways. It’s strictly cautioned against in every mystical tradition.

(Practice tip: you are not better than the person over there at whom you point your finger.).

Inside of each person, even if not expressed, even if not conscious or awakened, is an infinitely wise, infinitely capable soul, who doesn’t need to be taught anything. It is living out its life precisely as it needs to, not according to human judgments or standards. Sometimes ascended masters and highly evolved spirits take on the human form of a horrific evil monster – they do so in order to teach, instruct, and provided the catalyst for transformation. It is not our job to instruct anyone else, nor change them. It is foolishness to believe that we need to. (Even a spiritual teacher is not in the position to tell a student, who asks for such advice, how they ought to be…).

If someone’s character, personality, or lifestyle upsets you, your job is to go within yourself and reconcile that, to use that to further your own discovery work, not make efforts to control or change the person you don’t like. Most often it doesn’t work anyway. It is disrespectful to think we know what’s best for others or how they ought to be. It is wrong to impose our judgments, standards, or teachings on others. Even those people who are objectively odious by common agreement serve an important spiritual purpose. Our job is to find that purpose and arrive at understanding and gratitude for them, honestly and authentically, after processing through our pain. We must continuously remember that the world is perfect, precisely as it is, with all of its injustice and suffering. That should be the only mantra – refocusing the attention on the inner discomfort of that truth, rather than forcing external reality to change.

This does not mean that we whitewash evil, or pretend that it’s good. We must develop keen discernment via which we continue to grow and learn our lessons. It’s also not a justification of apathy; the difficult road of learning how to hold someone accountable for harm (without fear, vengeance, or mirroring their destruction) and setting healthy boundaries (honoring our vulnerabilities and self-respect) remain very much part of the growth work.

Yet, we must always first do our own work, and resolve our own feelings, respecting the individual sovereignty of the other person, before addressing their behavior. Without doing our work and attending to our own negative judgments and feelings about them, we will always take disproportionately unjust action under the guise of retribution.

On becoming real

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.

About faith

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.

The pursuit of virtue

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. 

What does enlightenment look like?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends very much on whom you ask.

For a long time I assumed that everyone had the same understanding of what it means to be enlightened. It’s talked about so much, that it never really occurred to me to investigate what I actually imagined it to be. It turns out, there is no consistent agreement on what an enlightened or realized person is. Different traditions, generally grouped by geography, teach, and aspire to, vastly different things.

The outcome of the Western mystic tradition is strikingly different than the Eastern variety. (I’m not equipped to get into a proper comparison here. I just mention it so we have some starting point). Essentially, it is whatever you believe it to be.

So what do you envision when you think of enlightenment? What does it actually look like? And where do your beliefs come from?

I’m going to leave those questions for now, and we’ll come back around to them.

Remember how I wrote a few months ago that mystics don’t act like saints? The point of my post was that uninvestigated ideal concepts of goodness and self-sacrifice are improper standards by which to judge our spiritual advancement. Holding ourselves to those standards, mimicking and pretending to be a better version of ourselves, hinders us from actual growth, because those images and concepts do not reflect the truth of who we are or the journey we take. Authenticity and self-love are not always in alignment with saintly ideals. Being kind is not the same thing as being nice.

When I wrote the original post, my image of a saint was someone very pious, ever-peaceful, obedient above reproach, humble to the point of being meek, quiet, perfectly loving, self-sacrificing, righteous, and proper. I used the termed “saintly” to depict exactly how we falsely imagine our higher self to be. Just to make sure my definition of the word wasn’t skewed, I looked up some synonyms for the word “saintly,” and that’s pretty much what I found. Well, in the last few weeks I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Christian mystics (who were later canonized, becoming saints), and my image of a saint was turned on its head.

The temperaments of these mystics do not fit the description of a saint at all. These are not gentle, passive, conflict-avoiders. They are not meek, nor obedient, nor above reproach, in their respective historical contexts. These are fierce, rebellious, non-conformists, fighting for justice in very disagreeable circumstances, dedicated to the dictates of their inner guidance (against many laws, rules, customs, and human opinions) from the divine authority within.

They are enlightened realized beings. One would say ultimately so, having completed their mystical journeys and attained permanent unitive states with the divine. But they don’t fit the definition of a saint. At least not how we use that word today.

And yet they are, technically, saints…

How do we make sense of that? Are our images of saints misinformed?

Reading one account after another, I was shocked to discover that a more accurate description would sound kind of like this: infinitely courageous, driven, and determined. Strong-willed, self-assured, supremely confident in their missions, even when everything appears to be going wrong. Not quiet, nor meek, nor peaceful; they are fighters, and leaders, and forceful reformers, and self-less servants of the divine will.

Self-less here doesn’t mean self-sacrificing; and it does not mean without a self. Rather, it means that the egoic personal will is replaced with the divine will. All desire arising from the ego is dissolved, and a new source of desire arises from the spiritual forces at work. (It feels within like a weird foreign desire. It’s very confusing at first, because it is inconsistent with the you that you know yourself to be. There is no sense of sacrifice at all in the heart or mind, because nothing is being actively given up.)

Here are some quick examples of what these mystics are like: St. Catherine of Siena, at the helm of Italian politics, lobbied continuously and ferociously, sending angry letters to the Pope, pressing for that which the divine will demanded. She was later nearly assassinated in religious riots over power. St. Teresa of Avila left her career in the convent, and following her inner guidance, took on reforming the corruption of the religious orders throughout Spain; instituting new fiercely ascetic protocols which no one supported. St. John of the Cross was imprisoned and tortured for unflinchingly pushing his unpopular reforms; he later escaped from prison. Meister Eckhart (not a saint, but a prominent religious leader and certainly a mystic) was brought up on charges of heresy for his writings.

There are many many examples like this (probably better examples than the ones I’ve chosen here). But the point is that this is not the profile of a tender, obedient, soft spoken, holy person, floating or gliding above the human fray. These are portraits of passionate warriors. Angry letters to the Pope? Reforming corruption? Do you have any idea how much confrontational fire it takes, how much courage and political savvy it takes to combat entrenched corruption, in a religious setting no less? I mean, these people had to be ferocious, and strong, and absolutely ruthless in their pursuits. Nothing meek about this. Nothing tender, or gentle, or peacefully lacking in passionate expression.

When they aren’t working, the accounts portray them as laughing, and singing, and joyfully, sometimes ecstatically, composing poetry and other forms of art. They aren’t morose or serious. They are playful, and silly, and childlike in their daily lives. And those that aren’t bound by religious language, describe their love of God and union with God in very sensual, erotic ways. (Because their unitive love and piety is not just a religious mental concept of faith or reverence. It’s an actual feeling of love, real love, with energetic experiences that are deeply sexual in nature.) Saints, sensual and erotic? What? What is happening here?

This is a very different image of enlightenment, and saintliness, than what we’ve been conditioned to believe. This isn’t the Eastern version of enlightenment. And it’s not the religious version of a saint (even though they are technically saints).

It is another way… (a way that is rarely taught or talked about in modern spiritual circles).

There is a prevailing notion in popular spirituality that enlightenment, or spiritual evolution, looks and sounds a particular way. It is deeply influenced by the Eastern concepts (perhaps through the import of yoga, or Buddhism, into the West. I don’t know). It envisions a sort of complete annihilation of the person: no self, no personality, no feelings, no emotions, no thoughts, nothing at all. Consciousness united with the divine, divorced from the body, which sits motionless in a cave somewhere…

The breaking down of that concept is important, because the mystical journey does not necessarily follow Eastern trajectories. (Mine certainly doesn’t). And it doesn’t conform to Western religious ideals or standards either (the mystics don’t conform to saintly standards).

Evelyn Underhill makes the argument that the Eastern notions of realization, culminating in a passive life, is actually an incomplete mystical journey. The Eastern mystics attained transcendence, she says, but then got stuck there. The Western mystics, on the other hand, attained realization and the permanent unitive state, but then went further, bringing that will and energy into action in the world. It is an active life (post-realization), not a passive one. It is the living breathing expression of the divine will (through the union with the higher self) in the most intensely human way.

The tendency of Indian mysticism to regard the Unitive Life wholly in its passive aspect, as a total self-annihilation, a disappearance into the substance of the Godhead, results, I believe, from … a distortion of truth. The Oriental mystic “presses on to lose his life upon the heights”; but he does not come back and bring to his fellow-men the life-giving news that he has transcended mortality in the interests of the race. The temperamental bias of Western mystics towards activity has saved them as a rule from such one-sided achievement as this; and hence it is in them that the Unitive Life, with its “dual character of activity and rest,” has assumed its richest and noblest forms. Underhill, Mysticism p.398

According to Underhill, the Western mystics, with their extraordinary lives of real service, are the pinnacle of the mystical journey. They are what real enlightenment looks like.

You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa of Avila in The Interior Castle, “that the soul in this state [of union with God] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.

Hmmm. I’m not a fan of arguing about which tradition or school is more advanced or right (it’s sort of a pointless argument). But all of this resonates very deeply for me. Throughout the last year or so, I kept getting the inner sensation of passionate warrior, thinking there was something wrong with me. What an incredible relief to find a concept of spirituality that fits with my experience.

There have been times when I’ve been guided, by my higher self, to do and say things that didn’t conform to my images and judgments of how a spiritual person is supposed to be. I’ve been asked to send angry emails (when I wasn’t angry), or to confront someone about their behavior (when it didn’t personally affect me). These directions were contrary to my own sense of what I should do in the situation, and how I ought to act in general. And I couldn’t understand why I was being led in a seemingly opposite direction.

Even my spiritual friends (who didn’t fully appreciate what was happening within me) judged me for not conforming to this ever-peaceful Eastern standard. It took a long time for me to learn to trust this inner guidance. To understand that these were lessons for me, and lessons for the recipient. I had to become aware that my images and concepts of who I should be were limited and limiting. I was judging myself against these Eastern ideals, which needed to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. Finding these Western mystics, and an entirely new concept for realization, has been really comforting for me.

Holding oneself to false concepts and standards (spiritual or not) isn’t helpful. It only creates more inner self-judgment and turmoil. That’s why it’s important to become aware of these inner standards, and dismantle them. Each person’s journey unfolds before him outside of his conscious control. It’s not something he designs or chooses. Real spirituality is about finding and living in accordance with that path of truth, not conforming to standards of what one ought to be. As long as I held myself to these Eastern concepts, I was stifling the truth that was asking to be expressed. Reading about the zeal and action of the Christian mystics, I feel a lot more comfortable with what I’m being guided to do.

Let’s go one step further. In my view, the Eastern notion of a “no-self,” as the path and goal of spiritual practice for Western practitioners is a detrimental mistake. The Western psyche is not the same as the Eastern one. We are not raised or conditioned the same way. We don’t have the fundamental foundations of basic goodness inherent in the East; we all carry around loads of unworthiness and psychological trauma. (There is a famous story about Western Buddhist teachers asking the Dalai Lama how to combat this inherent unworthiness. And the Dalai Lama couldn’t understand the question because he had no framework or conception of self-loathing. He was shocked to learn that we hate ourselves…).

And so adopting Eastern standards and practices, when the underlying self is terribly fragile and wounded, can be psychologically dangerous. Lots of spiritual seekers (with deeply broken inner foundations) are on a mission to annihilate themselves completely, believing that this is what enlightenment means. They have no other concepts to hold as their role models for spiritual growth.

In the Western tradition, the path is different. It is a perfection of the self through and with God. In non-Christian language, it is the healing and liberation of the authentic self, the authentic personality free from ego, such that the higher self can be expressed and actually serve humanity at large. When the higher self is not being expressed, the human underneath is a joyous, strong, psychologically healthy, confident person of great integrity and courage. In this tradition, the annihilation of the ego self is not the annihilation of the personality. One can become self-less, by losing his ego, without losing his authentic self. The end goal is not a total annihilation, with consciousness separate from the body, living in a cave. It is an intensely active life, directed wholly and completely by the divine will.

“The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a Dark, a Self-loss.” Underhill, Mysticism p.159

It is through the self, by healing the wounding, dissolving the ego (not the personality), strengthening the authentic self, and balancing out its polarities, that the person is transformed and remade into the divine state. This must be done in accordance with psychological health, never in the suppression, bypass, or invalidation of emotional pain (as most Eastern practices teach). It is when this healing and transformation happen genuinely and organically, that the higher self can begin to move through, and permanent union can be achieved.

The big liberation is the liberation of the authentic self, from fear, and ego, and all the things that keep it confined. Ultimately, it is about learning how to be loving and kind, and real, empathetic and vulnerable, and intensely sensitive to the suffering of others. It is the inner courage and fortitude to be the person you actually are, in truth and with love. And then from that solid and stable foundation, to carry out the mandates of the divine will.

Back to my original query – what do your images of enlightenment look like? And where did you get those images?

I think looking closely at our internal standards of what enlightenment or realization means is very important. It informs our entire understanding of the spiritual process. What sort of expectations are we placing on ourselves and those around us? What are we trying to become? And how might holding on to those concepts limit the true expression of what we really are?

With this awareness, we can free ourselves of trying to fit into concepts, and choose our role models carefully and consciously, in alignment with our own experience. Reading these mystics properly (without all the religious dogma), they are excellent alternative role models for those whose journey doesn’t fit with Eastern traditions. My own preferences aside, it seems to me that the Western models are vastly safer and more effective that their Eastern counterparts.

PS. A small side note on saints not acting like saints – there is a period of time in each mystic journey of shadow integration. Its most severe expression happens during the purgative phases, when it feels as though all love is lost. I wrote briefly about this before. Each of the mystics writes about this very unsettling experience in their respective descriptions of the dark night. It’s a temporary condition where saints really don’t act like saints at all. They are turned into their polar opposite (forced to surrender to “sin”) for a period of time, until those aspects are wrestled with and integrated into a balanced whole. It is a complete undoing of all that pretends to be pious and holy, such that the spiritual or religious ego is dismantled.

Forgiveness and boundaries

 

One of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts is that of forgiveness.

The practice of forgiveness is an internal emotional and psychological journey that is fundamental to any sort of healing (whether spiritual or secular). It is something that you do for yourself, within yourself. In your own heart, so to speak. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person, and it does not mean reconciling, or “getting back together,” or having any sort of relationship with the other person.

People often hold on to their anger and pain saying “no, I will never forgive this. What he did is unforgiveable.” This mindset, although very common, is both faulty thinking and it stands in the way of the victim’s own peace and inner tranquility. In reality, the painful thing has already happened; it’s done and gone. But by holding on to the anger and the pain in this way, we re-hurt and re-traumatize ourselves every time we remember it.

This becomes somewhat self-harmful and self-abusive. The anger and pain eat at us from within, each time we think of that person or the experience. And we use that pain and anger to punish the other person in our minds and sometimes in reality. (There is a vague sort of feeling of “I need this anger to keep me safe, otherwise he will hurt me again;” which is a false belief masking fear and a lack of assertiveness). This is why the practice of forgiveness is so important. It untangles all of these false beliefs and fear-based mechanisms that keep us from love, compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships.  

I’ve also often heard forgiveness being conflated with weakness; which is also inaccurate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or condoning any sort of hurtful behavior. Actually going through the process gives you incredible inner strength and courage to confront injustice in the right way, and hold people accountable.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean just turning the other cheek or just ignoring our feelings. Forgiveness means I love myself too much to continue carrying this awful painful burden. I will do the inner work to release myself, to release them, and I make a decision that is going to create more peace and less emotional pain in my life.

The process of forgiveness is about sorting out our own truth from the painful interpretations we make by default in our minds. It is an undoing of the self-judgments that lie at the root of most emotional pain. It is an investigation into the self-blame that the experience generated, and a transformation of that pain with love and compassion. It is then a turning to look at the other with the eyes of truth and compassion. Listening completely to our own anger and then transforming that anger with wisdom and understanding. It means making inquiries into the false motivations we have automatically assigned to them. And creating space for new loving interpretations.

By working on forgiveness we are releasing ourselves from the pain and suffering in our own mind, and coming to internal peace, as it relates to that person or experience. Also, in my view, learning how to forgive properly is the only way to build healthy relationships. Without a solid framework for forgiveness within, there can be no real repair after a conflict, and the relationship becomes a minefield of resentment. 

There is an ocean of difference however between forgiving someone (inside our hearts), and allowing that person to remain a part of our lives. The former is healing and necessary, the latter is not.

Whether we allow someone to remain in our lives and hearts after a hurt has occurred, is a delicate consideration. It often will depend on the subjective magnitude of the pain we experienced and whether trust has been broken. Probably the most important factor is whether the other person has the capacity to genuinely apologize in a heartfelt way, giving some assurance that the hurt will not happen again. But this decision, whether to continue a relationship or not, has nothing to do with forgiveness. This is a question of boundary setting and self-respect.

The internal process of forgiveness comes first, and is independent of this second aspect.

Boundaries are incredibly important; and setting them is an area people struggle with a lot. Sometimes boundaries are simple “this hurt me. please don’t do this again.” And other times much more complex: “Out of self-love and self-respect, I cannot allow you to continue this sort of behavior as it relates to me. You are free to do what you please, but I don’t wish to continue interacting with you.” It takes an incredible amount of inter-personal courage and self-love to carry these out properly. It sounds really obvious and simple, and yet I have met very very few people who really possess these skills. 

We all have different levels of tolerance for pain and different capacities for forgiveness. I’ve seen lots of situations where people (me included) continuously ignore hurtful words and actions of others, under the guise of forgiveness. The deeper truth is that they (we) are really just too afraid to stand up for ourselves. (It has taken me a lot of work and courage to really begin standing up for my vulnerable feelings… It gets easier with practice.)

But forgiveness cannot be used to justify silence in the face of a transgression. If the hurts continue to be inflicted, at some point forgiveness no longer works. One cannot withstand constant hurtful words or actions, without the dynamic becoming self-abusive. Forgiveness cannot be used (or misused rather) as an avoidance technique when confrontation is too scary.

Setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, and voicing hurt feelings honestly are all required acts of self-love. The complicated part is that they are to be done without anger or resentment. (If they are being done with anger, from a negative emotional state, it’s not boundary setting but rather a form of punishment. The distinction is very important).

We must first do the work to reach a state of peace (internally) and compassion for the other person, and then we set the boundary peacefully and with kindness. (This doesn’t apply of course in emergency situations when harm is imminent. I feel this is so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I suppose I do).

Setting boundaries also has nothing to do with the other person. You cannot change who they are, or what they do. But we must find the courage to see them with honest eyes. We must be willing to acknowledge how they make us feel, really and deeply. And if we don’t want to be treated a certain way, we are in control of your own lives, actions, and behavior. There is nothing wrong with removing ourselves from dynamics (whether temporarily or permanently) that we find hurtful.

Putting our own vulnerable feelings first is not selfishness; it is the ultimate self-love.  

 

But they will think I’m crazy…

They say that in order to become enlightened you have to be willing to lose your mind.

This is usually understood as a humorous double entendre. Firstly, the mind can’t grasp or rationally intellectually comprehend enlightenment experiences. And in order to get there you have to let go of the mind (or ego) – loosening the mental landscape in your head.  Secondly, enlightened or realized mystics are kind of loopy unusual people, mostly on account of their unfiltered authenticity, but their experiences and behaviors are generally outside “normal” mental function. So by definition, they are considered crazy. Get it?

It’s not that funny…

Walking this path is very complicated and destabilizing. And talking about spiritual experiences is scary. Really really scary. Even today, in our seemingly progressive era, many who have profound experiences often keep them a secret. They don’t tell their friends or family. They don’t tell their boyfriends or girlfriends. They create fake profiles on facebook, and anonymously join support groups online, so no one in their real life finds out.

It can be extremely isolating, lonely, and stressful to live this way. These experiences become so fundamental to who you are as a person, that hiding them feels like hiding huge essential aspects of yourself.

The reason for all the secrecy is almost always the same – “They will think I’m crazy. They won’t believe me. They will leave me. They will divorce me. I’ll lose my job. They will lock me up in a mental hospital.”  This sounds alarmist, but until you’ve actually experienced supernatural things, and tried to talk about them with those that haven’t, you don’t really understand the depth of this fear. It’s very real and quite paralyzing. It is not yet socially acceptable to talk about mystical experiences without being considered crazy. And that label, to most people, still carries tremendous stigma.

Yes. They will think you are crazy (until these experiences become more normalized). But so what?

What’s really being revealed deep inside the fear is something different. It sounds like this: “I’m afraid that if I tell them the truth I won’t be loved or accepted. I’m afraid that being crazy makes me unacceptable.” The root fear is rejection and abandonment. The root fear is  “the people in my life only love me conditionally. They will only stick around if I fit their definition of what’s normal and acceptable. They will judge me, shame me, and leave me if I’m not normal; if I don’t fit the image of what they want me to be. I have to be what they all expect me to be, otherwise I’ll end up alone.”

This belief, this fear (which may bear out in reality; the people in your life may, in fact, only love you conditionally) forces genuine spiritual experiences underground. It forces people who have them to live a lie. To create a socially acceptable false mask, pretending to be “normal.” And to keep their experiences buried in secrecy.

With all the stuff available online, all the television shows. and all the mainstream spirituality, still, in their private lives, in their interpersonal relationships, these people are terrified. I know I was as well. It took me a long time to work through all of my fears, and to begin talking about what’s happening to me. 

When I tell others that they have to be more honest, more forthright about what’s happening to them, they panic. They tell me that they aren’t strong enough. They don’t want to upset the apple cart. They don’t want to disturb the (illusion of) peace in their lives. “He’ll never accept this” or “she’ll never believe me.” Instead of taking a risk with the truth, they hide the truth. They don’t take ownership of what’s happening to them. They relegate it to some weird shameful thing that no one really needs to know about. They are embarrassed by it. They are afraid of being found out and labeled.

In my view, this runs counter to all spiritual mandates. Spirit doesn’t support hiding your truth. You came into this life to be exactly what you are (with all your weirdness). Pretending to be something else, to be normal, to be acceptable isn’t in alignment. You can’t claim to be evolved or spiritual when you are afraid to live your truth; when you don’t act in your integrity. When you are afraid that the truth will hurt others. Or that you won’t be accepted for it. You can’t be in service if you are living a lie. You can’t be the full expression of your beautiful talents and gifts, if fear and self-judgment keep you from being authentic.

I advise people that they ought to try telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. (This doesn’t mean you need to come out guns blazing; you can find a careful gentle way to deliver the truth). But relationships built on conditional love have to be challenged with the truth. That’s the point. The truth comes to burn things away; to reveal that which is not sustainable or in the highest alignment. By keeping the truth a secret, you interfere with the spiritual lessons you are being asked to learn. Safety, security, and peace cannot exist when there is deep seated fear.

Take a risk, tell the truth, and then see what stays and what goes.

I spoke to a woman not too long ago who has been experiencing various kundalini symptoms for over a year.* Her awakening so far has been relatively mild, and not specifically destructive to her way of life. She is able to continue working and socializing without much interruption.

She told me about her boyfriend, whom she’s been seeing for several years. They were thinking about moving in together, and she wasn’t sure if she should tell him about what’s been happening to her, or her growing spiritual life. When I asked her why she hadn’t told him right away, she said that he is an atheist, deeply skeptical and very committed to his beliefs. He’d never accept what was happening to her. She was afraid to lose him, by telling him the truth. “We’re so great together. We’re such good friends, and our relationship is so full of love. I don’t want to lose that.

Then she mentioned that she tried once to bring it up, to tell him what’s happening to her, but “we were having such a lovely relaxing time together, I didn’t want to ruin it.

But the appearance of a relaxing time, in reality, was not relaxing at all. She wasn’t relaxed. She was internally in discomfort – going back and forth in her mind over all the various scary consequences. Thinking about what would happen to their relationship in the future when she wouldn’t be able to hide her symptoms anymore. It only appears to be relaxing on the surface, but when your mind is not at rest you can’t feel relaxed.

What I’m going to say next may sound callous, but it’s the essential truth.

If someone doesn’t know the real you; they can’t possibly love you. If they don’t know the truth, then what they love is the person you are pretending to be. If the truth of what’s going on in your life is kept a secret, then the person you’re with never has a chance to love you. They don’t know you. And you aren’t giving them an opportunity to decide whether they really accept you or not. If you tell them the truth and they don’t accept it, then they don’t love you. Without acceptance there is no love, there are only attachments and transactions. In a relationship without acceptance there is only conflict and warfare, anxieties and power-plays for control.

In reality, if the people in your life don’t support you, don’t believe in you, don’t accept you as you really are, then do they deserve to be in your life at all?

You have to ask yourself “what am I really holding on to here?

Do you have to pretend to be someone you’re not, in order to continue receiving love and approval? Or are you free to be your full and complete self, with all the weird stuff, knowing that the people in your life adore you just as you are? Wouldn’t you rather live your life around people that respect and admire the very things that you fear might be weird and shameful?

It begins with you. If you don’t take a risk to accept yourself fully and live your own truth, you’ll never know. Find the courage to let what is built on ego and conditions fall away. And let those that love and accept you unconditionally demonstrate that to you.

Keeping secrets create disconnection and separation from those you love. Allow the truth to bring you closer together. It may be scary in the moment, but there is so much love available on the other side. Allow those that really love you to be there for you. If you neutralize your own fears (by working thru them), it will not be such a terrifying situation. Then you can talk to the people in your life in a peaceful and confident way.

It is ignorance that creates fear, so use this opportunity to educate the people in your life. Show them that there is nothing crazy about spiritual experiences. Part of the reason that it’s viewed as crazy is that the people that came before were also too afraid to talk about it. They kept their experiences a secret. They stayed in the shadows because they too were afraid.

If you really want to be of service to humanity, start within your own life. Find the courage to live your own truths. Life has a way of surprising you. And when you approach something with the right energy within, people you thought would never accept it, somehow manage to surprise you as well. It won’t be as bad as you think. 

I leave you with this quote from John Irving “If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”

 

_____________

* Details have been amended to protect privacy.

Acceptance (Part 2)


Acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, a subtle energy vibration, is consciousness.

Eckhart Tolle

 

I introduced the basic approach to acceptance (and a short example of how to do it) in my previous post. I want to stress here that this practice isn’t easy. You’re attempting to retrain your mind out of default patterns of thinking, which it’s been carrying out automatically for years. Think of it as well-trodden roads or pathways in the mind. Acceptance practice is actually creating new roads, new mental pathways, and it takes a little time to adjust.

This practice can be applied in every day modern life to enhance peacefulness and calm, and cultivate emotional intelligence and maturity. And it’s also part of a rigorous spiritual discipline designed to bring your entire ego into conscious awareness. (In the latter case, it’s seen more as a temporary tool that gets you to a particular level of spiritual development rather than as a permanent mode of being.). It’s only a question of how far you take it.

And so one of the major critiques of acceptance (as it’s come into the West via the mindfulness movement) is that it will turn all of us into sheep. I heard this critique a lot in the corporate arena when mindfulness programs were suggested as part of employee enrichment. The crux of the argument is that if you teach people about acceptance, you are encouraging passivity and conformity, thereby potentially condoning and perpetuating abusive dynamics.

We are a culture of doers, fighters, changers, and carried out to its logical end, this practice would mean that you just accept everything, allow everything, never complain, never set limits, never hold people accountable, and never take any corrective action. If you just accept everything, you would basically become totally apathetic to the world around you. You would allow all kinds of bad things to happen, and you wouldn’t do anything about them. Something that doesn’t really jive with our “I’m gonna change the world. I’m gonna make a difference” mentality.

This is a valid concern. I worried about this too in the beginning.

It would seem this way – if you just allow everything, then you’d never do anything about anything. You’d lose all motivation to change anything or work towards anything. If you just allowed everything to be what it is, worked internally to come to peace and contentment, then nothing would ever get done. You would be complacent and unmoved. You would allow evil and injustice to reign. You would end up homeless, penniless, on the street with a shopping cart. Your life, and the world at large, would go quickly down the drain…

But, in practice, the result is actually quite shockingly different. (The critique comes from the outside, from people who aren’t regular practitioners, and so they don’t understand the nuance of what actually happens internally over time.)

I’ve taken this practice to the extreme over the last few years as part of my spiritual discipline. And what happens over time is that you come to a place of emotional equanimity about everything. You don’t have many emotional responses to things the way you did before. You are, in essence, undoing the source of your emotional triggers. And what you reach is a sort of peaceful, consistent state of contentment, without needing to apply any further effort. (You’re not repressing or denying any emotional responses – you actually cease having them.). What grows within you at the same time though is courage, emotional fortitude, and a sense of your own integrity and self-respect. The practice challenges and dissolves the egoic overlays, while strengthening the authentic self within. What results is a calmer emotional body, resting on strength of character. 

Emotional reactivity, whether it’s expressed or suppressed, wastes both physical and spiritual energy. It’s the reason that all spiritual traditions ask you to work on maintaining emotional equilibrium and stability.

While different traditions go about this in different ways, in my view, you can’t maintain emotional stability by force or control. You can’t dominate yourself into calm. You have to go to the roots of where the reaction comes from – the subconscious belief system – and do the work there. In effect, undoing the source of the trigger, addressing/healing that particular piece of your psyche, means that the next time you are confronted with that particular stimulus, you won’t have a reaction. (Or if it’s a large wound, then the reactions will lessen and lessen over time as you continue doing the healing work.). 

You’ll observe what’s happening, but you won’t feel an emotional response in the body. (This is huge when it first happens for people – they can’t believe the difference!). And as you have less and less reactions, you are actually conserving physical and spiritual energy. You are becoming stronger and more fortified.

Someone might say something disrespectful, and you may not like it or appreciate being spoken to that way, but your emotional body doesn’t respond. There is no racing heart, no fight or flight, no boiling blood, just a calm clarity that allows you to say “hey, I don’t like being spoken to that way, please stop it.” Which is an interpersonal skill most people are too uncomfortable to cultivate these days. 

Acceptance doesn’t turn you into a sheep; quite the opposite. It actually helps strengthen you sense of self, while your emotional body remains at rest most of the time. You will still like and dislike things. You will set boundaries with people (lots of them, more so than ever perhaps). You will still go to work, and pay your bills, and shop for groceries, you’ll just do all of it calmly and peacefully, without the emotional roller-coasters all the time.

The difference here is that when you do set limits or hold people accountable for stuff, you don’t do it in a frenzy of emotional reactivity. As Rudolf Steiner explains you do it with the same emotional tone as if you were advocating for someone else who has been hurt or offended, rationally and dispassionately.

You discuss your feelings with complete calm and clarity. It’s not a passionate dramatic fight, where you say all kinds of things that you later regret. You aren’t abusive or hurtful to the other person. You don’t escalate the conflict. You don’t lash out. There is no angry retort or sense of vengeance – you don’t want to “get him back” for what he said. Because you aren’t really affected by what this person has said.

You know that whatever they’re doing is their own stuff. You don’t take it personally – meaning you don’t interpret the words or actions of others as a reflection of your self-worth. You accept that this is what is being said to you in this moment, over which you have no control (try as you might, you really can’t control other people), and you have a peaceful, firm, yet compassionate response to the offending person. You can choose to respond, how to respond, or not to respond at all. This is emotional intelligence at work, in practice. 

With emotional equanimity comes actual freedom of choice, and self-control.

But what about the passionate action for change? What about making the world a better place? What about standing up to injustice?

Well, what I’ve been shown over the last few months is that those things don’t go away. You don’t become apathetic to the world. This kind of emotional equanimity allows you to move through life, and do lots and lots of things, without being depleted by the toxic nature of other people or the situations around you. It allows you to retain an internal stillness, that keeps you from wasting physical and spiritual energy in emotional reactivity. It allows you to take lots and lots of inspired action (for good), time and time again, without fear of risk or failure. It allows you to make peace, the right way. And it allows you to stand up to people (who are behaving badly) without fear. It gives you to courage to do whatever is in your integrity to do.

(Another important inquiry to do first though, is to look at what within you is motivating you to change the world. An honest look inward will surprise you. You will find that a lot of that is your own unhealed material projected outward. My facebook friend Lila Haris explains this beautifully here).

This doesn’t mean you never get angry or upset. There are certainly situations where you have an appropriate response, but it’s a lot less often, a lot less dramatic, and it lasts for a much shorter time. You may feel sad, or hurt, or upset if a situation calls for it, but with acceptance you’ve cut short a lot of the unnecessary suffering. And you’re one step closer to forgiveness. If you choose to use anger – it isn’t abusive. It’s not meant to hurt the other person. And you are not swept up in the emotions; you use it carefully, with control, like you would a fine instrument. The anger doesn’t control you, you control it.

It is true that anger and passion have fueled lots of beneficial social movements. It is undeniable that lots of rights and liberties have been fought for, and secured, through the emotional force of people who have been wronged. And their anger, and pain, and rage is then catalyzed into social action. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need all of that unruly passion to make a difference. (I would argue that that’s a dangerous way to go about seeking social justice – in actually, it means keeping people in anger, fear, and rage, in order to accomplish the goal, which feels very manipulative in my heart.).

Emotional energy that is rooted in ego – the one that burns hot and seeks vengeance, or seeks to stop injustice immediately and at all costs, isn’t just irrational; it’s also unjust, imprudent, and untrustworthy. It can lose control quickly, and cause even greater harm and injustice in its response. It is hypocritically, the very same evil it purports to combat. Once it’s triggered, it is impossible to satisfy that drive, and it leads to extremely unjust results. (This is why angry violent mobs are dangerous and scary – their egoic emotions are riled up and there is no satisfaction or de-escalation possible).

And as any activist knows, justice and sustainable change both take a lot of time and come slowly. They require calm, deliberate, patient and steadfast effort over time. Emotional energy is the wrong fuel to use for that effort. It burns out quickly, and when the results aren’t immediately forthcoming, despair sets in and demotivates the entire operation. Instead, using the practice of acceptance, coming to terms emotionally with what is, coming to peace in the emotional body, and then working long-term towards the goals is the much saner, healthier, and more effective approach. 

All of our greatest leaders taught us that, and you can see it now, in action, with the wise leadership at Standing Rock. To sustain the fight against injustice you need emotional resilience. You need calm cool resolve that doesn’t deplete you, physically or spiritually. Far from turning you into a sheep or a doormat, acceptance gives you the emotional resilience of a marathoner, rather than a sprinter, to fight the good fight (whatever that means for you).

Acceptance doesn’t lead to apathy, as the criticism suggests. You are still motivated to do things (often very motivated), but you do them with a different kind of energy – an energy that doesn’t burn out, and doesn’t burn you out. You stand up for what’s right, and you take action against injustice, but you do it with internal peace. A peace that doesn’t deplete you, so you have more energy to continue standing up and to continue taking action.

 

Acceptance

One of the basic universal teachings in almost all spiritual and esoteric traditions is learning the practice of acceptance. Acceptance is the allowing (and even celebrating) a person or situation precisely as it is, without trying to change them/it in any way. It’s quite a challenging practice when you actually begin applying it to people and situations that you find unacceptable.

But that’s precisely the point. It’s easy to accept good things. It’s not so easy to accept the stuff we don’t like.

Through the practice of acceptance, you are able to see all the places that you are not in acceptance. You try to be in acceptance, and you begin to notice that in lots and lots of situations, you’re not. You just can’t. (This is where the gold is!) In the contrast, in those places you cannot accept, you are able to see just how much you try to control or affect your surroundings and why. (Hint: it’s always fear).

It goes something like this. Imagine that you’ve run into someone you know, and don’t like. You notice yourself tense up within. You notice how you’re anticipating something unpleasant and bracing yourself for what’s about to happen. There’s dislike, but underneath the dislike is a vague sort of anxiety. And so this is the perfect opportunity to engage this practice. You acknowledge your feelings and then you go inward:

  • I don’t like this xyz quality about this person. (Do one quality at a time).
  • How come?
  • Why does it bother me so much?
  • Is this a quality that I have?
  • Can I think of at least one scenario where I’ve displayed this quality? At least once? (I promise you, it’s in there. If you’re honest, you’ll find it.)
  • Is this a quality that I’d never allow myself to have? Why not?
  • What is my relationship to this quality? Why?
  • Where did I develop this relationship to this quality?
  • Who else do I know that has this quality?

And you can go further and further inward with this line of inquiry… If you stay with this long enough, and are both curious enough and honest enough, you will unearth some really interesting things. What you find will lead to many many ah-ha moments.

The internal intention is to allow your existing beliefs and feelings space to grow and change in the discovery process. If we stubbornly stick to our existing beliefs, and make arguments that support our position in response to these questions, nothing will happen. We have to actually soften up a little bit and allow this discovery to show of different kinds of truths, different perspectives, and different parts of ourselves which we may not previously have seen. 

So in general, when you find yourself not in acceptance, you ask:

  • What is it, in this person, in this situation, in this moment that isn’t acceptable and why. And you go as far inward as you wish.

And then, after you’ve had about ten ah-ha moments with this, the next steps are learning how to allow the person, the situation, the moment to be exactly what it is, and to find why it’s good that it is so.

  • Why is this objectively bad thing, actually a good thing? Don’t silver line it, it’s not about finding a speck of good in something bad. It’s actually turning the whole thing into a good.

The mind really really hates this part of the practice. Every time I ask people to do this second part they tell me immediately that there is absolutely positively nothing good about this person/situation/moment.

I hear you (all of you!) but that’s the point.

This practice of acceptance is one of the tools of self-discovery and transformation of consciousness. Using this practice you come to find all the hidden judgments and beliefs that you’re carrying around in your subconscious. You can find a bunch of ego structures and a bunch of shadow elements. It’s really a very powerful tool. But you have to be willing to soften your position, and allow this process, in order to find those hidden things and to create more space within you. 

And as you bring those things up to awareness, you have the power to change how you feel about them, if you wish. If you choose to change and let them go, you become more and more loving and accepting in a way that you never imagined. By accepting things you thought were unacceptable, you become happier, more loving, more kind, and then more able to go about doing whatever needs to be done. (Note – acceptance does not mean passivity, but more on that later). 

The practice of acceptance is also a great tool for retraining the mind to a more allowing and less controlling pattern of thinking.

There is actually very little that is within our functional control in life. Wanting to control everything comes from fear – it’s a lack of trust and faith in the universe, rooted in trauma. It’s often a lot of bad experiences which form a mistrust of life. Then we begin clinging and controlling, trying to manage the unmanageable. 

It is also a misunderstanding of cosmic paradigms to believe that only good things should happen. If you believe this, then you put all your effort and energy into trying to control outcomes, and keeping the bad scary future things at bay. But life doesn’t actually work that way, on our terms, and so the whole endeavor is a waste of energy. If you live life trying to control everything, you suffer. (It’s actually resistance to what’s happening that is causing the most suffering). If instead you can learn to live in a more allowing and accepting state of mind, you suffer a lot less.

I will leave you here with a tiny bit of Jung on this subject.

There are so many brilliant moments in Jung’s work. It’s hard to highlight one without mentioning at least ten others. But I came across this specific quote yesterday, which encapsulates so many important ideas.

We can get in touch with another person only by an attitude of unprejudiced objectivity. This may sound like a scientific precept, and may be confused with a purely intellectual and detached attitude of mind. But what I mean to convey is something quite different. It is a human quality – a kind of deep respect for facts and events and for the person who suffers from them – a respect for the secret of such a human life. The truly religious person has this attitude. He knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass, and seeks in the most curious way to enter a man’s heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by “unprejudiced objectivity.” It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor, who ought not to let himself be repelled by illness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow-sufferer. I do not in the least mean to say that we must never pass judgment in the case of persons whom we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.

The quote is from a talk he gave, which was later published as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (Or vice versa, I can’t be sure which came first).

The work of acceptance (first of self, and then of the other) is the only path. It’s not a matter of preference. Acceptance is the very heart of love. It is the highest of mystical truths. It is the pillar upon which peace, freedom, empathy, compassion, dignity, respect, and humility rest.

It is also the only way to heal…

Mystics don’t act like saints


For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.

Thomas Merton

I read an article yesterday by a spiritual teacher instructing his followers to act from their “highest self.” He was beseeching his readers to be more loving, more kind, more peaceful; not to act on their emotional reactivity, but to take a high-road approach; the approach their “highest selves” would take. This sounds like lovely common sense. It sounds really good, and moral, and righteous. If only everyone followed this advice, right? Things would be a lot more peaceful. The problem is that it’s not real.

In practice this advice is often deeply misconstrued and ends up leading to the opposite result. It’s important to take it apart a bit, and clarify the actual internal direction.

On its face, this advice asks people not to act on their emotions, not to act on their normal drives or feelings, not to seek their vulnerable true self, not to behave authentically in accordance with their true feelings, but instead to identify with some divine, saintly, higher, ideal, spiritualized version of themselves, and to pretend to be that, to behave as though they were embodying that higher self.

What happens to people who do this internally is that they walk around pretending to be something they are not, namely “spiritual.” They have an idealized image of this higher self, which is really an idealized self-concept, and they mimic the words and behavior they believe this higher self would display. It’s a form of play-acting. They aren’t being real, they are pretending to be something they aren’t.

This is fake spirituality. Not only does it make the person’s words and actions feel phony, it makes him feel arrogantly superior to others (because he is believing and acting as though he is “above” them), it causes him to condescend and patronize to others, under the guise of spirituality. This does not lead to any beneficial result, not for the person, and not for those around him. It’s not more peaceful. It’s not more loving. It doesn’t help to avoid, resolve, or minimize conflict. This is generally what someone who is called sanctimonious is doing – he is pretending to be a lofty version of himself, and talking down to everyone else from his perch up above. We generally don’t like being around people like that, mostly because we can tell it’s phony.

One of the problems of imagining an idealized self, and acting in accordance with that self, is that that image is limited by the existing belief system. It’s not an accurate image. It’s a lop-sided fantasy. One cannot imagine accurate attributes in a higher self, if one has not explored his own darkness and shadow. Without going deeply into the darkness, and healing and reconciling those personality aspects, any images of a higher self will be terribly flawed, polarized, and one sided. The mind can’t imagine things outside of (or conflicting with) its existing belief structure, no matter how unconscious. So to reach up above, create a wonderful persona of goodness, and to act in accordance with that image, is kind of silly, but more importantly it has the effect of closing off the learning channels, and stifling further growth.

People who come into contact with their higher selves, in reality, are absolutely shocked, because it’s nothing like what they imagined it to be. They often struggle to reconcile the actually of the higher self, and what it teaches and demands, with their previously held images of what that would be like. They can’t believe the difference, and are quite nervous and upset by the truth. Real mystics, people who are deeply committed to truth and work regularly with various energies of Spirit (including at times their real higher selves), don’t act like saints; they don’t embody their higher selves. They don’t emulate goodness externally, for its own sake. They are far busier, being self-loving, honest, and courageous, than that. They embody their small inner child, living and feeling those truths, and re-raising that child from within, as a person of strong character.

Let’s use a really simple example. Imagine a close friend invites you to her birthday party, but you don’t want to go. The reason why you don’t want to go doesn’t matter much. If you identify with your “highest self,” you would believe that the right thing to do is to go, even if you don’t want to, because it would mean a lot to your friend. You might think something like “I have to show up to support my friend. It would be selfish to say no. Surely, my highest and best self would put my wants and needs aside to show up for a friend. Surely, my highest self is not selfish, and wouldn’t justify hurting my friend’s feelings just because I didn’t feel like going.”

Many of us are indoctrinated with really skewed ideals of goodness. The values we’ve been taught to ascribe to a “good” person, or a higher self, are wrong. Our images of an ideal self are often generous without boundaries, completely selfless, constantly endlessly sacrificing for others, always tender and never angry, infinitely patient, gentle, and compassionate, unconditionally loving and forgiving without accountability, etc. If we imagined an ideal image, many of us would attach those qualities to it, along with many other attributes. But those values are not how the highest self reasons, or functions, or exists at all. We would be mistaken to imagine that our highest self is exclusively this way. It is much more virtuous than this, much more balanced.

But this example is exactly what’s wrong with identifying with some image of what you think a spiritualized version of you would do. It masks the reality with phony spirituality. It’s a new (inaccurate) persona you must pretend to be and live up to. A new identity that you adopt that isn’t real. It avoids the uncomfortable difficult human stuff, with pretend love and fake kindness. It forces you to sacrifice yourself for another, because you believe it’s the “right” thing to do. This is a terrible form of spiritual bypass, which denies the real human experience, and the requisite lessons to be learned.

Even forgetting for a moment the issue of veracity, arbitrarily choosing to behave in conformity with an image, means not authentically choosing to behave as we really feel. This presents the next problem with the instruction – is that identifying with this ideal image of the higher self, the person is wasting precious time not being his authentic self, not cultivating or strengthening the small true self within. He is being good, at the expense of being real. While being real, or struggle to be real, is the hard work of spirituality – that’s what Merton is talking about above. In practice, the only way to derive wisdom, and to figure out how to act with wisdom and love is by going deep within to the true vulnerable self, the inner child, not to the higher self.

The only way to access actual love, not phony “highest self” sort of love, is to go within and get to the vulnerable truths inside. I’m not advocating acting on emotional reactivity or reckless base instincts, but rather going inward and investigating that reactivity, and then acting from inner truth and feeling. Meaning, doing only that which you actually want to do, and saying no when you want to say no. (This seems obvious and simple until you actually try to implement it in your life; only then you begin to see how scary and challenging this actually is…)

While the ultimate truth of us all is love, the actual road to love is very difficult and complicated. And the only way to learn the lessons, and really embody love and act in a loving, wise, just way, is to discover one’s own personal vulnerable truths deep within (not up above), and work tirelessly on building up the courage to live and express those truths to others. Turning upwards, rather than inwards, is a gross mis-direction.