When you start a spiritual path, you don’t really realize what you’re getting into.
The path is like a carnivorous plant that lures us in with the promise of a fragrant feast. Before we realize what’s really going on, we find ourselves trapped. The more we fight, the deeper we sink.
This is why Chogyam Trungpa said, “if you haven’t started a spiritual path, it’s best not to start. But if you have started, it’s best to finish.” If you are truly serious about your spiritual path (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t), then it’s not the sort of thing you can leave half done. It demands more than a Navy SEAL type commitment, because truly taking it to heart will leave no corner of your life untouched.
In the last nine months, I felt like the little ant I described in part 1: picked up and manhandled by forces out of my control, violently subjected to twists and turns of fate. I was faced with a series of crises that left me bewildered, confused, frightened, and lost. All of my traditional coping mechanisms fell flat; what I hoped would mitigate my suffering often exacerbated it.
We all have strategies to “keep it together”, and I suppose that, on the whole, the ones I used were fairly benign. Although I have had my periods of indulgence with intoxicating liquors and herbs, these were nothing compared to the narcotic of explanation.
Like an ant drawn to sugar, the mind can’t resist articulating a sense and order to things. It does not like to find itself unemployed, so it would rather concoct shitty explanations rather than admit there is no explanation.
Because simply being with grief and pain is difficult, it’s tempting to look for something, anything, to latch on to and say, there: that’s why this is happening. Explanations relieve the burden, because a solid, concrete account is better than the alternative of floating around in the amorphous void of unfamiliar emotions. The mind needs some kind of meaning or purpose in the chaos as it grasps for a foothold in the dark chasm of meaninglessness and mystery.
We see this in the Book of Job, when Job’s friends try to comfort him with conventional explanations for his misfortune. The writers of the Bible were keenly aware that when we go through difficult circumstances, others often offer up their unsolicited interpretations. But the truth is, explanations don’t really alleviate suffering; in many cases, they actually make our pain worse. Trying to figure out why difficult circumstances have manifested in your life can easily lead to self-recrimination that you must have “done something” to “deserve” this (this is exactly the line that Job’s friends take).
If you think about it long enough, though, you’ll probably find a counterexample to every explanatory principle your mind offers. We can find countless examples of seemingly righteous people who endure one tragedy after the next, while war criminals go unpunished and live in luxury. But because we tend to interpret reality in the way we want, we ignore what doesn’t fit into our theory and focus only on what confirms our pre-existing personal and collective narratives.
In the face of life’s incomprehensibility, western culture spins images of a just and benevolent God. We may not be able to make much sense of our lots and fate on earth, but our priests assure us that God will set the record straight in the hereafter. As Freud noted, though, these are longings and projections of our need for a father. As Jung noted, these projections serve as defense mechanisms against the actual experience of life.
I tend to agree with Jung there, for I have seen just how individual and collective explanations have pulled me further away from the reality of my feelings. Saying “I know why this happened” is a way of making myself feel powerful in the face of vast, impersonal forces which could destroy everything I cherished in my life in a million different ways at any moment. Admitting I don’t know brings me in contact with my ignorance, and ultimately my vulnerability. This is the uncomfortable point to which all spiritual paths bring us, and this is why we’ll do just about anything to avoid truly letting that truth sink in.
My mind’s gymnastics have kept me from looking out at life and saying, you know, I don’t really know. I really have no clue why some people who don’t even want children end up with several, while others who deeply long to extend their love to new lives are thwarted multiple times.
Our existence- ant, human, or otherwise- is unbelievably fragile. Life can come to an end (even before it begins) in a million different ways that we can neither control nor understand.
And some of us have the hubris to think we know we have it figured out! We often don’t realize that admitting we don’t have it figured out can simply re-inscribe the problem at a deeper level, since saying “I can’t figure it out” can become a way of trying to “figure it out.”
So what to do?
I have learned that when someone is suffering, what is more powerful, and more necessary, is not to offer any explanation, but simply to offer your presence. Just show up in whatever way is needed, even if that means letting things be.
When I offer this presence to myself, I hear the whispers of wisdom rising up from the source each of us has within:
It’s ok to experience discomfort, and to seek to eliminate that discomfort.
It’s ok to feel out of control. You were never in control to begin with.
It’s ok to not know why things happen, or where life is taking you. Nobody really does, and anyone who claims they do is a charlatan.
It’s ok to be afraid, to have your faith and trust shaken. If this situation didn’t make you question your faith and beliefs, that would mean your faith was blind.
It takes courage to face up to what’s really going on inside. This is why Trungpa said that, “If a person does not feel alone and sad, he cannot be a warrior at all.” Following the spiritual path leads us to simply be able to hold a broken heart in our hands, and share it with others whose hearts are broken too.
But to do that, of course, we need to get out of the mind, and develop the courage to simply be with our feelings instead of explaining them away.
(note: I am developing these themes in far greater detail in a new book. Most of my writing time in the last half of this year has been dedicate to that project, which is the main reason for the long gap between ant part 1 and part 2. I look forward to sharing more about the project as it develops, but posts may be similarly sporadic in 2017.)