As someone who lives with chronic pain, I can tell you from my experience that it can be a tremendous spiritual teacher. It can also make you want to eat a bullet. Most of the time, I find I sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You might say that if we constructed a scale in which eating a bullet was a zero and experiencing great spiritual insights was a ten, I live my life drifting between two and nine, with rare peaks at ten. In truth, you only get a brief stop at zero, and I don’t think I will ever be there. At the same time I believe it is important to acknowledge the possibility of zero.
I have read a lot of spiritual teaching from the eastern traditions that suggest we can reduce our experience of pain by not allowing ourselves to be attached to it or to resist it. If I am honest, I must admit that I never really understood what either of those things meant until I came up with my own words to describe what I believe they are trying to get at. In my experience, I struggle more with my pain if I believe that I am not supposed to be in pain. In the past I used to believe that I was too young to have this kind of problem, or that it shouldn’t happen to people like me (whatever that means), or some other similar nonsense. I call it nonsense because such beliefs fly in the face of what is. If I am in pain then there is a reason or reasons I am in pain. Therefore, to say that I shouldn’t be in pain flies in the face of reality! I may wish things were other than they are, but that doesn’t change that reality is what it is. If I can drop the idea that things should be different then I can begin the much more important work of dealing with what actually is! In this way, I free myself from the possibility of feeling persecuted or of having been treated unfairly and am freed to live in the present moment. If there is one thing we know, it’s that the present moment in the only moment we can impact.
I would suggest we can apply this reasoning to many life situations we struggle to grasp. If we feel we shouldn’t be pregnant, or bald, or working where we do, the first step to dealing with whatever underlies the issue is accepting that it is, in fact, the truth. If our issue isn’t the truth we can rejoice, because no action is necessary, but if we are bothered by something it is probably true and it is probably exactly how it is supposed to be. Now we can start asking ourselves if it is possible to make a change that will impact our situation.
Believing that things aren’t supposed to be as they are is a kind of denial that our mind creates to help us deal with the unpleasantness surrounding our condition. While denial can help us if we aren’t quite ready to deal with whatever is going on in its fullness, it also can stop us from moving forward if we don’t release it. That is a realization that can help us in many areas of life, if only we will embrace it!
We are an extremely competitive society. We can turn anything into a competition – to our detriment, I am afraid. If you can measure it, we can fight over who does it best. If you can quantify it, I guarantee you mine is bigger – unless being smaller is better, but to be honest most males struggle with that concept. You might think that spirituality would be exempt from this nonsense, but you would be mistaken.
Imagine coming across a group of kids playing kickball and feeling compelled to ask them if any of them are going to play major league baseball or professional soccer. Then imagine none of the kids saying they are going to do either of those things. Would you tell them that they are wasting their time playing kickball and in fact being unfaithful to the higher meaning of playing with their balls? Of course you wouldn’t, but that is precisely what many of those who imagine they are quite far along the spiritual path do to others all the time.
Consider for a moment those who consider themselves contemplatives but then criticize popularized forms of mindfulness in corporate and other non-Buddhist settings as “McMindfulness” because it doesn’t contain the fullness of the Vipassana Buddhist tradition. How is that any different than calling kickball “McBaseball?” Just as some of those kids playing kickball will go on to play more complicated sports, some of the people whose entry into contemplative practice is a popular mindfulness application will go on to deeper spiritual practice. More importantly, those who don’t go on may still have perfectly wonderful experiences playing kickball or practicing mindfulness as a stress reduction technique. None of us has the right to tell anyone else what’s best for them!
Fundamentalism rears its ugly head in many different settings, even on the kickball diamond. What we can know about those people who are only to eager to insist that others “aren’t doing it right” is that they are plagued by insecurities about their own practice and struggling with some significant control issues – both of which are a lot less attractive than a kickball game.
So, you say you want to start a spiritual practice? You say that first you just need to read these books, attend this retreat, or sign up for this class?
You’re fooling yourself. You’re also being fooled by the spiritual marketplace that has commodified spirituality and turned it into a cash cow.
Want to start a spiritual practice? Pick one, pick a ten minute instructional video on YouTube, and start. You can learn more along the way, but you need to start today.
Very often, we label ourselves – tall, short, fat, thin, conservative, progressive, smart, dumb, wealthy, middle class, poor, successful, compassionate, empathetic, competitive, and dozens of others. Then we only pay attention to people who carry the same labels we do. Are we that afraid of being challenged, that afraid of having our opinions changed, that sure that we are right and everybody else is wrong?
Apparently, we are. In being so sure, our world shrinks to the size of a grain of rice while we act as if we have achieved something. How silly.
As we work for the change that will, hopefully, make things the way they should be we also live in the world of the way things are. The change we wait for may be a long time coming, and so we must ask ourselves how we are to live today in the world we have in front of us.
We tend to get caught up in story, as can be clearly seen by the reactions to the election of Donald Trump. Something happens and our minds go to work. In a matter of minutes, we have constructed a story of how whatever has happened will play out, and that story rarely has a happy ending. We can turn the discovery of a hang nail into an amputated arm in under a minute. We see the hang nail, then convince ourselves infection will set in, then move to the infection being uncontrollable, and – presto! – we are certain our new nickname will be lefty.
The truth is that we don’t know what the future holds, so all of the time we spend constructing story is at best wasted time. At worst, it’s time we spend worrying about disasters that will never happen rather than living our lives. Live in the present moment!