There was once a woman who was frustrated with her life. One day the woman heard about a renowned Master who lived in an ashram in the Himalayas. Intrigued, the woman decided to take time away from work and go in search of him. When she found the ashram, the woman was brought before the Master. With hands folded, she asked, “I came here to find peace. Please may I stay for a few weeks?” The Master nodded and consented. The woman was happy. In no time she settled into a daily rhythm of hatha yoga, meditation, and the study of sacred scriptures.
However five days into her stay, the woman heard the news that one of the monks had packed his bags in the middle of the night and fled. This particular monk had been studying with the Master for years and was thought to be committed to the path of realization. On hearing this, the woman was shocked. She thought, “If the Master is authentic, why would one of the monks leave and throw such a precious opportunity away?”
Gathering her courage, the woman decided to go to the Master and ask her question. The Master listened and sat in silence for several minutes. Then he said, “Why are you concerned about someone else and his state? What about you? What about your state? Why do you keep running from yourself? Why do you refuse to learn from difficult situations in your life? These things you must be willing to ask yourself. Until you do you will never be happy.” I was once like this woman and the monk. I was always trying to run from what was right in front of me. I was always trying to improve on what was happening now, rather than being present and learning from it.
As a way of avoiding the now, I was obsessive about trying to access blissful states. However, to access and maintain these states my list of practices was long. It included:
Meditating for extended periods.
Chanting for two hours every morning.
Maintaining silence-even though it was often impractical.
Fasting-even though I barely weighed 110 pounds.
Doing relentless japa — repetition of a mantra — even during meetings at work when I really needed to be paying attention.
Refusing to read anything other than spiritual autobiographies.
When done in moderation these practices are beneficial and can be an important aspect of the inner journey. However, I took them to the extreme.
Another thing I was convinced I should do is find work in a field I believed was ‘spiritual.’ While teaching art to high school students, I would fantasize about having a private healing practice. I was convinced that this scenario would be a wonderful and relaxing antidote to the stress I was currently dealing with.
The point I’m getting to, which took a long time to figure out is this: both the obsessive practices and the manic attempts to find spiritual work were forms of self-denial. I was trying to escape, rather than take ownership of what was right in front of me. Taking ownership of all aspects of who we are, in particular our pain, is a necessity. Yet, we can spend years adopting various forms of avoidance. One popular escape route comes in the guise of hope, which we often believe in so strongly, we ferociously cling to. The problem with hope is that there is a caveat. The shadow side of hope is fear. In her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron expresses this perfectly when she says,
“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.”
Looking back, I can see that it was impossible for me to relax. I wouldn’t allow myself to. Instead, I kept striving for bliss and the dream of finding new work in the hope of attaining enlightenment. However, the shadow side was the fear that I would never attain anything and would always be stuck with feeling bad. Thankfully, my wrong understanding began being ironed out soon after I arrived at an ashram in India in the early months of 2001. I had arranged to meet with my friend Dr. Hetty Rodenburg who at the time was the ashram physician. Hetty had trained and worked with Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and she had her own private practice in New Zealand. The focus of Hetty’s work was grief counseling and in particular, taking care of people diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. This meant that Hetty had developed a strong B.S. detector. She intuitively knew when people were running away from their pain and she had a way of pointing straight to it.
I turned up with several of my paintings. For some reason, I had wanted to show Hetty what I had been working on. Hetty was charming, patient, and attentive. Then she nonchalantly said, “There’s so much light in your work!” The way she said, “so much light,” hit home. At that moment, I began waking up to the realization that I was always trying to capture the light and never wanted to include the shadows. I began to see that the shadow aspects of who I was needed to be included, brought to the surface, and expressed. In other words, it was time to stop running.
As a consequence of committing to the shadow work and in the years since, I have adopted a simple, yet powerful practice. If a ‘hope’ thought comes creeping in; I take a direct look at the fear hiding behind it. I immediately ask, “What am I afraid of in this situation?” Usually, the answers are eye-opening and insightful. Seeing both sides of the coin tasks me to be honest with myself. Then through this direct form of self-inquiry, I am able to chip away at the subconscious desire to flee from what might be creating discomfort or discontent.
Try it and you will find that the delicious outcome is the gift of being brought home, back to center. Here, in this moment we can be authentic. We can breathe. We can relax. We can be at ease.
We can also gratefully accept the present moment. We can welcome everything the present moment so sweetly, patiently, and lovingly has to offer.
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