Many of us have had spiritual experiences in which we momentarily glimpse an indescribable glory—a greater purpose and a higher potential for human life.
But because most of us live in a culture of such extreme narcissism and secular materialism, we have no context for knowing how to honor and respect a dimension of life that is infinitely greater than the personal sphere. We are culturally unprepared to respond to our own deepest spiritual experiences, and therefore, even after glimpsing the glory of our own potential, we rarely make the noble effort to actually transform ourselves for the highest reasons.
The problem is that most of us are not spiritually mature enough to have reached the point where we want to pay the price to genuinely evolve, here and now. And because we don’t want to, we have consciously and unconsciously convinced ourselves that for various reasons we can’t. This, in a nutshell, is the evolutionary predicament of the postmodern narcissist: We don’t want to make the effort to change. And from a cultural perspective, it is a moral issue, not just a personal psychological problem. The ego is very invested in conveniently having a problem, like a wounded soldier who is not quite ready to go out onto the battlefield of life. Most of us are playing the same game, and of course, there are many professionals—therapists and spiritual teachers and so on—who will conspire with us to perpetuate that view. But it’s not actually true. Unless we are severely mentally damaged, the problem is not that we are incapable of exercising the power of free agency in order to transform ourselves. The problem is that, more often than not, we just don’t want to. And as long as we allow ourselves to remain on the sidelines, we are not going to be able to serve the evolution of our species in any deep and profound way. We will always be mesmerized by a self-created personal drama, full of excuses, ever remaining consumers of natural resources and personal experiences who have nothing significant to contribute.
I’m not in any way denying the reality of the emotional, psychological, and physical wounds, traumas, and shadows that we all carry to differing degrees. But I am saying that there is a much bigger context in which to look at them. Maybe the fact that we have neuroses, that we’ve been emotionally, psychologically, or even physically hurt, is just part and parcel of the developmental process. Of course nobody likes to suffer, but unfortunately some degree of suffering seems to be an inherent part of the incarnational experience. Think about the evolution of the cosmos: Planets violently collided to form new elements; and for all its beauty, nature is often brutal in its struggle to survive. For many of us highly developed human beings, life is comparatively easy, but even then, there are always traumatic events that make powerful negative imprints on the psyche. That’s just part of the process. The problem is that as obvious as this may seem, most of us in the postmodern world don’t believe it. We have somehow gotten the strange idea in our heads that we live in a universe where we—the most privileged, wealthy, highly educated sentient beings this side of the Milky Way—are not supposed to suffer. And in an authentically developmental context, that simply couldn’t be the case.
When we awaken to this truth, our heart deepens and widens in a way that is profound, and our perspective begins to expand. We make less of a big deal out of our own emotional and psychological discomfort, because our goal in life is no longer just to avoid suffering. That is an enormous shift, because it makes it possible for us to embrace so much more of the human experience and begin to participate in the life-process in a truly dignified way. This is not a perspective that lacks compassion. Indeed, it is really about becoming a big-hearted human being, one who doesn’t even think about the possibility of not having difficulties, challenges, and problems. There are many reasons that we suffer: some are utterly petty and some are noble. But if we care deeply about a higher purpose, what matters is that we are always willing to make the effort to not use our own suffering as an excuse to be unavailable to life.
This perspective on transformation won’t help to rid you of your neurosis, but it will make it possible for you to take responsibility for it and enable you to embrace life in a much bigger way, in all your imperfection, right now. And that makes all the difference in the world. There is only so much time we have, and we can either spend that precious time trying to get rid of our neurotic pain, or we can become concerned with things that are infinitely more important than the fact that we happen to suffer emotionally from time to time. Considering that now we are needed more than ever to consciously participate in the evolutionary process, the strange notion that we’re never supposed to suffer could be seen as not just misguided but even diabolical. If God is the energy and intelligence that created the universe, then it must have been the devil who whispered in our ears that we’re not supposed to suffer, rendering us unavailable to God because we are too busy licking our wounds. Only when we get to that point where we realize we no longer have a right to wait on the sidelines while others are fighting on the battlefield of life, will we find the resources within ourselves to make whatever effort is necessary to participate wholeheartedly. When we reach that point of maturity where our own pathological self-concern is seen as a moral failing in relationship to the evolution of the Kosmos rather than as a personal psychological problem, we will find the soul strength to take responsibility for all of it, right now. Nothing truly significant is ever going to happen in our struggling world until you and I, in all our imperfection, are unconditionally ready to be responsible for ourselves so that we can participate in the evolutionary process, without hesitation. That is a dignified approach to higher development, a mature relationship to the precious gift of being alive.
Andrew Cohen is a spiritual teacher and founder of the award-winning EnlightenNext magazine. Click to learn more about his new book Evolutionary Enlightenment: A New Path to Spiritual Awakening.