“In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.” ~ Alice Walker
Perhaps one of the great mistakes of classical enlightenment teachings is the notion that we can surrender or let go of whatever arises in our awareness with enough devotion, discipline and effort or “grace.”
Yet, this isn’t always the case.
Let’s say anger arises consistently; perhaps we are angry with someone frequently and no matter how hard we attempt to surrender, it just doesn’t go away.
This may be that anger is just a mask for a deeper unconscious issue. This is why it shows up pathologically as inappropriate expression such as yelling, tantrums, passive aggressive behavior, over reaction, defensiveness, judgment, sarcasm and difficulty in interpersonal relationships. It comes out “sideways.” It may be the mask for such shadow material as the unconscious belief “I am incompetent, unlovable, a failure”or some other core wound.
Remember, unconscious implies we are unaware even in our deepest meditations. Someone may keep triggering the anger until the root or core wound (which is not anger but something else) is named, owned and integrated through intelligent psychotherapy and inquiry.
Practice which is more like a laser beam to the psyche as opposed to the open ended spacious awareness of meditation, makes it impossible to surrender. We are attempting to surrender the wrong thing. We cannot give away something that we do not own.
How many times have we been told to “just get over it,” “let it go,” “put it in god’s hands” or even from highly evolved Zen masters or Swami’s “just surrender it,” only to find ourselves completely unable to do so even with the most sincere motivation and effort? Maybe we just lie to ourselves and say we did so when the issue still constantly plagues us.
This is the importance of shadow/psychological work as a stage leading to real spiritual progress.
It is also, at least partially, the reason that although many thousands of seekers employ classical enlightenment techniques, very few find liberation or fulfillment, or their development is lopsided. They may be able to attain sublime spiritual states but unable to regulate or control impulses driven by the shadow. “Surrender” just becomes more repression.
Thankfully, evolutionary teachings on enlightenment that address the need for shadow work in conjunction with spiritual work now exists. It is seen as a continuum.
Many teachers of classical enlightenment resist this idea, believing all we require to find liberation is the Guru’s grace and effort in our contemplative practices. They dismiss Western psychology as a “lower” or unnecessary endeavor. What these teachers offer is of extreme value and ultimately the Truth.
Unfortunately, they have been skipping an important stage of healing and transformational development, making it impossible for many of their students to reach their full potential. However, there is currently a shift in understanding and a trend of spiritual teachers who are becoming educated in the necessity of psychological work.
This, and the notion of Unique Self, are some of the important developments in evolutionary enlightenment.
Unique Self is a radical development, claiming that once one is relatively established in the experience of “no-self,” which is impersonal and a necessary stage of spiritual development, another stage emerges where the individual uniquely expresses their own personal brand of enlightenment. They share their Unique Gift with the world.
This is an extremely personal experience and not to be confused with the ego.
The view from the mountaintop is quite different for each individual. There are many variables including the type of vehicle used, personality type, constitution, personal myth/story, etc. This directly contradicts the notion of classical enlightenment that: the view from the top of the mountain is ultimately the same regardless of which vehicle we employed to arrive there.
Classical enlightenment teachings stop at the impersonal “no-self” stage, claiming it is the highest experience and ultimate goal of spiritual development. This is the common teaching of Zen, Vajrayana Buddhism, Vedanta, Taoism and Mystical Christianity, among others. All things must evolve, including spirituality. I’m speaking from personal experience; I love my Guru and lineage more than anything. What He taught me is the foundation of my life and the most precious thing I have ever received.
Yet the classical teaching “Just surrender (your inner tensions). All you need is your meditation practice and your Guru” is incomplete. It is not always possible to “just let it go.”
I strongly encourage anyone on a genuine path of healing and transformation to challenge this teaching. Honestly, test it for yourself; have the courage to disagree with spiritual authorities if the experience doesn’t land true for you. This doesn’t mean he can’t still be your teacher or have much to offer. It takes the courage of a true warrior to stand up for yourself in a situation where there is such a huge power differential.
Often, a discussion on equal ground is discouraged in favor of authoritarian dictatorship. If this is the case, simply state your position with curiosity, humility and respect, then take what is helpful and leave the rest.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own work. Although teachers can supply the energy, support, transmission and instruction to make this possible, they can’t do it for us. All human beings are fallible, including Gurus’ “enlightened” beings and saints. Everyone and every community has a shadow. Be true to yourself. Human beings are complex. We all have our own unique karmic equation. The recipe for achieving self-actualization and ultimately, spiritual liberation, is different for everyone and we all have the potential to do so.
Many people are content with their beliefs (or lack of them). They feel comfortable, even in their suffering. They don’t seem to possess the desire to seek the truth at all costs. They seek out and surround themselves with others who validate their limited worldview, rather than seeking out those who may challenge or even shatter it (this is the role of the Guru) and that’s fine.
I have always been driven by a burning curiosity and desire to seek the truth and this desire has taken me to some interesting places. This can definitely be alienating at times. It often makes me appear eccentric as hell to everyone except the few others in the universe who share my passion. I find it well worth it. I can’t seem to control the impulse anyway.
Sometimes on the contemplative path, we misinterpret teachings of the mind to mean that it is our enemy; a problem to be conquered.
We judge our thoughts as “bad”; a distraction to attaining peace and bliss in our meditation. I often question whether maybe we aren’t thinking enough. The mind is a tool—like a hammer, we may use it to build a house to protect our family, or we can hit someone over the head with it. The mind is not our foe any more than our heart. It’s job is to think just as the heart’s job is to pump blood through our veins. We simply must learn to relate to the mind skillfully, with a healthy balance of gentleness and discipline.
Perhaps we aren’t willing to just admit to ourselves that we are comfortable where we are without challenging ourselves beyond our comfort zone, regardless of how much self work we may have done up to this point. Maybe we just want to eat, drink, have sex, earn a living, feel secure and loved by another and find a belief system that offers us comfort. There is nothing wrong with that.
I want to be taken to the brink, beyond and back to tell about it, and I have.
Alistair Gale was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and has lived in the Boulder, Colorado area for 20 years. Prior to taking a position as Life Skills Counselor at Living well Transitions in 2011, he spent ten years living in a monastic retreat setting practicing and teaching meditation. He facilitated annual Yogi’s in Recovery retreats, mindfulness meditation groups in chemical dependency treatment facilities and provided spiritual lifestyle counseling to seekers from around the world. Alistair has an MS in Counseling and began Doctoral studies in Counseling Psychology at Argosy University. Alistair is also a contributing author to Sacred Journey: A Guide to Meditation in the Shambhava School of Yoga. He is formerly lead guitarist for Shiva’s Garden and enjoys Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts.
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