There’s a popular notion that the spiritual process is one of gradually overcoming the struggles of our embodied life on earth to become healthy, wealthy, and wise.
We see it in the pursuit of New Age “abundance” and the feel-good message of progressive Christian evangelists like Joel Osteen. While there is usually some element of humility involved (you need to confess your sins, or at least surrender old, unproductive ways of thinking), the end goal is a victory over pain, deprivation, and defeat.
What I’d like to discuss is a contrary, much less popular view that the route to spiritual realization actually requires embracing defeat on a regular basis—in other words, living in a constant state of vulnerability.
To be always vulnerable does not mean subsisting in a state of chronic victimization or depression. It does mean living with the willingness to make mistakes, learn from them, then make some new mistakes, ad infinitum.
In this way, consciousness is progressively refined by correction rather than steadily increasing victories. In fact, we may even learn that we don’t even know how to properly assess our seeming defeats and victories.
As A Course in Miracles puts it: “Some of your greatest advances you have judged as failures, and some of your deepest retreats you have evaluated as success.”
But it just does not come to us naturally to be regularly open to defeat. We’ve always got a plan for victory, smooth progress, and things getting better every day in every way. We prefer not to be defeated or disappointed because, frankly, it usually hurts—and thus we come up with a myriad of ways to stave off pain.
A fairly common way is simply to wall ourselves off from the potential of hurt. As a distant acquaintance wrote recently, “Care, devotion, and intimacy are kind of suffocating… “I feel like experiencing fun, freedom, and creativity.” I could only wish this fellow the best of luck on finding real freedom and genuine creativity in the absence of care or devotion.
However, “I just won’t care” is not exactly a new strategy in human history.
After all, catching a few minutes of the daily news can severely test one’s devotion to caring about humanity, and the up-close challenges of intimacy can be daunting indeed. We can often feel that we’re coming up short against the everyday problems of life, and that there really is no right move to make.
At the other extreme, we may rebel against vulnerability by going over to the dark side. Like Darth Vader, Loki, or real-life terrorists, we can try to avoid feeling helpless and overwhelmed by victimizing others. I guess the darksiders do have some kind of fun in their embittered way. However, it’s pretty difficult to think of them as happy or, in the end, truly victorious.
The challenge of the path of vulnerability is to accept that defeat, in some form, is a daily experience to be received with grace and contemplated with as much selflessness as we can muster.
In fact, to embrace defeat without reacting as a victim or victimizer, without falling into depression or attempting to avoid feeling, is the discipline of learning selflessness.
As our bright ideas and grand plans gradually fall away, as we stop driving toward success at all costs, and as we cease attempting to dodge hurt, what can emerge is an unprecedented blend of deep compassion and crystal clarity. This is a quality of being that philosopher Jacob Needleman has described as “the warmth of real objectivity.”
This transcendent condition truly deserves the label of “the God within.” The path to it requires living with the vulnerability that gradually relieves us of the desire to be anything else.
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Travis May