There is a tendency in many of us to think that spiritual practice is going to fix all of our problems. We carry these unexamined, infantile hopes and fantasies. This has to do with the fact that our relationship with spirituality is often dominated by unconscious forces. It is not the squeaky clean business we hoped it to be. It is a tricky, painful, exhilarating, and ecstatic voyage. What could be more complex than that?
As long as we are building defense mechanisms, transformation will be exiled to the realm of improbability. And these defense mechanisms, wearing a spiritual mask now, comprise layers of denial, each one more subtle than the other. It is like finding a new cradle where we can be infantile again and have no responsibility for ourselves. Mommy and Daddy are projected onto an omnipotent god or guru who will take care of us eternally. There is nothing more gratifying than having no responsibilities. Conversion experiences are so sumptuous and juicy and vacation is so desirable. But this cradle is not well made. Sooner or later we will encounter its limitations.
When we become involved in a spiritual path, we see that it isn’t going to fix all of our problems. As time goes by we begin to see that life’s problems are not getting easier. There is no magic wand, so it is very common to lose that initial love that we had with our spiritual practice. Spirituality is not about fixing all of our problems and the earlier we find out about this, the less disappointment we are going to face. We have to let go of all of these fantasies. The earlier we let go of them the better it is. If we hang on to them, we often run into disappointment and that can sometimes create a huge obstacle to inner awakening. It can completely draw us away from the path. So we have to remember this and maintain the perspective that our spiritual path is not really a remedy or antidote that is going to fix all of our problems. It is not going to remove all of our unwanted conditions.
On the contrary, sometimes it seems that the world becomes even more challenging when we are on the path because the spiritual path wakes us up. It requires losing all of our investment in illusion. Growth can be painful. There is a saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” We have to be careful what we wish for because sometimes if we pray for liberation, especially if we pray for liberation right now, then the world can be very wrathful and very challenging. When the world presents difficulties and obstacles to us it means that now, fortunately, we have the opportunity to pass through all of our reactions, all of our habits, all of our thought patterns, all of our karmic behaviors. We can rise above all of these illusory conditions and maintain the mind of the Buddha, blissful awareness.
Therefore, if we are determined to discover awakening at any cost, then we must also expect and be prepared for the fact that we may run into challenges and difficulties. They include experiences of doubt, anger, irrational emotion, depression, and so forth. Even Buddha encountered a great challenge before his awakening. He had a vision that he was being attacked, ambushed by the forces of Mara, just before his total enlightenment. It was the defining moment where he had to choose between triumph and utter defeat.
As spiritual seekers we don’t have to invite challenges but we do have to celebrate challenges when they visit us. I am not saying that we have to go around looking for trouble. That is not our assignment. But when troubles arise we must know how to surrender to them and accept them. We even have to be jubilant in a crisis and think, “Oh, this is such an extraordinary, golden opportunity to practice how to accept what I don’t like. If I am able to accept this condition at this moment in my life, then I will be able to transcend all of my fear, all of my insecurities. This is a blessing in disguise.” We have to almost prostrate to the challenges when they visit us without invitation. When they are actually knocking at our door, we have to be thankful to them. In that sense, as spiritual seekers, we have to take our whole life as our practice, as our path. Life is our path. From the moment we wake up in the morning until the time we go to sleep at night, our whole life is filled with opportunities for cultivating acceptance, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, awareness, and mindfulness.
We don’t have to be in any special place to practice true spiritual discipline. We don’t have to be in a temple or a place of meditation. Life is filled with many opportunities to learn and grow. A friend of mine died of cancer. He had an expression that he used when he was going through difficulties. He always used to say, “This is AFOG, another f–––ing opportunity to grow.” That was his holy incantation, a little unconventional, but it worked for him. I remember him dancing and singing the last few months of his life. He told me that he had no fear. I sat with him while he was dying and he was totally peaceful. Looking at him was like looking at the face of a sleeping child. There was the same innocence and purity.
Excerpted from No Self, No Problem: Awakening to Our True Nature by Anam Thubten