The things I learned on my spiritual quest

I started my spiritual quest 20 years ago. That quest is pretty much at an end, so what did I learn along the way? What would I now consider worth sharing with others?

In the beginning I thought it was simply a matter of reading the right books and following their instructions. I set out to compare and contrast the different religious traditions’ essential spiritual teachings and try to glean from them the essence of a unified spiritual path.

But the most important lesson is entirely the opposite:

a spiritual path must illuminate our individual circumstances, qualities, and experiences.

While I sought the one single universal path, instead I discovered over and over again that what worked for others didn’t work for me.

It’s a lot like learning a martial art or Yoga: I thought that if I just did the training I would eventually master it. But while the training theoretically works the same for everyone, in practice we aren’t all at the same starting point.

With old injuries, underlying weaknesses, bad habits, varying degrees of talent and insight… training can actually do more harm than good for some people.

After many years of training I eventually went to see a sports physio who immediately identified some aspects of movement that were preventing me from fully benefiting from the training.

I’ve learned that the spiritual path is even more like this, to the point that good spiritual teaching assumes none of us is at the ideal starting point.

Individual differences: temperament

Temperament is the first and most significant domain of individual difference.

What works best for a melancholic will not suit a choleric and vice versa. What appeals to sanguines won’t appeal to phlegmatics.

Recently I’ve revisited the spiritual texts I read early in my search, only to discover that those formative guides were predominantly written by cholerics.

I took to heart the overly intellectual and comparatively unfeeling approach of choleric spiritual writers, equating spiritual growth with arcane musings and a disagreeable view of the world.

But a melancholic should instead listen to their feeling first and foremost. Cholerics who elevate understanding or insight over feeling probably don’t have strong feeling to begin with.

In fact, for some cholerics their personal journey is one of learning to embrace the thinking function and not rely on their inferior or tertiary feeling function. The very opposite of my journey as a melancholic-phlegmatic.

Upbringing

The second domain of individual difference is upbringing.

The combination of temperament and upbringing set the trajectory for how we live our lives. In hindsight the story I’ve lived thus far is so heavily influenced by my parents and grandparents…I live out the influences of my early life, both the positive and the negative.

For the first five years of my spiritual quest I had no idea that family relationships and an unhappy childhood played a role in my depression and anxiety let alone my spiritual path.

Now when I look at the writings of spiritual teachers, I take in not only their temperament but their early life. My own circumstances were unusual and so were theirs, but in radically different ways.

It doesn’t matter how good or genuine a spiritual teacher is, they are still an individual in their own circumstances with their own temperament and formative experiences. Their teachings speak first and foremost to their own reality.

It’s up to us as individuals to find what works, and while we may stumble upon a suitable path with ease, it helps to know our own temperament and circumstances from the beginning.

A melancholic with a domineering parent will have a very different path from a melancholic suffering abandonment and neglect, let alone any of the other temperaments under the same conditions.

Life circumstances

The third domain of difference is our station in life.

In the beginning I took for granted that spiritual teachers were naturally inspired to share their insights and wisdom with the world.

Later I went through a cynical stage of assuming anyone with a publishing contract and lecture circuit was financially motivated and not to be trusted.

But more significant than those extremes of credulity and cynicism is the simple reality of a person’s circumstances in life, most importantly my own circumstances.

Who I am, the way I live, what I do day-in and day-out, these are all peculiar to me. I have friends who live very different lives, let alone the spiritual teachers whose works I used to read.

I’m not saying we should disregard people who don’t live like we do; rather that we benefit from appreciating the differences between our worlds and our daily lives.

Esther Hicks is a 70 year old American with an international following who currently gives regular workshops in various American cities and on several cruises each year.

Anthony De Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who gave retreats internationally.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was the one-time scion of the Theosophical Society, groomed and educated to be the next “World Teacher”. He gave public talks, published books and lived with friends in California.

St John of the Cross was a 16th Century Spanish monk who was imprisoned in a tiny cell by his fellow monks and given weekly lashings, during which time he composed his most famous poem!

The Dalai Lama was never my cup of tea, but again it’s important to recognise the profound differences in his daily life relative to the millions of people who read his books and look to him as a source of wisdom.

I’m not trying to invalidate the wisdom and experiences of these various people, but what they teach invariably cannot be separated or removed from who they are and how they live.

We can benefit from the wisdom of others, but not by imposing their teachings onto our own lives. In fact we can often understand their teachings much better if we understand the teacher’s perspective as well.

The only caveat I’d offer is that there are some people who by temperament would be perfectly content to follow a straightforward spiritual path, but might have been pushed by their upbringing to be innovative, unique, or to try to stand out. (I’m looking at you, phlegmatics!). For such people, it could be a welcome relief to just adhere to a routine they like and not worry about the details or the origins of their method.

What your own life can teach you

The Abraham Hicks material often reiterates that words don’t teach, only experience teaches. 

I can vouch for this in my own life, given the vast quantity and array of words I’ve read from many and varied teachers. It is only through my experience that I have come to learn what does and does not help me to feel better.

Indeed, it is only through my experience of feeling profoundly miserable for twenty years that I decided “feeling better” should be my goal.

While I’ve found the Abraham Hicks material to be tremendously helpful, it’s also because I was ready for it. Just like the sports physio’s advice, it’s only after the prolonged experience of struggle that I’ve decided I just want to feel better, and that would be enough for me.

So that constitutes the end of my 20 year spiritual quest, as I have come to accept and welcome feeling good in my own unique circumstances without trying to justify or reconcile myself to the myriad spiritual teachings and methods that I once turned to for answers.

The Emotional Guidance Scale

One of the most useful tools in the Abraham Hicks material is the EGS or Emotional Guidance Scale.

The idea is that our emotions provide guidance as to how well aligned our thoughts are with the perspective of our inner being.

In Christian terms, if we accept that God is love and God’s providence rules all things, then we will find love, peace, and joy growing within us as we embrace God’s loving will in our lives.

The EGS

In the Abraham Hicks system, our emotions exist on a scale or spectrum from despair, depression, fear, at the bottom, to joy, love, and appreciation at the top.

So far so good, but what makes the EGS especially valuable is that it plots other points in unexpected ways.

For example, insecurity is one step higher than fear and depression. Jealousy is another step higher, hatred or rage is above that.

If you worked your way up the scale starting at fear, you might go through hatred, revenge, anger, blame, worry, doubt, disappointment, all the way up to boredom, before arriving at the tipping point of contentment.

This is significant because many of us have been taught that these negative emotions are bad or wrong. We often find ourselves feeling fear, but resisting the shift into jealousy, hatred, anger, or blame even though they are higher up the scale.

That’s not to say that blame is a good place to be, but it’s a much better place than hatred or depression. Blaming others when you are depressed feels like relief.

But too often we get to something like anger and immediately shut it down, telling ourselves that anger is wrong, that it’s better to be depressed than angry.

Of course you’re not meant to go out and act on your jealousy, anger, revenge, or hatred any more than you should act on your fear and depression.

It’s enough to recognise that these unpleasant emotions are nonetheless a step in the right direction. Allow yourself to feel anger if that brings relief, and know that it’s not permanent.

Working with the EGS

We can use the EGS to identify where we are on any given subject, and then find thoughts that feel like relief, noticing how that relief takes us up the scale towards the more aligned emotions.

For example, if you feel depressed and powerless on the subject of not having a job, it’s because your thoughts on this subject are out of alignment with the providential, loving perspective of your inner being.

You might be thinking something like “I’ll never amount to anything” while your inner being is thinking something like “everything is working out perfectly”.

But it’s not easy to go from thinking “I’m useless” every day for twenty years to then thinking “everything is perfect” consistently.

That’s a big leap and not easy to maintain.

Instead you might go just one step higher to a thought like “I have no idea what I’m going to do”.

It’s not a happy thought, but it’s a little better than “I’ll never amount to anything” because at least it admits uncertainty. So it might feel like insecurity rather than depression or despair.

With practice it’s possible to work up the scale quite quickly, though I have no idea how long it takes other people.

Our next thought that brings relief might be jealousy at all those people out there who have found their calling or easily arrived at enjoyable, fulfilling, or lucrative careers.

Don’t shoot down the jealousy. Accept it as a source of relief, of feeling “less bad” and then see if you can find another thought that brings further relief.

It won’t necessarily be hatred/rage, nor revenge. It’s okay to naturally skip some emotions.

Anger might be the next point of relief. You might find relief and energy in angry thoughts at the economy, the education system, your past choices. You might angrily think “this sucks, I hate this situation” and although it’s not a good feeling it’s already much better than insecurity or despair.

Blame

It feels good to blame others, but we’re frequently told it’s unhealthy and fruitless.

Well it is if we never move on from blame, but too often people never pass through blame on their own. They get to blame and then tell themselves (or are emphatically told) “stop blaming other people for your choices, take responsibility for your own life!”

But if you find some relief in blame, then blame your heart out. You could blame the economy for taking away your job or not offering more prospects. You can blame your education for not preparing you for the current workforce. You could blame your parents for undermining your youthful passions and hobbies. You could blame the government, blame your country, blame your third grade teacher, blame your family for holding you back.

Problems only arise when people act on blame, or when they refuse to take the next emotional step towards relief.

We’ve all met people who like to tell everyone about their blame. They blame their ex, their boss, their parents, their more-successful siblings and so on.

The problem isn’t the blame, the problem is that they refuse to move on.

What comes after blame?

It might be worry. Some people recount that after wallowing in blame for a while they realised that blaming others wasn’t making their life any better. Maybe they went into worry?

Or maybe we can move from blame into doubt? Doubting that it really was other people’s fault, doubting that we really know what made our life turn out the way it did, doubt that blaming people is getting you anywhere.

Again, moving from blame into doubt might seem counter-intuitive because blame offers certainty whereas doubt sounds very uncertain.

But that uncertainty is also more open to possibilities, less fixed in telling the same old story about how your evil step-sister screwed you out of your inheritance and that’s where your life took a wrong turn.

Or maybe even doubt that things are as bad as you thought. Maybe you meet people or hear of others in your exact circumstances who’ve made things work, or perhaps you notice that you have more to be thankful for than you first considered.

Follow relief, not the scale

In my opinion it’s not the best approach to try to feel everything on the scale. The whole point of the scale is to help us recognise that relief is taking us somewhere, and that is up the scale. It’s to reassure us that anger or jealousy or blame are not permanent locations but just a section of the path to appreciation and joy and feeling genuinely good.

If we keep looking for thoughts that bring relief we will eventually find ourselves closing the gap between how we see the world and the providential, loving perspective of our inner being.

At the heart of the Abraham Hicks material is the observation that whatever we desire, we desire it because we think we will feel better when we have it. But it is not having things that makes us feel better, it is alignment with our own inner being, God’s presence within us.

Yet life is not static, it is expanding. Our desires expand, and the perspective of our inner being expands with it. To stay in alignment is not an act of standing still or clinging to a single definitive answer.

If we find the answer, life will give us a new question. Alignment is therefore dynamic, and keeping up with it is the nature of the work.

Looking back at my own life, I thought alignment was static. I thought there was a single unchanging answer that I needed to find, and I grew despondent and discouraged as each time I found the answer turned out to be insufficient or temporary.

It’s like wanting to own the most powerful gaming computer available. You could do all your research, write down the specs, but if you wait too long before ordering it’ll no longer be cutting edge.

Our happiness is cutting edge, or leading edge in Abraham Hicks jargon. We have to keep up with it, and it’s said that the real satisfaction and joy lies precisely in the keeping up.

Alignment is a moving target, but hitting a moving target is more fun and more satisfying than hitting the same old target again and again.

 

Choosing how we feel

Having the attitude that “everything is perfect exactly as it is” feels good.

For melancholics in particular it may be an expression of providence: the knowledge that all things are working towards the good.

If all things are working towards the good, and we know it, then it follows that everything is perfect exactly as it is.

Not perfect in the sense that it is complete, but perfect in the sense that we are where we are meant to be, everything is as it is meant to be.

This isn’t a question of judgement or assessment, it’s about attitude and feeling.

If you have the attitude of recognising everything is perfect as it is, then you will feel that everything is perfect as it is.

And by contrast, if you don’t feel good, you must be thinking or believing that not everything is perfect.

We see this reflected in the story of the fall of man. Genesis tells us of everything God created “and God saw that it was good”.

Everything was good, and the first humans lived in paradise, right up until the moment they accepted the serpent’s contention that things were not perfect after all.

The first humans heeded the serpent’s doubt, and that was the cause of their fall.

False beliefs as choice

If we don’t feel good, then we must not be thinking that all is perfect as it is.

For years I sought to identify such thoughts and correct them. Talk myself out of my fears and worries and doubts.

But although it can be helpful to change such beliefs, it isn’t necessary to convince ourselves that they are false, or to try to work out the truth.

Otherwise there is potentially no end to all the little beliefs that would need correcting.

Instead we can view these bad-feeling thoughts not as the cause of our unhappiness but as reflections or elaborations of a bad-feeling focus.

For example, a depressed person can come up with many negative thoughts that match the feeling of depression and hopelessness.

These thoughts aren’t necessarily stored up in our heads, rather we uncover or create more and more of them to match our depressed focus.

Sometimes changing a belief or thought changes our focus as well, but it’s not always the most effective way to feel better.

By contrast a change in focus will always cause us to feel better (or worse depending on what we focus on).

It is possible to recognise that when we don’t feel good, we are harbouring an attitude of doubt or fear instead of an attitude that everything is perfect.

With practice we can actually change our focus from a bad feeling state to a good feeling one, without having to argue with or analyse or reprogram our thoughts.

Before thought

In the Abraham Hicks material, thought and “vibration” are used interchangably. They might just as well have used the word “spirit” but that it is too loaded with preconceptions.

Our verbalised thoughts and beliefs are expressions or elaborations of the “vibration” we are focused on. We translate this vibration into thought, and it is further reflected in our feelings and then our external circumstances.

An analogy from the Abraham Hicks material is that of a radio dial that controls the frequency our radio is tuned to. If you change the frequency (vibration) you receive different signals (thoughts).

Learning to control our focus in this way is superior to trying to argue with ourselves or debate our thoughts in hopes of shifting that dial. You could petition a classical station to play more jazz, but it’s more effective just to turn the dial until you find a station where jazz is already playing.

Choosing to feel good

I initially struggled with the idea of ignoring things that feel bad, or getting off difficult subjects.

My negative feelings were heavy and persistent, so I assumed I needed something equally firm and concrete to dislodge them.

But feeling good is light and easy. You don’t need to dislodge or destroy bad feelings, just stop focusing on them and they’ll dissipate.

I’m coming around to the idea that I don’t need to prove to myself (or others) that everything is perfect as it is, because this attitude just feels really really good.

I don’t need to logically or even illogically convince myself that fears and doubts are unwarranted, because I’ve gradually accepted through experience that it feels much better to feel good than to feel bad, and it seems that I can choose to focus in ways that feel good rather than feeling bad.

So whatever issue seems to conflict with “everything is perfect exactly as it is” can be deactivated. I can simply focus back on perfection and ease in the same way that I can relax a tense muscle.

We are the ones who determine the contents of our own minds by virtue of what we focus upon. For most of us this is only a theoretical control, but with practice it can become actual.

The ideal is to be able to feel good, find relief, soothe ourselves by choosing where we focus, and thereby create a happier and more fulfilling reality for ourselves and become part of a happier and more fulfilling reality for others.

Everything is perfect as it is

The mystics attest that everything is perfect as it is.

As a teenager I accepted this and sought to arrive at the same perspective – to experience everything as already perfect.

But I could never seem to maintain that experience of perfection, and in my efforts to regain it and hold it for longer I inadvertently accepted a new premise:

Everything is perfect as it is, if only I could realise it.

Realising the perfection of everything became, paradoxically, a personal imperfection I struggled to overcome.

In the Abraham Hicks material, it is advised that we adopt an attitude of appreciation towards “what is”, to accept that where we are right now is exactly where we are meant to be.

This can seem hard to stomach when we don’t like aspects of our present reality. But the whole point is that our focus, our expectations and our attitude create our reality, so the best thing we can do to improve reality is accept it and appreciate it as it is.

But the caveat is that there’s only one reason why we seek to improve reality in the first place: because we believe we will feel better.

Insisting that circumstances change before we can feel better is putting the cart before the horse. But so is insisting that nothing change until I feel better.

Not only did I make “realising perfection” an unattainable desire that embodied all the imperfection in my reality, but I implicitly insisted that nothing at all could improve or should improve until I achieved that desire.

I told myself there was no point doing anything, because anything I could do was irrelevant and deluded without my goal of “realising perfection”.

Realising perfection, the very thing that was supposed to eliminate imperfection and struggle, became the narrow focus of all imperfection and struggle.

I wanted to be enlightened, and I determined that life itself was meaningless and irrelevant unless and until I accomplished that spiritual goal.

So what now?

Well, everything is perfect as it is, is an attitude rather than an accomplishment. It’s not a “realisation” to be gained by sufficient understanding (even though I understand it now). Instead it is an attitude to adopt that makes life feel better…as though everything actually were perfect.

Because the perfection of everything includes not only external things and other people, it includes my own self.

As I sought to “realise” perfection before, I continued to view myself as imperfect. But if I view myself – and everything else – as perfect, then…that’s perfect!

Revisiting ‘Awareness’ by Anthony De Mello

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.

Awareness – Anthony De Mello

I’ve decided to revisit the book that got me started on my spiritual journey twenty years ago: Awareness by Anthony De Mello S.J.

Even the best psychologist will tell you that, that people don’t really want to be cured. What they want is relief; a cure is painful. Waking up is unpleasant, you know. You are nice and comfortable in bed. It’s irritating to be woken up.

What struck me immediately is how negative it is. The focus is consistently on how asleep we all are, how resistant we are to waking up, and how we cling to our precious illusions and attachments.

Do you think you help people because you are in love with them? Well, I’ve got news for you. You are never in love with anyone. You’re only in love with your prejudiced and hopeful idea of that person….

“How could you let me down when I trusted you so much”? you say to someone. Did you really trust them? You never trusted anyone. Come off it! That’s part of society’s brainwashing. You never trust anyone. You only trust your judgment about that person. So what are you complaining about?

The fact is that you don’t like to say, “My judgment was lousy”. That’s not very flattering to you, is it? So you prefer to say, “How could you have let me down”? So there it is: People don’t really want to grow up, people don’t really want to change, people don’t really want to be happy.

The whole book is an onslaught of treasures like these.

While De Mello works toward valid principles like unconditional happiness, he frames them in a very negative context.

He justifies this negativity as being more truthful, more honest, and therefore not truly negative. He depicts negativity and “disillusionment” as the pathway to a spiritually superior happiness.

What I took from it as a teenager was that if I wanted “true” happiness, I should discard all the things that gave me relief, comfort, and security since these were illusory and only kept me asleep.

Instead I should seek out the negativity, suffering, and unhappiness within me, because it was through suffering I would finally be motivated to “wake up”, and these points of discomfort were the key to identifying my attachments and delusions.

Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you.

You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change”.

No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is YOU.

What I took from passages like these is that I was to blame for my negative feelings, that there was nothing wrong with anyone else, rather there was something wrong with me.

Lately I’ve been reading and listening to the Abraham material by Esther Hicks, and while it shares similar principles of unconditional happiness and personal responsibility, the emphasis and framing is very different.

Abraham would never state that “there is something seriously wrong with you”, nor imply that we should transfer blame of others to blame of ourselves.

Yet De Mello’s whole program explicitly focused on digging into negativity:

Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of “I”; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.

Do I do anything to change myself? I’ve got a big surprise for you, lots of good news! You don’t have to do anything. The more you do, the worse it gets. All you have to do is understand.

I applied this program in my own life in response to the negative feelings in me. I became obsessed with understanding, trusting that “all you have to do is understand”.

Where did that get me?

Twenty years later I am exhausted from trying to understand. I never ran out of negative feelings, because the more I looked, the more I found. I understood them over and over again. I filled journals with them. I diligently took responsibility for them, and then tried not to identify with them.

I understood so much that I began to suspect there was something wrong with my search for understanding…and then I tried to understand that problem as well!

Contrast this with the Abraham approach. Do you need to understand? No. All you have to do is feel better. And the only reason you wanted to understand in the first place was that you thought you would feel better when you understood.

Instead of rejecting relief and happiness as “illusory”, I would have been better served to seek out as much relief and happiness as I could find.

What went wrong?

What went wrong? Should I blame De Mello for how I interpreted and internalised his words for twenty years of my life?

In fairness, he was long dead when I read his book, and the book itself was a posthumous publication based on transcripts of his retreats. As a writer myself I don’t think it’s fair to judge him for material that he may only ever have intended to deliver in person, in a controlled environment, perhaps tailoring his message to his audience.

I still think his focus on suffering and negativity is unhelpful. Abraham instead presents suffering and negativity as “contrast” which inspires and refines our desires, as opposed to De Mello’s insistence that we suffer because we are asleep in our illusions and keep bumping into objective reality.

I can also see now that De Mello’s approach is a very choleric one, and totally unsuited to a melancholic. Cholerics are much more inclined to challenge, confront, and test people, because their own sense of self-worth is typically strong and resilient.

For this same reason, spiritual writings by cholerics are often strongly focused on humility and letting go of pride. It makes sense to tell proud, self-satisfied people that they shouldn’t rest on their laurels and must take responsibility for their own feelings.

But a melancholic-phlegmatic tends to already be full of self-criticism, inadequacy, and fear of faults. Melancholics require encouragement in trusting themselves and their authentic feelings. They do not thrive under pressure nor “rise to the challenge” in response to being tested.

Was it really wrong?

In Abraham terms I’ve experienced a lot of contrast by focusing so strongly on things that felt bad. But another Abraham principle is that you can’t get it wrong, and you can’t get it done.

Even apparent mistakes like mine have to be seen in the context of my life at that point in time, and it is obvious to me that I gravitated toward De Mello’s book at that time and interpreted it in that way because it was a perfect match to how I was already feeling.

I was already depressed, anxious, and cynical. It felt a little better to find what seemed like a deeper meaning behind my suffering.

So even on that level I could have read De Mello’s book and focused only on the uplifting and inspiring parts.

My experience of De Mello’s book was a perfect match for me at that time, just as my now vastly improved thoughts and feelings have brought me to this unplanned but perfectly timed reappraisal of the book.

And in Abraham terms the suffering I’ve experienced has only added to the strength of my desire for its opposite – my desire for the real meaning, freedom, enjoyment and connectedness.

With the Abraham material I finally understand that there is no dichotomy of true and false happiness. All emotion exists on a scale from depression and despair up to appreciation, love and joy.

There is no sense in avoiding or depreciating the slightest bit of relief, and no sense in glamourising or seeking out the slightest bit of suffering.

There is no need to seek out negativity, and there is no virtue in being disillusioned.

We are meant to be happy, we are meant to enjoy life, and that includes my relief at finding that I no longer want an experience characterised by disillusionment, suffering, and the kind of desperate existential spirituality I was drawn to all those years ago.

When can I start enjoying life?

I was taught as a child that if I just endured, shared in the burden, and patiently helped out, then we could all relax together when the struggles and the chores were complete.

I was taught that it was selfish to be happy and feel good and enjoy life when other people are suffering and burdened, especially when they are burdened for your sake.

I accepted and internalised these themes, and I even believed they were virtuous.

Messed up virtues

The first theme sounds a bit like delayed gratification, except that delayed gratification is still all about the enjoyment that awaits in the future, whereas I was taught to focus firmly on the burdens that exist in the present.

Not so much that it’s more satisfying to relax in a nice clean house; more that you should not relax when there are things that need to be done…and aren’t there always more things that need to be done?

The second theme sounds virtuous because it almost resembles compassion – sharing in the suffering and burden of others.

But it wasn’t compassion.

It wasn’t a happy person reaching out to alleviate another’s burden, it was the other way around: a suffering person resenting the happiness and ease of others, and enraged at the seeming injustice of it.

Learning to say no

So as I child I learned that a good person puts his own suffering ahead of his own enjoyment, and also puts others’ suffering ahead of his own enjoyment.

On my own I deduced intuitively that living this out to its logical conclusion would kill me. I would be utterly depleted by anyone and everyone who came to me with a burden or need because I couldn’t justify saying “no”.

Even when I finally learned to say no, it was still an act of self-preservation in defiance of these false virtues I’d accepted as true.

I felt guilty for saying no to people, because in my mind they were right to ask me to share their burdens, and I was wrong to refuse them.

Saying no was therefore an admission of fault and a moral failing.

Nothing is more important than happiness

I thought I was being virtuous by embracing suffering, and ignoble for shielding myself from others’ demands.

I thought it was selfish to put my happiness ahead of the happiness of others, and I had vague notions of hedonism and moral corruption looming as the only alternative to an austere self-denial.

So when I now say that nothing is more important than my happiness, I do so again and again against my own fading sense of messed-up virtue.

It is not wise to put suffering and burdens ahead of enjoyment, because even work and chores and daily routines can be joyful. But the only way to make them so is to put happiness first.

It is not compassionate to try to match other people’s negative feelings of struggle and burden, or to let others drag you down to their emotional level. True compassion understands that our own clarity, peace, and joy is the best antidote to others’ suffering.

Nothing is more important than my happiness.

So to answer the question posed in the title: the only time to start enjoying life is right now, immediately. If we aren’t learning to enjoy life right now, then we are not learning to enjoy it at all.

There is no excuse or obstacle to justify putting it off, and there is no future goal or attainment to make the learning of it easier.

That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from the Abraham-Hicks material: no matter what your condition or circumstances, you can always find relief somewhere, even if it’s by going to sleep. The path of relief, the path of least resistance to relief, is the same path that leads to happiness.

It might take a while to get all the way from wherever you are in the midst of severe anxiety or depression or despair, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that feeling better bit-by-bit is the best thing, the only thing, you can do.

Rethinking detachment

I discovered mysticism when I was 15.

Having grown up with an unhappy home life I immediately saw it as a way to overcome what I thought was generic suffering and struggle in life.

My approach to mysticism was firmly focused on the negative conditions I wished to overcome, with the promise that if I could just get my unenlightened mind out of the way, then everything would be perfect exactly as it was.

But the mystics I was reading didn’t necessarily envisage dysfunctional conditions as the starting point.

Even theologically: samsara, the vale of tears, the fallen human condition…these include all forms of evil and suffering in life, but more specifically they refer to a systematic spiritual condition.

That’s why Buddhists want to be born into conditions that make it easier to achieve enlightenment. It’s hard to focus on enlightenment when you’re fleeing for your life from war or famine.

Detachment

Detachment was supposed to be the starting point, the necessary condition for the vision of God within all and beyond all.

It was our attachment to worldly things, through our desires and aversions, that rendered us blind to the supreme being behind and above it all.

I practiced detachment to counteract the suffering and negative conditions in my everyday life, with the understanding that if I could first find freedom from those bonds, the Way would then assert itself naturally and gently into my experience.

And then everything would be all right.

But my vision of the goal was a purely negative one: freedom from suffering and affliction and constraints. My ideal was limited to a kind of neutral spiritual ease and flow where I’d be freed from troubles but also empty of self and any kind of satisfaction or personal preference.

I’m now recognising that my lack of personal preference and the goal of neutrality and perfection amidst the conditions that had caused suffering and struggle still reflect unhealthy adaptations to unhappy childhood circumstances.

“There’s no point complaining, nothing is going to change, so just accept it.”

Detachment as a spiritual principle is not supposed to affirm the submissiveness or depersonalisation of a child who feels crushed and bullied. Being good at ignoring one’s own feelings is not the kind of strength that spiritual freedom can grow from.

Nonetheless this was my ideal: to become a spiritual non-person, inspired by the Buddhist themes of “no self” and Christian themes of “dying to self”.

Positive thinking

I don’t want to invalidate those themes that used to inspire me, and I don’t think my inspiration was wholly bad or off course. But combining spiritual ideals with personal dysfunction explains why my path didn’t lead where I thought it should.

Embracing the positive thinking/law of attraction material taught by Esther Hicks under the guise of “Abraham” set me on a course that would redeem my past spiritual ideals without prolonging the dysfunctional aspects of submissiveness and depersonalisation. Sorting the wheat from the chaff, not in the teachings of others but in my own foundational beliefs and self-perception.

I was always good at practicing detachment. But detachment is only the first stage in a spiritual rapprochement with the divine.

Where I went wrong in the past was in asking or expecting the divine to do something impossible – make me happy amidst profoundly unhappy conditions. Or more pointedly, to make me happy despite holding beliefs that ran utterly counter to my happiness.

Just as a minor example: if you believe in divine providence, you should not feel anxious about anything let alone material wealth and comfort. Divine providence conflicts with a stingy, fearful mindset about money.

Yet if we think that being a miser is in fact a good and virtuous way to live, then we cannot fully embrace the divine being in our lives.

Spiritual austerity or the abundance of life?

The way I saw it was that God had created everything in perfection, but humanity somehow went wrong.

That wrongness in us was perpetuated through our desires and aversions to the things of life.

But if we could let go of our desires and aversions we would find God waiting for us with a spiritual perfection that transforms everything.

My mistake was in thinking that desires and aversions had no place in the scheme of things other than as a symptom of our fallen nature.

But our preferences – consisting of desires and aversions – are the material of our individual lives.

The detachment required is not supposed to be our final resting place, but is to be practiced as a means of preparing ourselves for a much greater life.

Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

But we cannot accept or receive that abundant life unless we are detached from the constraints and limitations of our present existence, where negative beliefs and expectations keep us mired in the same patterns of behaviour and the same familiar experience.

It’s obvious in the Gospels that the people whom Jesus healed strongly desired healing, and their faith was synonymous with the detachment from their prior condition of sickness.

They did not simply detach from the desire for health or the aversion to sickness and limply or dispassionately observe their change in physical condition.

They did not say “Oh, now that I am no longer caught up in my desires and aversions, I notice that I am healthy.”

No, they were joyful and full of appreciation.

Detachment…and then?

So I think the answer is to practice detachment with the faith and expectation that my desires will be fulfilled – practice detachment so as to desire more strongly, detaching not from the things of love and joy that enlighten my life, but from the restrictions, disbelief, and fears that cast a shadow over it.

It is not detachment into emptiness, but detachment into possibility, promise, and therefore faith, hope, and love.

Feeling like a different person

There’s a saying in the Abraham Hicks material that “you can’t get there from there”.

It has a couple of different meanings, but the meaning I discovered recently is that in my quest for happiness I must at some point feel like a different person.

Living with depression and anxiety for so many years, it makes sense that feeling genuinely better would also be profoundly unfamiliar.

I was so accustomed to my baseline feeling of weariness and dread that going without it almost seems fake.

But the truth is that there’s no continuity from feeling terrible to feeling good. A change in mood is like becoming a different person, and for that reason it’s not possible for the depressed anxious version of me to go along for the ride.

I kept fixating on those negative feelings looking for a solution or some means of transmuting lead into gold. But that’s not how these things work.

Negative feelings are something we create in ourselves, a by-product of the misalignment between our inner being and the beliefs or thoughts we are focused upon.

Those negative feelings don’t need to change, it’s our focus and our thoughts and beliefs that need to change. Then the negative feelings will simply be gone.

It really does feel like becoming a different person after all.