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.

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.

Life is here to be enjoyed

Life is here to be enjoyed, I am here to enjoy life.

That is such a difficult thing for me to write.

I know it sounds strange, but I’ve spent more than twenty years explicitly thinking that enjoyment is a superficial distraction from the real meaning of life.

With a childhood in which enjoyment was scarce and a temperament prone to sensitivity and idealism, I accepted at face value that “enjoying life” was something that other people did, and to the detriment of finding meaning or purpose.

I looked critically at mainstream sanguine and choleric expressions of enjoyment, and let these stand for “enjoying life” and “having fun”. It didn’t occur to me that I might find my own forms of fun and enjoyment in life.

And anyway, there was a slew of mystics, sages and saints to reassure me that enjoyment and fun were vain, pointless adventures that would leave me empty and full of regrets.

Religious deprogramming

There’s a familiar trope of people who rebel against their childhood religious indoctrination, and need to search out for themselves valid and fulfilling beliefs about life, happiness, and their own identity and value.

I’m doing that now, but the terrain I’m covering is a little more varied and eclectic due to my own early search for deeper meaning and purpose.

I can’t remember all the books I read, and my mistaken beliefs are an amalgamation of many different sources, because I adhered to no single creed or set of teachings.

For example, I’ve gone back and reread parts of Awareness by Anthony de Mello, and I can see how I took that text and interpreted it in my own way, oblivious to my own idiosyncrasies or those of the author.

Yesterday I reread a little about Bede Griffiths, and reading between the lines, the guy had a difficult life and his own fair share of problems. Would the answers that he found really be appropriate for me, two generations later, in completely different circumstances of life?

Just now I’ve taken a quick look back at the writings of Jiddu Krishnamurti, and I can see immediately that his work is decidedly not for me. Wrong temperament, maybe even the wrong teaching, and something that clearly contributed to my sense of needing to battle against an internal enemy, whether it be called Ego or Thought.

In recent years I’ve come to respect my desire to arrive at my own conclusions and my reluctance to invest in anyone else’s point of view. But it was not always the case, and I feel it’s now time to let go of these authorities I discovered and appointed for myself.

Perhaps in a sweeping clean of my past willingness to believe, I can say that: only what speaks to me is of value to me. It doesn’t matter that a person is a saint or a sage or a seer; their inscrutable or obscure insights are their own and not mine, and it’s for me to test them and apply them, not take them on faith and try to force myself to fit.

Do I deserve to enjoy life?

At the heart of this is a question of whether I myself deserve to enjoy life, or whether I must instead change myself, become better, be transformed. Transformation is what I sought in the writings of these mystics. But no matter how hard I tried to change myself, all I found was more and more dissatisfaction with my life, my self, and the whole of reality.

When I looked for answers I hoped those answers would show me the way out, out of unhappiness and suffering, out of the mundane world, out of my mundane self.

And in part that simply reflected the confusion and unhappiness of my early life, but it also reflected a sense that I wasn’t good enough as I was, did not deserve to enjoy life or be happy.

When I think about how we create our own reality through the filter of our thoughts and expectations and feelings, I can see how fitting it was that “enjoyment” looked crass and empty to me, and the things I would have truly enjoyed seemed too distant or ethereal or unachievable.

And my memories of feeling deeply insecure and unworthy when good things did happen completes the picture.

Because there were always good things there, I just didn’t think I deserved to have them, and feeling undeserving I sought to change myself to become worthy of the freedom, love and happiness I wanted.

That is why my prayers went unanswered – I was praying to not be me. Or I prayed to be rid of unwanted conditions, all the while clinging to the thoughts and feelings that exacerbated and created those conditions.

Feeling better is unconditional

Lately I’ve discovered that I do not need conditions to change in order for me to feel better.

That includes the internal conditions I have set such stock in: solving problems, finding answers, understanding, engaging with negative emotions, making progress.

I don’t need to do any of that to feel better, because feeling better is intrinsic to our nature. It is only the conditions we set upon it that keep us from naturally feeling better.

So when I ask whether I deserve to enjoy life, I think the question must be flawed, because feeling better is unconditional and enjoying life is something that flows naturally from feeling better.

If I can naturally feel better simply by not placing any conditions on it, then what is the relevance of desert? Why do I have to deserve to feel better, in addition to simply being able to feel better?

It’s actually exciting to know that enjoying life will flow naturally from feeling better, which in turn flows naturally from not placing conditions on it.

And feeling excited about life is a very good place to be!