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.

Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.