The development of a spiritually awakened human is the most difficult task in human existence. It is made easier in that it consists of removing what is unneeded rather than adding to what is there. But what is unneeded to a mature adult was once vital to the survival of an infant, so convincing the adult to relinquish the accretions of infancy (the ego and all it entails) is no small task. In fact, it is nothing less than the toughest possible task, since it implies taking the self down to the bare metal, as you might say, to expose its tender heart to God.
There are basic problems about spiritual development these days, as I see it, as opposed to different times. The Qur’an says that in the “latter days” it will be harder to hold to Islam than to hold a “hot rock” (burning coal) in one’s hand.
The first one (here in the West) is obvious. The deafening roar of materialism, and its philosophical endorsement, is louder than at any time in human history and appallingly efficient at seduction. This ensures that only the half-mad and totally desperate turn up at the door of the temple scratching to be let in.
And of those who turn up, most are there to use the spiritual life to achieve temporal goals – the problem addressed in Chogyam Trungpa’s book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. We see it everywhere now: how to follow scriptural advice to get wealth or security or happiness. How to talk God into giving you a break.
But perhaps you are not meant to be happy, right at this moment. Perhaps there is something else you are meant to notice, like the cause of your unhappiness, which is probably something other than the obvious.
Whitley Strieber says that in his decade of meditation with the entities that came to visit with him in upstate New York, he learned that their approach was to “give him problems that cannot be solved and cannot be put aside.”
This is the Sufi approach too, and in both cases a certain attitude is necessary to benefit from the koan-like limitations of the puzzle. A.H. Almaas describes it in this way:
The attitude of trusting without knowing what will happen, of allowing things to emerge, is needed at all levels and stages of the process of inner development. It applies on the external level, the emotional level, the subtle levels, essential levels, all of them. Any idea of how things are going to be will only work as a boundary. The way things are and the way our true nature works cannot be bounded that way. The moment you have an idea of how things should be, you’re creating some walls, and you’re sitting inside them. There is no trust there in yourself, there is no trust in reality, and there is no trust in the process itself of transformation and growth. Then there is restriction, and you’ll suffer and complain as usual. When we allow the natural process of growth to happen, there is expansion, happiness, and joy.
Usually when you feel you don’t know, you want to do something right away. But you don’t have to do anything: you just need to be there. When something happens, you’re there for it. Ultimately, trust is really trusting your Essence. That trust will develop. The trust is not something you have right away. The more you know yourself and the more you see the rightness of your own process as it happens, the more you’ll trust it… Finally, you see that there is nothing you can trust– nobody, no authority, except the process itself. Finally the trust is not trusting in anybody; it is not trusting any theory; it is not trusting any authority; it is trusting reality. It is just trust – confidence in the Essence itself. It will take time for the trust to mature and deepen.
So those who arrive at the door of the temple – even those who sit against the temple wall by the door, month in and month out, while birds sit on their shoulders in the spring and while they are buried in snow in the winter – must empty themselves first before being filled with a new approach to their experience. We discover that the interpretations of our experience – which we mistake for the experience itself – will change as our viewpoint shifts.
Imagine a man standing midstream in a shallow river, looking downstream. From his position he can see creeks flowing into his river downstream. His experience of the river includes what he sees, but does not include the contents of creeks flowing into his river upstream from him, behind him. He feels the water against his legs behind him and infers its presence, but he does not see how the creeks blend into his river and provide its whole being. This is the state of the average man.
The first work of the teacher is to convince the man that there is a river behind him, but to see it he must turn around to look at it. This is not that hard to do, given a promising student.
What the Sufis do, however, is to then teach you how to hike upstream.