Many of us believe that our personal problems stand in the way of awakening to who we are. Some of us even believe that self-transformation and awakening have to do with getting rid of what we perceive as our problems, of what we most fear or despise or dislike in ourselves.
This viewpoint rests on several major, but interrelated, assumptions. We assume, for example, that personal problems are undesirable, and that the fewer problems we have in our lives the better off we are. We also assume that our problems are, for the most part, unnecessary, and that we should be able to control our lives sufficiently to eradicate or at least minimize them.
Our Belief in Progress
Though we may not be aware of it, these assumptions arise from a mostly unconscious, underlying belief in “progress,” a belief that in fact fuels the various industrial, technological, and social engines of Western civilization. We look around at the many industrial and technological marvels in our lives, comparing what we see with what we know of earlier generations, and assume that these marvels represent positive change. We assume that they have solved important problems, and that we are all somehow better off as a result.
When we look deeper, however, the picture changes. In his book Walden, Thoreau points out that “While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.” Our so-called progress has done little to transform our being. What’s more, we see that along with the so-called material benefits this progress has brought have come a whole new set of material, social, and psychological problems at every level of our lives. Every change has brought with it consequences of which we had no comprehension, and which have frequently further complicated our lives in ways that we often take for granted. From chemical toxins in our water and air, to dangerous hormones and antibiotics in our food, to the influence of electromagnetic fields on our body, to the deleterious effects of global warming, to the threat of weapons of mass destruction, to the increasing worldwide gap between rich and poor, to the growing violence in our media and on our streets, to a growing, pervasive sense of meaningless for many people, and so on (the list is almost endless), it has become quite clear that our so-called progress, as wonderful as it may seem at first glance, is bringing what may turn out to be insurmountable problems in many areas of our lives.
Everything Is Interrelated
The problem, of course, is not change in itself. Change is always occurring. As Heraclitus said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The problem is rather that everything in our lives is interrelated, however subtly, with everything else. Without a global understanding of these relationships, without an effort to understand the whole of life, we cannot expect to intentionally change a part without unintended, often disastrous, results.
The same is true of our personal problems. To be sure, many of us have real problems, and some of them, especially those residing at the deepest levels of our nervous system and psyche, can in fact undermine our physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Birth and childhood traumas, powerful negative conditioning, addictions, and so on may have thrown our nervous system into such disharmony that we unconsciously spend most of our energy just trying to stay afloat psychologically. Clearly, deep problems such as these can provide formidable obstacles to awakening, since they often consume so much of our energy and attention and often keep us from seeing the larger picture.
For many of us, however, these deeper organic problems (if they exist in us) are invisible. We are often unaware of the energy imbalances and distorted perceptions of ourselves and others that they bring. The so-called problems that we do in fact perceive in our lives, which reside mostly on the surface of ourselves, are generally either the inevitable outcome of living on this earth or are merely distant manifestations of these deeper relationships and disharmonies that we don’t see. In either case, the energy that we spend attempting to rid ourselves of these problems without understanding their inevitability or their underlying causes can easily lead us down the wrong path. We may think that all that is needed is some change of thinking or manifestation or habit, when in fact what is necessary is a radically new consciousness of ourselves–a consciousness that can perceive the problem in the larger context of our being and our life on this earth.
The great spiritual teachers and traditions warn us about trying to get rid of our problems without having a broader understanding of our total situation. G. I. Gurdjieff, for instance, tells us that any effort to change something in ourselves without an understanding of our entire “machine” will most often bring unintended, undesirable results. Other traditions, such as Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, tell us that our personal problems can only be fully understood in a spiritual context.
A New System of Values
In an interview that I conducted in 1993 in Moscow with Father Alexander Mumrikov, a Deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, I asked Father Alexander about the relationship of personal problems to spiritual growth. Father Alexander replied: “In contrast to the Protestant dictum–‘no problem’–we believe that Orthodoxy must have problems. The more a person is able to become conscious of problems arising in his life, the better it is; this is an indication of inner development. It is not a question of ridding oneself of one’s problems in some way, for example by going to a psychiatrist, but rather of seeing that one’s personal problems are related to one’s spiritual problems. The Holy Fathers have made it clear that though the psychology of the soul and the psychology of the spirit are at different levels, they must be connected. If the level of the spirit is not connected to the level of the soul, it is not connected to man. He receives this as a sacrament from God.” Father Alexander went on to tell me that those who want to work on their souls must, while working, simultaneously wait “for the Spirit to come down from God.” And that this simultaneous working and waiting “creates a new system of values.”
It is clear that working seriously on oneself, on one’s “soul,” for real understanding and transformation, while simultaneously remaining open for the higher to appear in oneself, does in fact bring a new, more genuine system of values, a new level of personal maturity. It is this maturity, the intelligence and willingness to see and welcome the truth in ourselves no matter how messy or terrible we may judge it to be, that can help us understand Advaita Vedanta master Jean Klein when he says that “our problems don’t have to be problematic,” or Lao Tzu when he tells us that our troubles are really the result of our narrow sense of self. When we try sincerely to perceive our problems in a more global context and resist the impulse to become identified with and lose ourselves in our psychological reactions to them, they can in fact help provide the impetus, reminders, shocks, and energy necessary to motivate our quest for awakening at a deeper, more-honest level.
I am reminded here of the great Sufi mystic Rumi, who said: “I honor those who try to rid themselves of any lying, who empty the self and have only clear being there.” It is this effort to rid ourselves of lying, not the effort to rid ourselves of our personal problems, that can help us awaken to who we really are.
Copyright 2009-15 by Dennis Lewis