My friend, a true craftsman who has been honing his skills for 20 years, once mentioned to me: “the more you do something, the easier it gets!”. That always stuck in my mind, until a whole podcast episode came tumbling out in the midst of a run through the city and woods.
Take running as a simple example: not only have I been running for the past 5 years religiously as my Sadhana — loyalty and a sense of routine balances out my Vata/Air persona — through major life and emotional changes, but daily, there are factors that add to the conglomeration of making it challenging each and every time. The weather, my sugar levels, sleep the night before, mood, muscular fatigue, shoes, future daily responsibilities, route and the addition or lack of other people, increased expectations, choice of music, and all the rest make it a new experience each day. It’s not any easier; it’s just different.
So, how can it be that the most courageous, difficult, and virtually socialy unacceptable human endeavour in the human kingdom become easier over time? That is: waking up!
Waking up comes with its own challenges and hardships, each to be processed and overcome in its own good time. Don’t give up simply because it didn’t become easier.
Here are some common barriers and experiences on the spiritual path:
As a teenager, I opened up a book after having a psychological break (you know, the world ends with everything when you’re young), and I read the sentence out loud: “We are all One”. With that sentence, I lost my sense of self completely. Tears ran down my face, and I became one with the universe and all my pain and suffering was relieved. After this, I avidly read every book and discarded many concepts I had built up until that point. At 15 years old, I borrowed Indian mantra CD’s from the library, lit candles in my room, and chanted — somehow, I was attracted to spirit, though knowing nothing of Indian culture or tradition, and I certainly didn’t find it outwardly in the small conservative Christian village I lived in, in Wisconsin, USA. Eventually, life took hold and I began focusing on studying and moving abroad to London where even more social conditioning was being spoon-fed to me; then, a second awakening occurred (which I mentioned in other episodes, where I had a non-dual awakening via finding Mooji), yet that didn’t last, either.
Final liberation or awakening, is just that — it is a final stilling of the energies that give rise to the person or human being that has been conditioned to be “small”. Or even to be “big-small”! Even the biggest ego — the richest billionaire with the most confidence who never gives a second thought to enlightenment — has an extremely fragile body that is destined to become sick and to die. This is because we are bound by duality, and when we think the body/mind passes away, then we pass away, too.
It’s totally okay to celebrate your awakening experiences — in fact, they help push you on to the final surpassing of death! But, know that this may come and go for a while until you stabalise.
I’ve done my rounds with this one, too; it can even happen unconsciously. That is, taking hold of spiritual ideas or practices to avoid dealing with issues that you may have from either the past or present. This can range from childhood trauma to using meditation to avoid emotions and thoughts or suppress them. By all means — if you need therapy, get therapy. If you need to meditate, then meditate. In fact, you might notice what has been hiding beneath the surface when you finally sit down to watch your emotions and general mind. A lot can come up during meditation: fear, anxiety, restlessness, and even strange ideas, images, and uncontrollable sobbing or laughter. But don’t stuff your emotions away and pretend something pressing doesn’t exist.
To find out about emotional suppression and release, I recommend Craig Holliday’s video; just make sure you’re alone and in a comfortable place to release and let go:
Taking up the Wrong Practice:
Really, there is no wrong per se, but we know what resonates with us. Don’t take up just any advice, because your friends or family or colleagues or culture believe it is right. Initially, the factor of trying something new or going into unfamiliar territory is necessary. Then, practice, without expecting instant or unchanging results. But, if results never come… if people are demanding your time and your money to convince you of their viewpoint without you doing any work yourself, then be wary. Your practice should carry you, and you should be making decisions about yourself throughout without relying on others.
Western, capitalist, societies are filled with advertising and marketing for everything, and going beyond those messages to get to the grit is necessary. I often say, “If it can be capitalised on, it will.” You can find a course for any type of yoga or meditation or be sold new-age self-help, so just be aware that you should be making your own decisions. We wake up alone, are born alone, go to bed alone, and die alone. So, finding what is resonant should be considered and reflected upon throughout the process.
Stagnation with Practice:
When we stagnate, we stop believing that we’re on the right path. “Things should be happening!” we say. Yes and no. In one sense, things are always happening. Moods, thoughts, changing places in space, people coming and going, situations, bodily changes… but we want big things to happen. Big things do happen, but often they are in between lots and lots of micro-movements. What can also happen is that movement seems to be too slow which leads to doubt…
Doubt can be helpful or a hindrance, depending on the situation. The Buddha pointed out that doubt is one of the five hindrances, in fact.
When is doubt helpful? If we’re in our car and doubt that we’re going in the right direction, then that is good, because it gets us going in the right direction. Similarly, if our intuition or conscience gives us a strong message of doubt about a particular person or place, perhaps, like “don’t walk through that park at night!” — then that is good doubt.
Phillip Mofitt describes bad doubt better than I can:
“Doubt presents many faces, some of which are quite subtle. You may experience it as nonspecific anxiety, as if there is something you have forgotten to do or have done incorrectly. Doubt may be felt, yet unrecognized, as exaggerated or everpresent distress over a decision you have to make, or a vague sense that you have failed or that life isn’t as you thought it would be.
These subtle symptoms reflect the dilemma of modern life: the absence of feeling grounded in something greater than your own ego structure. It is for this reason that doubt is both an existential challenge and a spiritual hindrance.
The Buddha taught that doubt is one of five hindrances that arise in the mind, clouding your judgment, limiting your ability to act, and causing great emotional disquiet. The first is sensual desire of any sort; the second is aversion to a person, situation, or something about yourself. The third, sloth and torpor, is the inability to initiate action, while the fourth, restlessness, is just the opposite – the mind is so restless and anxious with worry that it cannot settle down. The fifth hindrance is doubt. I sometimes call doubt the mother of all hindrances because when it is in control of your mind, there is not enough energy to engage. You find you have no heart for facing difficulties.”
When we have a goal or aim that we know we should be striving for that will change us for the better, often this negative doubt creeps in to tell us “we can’t change”. We doubt our abilities or the courage to see a particular situation through. If we are practicing, say, Zazen meditation and become frustrated or impatient, then we might doubt that it is helpful or useful as a means to reach the goal.
Here’s the kicker: no process is perfect. Whether you’ve done something once or a thousand times, there will be ease and there will be bumps. But, persist.
Use the knowledge of the above of what could get in the way.
On the positive side, use the forces of knowing what is right for you and nobody else, step back and reflect on the macro and micro movements in your progress, change if you feel positive doubt, and don’t forget to be gentle with yourself when frustrating moments arise.