Our spiritual journey really begins with the recognition of two things. First, we recognize that on a fundamental level, we are unsatisfied. We sense that something is missing and perhaps intuit that a higher form of fulfillment is possible.
For some, the overt suffering of life makes this an obvious fact, while for others, this sense of life’s insufficiency may be more subtle. Many people, despite having a fairly comfortable life, still feel a sense of lack or undercurrent of dissatisfaction. In fact, it is often when we get everything that we think we wanted, that we realize that doing so hasn’t changed this core feeling of discontentment.
After the realization that we are on some level fundamentally dissatisfied, the next step is the recognition that we will never find the happiness which we seek in the world. We see, either suddenly or gradually, that no arrangement of people, places, things or experiences will bring us the happiness that we desire. Of course we may experience moments of happiness due to our experiences in the world, but a deep and unconditional happiness will continue to elude us.
While there are many people that are honest enough to notice life’s unsatisfactorily nature, far fewer are able to accept that the world will never provide the happiness for which they long. Most people continue to hold out hope, that some specific arrangement of relationships, experiences, things or accomplishments with finally provide them with complete satisfaction. If one arrangement doesn't work, then they simply try another ... and another ... and another.
It is at this point that the spiritual journey begins. We see, at least somewhat clearly, that we are unhappy and that there is nothing in the world which will ever make us happy. While for many this realization could be quite depressing, the spiritual aspirant cannot shake the intuition that true fulfillment is indeed possible and that if the world cannot provide it, there must another way.
Usually around this point we will be introduced to the concept of enlightenment, awakening or self-realization. We will either read or hear of the possibility that true and lasting fulfillment is indeed possible. There are others that have come before us who have also noticed life’s inability to provide us with happiness and they have found another way. In one way or another we begin to understand that the key to happiness lies within us and not in the world.
At this point we may begin meditating, attending retreats, studying ancient religious texts, changing our diet or any number of the activities that are common to “spiritual” people. As a result of these practices or lifestyle changes we may even have an “awakening” experience where we experience first hand the unconditional love, freedom and peace which is the essence of who we truly are. In almost all cases, such a experience will eventually fade and we will find ourselves again in an attempt to regain the fulfillment that we have tasted and now lost.
At a certain point, a wise spiritual aspirant may realize that his or her seeking of happiness through spiritual means is really no different from a worldly person seeking happiness through money, success or relationship. It is the same process, simply dressed up in spiritual clothing. If we can recognize this fact, then we may be open to a deeper recognition of exactly how this spiritual journey works.
The ultimate message of all spiritual masters has been that, in fact, true happiness is what you are. Happiness cannot be found in any object, physical or spiritual, because you yourself already are the happiness that you seek. Most spiritual people have heard of this idea, but very few consider the implications of what it means.
If I already am the happiness which I am seeking, why would I need to do anything to achieve it? If ultimately I am peace and love, why don’t I feel this way now?
Many spiritual people accept that they are what they seek, but then believe that they must do something special to realize this. And so they take up some form of spiritual practice to try to break out of their sense of lack into an experience of bliss and freedom. Most spiritual practices and teachings are used as a way to pierce the illusion of ourselves as a limited suffering person and expose our true selves as infinite love and happiness. And while many of these techniques and practices can do exactly that, we may begin to realize that we inevitably fall out of these higher states and find ourselves more or less back where we started. We may have evolved tremendously, but the core sense of lack still remains. It is here that we must look closer.
If enlightenment is my natural state, then I must be constantly doing something which prevents that recognition. The natural state of a pond is for the water to be completely smooth and glass like. If we throw a rock into a pond, it will distort this placid quality and replace it with splashes and ripples. However the water will quickly return to its natural state as long as it is not disturbed. In order to maintain ripples on the surface of the water we must constantly throw rocks in the pond. If we want to keep the pond in an unnatural state, we must make a constant effort, otherwise it will revert to its natural condition. It is in the same way that if our natural state is peace, love and contentment, we must therefore be making a constant effort to distort this condition.
The question then becomes not how to become enlightened, but what am I continually doing to keep myself unenlightened?
A spiritual experience can show us our potential, but as long as we continue to be throwing rocks into the water of our mind, no amount of spiritual experience will bring our suffering to a final end.
Luckily, those masters who have come before have studied this aspect of the spiritual journey closely. What they have discovered can be briefly summarized as follows:
Every human being has experienced various forms of trauma throughout their lives. For some these traumas have been very large while for others very light. No matter how perfect your childhood was, no one gets through the early stages of life without some aspect of trauma and even minor events can be severely traumatic to a sensitive child. Some even say that birth itself is a sort of trauma and that each of us have inherited our share of humanity's collective trauma.
When we experience trauma, especially at a young age, we are often unable to handle the intensity of the experience. The experience quickly overwhelms us and as a result we do whatever we can to close down and protect ourselves. Because the experience is so intense and threatening, we can’t simply allow the experience to flow through us and instead close down and lock the energy inside.
As a result, the experience does not naturally release itself, but instead forms a sort of psychic whirlpool of pain in our energetic body. In yoga we call these samskaras.
These samskaras often remain hidden deep inside us and usually go unnoticed. What we don’t realize is that it is these energetic impressions that are the only things which block us from the happiness that we are seeking. They are what continually distort our natural state of peace love and contentment. In truth, it is not the blocks themselves, but our unwillingness to experience these blocks which keeps them in place. These samskaras or blockages are in fact constantly trying to release themselves and we must make an continued effort in order to prevent them from doing so.
Imagine a deep well. At the bottom is the pure water which you seek, but there is a top layer of junk and garbage. As the owner of the well you have a desire for pure water, but every time you open the lid to the well all you see is trash. Furthermore, the water below the trash is constantly pushing the trash towards the surface of the well. So each time you peak in the well you see and avalanche of trash coming right for you and so you quickly put the lid back on to keep the trash from overflowing out of the well. What you don’t realize is that if you would only let that top layer of trash flow out you would be treated to a never ending supply of pure water.
Our experience is just like this. Our true nature is constantly trying to flush out all of our blockages so that the experience of undiluted happiness can flow into our experience. Unfortunately most of us are doing everything we can to keep the lid on. As the uncomfortable feelings begin to resurface, it is our natural reaction to recoil from them just as it is our tendency to recoil from pain of any sort. These experiences hurt when they went in and so they hurt when they come out.
As long as we are either unaware or unwilling to experience these hidden feelings, our lives will be ones of continued avoidance. And no amount of spiritual techniques or practices will save us.
It is only when we begin to understand this mechanism that true spiritual work is possible. Spirituality stops becoming about getting somewhere and begins to be about letting go of that which prevents us from being what we already are.
This is why it is said that pain is the price of freedom.
In order for this process of purification to take place, it can be very helpful to have some sort of bodily practice such has yoga, tai chi, qi gong, mindful walking etc. We have become so accustomed to disassociating from the pain in the body that we often need help relearning how to simply be in the body. Again, if we are unaware of the blockages within ourselves there is nothing we can do about them and they will continue to run our lives and keep happiness out of reach.
Yoga practice specifically can be very powerful during this stage because it becomes a sort of practice ground for this process. In yoga we are putting the body into positions that expose restrictions and blockages in the physical structure. And as anyone that has ever stretched before, doing so can be quite uncomfortable. This process is very similar to how we learn to release our inner blockages. Often these physical blockages are related to inner blockages as well.
When doing yoga we quickly learn that when stretching a tight muscle any amount of effort or tensing only makes it worse. The only way is to relax as much as possible around the sensation. Initially in doing so the uncomfortable sensation may even become more intense, but if we can learn to remain relaxed and open, we find that in time the body begins to open as well. Not only does this practice help ground our awareness into our bodies, but gives us practice in relaxing around uncomfortable sensations in general.
It is this willingness to be uncomfortable that is the secret both to flexibility and yoga as well as happiness and spirituality. All that we need to do is to learn to hold space around these uncomfortable blockages and they are given all they need to resolve and release themselves.
While the sensations in yoga can often be quite intense, they are usually purely physical. If we can learn to relax and remain open to these sensations we have a good foundation to apply to our psychic/emotional blocks as they arise.
As we release more and more of these inner blockages, we will at some point realize that more and more happiness is seeping into our lives. As the water becomes more and more cleared of trash, its natural qualities become present. And while spiritual experiences may come and go, this form of happiness is permanent. Because you have removed the blockages there is no longer anything left to distort the experience of your natural state and its qualities of bliss, love and peace.