The first spiritual teacher for many, many people is not a person. The first spiritual teacher–and often an ongoing and subsequent teacher for years–is pain and suffering.
It’s pain and suffering that teaches most people that something is wrong. It’s pain and suffering that drives a person to find the truth and to find freedom from the discomfort.
Without this motivation, few people do anything with the spiritual path. Most people are happy on the cruise ship while things are working. Few people give God a second-thought. Sure. Some do, and there are some who are simply so passionately called to the Divine that they are willing to shake up their lives and dive overboard to find God. But most of the rest prefer the familiarity of cruising along through their lives, and if life is particularly comfortable, they’re all the more attached. It’s only if the cruise ship hits an iceberg that suddenly the Divine is remembered, and oh boy, what a person is willing to do and endure for the Divine once the ship is going down!
Ultimately, however, pain and suffering are poor teachers. If they dissipate, then many people stop their spiritual journey. The house is no longer on fire, but the faulty wiring remains. Too few are interested enough to find and pull out all that wiring without a raging fire, and when a fire is raging, it’s often difficult to get to the wiring–the deeper core attachments and issues. The fire has to be put out first. Once out, then people stop. Thus, many people go through repeated teachings from the spiritual teacher of pain and suffering.
For clarity’s sake, I separate pain from suffering. Suffering is the ego’s response to life, and there doesn’t have to be any real issue for the ego to suffer. Many egos see problems when none exist.
Pain can be emotional, psychological, and physical. Pain ultimately is a part of human life. It’s a communication tool that tells us when something needs attention. However, more than a few pains aren’t necessary because they are ego-caused, and they can be healed. In general, spiritual healing is a big segment of a lot of people’s spiritual journeys. Furthermore, some people who go the furthest are the ones who have had great pain (trauma and abuse or serious physical ailments) and are compelled by that pain to find healing.
Without that compulsion, it’s easy for people to assume that things are fine, and if things aren’t fine but the perceived pain of change seems greater than the current pain-level, then the spiritual path is still avoided. After awhile, it’s amazing that anyone ever gets serious about the spiritual path.
Seeking Freedom from Pain
There are many things people want on the spiritual path which have nothing to do with spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom is freedom from suffering, not pain. Pain is just part of life. Surrendering to that reality helps to bring freedom from suffering because you no longer struggle against a human reality.
However, for many people pain and suffering are thought of as the same. Many people have a notion of an endlessly joyous and feel-good experience that can be achieved on the spiritual path. This does not exist. Does someone dissolved in spiritual freedom have far less emotional, psychological, and to some extent even physical pain?
Yes. It’s because they no longer cause it.
But perhaps a loud sound causes a jolt of fear to go through their body. The person feels fear. It’s an old primal instinct happening. No further suffering arises from that instinctual fear response because the person is free. Yet, there was pain.
There is also the pain of disease, stubbed toes, sensitive teeth, sprained ankles, child birth, and many other physical experiences. We are not going to avoid the pain of such things. The spiritual path doesn’t avoid anything. Instead, it shows us the way to spiritual freedom from embracing these realities.
Succeeding in Resolving Pain
More than a few people have come to me and learned to resolve all kinds of emotional and mental pain. That has often resolved physical pains with which they are intertwined. Yet, the seeds of failure can be ready to sprout if freedom from these pains is seen as the goal. That’s the problem with having pain be your main spiritual teacher. If pain is resolved, the ego tends to think the problem is gone. Or sometimes it thinks ALL problems are gone. The ego does not realize how extensive the ego itself is nor how deeply attached it is to all kinds of beliefs and fundamental issues like the drive for safety.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with someone and they’ve said something to the effect of, “I had no idea that was there” or “I didn’t realize how deep I was holding on to that.” Yes. This is the nature of ignorance, and this is why dedication to the spiritual path and moving beyond this first spiritual teacher is vital to truly embracing the pain.
The Pain is Gone; Seeking Deeper Suffering
We hold onto suffering in all kinds of ways. When life appears to go according to how our egos believe it should go, that suffering hides. The ego says, “Yes, all is well. I am right about life.” Then something changes, and the ego gets upset. The suffering re-emerges, and that can cause all kinds of pains again. When this happens, the immature spiritual seeker runs back to the practices they may have forgotten (when things go well, many people drop their spiritual practices). The house is back on fire again. So they put it out again and leave the faulty wiring in place once more.
These types of repeated, superficial ventures into spirituality make people feel like they’re endlessly working on the same issues. They are! That is, in and of itself, encouragement to go deeper in your inquiry and in releasing attachments and core issues.
Deepening Your Sincerity
As you deepen in your sincerity, you go inwards more and more when there is no pain or overt suffering. You learn to listen more closely to your feelings, beliefs, and body sensations to find out what is going on inside. There are all kinds of overlooked things happening inside a human body, but with sincerity, we start to find them. We also learn to seek help when nothing is wrong. In this way, you begin to go beyond your “first spiritual teacher.”
This is actually when things get a lot more interesting. The deeper you go within, the more profoundly you understand your attachments, your ego, and the extent of your suffering. This lends itself to seeing how you continue to cause suffering in all kinds of ways in your daily life. This seeing aids you further in finding support in burning away old attachments and no longer acting from your unconscious ego.
Truly, spiritual sincerity is a powerful thing. The deeper aspiration for freedom can emerge through it, and this sincere aspiration needs to be the force that impels someone further towards the spaciousness that is here. Other ego agendas will cause a person to stall, quit, or regress if a person feels like their ego got what they wanted or is getting something that they don’t want.
Getting Comfortable with Paradoxes
One thing about the ego is that it is usually looking for an easy way out. The ideas that “we are here” and “we are spaciousness” are easy to understand. There truly is no where to go, but then why does inner work matter? Many egos try to skip steps and jump to the conclusion that inner work and dedication don’t matter. We are already here, so why try and do anything if doing is unnecessary?
This is a deeply deluded conclusion, and it comes from the ego because the process of dissolving the ego is typically uncomfortable. It would rather accept an “idea” rather than to truly “realize” the reality of being, and now, since pain is not present, the possibility having pain come back is a deterrent to the spiritual path.
Plus, people tend to not like paradoxes like: “you need to do the work, and there is no where to get to.” So try to get comfortable with them. Paradoxes are problems for the mental ego, not for reality. And we are in the business of letting go of ego.
Dropping Deeper Into Spaciousness
The spaciousness within us can be with any kind of pain and suffering, and the beauty of this presence is that the suffering of the ego evaporates in it. Sure, we can still have heart problems, cancer, and any other malady you can think of. But the suffering of not wanting such things can go away. This is part of spiritual freedom.
Additionally, good times are no longer muddied up by an ego that is clinging to them or hoping for a different moment even though things are going well. So many things are much less difficult and more enjoyable without the ego self, and it is true that a lot less actual physical pain is gone along with the suffering. But as I’ve said throughout this post, these things are not realized by trying to get rid of them or fix them. They get released because we embrace them and learn to find a deeper sincerity and calling towards spiritual freedom that is beyond the pain and suffering that may have initially gotten us started.