Sometimes despite our best intentions, life goes awry and we encounter problems and the resultant emotional and physical pain they lead to. For spiritual practitioners, it can even seem as if our spiritual progress and progress toward self realization may make things worse before they get better . Engaging in spiritual practice can seem to increase the amount of chaos and suffering in our life for certain periods, when all we really wanted was to be more peaceful and serene. For spiritual practitioners just beginning on a path of transformation, this may seem counter to the goals of spiritual practice, but my intuition tells me that the arising of problems and wreckage from the past may be actually a spiritual watershed in disguise. It may be that the perception of increasing problems and pain in our lives may actually be a manifestation of a new, better spiritual footing bringing the particulars of our life into harmony with an entirely new perspective.
Spiritual realization can sometimes be extremely disorienting and confusing, as well as leaving us vulnerable to the pain and suffering in our lives. No one said that spiritual principles are compatible with all aspects of worldly life. In fact, some of the realizations we come to in our practice may run utterly antithetical to our worldly goals, leaving us at a loss in how to proceed in a way that honors the new perspective while at the same time avoiding a potentially destructive course of events stemming from this new perspective. It can seem at times as if we are actively “asking for” more pain as we engage in spiritual practice. The monk above burned himself to death in protest – a thing that he would probably not have done were it not for his spiritual practice and attainments. This provides a very visceral image of how spiritual practice can lead to an increased rate of “burning” of karma (pun intended). A thing that has always been intriguing for me is how this monk was able to maintain perfect meditative equipoise despite the undoubtedly excruciating pain of burning alive.
On a more mundane level, it is important to realize that the harder life gets, the more opportunity we have to go deeply into the present moment, examine our attachments, and test our practice. It is easy to be serene and happy when everything is going well – we have a good job that pays well enough, we get free time to practice and recharge, we have supportive and loving relationships, a sense of security and hope. However, it has been said that growth only occurs from discomfort – we have to stretch the limits of what we are capable of in order to learn and grow.
Even in the most trying of circumstances, we still have the ability to find peace in this very moment, despite any discomfort we may feel. Meditation practices can train the mind to find contentment in the present moment, free from circumstance. If we train ourselves accordingly, we can learn to be at peace, even in extreme physical pain. The Buddhist Thai Forest Ajahn Maha Boowa in his book Arhathatta Magga Arahatta Phala ( The Path to Arahatship ) recounts a practice of coming to perfect equanimity with the extreme pain he experienced while sitting all night without moving – which is arguably a fruition of karma for a realized spiritual practitioner. Instead of avoiding pain, the Ajahn became intrigued by the extreme pain he experienced while engaging in determined meditative investigation. He was determined to learn something about the physical pain, go into it, and attempt to “do battle” with the pain and transcend his fear and attachment to the body. This is not something a normal person would do and can be viewed as a tangible example of spiritual practice leading not to peace, comfort, and happiness, but to increased pain and stress, for the purpose of moving forward spiritually. In his story he comes to a point of clearly experiencing the mind sense (in his tradition this is referred to as the citta) separated from the physical body through the power of meditative concentration. He systematically deconstructed the physical pain, overcoming his fear of pain and death in the process. He sums up his insight into physical pain in the following passage:
Painful feelings are just naturally occurring phenomena that constantly fluctuate between mild and severe. As long as we do not make them into a personal burden, they don’t have any special meaning for the citta. In and of itself, pain means nothing, so the citta remains unaffected. The physical body is also meaningless in and of itself, and it adds no meaning either to feelings or to oneself—unless, of course, the citta invests it with a specific meaning, gathering in the resultant suffering to burn itself. External conditions are not really responsible for our suffering, only the citta can create that.Ajahn Maha Boowa, in Arahata Magga Arahata Phala
Stories like these should convince normal people that any and all circumstances can be not only tolerated but embraced and viewed as learning opportunities. The mind creates all of our reality, and therefore it is possible to train the mind through spiritual practice to be at peace in even the most challenging circumstances. This is great news, and a source of hope for anyone who feels disenfranchised and hopeless in their lives. We can learn to go deeply into the present moment with mindfulness and investigation and change how the mind perceives our so-called troubles. This is ultimately the goal of spiritual practice – to transcend a dependence of our peace on conditions of the body and world.
In short, when spiritual progress is correlated by the conceptual mind to circumstantial wreckage and an increased sense of instability and friction – we should not give up our quest toward freedom. It may very well be an opening in disguise. Life is hard, and growth can only blossom from discomfort. It just doesn’t always feel good in the moment. Have faith and learn to recognize that that each obstacle is leading to more and deeper freedom. Life’s ups and downs are simply that- oscillations in the ever-evolving now, and after periods of spiritual purification we will uncover a peace that transcends the conditions that once shackled us. I know this to be true from personal experience. In short – keep practicing. It gets better.