Despairing of life, James didn’t have time for a long, drawn-out spiritual journey. He needed answers now. He needed a guru. So he hopped on the first plane to India.
The guru by the river sized up James with a glance and told him to sit cross-legged submerged in the water. After a short time, James attempted to rise up yet felt resistance. “Perhaps he wants me to stay under water longer.” So he settled back down. He was deeply dissatisfied after all.
After a few more moments, again James tried to rise up, and again was met with resistance. This time he was becoming concerned, his pulse quickening. “Have I visited the guru or a madman?”
James began exerting more forcefully. But the guru was insistent. Images of his life began flashing through his mind, his lungs convulsing reflexively for air. “I came here to learn how to live, and now I’m going to die?!”
He began thrashing about, his legs thrusting with every fiber, his arms flailing about in search of anything to grasp onto. Just then, the guru released his grip.
Breaching the water as his lungs filled with air, hair a wild, swirling mop, James shouted, “What the hell were you doing? You could have killed me!” To which the guru replied emphatically and unequivocally, “You see! If you want to wake up, you have to want it as badly as life itself with every cell of your being!”
If you’re tired of life, trust and longing are the answer. And how deeply you go into rooting out your discontentment is dependent on the intensity of your longing. The greater the intensity, the more unhappiness will be uprooted.
For most, the spiritual path is arduous and demanding requiring great discipline and sustained, systematic effort. It is not for the weak, timid or equivocal.
The path of transformation begins with seeing and trusting in the possibility of change. Otherwise there would be no reason to go into the dark forest. But seeing possibility is not enough. Intense yearning is also required. Without which there would not be enough fuel to stay on the path or to investigate deeply enough for transformative change.
But intensity can only come from your unique and personal sorrow.
Despite all our efforts at personal growth, deep down many of us, to one degree or another, believe we have little, if any, say in how our lives unfold. Be it genetics, pitiful parenting, bad luck or perhaps even god’s will, our fate appears predetermined by forces beyond our control. This is what people refer to as the “fixed mindset”.
"Most people just accept where they are, and act as if they have little power in shaping an exciting, productive, and fulfilling life." ~ Dr. Robert A. Glover
Additionally, we may believe that lasting happiness is reserved only for special people. (It is not.) While feverishly pursuing a better life, we may be unaware of the self-doubt and limiting beliefs hindering our growth.
But wait a second, you say. If I didn’t believe happiness were possible, then why would I push myself so hard to improve and grow as a person?
I have no doubt your intentions are sincere. I’m just saying take a look at your deeply held beliefs. If your efforts and beliefs are at odds then your results will be handicapped, and your dreams will likely remain just that.
If we are to realize tangible, enduring change, we need to trust, or at least be willing to suspend disbelief in order not to sabotage our efforts. Trust, in this case, means surrendering the need for control. Then, and only then, can our deepest intentions begin to grow and manifest.
Those who are skeptical yet open to possibility and willing to try tend to realize the most success. Too much skepticism leads to inaction, too much optimism leads to disappointment.
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much.Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.” - Steve Jobs
Steve’s message can be applied equally to one’s inner life, which is our intent here.
Only when you care deeply about your life and believe that your actions matter will you consider the effort necessary for lasting change. Do you believe that you can effect change in your life, and do you care enough to try?
The second, and perhaps more important, ingredient for transformative change is what I call the burning intensity of longing. That longing comes from our personal sorrow.
As Dilgo Khyentse so eloquently put it, longing is “…the strong wish to free oneself not only from life’s immediate sorrows…[but] a heartfelt weariness and disillusionment with the endless quest for gratification, approval, profit and status”.
What is sorrow?
Sorrow is the broken heart of failed relationships; the buildup of frustrated desires; the regret of bad choices and missed opportunities; and the disconnection from life all around us - people, trees, animals, plants, and insects. It is the guilt and shame that we carry around; the hurt of betrayal; the loneliness of isolation; the fatigue of ever seeking more; and the weariness of never feeling enough.
Sorrow is Cameron’s character in Ferriss Bueller’s Day Off as he kicks the front fender of the red Ferrari repeatedly until it hurtles into reverse and through the glass and into the deep, forested ravine below: “Seventeen years and I’ve never taken a stand. Now, I’m gonna do it. I’m taking a stand against my father, against my family, against myself, against my past, my present and my future. I will not sit idly by as events that affect me unfold to change the course of my life. I will take a stand and I will defend it. When my father comes home tonight, he’s finally going to have to deal with me. Good or bad, I’m taking a stand.”
At the age of thirty-two my life hit maximum shit level. All that I knew about myself and how to live felt in the balance. I was in a deep, existential crisis.
Everything I had longed for, fantasized about and worked toward - becoming a millionaire, finding a lifetime partner, accomplishing great things, and having an exciting life - hadn’t happened.
My first long-term relationship ended in cheating with me telling her, “Have a nice life”; my bank account resembled a refrigerator with one bottle of mustard and an expired cup of non-fat yogurt ; credit card debt had arrived like an unwelcome dinner guest that just kept eating; I was laid off from a Fortune 500 job I hated, nay deplored; and ten years of adult life offered but one accomplishment - finishing grad school.
Worst of all, I wasn’t even having fun. In every way I was angry, alone and depressed, a standup comedian’s punchline.
It was then that a friend I looked up to said to me, “Life is hard, Ryan. Life is hard.” Those were the kindest and most honest words, and for a moment I felt seen.
Despite my inner chaos, somehow I never felt despair; the faintest thread of possibility was ever present. A quirk of my personality or the human condition? Regardless, my mind kept wondering, “There has to be a better way. Somebody, somewhere, throughout time, had to have figured out a better way to live.” That thought became my mantra. “There has to be a better way. There has to be a better way.”
My crisis and sense of urgency came from an absolute intolerance to even one more day of confusion, doubt, loneliness, rage, greed, restlessness, anxiety, conflict, emptiness, naive ambition, fear, fantasy, grief and regret.
So my motivation didn’t come from wanting to improve myself, to become super human or even an enlightened Buddha. It was the intensity of my sorrow that was propelling me toward possibility.
If we pay attention to our lives, we will be confronted, like it or not, with things we would rather not to see or know about ourselves. Renowned Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, likens this to “one insult after another”.
We would prefer to see ourselves as we would like to be, and not as we are. Preserving our self-image as a nice person, a kind person, an agreeable person, a generous and beautiful person is comforting. And seeing what we don’t like is unsettling.
In school I believed that I was the nicest, sincerest and most authentic person you could meet. Any positive attribute - honest, generous, friendly, intelligent, funny, mature, creative - I would have ascribed to myself. But behind the veil of perfection and self-assuredness lay deep insecurity. And there was no self-inquiry. Only the flimsy belief that I was great and right and everyone else was not great and wrong.
“A man can’t change what he is” muses Verbal Kint in the Usual Suspects, “He can convince anyone he’s someone else, but never himself.”
So we avoid looking for fear of seeing that our cherished beliefs about ourselves may not be true. When confronted, our minds will perform great acrobatics of mental outrage, denial, delusion, repression and suppression, anything to avoid seeing the truth.
Instead of inquiring within, we distract ourselves with shopping, movies, drinking, videos, sex, work, anything to avoid our own reflection. Even for the seeker, the conditioned mind will do anything in the way of prayer, chanting of mantras, and rituals, but will not face its own empty nature.
Thus it is only through the urgency of our situation, our sorrow, that we are thrown, ready or not, onto the spiritual path and compelled to investigate. And it is sorrow that keeps us inquiring when we are inevitably confronted with things we would rather not see.
If you trust enough to inquire, you will see that whatever concepts you held about yourself are not necessarily true. All your images will be shattered, your hopes dashed, your concepts gone, and the fantasies and utopias you clung to so dearly will have evaporated. And the breaking of these images will be painful and disillusioning.
“If you could dig a big enough hole to bury all your youth, you simply cannot hide from the ugly truth”. ~ Matthew Sweet
But it isn’t until your own internal pressure becomes so great that you are compelled to look. And once you start looking, the mind begins revealing itself, and all the dead matter starts coming out. This is what Suzuki Roshi referred to as a “general housecleaning of the mind”.
At the same time, you will see that all your self-images were like a cancer eating away at your life energy. And it was your attachments to the phenomenal world that sustained you. Seeing that your energy had been derived from outside of you will be difficult and disorienting and will bring tremendous sorrow.
When I was finally able to inquire into my own life, so much anger and hurt were revealed. And sadness, so much sadness. I felt lonely, broken, and dysfunctional. And it wasn’t until learning that others were also brokenhearted that I began to feel less alone.
So in the same way that you eat to relieve the pain of hunger, you inquire into your life to relieve the pain of discontentment and dissatisfaction. And once you start looking at yourself as you are, all life begins opening its mysteries to you. Life itself becomes your guru. You begin to see, moment-to-moment, what is happening and how best to respond with both wisdom and compassion - for yourself and others. And you have no choice but to continue looking.
“The more and more you listen, the more and more you hear”, said Dudjom Rinpoche, “and the more and more you hear, the deeper and deeper your understanding becomes.”
But it is only when clinging to the material and psychic comes to an end that the possibility of perceiving truth exists.
Some people think if they could find the right guru, say like Ram Dass seeking Neem Karoli Baba, then surely the guru would wake them up. But unless that urgency is there in the seeker no guru, no matter how learned or deep their understanding, can enlighten another. Ram Dass had that sense of urgency.
You cannot be stimulated, bribed or persuaded to inquire deeply into your own life.
To learn anything, there has to be an urgent, earnest curiosity and thirst for clarity. That intensity, or “itch”, as my friend Danny calls it, can only come from within. Without that intensity, no enlightened being is going to help you.
No one can generate or manufacture it within you. Even if you find the wisest, most intelligent person in the world, your diligence, your earnestness, is far more important than the credentials of the guru. It is only then that someone might aid you, initiate you and open you up.
Intense yearning is generated in one of two ways.
One is through an acute crisis like divorce, addiction, debt, rape, mid-life crisis, bad accident, foreclosure on a home or death of a loved one. As Charles Duhigg writes in the Power of Habit, “Reform is usually possible only when a sense of crisis takes hold”. The other is suffering from the buildup of resisting life - pushing aside what you don’t like for more appealing things.
So the question becomes, how do you generate that intensity without having to go through an acute crisis or decades of suffering? Unfortunately, crises are an inevitable part of life. When they do arrive, welcome them because that is when adult life usually begins.
If you haven’t yet experienced a crisis, then awareness or sensitivity to life must be cultivated. This entails a radical slowing down and stopping doing. In the absence of busy-ness, your unhappiness will become apparent to you. Further, you will see that your suffering will continue unless change occurs. And the greater your awareness of sorrow, the greater your sense of urgency.
But our culture teaches us to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. While this may work in the short-term, eventually the buildup of suppressed emotions catches up with us in the form of neurosis, disease, or both. Instead, we face our pain and move toward it.
What do you mean face my pain? Are you crazy? Yes, facing your pain will increase your pain. At least temporarily. But if you keep avoiding your pain by ‘sweeping it under the carpet’, then the depth of your sorrow will remain hidden. And without awareness of your sorrow there is no urgency to change, to investigate within.
During my senior year in high school it dawned on me that I was numb. Not only numb to emotions and feelings, but numb to all life. While there in body, my mind was somewhere else. Numbing myself may have helped me to survive life’s emotional turbulence, but it masked my pain and sorrow. So there was no motivation to change.
Am I making sense?
Novak Djokovic, among the grittiest of tennis players, once commented, "the very fact that I came from literally nothing and difficult life circumstances…gong back to that, reminding myself where I came from always inspires me, motivates me to push even harder.”
Unhappiness, therefore, is both your sorrow and your salvation. But the intensity of sorrow can only come from within, from your own internal existential pressure.
Who am I? Why are we here? Is this all there is to life?
In this way, sorrow is your guardian, your watchman. Wherever you do not look, you will continue to experience distress.
Starting your spiritual quest may be difficult. But once you see that there is no other way, you understand what you must do. You have to go that way. So it is simple. It is only a matter of seeing the need.
But without enough intensity, looking at oneself is the hardest thing, the most difficult thing. So it is the urgency of your situation - the pain, the suffering, the sorrow - that compels you to inquire within. Once you see the urgency and the need, looking is simple, the most obvious path. In fact, it becomes the only path. And inquiring is no longer difficult.
So what do you think? Are you ready to stand up for your life? Or do you still need one more day, one more week, one more month, one more year, or even one more decade of suffering before inquiring into your life? In other words, are you mad as hell yet? If not, you may not be ready for change.