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I told you there'd be more

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is a woman in a film that one of my professors showed us. She had advanced leprosy, had lost facial features and limbs, but when someone asked her how her life was, she said she was full of joy because life was beautiful and God was with her. At the time it was incomprehensible to me, I saw it as delusional – a defense mechanism against the harshness of reality.

But now I think something else entirely. Life can be physically and emotionally ecstatic when we’re connected to ourselves and to our source, and I think that we are capable of remaining connected even when we’re in terrible physical, emotional, or mental pain. Even if my foot is aching, the rest of my body can still feel good. Breathing feels good. My aching foot doesn’t nullify that experience. Some pain is probably more insistent, but I think it’s amazing that this woman whose life was unbelievably terrible by most “standards”, had an ecstatic experience of life.

I think that pain is most frightening when we are cut off from our source (which I can only reach from within myself) and feel totally alone. Some people find that suffering strips them of belief – if God loves them, why do the innocent suffer?

Innocent or not, I have experienced emotional and mental pain, all the more because I didn’t believe in anything beyond my awareness. For me the key word is “believe”. I did not reach this different place in my spiritual journey by changing my beliefs. My experience of existence changed. I don’t believe in God, I am experiencing God. For me, experience is not contingent upon a belief or lack of belief. Hopefully this means that as my awareness expands, I don’t have to fight my own self-imposed boundaries. I don’t believe, I experience. That means I also don’t have to argue with anyone else about the validity of my experience, since it’s entirely subjective. If I share my experience, some people will find it interesting, some will label me deluded, and with others it will resonate. This doesn’t change my experience, and it is not meant to change anyone else’s.

All the same, I wonder if belief is easier to maintain during difficult times. I’m finding that when I’m stressed out or depressed, my connection to spirit is tenuous at best. I find myself grasping, trying to re-capture the sense of happiness and peace I’ve experienced lately. It turns out that a shift in my perspective does not obliterate all of my baggage in one fell swoop. Damn.

Instead of grasping, I’m trying to remember a few basic things: I can only find peace within myself, it does not come from externalities. I don’t have to cling to suffering, I can let it go when it’s told me whatever it’s there to convey. I can let go of the illusion that I can control things that I cannot. The ego is a tricky thing — it sneaks back into the equation when you’re not looking, and convinces you that your limited awareness is the sum of reality.

Last week I got into Baylor Law School for the spring. My ego, tricky little bastard that it is, told me that this meant I was destined to go there, and that everything was working out because of my newfound spiritual resonance. Silly rabbit. Then I found out that Baylor was giving me exactly nothing in scholarships, and to pay for it I would have to max out my student loans for thee years and take out additional supplemental loans. The degree would cost me 90k. Suddenly Baylor did not look like my pre-destined path. And my ego decided that it must be because I did something wrong – didn’t study for the LSAT enough, got over-confident. It felt like my fate was rejecting me, and it stung.

But here’s the thing: it’s always a trap when you think good things happen to you because you’re good, and bad things happen to you (or someone else) because you (or they) are bad. If the Universe is guiding us through multiple incarnations to enlightenment, as the Upanishads say, or God has a plan, as many Christians believe, the point is we’re really not going to see the point when we’re up close to it. Our egos like to feel like they understand, that they’re in some kind of control, but they’re not. My ego wanted to believe that Baylor was the plan, because my ego really dislikes the unknown, but the flip side of that over simplification is the emotional smackdown I end up taking when things do not go as I desire them to. I feel that, as the Upanishads say, God or Self is beyond duality, and our egos are all about duality. Something I need to remember the next time I convince myself that suffering=punishment and pleasure=reward.

Pema Chodron says that life is a big, smelly, interesting mess of experiences, and that none of them, whether they are pleasant or painful, are intrinsically bad. They’re just the stuff of life. Literally.

1 comment to I told you there'd be more

  • Sr. Benedicta

    You know, I have been thinking a lot about this post since reading it some time ago.Though it does resonsate with me on a deep level, something keeps permeating this resonance with a murky, undefined uncertainty. This will be somewhat rambling and probably incoherent but I will try. Just stay with me here.

    I agree with you that it essentially comes down to the experience of God rather than a belief (though an argument can be made here that this, in itself, is something of a semantics issue) and that this experience is independent of external traditional expressions of religion. I also agree that it seems to increase our sense of suffering when we are confined to our own ego’s conception of the dimensions of reality. I also agree whole-heartedly with P. Chodron’s assertion about the inherent (objective) neutrality of the experiences of life. The murkiness sets in with the woman with leprosy and her ecstatic experience of life. I saw an interview with P. Chodron in which she relates that she was brought to her path as a Buddhist nun (after having sought in other traditions)after the world-altering experience of her divorce. She spoke about something that I have often experienced in my own life and that is having the existential rug pulled completely out from underneath my feet. I think that most experiences that we associate with suffering are connected in varying degrees with this losing the context points which makes our lives seem coherent. The teaching of “impermanence” in Buddhism and the exhortation of “keeping death daily before your eyes” of Christianity attempts, in a sense, to bring that which occurs naturally in times of deep crises into our normal, seemingly secure existance. It tries to school us in this feeling at home in goundlessness and change even when our feet are on the ground and things are comparatively stable. I think it is how we deal with this total shift of our coherence points which indicate the level and length of the subjective aspect suffering. By the way, though I do agree with you that we must let go of the suffering after we have learned this its lessons, how is that achieved? There are some losses, like that of my brother, which can cut into me like it was just yesterday. I do not sit around and mope about him but it has changed my life in a way that has tinged it perpetually somewhat gray. I do not hold on to it but it is there. I do believe that times of deep suffering teach us like no other times extremely important lessons and it is vital to learn along with those lessons how to weave them into the larger design of the tapestry of our lives so that they belong to it.

    I do not know about the lady in the film. There are blessed souls on this planet who are truly “simple” (and I mean this in a positive manner) souls and are somehow connected to the source very naturally or simply accept their lot without thinking about the different aspects of it. We have a sister from Croatia who is very much like this. She has suffered much during the war but is very complacent about all that has happened in her life. Sometimes it disturbs me because she does not stand up for herself when she is being mistreated. She tells me that it is God’s will for her that she experience that and, though she suffers, this belief helps her through it. But now, strangely enough, I think she suffers more because in the past she was not aware of a different way of thinking about it. It all becomes very distorted to me. I do not know. My friend David Tibet told me that he left Buddhism after many years because the level of fatalism in the predominantly Buddhist countries where he had lived troubled him. So where is all of this rambling headed? I suppose it is the question of the “ecstatic” experience of living, as you termed it. To me there is a VERY fine line between true ecstatic connection which empowers and an sort of hidden fatalism which makes impotent. If it is not the guarantee of following a spiritual tradition, how does one connect ultimately to the source? (It is my belief that all traditions are word and thought constructions which give a semantic definition of a particular shared spiritual experience.) I have been a seeker of this connection all of my life. It was for me very natural in my childhood and even into my teenage years when I sensed the divine most clearly in nature. While seeking in Wicca and later in Zen and ultimately in Christianity there have been long periods where I have experienced this connectedness. It has also been my experience that this has been diminished by the Roman Catholic tradition with its emphasis on “one Truth,” hierarchy, dogma, intellect etc. where there is little place for the body or the “ecstatic” or mystical soul. (They were usually the heretics… and so I find myself in a long tradition of worthies.) Completely independent of tradition, though, what opens a person to this door of connectedness or trancendence and closes it to another? Like you, yourself, have experienced and written after seeking for many years this unexpected sense of the source. Do we stand in our own way or is it something else? I do not know.

    I will cease rambling now.

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