If you’ve been wondering why there haven’t been many posts lately, it’s because I’ve been working on my new book, World Priest. Here’s a draft of one of the chapters:
There are two powerful forces in our lives—desire and fear. We are born with them. It is as though we are an electrically charged particle either attracting to or repelling from the ever-changing circumstances of our lives. Rarely, except in brief moments of clarity, do we experience peace—deep, soul-satisfying peace. And for those of us on the spiritual path, this predicament can be hell.
In fact, every move we make towards God seems to precipitate an encounter with the devil. Like Luke Skywalker in his training with Yoda, in order to become a great Jedi warrior, we must first face our deepest fears. As you may recall, Luke had to enter the cave of initiation where he would face his unknown terror. In order to pass the test, however, he had to do so without reacting. From deep within the cavern, Darth Vader emerged with his sword drawn. Luke was overcome with fear and struck out at the phantasm and thus failed the test. His fears, like ours, can seem so real.
Our desires can undo us just as thoroughly as our fears. When I was a young boy, periodically I would be overcome with an intense longing to connect. My heart seemed to swell out of my body, surrounding me with an aching desire for something I could neither see nor name. All of the beauty in the world would arch itself skyward, pulling me without instructing me towards some promise, some prize of fulfillment, some homecoming that I could not identify. The feeling was simultaneously intense and sad. Of course, my ten or eleven year-old brain could only interpret this as wanting a girlfriend, even though no human person could ever fill such a gaping hole. It was as though my internal magnet had suddenly been dialed all the way up, so high that nothing on Earth could satisfy its longing. More often than not, this unfulfilled desire would leave me feeling depressed and alone.
This feeling eventually became internalized (read: buried) and I began that eternal pursuit for happiness in the world. But it was like looking for an oasis in a desert. My desire led me to extremes in all areas of my life, as though I were trying to crack the world open with the sheer force of my longing, thinking that somewhere within it I would find gold. Fortunately, I found a spiritual teacher, and with the adept hand of an accomplished master, he led me out of the desert and into my heart. He gave me a way to channel my longing, to redirect my searching away from the Earth and into the stratosphere of spiritual attainment. The heavens opened up, and I finally found what I was seeking. What once had seemed like a chasm of unfulfillment now spread itself out before me like a vast, overhead vault of stellar brilliance. He brought me into the light and into direct contact with the face of God.
With this huge infusion of cash into my spiritual bank account came all the problems that people who win the lottery encounter when their lives are suddenly upended by good fortune. Many of these people wind up destitute, because they cannot adjust to the increased energy in their life. Their normal inability to manage money gets magnified exponentially, and all of their bad habits come out in force like unwanted relatives demanding their piece of the pie. The exact same thing happens when our consciousness is suddenly expanded by spiritual awakening. Everything left unattended makes itself known with a vengeance. Even when one’s training involves combing out most of the inner tangles, as did mine, a whole new layer of convoluted problems gets exposed. What normally would take lifetimes to emerge into one’s consciousness now surfaces like a whale at speed, spouting fury and mayhem in a crashing roar. Awakening, it turns out, comes with a price.
Spiritual work—the expansion of consciousness into divine realms—is like taking the resistance out of an electrical circuit. When you lower resistance, you increase current. When current is increased, everything is “amped up”—more heat, more light, more energy for all of the surprises which up until now have been safely locked away in Pandora’s Box. In short, all hell breaks loose! Spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have asked themselves, “Do I tell him what he’s in for, or not?” They default in the time-worn way. They dress the experience up in story form, pitting a young hero against insurmountable odds, going through trials and tribulations, even death, only to be resurrected in a glorious victory. Sound familiar?
With every awakening comes a trial, every spiritual advancement necessitates a campaign to clean up what floats to the surface. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, he is led into the wilderness to confront his demons. After his glorious encounter with the great ones of old on the Mount of Transfiguration, he is led into Jerusalem and Golgotha. When the light within us is turned up, all of the shadows get more intense. This is the blessing and the curse of spiritual awakening. It is why Jesus said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” and the 19th Century Indian mystic, Ramakrishna, said, “Do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond.” Anything short of this will not provide the momentum for your soul to achieve escape velocity from the cares of this world.
Here’s the kicker, the one thing that has proved the undoing of many a spiritual aspirant: You cannot talk your way out of this dilemma. No amount of intellectualization will defuse the demons that rear up as a result of you being energized by spiritual awakening. It doesn’t matter how many books you read or how many seminars you attend, there are no substitutes for the pick-and-shovel inner work you are going to have to do to clean this up. What you are dealing with is deeply ontological, and it is on that level that you are going to have to engage.
Fortunately, there’s a way out. It is clearly spelled out in the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness—clearly if you know how to read it. First, you have to recognize that there is no external “devil” tempting Jesus. This is strictly an inside job. The temptations arise from within Jesus himself. These are his own unresolved issues that he has to deal with before he can embark on his mission as teacher and messiah. If he didn’t have unresolved issues, he would not have been able to overcome them, and we would not have a “way” to resolve them in ourselves. This is the “sacrifice” made by the Christ Being when It came to Earth in a physical body—to undergo the human experience in order to raise it up to its divine potential.
The temptations, three in number, are roughly this—satisfying physical appetites, succumbing to fear, and arrogance. Turn these stones into bread; throw yourself off of this cliff; use your powers to rule the world. The exact same issues come up for Siddhartha at the time of his enlightenment—the sexual advances of Mara’s daughters; a barrage of arrows flying at his head; the feelings of obligation to rule as his father’s heir to the throne. Understanding this precedent in the life of the Buddha helps us to understand the Three Temptations of Christ.
The important element in both of these accounts is this—neither Buddha nor Jesus resorted to intellectualization to solve their problems. They didn’t try to talk their way out of the situation. Instead, they appealed to a higher power. In all three stages of Jesus’ process, rather than argue with the devil, he quotes Scripture. He doesn’t give his reasons why he won’t give in, instead he lifts his consciousness to God. It was as though he connected one end of a wire to his inner conflicts and the other end to heaven. He equalized the potential through the medium of his own consciousness. Buddha did the same when he “touched the Earth.” This is how we do it. We don’t grapple with our problems. We lift them up to God.
When we find ourselves in the grip of our desires and our fears, it is our devotion that saves us. It is the power of the heart, not the mind, that grounds us in heaven. We need only to look up, to change the direction of our attention, taking it off of the situation and placing on that which is higher. How? Through meditation. This is the workshop of spiritual awakening. We go within. We take each issue as it arises, whether of fear or desire, and lift it up as we would a chalice at the altar. We lift it up and connect it to God’s consciousness, the infinite creative power of the Universe. We lift it up with the same intensity of feeling that a small child has when she strains to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen counter. That’s how badly we want it. We reach with our heart, not with our mind. This is devotion.
Luckily, we’re not always struggling with our fears and desires. But this shouldn’t keep us from reaching up to God with our heart on a regular basis. We stay in shape. We don’t wait until the morning of the race to work out. We train everyday so that when a crisis comes, we’re prepared. Too often, we wait until we are in the soup before we turn to God, and then we wonder why it’s so hard to rise above our problems. We need to make it a consistent practice, not just a port in a storm. We turn our relationship with God into a love affair—God as lover, not as sugar daddy.
It is through our devotion to God that we are “saved,” not the strength of our mind. The brain is fragile; the heart is an indomitable muscle. It’s easy to be loyal when you’re in love. Connect with God—be in love!
I loved this and touching and timely (for me) article, you have hooked me in…blessings
Thank you, thank you. This is so well said. It is only after such “ordeals” that they make sense.
Brilliantly written Michael. What you say sounds so familiar. I didn’t have the words to explain what I was going through to those not on the path. It’s great to see words that understand the depths of the journey.