A few years ago I was going through a period of prolonged inner tension. For work purposes, my wife and I had lived apart for some time and developed our own rhythms. I had been on one career track and was changing course to live in a new situation, a new job, a new city.
There was both relief and renewed tension in this life change. We were also adjusting to life with a newborn and trying to find our footing. I had taken steps in recent years to address long standing destructive patterns and addictions, but here I was out of rhythm and found old mental-emotional patterns returning. Dark moods born from regret, resentment, or anxieties about parenthood were easily triggered.
A falling out with an old friend led to a couple months of a sense of intense loneliness and disorientation, made worse no doubt by the lack of sleep at night. With that prolonged insomnia, it can be difficult to assess the roots of our emotional state, and they can oscillate wildly.
In the city I had lived in before I had built up some amount of regular and healthy community and intimate confidants, but this support structure was gone.
During this time I had already been practicing Centering Prayer for several years and had a least some capacity for distance and release on a daily basis, but it wasn’t a cure-all. Instead it provided a space to be open to a process of healing from old wounds and destructive thought patterns.
I noticed the drastic difference in my state of mind when I was able to practice twice daily. I would slide fairly quickly back into negative thought patterns with no practice at all.
Then during a weekend to myself and a well timed book, something shifted internally. It was as if the years of practice had been digging the hard earth and here was some ground water bubbling up. There was a genuine internal sense that resistance to any situation in life was a huge source of suffering, and completely generated by my own mind.
It was like a pilot emerging from a thunderstorm into clear, open skies.
I had a deep internal sense, probably for the first time, that happiness as an abiding state was available. And it was available, not through achievement, or perfect love, or the ideal relationship, or the right mix of health and exercise and friendships and leisure, or anything external whatsoever. Only through the realization that the gift has already been given. That deep in our inmost being, once we’ve let go of external striving and entered into a profound state of acceptance in the moment, balance, and wholeness.
They come not through acquiring: jobs, titles, stature, admiration, affection, desire, but through divestiture, a letting go. This was a true breakthrough experience, offering a kind of 360 view of life, meaning, and death.
This realization and the state of deep inner balance that resulted from it, though they lasted several weeks, weren’t permanent.
Old patterns crept back in. At times even more deeply. Two writers in particular shed some light on this dynamic of the non-linear rhythm of the spiritual path.
The first is Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating. In several of his writings he refers to the spiral staircase that moves both upward toward purity and union, but also downward, toward the confrontation and emptying of the psychological unconscious. It’s a rhythm of ascent, but also of corresponding descent, as if to hit the next plateau of spiritual development, we have to confront the corresponding layer of inner shadow and unconscious attachments. Even after breakthroughs and mountaintop experiences, there will likely be an even deeper valley to walk through.
The other author is Ken Wilber, who distinguishes between states and stages of consciousness in his integral theory. We may have moments, experiences, or glimpses into some of these higher states, a time of genuine letting go, but we typically still have to walk a diligent path of growing awareness, through the other stages with their pitfalls, of learning, of walking toward wholeness before we can enter into this awareness as a more permanent state if being.
In all of the contemplative traditions this involves an increasing dis-identification with the limited self and its perceived mental-emotional needs. Our awareness expands to ever broader horizon. But the limited ego keeps trying to trip us up by grabbing onto limited and transient forms of fulfillment. That’s why the practice or path is also called the Great Letting Go. To achieve the kind of freedom the mystics talk about requires a diligent attentive letting go on a daily basis.
But, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, the strain, or the pain, is all a part of the process.