The spiritual path takes discipline and determination. For most of our lives, our ego has been running the show and would like to stay in charge. The ego will talk us out of meditating, will tell us we are too tired for our yoga practice. It will tell us that we are too busy to attend a workshop, or shouldn’t invest money in a class on spirituality. As we shift our attention from ego to Spirit, our Spirit slowly asserts itself as the primary guiding force in our lives. This is the purpose of spiritual practice.
Discipline and determination are necessary. However, suffering is entirely optional!
Engaging in regular spiritual practice can be a real battle. The ego throws its tantrum – it tells us that tomorrow is a better day, that we deserve a day off. When we do meditate, for example, the ego can make us mentally or physically uncomfortable – our mind races, we feel anxious, and we squirm and twitch as we try to become still and focused. But underneath the discomfort, there is still a sense that we are doing something good for ourselves. Underneath the resistance, there is a quiet feeling of joy – we are doing it! We are allowing our Spirit to take a bigger role in our lives!
If that sense of joy and accomplishment isn’t there, then we’re just torturing ourselves.
There are many, many different spiritual traditions and practices. All of them are valuable – but not all of them are appropriate for everyone.Â Â To me, yoga is the spiritual practice equivalent of chocolate cake.Â On the other hand, I took six or seven Tai Chi classes and disliked every minute.Â As spiritual seekers we must learn to discern between resistance created by the ego, and truly unnecessary discomfort created by inappropriate spiritual practice. Only you can tell the difference.
In the summer of 2000, I went on a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. Twelve hours or so of daily meditation and complete silence for ten days may sound like a nightmare to some. Twice a day we were asked to sit for an hour without moving a muscle. That sounds like torture, right? I found it unbelievable challenging. I also loved it! Even when I wanted to run screaming from the meditation hall, I knew that being there was making a huge difference. There was struggle, but I felt that the struggle had a purpose. And there were days where I was completely overwhelmed by bliss.Â I was in discomfort, but I was not suffering.
On the other hand, I was once asked by a spiritual teacher to engage in a practice that involved staying up all night, meditating. I was to do this once a week for four weeks in a row. It didn’t sound like fun, but I gamely gave it a try. By about 1 a.m., the whole exercise felt pointless. As prepared as I was to sacrifice a good night’s sleep, I felt stupid sitting there in the middle of the night. There was no joy, no sense of accomplishment. Staying up was feeling like needless self-torture.Â I went to bed, and never completed the assignment.
The idea that what we can only attain what we want through suffering prevails throughout our society. “No pain, no gain,” right? There are many religions and spiritual disciplines that uphold suffering as a path to God. If our spiritual practice is really difficult, then it must be working, right? That which does not kill us, makes us stronger! If we are not careful, we end up priding ourselves on what we’ve overcome for the sake of our spiritual growth. Suffering becomes a badge of honor.
We must remember that suffering is not the point! Yes, we can expect a certain amount of resistance from the ego. That resistance can look like emotional, mental, or physical discomfort. The ego challenges us and tests our will. On the spiritual path, this resistance may be the first and most obvious thing we encounter. And so we can easily come to equate this resistance and discomfort with spiritual growth.
But sometimes a spiritual practice simply makes us resistant and uncomfortable because it truly does not serve us! How can we know the difference?
1. Muster the discipline to give spiritual practice an honest try. The ego will try to talk you out of anything that allows Spirit to take charge of your life. Therefore, if you are highly resistant to a spiritual practice – meditation, tai chi, yoga, you name it – this may be caused by the ego. Do it anyway. Try it wholeheartedly. Observe the chatter in your mind: “This is stupid, I don’t like this, I’m bored and tired.” Your mind is going to say those things. Keep going anyway.
2. During your practice, you may feel emotionally stirred up.Â Sometimes negative emotions rise to the surface through spiritual practice. This can be uncomfortable.Â Keep going anyway.
3. Underneath all of this mental and emotional resistance, you will find a quiet, determined will to persevere.Â It may not be immediately obvious.Â It may take a few days of regular practice, even!Â But there it is – a peaceful oasis in the storm of resistance.Â There is certainty and joy here.Â As you continue your practice, this oasis expands and the storm diminishes.Â As you focus more and more on this certainty and joy, the storm of the ego becomes unimportant.Â It may still be there, but we don’t care.Â There is resistance – but there is no suffering.
4. Underneath the mental and emotional resistance, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction.Â You feel silly, maybe even a little stupid.Â You’d be happy to put up even with these sensations, but you simply cannot summon an inkling of satisfaction or joy.Â You feel as if you are not honoring who you are, or that you are doing yourself a disservice.Â If you continue, you will simply be suffering.Â This spiritual practice is not for you!Â You are not being lazy.Â You are not lacking courage.Â Quitting now means exercising spiritual discernment and taking responsibility for your own path.
Spiritual evolution means engaging in spiritual practice – but only if our practice truly serves our growth and expansion.Â Resistance is part of that growth.Â Suffering, on the other hand, is entirely optional.
Have you ever suffered through a spiritual practice because you thought it was “good” for you?Â What practices have you walked away from?Â Which ones have you embraced in spite of discomfort – and found joy?Â Leave your comments and share!
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