Emotional Challenges in Spiritual Life

My depression — “melancholia”, when I’m feeling poetic — is worst when I deny the place it holds in my life. This is not peculiar to me, nor to the experience of depression. What we today call, illogically, “positive” emotions are at their best when we know that they are passing, and their “negative” counterparts are at their worst when we try to grasp at “peace” or “happiness”.

This is not yet another lecture on that old chestnut that life is only sweet because of death’s bitterness, however true this may be. It is not so much to say that darkness lets us recognize light, but that darkness is an ontologically necessary attenuation of light. When we try to separate life’s experiences according to “positive” and “negative”, we are slicing away the nuance which makes those experiences, relative as they are, in any way meaningful. Though it may not be especially fun at the time, I have come to value those spans of depression as the invigorating chill breeze of late winter, or the fallow period which encourages growth by its very (seeming) emptiness.

Religion is seen, today, as so much unnecessarily rigid discipline, while “spirituality” is thought to be freedom and bliss. But, in reality, the belief in such a shallow freedom to do, say, think, or feel anything is only a delusion; more, it is a delusion which leads inevitably either to violent inner repression of “negativity”, or to disappointment and a deep sense of failure as the house of cards falls from the slightest shift of circumstance. Such a spirituality lacks the tension necessary to achieve anything lasting or meaningful. It is devoid of the sort of relational framework which demands humility and challenges our all-too-natural narcissism.

The challenges and inner conflicts of religious life will stir up a mess of hidden fantasies, unresolved emotions, combative impulses, and muddy thoughts; a reflecting pool is not clean if all the dirt has merely settled to the bottom, and is not thus peaceful because it is stagnant. I have heard it pithily put that, “If meditation and Yoga only relax you, you’re doing something wrong.”

This is not to say that all mental and emotional states are “right”, but that they all have meaning and context. It is thus better to be honestly and sincerely aggressive than to “fake peace” and be passive-aggressive. It is only by being honest about anger, frustration, sadness, grief, hopelessness, and so on, that we can ever sublimate them in the stream of kundalinī-śakti or “spiritual energy.” Denial, like wallowing, passion, and pride, is just a form of grasping.

This is part of why the Bible, Mahābhārata, and other scriptures, contain such challenging passages of war, betrayal, human frailty, dismay, loss, and murder. If a spiritual approach does not confront us with our own shadow and force us to look deeply, examine, analyze, synthesize, and find meaning, we can never come to the stage of making peace. Any claim of peace before that process has exhausted itself is just another lie we tell ourselves.

Paradoxically, we have to abandon the notion that we can do it all by our own power in order to find ourselves infused with the power necessary in reaching the goal. Then, it is a matter of giving up the notion of the goal! “Self-power” and “other-power” are not different, except we make them so by misperception; and, to know the End, we must stand at the Beginning.

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