Last week I read about Kodo Sawaki, a zen master who apparently called himself the most deluded human being in the world, that is why he must meditate. This is why I appreciate zen — it is about cultivating the capacity to see reality as what it is, rather than perpetuating a narrative about an unattainable state.
The more I am able to see reality for what it is, the more I am able to see myself for who I am. The sight is not pretty, and it is worse than I thought. But perhaps one would rather know where the hidden land mines are, even if it takes away the former illusion of safety and the spirit to walk freely. It can be tiring, to try to avoid stepping on mines with every step of the way, so tiring that I am inclined to walk right into them even if they injure me again and again, just so I can keep up the illusion that I am free to walk anywhere I want.
It is a strange kind of freedom, a freedom that comes from knowing and accepting that we are almost never truly free. We become free from aspiring for states we would never reach, and instead if we’re lucky we would expend our energies on things that are within reach instead.
But I have discovered repeatedly that this journey is not linear as I find myself returning to unhealthy habitual old ways simply because it seems easier. They say ignorance is blissful, and we can choose this sort of bliss if we’re willing to pay the price. Sometimes I think it is almost a clear choice of accepting the pain that comes from truth, and the pain that comes from chronic self-sabotage.
But there is a risk of backfiring if we try to walk too quickly on this journey. I think the quest for spiritual strength is similar to physical strength. Exert our muscles too much, and we risk burnout and regressing. Finding the correct speed to operate on is mini-quest in itself: it requires growing the capacity to be aware of our selves.
I have learnt that when it comes to my physical health the reason why I always seemed to fall badly sick is because I am not tuned into the seemingly subtle signs my body give me when I am approaching ill health. These days I am trying to be extra paranoid when it comes to signs of fatigue. Previously I may go about and stop only at the brink of exhaustion, now I seek restoration once I am 50% tired. I wonder if this applies too when it comes to growing spiritual strength?
What is this spiritual strength I am writing about? It is neither religious or mystical. I am describing the strength to accept reality and truth, to remain spirited when the going gets tough, yet accepting our fragility when the situation calls for it, the willingness to encounter failure, and the will to pick oneself up when we fall. To be capable of not taking things personally, to discern what is really happening versus believing things are happening for us, to be equanimous instead of being petty, to be aware of how much our psyche and memories have influence over our behaviour, to elongate the pause between our feelings and actions. This sounds a lot like Stoicism I guess, but these are also qualities in Zen/Buddhism and perhaps the ideal outcome of psychotherapy.
For me the purpose of cultivating spiritual strength is not moral, but rather I believe it is the most effective way to thrive. Life is too short to spend time on things that do not matter, it is waste of time, energy and potential to be governed by our undirected psychological impulses.
For many of us, our thoughts and beliefs are not ours, but conditioned. I believe it is a worthwhile and perhaps lifelong journey to find out if we can truly generate thoughts of our own choosing, not thoughts incepted by our societies, cultures and upbringing. Isn’t it a curious thing to know if we can grow or uncover an actual self, instead of a self that is a consequence of beliefs we don’t even seek to question if they are ours? Why do we want what we want?
p.s I asked the partner to read a draft of this post and draw whatever she wanted – a huge leap for me since I am a closet control freak when it comes to the images that accompany my post. I had not titled it, and as it turns out we are pretty in sync. We both need a sort of letting go when it comes to our creativity.