Real Spiritual Work

"The real goal of a spiritual tradition should not be ascent, but openness, vulnerability, and this does not require great experiences but, on the contrary, very ordinary ones. Charisma is easy; presence, self-remembering, is terribly difficult, and where the real work lies."

- Morris Berman


One of the main goals of every spiritual aspirant is to achieve enlightenment, or as with many "new agers", at least some form of altered state of consciousness leading to a mystical experience. Berman calls this "ascent", or an elevation of consciousness. Yet, as he says, real spirituality comes from changing our own way of being. Charisma, which is used in the old sense of being imbued by spirit, is easy, he says, and indeed, it either comes to you or it doesn't. No effort is really required. What Berman prescribes for spiritual advancement is "openness, vulnerability" and his method, which he calls "terribly difficult", consists of "presence, self-remembering".

The more esoteric, that is to say, eastern spiritual traditions emphasize that the main impediment standing between us and knowing our true Self is simply our ego, and there are a variety of remedies, ranging from meditation to service, as a way of transcending our false self. Berman says the goal should be "openness, vulnerability", which implies that our normal way of being is to be closed-off and defensive. Psychologists call this armoring. The ego has one primal goal, and that is survival. It, and this really means our subconscious processes, wants to avoid hurt and pain. Our self-esteem, self-image, and sense of belonging are tied up in how others treat us, so to varying extents, we throw up protective devices to ensure any potential damage isn't too severe.

Spiritual masters say that we are really three people: the one we think we are, the one others think we are, and the one we really are. The one we really are is simple, that is, the soul that lies behind our appearances. The one others think we are is governed by many factors, but exists primarily as a result of their perceptions of our behavior. To the extent that we aren't open, others are left with making their own interpretations of what we're like rather than becoming involved in a communication that clarifies our motives and expectations. Others also perceive us based on their own experiences and expectations, so that they tend to see in others what they see in their own self. While openness leads to communication and enhanced understanding, it is still no guarantee that misconceptions might not arise. That's because there is the person we think we are, and that's who we try to present to the world. Communicating with a false front is seldom fruitful. Seeing yourself as you really are, or how other people see you requires what Berman calls presence.

We spend much of our time in a fantasy land, imagining that we're someone we're not, based primarily on our tendency to see only those aspects of ourselves that we deem good or pleasing, while ignoring about ourselves those things we would rather not face. We might even pretend that our actions have different consequences than their real outcome if that outcome doesn't fit the image of our self we prefer. We might even blame others for causing our behavior if it doesn't fit the idealized person we imagine the world sees. To actually see ourselves as we are requires that we face ourselves, to be in our own presence. As Berman says, that's terribly difficult because it shatters our ego's pretenses, which it takes as a threat to its survival. The "real work", as Berman terms it, requires adopting a ruthlessly honest way of being, and that entails avoiding the tendency to slip into that persona that we want to project to others lest we come to really believe it. "Self-remembering", to use Berman's phrase, means being
 constantly aware of our own in-authenticity when it arises. The ego will always defend itself and opt for easy choices.

The spiritual master enjoins us to see the divinity in others, and to love each other as Gods. To love God is to love other people. What separates us from each other is, of course, the ego and it's fears. Openness leads to vulnerability, yet openness signifies that we trust not only that others won't hurt us, but also that they can't hurt us. So openness does lead to the ego's vulnerability, but never the soul's. People exploit vulnerability for their own ends, so it's difficult to be too open in a world where you can be hurt and manipulated. Yet, totally open people live the qualities that everyone from Jesus to Sai Baba insists we develop. Open people are givers. In fact, they take great joy in giving of themselves and what they have to share. They remember that other people are divine and worthy of love. Open people act out love for others, yet remember to leave the outcome to God. They have no desire to get love in return, nor to avoid negativity. They simply do what love requires and take the outcome with equanimity. Openness is the hallmark of love and trust, not so much in others, but rather in God, and mostly, yourself.

On the other hand, people who are totally closed off in fear are afraid to give. To give may lead to obligation, which might ensnare their ego into relationships they don't want. People who are closed off in fear are afraid to express gratitude because it may be interpreted as being obligated. What's more, it seems too much like weakness, and suggests neediness, which is not ego enhancing. People who are closed off are loathe to admit they make mistakes or hurt others because it doesn't live up to the image they want to believe of themselves. So they won't face their mistakes, and even if they do, will not admit them to anyone. To do so could provide justification for retaliation. People who are closed off are terribly self-righteous. The barriers they put up prevent communication, and that allows one's beliefs and fantasies to go unchallenged. In their isolation, they can avoid the possibility of being wrong, and in their self-righteousness, they can judge others. Being closed off is the hallmark of a person totally preoccupied with protecting their ego.

Completely open people are rare. People who are completely closed are probably more common simply because being completely open requires the "terribly difficult" work Berman mentions, while being completely closed is usually the result of traumas in our formative years or even in past-lives. In some cases, the trauma results in neurotic behavior or a hostility, conscious or subconscious, towards whole groups and genders. Such people require healing just to reach the point where they can learn to go beyond the normal human ego restraints and enter into the spiritual work Berman mentions. People who are not healed, but attempt the spiritual work, usually wind up confused and frustrated. They may go back to the way of being which they understand and feel comfortable with.

Most of us, however, are somewhere in between the extremes. We are open to those we love, the friends we truly care for, and those whose love we would like to cultivate. We are typically closed towards those we fear or distrust because of past behavior, those who annoy us, groups we've been conditioned to dislike, and those whose life-style or values are beyond our understanding and approval. Sometimes we meet people we've known in past-lives, and we can either open quickly, or close down just as fast, depending on the karmic history. And in most cases, we never completely open, preferring to hold back our innermost feelings and experiences rather than make ourselves vulnerable to judgment, rejection, ridicule, or condemnation.

Learning to be open and vulnerable requires ordinary experiences, as Berman notes. Life is constantly presenting us with opportunities to open our hearts regardless. We meet difficult people, we are rejected or betrayed by those we love or want to be loved by, and we may be put together with someone whom we don't understand and automatically judge harshly. We may want to avoid all those people, and having them come into our life may result in discomfort or even pain. Yet, the spiritual path doesn't consist of learning esoteric truths, or having mystical experiences, or magically manipulating reality to achieve those ends the ego would  prefer.

 Nor does it mean we have to put up with unpleasant or negative people. If they are abusive, we shouldn't remain in their company. But it means we have to open our hearts, give love, give compassion, and pray for their highest good. It means that the pain or discomfort we may feel can be transcended by focusing on the divinity of the other person, offering the situation to God, and if possible, trying to communicate and understand the other's point of view. It doesn't mean trying not to think about such people, it doesn't mean not caring how they feel, and it doesn't mean trying to avoid them. We should welcome the opportunity to grow spiritually and in love, even if it is terribly difficult. It means accepting them for who they are, but not accepting ourselves for who we are. We can't change people, but we can change ourselves. We can't change people, but we can offer a loving way of being as an inspiration. This work entails taking risks with our hearts, it entails becoming emotionally vulnerable, yet accepting whatever outcome our efforts engender, because caring takes openness. In the end, we may not succeed entirely, but any progress we make towards the goal of unconditional love is significant, and we should thank God for giving us the opportunity.

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