Awakening and the Value of Being Disturbed


Small doubt, small enlightenment,
Big doubt, big enlightenment.
– Zen Saying.

I’ve met many spiritual practitioners recently who have stopped watching the news and reading the papers because they felt it was a negative influence on their lives and worldview. In fact just the other day I saw a Facebook post from a popular Western yoga teacher encouraging people to switch off the news.

It’s not hard to see why shunning the media is popular with those on a spiritual path; apart from the bias, limited coverage and implicit fear-mongering, there is another more fundamental reason: it’s disturbing.

And regardless of the spin, the images we see each evening show real men, women and children undergoing exasperating degrees of hardship and heartbreak, which challenge our most fundamental views of government, society and morality.

It’s easier just to stop watching.

But such avoidance is symptomatic of the love-and-light spirituality of the contemporary West which stays away from anything that could shake or disrupt our well earned inner-calm. In short, we turn off the news because it’s upsetting and being upset isn’t nice.

And here lies the confusion: We have identified spirituality with feeling good.

To a staggering degree our spirituality is self-centered. Our goal is to maintain our wellbeing and positivity and we will go to great lengths to avoid exposure to anything which makes us feel disturbed.

But if we are genuinely interested in Awakening then the experience of being disturbed is of the utmost value. It’s not something we should avoid, but something to work with at every opportunity.

You see, feeling disturbed is how we wake up. Suffering, confusion and chaos provide the motivation to investigate our experience and distinguish the real from the false, imagination from actuality.

Without this motivation we sleep our lives away, lazily gravitating towards the path of least resistance, recoiling from difficult experiences at all cost.

This avoidance has a name: ego.

Ego is another way to describe being asleep and whether we class ourselves as spiritual or not, we humans invest an incredible amount of physical and mental energy attempting to preserve and protect this “Safe Zone” of ego.

We’ve assumed that enlightenment is the same a feeling good about ourselves, and so we don’t see this attachment as a problem, we see it as the goal. This makes it a blind spot and if we can’t see it, we can’t wake up from it.

By protecting our Safe-Zone we call ourselves spiritual and stay asleep. We have mistaken the prison cell for the palace. This is not spirituality, this is the (short lived) bliss of ignorance and the two are often confused.

Genuine Awakening comes from deep crisis and doubt. It may go against our treasured notions of self-help but waking up usually involves breaking down. It doesn’t just shake our Safe-Zone, it tears it apart.

We do not wake up because we want to feel good about ourselves. We wake up because we cannot live another moment without knowing the truth of who and what we are. It’s not a new-age party, it’s an existential emergency.

We’re led to believe that through yoga and meditation we will enjoy a lasting personal transformation, becoming a new and uplifted person, but actually the “person” is transforming in each and every moment. There is only transformation because it is the only thing the universe does.

The real shift is much more terrifying. It’s not that we undergo a personal change but that we see clearly that there is no person to change. The individual who wants to develop through yoga and meditation does not exist and has never existed. Instead there is only reality, now appearing as this, now appearing as that, without preference, avoidance or clinging.

It expresses itself as everything whilst attaching itself to nothing.

It’s for this reason that although the term ‘Awakening’ is now common in the modern West, very few of us actually want to wake up. We want to stay asleep, hidden under as many blankets as possible.

Who would choose to jump into the abyss?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy and secure and if that is our motivation then I too advise you to switch your TV off. But for those who want more than happiness and security, for those who are bored with the stale Safe-Zone of ego, then feeling shaken by the universe is an opportunity to open into a deeper freedom.

This freedom is not outside of you but inside of you. It is who you are before you remember your name or story. It has no preference or boundary and requires no added happiness or security.

It impersonally transcends and intimately embraces all experience equally and effortlessly.

When we cling to feeling good, our spirituality stalls and becomes another obstacle to the taste of freedom. But when we’re brave enough to step beyond our preference, in the name of truth, reality or god, then we allow life to shake us awake, one experience at a time.

The terror and turmoil we feel leads us on a direct path back into the heart of what we always are, cured from the suffering of separation, time and enlightenment.

For as Master Hongzhi tells us, “The poison, seen rightly, is just medicine.”

*Picture above: Ramesh Balsekar in his Bombay high-rise watching Television.

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