Become a Fan
Many of us entertain a strong belief that our personal problems stand in the way of our spiritual growth. Some of us even believe that the work of spiritual development or self-transformation has to do with getting rid of what we perceive as our problems, of what we most fear or despise in ourselves. This essay eplores these assumptions.
Many of us entertain a strong belief that our personal problems stand in the way of our spiritual growth. Some of us even believe that the work of spiritual development or self-transformation has to do with getting rid of what we perceive as our problems, of what we most fear or despise in ourselves.
This viewpoint rests on several major, but interrelated, assumptions. We assume, for example, that personal problems are undesirable, and that the fewer problems we have in our lives the better off we are. We also assume that our problems are, for the most part, unnecessary, and that we should be able to control our lives sufficiently to eradicate or at least minimize them.
Our Belief in Progress
Though we may not be aware of it, these assumptions arise from a mostly unconscious, underlying belief in “progress,” a belief that in fact fuels the various industrial, technological, and social engines of modern society and culture. We look around at the many industrial and technological marvels in our lives, comparing what we see with what we know of earlier generations, and we assume that these marvels represent positive change. We assume that they have solved important problems, and that we are all somehow better off as a result.
When we look deeper, however, we see something quite different. We see that along with these changes has come a whole new set of problems at every level of our lives. Every change has brought with it consequences of which we had no comprehension, and which have frequently further complicated our lives. From smog, to chemical toxins, to depleted soil, to hormones and antibiotics in our food, to the influence of electromagnetic fields on our body, to the appearance of new diseases, to the threat of nuclear destruction, to the increasing gap between rich and poor, to the growing violence on TV and in the streets, and so on, it has become quite clear that our so-called progress may inadvertently be leading us down a destructive path of no return.
Everything Is Interrelated
The problem, of course, is not change in itself. The problem is rather that everything in modern life is interrelated, however subtly, with everything else. Without an understanding of these relationships, without an effort to understand the whole of life, we cannot expect to change a part without unintended, often disastrous, results.
The same is true of our personal problems. To be sure, we all have real problems, and some of them, especially those residing at the deepest levels of our nervous system and psyche, can in fact undermine our physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Birth and childhood traumas, powerful negative conditioning, and so on may have thrown our nervous system so much out of balance that we unconsciously spend most of our energy just trying to stay afloat psychologically. Clearly, deep problems such as these can provide formidable obstacles to spiritual growth.
For most of us, however, these deeper organic problems are invisible. We are often unaware of the energy imbalances and distorted perceptions of ourselves and others that they bring. The so-called problems that we do perceive in our lives, mostly on the surface of ourselves, are generally either the inevitable outcome of living on this earth or are merely distant manifestations of these deeper relationships and disharmonies that we don’t see. In either case, the energy that we spend attempting to rid ourselves of these problems without understanding their inevitability or their underlying causes can easily lead us down the wrong path. We may think that all that is needed is some change of manifestation or habit, when in fact what is necessary is a deeper consciousness of ourselves—a consciousness that can perceive the problem in the larger context of our being and our life on this earth.
The great spiritual teachers and traditions warn us about trying to get rid of our problems without having a broader understanding of our total situation. G. I. Gurdjieff, for instance, tells us that any effort to change something in ourselves without an understanding of our entire "machine" will most often bring unintended, undesirable results. Other traditions, such as Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, tell us that our personal problems can only be fully understood in a spiritual context.
A New System of Values
In an interview that I conducted several years ago in Moscow with Father Alexander Mumrikov, a Deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, I asked Father Alexander about the relationship of personal problems to spiritual growth. Father Alexander replied: “In contrast to the Protestant dictum—‘no problem’—we believe that Orthodoxy must have problems. The more a person is able to become conscious of problems arising in his life, the better it is; this is an indication of inner development. It is not a question of ridding oneself of one’s problems in some way, for example by going to a psychiatrist, but rather of seeing that one’s personal problems are related to one’s spiritual problems. The Holy Fathers have made it clear that though the psychology of the soul and the psychology of the spirit are at different levels, they must be connected. If the level of the spirit is not connected to the level of the soul, it is not connected to man. He receives this as a sacrament from God.” Father Alexander went on to say that those who want to work on their souls must, while working, simultaneously wait “for the Spirit to come down from God.” And that this simultaneous working and waiting “creates a new system of values.”
It is clear that working seriously on oneself, on one’s “soul,” for real understanding and transformation, while simultaneously waiting for the higher to appear in oneself, does in fact bring a new, more genuine system of values, a new level of personal maturity. It is this maturity, the intelligence and willingness to see and welcome the truth in ourselves, that can help us understand Advaita Vedanta master Jean Klein when he says that “our problems don’t have to be problematic,” or Lao Tzu when he tells us that our troubles are really the result of our narrow sense of self. When we try sincerely to perceive our problems in a more global, spiritual context and resist the impulse to lose ourselves in our psychological reactions to them, they can in fact help provide the impetus, reminders, shocks, and energy necessary to motivate our spiritual search at a deeper, more-honest level.