So much of the spiritual path is about acceptance – learning to embrace everything. This is not the same as being passive or resigned. It is not a dismissive ‘oh well’, or presuming our challenging situations are some kind of penance for past error. True acceptance helps us lean into both the joyful and the challenging situations of our lives, and be grown by them. Opening into everything is how all the experiences of our life can birth deeper wisdom. Make us more spiritually mature. Flesh us out as human beings.
For many years my moment-to-moment mantra has been to “keep opening, keep softening, keep allowing”. This simple guidance invites us to just be here, refusing to vacate the premises of our own body-heart-soul. Open into our direct experience without clinging to any position or agenda. Being present and undefended with what is, initiates a natural unfolding through the dense casings of our fearful mind into our more subtle depths. If you do not lead with opinions and pre-existing concepts (even spiritual ones), you are available to be found by a grace deeper than your fear and effort.
Embracing the challenges:
Each year my husband and I take a retreat in the wilderness of the Sierra mountains. The aurous hike with backpacks demands robust stamina, but we love the shocking beauty, the purity of the environment. The restorative power of being completely away from anything man made: no cell-phone signal, no internet, email or the usual bombardment of input that pervades modern life. It is rare to see any other human being for the entire time. We camp on a tiny finger of land ten thousand feet above sea level, surrounded by pristine lakes, waterfalls, amidst a wild zen garden flanked by majestic snow covered mountains. It is such a support to completely drop out of the thinking mind and just be.
While we were prepared for the cold nights, we had not expected to be greeted by howling winds, which by the third day must have been around 60 knots. We woke that morning completely covered in dirt. The wind had turned the entire tent into a dust-bowl. Not one item of clothing, bedding or even our bodies had escaped and there was no real way of getting away from it. Civilization or any kind of help was a five-hour hike away.
Embracing our human reactions:
It was not an easy situation in which to practice acceptance.
I watched my mind go through various stages that reminded me somewhat of Elizabeth Khubler Ross’ stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally…acceptance. Prior to the dawn of genuine acceptance, I had to embrace and accept the layers of my own very human reactions to what was. It became clear to me that this was an important part of the full embracing.
I witnessed my mind at first wanting to deny the situation. Our previous retreats had always blessed us with pleasing conditions. When the anger came, fuelled by disappointment and entitled indignation that ‘my’ vacation was being ruined, the witnessing awareness spoke “welcome this too”. My mind fantasized about trips to a day spa getting scrubbed, manicured, creamed and pampered on the other side of this endurance test. My mood turned as heavy as the grey clouds the winds kept blowing over the mountains that now appeared so menacing.
I reached my limit while attempting to cook risotto over a tiny flame stove. My attempts at gourmet wilderness cuisine were thwarted by gusts of icy wind that sent my carefully chopped fresh herbs, portobello mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes flying. Bob was clearly still in denial, convinced he would catch a fish for dinner. There was nothing to do but accept what was and declare it a nut bar dinner.
We said a prayer together that night huddled in sleeping bags that we would surrender to whatever made sense in the morning. Just accept reality as it was unfolding and respond accordingly. If it was still railing like this….then we would take it as a sign to pack up and head home accepting our wilderness vacation was not to be. If it turned, then stay. We would surrender in the spirit of “Thy will be done”.
The next morning the wind had calmed, the skies gave way to clear blue brilliance and the wilderness returned to paradise. Bob caught three trout from the lake, which we devoured for breakfast pan fried in ghee and fresh herbs. Nothing had ever tasted so good.
Opening into expanded awareness
Later that week while meditating on a smooth granite rock, my inner state reflecting the clarity of the water that mirrored the sky, I opened into such a full- bodied expansion, a loving unity with all of the elements. Embracing this subtle state just as I had the challenging wind, a fleshed out awareness of the non-dual unity of existence emerged. I dwelt in that reality where there is no divide, nothing wrong, and no need for any contraction or defence. The mountains, the waters, the rocks, the sky, my body and breath and the body of my beloved were all one arising. I already knew that nothing is ever separate, but this knowing seemed to sing out blissfully from every cell of my being. Became a lived body of wisdom.
This depth of unity completely included the ferocious wind that was manifesting in such a difficult way the few days before. That too is part of the totality. Powerful winds clear things, move and shape the environment – moulds the trees into organic bonsai gardens that I find so absolutely beautiful. Despite the appearance, even difficult forces that exist within life are part of the harmony. This also includes our very human reactions like the stages I found my mind wandering into amidst the challenges. My mantra that week became “this too is God”.
Sometimes ferocious weather blows through our own souls – our moods change, perceptions shift, challenges conditions enter our lives: perhaps sickness, unexpected financial hardship, tough passages in our relationships or with our children. In the face of such things we really have just two choices: contract and close, or find a way to open into it all so that all of our experiences grow us somehow.
Understanding the instinct to split off
The greatest challenge to accepting and opening into everything as part of God is the mechanism of splitting. Human beings are naturally hardwired to go towards pleasure and away from pain. It comes from our survival instinct that serves to keep the body/mind alive. The splitting mechanism emerges as soon as we identify with our body in infancy. Experiencing the inevitable limitations of our situation, where the love, consistent holding, safety is might not always be what we need, our survival instinct learns to split the “good” from the “bad” as a way to make our experience more manageable.
It starts as separating out the pleasant sensations from the unpleasant sensations, the good feelings from the bad feelings. As we get older we are rewarded when we behave like “good boys/girls” and punished in some way when we behave like “bad boys/girls”. Our personality shapes around this sorting out process. Thus some parts of ourselves seem acceptable and other parts not. It forms our sense of duality and causes us to feel un-whole.
Splitting creates duality
While splitting is a natural development of our ego that is part of the human condition, in the long run it divides our consciousness into many separate parts: the good and the bad parts, the right and the wrong. We automatically project it onto everything and everyone, and thus our view of the world and of ourselves becomes divided.
Perhaps you might experience this as a sense of feeling split between body and soul, genitals and heart, awareness and form, good people from bad people. Many spiritual teachings have encouraged this kind of split in the name of transcendence, but it subtly re-inforces our direct experience of separation.
What would your life be like if you did not contract against anything?
Nothing is inherently all good or all bad. Everything in this world is neutral – can be utilized by grace or can be harnessed by the ego. We become receptive to grace when we open, and we are taken by the ego when we contract and close. We are supported to open when we trust that the basement of everything ultimately is God. This includes even our small sense of separate “me”.
Consider how you came to exist: the forces that made up your body, your mind, your heart, that draw us together into relationship, the mysterious intelligence that causes you to involuntarily draw breath. It is clear when you truly enter into the mystery of this moment that your very own existence, life itself, is full of grace.
Grace is at the source of everything…even your ego
Even though I sit with people supporting their practice of wholistic self inquiry every day, I never cease to be amazed by what happens when we open into our direct experience without picking up any defence against it. Surrendering in and through what is, relaxing our habits of control, our trying to fix things, the separate “me” who is so often caught up in a story of resistance to something gives way to a ground of unshakable purity.
When we are no longer resisting, grace arrives in direct response to what is truly needed.
Sometimes a deep presence of love emerges, sometimes it is clarity, guidance that shows us the most intelligent next steps to take, how to respond with wisdom. Sometimes it is a sense of power and strength we need to face challenges. Grace brings what is needed because God – the ground of everything, is ultimately a force of love. It is beneficent, and it seems to want us to awaken into our full potential. When it does not seem that way, it is because we are married to a fixed an agenda for how our lives should be unfolding. The sufi mystic Hafiz says:
“God’s trying to sell you something,
but you don’t want to buy.
That’s what your suffering is –
your manic haggling, screaming over the price”
Open into the all-embracing space
If we can move beyond behaving like entitled children confusing real love from always getting what we want, we can open into the all embracing space out of which everything rises and falls. We can be more spacious with life. If you contemplate the atmosphere in which our whole planet lives, in which you and every life form lives, you recognize a completely inclusive embracing of absolutely everything. The space allows both trees and pollution.
This spacious allowing is also part of your true nature. It has the power to support you in embracing the totality of your experience. That includes your ego judgments and human reactions of disappointment, frustration, fear. If you embrace where you are and keep opening, rather than justifying your reactions or trying to push yourself into some concept of a spiritual condition, grace can transform your life in the way that would genuinely bring liberation.
What happens if you embrace everything that arises as part of Love
You do not need to TRY to be good, to be loving, to live up to some kind of spiritual ideal. While often well intentioned, this spiritual trying can often mask rejection of other forces like undigested pain from our history, hurt and anger that might want to be embraced so that genuine integration can occur.
Ramana taught that we simply need to “be as you are”. This is the spirit of unconditional allowing that is truly loving. It helps us accept the paradox of our divinity and humanity. If we can open and embrace everything – things unwind back into the substance from which they came, and ultimately everything comes out of the great mystery. That is why there is nothing to fear by taking the naked inner journey home. We might meet things that have a scary countenance, but they are only ever gargoyles on the gate to the sanctuary. In the depth of things, there is nothing but God.