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Practical Spirituality: Living in the Modern World

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Hidden within every negative feeling is the gem of its opposite. As human beings, we tend to do everything possible to avoid feeling bad, and legitimately so. Why on earth would we want to continue to suffer? When pain occurs, we resist, we struggle, we act out, we defy, we avoid, we grieve—all because we think we shouldn’t feel this way.

Yet it is the feeling itself which has the information for us about how to feel better. A practical mystic knows this. A practical mystic knows that a seemingly illogical action is required in response to negative feelings---the action of leaning into the discomfort. This change in direction is a difficult one, and one which seems counter-intuitive. Why would we ever want to lean into something that hurts so much or feels so bad? Unfortunately, much of our suffering is from the resistance to the reality of the moment. Stress is exactly that—resistance, fighting, or struggling with the overload of the current circumstance. But in one of the unusual paradoxes of emotional health, by merely allowing a feeling, by giving it space in our body, mind and soul, we are gently brought to the distant shore of its opposite, to the revelation of what is hidden within. If alchemy is about transforming something of lesser value into something of greater value, this is truly emotional alchemy.

The physical and emotional worlds are worlds of duality. This means that everything can have a positive and a negative use. A knife can be used to inflict harm or perform life-saving surgery. The essential element is intent, our response, what we do with it. So it is with the emotional world as well. Our challenge is to discover the other side of the negative feeling. This is not done by “thinking positively,” which actually covers over or represses emotion, thereby creating more content for the unconscious mind. Rather, we discover the beauty in the emotion by allowing it to be present long enough for its opposite to be revealed. We ask what the gem is in the grief, what the hidden treasure is in pain.

All fear can be transformed into excitement. All neglect can be transformed into freedom, all anger transformed into choice and right action. Not until we develop the ability to bear the feelings in their raw state first, not by dumping them on others but by tolerating them within ourselves, can we then carry what we wish to avoid. When we do this, we slowly develop emotional muscles. We make ourselves big enough to bear the emotion and get to the other side more quickly. If we do not, avoidance, repression, and postponement only prolong the suffering. As they say the in the twelve step programs, the only way ‘out’ is ‘through.’ Isn’t it ironic that we are so afraid of leaning into the discomfort because we think it will be prolonged, or that we will be wallowing? Yet in reality it is the avoidance that prolongs the discomfort. Who would have thought this? It does defy all reason.

You might ask, “How does this happen?” I have no answer, other than it is one of the great mysteries of the universe and how it happens can only be discovered in the doing. You might ask, “How do I know the difference between wallowing in negativity or ruminating over something, and carrying a negative emotion to make space for it in my being?” While there is no easy answer to this either, we have some clues. Wallowing and ruminating are actually a form of avoidance. They are an indulgence in self-pity based on a belief that something should not be happening for some reason. It is a very subtle and tricky form of resistance. But it is resistance, coming from a place deep down inside which believes an injustice has been done and this event or feeling should not have happened. In this way, wallowing and ruminating are what some have called “secondary pain,” an easier pain to bear than the pain of the real thing. Secondary pain is a brilliant way to avoid the real thing and we humans have remarkable ways of creating it. When we discover our tricks, we are again challenged not to engage in self-retribution or judgement, but to be willing to just shift our attention and find a place to hold the real thing we have actually been avoiding.

It is only logical that as human beings, we all want to be happy. We want to avoid discomfort and suffering. We label certain feelings as bad and others as more desirable. But this belief becomes like emotional quicksand. The harder we struggle, the deeper it gets. Resistance makes it worse. Yet, few tools are given to us other than criticism, self-hatred, avoidance, or emotional tirades. This is another great quandary of being human. Where is the manual for dealing with emotions in a healthy way? Where are the classes for being a great parent? How are we supposed to learn these things without so much suffering? Our parents and teachers are only doing what they were taught by people who were doing what they were taught. Perhaps someday we will see free parenting skills classes and emotional skills classes as part of every school curriculum. Until then, we must learn on our own and teach each other. Practical mystics do this as well. But they teach by invitation only and never impose their knowledge onto someone except by request. When asked or invited, we are happy to share everything we know. But without that invitation from another, we do not have permission to try to teach even when we see others suffering. They must find their ability to seek out guidance or the so-called ‘help” will only be experienced as intrusiveness.

The world is filled with fixers, people who want to make everything right. Though the intention is a beautiful one—to alleviate suffering—fixing only cripples people. It is like going to college for someone, taking all the classes and then presenting them with a degree. They learn nothing. Most fixing is born out of the incapacity to bear the suffering of another. A practical mystic knows they must learn to bear the suffering of others as well as their own. Not because they are masochistic or because suffering should continue, but because within all suffering is a gem of knowledge. We must find the teachings of our suffering if we are to create a different world. We must allow our children and our loved ones to learn their lessons without doing it for them or removing the pain temporarily because we cannot bear it. That is ultimately a selfish act. It is an act the alleviates our own anxiety but brings nothing positive to the other. They may even encourage this because they experience a short term relief, similar to a drug. But very quickly the issue returns. Without the internal skills, the suffering shall remain.

The selfless alternative is to teach the skills we speak about and become a model in the world by doing this ourselves. While it is essential to bear the struggles of another, this does not mean that we abandon our loved ones. When it is their time in the desert, we can hold their hand, we can stand by their side and be completely with them. We can be a beloved to them, we can give them support and encouragement (not tell them what to do!), we can give them gentle soothing words of the heart and let them know we understand how hard this must be. But they must walk out on their own power. If this seems illogical, the proof is in the doing. In the end, we must all walk out of our own desert by bearing own pain and finding the distant shore.

Ideally, we will have the privilege of being surrounded by loving companions. But sometimes we are alone. This is not a reason to stop walking. If we walk long enough we shall encounter new companions who have been waiting for us on the other side. Without continuing to walk, we shall remain alone.

A practical mystic is ultimately interested in what works in the world. Emotional alchemy is one such paradigm. Logic states we should avoid discomfort at all costs, yet we are asked to do the unthinkable and bear the unbearable. We are asked to see the value in negative feelings. In the carrying of our suffering in a true way, we discover its hidden gift that could not possibly be known in any other way. We are able to redeem the light, not only in what is beautiful, but in what is not so beautiful as well. Therein lies the challenge of humanity. The work of life is to be in our imperfection and be alright with it. In the richness of that acceptance, emotions are transformed and life in all its ups and downs can find a place to rest.

If there are secrets to happiness, one of them is this. It is not in the elimination or removal of all that is bad or unhealed, but in developing the capacity to bear those parts and find the beauty in them in the process. This is emotional alchemy at its best.

May you find the beauty in your own imperfections and carry them with ease and grace until they reveal their hidden secrets. This is the work of a lifetime.

© Shemsi Prinzivalli  2017

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