By Alistair Johnston
Lester Levenson said that teenagers only ever rebel against non-freedom. All the struggle, all the angst and hype, the rebellion and rage is just an adolescent’s attempt to shrug off the petty bondage to which most adults so meekly submit.
At this stage of a child’s life, parents come in for a battering. When a child is young, he or she adores their parents and mimics them. Little by little, they adopt their parents’ ways of being. Then, they grow up and feel the limitations they have accepted. Rejecting those limitations, they tend also to reject their parents, in whom they see their limitations reflected so clearly. They throw the parents out with the bathwater, and often it is many years before they can retrieve a relationship with them again.
Until a process of self-understanding is underway and well advanced, a child can never accept their parents, because whenever they are with their parents, their parents’ limitations sneak up on them unawares, grip them, and, without knowing how or why, they feel suddenly trapped.
But when the child becomes an adult and learns to recognize and accept their own limitations, then they can meet their parents again, not as figures of adulation or authority, but as fellows and friends. This second iteration of the child-parent relationship can be just as nourishing as the first.
Ripping Down the Tower of Babel
A similar process occurs as we mature spiritually.
We come as children, credulous and full of inspiration; we swallow texts and teachings, change our lives, change our personalities. But five years pass, ten years pass, and the dreams we started with still have not come true. We start to feel trapped.
We have constructed a tower of disciplines and practices and locked ourselves inside it. We are the prisoners of our own good intentions. Now, we want to break free.
It happens to most of us, particularly Westerners, and more particularly Westerners following Eastern paths.
We implode, we collapse. We get mad and rip down the Tower of Babel.
We skip morning meditation to go running on the beach. We eat a fish burger; we have a beer. We have another beer. We have three. We say hooroo to brahmacharya, poo-poo the guru, renounce the yamas and niyamas, and kick our neighbor’s cat. We take a double serving of guacamole from the kitchen and erect our middle fingers at those waiting in the line. We break loose of the routines and habits we have built, and for a while, we feel delightfully free.
A Rock Bottom Made of Gold
The edifice crumbles, but the process carries on. We find ourselves digging into the ground. What at first felt so liberating now starts to make us uneasy.
We realize that we had derived a false sense of security from our spiritual practices. We realize that we were hiding behind bandhas and secretly puffing ourselves up. We come face-to-face with our smallness and doubt. We confront the fact that we do not know, and it makes us scared.
The digging continues. Rumi called spirituality “pick and shovel work.” We vegetate and drift from day to day, entropic and uncertain. We feel we are going nowhere; we don’t know where there is to go! Everything seems empty, futile, and trite. We mope our way through long and painful days.
Eventually, we hit rock bottom, and, if our spirituality was our own, not a borrowed affectation, we find that rock bottom is made of gold.
Something glints inside us; something shines. Suddenly, everything seems so simple. We remember why we started this whole thing in the first place.
Some of us want to love more, some of us want to know. Some of us want to live a life of harmony. Some of us want to look out through kind eyes. It’s more a feeling than a sentiment, often wordless, but it’s certainly there. We recognize it; we know.
Dancing to the Beat of Your Own Heart
We fly into action. We sit up the front in meditation; we do nauli kriyas as we wait for the bus. We are full of wild enthusiasms and make many resolutions. Without knowing it, we start building again. We build foundations on our bedrock and pile layers of practice over it. We lose sight of the gold in the basement and live again in the spiritual machine.
Inevitably, it becomes too much, and we have to knock the new building down. We tear everything apart until we strike gold in the basement again.
Then we build again, then we tear down. We go through a thousand cycles of building and destroying; the cycles pass faster, and happen more often.
Soon, it is like a pulse: up and down, up and down. Build a little, knock it down. Eventually, I suppose, we build nothing, but live right down in the dirt, close to our longing, and everything we do is an expression of it.
Sometimes, our longing trembles. Then we move. Sometimes, it is dormant, and then we are still. We wait, we listen. We dance to the beat of our own hearts. When we live like that, what need is there for enlightenment? Or perhaps such a life is enlightenment. Perhaps it is more than that. It is called being spiritually adult.
Alistair Johnston is a Hridaya student and new contributor to our blog