Friday, October 20th 2017

When pain afflicts the enlightened

The ‘real’ Secret: Physical illness doesn’t discriminate. A person with a healthy spirit is not immune to bodily harm — but is well equipped to gain something sacred from the journey.

DAVID RICKEY: A friend and spiritual mentor recently told me that he had brain cancer. The shock was especially strong because his brain, or more accurately his brilliance, was what I most admired in him. Of all the cancers this one seemed especially unfair.

Since receiving the news I have started pondering the suffering we human beings experience. For my friend, I imagined the suffering would likely be twofold. First, there would be physical suffering, which was already starting in the form of headaches and the nausea. But secondly, and perhaps more difficult to handle, would be the mental and emotional pain of losing the ability to think and process his experiences along the journey. He was already having difficulty remembering simple things and finishing sentences.

I once read that a man asked his spiritual teacher, “Is death real or an illusion?” After a long pause, the master replied, “Death is a very real illusion.” While I hope we are not looking at death here, the suffering of our body and of our mental life is, on one level, a very real illusion. Our body and thoughts are not who we really are. Attachment – or identifying with our body or thoughts – is what leads to suffering. While I believe this is true, here is the bigger illusion: the idea that spiritual enlightenment will prevent suffering in the body or in life.

Yes, I am critiquing the magical thinking of New Agers, The Secret, Law of Attraction – i.e. the notion that we manifest our physical reality through the thoughts in our heads and unconscious beliefs and intentions. Witness the situation of Stephen and Ondrea Levine who are some of the most enlightened teachers around but are now in need of our help in both body and pocketbook. Their suffering and ours is real and calls us to a higher purpose and action.

Release through detachment

Bernard Haisch, in “The Purpose Guided Universe” suggests that our physical existence, which includes our ability to experience this physical and mental world, is God’s way of being able to experience the richness of being. Our physical life is not an illusion but rather a deep “experiment” to see what possibilities of physical existence are truly like. Being physical allows us (and through us, God) to process experience and evolve toward greater consciousness in this physical world and, beyond that, to participate in the very process of creating this universe. From this point of view, my friend’s cancer isn’t a cruel trick but another chance for him to further his spiritual quest of experiencing human possibility. I am sure he is already processing his experience and developing new teaching. I am reminded of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s insightful analysis of her own experience of a stroke.

Putting these two perspectives together, that we are both spiritual and physical beings, I come up with a useful way of living through suffering. Suffering is inevitable while we live in a physical (and mentally apprehended) world. As someone said, our bodies are the Space-Suit we need to live on this planet. It is both very real and not who we ultimately are. When something starts to happen to the spacesuit, there is a real danger of ending this human journey, and that is cause for real concern.

Simultaneously experiencing real suffering and danger while deeply observing and experiencing the process from a certain “remove” allows us to go further in our discovery of consciousness. We can become more aware of the layers of fear, attachment, and spiritual struggle in a way that expands our consciousness and actually benefits all who share this plane of existence. Suffering then becomes purposeful. It provides the stimulus to grow.

Another aspect that makes this more possible, perhaps even more bearable is that we are definitely not alone. The divine intelligence that has brought us here is experiencing this with and through us, bringing infinite wisdom to bear on our process. It has even given us the tools to work with it.  Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, describes the role of mirror neurons in the development of empathy. The ability to experience not only your own suffering but the suffering of others is an essential foundation for the creation of civilization. It is as if God has given us the ability to experience pain in order to care about others and build community.

In this present situation, my purpose is to be as present as I can be to my friend as he moves through his process, both to support him and to learn empathically more about what human life is. Suffering may be an illusion, but it is one that we all share and can grow with and through, not only to advance consciousness but to evolve a more compassionate civilization on this planet.

David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.

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