There seems to be a strange dichotomy at the heart of Western spirituality. Do we completely accept things as they are, and surrender to life or do we take charge of our destinies and strive to manifest what we desire?
I’ve long been baffled by this confusion. Is it a mixture of both? For a while, I tried combining the two, but that’s more difficult than it sounds, because our minds are such that we tend to veer more in one direction than the other in any given moment. True balance is hard to achieve. So, time and time again I came back to the same question: to control or to surrender? Which is it?
I think the root of the paradox stems from the fact many Western spiritual teachers have blurred the line between personal development and spiritual development. In truth, they are quite different things. Personal development is very much rooted in the little ‘self’, the ego, and is to do with developing and adding to this self. It’s about developing greater self esteem and self confidence, as well as achieving, accumulating and acquiring that which one desires. There is nothing wrong with personal development. To be ‘self actualised’ on the egoic level is in fact highly preferable to being bound by a weak and dysfunctional ego that’s hopelessly snared in a net of self doubt, fear and limitation.
Spirituality, on the other hand, has nothing to do with developing the ego. On the contrary, it’s about transcending ego. It is about awakening from the notion of being a separate, limited little ‘self’ and seeing through all the stories and concepts we’ve spun about ourselves, the world and life. Whereas personal development is about adding to yourself, spiritual development is a process of subtraction. You let go and let go and let go until all that’s left is a primordial awareness, subtle, silent yet all pervasive.
On this level, there’s not much need to control reality, because all is seen simply as a dream unfolding in consciousness. Which isn’t to say one will simply sit in a chair forevermore and won’t be moved to take action in any way. But whatever action we take will no longer be driven by the need to find fulfilment and happiness, because we’ve come to realise that fulfilment and joy are in fact our innermost essence and are available to us only by turning inward.
This isn’t to pit personal development and spiritual development against each other. Each have their place and one may be more appropriate for one person than another. I’m not sure if spiritual development can be forced. It seems to be a more spontaneous occurrence; either one is ‘ripe’ for it, or one isn’t. If someone has absolutely no pull toward spirituality, then the fire simply hasn’t been lit and it’s probably best that they stick to personal development for the time being.
The way many teachers and authors have combined personal and spiritual development has created, I feel, an unfortunate confusion and ultimately leads to disillusionment. People might pick up a book like ‘The Secret’ and think that by focussing on the law of attraction and working through a list of material desires they are somehow on the way to everlasting happiness and spiritual fulfilment. I feel this is very deceptive. It can be fun to play around with the material world and it’s good to have nice things and pleasurable experiences, but if people are exclusively locked into the world of things, then the moment those things are taken away, or fail to show up, then suffering arises. Our happiness is utterly at the mercy of events, circumstances and other people which are by their very nature fickle, unstable and ever-changing.
It seems to me that the only way to find true peace in the world is to transcend it. Simply striving to make your life circumstances as ‘perfect’ as possible, and to accumulate as much money and as many material possessions as you can is really the worst way to be at peace in life. Because no matter how high you climb up the mountain, eventually you’re going to have to come back down. Such is the nature of life. And when that happens -- as long as you’re completely focused on the outward trappings of life -- you will suffer.
The confusion between personal and spiritual development is one that needs to be clarified and understood. Personal development is another word for ego development (because, simply, the ‘person’ is the ego). I don’t mean to lament the ego, for it is what it is and it does what it does, but so long as it’s running the show (and when it comes to ‘my’ desires, ‘my’ goals, and ‘my’ dreams, then it clearly is), there can be no lasting peace. Happiness will come and go with each success and failure. Only by going within and finding out what we really, truly are, can we touch upon the level of peace, fulfilment and joy that we’re really looking for. Everything else is a quick fix and will ultimately amount to nothing, because anything that can be achieved or acquired in the world of form can and will eventually be taken from us.
I can see how catering for both the ego’s endless quest for more possessions, achievements and attainments and our drive to be ‘spiritual’ can make for an enticing package. It clearly sells books. Dressing up the ego’s desires in a spiritual cloak makes it more appealing perhaps because it mitigates the element of avarice and makes it more permissible. But so long as the ego is running the show and we are locked into the illusion that we need certain things and sets of circumstances in order to be happy and free and spiritually fulfilled, then it won’t be long before we’re in train wreck town.
Again, I’m not dissing those types of books, or saying it’s wrong to pursue goals and desires, just so long as we’re clear about why we’re doing it and what we hope to gain from it. Sometimes we need to repeatedly try something one way before we realise that it simply doesn’t work. Many people are like that when it comes to life. It doesn’t matter how many times they hear things like ‘happiness only comes from within’. They’re still intent on trying to make their outer lives as ‘perfect’ as possible before they can be happy. Maybe it will take entire lifetimes to realise it just doesn’t work like that. No matter how perfect your life circumstances are, or how high your bank balance is, or how great your business is doing, it could all change in the blink of an eye. Only by finding that which is changeless within us can be rooted in any kind of lasting peace.
I’m lucky to have learned that comparatively early in my life. I’ve stopped chasing after things to make me ‘happy’. But I am still being drawn to do certain things and pursue certain avenues. The motive is different now - it’s not to achieve fulfilment, success and happiness. When I turn within, I already am fulfilled, successful and happy. It’s simply because I want to and because I can. Another time I’ll maybe talk more about how I am continuing to reconcile the paradox of doing and not-doing, of taking action and surrendering to life.