Waking Up Can Hurt by Andrew Holecek | Omega

Many people turn to a spiritual path because they think it will make their pain go away. But as Andrew Holecek explains, true spirituality is not about making you feel good; it is about making you feel real. 

“It is sometimes easier to wake up when we’re in extreme pain.”—Dzigar Kongtrul

Understanding the power of the path provides the inspiration that keeps us going forward; exploring its pain provides the understanding of what holds us back. It doesn’t take long to discover the power, nor to feel the pain. Waking up hurts. And if we don’t understand why, we will run from the pain and abandon the path. There are countless spiritual dropouts, or those lost in detours, that are the result of not understanding hardship.

When our arm falls asleep it prickles and burns as it returns to life. Frozen fingers sting when they thaw, we jolt awake when the alarm clock rings. But physical instances of anesthesia are mild compared to the anesthesia born of ignorance, and so is the level of discomfort upon awakening. The longer something has been asleep the more painful it is to wake up. If our fingers are merely cold, it is easy to warm them up. But if our fingers are frozen solid, it hurts like hell when they thaw.

According to tradition, unless we are already a buddha, an “awakened one,” we have been snoring from beginningless time, and it can really hurt before we completely wake up.

Mingyur Rinpoche wrote, “I’d like to say that everything got better once I was safely settled among the other participants in the three-year retreat . . .On the contrary, however, my first year in retreat was one of the worst in my life. All the symptoms of anxiety I’d ever experienced—physical tension, tightness in the throat, dizziness, and waves of panic—attacked in full force. In Western terms, I was having a nervous breakdown. In hindsight, I can say that what I was actually going through was what I like to call a ‘nervous breakthrough.’”

Every tradition is replete with stories of hardship. Christ suffered in the desert, the Buddha struggled under the bodhi tree, Mohammed grappled in his cave, the Jain saint Mahavira wrestled with his asceticism, and the Tibetan yogi Milarepa endured the demands of his guru. We will be hard-pressed to find a sage who slid easily into enlightenment, for great realization brings great obstacles.

We may not practice in caves and deserts, but we sit in meditation and wonder why it hurts. We look into our hearts and wonder why we cry. We enter a path and ponder why life falls apart. Understanding hardship helps us to deal with it, whether it is the anxiety of sitting still for 30 minutes, or the fear of entering a three-year retreat.

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, talking about someone who spends most of their life in retreat, tells us:

    “You will fall sick, experience pain, and encounter many adverse circumstances.
    At such times do not think, ‘Although I am practicing the Dharma, I have nothing
    but trouble. The Dharma cannot be so great. I have followed a teacher and done
    so much practice, and yet hard times still befall me.’ Such thoughts are wrong
    views. You should realize that through the blessing and power of the practice, by
    experiencing sickness and other difficulties now, you are purifying and ridding
    yourself of negative actions . . . By purifying them while you have the chance,
    you will later go from bliss to bliss. So do not think, ‘I don’t deserve this illness,
    these obstacles, these negative influences.’ Experience your difficulties as blessings
    . . . when you do experience such difficulties, you should be very happy and avoid
    having adverse thoughts like, ‘Why are such terrible things happening to me.’”

As Rinpoche advises, relating to hardship properly depends on the strength of our view, knowing exactly what we want, where we want to go, and how to get there. For example, if we have the view to become a doctor, our vision guides us through financial burdens, physical and emotional difficulties, and any obstacle that gets in our way. We know it is difficult and involves sacrifice, but with a strong view we forge to the finish line.

Similarly, if we want to become spiritually awakened, it is the power of our view that gets us there. If we are having a hard time getting to the meditation cushion, or engaging the necessary study, it is because our view is not strong enough, or it is incomplete. A partial view, in this case, is one that doesn’t include hardship. We can strengthen our view and accelerate progress by understanding how we lose our view in the fog of hardship, and therefore lose sight of our path....

Without the proper view, we do not see clearly, so we project. We project the ideal that spirituality will make us feel good, and that heaven or salvation awaits. This is a partial truth, the half-truth that makes us enter the path. Who would enter a path that guaranteed hardship? Knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel keeps us going through it, but understanding the darkness in the tunnel helps us to negotiate it. The full truth is that power comes with pain. Hardship is the neglected and misunderstood second half of the truth, and it completes the view. True spirituality is not about making you feel good. It is about making you feel real.  

Reality & Spirituality

In common parlance, the spiritual is set in contrast to the material. The material world is the “real” world of hardship and pain, of fleeting joy and things we can’t hold onto. It is solid and often uncaring. The spiritual path is frequently entered to escape from this reality. We want to flee material hardship and find refuge in the spiritual world of love and light. We long for sanctuary in the unreal. As the spiritual psychologist A. H. Almaas puts it, “When we embark on a spiritual path, we unconsciously believe that we are setting out for heaven.”

With this motivation, entering the path is like going to a movie—we just want to get away. We are fed up and want out. But as Trungpa Rinpoche taught: There is no way out. The magic is to discover that there is a way in. Authentic spirituality is not about escaping from reality, but about entering it fully. And this is the source of disappointment and hardship. We want to retreat from our pain, not enter it fully. To discover that the path pulls a wicked u-turn, and heads directly back into that which we are attempting to escape, is what causes many to drop out. It is the great bait-and-switch.  

With the proper view, everyday reality is spirituality. The spiritual is discovered in the material. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas says: “The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” This is one meaning of non-duality—the spiritual and the material are not-two. If we are leaving the material for the spiritual we are leaving out half of reality. And we are going to give ourselves a hard time because the abandoned half will come calling. To complete the path, the material is not rejected, but fully embraced.

There is a thin line between the confusion of escaping and the wisdom of renouncing. Being fed up and wanting out can lead to either one. Renunciation of samsara, the Sanskrit word for the confused world of suffering, is to be cultivated. Without renunciation we will never give up hope of finding happiness in samsara, or that we don’t need to sacrifice our attachment to it. Without renunciation we are trapped in self-deception.

But samsara is not reality. Samsara is not “out there.” It is a projection of my confusion “in here.” It is a state of mind, not a state in reality. The Indian master Nagarjuna said: “There is no samsara apart from your own thoughts.” And the Buddhist sage Nyoshul Khen taught: “Conceptual thought is the ocean of samsara.”

Samsara was not created before me, nor does it exist independent of me. It is a mirror of my own mind. So true renunciation is not giving up reality, but relinquishing our confusion about it.

With escapism, on the other hand, we want out and do not embrace what we wish to escape. Liberation based on renunciation involves going into and through our shadows in order to find the light; liberation based on escapism involves denying, repressing, or projecting our shadows in order to avoid the dark. The difference between renunciation and escapism is that renunciation, in a phrase by the philosopher Ken Wilber, “transcends but includes” samsara; escapism merely attempts to transcend. Since samsara, the unwanted, is not included, it is not fully transcended.

Liberation born of escapism is therefore incomplete, and the source of unnecessary hardship. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land: “Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”

What we are trying to escape from will come back to haunt us, as any psychotherapist is quick to point out. By denying, repressing, or projecting anything, we are throwing a boomerang, and then wondering what it was that just hit us. These little boomerangs, our rejected neuroses, return to haunt us because they are asking to be healed, to be “wholed.” They bonk us on the back of the head because they are asking for our attention, for our love and embrace, and wondering why we threw part of ourselves away. They demand to be included.

Buddhist scholar Reginald Ray writes: “What we have to do is become the damned—become that part of our self that has been rejected and cast out. We have to allow ourselves to enter whatever hell our despised experience has been cast into, taking on its full identity and reality, and its full human experience. Only when we are willing to do that is redemption possible.”

Because we define the spiritual in opposition to the material, and the material world is that of suffering, we assume that spirituality promises the opposite. We expect the path to be blissful. If it is not, something must be wrong.

But things may be very right when pain barges into our life, and bliss can be a real problem if it is related to improperly. There might be eternal bliss when the path is completed, but even then it is not our normal notion of bliss. Until then, if we sustain this view of expecting constant happiness, we face broken promises and endless disappointment as our projections of what spirituality should be are shattered with the reality of what it actually is.

“If you haven’t cried deeply a number of times, your meditation hasn’t really begun.”—Achaan Chah


© Andrew Holecek. Used with permission.

Discover More