In all honesty, there’s very little that many of us do that don’t involve trying to escape pain and suffering. It’s human nature to avoid discomfort! We’ve survived as a species by minimizing and handling catastrophe, and that includes physical and emotional pains.
Psychology — the study of human behaviour — must’ve come about by wanting an explanation as to why people suffer. Religion came about because people wanted an explanation as to why natural disasters ravaged the land as diseases simultaneously wiped out our fellow man.
Spirituality is a bit of both, isn’t it? Spirituality concerns itself with explaining consciousness and life as it is. Spiritual people often seek an enhancement of one’s consciousness often by incorporating practises to improve how one feels and perceives life.
As someone who became Christian at six years old, who studied psychology in school and outside of school, and has dived into spirituality for the last ten years, it is not only easy to use religion, psychology or spirituality to escape pain, but it is largely expected.
Spiritual people would be shocked to realise how much they have in common with the alcoholic, the smoker, the sugar lover, the sex addict or the gambler — they are all trying to escape pain. And the most important thing to note is the motive as to why they engage in these behaviours.
Tons of people drink, smoke, eat candy, have sex and gamble. Many of them are not addicted to the behaviour. Why? Because they do not use these things to escape painful feelings, but instead use them when in celebration. Those of us who can’t help but engage in these behaviours and are labelled addicts are really those of us who use these things to escape negative emotion.
The spiritual person is like the psychology student or devout person. They’re clever, or they think they are. They aren’t moved by sensual or physical pleasures. They want something more transcendent and long-lasting. They want to end suffering altogether and they know that their best bet is with a discipline of sorts.
They have a vision of pious religious figures, detached professors/counsellors and Zen masters chilling out and want what they have. And thus, the journey begins.
One might ask, what’s so wrong with having the motive to end suffering? Isn’t that what the Buddha set out to do? Weren’t the hermetic principles written for this reason?
The motive is paramount because there’s a difference between trying to get rid of pain and having an actual interest in the subject. It’s tantamount to someone starting a tech company because they want a lot of money. You’re a fraud! You’re not here to work. You’re here to get tons of cash — and possibly use it to make yourself feel better about yourself and to quench some inner pain.
Like I said, it’s human nature to escape suffering and there’s tons of ways to do it.
The spiritual person who is using spirituality as a crutch is not actually helping themselves. They are taking principles, teachings and practises and abusing themselves with it. Self-inquiry is no longer about curiosity, it’s about finding the slime inside. Processing trauma is not done in self-love, but in self-hatred as you try to get rid of the pain so you can feel good. Even a gratitude journal stops being about giving thanks and instead becomes a vehicle for you to get more good things because you read somewhere that if you give thanks, your will vibrate a higher emotional state and receive better things in life.
Take me, for example. I’ve done everything I just listed above and more. I’m especially slippery. When I feel uncomfortable about something, I immediately start thinking. “Why am I feeling this way? What would my higher self think about what’s going on? I know, I’ll use my intuition to predict what will happen next.”
Now, I could be doing this because of general self-interest and out of self-love, or I could be doing it because I resent how I feel and I need it gone. It took me a long time to see that the way I used spirituality could be a detrimental thing and a longer time to admit it.
Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. Consider, if my goal is to stop feeling pain, then I may take a principle or practise completely out of context. Here’s an example: “If you focus on positive things, you will get positive results; if you focus on negative beliefs, you will get negative results.” Okay, sounds good to me. But in the event that someone says something that triggers me, what am I going to do? Go into the pain, or do what the book told me to do and focus on feeling good?
Here’s another example: “Follow how you feel, you know the answers.” Alright, cool. But what do I do when someone says something to help me that doesn’t exactly jive with what I feel? Do I dismiss it, or do I listen and investigate the claim?
The trap of spirituality is so exquisite. It lures you in with:
- a false idea of what’s actually involved in a spiritual practise,
- a superiority to all other forms of attaining inner peace, and
- the abdication of listening to yourself, preferring what someone else says because you think they are better off than you.
That third point is a doozie because, ironically, when we should listen to ourselves we don’t and when it would be wise to listen to someone else, we don’t. Sometimes we don’t listen to ourselves because it conflicts with some new information. And then sometimes we don’t listen to others because we’d prefer to be safe with what we think is true.
If you’ve been in this stuff for a few years, you’ll learn just how paradoxical all of this is. This thing is true, and yet the opposite is also true but you have to look out for the contexts and blah blah blah.
Here’s the solution. You have to commit to being a student of yourself. That’s what spirituality is all about. And it is by doing so that we let go of pain and suffering. You study psychology because you are a student of human behaviour. You are religious because you want to know the nature of what is above you. You eat, drink, sleep, smoke, copulate, gamble, etc. for the activity itself, not for what you think it can bring you.
It is the understanding that you are not necessarily going to find a solution to your inner pain from some outside thing. Yes, it may happen. There have been times when some substance or experience made me think differently and let to change. Like I said, this stuff is often paradoxical.
But a dependence on this stuff is going to keep you in a rut, and you’ll never admit it because you’re convinced that if you continue down this road, salvation will come.
Salvation comes alright… it comes with a conflict that knocks you on your ass begging for mercy. And that’s the real spirituality, right there. Now you’re going to learn a ton of stuff you never knew about life or yourself.
Here’s the solution. You end the pain by going into it, by letting yourself feel it completely. By doing so, you will not and cannot use stuff to make you feel better. When I had one particular conflict that knocked me on my ass to the point I thought my body was going to shut down, I went into the pain. And that has made all the difference.
I would’ve never guessed that spirituality was about going into the pain. Psychology somewhat hinted at it. Religion made me dip my toe in it. But there has been a stark contrast to who I was before and after my dark night of the soul.