Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of June 8, 2009

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Spiritual Struggle

"...resist not evil..." [Matthew 5:39]

Spiritual struggle, in many of its forms, serves to purify and develop our soul. There is first and foremost the necessary struggle with those habits that are obstacles or severe limitations on our inner work. Among the physical ones of these we can certainly include any use of tobacco, any non-medicinal or recreational use or abuse of drugs, excessive eating and excessive alcohol consumption. All these sap the inner strength, the energies we need for our work.

The destructive emotions, like anger, also fall into this category. Indulging in anger chews up our energies, damages our relationships, and leads to more anger. When we see anger arising in ourselves, we feel compassion for ourselves and, not wanting to harm ourselves by indulging it, we let it go.

Each of us needs always to look to see the ways we damage our possibilities and diminish our presence, and struggle with those ways. Not rejecting, but embracing and reclaiming the whole of ourselves, seeking to heal what needs healing.

And for the longer term, we struggle to be present more often, for longer, and more strongly. Another continuing struggle is the search to deepen our contact with the sacred.

Struggle itself, however, can become an obstacle in at least two ways. If we allow our spiritual struggle to devolve into an inner war, if we demonize what we are struggling against, we weaken ourselves. Spiritual struggle is not about defeating an inner enemy. That would just cut off a part of us. Rather we seek to transform our recalcitrant habits and destructive tendencies so that we can integrate all our parts, all our disparate and conflicting drives, desires and wishes, into the single whole of our unified being.

The second misappropriation of struggle arises from the fact that our motivations are mixed. We struggle with ourselves not only to develop spiritually, but also to feed our vanity, to think better of ourselves. This latter motivation, to remake ourselves in our own idealized image, serves our ego, subverts our struggle, and builds up our self-centered, self-aggrandizing illusory I. We seek not to reform, but to transform, to bring all our parts within the purview of our higher self, into service of the sacred. This also protects us from the kind of self-pitying, self-critical dejection that comes from failures of ego-serving struggles. When we fail in our spiritual struggle, we just get back up and go at it again, remembering that our purpose is to heal and reintegrate not to defeat.

So what is the actual inner experience of struggle? First we notice the destructive or limiting impulse arising in us, in real time. We see how that impulse pulls on us, pulls us to do something wed be better off not doing, or pulls us not to do something wed be better off doing. Either way, the pull is definitely there, and sometimes powerful.

At this point, three possible paths open to us. First, we can succumb to the path of least resistance, indulge the impulse, and suffer the inevitable consequences, the negative impact on our inner work. No struggle here.

The second possibility is to fight the urge, to raise within ourselves an opposing force, an opposing intention to stop the destructive impulse. As noble and right as it seems, this strategy tends to backfire in several ways, even when successful. It causes the destructive impulse to grow even stronger in response to the fight. If the destructive impulse loses today, it most certainly will return to fight again another day. The fight splits our inner world between the two sides. While the tension between the two can temporarily create some energy, ultimately the split weakens us by perpetuating the inner division, the non-wholeness. And finally, the fight strengthens our ego, through the arrogance of victory or the self-criticism and self-pity of defeat.

The third possible response to a destructive impulse is to let it go compassionately. We inwardly relax in front of it. We let the destructive impulse be there, but we do not act on it. And we do not fight. We do not raise a loud and obvious No. We just see the impulse, see that it is part of us, choose not to act on it out of service to the sacred, let the impulse be there, relax with compassion toward this destructive part, give it room to dissipate, and let it wane until it vanishes, merged into our being. This seeing our destructive impulse and relaxing with compassion for it, compassion for ourself, reintegrates and heals us. This is the path toward wholeness.

For this week, notice a habit or tendency that limits your capacity for, or diverts you from, presence. Ask yourself whether you should struggle with it and how. And then work to stop or diminish that habit or tendency. Keep in mind the spiritual purpose of your struggle.


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