“The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know—and their name is legion—how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.
So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not themself learned how to live in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.”
The above quote was from Joseph Campbell. It comes to mind as I think about a conversation I had with a friend recently. My friend has started to devote herself to daily spiritual practices and she is simultaneously coping with painful childhood memories which seem to arise as she engages more deeply in her spiritual practices. My friend is dealing with her issues by seeing a therapist, speaking to her parents, and staying focused on her daily practice of sitting meditation, mindfulness, eating fresh healthy food and getting plenty of physical exercise outdoors.
Even though my friend is doing all of these things, she still holds a lot of stress in her body, and finds herself working very hard to please others, both at work and in her social life. As we spoke more about her childhood, she admitted that although her parents parted amicably in divorce and she had a reasonably stable life shared between two households, she still carries disappointment of her expectations for a home where her mother and father were together and lived happily ever after. Now in her adult life, she attracts situations where there is conflict and she is the one who is working hard at keeping it all together.
My friend asked why, despite everything she has done and continues to do, to heal her life, she is still in pain and continuing to attract unhealthy relationships with women in her life. I had no answer for her. I do know that this is the way it just is. In life we suffer loss after loss, it is just the nature of physical reality. Our friends move away to a distant location. Our children grow up and leave the nest. Relationships end. Our jobs get downsized. Students must leave their teachers and become autonomous. People die. All these experiences in life cannot be avoided, but how we live with these losses will determine how well we live life, whether we “learned how to live in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.”
It is interesting that even though my friend thought that she had already dealt with her childhood issues through years of therapy and personal growth work, the sadness and disappointment is still coming up. Teachers of eastern spiritual practices tell us that as we go deeper, our impurities come up to be cleared away. They recommend that we stay with the practices of mindfulness, meditation and chanting to keep clearing these impurities. By impurities, they mean all the past impressions of pain and suffering we hold in our physical and etheric bodies. When we are not able to let go of our experiences, energy does not flow but becomes trapped. As we begin to loosen these “knots” of past impressions through spiritual practices, we revisit these painful areas that we may not remember, since they may have even originated in past lives.
The Buddhist practice of Loving-Kindness and compassion is a way to cope with these painful memories as they arise. It is when we say “yes” to what is, opening to the pain, allowing it to be there with a loving, heartfelt kindness to our selves, that we are able to truly let go. It is paradoxical that it is in feeling the pain, that we can let it go and uncover the joy that was masked by what we held on to. And as Joseph Campbell implied in his quote, it is only when we embrace the good along with the bad and the ugly that we can become enlightened.
I suggested to my friend that she might perhaps want to explore doing some forgiveness work around her childhood issues, that perhaps, even though she has come to terms with what was, she needs to take it further. In practicing forgiveness, we make peace with ourselves and all the ghosts of the past. It is a way of truly letting go. We are told to forgive, but we are not taught how to do it. In my next post I will write on what I learned about the process of forgiveness.