Thursday, March 26, 2009

Soul-making as Spiritual Isometrics

Jesus said, "The person old in days won't hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live.” Gospel of Thomas, Saying 4

Why Can Life Be So Difficult?

The first truth the Buddha realized when he woke up under his Meditation Tree was this, “Life is suffering.” This troubles many of us in the West as being far too pessimistic. We prefer to turn lemons into lemonade, but sometimes we are out of sugar. Is there are a purpose in getting so many lemons in life? I think there is – we are in a soul-making gym, and our nascent soul muscles must develop or atrophy.

Infants Grow Through Resistance

The newborn infant is a perfect example. He is aggressively squeezed from his mother’s womb by powerful uterine contractions. Immediately after birth, whenever anything resembling a nipple comes near his mouth, his little head rolls toward it and his lips start smacking. Once he gets hold, he clamps down and begins to suckle insatiably. In Greek mythology, baby Hercules suckled at Hera’s breast with such excruciating force that she pulled him away and the resultant stream of milk that spilled across the inky sky became the Milky Way Galaxy.

Babies grab at fingers and strain to focus their eyes on moving objects. They wiggle, scream, cry and thrust their limbs about. They struggle against gravity, the floor, the crib and a thousand other obstacles, trying to roll over, crawl, sit up, stand, walk and talk.

Purposeful Struggles

You see, there is a purpose in these innate impulses that compel the baby to fight gravity and push against immovable forces, namely, to develop muscles, joints and a strong skeletal structure. Without his insatiable desire to defy gravity, struggle against solid objects and defy physical laws, he would never develop and grow. The word for this is isometrics. Isometric exercise is a method to increase muscle and joint strength through encountering resistance. Babies grow up by meeting and moving through the resistance of obstacles.

Spiritual Isometrics

The life of soul-making is mirrored in the infant. Perhaps that is why the Gospel of Thomas says, “Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, ‘These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father's) kingdom.’"

These infants demonstrate the insatiable and innate human desire to struggle physically, intellectually and emotionally. In each of these arenas, there are obstacles that frustrate our desires and create chronic resistance in order to develop ‘soul-muscles.’ From the cradle to the casket, life is fraught with immovable or resistant forces of opposition that frustrate our innate desires in order to cause us to expand soulfully.

Why is Life so Hard?!

I used to build houses with a carpenter, who at some point in the work day would yell out from some distant corner of the new house, “WHY!?” There would be a five second pause, and I could imagine him looking at a wall he had just built in the wrong place, or a board he had cut too short, and then another cry,


A pause…then finally the ultimate philosophical inquiry, ‘WHY DOES LIFE HAVE TO BE SOOOOOO %#@#ing HARD!”

Soul-making is Done Through the Mundane

Soul-making is not done primarily in seminaries or church pews by professional clergy and the spiritually devout; nor is it done primarily by psychiatrists or philosophers. Souls are most deeply made in the daily grind of workplace frustrations, family irritations and midnight panic attacks, not the evening meditation with sandalwood incense swirling from a burning stick.

Spiritual Olympics

Planet earth is a kind of soul-gym preparing us for the spiritual Olympics. Before an athlete comes to his or her Olympic event, there are a lot of boring workouts with heavy weights. There are myriad failures along the way. Yet there is a purpose in every aching muscle leading up to the grand event. The mind-numbing and difficult daily resistance of weights, of feet pounding against the hard cinder track or countless strokes in a training pool increase muscle, lung and heart stamina. And even more importantly, after the Olympic event is over, whether the athlete wins or loses, she takes her stronger body and developed character with her into the rest of life, and likely beyond this life. That is how soul-making works.

Necessary Oppositions

It is likely that some who are reading this are now in the soul-gym working out. You are experiencing resistance through some kind of loss or tragedy that is producing worry, fear, frustration and sadness. Why? These emotions are normal, necessary and purposeful. They are the flaccid muscles and undeveloped soul-body encountering the weights of daily life - pressing, pushing, yielding, learning and moving us to the next place.

Most people who go back to church do so because their life is falling apart, not because they are in pure bliss. Those who buy self help books, start therapy, begin reflecting over their lives, start donating time and money to charities, and get involved in recovery groups do so because they are in pain. Like newborns, their frustrated desires compel them to seek resolution as they encounter pathological resistances. Like newborns, their strength comes BECAUSE of their weakness, as the Apostle Paul said in the New Testament. The 'dysfunction' is divinely functional!

Some teachers will tell you that your problems are the sole result of your sin or dysfunctional ego, or that you are spiritually ignorant and need to get with it. They may give you a pep talk, chastise your ignorance or pass on some 'secret' formula to transcend your problems.

And yes, some of our problems are caused by us, and some of these teachings can be extremely helpful to get us out of ignorance. But not always. Most of us have had the experience of the applying these mystical teachings with rigor, only to find the same obstructions and negative emotions coming back again and again. We then add guilt to failure and despair to our perceived dysfunction and inability. Keep in mind that a developing soul caught in pathology is no more dysfunctional than an infant that cannot sit up without toppling over. Isometrics! The resistance increases strength. That is how it works. God help us when we see Childhood Toppling Over Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual!

There is no shortcut to soul-making! Difficult emotions are as normal and necessary as the flaccid muscles of a baby. Like weak muscles, our ‘bad’ feelings are our purposeful resistances that come to build soul. That is why every sacred text, including Homer’s Iliad, the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran and The Lord of the Rings is a story of war and resistance. Every so called 'bad feeling' is an amazing soul-muscle waiting to be built. And you do not have to seek out or pray for experiences of resistance, because day to day existence will bring plenty onto your path! Let me repeat, that is why we are on this planet!

I am not advocating for self induced or unnecessary distress. I am not teaching poverty, sickness or pessimism consciousness. I suggest that you awake each morning affirming ease, order, health, wealth and the Good. But don’t feel like a failure when the soul-making emotions and thoughts of resistance come flooding in. These fears, depressions, conflicts and anxieties that ‘pop into’ the mind and heart are normal, natural and instinctive obstacles that build soul muscle and spiritual character.

There is Nothing Wrong With You!

Yes, life can feel very wrong, and we can even call it ‘wrong’ or ‘bad,’ but it is not Cosmically Wrong. Again, watch a newborn baby desiring and struggling, and you will see the way life on this planet works. Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas, "The person old in days won't hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live.” {Saying 4} Soul-making takes place by going through these life exercises. Find good trainers, teachers, spiritual exercise manuals, effective soul workout routines, helpful churches, conscious therapists, positive prayer and everything you can to build soul. And please, become like an infant, and meet the resistances as a necessary part of the process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael. I so appreciate your insight and perspective, because life has felt pretty difficult lately. I've often found myself wondering "What is WRONG with me?! Why can't I get it together to do this, that, or the other thing, etc. It's very difficult to tolerate that discomfort at times, I just want to feel "positive" again. I get tired of cheerleader-type pep talks in my spiritual community from well-meaning people. It's very helpful to be reminded that all of life is part of soul-making, not just the "good" parts or the ones we find comfortable and enjoyable. So thanks again.