BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE
Episode 12: "The purpose of a spiritual friend is to insult you." In this episode, we use Trungpa Rinpoche's words to explore the hidden gift that lives embedded in all of life's difficulties and how we can use a specific type of practice to create ever greater measures of inner peace and joy, despite what life brings our way.
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“The purpose of a spiritual friend is to insult you.”
Welcome to This Perfect Moment, a podcast dedicated to helping you use ancient wisdom to unlock your life of radical happiness, connection, and meaning. Right here. Right now. I'm your host Eric Walrabenstein, and I'm glad you're here.
So many of us have a less than complete idea about our spiritual practices.
We believe they should be nourishing.
We believe they should be calming.
We believe they should bring about a deep and abiding sense of inner peace.
And while this is partially true, with this thinking we're missing out on at least half of the growth, the transformation, the opportunity for living a more joyous and more connected life.
This quote from the late Buddhist teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche opens the door to this possibility. "The purpose of a spiritual friend is to insult you", he famously said, but he could have just as easily said, “the purpose of a spiritual practice is to irritate you”.
Now, I know, insult, irritate, doesn't sound very spiritual at all, and that's true right up until we really understand how it all can work.
We can look to almost any tradition and its scriptures will tell us a similar story: inner peace or inner stillness or silence, if you prefer, is central to one's realization. In Psalms, the Bible tells us to seek peace and pursue it. In the Tao Te Ching, we're counseled to abide in steadfast stillness. And in the Bhagavad Gita we're told the path to union with Lord is stillness and peace.
So, from a spiritual point of view, inner peace can be thought of as the doorway to the experience of the divine, to God, our truest essence, or to the truth.
It's no accident that churches and mosques and temples and monasteries are quiet sanctuaries removed from the distracted hustle and bustle of daily life.
But inner peace is not just for those who are on a conscious spiritual journey. Because in many ways inner peace is like the secret sauce of life. No matter who you are or what you want.
The businessperson grinding it out to make her first million is really after inner peace that comes when the feelings of lack and financial hardship are gone. And the young man painstakingly putting his match.com profile together is really after the inner peace that comes when the angst of loneliness has been lifted. And even the eager college graduate struggling to start the nonprofit to save the oceans is really after the inner peace that comes when the feeling that she doesn't matter goes away.
Even though we may not realize it all roads, in one way or another, lead to inner peace. It's the game we're all playing, know it or not.
Here's the good news. Creating inner peace is easy and most of us are pretty darn good at creating it in all sorts of ways. We go to a movie, we take a vacation, or we plop ourselves into a hot tub with a glass of Chardonnay and inner peace, with a fair bit of reliability, pays us a warm and cozy visit. I mean look around you just about anywhere and you'll see throngs of people busy in all kinds of activities that have proven to bring them the inner peace they crave.
But if inner peace is so, well, darn easy to create, why does it seem so hard? Well, it's this, while inner peace is easy lasting inner peace is not.
Sooner or later the movie ends, we have to go back to work, or we turn into an overheated, waterlogged prune and out of the hot tub we go. The real issue is that we haven't been taught how to create inner peace reliably and lastingly. And that's because somehow, we've come to believe that it comes from the outside.
And so, we rely on the most unreliable thing in the world to do the work: our external circumstances. I mean look in the mirror and you'll see we've all been taught to do the right things, make the right money, hang out with the right people, and even worship the right God, and then you'll be rewarded with the coveted gift of inner peace. Or so the logic goes.
All I need to do is to get everything and everyone to cooperate with how I want things to be and I'll feel great. Simple. But just in case you haven't been paying attention everything and everyone aren't as cooperative as we like.
And in fact, we ourselves are sometimes not as cooperative as we'd like and when they aren't, when we aren't, we're screwed.
The real issue then when it comes to finding inner peace, and this is whether it's for spiritual or other purposes, it's not as much about finding inner peace as it is doing so reliably, lastingly, at will. Creating it during the high times and creating it during the inevitable low times. That’s the secret.
And this is why we want to be clear that inner peace is really not what we're after. Not exactly. It's unconditional inner peace. That's the true name of the game. By unconditional we mean inner peace that is not dependent on what's going on around us. It doesn't depend on me being at the movies. It isn't disturbed by my boss not appreciating me and it isn't reliant upon the kids doing their chores.
The ancient masters saw this conundrum all too clearly and that's why they developed a whole range of practices and rituals and exercises that would help us to create this kind of independent freedom for ourselves, this unconditional inner peace, a kind of inner peace that doesn't depend upon how fast the traffic is moving, how much money's in the bank account or what the number on the bathroom scale is.
And, as you may have guessed, these can be, no, these are the most life changing practices of all and that's because they have the power to literally renew and rejuvenate every corner of our lives because they free us from our war to get everything around us to cooperate with our agendas and preferences. And as a result, we get access to a relief, to a calm, to a peace wherever we go. Its time more people knew about them.
We can divide the world of spiritual practices into two distinct categories, what I call because practices and what I call despite practices.
Because practices are those that align rather neatly with the expectation that spiritual and religious practices should nurture and calm us.
These are the practices or rituals that are those where we find ourselves steeped in relatively more inner peace because we are doing them. Think of a soothing, guided meditation that coos you into a deep sense of calm and spaciousness; or the practice of devotional chanting that fills your heart with reverence and love; or even the more mundane examples of the hot tub or the movie with a friend. All of these would fall under the category of because--that is, right now I'm relaxed and peaceful because I'm doing this relaxation exercise, because I'm chanting or singing hymns, because I'm at the movies or in the hot tub.
Now, because practices are fine. More than fine, actually, they're important. They provide us with much needed respite from the harried pace of our busy lives.
They help us to reset our overstimulated nervous systems to their natural relaxed balance and provide us with time and space for introspection or communion. But alone, because practices leave us with an incomplete solution, they leave our growth stagnant. They leave us stalled.
You see, if you can only find inner peace because of the circumstances in which you find yourself, you unwittingly become a hostage to your circumstances. That means to leave behind the stress or the anxiety or the frustration or the worry, you have no choice but to struggle and to strive and actually go to war with everybody and everyone around you to get them to cooperate with how you need them to be, and when the world cooperates, we get inner peace.
When the world does not cooperate, we get struggle, anxiety, frustration, and anger.
And just in case you haven't been paying attention, more often than not, the world doesn't cooperate.
Where the because practice lulls us into a state of inner peace because we're doing it, as you may have guessed, a despite practice does just the opposite. You might think of a despite practice as an intentional irritant, one that double dog dares us to be peaceful despite the aggravation.
Think of the impossible yoga posture that seems to laugh in your face, or the miserably cold and austere accommodations that is in monastery, or even the aching legs in a prolonged meditation session and you'll get the idea. And even though despite practices are a heck of a lot more uncomfortable, the truth is they are also much more powerful, at least when it comes to helping us find that coveted unconditional inner peace.
You see, despite practices when used correctly are designed to sculpt our neurology. They change the way our brains and nervous systems process experience and therefore they change the thoughts that we think, and they change the feelings that we feel.
Remember every moment of every day, your brain and nervous system is literally manufacturing the thoughts and feelings that you're experiencing. And that's why it's fair to say that your neurology, your brain, is much more responsible for your inner peace or lack thereof, than the circumstances in which you find yourself. And that's why getting your brain to work for your inner peace instead of against it is the key. And this is where our despite practices come in.
I started my meditation practice over 30 years ago, and in that time, I’ve spent literally thousands upon thousands of hours on the cushion, motionless.
Funny thing though, for the first, I don't know, many, many years and hundreds of hours of meditation, I wasn't really meditating.
Despite the fact that I was sitting in a meditation posture on a meditation cushion, oftentimes in a meditation hall, I wasn't meditating at all. I was waiting. Waiting for my back to stop aching, waiting for my legs to stop hurting, waiting for my mind to stop racing, or waiting for the Lord himself to descend from the heavens and with his golden finger of divine Shakti touch me between my eyebrows and bestow upon me perfect enlightenment.
And of course, none of it came to be. And in a large part because, and here's the blinding flash of the obvious-- waiting is not meditating.
So, in reality, I spent years telling myself that I was meditating when I really wasn't and worse, my confusion robbed me of the amazing blessings that meditation has since brought to me, those that I now enjoy each and every day. And this was all because I thought meditation was a because practice.
I had somehow come to believe that meditation was supposed to make me calm, make me focus, make me spiritual. And when it didn't, I felt like I was failing. So, I waited. What I didn't realize is what Zen master Suzuki Roshi used to tell his students, "Hell isn't punishment, it's training."
Over the years, I've taught meditation of various types to thousands of students around the world, and I can't tell you how many times I've been asked, "how long until my legs don't hurt anymore so I can meditate like you?."
It always gives me a chuckle. Now, I always fire back the same answer, which is "who said my legs don't hurt?" before explaining the opportunities inherent in a despite practice.
You see, while I'm sitting up there at the front of the room, upright, motionless, silent, my legs hurt, my back aches and yes, sometimes my mind races, but here's the critical thing.
None of those disturb me any longer. They don't affect my inner peace. You see when people think that meditation is supposed to be peaceful and blissful, and in fact it sometimes is, but when we think it should be, it should make us calm, like always, we're thinking of it as a because practice and when we do, we do a tremendous disservice to ourselves for really one of two possible reasons.
First, when you believe your meditation should be peaceful and it isn't, you're much more likely to quit. You compare how you feel in meditation to the blissful descriptions you read in some misguided book and noting the discrepancy between the two, you feel like a failure. Your mind then spins a story that you're just not cut out for meditation and then you walk away from what is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest opportunities of your life.
And by the way, just for the record, saying that your mind is too busy to meditate is like saying that you're too sick to go to the doctor.
Now, the second possibility is that you could, like your good old friend Eric here, slide into a kind of waiting. Waiting for the legs to get more flexible so that I can finally calm the mind or waiting for the mind to cooperate so I can get down to the real spiritual work. It's important to note that this kind of waiting is a nasty little habit that poisons not only our meditation and practices, but every other corner of our life as well. Like waiting all year for vacation so I can finally relax, or like waiting out a 20-year dreary job for retirement so I can finally live the life I want.
This habit of waiting is a powerful saboteur of our best lives, keeping piles of unnecessary misery on top of us, but that's an investigation for another time.
So, back to despite.
The important thing to note here is that in either one of these cases, when I believe my meditation to be a because practice, I miss the real opportunity that meditation has to change my life.
Remember the Holy Grail is not inner peace, it's unconditional inner peace. And that's something that can only come from making changes to the way our brains and nervous systems process our experience. It comes from us deliberately changing our reaction to life's irritants.
Now, while this may go without saying, I'll say it anyway. If you wish to change the way your brain reacts to irritants, you've got to have some irritants to work with, and this is where your despite practices come in.
While it's true, our despite practices can create undeniably amazing shifts in our lives, they've got to be performed in a particular way if you're going to reap those benefits. Here's the thing, it's not enough to experience an irritant.
I mean, if that's as far as you go, your brain will simply process the irritant in the same way that it always has. Sit in the irritant that is a traffic jam while muttering under your breath, or meet the rebellious teenager with frustration and derision, and you'll just be deepening the existing habits and tendencies in your brain that are leaving you anxious, frustrated, or worse. In the words of Henry Ford, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got". And this isn't just some hallmark wisdom, it's a neurological fact.
So, if unconditional inner peace is what we're really after, we've got to do more. Specifically, we need to deliberately intervene and change the way we react.
We must stay calm with the irritants that would usually agitate us. We must accept the irritants that would typically cause us to struggle. We must relax with the irritants that would usually send us into fine fit of the fan tots. From the traffic, to the teenager, to the boss.
When we do this consciously and deliberately, we're creating new neural connections in our brains. Literally. These are connections that will leave us more calm, more often, effortlessly and spontaneously. And it is with this begins a new chapter in our growth, our evolution, and our life.
Our despite practices help us to see the most important truth: that the challenges and difficulties in our lives are not obstacles to be avoided, but they're opportunities to be exploited.
We see that so many of the things that we've been struggling to avoid or hoping to sidestep or praying to be relieved of are actually the raw materials we need for our liberation.
And finally, we're able to see clearly that the real secret to a joyous and abundant life lies not in learning how to be comfortable, but it's in our ability to be comfortable while being uncomfortable. That's where everything changes.
Well, that's all we have time for today. My wish is that our discussion here will in some small way help you to invite ever greater measures of happiness and ease into your life. As always, I'd love to hear from you, and I welcome all comments and questions. So, do drop me a note from my website at ericwal.com.
Also, if you could do me the kindness of spreading the word about these amazing ancient teachings by sharing the podcast with friends and family, I'd be more thankful than you can believe. And don't forget to hit subscribe so you don't miss out on future episodes. Thanks again and remember, I'm grateful for you. So if there's anything I can do to be of service, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
I'm wishing you a wonderful week of more and more ease despite what comes. I'll see you next time.