Turn and Face
"Seek the wisdom that will untie your knot. Seek the path that demands your whole being.”
The wisdom teachers of every tradition encourage us to become whole human beings. As I have written about before, the spiritual purpose of life it to grow into our fullness—to burn away all that is false, inauthentic or too small for us, and to distill ourselves down to that which is true, beautiful and boundless in us. It is by finding the spark of our true spiritual light, and living from that life empowering source of wisdom and love, that we are able to experience and express the authenticity, joy, beauty and grace of our divine nature and build lives that are connected, integrated, whole and life-giving.
But Rumi reminds us that as humans we will find ourselves tied up in knots and walking the wrong paths. This isn’t just a possibility, rather, it is part of the developmental process of life and part of the spiritual journey to wholeness. As humans we learn by trial and error; by experiencing life in all its forms and making choices along the way that lead us to more experiences and more choices, in an endless cycle of learning through living. When we live life as a spiritual journey, every experience offers us the opportunity to discover who we really are, and every challenge gives us the opportunity to choose whether we will stretch and grow or shrink and hide.
Most of us spend the first half of life living in the lower triangle of our spiritual operating system, where the small self is running the show. The small self is like an inner dictator who operates on the pain or pleasure principle and narcissistically focuses on the external world. Anyone who has watched a toddler engage in a raging temper tantrum has had a glimpse of how our small self operates. With age and experience, it gets better at meeting its needs through more socially acceptable and manipulative means, but in many ways our small self is essentially a frustrated toddler. It thinks it is in charge of the ride and it uses every experience of life to get what it wants. Its job is to avoid discomfort or exposure and to protect itself at any cost from pain and suffering. It records and stores every experience of life, and then makes up operational stories from those experiences to maximize safety and pleasure and to minimize disruption and pain. It restrains our more authentic impulses and controls our deeper yearnings, because the risk analysis of following these truer paths reveals outcomes that are unknown and uncertain, and therefore unsafe. In the process of managing for maximum safety, it ties us up in knots and steers us down the wrong roads in reactive and unconscious patterns born of our more difficult or challenging life experiences, and steals away our richer and fuller possibilities as humans.
Consequently, the lower triangle becomes a storehouse of unexamined pain, shame, disappointment, depression, anxiety, grief and suffering, and it can quickly bubble up with self-pity, judgment, resentment, jealousy and blame. Understandably, the small self does its best not to repeat negative experiences and to outrun and avoid these difficult feelings with busyness, addictions, control mechanisms, defensiveness and denial. It can’t stand and face its own pain, much less see, feel and experience the pain and suffering of others. The small self learns not to look at pain too deeply and instead develops life numbing coping patterns in response to all the struggle and trauma it has experienced; the deeper the pain, the more intractable the patterns it develops to protect itself in the future. Now let’s be clear that some of these patterns can look very functional. The pleaser, pretender, performer, problem-solver and perfectionist patterns, for example, are highly effective front operations that are covering over the pain and suffering of our past, but these fear based patterns also keep us feeling cut off and separated from the hidden or shadow parts of ourselves or our histories, so even the most accomplished among us can feel like phonies and frauds that will eventually be exposed or undone. If you say this sounds like an exhausting and life draining way to live, you are right. And these patterns are even more life depleting when the world is swirling around us in chaos like it is today, putting our small self into desperate and perpetually spinning reactions to all the perceived threats, real and imagined, that make us feel overwhelmed and panicked about where life is leading.
So, what is the alternative to life on this wheel of suffering and how can we become whole and happy humans that are free of these life-numbing, joy stealing patterns? The answer to this question as they say, is simple but not easy: We must make the shift from our lower triangle small self to our upper triangle Soul Self. We can’t be whole human beings with rich and balanced lives unless and until we move the ego-centric, fear-based, pain-avoidant small self to the metaphoric back seat of the car and find a new driver. If we don’t, we will just continue to chase external fixes for our suffering selves, while re-creating patterns of pain and struggle through chapter after chapter of our lives, always wondering why we feel hollow and empty inside. Tragically, we are often so accustomed to the dance, so stuck in our patterns, and so deep in denial, that we may not even notice the toll it is taking on us and on those we love until a significant loss, life crisis or critical illness shows up to get our attention.
The great breaking news, however, is that there is another way to live. If we are courageous enough to stand in awareness as we turn and face our patterns, either slowly or suddenly we will have a breakthrough experience that reminds us that we don’t want to live this way and there must be a better option. What is breaking through is the small, still voice of our Soul Self, encouraging us to surrender the patterns of protection and to take down the walls of separation constructed by our small self, so we might emerge into a more authentic way of being. The path to our soul runs through the heart and it begins with our willingness to take a deep breath from this powerful spiritual center and turn and face ourselves and our patterns with all the love and compassion we can muster.
When we can turn and face our own suffering and all the experiences life has offered from the level of our soul, we can learn important spiritual lessons and make new choices that activate our higher possibilities. We have to be willing to hold ourselves with compassion, to listen to the broken stories of our past with kindness and courage, and to risk moving through the pain until we can look with love upon ourselves and our lives and choose to begin again. When we can turn and face our pain and our past, we can integrate the lessons of our lives and release the suffering that holds us hostage. When we can turn and face the difficult people of our lives with acceptance and awareness, eventually we can learn to forgive them all, especially ourselves, and let go of the debilitating ways we learned to cope and survive in a fear-based, broken and complicated world.
If we can live by the guiding wisdom of our soul, we can become integrated and whole human beings with the power to change our individual and collective lives. If we can face our individual pain and heal it, we can face our collective pain and heal that too. Whole human beings can notice the imbalances of the world we live in and can see the suffering of the planet in our climate, our race relations, our toxic politics, our economic injustices and our global pandemics. Whole human beings make better friends, partners, parents, bosses and leaders. Whole human beings use compassion, love, empathy and wisdom as transformational forces. Whole humans beings turn and face the pain and suffering and grief in their homes, communities and countries, and anchor the possibility of collective healing and growth.
Our individual spiritual health and well-being requires that we tell our small selves to stand down and let our Soul Self direct our way. Our collective spiritual health and the well-being of the planet requires that more of us turn toward wholeness and lead the healing and transformation of the world. Your soul wants to lead, are you ready?
Wishing you the blessings and light of the Soul, as you create the life you imagine.