Selling Spirituality – where on the package does it say no pain – no gain?

Without qualification we accept that a personal sense of self (an ‘I’ that does things and a ‘me’ to whom things are done) is essential for a healthy, happy every-day kind of life.

Yet throughout history mystics from all religions have sought the opposite experience of ‘no-self’ to grasp the ultimate truth – a reality so vastly different from that otherwise experienced that the only way to describe it, is to describe what it is not.

Today, it’s more fashionable than ever to pursue such spiritual enlightenment in any number of well-marketed ways.  Wander through the appropriate section in your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean.  Although consumers of spirituality may not know exactly what it is that they seek, they are certain that once they’ve found it they’ll have achieved an infinite love and bliss they couldn’t have afforded to miss.

But what if it isn’t like that?

I’ve just read Suzanne Segal’s biography Collision with the Infinite – A life Beyond the Personal Self.  In it she relates that rather than being joyful, the experience of ‘selflessness’ engenders such fear, loneliness, and profound disorientation that she was marked by society as pathologically ‘disordered’ or even insane.

I find it stunning in such a psychologically and spiritually progressive society as our own, that after her enlightenment it took Suzanne over twelve years and ten therapists to find anyone who remotely understood what she was going through.

As she so eloquently puts it:

“People have always looked for things they can navigate by, signs that point the way and tell them when they have arrived at their destination.  The interpretations of spiritual experiences have been managed or organised by this need to navigate and thereby lost their validity.”

Does this suggest we ought not to seek spiritual enlightenment?  I think not.  But what it might mean is that before we start down any path, we ought to find out more about it than what’s promised on the tin.

Suzanne started her own quest though transcendental meditation.  Years after she’d stopped practicing, she got more than she bargained for.  Ultimately, she found the answers she’d been seeking.  But the process was long and hard and above-all painful both for herself and for those around her who cared.  As the saying goes (and Suzanne discovered), ‘no pain no gain’.