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Spiritual Desperation

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

If you have never felt spiritual desperation, you are either buried up to your third eye in feel-good fantasy, or you have left the planet.

MA was once asked: How does one enter the stream? (”Entering the stream” means to commit oneself irrevocably to the spiritual “tide.”)

She replied: “To ask this question with desperate eagerness.”

Desperate eagerness, or plain old desperation, is not just something practitioners feel now and then: it is the means to greater realization.

When I first began studying Tantra, I did not know I was desperate. I did not have much of a sense of suffering. In fact, I denigrated those who came to spiritual practice because they felt pain and were looking for a way out. I prided myself on being a self-confident, independent, explorer of Reality.

I didn’t know that those with more awareness of pain were sometimes more firmly on the path than I was.

After a short time of practicing under the guidance of my teacher, I realized how fettered I was by my habits and self concepts. I began to feel that I was in a prison of compulsion. I began to be uncomfortably aware of my own condition. I also realized how ignorant I had previously been.

A desperate longing to escape my own compulsive self-concepts and behaviors set in.

I wanted to break through these as quickly as possible! I entered into a phase of spiritual exertion. I practiced long hours and even made myself sick at times.

But I did learn and begin to relax a little bit, if even out of pure exhaustion!

Over the years, my practice softened, and I learned more about Reality. Now I wanted to be able to participate more fully. I remember telling my teacher that I felt like a person sitting on the sidelines of a sporting event. I could see the game, but I didn’t yet know how to play.

My desperation took the form of wanting to understand and embody more so that I could enjoy those greater capacities. I was still very “I” focused, but my sphere of desperation had enlarged somewhat.

This movement from trying to escape what we believe are external circumstances, to trying to escape what we have recognized as our own fixations, to wanting greater knowledge and capacity for ourselves, are common stages of desperation that people go through as a result of entering into a spiritual tradition and practice.

And in our knowledge- and capacity-obsessed culture, this is often where people get stuck. Many people never move beyond what Chogyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism.” Spiritual materialism is any orientation toward our practice that is not founded on an embodied understanding that individuality is an ephemeral, groundless experience. When we do not know this, we still orient our lives, including our spiritual lives, around fear and self-defensive measures, including desperately acquiring knowledge and skills.

In order to relax these tensions, we must begin to embody the direct perception of the fundamental openness of our existence. This happens through our awakening to, and integration with, transmission from our teachers and the transmissions of unconditioned life that we discover through our practice.

Only when we reach this point can we begin to express the more subtle, expansive modes of spiritual desperation.

I know this sounds rather odd to those who think that spiritual practice should banish all desperation. However, spiritual desperation is a great power. It is none other than Shakti on her return to Shiva.

As the tensions of self concept begin to drop away, desperation refines and expands into subtle forms of longing that bring one into profound intimacy with the world and to true compassion, or the longing for the realization of everyone. Anyone who has experienced the compassion of a great being knows its force. But even this is not the ultimate. There are infinite expressions of longing, subtler and subtler. These ultra-refined traces of the movement of Shakti on her way home cannot be described or enumerated.

As we awaken, we awaken to longing. At first it is intermittent. Then we notice its song playing continuously. Longing becomes our guide through the maze of life’s distractions, and eventually, it blots out all distractions, and we enter the stream.

In Matriseva,

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