What makes us pursue the path of self-help and recovery?
In the past decade, the Spiritual Growth and Self Help sections of most western bookstores have burgeoned to the point of overwhelming choices. You may even begin to wonder whether you have some heretofore unknown issue just by reading all the titles. The healing options for the resident or visitor to Bali who want to immerse themselves in a life-altering experience, are even more alluring. You can be sound healed, chakra realigned, Rolfed, water blessed, or visit an electrical energetic woman, just to name a few. If you don’t have any issues in this life then certainly someone can help you find the past life in which you did.
The question is, what separates true recovery from faddish explorations of self that may be fun or intriguing but rarely lead to authentic transformation?
It’s been said that coming to Bali is like having a magnifying glass held up to a mirror. Yet, the Balinese themselves appear to be a group that models serenity and acceptance of life’s challenges without having to “work on themselves” in the process. How have they achieved what we have come here searching for? Is this an outsider’s illusion of this culture? Are the collective expat navel gazing exercises just the narcissistic indulgence of westerners with either too much time or money?
Still, there is another group of people seeking help and recovery, not just in Bali, but worldwide. You might not find them at the cool and hip healer collectives, but these are the people who have not chosen a path of recovery as much as it has chosen them; victims of sexual abuse, alcoholic marriages, abusive relationships, natural disasters, and brutal regimes. Whatever the source, trauma can put victims onto the very path that spiritual seekers have been walking for thousands of years. The difference is that victims of trauma must explore this territory or be consumed by it. Non-traumatized seekers have the choice of getting off the path voluntarily, for theirs is not a life or death struggle.
While the experience of trauma is very subjective, the impact it has on our psyche shares a common quality – it shakes the profound illusion of being in control of our lives to its core. Some may argue that rape is more traumatic than uncomfortable “leers” from an uncle, yet both can equally disrupt our sense of self and others.
Robert Grant, in his profound book The Way of the Wound, writes, “Trauma forces victims to confront realms of being that exist outside of ego and collective consciousness. The soul, along with various existential/spiritual vulnerabilities, demands recognition. In displacing the ego, trauma demonstrates that no individual is entirely sufficient or a god unto himself. If health is to be restored then the help of the Spirit and others are required.“
Trauma exposes aspects of reality that many of us would prefer to ignore. Is the Universe kind? If so, then why do bad things happen to good people? Is there a power greater than us? If so, how do we explain the depravity and injustice that appears rampant? Is there anything we can trust or take for granted? Or can any of us be unwittingly exposed to random acts of unkindness? Trauma poses deep philosophical questions and the answers are rarely easy.
Too often, spiritual platitudes can get in the way of true healing. Forgiveness may be the path to freedom, but moving into that territory too quickly can prevent us from embracing one of the most easily misunderstood truisms of nondual philosophy – “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” If you genuinely believe that, then what we came here to do is experience the duality, not transcend it.
But why would anyone choose trauma, even at a soul level? The reason perhaps, is to go beyond it. A few years ago, for no other reason than pure greed, someone set out to destroy a business I had worked tirelessly for over a decade to create. My suffering was made worse by new age truisms such as “you create your reality” or “like attracts like”. I was determined to figure out how this had happened to me. Unfortunately, all this did was reinforce my vice grip delusion that “if I can understand it, I can control it”, which further delayed my healing and recovery. From this experience, I have learned that asking “why” is an inane question. Instead, you must always ask “what”. In other words, seeking solace in coming to grips with why a trauma has happened to you is not nearly as important as asking what you want your response to be. What future do you want to create from your actions and responses?
There is a wonderful scene in the movie Vertical Limit in which a team of expert climbers has assembled to rescue a hurt “celebrity” climber on K2. The weather conditions are deteriorating, it is getting late, and time is running out before the injured climber will die of a pulmonary edema. In the middle of this high-stress search and rescue, one of the Muslim team members stops on the ice covered mountain to pray, even pulling out his prayer mat. His companion, in exasperation, asks, “won’t God give you a pass on this right now?” The Muslim’s response is “I don’t pray because of what God wants but because of who I want to be”.
What if your reason for being here was to allow yourself the chance to fully express who you want to be? How would it change how you responded to life? Even during the hard times or when you’ve experienced tragedy, abuse, or horror – can you stand in the face of what life has handed you and not let it change who you are or how you act towards others? This is the profound and hard work of true recovery.
This ability to transcend the horrible is beautifully expressed in the opening of the book Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free – free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.”
When you embrace and accept this, your life will shift. What others do to you won’t matter because you realize that the only thing you can control is yourself. Life may happen, but no one can take your serenity or force you to respond in ways that are inconsistent with who you want to be. Once you get to that place, forgiveness will come, not from a place of fortitude, but rather from the knowledge that there is a gift in even our darkest experiences. As Michael Beckwith says, “the pain pushes until the vision pulls.” At that point, you will realize that the demons in your life were really angels just helping you along your path and bringing you home.