This year I’ve been undergoing herbal treatments to heal endometriosis. It’s hard for me to call it what it is, but it’s a disease. There is dis-ease in the body and it has evolved into something serious. Thankfully the herbal treatments, combined with some changes in my diet and nutritional intake, are proving to show very promising signs of my body’s healing. But the healing process of a physical disease like this takes time. And it’s messy. As one of my herbalists said earlier this year, “The process of healing is not a straight line.”
The same is true when healing from our limiting mind and small self. There are ups and downs. Sometimes it seems like we’re making remarkable progress and then other times it appears we’ve taken a terrible turn toward regression. My teacher Thomas Keating likens it to a spiral figuration in which we move simultaneously through ascension and descent. Our beloved Richard Rohr refers to the dynamic as falling upward.
Real transformation just doesn’t take hold without practices that uncover our unconscious motivations. Practices like contemplative prayer, meditation, and enneagram work. This is because the small self or false self is totally motivated to gratify its need to be defined by what we have, do, or what others say about us.
The more challenging life gets, the more difficult it can be to un-attach from these fixations. This is what the ancient church mothers and fathers referred to as the process of purgation or purification. Life gives us just what we need to purge us more and more from being defined by external circumstances.
When life feels as if it’s pressing in on us, the ego wants relief the quickest way possible. Where’s the escape hatch?!
When the small self wins out, we are opting to be gratified by identifying with something or someone that plays into our compulsions for power, security, or affection. We look for the easiest way to reinforce “I am what I have.” “I am what I do.” “I am what others say about me.” Or we just choose to numb out altogether through substances, social media, entertainment, or another helpful “drug.”
So, someone has spoken ill of me. My natural small self response is to find someone who will speak good of me. But do you see the trap? I end up being tossed around. Who I am, my sense of self, depends on what others say or think about me. Ugh! That’s giving a whole lot of power to others. Where’s my own internal power?
As we progress in the spiritual journey the mercy of God limits our escape hatches, forcing us to sit in the agony of our limited self, trying us by fire. The process of purification can be so agonizing that Teresa of Avila said, “If this is how God treats God’s friends, I wouldn’t want to be God’s enemy!”
But this truly is a severe mercy. Because as we are refined by this fire, we do in fact emerge a little more golden. We find that there is a third way. We discover we’re not so limited after all. I am neither defined by 1) the negative, misinformed, skewed perceptions of others and 2) I’m not defined by their positive, affirming, and approving perceptions either. The same is true for not being defined by 1) what I have or 2) what I don’t have or 1) what I do or 2) what I don’t do.
There’s a third option.
I am me. And that is enough.
The me I truly am, my bigger self, is actually Christ in me. And when I am rooted and grounded in this divine identity, I am truly free. Free of being defined by the limitations of power, security, and affection. Hello expansive, unlimited self.
The spiritual journey is about discovering that our identity transcends the limitations of our personality. Actually our identity is beyond comprehension. We are virtually unlimited, because we originate from an unlimited God.
We are good.
And our capacity for goodness is off the charts. Why? Because we have Divine DNA. Like Jesus, we are children of God! Grasp that for a moment. Let it sink in…
You are a child of the Divine Mystery from which all things are born and to whom all things return!
And Jesus, our teacher who grasped his identity as the Son of God and emboldens us to do the same, said we would do even greater things than he. So let’s get on with it!
Who we are transcends everything that threatens to define us: our material possessions or lack thereof; our work and success or lack of work and failure; and the positive and negative opinions of others.
For sure awakening and expanding is messy. The journey from our constricted self to our expansive self is most definitely not a straight line. But unfortunately, western society is overly identified with the rational mind which likes straight lines and clear steps forward or upward. And so too often, religious people ascribe such a pattern to the spiritual life.
This leads to disappointment at the least with oneself or others, and at its worse, the belief that transformation or sanctification is a linear progression leads to judgment, shaming, and shunning of people who have dramatic descents that impact others.
Let us remember that we are good. And our momentary setbacks are just that—momentary. Our descents and struggles are experiences of severe mercy on the journey to freedom. Falling is a necessary experience when learning to fly.
*photo credit :: Lanecia Rouse