Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Gift of Desperation

Idle curiosity is not what brings us to the genuine spiritual path. Most of us step onto the path after something -- or a series of somethings -- has driven us to it. Life's pressures and irritations have gotten to be too much; or something cherished -- often a relationship -- has fallen apart or been taken away, or is in danger of doing so. We might feel a slight but chronic sense of discomfort and restlessness, or we might feel an acute and urgent sense of panic. In either case, we come to the spiritual path looking for a better way to live, a way out of our suffering. Desperation drives us to finally seek out wisdom and freedom.

Desperation gets a bad rap in our society. We are supposed to be cool, calm, collected, and in control -- and someone who is desperate has lost all those qualities. He is pathetic, his life is out of control, he's a mess, he's losing it, he's desperate. Keep away from him, it might be contagious.

Desperation is not a sign of failure -- it is actually a gift. It is only from desperation that the genuine motivation to change -- the key to all spiritual growth -- can arise. Only by passing through the dark night of the soul can one experience the miracle of the dawn. If things are just peachy-keen and there's no sense of desperation at all on our path, then why bother with all this spiritual crap anyway? Wouldn't it be easier and more fun to just go shopping?

Without desperation, we have no sense of urgency, no compelling desire to grow or change, no commitment to step outside our habitual patterns. We are lukewarm, and our spiritual path is half-hearted and half-assed. "So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth," said Jesus. We might dabble in studying or practicing spiritual teachings out of intellectual curiosity, but we have no real idea why we're doing it. Desperation brings things into sharp focus.

When someone is addicted to drugs, he lives in denial of his problem -- until things get bad enough that reality begins to pierce through the bubble of delusion. At some point, slowly or suddenly, it becomes impossible to go on living in denial. But he has to hit bottom, and be desperate, in order to be jarred into seeking a way back up, a way out. His sense of desperation gives rise to a genuine and strong motivation to change, and that is the point at which recovery becomes possible -- the point at which he admits his problem and asks for help. Until he has that strong motivation to change from within, he can talk about recovery all he wants but he'll just be blowing hot air.

There are a lot of people blowing hot air on the spiritual path, just as there are in other realms of human endeavor. There are a lot of people acting cool, calm, collected, and in control. But beware of people who pretend to know too much. Someone who shows a little bit of desperation, a little bit of struggle, and a little bit of doubt, someone who bears a few scars from his journey through the dark night of the soul, is a more reliable friend in spiritual matters.

"I’m quite desperate. A lot of other teachers must have experienced this desperation. I am so desperate. You can help the world. You, you, you, you, and you – all of you – can help the world. You know what the problems are. You know the difficulties. Let us do something. Let us not chicken out. Let us actually do it properly. Please, please, please!"

-- Chogyam Trungpa, Great Eastern Sun

The Buddha was desperate. Why else would he have done what he did? The Buddha left behind his royal family and his comfortable, luxurious palace life, giving up sex and romance and money and power and fame, and setting out as a penniless beggar on a lonely and difficult quest for spiritual realization. But why? A person would only take such a radical, almost unthinkable leap if he was desperate. Suffering had penetrated through the delusional bubble of luxury and comfort in which he had lived, and it had pierced his heart. His desperation drove him to leave behind the pampered life he had known and seek out the way to go beyond suffering.

Most of us, if we reflect back to the time when we first set out on the spiritual path, can make the connection between that impulse and some kind of suffering we were experiencing in our lives, some subtle or acute sense of desperation that led us to that breaking point. The trouble is that once we have been on the spiritual path for a while we tend to forget our original motivation. We no longer feel that same sense of desperation. Our circumstances may have improved, our minds may have gotten a little calmer, we may be more at peace with ourselves -- and so we no longer feel the same strong motivation to change that we felt when we set out on this path. As we move further and further away from that original spark of desperation, it becomes easy to drift into a state of complacency.

If you feel desperate, count your lucky stars. Let that feeling be the fuel that lights your motivation to change and grow, and take whatever steps you need to make that happen. Let it be the force that propels you forward into action, into growth, into change, into enlightenment. If you've forgotten what it was like to feel desperate, try to get that old feeling back. If you've slipped into complacency about your spiritual growth, remember why you started on this journey in the first place.

Whatever you do, don't be half-hearted and half-assed in your practice. Don't be lukewarm. Be a little bit desperate. Meditate like your hair is on fire.


heartart said...

I enjoyed what you wrote, however always when I hear a word like crap, etc what ever I am reading or listening to falls a notch and I remember for myself the agreement of being impeccable with my word and to me that also means that I choose my words with care. In other words if I have a message I want all to hear I choose the words that honor the message and the myself. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I'm sitting in a meeting and the person sharing uses the f-word over and over, I cringe in my seat,but I love'em anyways.Have a nice day.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the important message. I don't want to EVER forget where I have come from and why I am going where I am going! The Gift of Desperation is a true blessing which God has put upon my life!!