by David B. Wolf, Ph. D.
An Uplifting, Purpose-Filled Spiritual Pursuit
Self-awareness moves us to choose life-enriching principles by which to live, some of which, such as Be-Do-Have, clear intention, and keeping agreements, have been described in previous articles. Spiritual principles for personal growth are universal, and thus, even if we are not able to articulate them, they are familiar, being inherent to our core being. Without actively applying these principles, we run the danger that our existence becomes a sort of animalistic struggle for survival, rather than an uplifting, purpose-filled spiritual pursuit.
What is Our Presentation to the World?
Each of us has a presentation to the world. Sometimes this presentation is authentic, where what is presented outside is consistent with what is happening inside. At other times our presentation is not genuine. We wear masks, facades.
Living From Choice
A spiritual principle of self-development is to live from choice, rather than from fear. Transforming our relationship with fear is an essential process of spiritual growth. Though fear may be present, instead of it being a cue to withdraw it becomes a signal to step forward and courageously take a risk. Sometimes we may put up masks from choice, such as deliberately responding that we are fine, although we don’t feel that way, because we simply don’t want to enter into conversation about our troubles. What we are addressing here is when we wear masks out of fear.
Masks take diverse forms, as varied as our personalities. There is the “happy” mask, where we want to be seen as a happy person, regardless of what may be going on inside. Being “strong” can be a mask, as can being “the class clown”, or “intellectual”. Playing the victim, or the “spiritualist”, or the helpless person, are other forms of facades.
What is Our Authentic Presentation to the World?
Of course, each of the types of masks listed above are not always masks. Each of us has a genuine happy and joyful side, an authentic intellectual way of being, a sense of humor, a strong side, a fragile side. It is when we feel we have to be a certain way, rather than choosing to be that way, that our authenticity is compromised. If I “have to” appear as “spiritual”, at the expense of acknowledging to the world, and perhaps to myself, desires or emotions that seem non-spiritual, then my spirituality is a mask and not a genuine disposition. If I feel I have to show myself as an intellectual, even at times when I would really like to drop that front and be playful, spontaneous, or emotionally expressive, then my intellectuality is a mask.
Are We Exhausted Yet?
Most of us spend much of our energy holding up masks, and pushing down experiences that we resist acknowledging. It is like holding a beach ball underwater, which requires a lot of effort to keep it down. After a while we become exhausted. A characteristic of readiness for spiritual growth is that we are exhausted with holding down our emotional beach ball. That is not how we want to spend our life energy any longer.
Living and Surviving
There is a distinction between living and surviving. Spiritually-based personal growth entails a commitment to living, rather than mere surviving. Surviving is reactive. We are in reaction to the beach ball. Holding our head above the surface, maybe putting on a smile, we show that we are in control. Actually, though, it is a pretense of control. Wherever the submerged ball moves, we move with it, not daring to allow it to be seen. It shifts here or there, and we follow. Who or what is in control? Even if we manage with great effort to keep it under, it is noticed.
Perhaps we conceal our rage, not knowing an acceptable means for its expression. But it comes out in different ways, like our irritability or loss of temper at petty things. It is similar with other components of our emotional beach ball, such as shame. Though we don’t want the world to see our sense of shame, or to recognize it ourselves, it drives our life, pervades our experience and relationships with feeling of inadequacy, of being inherently defective. It prevents us from fully sharing ourselves.
Strategies For Survival
A strategy for survival is to maintain the appearance of control. By doing this, the mask stays up, and the beach ball down. This is related to other strategies of survival, such as avoiding pain, looking good, and being right. “Looking good” means that we are invested in an appearance, rather than in being authentic. For each of us that inauthentic appearance has different forms, as explained in relation to our masks. For some of us looking good might mean showing ourselves as the strong helper. For some, looking good might mean “looking bad”, the rebel, the defiant person who doesn’t accept authority. Of course, blindly accepting authority is no virtue, though neither is indiscriminately resisting it.
“Being right” refers to a strategy where what becomes important is being right with another person, instead of genuinely being with another person. We get to be right, feel superior and self-righteous, at the expense of the closeness, understanding and intimacy we truly desire.
Strategies For Living
A life-enriching strategy conducive for the complete manifestation of our spiritual being is to participate fully in our lives, to give 100%. Not showing up fully for our own lives is at the core of self-sabotaging strategies. In fact, it is the foundation of repeating self-defeating cycles, because by not committing fully we restrict our potential to learn through experience. Acquiring wisdom involves granting ourselves the permission to make mistakes through which we learn.
A term like “experience fully” may evoke images of abandoning one’s intelligence or reason. Actually, to be fully present includes being completely available with all our faculties, including our mind and intelligence. Conscious living entails utilizing our intelligence to enrich and inform our experience. There is a distinction between employing mind and intelligence to enhance our complete contribution and presence, and using our analytical capacity as a barrier to experience. Making distinctions and judgments are a natural function of intelligence. Hiding behind those judgments is a survival strategy, borne of fear, that limits our growth, connection and experience.
Living in the Moment
Related to this, there is also an important distinction between living in the moment, and living for the moment. Living in the moment is being present, with all our qualities and capacities available. In the well known Indian scripture the Bhagavad-gita, Sri Krsna describes a person in this state as being free from lamentation about the past and hankering for the future. He is satisfied in the present. This is not the same as living for the moment, where we may whimsically abandon good sense for immediate gratification. Conscious, present living includes learning from the past, and planning for the future. In doing this, we don’t wallow in lamentation, nor do we brood in anxiety.
Giving ourselves fully to our experience is not the same as wallowing in distressing emotion. When we allow ourselves to fully experience, we feel clean, complete, resolved and ready for the next experience. To wallow in a feeling is a way of holding on to it, rather than letting it go by truly experiencing it completely.
To summarize, some common strategies for survival are being right, looking good, avoiding pain, maintaining the appearance of control, and hiding behind judgments. Life-enhancing strategies include participating fully in our lives, being courageous, suspending judgments, being vulnerable, and living with a sense of urgency.