When Your Spiritual Progress Seems Too Slow...
July 25, 2011
About 45 years ago, I spent two and a half years paralyzed from the chest down. The neurosurgeons tried unsuccessfully to remove a cyst that was compressing my spinal cord, and a year of physical therapy brought no improvement, but a second surgery succeeded, and I gradually recovered the use of my legs.
I’ve had a wonderful life, so don’t waste your energy praying for me! But having my spine Roto-Rootered has presented certain obstacles. There’s a mild lingering spasticity in my left leg, and mild numbness in the right. (Meet Spaz and Gumby.) And there’s some cross-wiring of the nerves between my heart and brain that can make it difficult to meditate.
Nevertheless, recently I had some lovely experiences in meditation. After practicing the Hong-Sau technique of concentration for a long time, I was able to go deep into a state of inner silence where I knew that God was very near. But the experience faded, and I wasn’t able to re-enter that wonderful place. I wondered if I would ever be able to meditate deeply again. I prayed earnestly, “How can I meditate correctly? I need Your help!”
I seldom receive God’s answers unless I’m ready to share my true feelings with Him and really “mean business.” God seldom answers simply because He knows my need – I must ask with deep feeling, and then I can be absolutely certain of His response.
That night, I had a dream. I was walking down a broad, sandy path with a group of other spiritual seekers. I couldn’t see the others clearly, but I was aware of their presence. The feeling was impersonally spiritual, and tinged with joy. They were all men, and I sensed that they were true lovers of God. They were walking in silence, their eyes down, and the mood was still and reflective. I knew that I was in good company, and that I was part of the group. This was very reassuring to me, because it meant that regardless of my problems with meditation, I was walking in the right direction with these good people.
My spiritual teacher, Swami Kriyananda, was walking with us. I was telling him about my troubles with prayer and meditation. I explained how frustrated I was that I appeared to be making such slow progress. I had been granted a taste of inner peace – and why couldn’t I forge ahead and go more deeply into that peace?! It seemed hopeless, possibly even a waste of time. Maybe I should give it up and just drive in the hills in my truck, chanting to God and working to open my heart.
Quietly, Swami Kriyananda said, “Take one small step at a time.” And the dream faded.
The next day, at East West Bookshop where I worked, I found a wonderful book, The Bond Between Women: A Journey to Fierce Compassion. The author, China Galland, relates her talks with women around the world who exemplify what she considers the highest womanly virtues of compassion and courage. Some of the women were politically active, such as the “Mothers of the Disappeared” in Argentina, while others were spiritual teachers. Some were religious renunciates engaged in serving others. Such a one was Sister Chan Khong, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun who, since the 1960s, had served as assistant to the well-known Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nat Hanh. China Galland has graciously given me permission to quote at length from her book.
While the Vietnam War was raging, Chan Khong busied herself with helping rural people rebuild their villages. In one village, just as the final repairs were being made, the bombers came over once again and obliterated everything. Sister Khong and the villagers patiently returned to the rebuilding work. In all, the village was demolished five times. Several of her friends were killed by bombs, and others were executed by South Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers who suspected them of working for “the other side.” Each time this happened, Chan Khong’s rage knew no bounds. She described her struggles, after each cruel loss, to find the compassion that lies at the core of the Buddha’s teachings.
She told China Galland:
I had to put everything aside. I went back to my breath. I did a little bit of work, cooking, preparing, a number of small things. When I walked, my attention was with my breath and my step. When I gardened, my attention was with the act of gardening and my breath. When I cut carrots I was totally with the cutting of the carrots and my breath. When I washed my face, I was with only that. Breathing in, breathing out. I dissociated myself from the anger, for how long, I didn’t know. In Buddhism, as I am trained, the first part is calming down the agitation.
We can calm down when we are carried away by anger because we have the breath. The breath is the link between the body and the mind. The body is here, but the mind is carried away by anger. So I had to dissociate myself from the anger by building into myself that link, which is the breath. I focused on the breath.
China Galland said, “Yes, Sister…but when your friends were being killed, when your village was being destroyed over and over, it’s hard for me to believe that you just took a breath and calmed yourself and went on. I want you to tell me precisely how you did that.”
Sister Khong said:
We walk….. We focus our attention on the breath and the step. So, on the in-breath, I take one or two steps, on the out-breath, I take one or two steps. I dwell in my breath and in my steps to dissociate myself from the anger. It doesn’t mean I surrender and suppress my anger. I will go back to my anger, but when I am quieter, when I obtain more serenity. I do not rehearse my anger. I have to look deep into my anger with a serene mind, and I will see the roots of my anger and the fruit of my action.
I walked several hours, almost all day long, to calm my anger. Sometimes in the war I was so angry that I walked for several days. But I refrained from doing anything except small things like cleaning, small work, helping people carry wood, distributing food, but not getting carried away by big action like joining that side or the other side or shouting or screaming or doing something very drastic.
Then I looked deeper, and I saw the decision makers were somewhere else, in the Kremlin, in Peking, in the White House. They were not the soldiers of both sides. These soldiers were only victims of the big machine of confusion and ignorance….
When I am angry, I first focus on the breath to calm myself. When I feel my heart is less agitated, I go to the second part, which is mindfulness, looking deeply into oneself and into the cause of the anger. Why am I so angry, I ask myself. Is there a physical problem – do I have a headache, an unhappy body? Next I consider my feelings. Sometimes I am angry for nothing, I’m irritated by things that have happened before this; anger just comes out as the last straw. The other person who is supposed to be my enemy brings out the last drop of all the anger I have felt in the past. When I have gone through my body and my feelings, I go next to my perception. This is very important, because my perception is my outlook, the way I see things. The Buddha explained that in the dark, if you see a snake, you scream. But when you have a light, you see it is a rope. Sometimes we see a person as a snake, whereas she is only a rope. When I change my perception of the situation, my anger is transformed.
Reading about Sister Khong’s struggles with anger helped me greatly, because it reminded me of the many times, in the years that I had been praying and meditating, that I had experienced the power of taking small steps. To me, Sister Khong is a beautiful soul; yet she too has anger. She, too, must deal with her problems one small step at a time, and this gives me hope. Even wonderful spiritual people must struggle, but their lives testify to the power of winning small battles.
I realized anew that my greatest happiness has come when I’ve dealt with small things, never when I sought earth-shaking experiences, or an immediate, life-changing “spiritual overhaul.”
Looking back, I saw that my big prayers were seldom answered. My biggest problems, in fact, turned out to be small ones. Resolving them with small steps, I found a peace that allowed my heart to open naturally to God’s love. In that love, I could pray effortlessly for others. Finding the place in the innermost core of my heart where I could share my true feelings with God, I found His guidance leading me toward inner expansion and happiness. He accepted me just as I am, and like a loving mother, led me one step at a time toward greater light.
My problems with meditation were small, my despair a misunderstanding of the proportions of the true spiritual work. I don’t need to meditate flawlessly, fearing that God won’t come. He comes when I pray frankly and courageously, pulling back the petals of my heart so that He can bless me with His grace.