Encore Post – The Pain Cycle

Michael McAlister Blog Leave a Comment

This post was originally offered in May of 2008 as part of the book, Awake in This Life.

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Whenever relationships are discussed in the context of spiritual practice, most of the questions concern unhealthy attachment. Whether we are conscious of it or not, dysfunction continually offers the ego a place to hide. For example, the ego would much rather attach itself to the known quantity of bad relationships than deal with the unknown aspects of healthy ones. Healthy relationships built on compassion require profound surrender, and surrender is something that the ego will do anything to avoid. The small self simply wants to be in charge of everything and everybody for all time. Surrender is the opposite of this impulse. But healthy relationships require space on the dance floor where absolute familiarity is jettisoned for a never-ending exploration of what is completely unfamiliar. Ego will resist this lack of control and begin to act from its typically defensive position. Threats to its control generate resistance, and activity that arises from resistance to what is will both inflict and perpetuate pain. Once pain arises the ego will start to move in any way that it can so as to evade, or worse, sabotage the experience.

For a moment, consider that the only way for ego to keep its job in the face of peace is to create war. In other words, the most threatening circumstance to ego is the conscious surrender to living intimately with all that arises in the present moment. Love relationships that consciously cultivate non-possessive compassion are perhaps the most profound threat that ego will ever face. In order to avoid this final assault against its sense of power and control, the ego will create cycles of pain through evasion as well as sabotage in order to keep its job. For the ego, misery is a far better choice than the Mystery.

Even in the face of its self-created cycles of pain that can destroy everything, at least the ego can stay relevant. Every one of these pain cycles, by the way, is a form of addiction, and every single addiction that we might ever deal with is caused by ego’s constant avoidance of what it perceives to be pain. Again, whether it’s a relationship to a person, a thing, a substance, or an idea, we use the compulsive clinging of addiction as an attempt to stabilize the perceived chaos of living authentically.

But, if we can realize that the only thing that can ever feel the agitation of resistance is the ego and we can bring the intense, relaxed, observational presence of the Witness into the middle of that experience without indulging or avoiding anything, then we can radically change our relationship to the agitation. From this place of deep presence, we can center our entire being in the eye of every circumstantial hurricane with total fearlessness. This is exactly the way that each experience we have, positive or negative, becomes an invitation to Awaken.

Still, cultivating the presence to stand in the clear light offered by the eye of any of life’s bigger storms takes practice. We must have the courage to surrender continually to whatever is happening in our circumstance, whether or not it feels good. From this place of surrender, we then can respond with compassion to whatever shows up in life. We keep surrendering over and over again, whether we are sitting in meditation, grieving the loss of someone we love, watching the birth of a child, or marveling at the evening stars. We never stop practicing the compassion that spontaneously expresses itself as we begin to show up consciously for our lives.

We must never stop showing up. Even when we have had an unsurpassable, penetrating, and perfect Awakening experience, we keep practicing. There isn’t an endpoint to any of this practice and this Path of Awakening. We don’t stop once we get to the summit. The meeting of wisdom and compassion is nothing other than a gentle repetitious grace of meeting your life without clinging as it unfolds in each moment. It’s a debilitating and harmful mistake to view anyone’s enlightenment experience as an endpoint where she can get off her meditation cushion and go do whatever she wants since she understands that everything is just an illusion. Authentic practices, teachers, and communities can keep us from falling into this trap. Besides, the Witness itself offers us the opportunity to be free of the tight mask of personality and the prison of time and mind. This freedom means that we can be real, normal people, walking in the world without anything extra added. In Awakening out of our cycles of pain, we simply become ordinary. Ego hates hearing this, of course, because it always wants to distinguish itself as something or someone special. Those among us who are truly Awake, however, are simply and breathtakingly ordinary. The experience of enlightened Awareness is just the beginning of a life whose spiritual center of gravity has a chance of undergoing a profound shift toward deeper and broader expressions of wisdom and compassion.

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