Imagine that one day you notice a thorn in your side.
You may not even know how it got there. But it hurts quite a bit every time something touches it. You decide to build a “pain protection machine” to mitigate the pain. It is a metal exoskeleton that wraps your torso in titanium so nothing can get close to it.
This exoskeleton is quite heavy though. So you create hydraulic legs that extend down to the ground, with wheels to allow you to easily roll the device anywhere. Now that you have this structure, you make it more comfortable, with a built-in LCD display for watching your favorite shows, a headrest in case you get tired, and a dozen cupholders and electrical outlets.
You’ve made it so sophisticated and comfortable that you never have to leave it!
Your protective device might become so fancy that you begin to receive recognition and respect for it. People praise how thoughtful and diligent you’ve been to construct it, and even begin asking for your help in building one for themselves. You might build a whole reputation and career around how impressive and sophisticated your mechanism of self-protection is.
You tell yourself, “I have solved my thorn problem. I am a free being, and can go anywhere and do whatever I want. This thorn used to run my life, and now it doesn’t run anything.”
The truth is, the thorn completely runs your entire life. It affects all your decisions, including where you go, whom you interact with, and what actions you take. It determines where you’re allowed to work, what house you live in, and what kind of bed you sleep in at night. You may feel that because you’ve minimized the pain of the problem, you’ve solved the problem. But it is not solved. All you did was devote your life to it.
The thorn is a trauma or wound – a “samskara.” And as humans we have a lot more than one thorn. We have sensitivities about loneliness, about rejection, about failure, about our physical appearance, about our mental abilities. We are walking around with many sharp thorns pushed right up against the most sensitive parts of our heart.
People will do anything to not feel those thorns. They will turn to drugs and alcohol, video games and porn, social media and Netflix. They will enter relationships to lessen the pain of their thorns, and work at jobs that promise them they will never have to confront those painful parts of themselves.
But there is always another choice for what to do about these thorns: you can pull them out.
You can look deep within yourself and decide you don’t want the most fearful parts of yourself running your life. And you must, because any behavior based upon avoiding pain ultimately becomes a doorway back to the pain itself. It will keep getting worse and worse until you face it.
You want to talk to people because you find them interesting, not because you’re lonely. You want to have relationships with people because you genuinely like them, not because you need them to like you. You want to love because you truly love, not because you need a distraction from your inner problems.
To free yourself from your thorns, you simply stop protecting them. As long as you’re doing something to avoid feeling them, they aren’t given the chance to work themselves out. Everyday life experiences that confront you are the very ones that will eventually push your thorns out.
All you have to do is keep your heart open and permit the pain to come up and pass through. This is the beginning and end of the entire path – you surrender yourself to emptying yourself. When your baggage gets hit, let go right then and there. It won’t be easier if you explore it or play with it, hoping to take the edge off.
The real transformation begins when you use your problems as agents for growth, instead of avoiding them. Then you’ll realize that life is actually trying to help you. Life is surrounding you with people and situations that stimulate growth.
A walkway between work and life
The most surprising thing I learned while reading The Surrender Experiment was that Singer wasn’t just the author of a string of books about spirituality. He had also founded a software company called the Medical Manager Corporation, which eventually became a $300 million a year business with twenty-three hundred employees.
In his book, he tells the story of strolling into a Radio Shack one day in the early 1980s, and stumbling upon one of the first personal computers widely available for consumers, the TRS-80. It came with just 16k of memory, a twelve-inch monitor, and a standard cassette recorder for storage. The computer instantly called out to him, and he took it home with barely a notion of how he would use it.
From the very beginning, Singer described his relationship to the machine as a deeply spiritual one:
Singer’s life philosophy is to surrender himself to whatever life throws at him, and in this case, life presented a request from a local doctor’s office to create a software program to manage their patient records.
He said yes, and he and a colleague began teaching themselves how to build software. Seeing the project as a gift that life had given them, they committed to the highest level of craftsmanship without worrying about monetization or a business model:
The product they created, known as the Medical Manager, would be acquired years later by WebMD for $5 billion dollars. At one point, the product was used by 25% of all private medical practices in the U.S. In 2000, the software was added to the permanent collection on information technology at the Smithsonian Museum of American History for its role in shaping the medical software industry.
Throughout this incredible trajectory, Singer managed his company as CEO without leaving the woods of Alachua or putting aside his spiritual pursuits.
I was moved by Singer’s account of how running his business was just as much a part of his spiritual journey as anything else. This was the middle way between the “worldly” and the “spiritual” that I had unknowingly been seeking:
As I was reading The Surrender Experiment, I came upon a photograph of a wooden walkway that Singer and his team had built through the marshlands. It connected his home on the grounds of the Temple with the corporate headquarters they had built nearby, allowing him to walk within minutes between his home and office.
This photo captivated me instantly. I couldn’t look away from it. It was so preposterous – a spiritual temple connected directly to a tech company office – that it seemed like some sort of cosmic joke. It challenged something inside me, and after some reflection I understood what it was.
I always saw the domain of business and work as completely separate from anything personal or metaphysical. Business was supposed to be about concrete, practical problem-solving performed by serious professionals who never allowed their personal thoughts or feelings to intrude on their work. This simple walkway represented the opposite: a bridge between the worlds.
On my second day on the grounds of the Temple, I made a point to visit the wooden walkway. It was utterly unremarkable, a simple three-way bridge connecting Singer’s home, the Temple, and a building that had been the company’s first office.
I sat at the intersection for a good hour, meditating and thinking. What would such a bridge look like in my own life? Could I also create a business that aligned with my personal growth? Could I even use the business as a means to producing more of the transcendent experiences I was seeking? Could work be a way of freeing myself, not just making a living?
The psyche in fear
Our minds and bodies evolved in an environment full of constant mortal threats. But over the centuries the march of civilization has eliminated most of those threats from our everyday lives.
In response, the protective instincts that once shielded our bodies have adapted toward defending us psychologically. Our major struggles are now with our inner fears, insecurities, and self-destructive behavior patterns. We defend our self-concept as if our lives depended on it.
Since it’s not socially acceptable to run into the woods and hide like a deer, we hide inside. We withdraw, close down, and pull back behind a protective shield. You protect your ego – the part that feels it needs protection even though no physical attack is taking place.
But if you continue to protect yourself, you will never be free. It’s that simple. Because you’re scared, you’ve locked yourself in a fortress and sealed all the doors and windows. Now it’s dark and you want to feel the sunlight, but you can’t. It’s impossible.
All your habits and idiosyncrasies will stay the same. You won’t grow or change. This is how life becomes stagnant and colorless. People will say things like, “You know we don’t talk about that subject around your father.” There are all these rules about things that can’t happen, because if they did, it would cause disturbance inside. Living this way allows very little joy, spontaneity, or excitement for life.
If you really want to grow, you have to do the opposite. Real spiritual growth happens when there is only one of you inside. There’s not a part that’s scared and another part that’s protecting the part that’s scared. All parts are unified and whole. When there is no part of yourself you’re unwilling to see, the mind is no longer divided against itself. Everything you feel inside is just something you feel inside. It’s not you; it’s what you feel.
In order to experience this state of awareness, you must let your entire psyche surface. Right now, your psyche is fragmented into tiny pieces that are frozen within you. Your psyche fragmented itself to keep the parts from feeling each other. But you’ve decided you are ready to feel the pain – you are willing to pay that price for your freedom. Every little fragmented piece must come into the light of your awareness and be permitted to pass through.
Everywhere you go there’s something or someone trying to disturb you. Why not let them have it? If you don’t want the part of you that’s disturbed, then don’t protect it.
The reward for not protecting your psyche is liberation – you are free to walk through this world without a problem on your mind. You are just having fun experiencing whatever happens next.
Addicted to control
As I walked away from the Temple for the last time, got in my car, and drove away, I felt an intense disturbance inside me.
I was face to face with the core of my psyche: the need for certainty and control. It was like facing the final boss on the last level of a video game. Looming before me out of the dark mist was the addiction, the thorn, that I could see was running my life.
I had left my consulting job because I wanted to feel in control of my time, my priorities, and my future. That initially gave me a rush of freedom, but before I knew it, I was saddled with the even more burdensome expectations of demanding clients. My need for financial security led me to create a new product without feedback or collaboration with anyone. It failed, and soon my finances were in freefall. My desperate search for control had led me to a place where I felt completely out of control.
I had turned to more profitable corporate training in response, but that was exactly the environment of conformity I’d fled from in the first place. I felt like an addict returning for a fix again and again, no amount of the substance ever truly satisfying my endless appetite. The more I worked to control my environment and shield myself from the demands of others, the more out of control and subject to their demands I felt.
Sitting in my rental car pondering all of this, I opened my worn copy of The Untethered Soul sitting on the passenger seat next to me, turned to a random page, and read these words as if written for me:
I had been meditating regularly for a couple years at this point, but reading these words awoke something in me. I felt a sense of separation within, and suddenly I could see the “human” I was watching as separate from “me” to a new degree. It was like looking through a camera over my own shoulder, as though I was playing a character in a video game.
With that shift in perspective, I suddenly felt a tremendous wave of compassion for my own mind. It was smart and capable, but not at all up to the task I had given it: fixing every problem, controlling every situation, predicting every event. I could sense its tiredness and its weariness.
My past had taught me that I must control my environment or it would hurt me. It was either control things, or be controlled. But now I saw that trying to control what happened to me was not my mind’s highest calling. The mind can solve problems, but it is meant for so much more.
I decided I wasn’t going to live this way anymore. I decided to trust that life was inherently good, inherently full of opportunity and luck, inherently in my favor. I decided that I would allow reality to teach me what it had to teach me, no matter how painful it was or how much I wanted to resist.
And that choice has made all the difference.
To be continued…
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