I recently saw an Eckart Tolle quote posted on a social media site:
“Some people awaken spiritually without ever coming into contact with any meditation technique or any spiritual teaching. They may awaken simply because they can’t stand the suffering anymore.”
This idea seems to suggest that suffering and spiritual awakening are somehow opposite, and that spiritual awakening is an escape from suffering. It has been my observation that quite often the very opposite is true. Real awakening calls people to challenge their ideas and habits and beliefs, and that can be filled with suffering and difficulty. I’ve read remarkable accounts of people who have gone through kundalini awakening and other forms of spiritual awakening who have suffered immensely in body, mind, and emotions. Awakening has nothing to do with escaping suffering.
In recent years, I have seen a lot of issues arise with those who are called to personal growth/metaphysical/new age ideas. There are many who experience profound traumas, and believe that it is “awakening” to dissociate and become focused on spiritual ideas – this is spiritual bypass. People believe that awakening is a process of being happy all the time, feeling only “positive” emotions, and no longer being affected by difficult experiences because they have “transcended” them. Unfortunately, the new age movement has encouraged this as appropriate. Now, I receive clients who have been harmed by attempting unsuccessfully to implement these ideas for years, and finding themselves traumatized when they don’t find themselves free of suffering – and my work with them has been to help them to find safety again while learning to feel, learning to process difficult and traumatic life experiences, and disentangling themselves from new age ideas that have caused real harm.
Western new age culture posits that we are entitled to be happy all the time and free from suffering, and if that doesn’t happen, we’re doing it wrong. That is false, toxic, and very privileged. It’s also not too far from Calvinist ideologies, including protestant work ethic: if you work hard enough, and God favors you, you will succeed and not suffer, but if you continue to suffer, you are a failure, and are out of favor with God, and that is your fault. There are threads of this throughout modern American secular culture, to be sure, and the new age movement simply uses new language and ideas to promote similar ideas.
Many who suffer are not lucky enough to find their way out of it. I have worked with clients who have gone through unspeakable traumas, and they were lucky enough to eventually find their way to support and healing – and they are the minority. Why is that? Power, privilege, money, and social location. It is clearer than ever to me that spiritual seekers who declare that they no longer wish to engage with political and social systems because they have “transcended” them are immensely privileged, and decidedly unawakened to the reality of suffering in the world.
Buddhism teaches that suffering exists, and that we can be free from it, absolutely. However, as these ideas have been implanted into a fragmented, shallow, adolescent culture, the deeper truths have been diluted. The new age movement has proposed that we must flee “negativity” and “low vibrations,” and that “awakening” makes one immune to these things – if you’re not immune, you’re not really awakened. I propose quite the opposite. True compassion means that we have the capacity to be present with ourselves and others in the midst of incredible suffering without shutting down, moving away, or seeking distractions and comforts. Meditation is not a doorway into a state of numbness, inebriation, and pure white light – it is a practice that allows us to see past our own tendencies to flee, and to learn to stay with things when it’s difficult. The path of the Bodhisattva is the path of *not* fleeing suffering for ourselves, but to instead devote ourselves to dismantling things that cause suffering – not only in our own minds, but also in our families, communities, cultures, and countries. And that is inherently political.