Juliana Cesano – USA
I would like to reflect on the intrinsic and dynamic connection between challenge and the inner life, and how these two aspects play a major part in what we sometimes call “inner awakening”, or “inner unfoldment”.
Challenges are normally seen as circumstances that come to us from the outside, an external force in the shape of an event that presents itself in our lives. But if we look closer, and especially if we look back into the moments in which we were challenged, we may be able to see that those challenges were not random, and instead, they were aligned with the next step we needed to take. There was something inside of us, still very tender, very new, sometimes not even conscious, that needed a catalyst to unfold, and as the experience or challenge arises, if we take it fully, without reservations, that part of us that was incipient and somewhat ready pushes through and finds expression.
The words within and without are of course mental constructs and they are helpful for the purpose of communicating but although we may see these movements as two — external and internal — they are in fact one movement. The impulse from within is the one that calls forth the challenge, and we meet right in that inexistent line between the inner and the outer. Who we are before and after we take a challenge resembles the difference between a green and a ripe fruit. Potentially it is all there, but it needed the influence of the elements to ripen. It is like making cookies and placing them nicely on a tray, and then life comes and puts them in the oven.
In the fire of challenge there is transformation, and as once we were raw, we become cooked. Whether we realize it or not, this moment, and all that is in it, is the answer to our innermost aspirations. Challenge is a moving target, it is never static, it moves with us. Poetically we can say that it is a dance with the Divine. What we seek finds us and meets us at the edge of our very next step, and the difficulty we encounter helps us rise above, into the next step of the ladder. And we must be challenged from all directions, because all new skills need to be tested or developed.
Without a doubt, challenge is uncomfortable, and sometimes very painful, and for that reason we tend to postpone it or to push it away, sometimes indefinitely. Even though we might have already seen the tremendous transformative power of challenge, we may still avoid it and seek comfort instead. We would rather be dull or miserable in the known than jump into the unknown. So here we can ask ourselves, sincerely: “Am I really seeking to be cooked?” It seems that we all want to be the phoenix, this magnificent bird that rises from the ashes, yet nobody wants to be ashes. But, no ashes, no phoenix.
There is a line in the book Light on the Path that says, “Kill out desire of comfort”, and if we reflect on that for a moment we will see that comfort is not just physical, it is also mental, emotional, psychological. The comfort of the known. So, I can try to keep my world confined within the known as much as possible to avoid the discomfort or the pain of challenge, or I can open up to the elements, like the fruit, or go even further and voluntarily place myself in the oven.
From this perspective, accepting challenge is key, even when we feel inadequate, and I would dare say, especially when we feel inadequate, not good enough, not ready enough. We must do it anyway because it is only in the doing, in the trying, that the dormant qualities awaken, in any field, in any department of Nature, and through that doing the scope of the transformation that occurs is impossible to measure and predict.
Accepting challenge sometimes means jumping into a pool that may or may not have water. But in the very act of jumping without any assurance is where the greatest gifts are given to us. To be able to jump into the unknown, in whatever circumstance, we need courage, and the most powerful source of courage is faith, a concept that has been at times misused, but faith, at its core, is an unshakable trust in the Power that is guiding the process.
You can call that Power in any way you want: Intelligence, Love, the Self, the Divine, and so on. With this faith, with this certainty that comes from the depth of our being, fear begins to dissolve. There is a poem by the mystic Kabir that at the end says: “Seeker, listen to Me. Where your deepest faith is, I am.” So, we can ask ourselves, where is our deepest faith? In whom or what do we place it? Is it shallow? Is it deep? And can faith grow?
One of the effects of faith in a higher Power is an inner reassurance that we were never born and we will never die, and when that concept starts gaining space within our day-to-day reality we become more open and receptive to challenge, to pain, to longing, and to experience as it comes, without trying to control it or shape it. For some people this conviction is so tangible that they lose their need to protect themselves, and their inner world unfolds into a loving space that can contain it all. They sit with their own joy or sorrow with equal peace, and because they know how to sit with their own, they can sit with others’ joy and sorrow in that same peace.
And here begins the real understanding of what it means to be human. How can we sit with the pain of others if we have not established a friendship with our own pain? Or how can we love the imperfection of others if we cannot love ours? Our own inner definitions of things change with time, but if today I had to define the spiritual life in a few words, I would say that the spiritual life is a radical act of love. Love is our essential nature and in love we thrive. If you take anything: a plant, an animal, a glass of water, a human being and you love it enough, every day, it will bloom. And we are not the exception.
The other gift that challenge brings is that it assists us with the process of self-knowledge. Like in a garden — if you ever took care of a garden you know — the warmth of the sun encourages all plants, not just the ones you are trying to grow. Through challenge our strengths will surface as much as our weaknesses, and with that comes the chance to see ourselves patiently, objectively, and most of all, lovingly. Self-discovery becomes possible through non-judgmental awareness, a silent observation of whatever arises. No inner dialogue or commentary, which is what we do most of the time, and what causes most of life’s problems. The moment we introduce harshness or judgement, or ideas of what I should be and should not be, that in itself interrupts the process of seeing what is, independent of judgment.
Judgement is different from discernment. It comes from preconceived ideas, sometimes we call it conditioning, while discernment comes from clear seeing, when conditioning has been removed. If we think we have to become something we are not, instead of seeing what is already here, something very curious begins to happen; inadvertently we begin to embellish and mold our outer layers to our liking and never really find out what is truly underneath. Only after several years of patient and loving observation, one day we may have a glimpse of a part of us that we perhaps created to fit in.
To fit in a family, a culture, a belief system, an organization, you name it. Skillful people sometimes can see these artificial parts in others very clearly. They say that they look like something that does not belong to the person, it feels fake. This habit of becoming, the assumption that we have to be something we are not, creates many problems. One of them is an imbalanced sense of who we are, sometimes disproportionate, sometimes quite inaccurate. Because the process of self-knowledge requires skill, patience, humility, and a huge dose of love, we tend to go for the shortcut, which is to seek reference of who we are outside ourselves. So, here we are talking about clear seeing. What does clear seeing require from us? We are blind to certain things that can be quite obvious from the outside. Have you ever wondered why we do not see them? Is it because we cannot or because we do not want to? Or maybe a combination of both?
In one of his writings, Hugh Shearman points out something very important; he says that: “We are the captive passengers of a compulsively motivated personal self, anxiously trying to create its future out of its past.” This passage makes us wonder if it is possible to create a future that is new, and free from the past. And if it is, how do we do it?
Krishnamurti said, “Be nothing and then Live”, and I do not think he was advocating for inaction, but perhaps pointing out that in the dangerous assumption that we have to become something, we may end up causing more damage. Some teachers have pointed out that our work is to remove the layers of what we are not, to find what we are. This process requires a type of clear seeing that is born of an awakened awareness. Looked at it from this angle, inner unfoldment does not seem to be something about controlling or building, but instead something more along the lines of dissolving and surrendering. “Become what you are”, said a Saint, and Annie Besant adds: “Become in outer manifestation what you are in inner reality.”
While on this journey, we tend to seek references of who we are outside ourselves, and also seek answers outside ourselves. As we seek out the way, we turn toward the wisdom of others. With the right attitude, that can be tremendously helpful and inspiring, but never enough, because we are the way, from beginning to end. As we question, as we struggle, as we do not know the answers, as we try and fail, and try again, and become receptive to the guidance that comes from within, with sincerity and faith in the process, the way unfolds, we unfold. H. P. Blavatsky says that “the Universe is worked and guided from within, outwards”, this is a universal law and we are a microcosm unfolding from within outwards. Our innermost aspirations take shape in outer circumstances, and as we accept the challenge that they bring, the way unfolds.
The Sufi poet Bulleh Shah wrote:
Reading book after book
You’ve become a great scholar
But you never learned to read yourself.
You go rushing Into temples and mosques
But never enter your own heart.
Every day you fight the devil
But never wrestle
With your own ego.
You chase after those in the sky
But never look for The one sitting at home.
What an honest invitation to turn inwards and walk the path! The common impulse is to seek outside ourselves, but we are the question and the answer. In a little book called An Introduction to Yoga Annie Besant writes: “The only way you can know God is by diving into yourself”. This reminded me of other impactful words, this time in Light on the Path: “For within you is the light of the world — the only light that can be shed upon the Path. If you are unable to perceive it within you, it is useless to look for it elsewhere.” Do we have faith in this? Do we live with the absolute trust that the light within is the only one that can illumine the path? If we do, how much energy do we dedicate every day to read ourselves, to enter our own hearts, to notice dispassionately our own ego, and to be in the presence of the one sitting within.
Seeking out the way becomes a synonym of self-discovery, both with the small “s” and the capital “S”. The discovery of what we are not, and the discovery of what we are. One of the elements that contribute greatly to this process is to realize that each one of us has come with a temperament, and that for each temperament there is a way. Recognizing the uniqueness of our individuality becomes a key element. What inspires you is not necessarily what inspires me. What leaves you in deep contemplation or compels you to stay still and listen may not be the same that causes that in me. What makes you want to know the Truth, or what awakens the longing for Union in you, is unique to you.
Sometimes imagining scenarios is helpful. Imagine for a moment, that you have set aside all authorities, the ones that live in your imagination and the ones that live outside yourself. Remove them, one by one, and then ask yourself: Where do I feel most at home? Where do I feel most alive? And then ask: What awakens me to love? The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing says: “If you want to find your soul, look at what you love. That’s where your soul lives.”
It is hard to discover our temperament when we are too occupied trying to be like others, and it is even harder if those around us try to impose their views on us. Sometimes as fellow seekers we can behave like those parents who want their child to play the piano before they even know if the child has the slightest inclination toward music. We have a role and a responsibility toward one another, which is not indoctrination, but deep listening — a listening that is born of caring, of empathy, and that brings with it a seeing and a knowing of the other, and what the other may need or appreciate. The road we choose at each point in time may not continue in the same direction throughout this lifetime. In this art of being led by inner guidance we may find that at some point we are ready to take a turn and explore a part of us that we had not been in touch with before.
In the process of discovering ourselves and discovering our way, there is something liberating, which is that we do not owe explanations to anyone, and we do not need to prove anything either. This sacred journey within is always between oneself and God, between oneself and the Divine in any of its forms. In this world that we live in, that makes so much emphasis on making everything visible — achievements, opinions, aspirations, appearance, and so on — let us remember that the most powerful growth happens underneath the surface, unseen to others and many times unseen to ourselves. Like the seed that starts growing under the surface.
An obstacle that we may find in this process of becoming the path is that Theosophy provides the mind with many tempting answers. The challenge is to use them as initial points for self-discovery instead of final statements. Rumi, the mystic, said: “Knowing too much, hinders knowing at all. Die before you die.” As an exercise, we can take any given subject and through reflection look at it closely in our mind and notice, what do we really know about that subject by experience, or even by inference? Has that become a rigid structure in my mind, or is it flexible and open enough that it can become a more refined, perhaps more accurate, version of itself, or that it can dissolve and be unlearned, if needed? Ideas can have such an impact on us, that they have the power to hinder or to assist progress.
This happened to me with a very crucial subject, the subject of God, where my own theosophical ideas, rooted in an Absolute Reality instead of a more reachable, tangible God, became an impediment to feel closeness with the Divine. Sometimes we have to go to the very bases and drop everything we think we know. For me, in that particular case was asking simple questions like: What is God? How and where do I experience the presence of the Divine? In a way, undefining God and seeking the actual experience instead. We want to grasp intellectually things that can only be known through experience, and in the effort of trying, consistently in that direction, what was once hidden becomes somewhat tangible. Then, inner guidance assists us, sometimes from within, sometimes through external signs.
Continuing in this direction, let us explore a little now, how this self-discovery looks like in our day-to-day reality. How do we actually do it? Let us look at it from the two perspectives we already spoke about, again, as two movements that can be seen as one. The first one as the recognition of what we are not, of all that is impermanent in us, and the second one as the intentional attempt to remain receptive to our true nature, to what is permanent.
Let us take any given situation. We are cutting vegetables on a wooden board. We tell ourselves, “I am going to pay attention now, and become aware of the present moment.” We begin to notice the light of the room, the texture of the vegetables, their fragrance, the movement of the hands, so coordinated, so fast, that we cannot perceive what is commanding them to move. We notice the breath expanding and contracting the chest, and for a moment we reach the part of us that is witnessing all that experience. In that moment we find ourselves in the presence of a peaceful silence and the complete absence of conflict. All of a sudden, a thought pops up, usually a memory of the past or some projection into the future. That is a crucial moment.
If we are alert enough we see the thought appearing, we recognize it, and because the task was to pay attention to the present moment, we relax, we let go of the thought, and go back to the experience. If we are not alert to the appearance of the thought, we immediately become the thought, completely inadvertently. We get hooked, we take shape. We were shapeless in a peaceful silence, a thought appears and we become the thought. Now we take shape. If the thought is neutral, it just causes movement, but if the thought is entangled with emotion, as they can be, we either get hooked into the emotion and take that shape, bringing along some level of suffering, or we notice it, let go of it, and come back to the present moment, sometimes noticing for a while the lingering sensation the emotion left.
In this “returning to the present moment”, again and again, the presence that is witnessing gains ground. We begin to feel less confined. The spaces in between thoughts become longer, sometimes allowing a steady silence to remain. For those with a devotional nature, the remembrance of God dwelling in the heart, or pervading all, may infuse the silence with a gentle loving quality. Then the importance of not taking shape becomes apparent by contrast. Now I know that when I take shape I can become a mess, and when I remain shapeless I experience peace. We now know, through experience, that in the absence of movement there is a loving silence and layers of peaceful being.
The living presence of the Divine only palpitates in the here and now. If we are not here now, we miss its presence and its influence cannot reach us. As we empty ourselves of movement, different depths of silence begin to emerge, and who we are finds expression. As the second sutra n The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tells us, “Yoga is establishing the mind in stillness.” The union of all the aspects of our nature with subtler levels of reality occurs in the stillness of the mind. The sutras continue to say that stillness develops through practice and non-identification, in the effort of remaining present.
As we cultivate this state of being we do not become selective, we become spacious and welcome all. We do not reject anything, we learn to stay with all that comes, pleasant or painful, in a more nonjudgmental openness to ourselves and to whatever arises. This experience can gain more solid ground as we regularly sit in meditation without distractions, when we intentionally set the external conditions for outer and inner silence, but this is also something that can be practiced moment by moment as well.
To be able to advance boldly without, in whatever experience we are facing, retreating within becomes essential. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, like the inbreath and outbreath, there is also an inward and outward movement in the inner life. Retreating within will begin to reveal with greater clarity how to advance without. Living without inward movement is like living without an inbreath.
In spacious awareness, what was hidden begins to be seen — the way we justify ourselves, the way we close down, the way we want to control life, and the stories we tell ourselves. We see our motivations, and the range of thoughts and emotions that we have cultivated. We see them, in a space that is loving and compassionate, and we set them free, because, as a dear friend of mine says: “They, too, long to be free.” On the other hand, we also begin to see a steadier center of peace become more apparent, a loving quality infusing our inner world and permeating our actions, a greater need for silence, a growing longing burning in our hearts that compels us to surrender, to offer ourselves fully, trusting in the process.
There was this Christian mystic, Bernadette Roberts, who experienced profound stages of Union. She wrote that to know the will of God we have only to remain silent. Remain in the still center which is the perfect acceptance of the present moment and what we are at the moment. As she was having the most disconcerting experiences, she was desperately seeking reference outside, until one day she realized that all the intellectual searching she was doing was nothing more than the refusal to accept the present moment, and her present state, that was unfolding constantly.
She then saw that the secret of the unitive life was the graced ability to live in a passive silence of wills, a silence which is always here and now, and always one with God. Eventually, she arrived to a knowing that many others have arrived to as well, before and after her: that the truest communication with God is absolute, total silence, and that there is not a single word in existence that can convey this communication.
Saint Teresa of Avila says that all difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause; “praying as if God were absent”. That is not only true for prayer, or for meditation, but for living as well. Just sitting here, is not just sitting here, it is sitting in the presence of the Divine. Listening to someone is not just listening to someone, but listening to a fragment of the Divine Life. Cutting the vegetables is not just cutting the vegetables, but being in the presence of the Divine. There is nothing small or big, all is equally sacred.
The natural consequence of this understanding is the realization that there are no others. And with that blooms effortlessly the responsibility to lessen the suffering of all. The measure of that understanding will determine the measure of our unconditionality and our commitment.
To close, an invitation through the words of the poet David White:
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath. If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to life
we have refused
again and again
This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 143 NO. 9 JUNE 2022
The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.
To read the JUNE, 2022 issue click HERE