A young woman spoke with me recently about her struggles with irritability, negativity and anger. She has several recurring health problems which affect her ability to eat and digest, or even to get a good night's sleep. Sometimes she has headaches or stomach-aches that last throughout the day. On top of all that, she is in her first year of marriage and living in a new place, far away from her birth family and all her old friends. She is usually sweet-tempered and positive, but last week, in her words, "I really 'lost it' when I got home from work each day. I put up with everything all day long, but then coming home and realizing I still had to make dinner and do all my household stuff, plus relate to my husband and his problems - and he had a bad stiff neck last week so I was expected to help care for him as well - well, I just didn't have enough in me. I took it out on him even though I promised myself I wouldn't. I just couldn't help it; I went past my boiling point."
This led to an interesting discussion about the difference between psychological work and spiritual work. Many of our psychological needs or problems are exactly the same as our spiritual needs or problems, so the work is the same. But every now and then, the psychological level of our experience can be very different from the spiritual level, and so the work may be entirely opposite. We must bear in mind that the goal of psychological work is to have a healthy and happy life, while the goal of spiritual work is to know God. Psychological work is about the individual in relationship to others. Spiritual work is about transcending that individual self in union with God. God-realized people are not merely psychologically healthy human beings. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said to an interviewer, "Sir, you seem to suggest that the Buddha was just a nice man. That is not the case."
If we see the young woman's situation psychologically, we might say, "Now dear, you need to make time for you. Take a bubble bath, treat yourself to a massage or a weekend at a spa, tell your husband to take care of his own stiff neck." We might say, "Don't feel guilty for popping off at your husband; after all, you were having a hard week. A person can only handle so much."
The spiritual problem with that popular advice is that it reinforces several false and limiting beliefs, just when we have a golden opportunity to move past them.
The first false belief is that negative states of mind are caused by forces outside our control - illness, rotten nights' sleeps, bad drivers, sick children or spouses. If people and circumstances can cause us to "lose it," then we are doomed to be slaves all our lives to the shifting moods and actions of others. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi death camp, said the best truth of human nature he had learned was this: There is one thing that no oppressor can take away from us - our choice of how to respond.
We have free will. Even if we are tortured, starved, raped. There is a deep "soul power" in us that can rise above, move beyond, see God in the larger picture, and respond with dignity and courage in the face of anything that the world can hit us with. This "rising above" is not the same as fighting our emotions. My young woman friend said she had tried to fight against her anger and negativity. It's easy to understand why that approach fails. If we hold a false belief that a bad night's sleep, or bad day, or bad week, "makes us cranky," then whom are we fighting, other than our own beliefs? Fighting ourselves is a no-win situation. With effort and self-honesty, we can examine and discard the false beliefs instead. Our spiritual work is to surrender to God within every circumstance, and draw on God's power to see us through it.
The second false belief is in our own limitations - "I can only handle so much!" The great teachings say that we never get more than we can handle. Do you believe that or not? If so, then act like it. What happens when water goes past its boiling point? It cannot handle the heat anymore in its heavy form, so it becomes steam instead. It doesn't cease to exist, it merely shifts its nature into a lighter, less limited form.
When we get to our boiling point, we can do the same thing. In a single breath, we can remind ourselves that God knows exactly how much we can take, and furthermore, it is no one other than God who is presenting us with these difficult challenges now. Many of us pray to be strong, to be wise, to be in tune with God's will. Well, our trials and adversities are not accidents or curses, they are in fact the answers to our very own prayers. God gives us the opportunity to act human in a very small sense of the word, or to act human in the most divine sense. When the young woman enters her home after a hard day and sees the work that lies ahead of her, she can breathe in God's presence, and smile at those trials instead of run from them. God is messing with her head, that's all. She can cheerfully do whatever she needs to do, and see that it is not beyond her at all. She is beyond it. Nothing bad happens. She does her housework and then has a much-needed rest.
When she is able to do this, then the psychological level of her life rests within the spiritual, rather than vice-versa. This is a very important step of spiritual awakening: First God, then the self. Most of us settle for "First the self, then God." We adopt the latest psychological beliefs about our limitations, boundaries, traumas, hormonal swings, moods, needs and so forth. Then, within that context, we cultivate a very conditional spiritual life. When the two conflict, when we reach our boiling point, we tend to throw away our lofty spiritual ideals until the crisis is over.
We must reverse this process, so that when we reach a boiling point we drop the psychological self entirely and remember God. Then the young woman walks into her home dead tired, sees the work in front of her, and says - not to her husband, but to God - "You've really got it in for me today, don't you, Lord? Well, you know what I want, so I guess you also know what I need." She takes a few deep breaths, and then watches herself cook dinner, clean house, do dishes, care for her husband; and she finds she is bigger, deeper, kinder and stronger than she may have thought. We are not small.
This same young woman said to me, "But when I was a young teenager, I never let anyone know I was angry, I did everything asked of me, I let people take advantage of my kindness. And it did not make me wiser or freer. I was a mess. I was codependent. I became bulimic. I didn't take care of myself. It was horrible. How is this any different from that?"
It is very different, because her teenage behavior had nothing to do with knowing God. Her life was being lived on a psychological level, and not a healthy one: "First other small selves, then my small self." And of course, since others are never satisfied, she never got around to taking care of herself. But when we shift to "First God, then the self," God takes care of us. We realize that we are not small and needy, we are servants of the One Great Force, and we clean house for God, take care of God's stiff neck, cook dinner with gratitude from God's own pantry. And we know that God eventually gives us time to rest, to heal, to play, and to have fun. Like every dollar bill says, "In God We Trust." It is that trust that helps us endure a hard week at the office or the Nazi death camps; a rejection from the parole board or a year in solitary.
The psychological/emotional dimension of life is the child, while the spiritual is the parent. Look around and see what a mess the world has become from the child dominating the parent. Each of us has the opportunity and ability to turn that around in our own lives and, hopefully, in the lives of our children. Like anything else worthwhile, it takes effort. Right there and then, in the moment you reach a boiling point, turn inward toward God rather than lashing out at the world around you. Consistently let go of false beliefs until they no longer trigger your moods. God knows, God cares, God sets you up in all sorts of dilemmas for your own good. Just remember this, and try to act accordingly.
Past the Boiling Point
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