The vital power of self-work
Suma Varughese asserts that there are no shortcuts to enlightenment. Working diligently on yourself is the only way.
While we all have varying ideas about spirituality, at its core, it is only this one thing: self-transformation; or the end of suffering, as the Buddha called it. That’s it.
It is not about having visions, astral travel, clairvoyance, opening your third eye, or raising your kundalini (latent energy, in yoga). It is much more than that. It is to heal ourselves fully. To realise our full potential. To transcend the ego. To come to terms with our past. To be immune to the pulls and pressures of the body and mind. And above all, to feel no pain. No hurt. No matter what anyone does or says, we will be unfaltering in our composure. Krishnamurti once told his audience. Do you want to know my secret? The audience was agog. And this is what he said, “I don’t mind what happens.” So simple, and yet so tremendous.
Spend a minute thinking about how your life would be if you did not mind what happens. Coronavirus. Broken relationships. Environment crisis. Financial difficulties. Health problems. Conflict within. Still not minding what happens. Can you be in allowance of all that happens? Resting peaceful and easy like a dewdrop on a lotus leaf?
You might ask, is it even possible to live like this? Indeed yes. Others have done it. Why can’t we? All the great prophets and sages are testimony to this possibility.
So how do we get there? Through self-work. It is very tempting to imagine, while on the path, that we only have to look deep into a guru’s eyes and we will be healed of all our mind stuff. Or that we will simply and automatically get to that stage without much effort on our part. It is true that Life will heal us of some wounds, but if we want to wrest the most precious gift of Existence, which is liberation through self-transformation, we will have to put our all into it. Nothing less will do.
It all begins with the realisation that we alone are responsible for our lives; that we create our own reality. The thoughts we think, the feelings we feel, the physical sensations that assail us—in other words, the components of our inner world—determine our outer world. This truth is also called the Law of Attraction. We attract whatever we vibrate with. If our vibrations are on the level of anger, hurt, fear, and shame, we will attract events, circumstances, and people that give us more of that. The more elevated our vibrations, the better will our circumstances become. So, it is our inner world that we need to set in order.
There are, thankfully, innumerable paths we can choose as our vehicle of self-transformation. The path you choose must resonate with your disposition and inclination. A doer would be most comfortable on the path of Karma, where one serves humanity unselfishly. A feeler would be irresistibly drawn to the path of Bhakti, where love for God is the magnet that pulls one ever closer to transformation. A thinker would be most at home with the Jnana Path, for it enables one to think and ponder over the insights and truths of life until they become a part of their experiential knowledge. Then there are other more nuanced paths that club together many elements that enable the seeker to fine-tune and change every facet of their being. The best of these are the eight steps of yoga (ashtanga yoga)and the Buddha’s eight-fold path. Whatever the path, self-work is an essential auxiliary tool.
Focus on your inner world
Self-work essentially means to train our awareness on our inner world. To become increasingly aware of our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. And to work on them. Learn to progressively feel what you are feeling even as you are feeling it. Or to think what you are thinking. Experience the anger, the shame, the fear, the hurt, the insecurity, and the toxic memories. Simply be with them. And become aware also of the resistance that makes it difficult to be with them or the justifications with which you seek to explain away or come to terms with them. Stay aware of the attempts to fix your feelings either by suppressing them, disowning them, or papering them over with positive thinking. Stay aware of your self-judgements also and your tendency to lacerate yourself, or the inner dialogue that says “I must not feel angry. I’m never going to be angry anymore.” Stay aware of your tendency to run away from your inner landscape towards some handy distractions such as food, friends, TV, or books.
Make no mistake. This is excruciating work. To look at our dark side is one of the hardest tasks on earth. It means putting aside our good opinion of ourselves and excavating all the parts of ourselves we have so far disowned. We need to recognise our envy and jealousy. And the insecurity that makes it necessary for us to dominate a space. Or to put down others. Or withhold appreciation. We need to see how little we trust ourselves. Or like ourselves. Every bit of the seeing is close to being unbearable. But only this will erase our conditioning and dismantle the false personality we think of as ourselves—the ego composite of experiences, likes and dislikes, desires, and psychological and emotional needs that push and pull us. Only this will unveil our true Self, that mysterious entity that dwells in the cave of our heart (as an Upanishad colourfully called it) and whose existence we are barely aware of.
There are only two processes that facilitate self-transformation: One is self-awareness. And the other, which follows in its own time, is self-acceptance. The capacity to accept what we see. Self-work is about making this happen and eventually transforming ourselves bit by bit.
From my own experience, the capacity to look at ourselves depends on our self-esteem. If we have a healthy love and appreciation for the person we are, we will not topple when we see the hidden darkness within. For the rest of us, we will only gradually learn to bear the seeing and eventually come to terms with it.
This is why developing a healthy self-esteem is a crucial part of the evolutionary process. Our Indian scriptures hardly mention it, but without it, we can never free ourselves of our ego. It will just hurt too much.
In this journey of self-work, Life is our biggest teacher. Simply use everything it brings you as an instrument of growth and to practise self-work. A disagreement with someone is a great opportunity to see where you went wrong or to experience your anger, hurt, and resentment, to feel your resistance to these emotions, or your unwillingness to do so, and so on. And eventually, you need to learn to take steps to resolve the problem.
A health issue is a good opportunity to examine your habits and see what is sabotaging your health. It will also help you to look at all the emotions that poor health brings up. Personally, I have found health issues to be an amazing teacher. It was by the dint of experiencing the huge waves of fear, anxiety, panic, and paralysis that would grip me each time a health issue surfaced, that I learnt to gradually transition to calmer waters. Even today, I cannot claim to view ailments with equanimity, but I am surely much better than I used to be. In fact, by learning to be deeply one with whatever is going on in my body as well as the emotions it throws up, I have often cured myself.
Falling in love reveals more of our egoic personality than almost anything else. It’s an endless play of emotions. First comes the heady high that surges through you and compels you to vest the other with an absurd level of importance. Any scrap of paper dropped by the personage is more sacred than Holy Writ. Then comes the need for love, appreciation, and approval, particularly if your self-esteem is low. Then the fear that what you have may not last. And alas, if that happens, the descent into despondency and depression as feelings of being rejected and of not being good enough lash you. Falling in love is a salutary way of gauging where you stand on the evolutionary chart, and how complete your sense of self and self-esteem are.
The secret of self-work
Here is the secret. Everything in the world comes to us via our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Let us consider that someone has insulted us scathingly. How do we receive it? A riot of thoughts, accompanying emotions, and scalding physical sensations. Someone pays us a compliment. Gratification swells within, we think rather well of ourselves, and we are suffused with pleasant sensations.
So the more we can confront and contain these three components, the freer we are of the world. It is never the person we are angry with. It is the unpleasant stuff within that gets churned by the insult that makes us resent them. If we can contain the full impact of the insult, then we will have no emotional charge against the person. This is true of any situation, including facing one’s or another’s death, betrayal, or health crisis. If you can contain the medley of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations exploding within, you will be free of the situation. Of course, this is not easy, for it requires a tremendous amount of presence. But there is no other way to win our liberation. Can you see how central self-work is to liberation?
How long will all this take? Honestly, it depends on the person. If you have been a diligent self-worker in your past lives, and if your self-esteem is healthy, then it may take less time than for others. As for me, I have been on the path for the last 30 years, and the end is still not in sight. But that does not bother me. Right now, I am happy where I am, and am jogtrotting my way to realisation. I am not in a tearing hurry. A decade ago, I was. I was so uncomfortable, so unable to contain my feelings, that I simply could not stand to be that way. But now I am reasonably comfortable with myself, and that is the reward of self-work.
Benefits of self-work
As we grow in our capacity to experience and contain our mind stuff, we also move into self-care. We learn to be more forgiving of ourselves and more committed to our health and happiness. We sabotage ourselves less and trust ourselves more. We stand by ourselves when no one else does, and we believe in ourselves at all times. One of the most beautiful dividends of self-work is this growing and constant friendship with our own self. We learn to become our own best friend, and that, to me, is the ultimate purpose of all relationships—to bring us within our own backyard and to find all that we are looking for in our own heart.
Self-work also helps us to expand in confidence and capability. The more we can bear to see the truth of ourselves moment to moment and to contain what we see, the easier we will find to move from agonising about the situation to doing something about it. And through this, we will grow in strength and confidence. From ‘I can’t,’ we enter the territory of ‘I can,’ with our drums beating, flags flying, and bugles blowing!
So now you know both sides of the equation: the challenges of self-work and the precious rewards it bears for us. What you should also know is that whatever growth you achieve is for eternity. It will get encoded into your DNA and stand you in good stead in all your subsequent lives. We cannot say the same thing about the possessions we accumulate, the money we salt away in our bank, or the fame or power we acquire. According to me, there is no better use of our time than applying ourselves to self-work. And the good news is that the Universe will be on our side in proportion to our growth. We will attract according to our vibes, and abundance, peace, happiness, and health will all come knocking. In the Bible, Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.”
So, keep going and don’t stop until you get there. Since our task is often inhumanly gruelling, we will incessantly stumble and fall. No worries. That is part of the territory. Cultivate the quality of resilience. The capacity to get up, dust off, and take the next step. This is the supreme reason for taking a human body. It is the only reason worth living for. So walk on.
As the Buddha said: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate Bodhisvaha. (Gone, gone to the other shore. Enlightenment, hail!).” May this be your auspicious destiny!
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