Although it took me many more years to fully live that knowing, that day I knew that if a path couldn’t embrace the dirt that was on the floor, or frankly, even the poop that lay in the street, then it could never embrace me or my darkest pain. And it seemed to me, that by not acknowledging and embracing my humanity and pain, or that of others, it truly would create suffering.
Throughout my times of suffering I explored many spiritual paths.
One evening I went along to a spiritual group that was quite popular. The meeting room was beautiful; intricate art hung on the walls and carvings sat in the corners. Large meditation cushions were arranged on the floor. I followed others inside and found myself a cushion.
Once everyone had settled, we were each given a chant book. It was a beautiful book, exquisitely bound in purple and gold. The pages inside were like a fine thin parchment; they crackled a little as I leafed gently through. I placed the book with great care on the floor in front of me.
Our teacher came in. She started to talk: ‘We all want happiness! Who in this room does not want happiness? Put up your hand if you do not want happiness.’ There was some muted but knowing laughter; everyone, it seemed, wanted happiness. I looked down so she couldn’t catch my eye; I didn’t want happiness.
Although I was going through difficult times, I knew there was something intrinsically meaningful to my pain. It may have been awful a lot of the time, but it also had texture and depth. It was as though I was being shown something so different and in its own way so vital, because in that very difference and vitality lay hints of other ways to live, and other things to know. It was as though I was being asked a question, but it was my very life that was questioning me.
Then, all of a sudden, our teacher stood up. She was looking straight at me. She was singling me out and I thought I saw a faint gleam of triumph in her eyes.
My immediate thought was that she could read my mind and knew I disagreed with her. She continued to look straight at me and I knew there must be something that was expected of me. I wondered if I should give some justification for my opinion: ‘Well, your point about happiness is a good one, but I just really want to understand my suffering.’ But no, apparently that wasn’t it. She couldn’t read my mind after all. She was pointing to the floor in front of me. She was pointing to my chant book.
It was clear now that I had done something terribly wrong. Others were following the direction of her finger and then looking at me with disapproval. I know the metaphor of wishing to sink into the floor is vastly overdone, but that was exactly how it felt. I wished the floorboards would swallow me up. My childhood was replaying itself. As much as I always tried to do the right thing, I inevitably fell short. I would never match up. I would always be caught out.
And then she was talking (and these may or may not have been her words, but they are certainly the sense that I was left with): My chant book was a spiritual book. It was not separate from Spirit itself. It was to be treated with great reverence and awe. How would I ever come to appreciate any spiritual teaching if I could not even bring a simple regard to a chant book? A chant book did not belong on the floor! With all the dirt, rubbish and grime!
I glanced surreptitiously around. All the other chant books were ensconced in people’s laps or placed on their own special cushions. I had not paid close-enough attention.
I could feel red-hot tears forming. I wanted to tell her that I had loved the simple beauty of that book. I wanted to tell her that only with the deepest care had I placed it on the floor in front of me. I wanted to tell her that it was my first time in the group and I didn’t know the rules. But I didn’t say a word. Like a dull student I simply picked up the book and placed it on my lap.
I can’t remember the rest of the class. The resonances of what had just happened replayed themselves over and over in my mind: I was stupid. I was bad, I would never belong, I would always be singled out for reprimand. And yet, when those voices died down a little, another voice came through and to this day that voice has not died down.
Even through the veils of my suffering and my searching, I knew instinctively that for any spiritual path to be valid, there must be room for all experience; Spirit was after all The Whole, The All. People couldn’t just claim all the good and happy and nice bits in the name of Spirit and then discard the rest. People couldn’t just pretend that the dirt, the disease, and the suffering didn’t exist. Spirit couldn’t just be a book sitting up neatly on its own cushion, cut adrift from the dirt and messiness of everyday life.
And if Spirit was offended by a chant book on the floor then I didn’t want any part of that sort of Spirit. Surely Spirit didn’t care in the slightest if that book was on the floor, in the dirt, or in the darkest corners of a rat-infested slum.
Although it took me many more years to fully live that knowing, that day I knew that if a path couldn’t embrace the dirt that was on the floor, or frankly, even the poop that lay in the street, then it could never embrace me or my darkest pain. And it seemed to me, that by not acknowledging and embracing my humanity and pain, or that of others, it truly would create suffering. And this suffering would only be exacerbated by the belief that spiritual books deserved to be in places of reverence and awe, while human beings merely deserved humiliation.
So much suffering in the world comes about when people point at things and say, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘me’ or ‘not me’, ‘dark’ or ‘light’, ‘pleasure’ or ‘pain’, ‘filthy’ or ‘clean’, ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Spirit doesn’t draw lines across reality, judging those who can enter The Kingdom of Heaven and those who can’t. Only people draw those lines. Spirit is the ground from which everything arises, so how then could Spirit not truly embrace that which is its own?
There is nothing that isn’t Spirit. It is only when one knows the truth of one’s ultimate ground in Spirit, that dirt and darkness and depth can be embraced just as surely as the light and the happiness.