My Peruvian teacher once said: “it doesn’t get easier; it only gets harder.” At the time I was a little shocked; I thought that the more personal work I did, the easier life would become and the farther away I could get from the pains, grit, and mud of everyday life. I was looking for nirvana. Otherwise, what was all this about?

As years have passed, I begin to understand more and more what he meant with that statement.

A couple of years ago an angry client wrote me: “I cannot imagine that you truly feel, in any way, any real degree of the peace that comes with elevated consciousness …” This stung. Do I waltz around flaunting an “elevated consciousness?” Do I think that I’m better than any other? Do I think that I’m “further along the path” than anyone else? Because of the way that this stung me, at some level in my being I believed this. After all, the Apukuna smacked me down for it once before ... (which is a really great story, by the way, and I’ll tell it someday). We don’t change our spots easily, after all. 

This statement has stayed with me and niggled at me now for almost two years in an uncomfortable way. Because my subconscious won’t let this go, I know that there’s a lie buried somewhere in that statement; my body knows it. 

But what is the embedded lie that won't let me go?

Many people I have talked to over the years hold the idea that a ‘good’ spiritual practice is one that lets us transcend the pains and the gory, gritty reality of this life here on Earth. Many folks believe that if you’re diligent enough in your practice that you can transcend pain, heartache, disappointment, sadness, or grief. Some believe that we can indeed elevate ourselves above “all of this,” meaning, above our own humanity. Lots of people in the spiritual community believe this. I did. 

The lie is this: our spiritual practice doesn’t insulate us. Rather, it opens the door so that we can go deeper into our humanity. Our spiritual practice enables us to let go of the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, the stories we make up about who we are that we use to soothe and pacify our aching egos and spirits. It helps us see ourselves for who we truly are. It helps us see others clearly, too. Our practice helps us connect; it helps us let go of all of the reasons we are afraid or reluctant to connect with others and with Nature. It helps us be more us.

I used to think that my spiritual practice would take me away from the gritty, burning fire of the harsh realities of life. Calgon, take me away! To my dismay, I found that my personal spiritual practice involves lots of work. LOTs of work. Lots of meditation time, lots of doing again and again. Reading. Studying. Ruminating. With luck, it also involves Changing. My Peruvian work, in particular, has always involved much self-scrutiny. It has involved sacrifice. Specifically sacrifice in time, money, tears, blood and effort. Traveling, paying money and being cold a lot. This practice sands away my prickly corners, my spikes, my jagged edges. (Not fast enough for my own comfort, though. I want enlightenment now, dammit!) In the process, I usually get a comeuppance or two, a rude awakening to the unloveliness of a part of my deep nature which I’d rather not see, thankyouverymuch. But in order to change it, I must first be able to see it clearly and honestly.

Now, my understanding is that my spiritual practice gives me a greater ability to stand closer to the fires of life, to the tears, the blood, and to the suffering. How? Each time I am able to see something ugly, dirty, difficult within myself, really see it, I can work to transform it. Then this piece of my Shadow transfigures into Light and into strength and understanding. With ability comes responsibility, too. 

What this means is that my spiritual practice doesn’t insulate me at all, doesn’t make me some elevated being. The great purpose of a spiritual practice is to enable us to stand right inside the whirlwind, to open our heart to it, knowing that we will not be blown away or destroyed. If anything, my spiritual practice helps me be less elevated and more grounded in actual reality. It helps me be less attached to my story, to fabrication, and more able to be here, now, no matter what is happening here and now. To really own it, this is what I must do. 

Believe me, if I had known that this was what I was signing up for twenty-plus years ago when I began looking for spiritual answers, I would have just given up. Dear god! Who wants to see more blood, sweat, and tears? Who wants to snuggle up to that shit? Not the young me, that’s for sure! Problem is, when I run away from the grittiness and suffering, when I avert my eyes and close my heart to what is actually happening right in front of me, I become less grounded, less real, less powerful; I move into the realm of fantasy. I move away from my true power. 

I’ve had enough of that in my life. The time for looking away with fingers in my ears, singing “la la la la la!” is long over and gone. What this means is that my practice enables me to be present and congruent with a client whose brother is actively cursing him with powerful Hoodoo curses, causing financial and physical mayhem. I’m able to be right there with a client who tells me that the father of her child is her brother. My heart does not close when my client tells me that he was bound and raped by a man with my name and that he comes to me specifically to work that out, allowing himself to be naked and vulnerable on my massage table.* In my sight this is not “elevated”, nor is it “insulated.” This is standing right in the fire, my dears, right up close to the tears and the pain. 

A teacher of mine once said: “you cannot have empathy and sympathy and still be a good healer.” I understand the sentiment now, but I disagree: it is both possible and essential to have sympathy and empathy in order to be a good healer. However, it is necessary to do the personal work that makes it possible for you not to be so empathetic and sympathetic that you are sucked into resonance with your own unfinished business and rendered useless in the process. 

That’s why a spiritual practice of personal work is a must for every healer: no matter how much you’ve already done, there is always more.

*Details changed and obscured to protect the anonymity of clients. 

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Jeffrey Rich, LMT, is a practitioner and educator in the healing arts living and working in Huntsville, AL. He is a licensed massage therapist, a certified systemic and family constellations facilitator, and shamanic practitioner and instructor.
Being a true Gemini, he has two websites,
www.shining-mountain.com and www.waterwillowmoon.com