02.03.2017 Spirituality

Contradictions on the Spiritual Path

Frank Vilaasa finds peace in embracing the paradox of effort versus letting go

When the Sufi mystic Farid was taking his bath in the Ganges one morning, a young man approached him and asked to be initiated as his disciple. Farid said, “Let us take our bath first”. Once they were in the river, Farid grabbed hold of the guy and pushed him down underwater. He started kicking and struggling for air. After what seemed like an eternity, Farid finally let him go, and the young man thrust his head to the surface, gasping. Farid said to him, “When you want to attain enlightenment as much as you wanted that breath, I will initiate you”.

Other awakened beings have made similar statements. Sri Ramakrishna is quoted as saying, “You should seek illumination like a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond”.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, as passed down via Papaji to Gangaji, Isaac and so on. This teaching maintains that all striving for enlightenment is counter-productive. You should stop trying and just relax, dis-identify with body and mind, and realise that you are the watcher that perceives all things.

My own teacher, Osho, used to have a bit each way. One day he would say you have to make intense effort, and the next day he’d be saying, “Take it easy. There’s no need to make any effort. It will just happen”. When people complained that they were getting confused by these contradictions in his teaching, he would say, “What can I do? Life is paradoxical. Some things are contradictory. I’m just telling it as it is”.

On my own journey I have struggled with this paradox of effort versus letting go, striving versus chilling.

The paradox gets particularly nasty when it comes to motivation. We all understand that if you want something, you have to be motivated to attain it. In other words, you have to really want it. At the same time, as any spiritual teacher will tell you, enlightenment will only come to you when you are free of desire. So all you have to do is figure out how to want something – without desiring it. What could be simpler? Develop a sort of indifferent striving. Like a football fan who passionately wants his team to win – but doesn’t really care at the same time! Kind of like standing on your head, and standing upright simultaneously. If you can just figure that out, you are bound to be enlightened. Or nuts. Or both.

For me it all came down to one question: “What is going to motivate me to sit down on the meditation cushion each morning?” When I approach the cushion with the idea that I want to become enlightened, at some point during my meditation this subtle striving for a goal creates a tension in me. And this very tension prevents me from tapping into those deeper layers where enlightenment lives. So my motivation to sit and meditate will prevent the very thing it is endeavouring to attain.

On the other hand, if – once I realise this – I drop my motivation and just hang out and chill – then I also find that I never tap into those deeper layers where enlightenment lives.

At some point I learned to embrace this contradiction. And for this I am grateful to my teacher, that he never glossed over it, or pretended it wasn’t there. I realised that enlightenment is not something that I, or anyone else, can control. It comes of its own accord, in its own time. I need to just relax and give up aiming for it.

Then what will get me onto the cushion each morning? Instead of being driven by the wish for enlightenment, I could practise meditation for its own sake. Once you understand the subtleties of it, it is a beautiful thing in itself. It doesn’t have to just be a means to an end. When you sit on a cushion, and attend to this moment without distraction, it is very calming. You get to know yourself, and make peace with yourself. It awakens energies and feelings you didn’t know you had. In its most difficult moments, it is a great opportunity to shift and transform old stuck patterns. And at its best, it is endlessly illuminating and blissful.

When approached in this way, meditation creates the fertile soil where one’s innate awakening can blossom. But this is not an aim. It is a bonus, a gift from existence. By meditating daily, you let the universe know that you’re available to receive this gift. Whenever.

Frank Vilaasa

Frank Vilaasa is a counsellor, healer and meditation teacher living in Fremantle WA. He is the author of What is Love? – the spiritual purpose of relationships and can be contacted at www.awaken-love.com