Spiritual seekers have been told, over and over, that everything they want is inside of them. They’ve been browbeaten by the same explanations: “You see, that new relationship, job or house won’t deliver the happiness or peace you want. The peace and happiness you want is within.”
Of course, it’s true that no external change on its own can deliver permanent peace and happiness, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritually necessary. Nevertheless, many people conclude that if they want to find peace, they should not bother questioning or changing anything about their present situation. They figure they should just try to accept everything as it is. Yet this ignores the possibility that the status quo reflects our fear and resistance to positive change.
For example, a woman came to me for guidance after attending my talk. She said she wanted to experience awakening. I asked her what she thought this awakening would mean. She said it would be an opening to unconditonal love, at all times.
I then asked her to describe her present experience of love in her life. After all, she seemed like a very kind, open and insightful person. I therefore wondered where the sense of love was lacking for her. I knew her answer would tell me a lot.
Within a few minutes, she revealed that for the last few years she has been experiencing a painful lack of love and connection in her marriage, which she attributed to a change in her husband’s attitude and treatment of her. She was then in tears because she had been afraid to admit how deep the pain was; afraid to admit that her marriage might even have to end.
After some work together, she found that her relationship improved quickly by her speaking very candidly with her husband and asking for a real change. As soon as she confronted her tendency to be very quiet and indirect about her feelings, she saw her husband change and she felt more love flowing.
In retrospect, she was astonished at how quickly we got to this core issue in her life. She then remarked that she thought she just needed to find all the love in herself without “blaming him.”
This is a common confusion. It’s the idea that if love and peace are already within me, then there is no need to address any external problem in my life. The truth is that quite often, the only thing blocking our awareness of love or happiness is that we keep putting up with less than that in our life situation.
We are actively maintaining situations that reinforce our fears instead of taking direct action to uplift and enlighten our lives.
For example, let’s say someone gets drunk every day, and he thinks, “If happiness is already within me then why should I stop drinking so much? I just need to find it, and then my drinking won’t matter.”
Most people would recognize that as a spiritual bypass based on pure denial. The drinking is precisely what blocks the natural happiness from revealing itself. That’s how all addictions work.
Addiction is mainly a mental issue, which is why there are so many forms of it. When we refuse to address a negative situation in our lives, it’s because we’re addicted to feeling disempowered, depressed and hopeless. We are believing that there’s nothing we can do, or we’re afraid that if we confront the issue, we’ll lose what we have.
And then we try to spiritualize this stance of “doing nothing,” imagining that our fear-based inaction is really a spiritual path.
In the absence of fear — and in the presence of clear discernment — you would act to change a negative situation. Instead of clinging to the present person or situation you would either work to change it for the better or leave it.
“I have learned that positive change and happiness requires action and observing, action and observing. Now that I have and am living my life in accord with my values, everything is falling into place in unbelievable, beautiful ways. I cannot wait to see how my life continues to unfold. I couldn’t have imagined what my life has become — -from isolation and depression to freedom, joy, and amazing friends and support. Thank you Michael!”
I have engaged in long discussions with several spiritual seekers, who were trained to believe that any thought whatsoever was inherently invalid and wrong to act on.
Spiritual teachings are indeed meant to show us that we cannot take any given thought or feeling we have as an ultimate truth. This insight allows us to see which thoughts, views or habits are false. However, this teaching is too often presented in a simplistic, black-and-white fashion and acts as a kind of chemotherapy on the mind.
Instead of just getting rid of false, deluded thoughts, it makes war on absolutely all thoughts, feelings and desires. The result is a tragic form of avoidance that masquerades as the ultimate truth. It’s an autoimmune disease of the mind that cannot distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms of thought.
Adherents of this anti-mind attitude are rendered unable to address any negative situation in their lives. They adopt the wildly idealistic notion that they should be happy and fulfilled no matter what kind of mess they have made of their lives through false beliefs.
Often, it’s by confronting the mess in our lives that we discover precisely the extent of our fear and negative habits. Doing nothing, while trying (and failing) to feel peaceful despite the mess, allows us to cling to spiritual truisms and never face our own darkness.
So when you hear that peace and love are within you, that should not be taken as a reason to avoid changing things in your life. The task is to discover peace by intelligent spiritual inquiry and wise action.
It doesn’t work to just believe that peace is within. We need a method for discovering its source and shifting our identity. Without a method for recognizing our conscious nature and using it to master our mind patterns, we end up feeling ashamed and frustrated for not being spiritual and peaceful enough. The way is observation and self-inquiry.
By observing in every moment, we can identify the thoughts, feelings and actions that reflect a disempowered, unloving and unspiritual view of ourselves and our existence. We gradually learn to say no to what does not come from truth and love. In this No we will also find the Yes to what is wise, helpful and life-giving.
Then, the change in our outer actions will be coming from a shift in our identity and understanding — not from a futile attempt to find happiness in a person, place or thing.
We find the right relationship to the world only through this process of direct insight — not be “shoulding” ourselves into feeling peaceful or loving. When you engage in the world from a position of clarity, you are able to change what should be changed and accept what cannot be changed.