Q: If someone has low self-esteem, confidence, and self-love, and has not awakened to True Nature, what can be done?
From a non-dual perspective, I know the answer is to wake up. But from a day-to-day perspective, even if we have had tastes of Presence, it is not much use if we are suffering deeply and are caught badly in the snare of mind - where we are barely functional and there is no sign of any significant spiritual shift in the cards. Should we then put aside what we know to be Truth in order to shore up the ego and restore balance in our mind/body/persona - whatever that may look like? To work on self-love, self-acceptance, little steps to re-engage with ourselves and the world around us? This is a fuzzy/confusing area I find - must we have a healthy/functional ego/mind before we can hope to be free of that false identity?
I have heard some teachers insinuate or flat-out declare that so-called mental illness need not be an obstacle to awakening - and others that it is. And similar comments regarding anti-depressant/anxiety meds for example. Also, that we the seekers should not expect spiritual pursuit to address mental/emotional/life issues. Even if it may end up helping in these areas to one degree or another.
I have heard some teachers (and critics) say that the spiritual package (teachers, books, practices, sites, community) can be used as an escape from the things that hound us in our lives. That we can cherry-pick aspects of teachings, and also interpret teachings, in such a way that suits our neuroses (for example remaining single, or celibate, or only associating with like-minded/interested people, or clinging to a teacher as a parental/God replacement, etc).
It would be very helpful if you can speak on these things.
A: Thanks for these very thoughtful and practical questions. My perspective is that there are many different sizes and levels of truth. These different levels of truth can seem contradictory when in fact they are complimentary, and often the smaller truth is contained within the bigger truth. A simple example of this is how when you are standing outdoors on a rainy day, the sky is cloudy and grey. But if you fly in an airplane over that same spot, the sky is clear and blue. Both things are true at the same time. The clear sky at the level of 35,000 feet is the bigger truth as it encompasses the entire planet, while the clouds and rain are only happening over a smaller area.
So when it comes to questions of how emotional and mental issues relate to bigger spiritual questions, the emotions and mental patterns are like the clouds within the larger expanse of our true nature as the limitless sky. How this practically works itself out seems to be completely unique for every person I have ever explored these questions with. So within the very big truth of the totality of existence, there are people whose spiritual life benefits from psychotherapy and even medication, and others who seem to be able to just wake up even while suffering from very painful and difficult conditioning. Conversely, some people are freed by spiritual teachings and practices and other people are caught by the same words and methods in a net of the ego.
There is no formula that works for everyone. And yet every formula also works for someone. This is why you can hear such seemingly contradictory statements about what matters and what does not matter from different teachers....or sometimes from the same teacher! They may be speaking generally from their own experience, or they may be speaking very specifically to what they see happening in the student or seeker right in front of them. All there is, is truth. Every perspective has at least a small part of truth to it, but there is no perspective that can be put into words that contains all of the truth, or even all of the truth about just this one question of how to approach our neurosis with a spiritual outcome in mind.
This is why I point to a more experiential way of discriminating the truth using your own heart. The truth is whatever in this moment opens your heart (or your sense of your self) and quiets your mind. And something that is less true tends to contract your heart and your sense of being while making your mind busier. This is a completely dynamic, ever-changing equation that is different for every person at each new moment of their lives. And it is also always relative: for one person a process that heals and clears emotions may be a wonderful expansion of their perspective and capacity to feel Presence, while for another person the same process is a contraction into a smaller truth. (Note: you can read more about this way of discriminating the truth using your heart in part two of my book, Living from the Heart, available as a free download).
Therefore, the important question is: what is true for you right here and right now, and at this particular point in your own spiritual unfoldment? Do the practices, therapeutic approaches and teachings you are involved with now generally open your heart, expand your sense of being, and quiet your mind? Or do they generally have the opposite effect? It helps to notice the general overall effect as every practice or therapy will have moments that are more or less expansive, in part because any practice or therapy will also trigger conditioned reactions to the process. But the best question is what is the overall trajectory or overall climate of your involvement with a particular teaching or therapeutic approach? Does psychotherapy with a particular therapist open you up even more to big truths, or does it wrap you up even tighter in your pain? Does a particular anti-depressant free you from an oppressive neuro-chemical imbalance to therefore be able to do spiritual inquiry and exploration, or does the medicine cause a contraction of your awareness that makes you less aware of everything including both your pain and your deeper nature?
It is also possible that the biggest truth is a combination of different truths. There is a tendency when a big truth is seen to use it to discount or ignore the smaller truths. This can lead to a situation where the smaller truth suddenly becomes unavoidable because it has been neglected. I often ask people who say that since there is no separate self that there is no need whatsoever for healing, where they would draw the line? If there is no need to actively address an emotional wound, does that mean there is no need to address a physical wound also? You can see the limitation of using a big truth to negate a smaller truth if you take an exaggerated example: would it make sense to just let someone bleed to death because after all, "There is no one that dies"?
Conversely, it is also obviously limiting to ignore or negate a bigger truth. I have found it a more effective and balanced approach to work with psychological issues within a bigger spiritual perspective. It is often when we are shifting in and out of the different levels of truth that the most profound transformations happen. If we have both feet in our traumatic conditioning, then reliving or exploring the pain often just re-traumatizes us. And if we have both feet in a vast empty experience of the absolute, the experience is profound, but does not usually effectively release or heal our conditioning. It is when we have one foot in both dimensions, or when we are shifting in and out of both perspectives, that the potential for lasting healing and transcendence is the greatest.
It does not make sense to think the world is coming to an end when there are dark clouds overhead, and it does not make sense to carry an open umbrella on a sunny day, just in case the weather might change. The truth that matters most is the weather that is happening now, and if we pay attention to that, we can also learn more about the climate overall. Why limit yourself to only exploring and enjoying one type of weather? Why not explore and enjoy it all, and learn the importance and significance of every size of truth that shows up? Ultimately, your own heart and its direct sense of how true things are can be the only weatherman you need. It is a trustworthy guide when there are so many levels and shapes and sizes of truth out there.