One of my clients once asked me, "If I'm so spiritually evolved, why am I having a bad day?"
Don't we all have this question in various forms?
"I'm a coach, why am I having difficulty with this issue?"
"I'm a therapist, why are my own relationships in trouble?"
"I've been doing self-development for years, why am I still getting angry?"
Or perhaps you've had the question tossed at you...
"If you teach this to people, why don't you go practice it yourself!"
We tend to see these questions as pointing toward some issue within us; something we need to clean up or some way in which we are inauthentic or out of integrity.
... unless the purpose of self-development (or spiritual growth) is to never have a bad day again.
It's not that I think becoming issue-free is unrealistic or impossible. Perhaps it is. But what interests me more is this: Do we study, have our spiritual practices, or hire someone to help us 'get better' in order to never ever feel bad again?
If we make our self-improvement all about becoming a perfect human being with a perfect life, we are in for trouble. There is no greater suffering than striving to be a flawless human. It is an endless moving runway with a carrot dangling -- always -- just out of reach. You make improvements in one area and soon you are noticing all the ways that you are lacking in another and then you are right back on the treadmill.
It's very easy when we read spiritual masters, reflect, meditate, study or hire someone to work with us, to fall into the trap of believing that a sign of enlightenment (or progress) is that we will stop having strong negative emotions. Just look at how shocked we are when a one of our icons admits to feeling depression, gets mad at a being stuck in traffic, gets a divorce or declares bankruptcy!
No matter how much 'work' you do on yourself, you cannot get rid of your emotions -- because you cannot get rid of the fact that you are a thinking being. The two go together, hand in glove. We always feel whatever we think.
Thoughts themselves are a kaleidoscope of infinite colors and shapes, many of which are not all that pretty. We define the bad, uncomfortable, unworthy and wrong ones and then set about trying to extract them as if they were cavities. How would you do that, really? And more importantly, why would you want to? You are by definition as 'sentient being'.
'Bad thinking' isn't something to rip out and replace with positivity. Maybe life would be better if we could do this; but have you ever actually succeeded? Are you sure that's purpose of personal growth?
For me it proved stressful, and ultimately unsuccessful!
A turning point for me was when I noticed that I actually do not take EVERY thought seriously. I've had thoughts of punching someone, and not followed through. I realized I am actually already naturally and effortlessly ignoring all kinds of thoughts. You probably do too, within the last hour perhaps.
You know how they say "the thought crossed my mind"? It's true. Thoughts do cross your mind. AND if you notice, you might also find that, you too have plenty of experience in not taking them seriously. Thoughts themselves cannot compel action from us. Thoughts are not us. So the types of thoughts you have do not define the kind of person you are.
Seeing this, we can relax. We can understand that thinking is not problematic. It just happens. It's not who we are, but it happens in us.
I have given up on trying to change and get rid of certain thoughts. My life is the better for it.
Last week I was teaching at our CSC Retreat by the Sea and for the 9 hours driving up and back to Santa Cruz from San Diego, I was listening to Anthony de Mello's Wake Up To Life lectures (which I highly recommend!). He asserts,
"Do you know it's possible to be anxious, yet not troubled? Do you realize that you can be happy in your anxiety and in your depression? The only reason you don't is because you don't understand what happiness is. You think happiness is 'thrills'. It's not..."
Most of us are trying to be happy without knowing and without inquiring into what happiness is. When we define it as 'never having a bad day' or 'never being upset' no wonder we are never happy!
I am wondering if perhaps the purpose of life is not to get happiness or even to be happy, but to understand what happiness really is.
Only then, does happiness have a chance to unfold within us and be recognized.