Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of May 30, 2011

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Obstacles on the Way


If humanity were at a later stage of our evolution, perhaps there would be fewer obstacles on the path of spirituality. No doubt there would still be many challenges, but obstacles? Challenges we need to strengthen our will. Obstacles can slow and even block our progress, derailing us from the path.

Even a person who conscientiously adheres to a moral way of life will face many obstacles preventing him or her from entering the deeper realms of the spirit. So in this approach to dealing with obstacles, we are not referring to moral codes, laws, or the Ten Commandments. We take straightforward morality as a given, as a prerequisite for the spiritual path. Lack of morality raises an insurmountable barrier to the path. Because temptations never stop coming our way, moral self-vigilance remains necessary throughout our lives — necessary, though not sufficient.

That insufficiency of morality leads us to the many other kinds of obstacles that confront us all. The great traditions offer various formulations, for example, the seven deadly sins from Christianity and the five hindrances and the ten fetters from Buddhism. Over the coming weeks, we will take a careful look at and make certain efforts to address nine sets of such obstacles, namely:

    1. Sense Desire
    2. Aversion
    3. Laziness
    4. Hurry and Worry
    5. Thoughts and Opinions
    6. Greed
    7. Envy
    8. Fault-Finding
    9. Ego

When we start looking at our own inner and outer behaviors with a more objective view, we might see such obstacles everywhere and be tempted to despair of ever making significant progress. Fortunately, very fortunately, our spiritual development does not depend on eradicating all, and perhaps not even any, of those obstacles. What is required is that we raise the level of our being, that we raise the level of our modes of perception and action. Climbing to live in higher worlds cuts our attachment to the impediments that plagued us in our ordinary way of living. Spiritual practice is all about that climb. Such a change of station frees us all at once, even from obstacles that we had not particularly addressed. So we are not embarking on a program of self-reform, which might never end, but rather on a path of transformation, integrating those very obstacles into our wholeness, so that our unbecoming impulses reframe themselves to serve rather than to take.

The issue for us now is that the obstacles slow our climbing, like so many weights encumbering us. They draw us out of ourselves and we vanish into attachment in these many ways. Indeed what defines an obstacle is precisely its propensity to collapse our presence, to disturb the peace of our meditation, or to adulterate our prayer by making us feel unclean and unworthy. We measure our life by these criteria, by how things affect our inner work.

Our inner work against or despite particular obstacles generates energy that we can turn toward more and deeper inner work. Choosing to forgo something you want to do or choosing to do something you do not want to do, can produce valuable inner energy. There is on the one side our desire or aversion, and on the other side our choice to go against that desire or aversion. Like positive and negative electric charges held apart, this action sets up a field of energy within us. If the power of the want is matched by the power of the choice to oppose it, that field engenders energy that we sorely need for our further inner work. If the want is strong and the choice is strong, the energy field is also strong. For that reason, people with strong obstacles are not at a disadvantage when it comes to spiritual practice: those very obstacles, if handled well, can help them grow strong, not only in energy but also in will. Their will and their need are called upon to rise to meet the obstacles.

We need subtlety in understanding our spiritual impediments. It is easy to fall into defining as obstacles those aspects of ourselves that we do not like. That not-liking itself, though, is a hindrance, often coming from vanity, and that can lead us into endless programs of self-reform to make ourselves more acceptable to ourselves rather than to remove the difficulties hampering our inner work. This is not to say that our motivations must be pure, because vanity and egoism inevitably insert themselves into so much of what we do and feel. But we do need to observe what actually blocks or diminishes our inner work, our ability to be present, our ability to worship wholeheartedly, our readiness to be kind. Then we focus on what our observations bring to light. Each of us is unique, with our own set of obstacles. Notice also the crucial point that if we do not attempt to practice presence regularly, then we cannot see those processes that would hamper our presence. More inner work leads to more inner work. Less leads to less.

From the outset we also need to understand that overcoming our inner obstacles in no way means divorcing ourselves from parts of ourselves. We honor and respect our whole humanity, our own humanity, including the difficulties in our personal nature. Indeed, the source of all these obstacles can be attributed to their undoubted value in our survival-of-the-fittest path through the eons of evolution. Our spiritual path, though, requires us to live and work with the whole of ourselves, to transform our hindering tendencies to assets, to unify our entire nature in service to the Real. So we are not intending to cut out of ourselves those tendencies that oppose our inner work: we need everything we have. But we are intending to bring all our tendencies, including the entire roiling sea of our contradictory impulses, under one umbrella, under our one unified, individual will.

So we befriend ourselves and work against our obstacles, usually to generate insight and energy, sometimes to make permanent changes, but always to enable ourselves to step along the way toward freedom, unity, and love.

For this week, before we start looking together at specific types of obstacles, please look into your own life to see what particular obstacles hamper your path. Choose one thing or tendency and find a way to work toward freedom with respect to that.


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