“Now the thing that gets the gods, spirits, and ancient ones going is emotion. Sheer emotion produces the initial energy burst needed to break down the barriers between the human and the divine. This emotional energy can assume many forms. It can be joy, longing, love, but it can also be the sort of emotional energy that comes from crisis, despair, exhaustion, and madness.” Jan Fries, Kali Kaula
Not long ago I have an exchange with friends about the place of longing in spiritual life. Without speaking for them, my stance was that pointed longing and spiritual loneliness were a feature of devotional life, not a bug, and that these sensations are part of this practice. This isn’t to say that sadness should become pathological (and we should certainly not fetishize depression and other forms of illness); self-pity certainly is more of a burden on spiritual life than a boost and pain exists in such abundance that we don’t need to go looking for more. I agree with them that suffering does not make one a devotee (or a spirit worker, or whatever) and I echo once again some wise words from a wise priestess: Suffering is overrated.
Like I said, I feel that emotional pain and distress is a feature of the devotional path, not a flaw. It is something that most people – perhaps just about everyone – will experience at some point. Coping with this pain isn’t easy and it leaves observers feeling not a little helpless. However, automatically regarding spiritual pain as an aberration, a flaw, or even simply as a problem rather excises the feature of suffering from the devotional path. I think any examination of saints’ lives or devotional poetry will reveal that spiritual suffering is a major theme. I’m not saying we should compare ourselves to saints – and devotional poetry can be written to conform to conventions of style and not necessary to reflect personal experiences. What I’m saying is that we can use this information as an indicator that yes, the experience of separation and other forms of spiritual suffering are real, valid, and not necessarily indicative of self-indulgence, short-sightedness, or some other failing. Acknowledging that pain is a part of the devotional process for countless people is not letting us off the hook to be moody or self-absorbed; it is giving us a certain emotional heritage to know that we are not alone in these sensations.
In my friends’ defense, they have had experiences that are different than mine (and vice versa). We share the view that all things known and unknown, manifest and unmanifest, have their ground in a reality that contains all names and forms and that is beyond all names and forms. There is only one “I”, only one subject of knowing; therefore the experience of separation from one’s Beloved is only real on the most superficial levels – the singular subject of knowing contains everything and so separation is impossible. (Our shared cosmology states that the experience is real because there is no “unreal” within this singular subject of knowing, but that a combination of singular perception and sacred play create the illusion of separation.) Why then am I am so sad?
The most obvious answer is that I suffer from a limit of perception – which of course I do. While I might intellectually accept the cosmological basis of my tradition outlined above, I haven’t have the experiences that might transform my perception to short-cut the experience of separation. But separation was and is experienced by people for whom perceptional shortcomings are hardly relevant. Even saints and holy people who have experienced deeper levels of reality still exhibited the signs of separation. The sensation of separation is thus not limited to people who can’t perceive unifying principles. The experience if separation is also something not limited to paradigms where there is no unifying principle/singular subject field; it’s experienced quite commonly across devotional traditions of all kinds and by devotional practitioners of all sorts. I’d propose a deeper interpretation of this experience, then.
I personally think that the emotional lows experienced by devotional practitioners are matched only by the emotional highs. For as low as we go, we can go just as high. Our ecstasies carve out new emotional territory in which to grow and our depths plunge us into new realms. Our emotional landscape stretches each time and becomes more robust and nuanced. These experiences lead to enhanced self-knowledge – or they have the potential to, anyway. We can get carried away by the sadness as easily as we can the happiness. For as much as I acknowledge that the experience of separation can be a part of anyone’s devotional path, that knowledge is cold comfort. I admit a tendency towards self-pity at times but even in the absence of indulgence there is a lot of pain seeking relief.
Another facet of suffering on the devotional path – or a different interpretation of it, if you like – is touched on in the above quote. Jan Fries points out that engagement with the Powers runs on emotion, and that that emotion has potentially every characteristic. They want it all and so we are led to places where we bring it all.
In some traditions, the wanting is the having. We know we have the gods because of how much we want them. Possessing simply desire without resolution is not really my jam but I understand the point such traditions are trying to make. Desire is the evidence we’re looking for that we have the love of Those we love. Sidestepping back to my Tantric stance, I’d point out that desire, longing, and suffering are as much manifestations of Her as the experience of unity. She is all consciousness and all states of being, including those states that highlight the diversity of manifest reality through the sensation of separation. This too is Her and thus we return to wanting being having.
You’re not alone if you’re feeling sad on this path. You’re not alone if you’re feeling blue or stale or plateau-ed or cold. You’re not alone if you feel lonely. You’re not alone if you feel confused. These are real experiences and they are – potentially! – real features of this path. Self-discipline and careful reflection is required to tell the difference between manufactured distress and distress naturally arising. Often, manufactured distress makes naturally arising distress look larger and hotter and scarier than it actually is. Not everyone will feel these things, perhaps, but enough of us will that their commonality deserves note.
ETA: I want to clarify that I don’t think I’m right and my friends are wrong. Actually, I know that they’re right and that, in a certain sense, I’m wrong. I’m hesitant to attribute too much value to the experience of suffering because I think that this very quickly leads into a weird kind of mournful onedownmanship. Indulging in suffering just for the sake of its experience is, well, I don’t know how useful it is.
I want to give spiritual pain and the experience of separation a context within a greater framework of devotional life. Failing to account for these experiences in any methodological approach to devotional practice leaves a huge gap that people will continue to need answers to. A comprehensive approach to devotional practice must acknowledge the reality of spiritual suffering and, if possible, identify how it might be of value to one’s greater practice. There is an alchemy that can happen as a result of spiritual pain but it’s a mysterious and hidden process. I don’t know what happens as a result of suffering, but it’s clear that something does. People make very grave choices when confronted with the pain of separation or other forms of spiritual suffering and those choices can lead to fruitful or fruitless trajectories. Like I touched on in the initial post, spiritual suffering comes up too frequently to simply be an aberration or even a problem that nondualist sorts ought to be above. A full, valid, and complete devotional existence can – and perhaps even will! – include a measure of spiritual suffering. This simple truth alone should be justification enough for the meaningful exploration of this topic and its implications for the individual practitioner.