I was in a grocery store when a woman walked down the aisle toward me carrying some empty boxes. She bumped into everyone and everything as she slowly made her way down the aisle and then she got stuck between a shelf and the boxes. With a sigh she said, "I seem to be getting in my own way."
One of the obstacles in the path toward spirituality is the reluctance among many people to consciously reflect upon themselves. The reason for this became apparent to me when I attended a health spa to treat my chronic low back pain. I wanted to avoid potent painkillers for I am all too aware of the high risk of addiction. When my position as the Director of Psychiatry at a busy mental health hospital brought me to a point of burnout, I decided to "get away from it all" in the peace and quiet of a mineral spa.
On the first day at the spa, I was placed in a whirlpool bath in a small cubicle. It was nothing less than paradise. I relaxed in the warm water, whose whirling streams gently relaxed my whole body. I was at peace and there was nothing to disturb that peace. After about five or six very enjoyable minutes, I emerged from the whirlpool, telling the attendant how relaxing the experience had been. To my astonishment he said, "You can't get out yet, sir. The treatment here requires that you stay in the whirlpool for 25 minutes."
I found more than five minutes of peace intolerable. Why?
I returned to the tub, but not to an enjoyable experience. Every minute lasted for a painful eternity and after five minutes I could no longer take it. On my second exodus, the attendant informed me that unless I completed the requisite 25 minutes, I could not continue to the next phase of treatment. Not wishing to have spent my money in vain, I returned for 15 minutes of absolute torture.
Later I reflected on what had been a rude awakening. I had been certain that my distress had been due to the relentless pressures of my practice: a busy emergency room, receiving cases around the clock; a 300 bed acute psychiatric hospital for which I was responsible; serving as back up for all of the 300 patients if their personal psychiatrist was unavailable; frequent calls from distraught family members, police, lawyers, state government officials and sundry social agencies. Now I had been temporarily liberated from these overwhelming pressures, yet I found more than five minutes of peace intolerable. Why?
After a bit of self-analysis, the answer became apparent. We are adept at diversion, at amusing ourselves one way or another, but many of us are unable to truly relax. We entertain ourselves by reading, watching television, playing golf or cards, chatting with someone, listening to the stereo or CD or many other activities. But to be entertained is to be diverted, for that is what all these activities are: diversions. By focusing our attention on these activities, we divert our attention from everything, including ourselves. When all diversions are eliminated, we are left alone with ourselves, forced into direct contact with our own personalities and the personality flaws that trouble us, and this is where the difficulty lies.
I realized that when left alone in the cubicle in the spa there was no one to talk to, nothing to listen to, nothing to read, nothing to watch, nothing to do. I had been left totally alone, in absolute communion with myself. It is a common experience that when one is left alone in a room with someone one dislikes, it can be a very unpleasant experience, and one can hardly wait to get away.
This realization raised the question: what was there about myself I did not like? Why could I not tolerate being in my own presence?
I hypothesized that I must have some character traits that I would prefer to disown, but whose existence I could ignore as long as I was distracted by various external pre-occupations and stimuli. As I persisted in my introspection I found myself to be a jealous person, often resenting why others had more than I did. I was often vain, trying to impress people. I became aware that when someone offended me that I could hate with a passion. I had temptations and impulses that I thought should be alien to a truly moral person. I reasoned that if people ever discovered what emotions existed beneath this facade that I presented to the world, they would probably reject me. And how could I ever merit blessings from God if I was indeed a base person?
Along this rather depressing course of self-reflection I came across a passage in the Talmud that enabled me to gain a different perspective. The Talmud explains (Tractate Shabbat 89a) that the various Biblical commandments of behavior were given to man precisely because he has a fundamentally animal body, subject to all the instincts and drives of the animal world. Man's distinction is that he can become master over these impulses. In other words, the discovery of animalistic traits within myself was no reason to consider myself to be a "bad" person.
A bit of investigation with my patients confirmed my hypothesis: many people are indeed incapable of tolerating themselves, because they harbor self-directed feelings of negativity. Their discomfort with themselves may be so great that they employ a variety of tactics, some of them quite drastic, to escape or deny their identity as they perceive it.
I believe that this sorry state of affairs is a result of a distortion of the self-concept. In other words, these people are in actuality fine, competent and likeable people. The problem is that they are unaware of this reality. Instead of seeing themselves as they really are, they somehow develop a distorted image of themselves, and it is this distorted image, which they assume to be their real image, that becomes intolerable.
Needless to say alcoholism and other drug addictions are frequently the result of a person's trying to blot out a self-consciousness that is uncomfortable and which is based on spurious and unwarranted notions of self.
Spirituality relates to what is unique in humans and how they master their animal-like instincts. This requires a valid and accurate self-awareness which may be distorted by negative delusions about one's self. For spirituality to be pervasive, aspects of one's humanity must be viewed realistically and must be appreciated.