Challenges for spiritual progress

We’d all like to make high-speed spiritual progress. The Buddha awakened, so surely we can also. Sometimes though it feels like we are swimming (or meditating) in a tub of molasses. I have a spiritual practice, I make efforts to be a good person – what’s holding me back?

The First Ennobling Truth of Buddhist philosophy is that life is a struggle – some say “suffering.” The Pali word is “dukkha,” which literally means “bad formation.” The cause of this bad formation, struggle or suffering is twofold: Either we aren’t getting what we want or we are getting what we don’t want. In either case, it’s not a pleasant state of affairs.

Desire – or wanting – is a fact of life, and also the basis for everything we do. Life would be comatose without it. So what the Buddha meant when he said “the cause of suffering is desire,” was that clinging to our desires (or our aversions, a kind of non-desire) is the source of all our discontent. Thus life is a struggle.

Desire is based on habits, and habits are rooted in conditioning. This conditioning has two elements: conflicting emotions and confused or incomplete views. Because our desires are built when we are very young, they have become habits. Thus we tend to think of our desires as ourselves: What I desire is me, and what I am adverse to is “not-me.”

Buddhist philosophy holds that this confused or incomplete view of “me” combines with the conflicting emotions that arise in me when I don’t get what I want for some potent results. This is what drives our struggle.

Introducing “Me” … to “Not-Me” = High Speed Unfoldment

Open Mic Challenge

Photo © D. Steinbock

So what would happen if we turned the “me” thing upside down? That is if we acted out “not-me” in order to free ourselves from our habitual identity. We call this action “the Challenges!” It’s a way to determine our own karma.

In Dharma If You Dare I wrote, “If you want to grow, take the quick path to liberation by undertaking challenges.” The Challenges are threefold and have three levels of intensity. The idea is that if you want to be more, or other, than you are, you have to become what you are not. This breaks down the core belief in a fixed, permanent sense of self – which is, as we said before, rooted mostly in habit, and held in place by conflicting emotions. It is also the classic Hero’s Journey that every spiritual traveller goes through, in one form or another.

The Challenges: Weekly, Monthly & Yearly

The Challenges have three levels of intensity:

Challenging Climb - Dharma

Photo © D. Steinbock.

  1. Once a week do something out of the box. If you have coffee every day on one day don’t. Or if you never wear a dress then on one day do so. These challenges are one off: next week, experiment with something else. What happens when you change your routine?
  2. Once a month do something that you’ve always thought you might but never got around to, or that you have an aversion to because it messes with your sense of self. For instance, if you believe in not wearing makeup, then try wearing it for a day, or spend the day just listening if you always talk, or talk a lot if you tend to be quiet, etc. You’re starting to manifest as the “not-me.” What happens?
  3. Once a year do something you thought impossible! Jumping out of an airplane, making a “fool” of yourself in public, giving a speech, something you thought you’d never do.

A basic principle of the Challenges is that they don’t cause injury to oneself or another, nor damage anyone’s property.

The idea is not to make life difficult for yourself, nor for someone else, but rather to open yourself up to a way of being that may be bigger than you thought you could be.

Playing with the Paradigm of Not-Me

Spiritual community

Photo © D. Steinbock

One good way to discover what might be a challenge for you is to model yourself after someone you feel is your opposite. If done well, there are at least parts that you will enjoy. Plus you’ll have some major breakthroughs in understanding the other person … and yourself.

Also, these are not endless ongoing exercises. One day a week, one event a month and one a year. If you are consistent with these, then your spiritual progress will take off and you won’t have to be constantly “fixing” your “problems” the rest of the year.

Note also that one person’s weekly challenge might be someone else’s yearly challenge, and that another person’s yearly challenge might be someone else’s weekly challenge. This is one of the interesting parts, revealing how there really is no fixed identity to be found, but only habits and conditioning.

Dancing Challenge Getting over Fear

Photo © D. Steinbock

The Challenges can get really fun when we share with our friends. Everyone gets to see us – and thus themselves – in a new light and from a wider perspective.

Enjoy it. Life is meant to be a wondrous journey of discovery and exploration. While the challenges can be trying in the moment, everyone we know who’s embraced them has felt huge freedom, exhilaration and satisfaction afterwards. After all, spiritual unfoldment is all about liberation.

By Doug Duncan with Catherine Pawasarat.