It happened one evening some years ago. I was quite tired after a long day and I had already gone to bed. I was in that misty, indefinite area between waking state and sleep – just about to fall asleep – when all of a sudden I saw a beautiful face in front of me; introverted, eyes closed, as if in deep meditation.
For a moment the face was still, and then the closed eyes opened slowly and looked deeply into mine. The look was very gentle and aware, and it awoke me from my near-sleep state.
Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (1)
I sat up and thought: “What on earth was that?”
At that time I was preparing works for my next art exhibition. The vision that I had just seen was so powerful that I decided to try to paint it. Eventually it became the theme of the whole exhibition that I would name “Beyond The Faces”.
But there was much more to that mysterious face than just an inspiration for my art exhibition. I believe the face was saying: “Time to wake up. Time to come back to yourself.”
Prior to that evening I had been on a four-year long journey of spiritual inquiry. I had become an active member of an Indian spiritual group. I had adopted the same goal as the other members. I tried to become nothing less than an angel – a pure, bodiless, spiritual being. I tried to follow the same principles, the same daily routines and practices as others. I was very happy that I was accepted in a company of very friendly, like-minded people, a big spiritual family.
For quite some time life felt great. I thought I had found my place and people in this world.
But then a nagging doubt entered my mind, and my heart began to feel odd, empty and cold. A huge void, like an infinite desert, settled inside me.
I had lost contact with myself, and my soul was crying for me to come home back to myself.
What had gone wrong in an endeavour that had started so well?
Painting: Maarit Suokas-Alanko, “The face of my dream” (2)
One reason was in my psychological history. My own unrecognized wounds had lured me into a trap. My parents divorced when I was six years old. The divorce left me traumatized, and the years that followed were not easy.
Therefore, from this early age on my life was marked by an aching longing for acceptance and belonging. Of course I wasn’t aware of that, and so my unconscious forces eventually threw me into the lap of this spiritual group.
Now I want to make it very clear that I do not consider all spirituality simply as escapism from unresolved psychological problems. But I do want to note that in mature spirituality (and for that matter, in life in general!) it is necessary to become aware, at least somehow, of the pain and shadows of one’s psyche. We can’t reach the vast skies of our soul unless we also walk through the harsh terrains of our personal history. Or, to put it in another way, to get hold of the gold that lies within, we first have to scrape all the mud from its surface.
So I had bought the acceptance of a friendly, always-smiling spiritual community with the price of losing contact with my true self. I believed the acceptance was unconditional, but of course it wasn’t. Like in all human relationships there were rules I had to play by. And of course at some point I started to question them.
Cutting off portions of the self
Another reason for my life reaching a crisis was the imbalance in the teaching that I tried to follow. It was not downright denying the shadowy corners of being human, but it emphasized and focused so much on the spiritual, immaterial, and positive-only, that it automatically slipped into a very polarized view of life.
For me this meant that I ended up living in some sort of nebulous plane of existence, somewhere inside my head or, should I say, several centimeters above my head. Everything below that level became unclear, and even a bit scary. No wonder also my heart felt empty and hollow, and my body alien and lifeless.
Now seeing reality and life in opposing pairs of right-or-wrong, good-or-bad, mind-or-body, spirit-or-matter is certainly not characteristic of spirituality and religion only. It happens in all areas of life.
But like I already said in my first blog, nature knows no borders. Borders are a product of the human mind. What often seems to happen in spiritual approaches is that, as they aim to rise to the “higher” realms of consciousness, they begin to consider “lower” ones something bad and inferior.
Ultimately this leads to slicing off integral parts of being human. Being human means, among other things, being part of nature by having a physical body that, in many ways, bears resemblance to that of animals. It also means having a wide range of emotions and feelings from the most altruistic love to hate and rage. Therefore, true healing and wholeness can only be achieved by integrating even those parts of our being that seem contrary to each other.
Seduction of easy answers
I have tried, in this very condensed form of a blog post, to cover a topic that is broad, complex and deep. There is so much more I could say. But I’ve tried to give at least a glimpse into my own experience and to the lesson life has given me. I know my spiritual odyssey is by no means unique, and it most certainly isn’t over, but I hope that sharing about it might help others who are right now on a similar journey and feel lost.
“Swamplands of the soul” is a very apt expression to what I went through. I no longer think that my adventure with an Indian spiritual group was a mistake that I should somehow regret. I needed to go through this particular swampland. It is an integral part of my life history and it definitely made me a bit wiser. At least I hope so.
I finish with a quote of Jungian analyst James Hollis:
“Added to this fantasy of transcending our natural reality is the understandable desire to avoid what I call ‘the swamplands of the soul’, those dark places where fate, fortune, and our own psyches frequently take us. No amount of right thinking or right conduct will spare us swampland visitations. Much so-called New Age thinking has seeped into general public consciousness, and this populist philosophy offers seductive, ungrounded spiritual practices that seek to finesse the question of suffering. — If we are free of suffering, we are less likely to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are. The rigor and depth of questions raised by suffering jar us out of complacency, out of the casual reiterations of troubled life, and bring us to the daily dilemma of enlargement or diminishment.”
P.S. In addition to some fantastic people who have given me support in my journey I have also had great books and texts that have traveled with me. To mention but a few:
- Krishnamurti, Total Freedom
- Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart: Perils and Promises of A Spiritual Path
- Charles Bentley, A Journey by Coach: the way back to personal authenticity
- James Hollis, Finding Meaning in The Second Half of Life
- And last but not least Ted Hughes and his little masterpiece, a description of our Inner Child, at Brain Pickings.