A number of years ago I owned a retreat centre called the Ecology Retreat Centre in the beautiful Hockley Valley near Orangeville. It was a very fulfilling time in my life even though I overworked getting stressed out creating a stress-free environment.
In my tenure there I received a great personal education of many spiritual and growth practices almost every weekend and met many well known spiritual teachers. I also developed a keen radar for groups that were liberating and others that were more cultish and entrapping. I got to experience the effectiveness of many of the transformational practices either by outside observation or by directly participating.
Over the years I observed some of the unconscious traps that practitioners of these practices could fall into. There's one major one that I am seeing more and more for people on the spiritual path that I think is really important to express even though it might ruffle a few saffron robes. For now I'll call it the addiction to relief.
The Addiction to Relief
I first started to notice this during an interaction I had with a participant at the end of a 10 day meditation retreat. On the final day retreatants break their silence and they can talk. I wanted to get some feedback on how their stay was at the centre and I approached one of the individuals and sat down with him. He was glowing and a sense of deep peace radiated from his presence. I was impressed with him. I was sure that he had awakened and asked him if he had found out who he was.
He looked back at me puzzled almost as if to say "Oh, I forgot to do that". When I told him of the self-inquiry question, "Who am I?" often used in Zen to awaken people to their true nature he said: "Ooo that sounds scary". This seemed very odd. In my naivety I thought every mediator would be interested in enlightenment.
A few months later, I related this story to one of the meditation teachers who came to the centre every year. He said something very surprising: "Most people that come to retreat are there to ease the stress of their lives. I am lucky if I get 10% of the people interested in self-investigation".
Later a well-known meditation teacher from the US taught at the centre and in his opening talk he said something quite controversial:
"I've taught at most of the meditation centres in the US and I have to say the majority of people there are still asleep. They are addicted to calmness".
For me he was a bold and refreshing teacher. He challenged people to go right into their suffering, disentangle themselves and get free. I loved the guy not just because he didn't wear robes and wore jeans, but he had the audacity to tell it like it is. Unfortunately he was never asked to return. I think he was shaking people too much out of their comfort zone.
The Culture of Comfort
Those experiences got me pondering the whole urge to find comfort in our culture and how the same urge is a trap on the spiritual path.
Its apparent to me there is a huge addiction to relief in our culture. Instead of looking at the actual real causes of disease: excessive consumption of sugar, refined carbs, rancid fats, GMO foods, environment toxins, excessive stress, etc we just lessen the symptoms of our modern diseases with drugs that lower our blood pressure, cholesterol, reduce our chronic headaches, arthritis and digestive discomforts.
Instead of seeking the source of our anxiety, depression, PTSD, co-dependency, compulsivity that may have their source in physical, verbal or sexual abuse and forms of childhood neglect, etc we are convinced that medication is the answer. "Just take the edge off so that we can cope" instead of going to the core and resolving it at its source. "Just get some relief for a little while."
The issue is that the relief is just temporary. The real problem is not gone it's just buried alive. Like one of those horror movies where the monster is buried under the floor boards. The problem will keep re-surfacing and we will just keep finding more and more ways to appease the symptoms. To me there's no difference between using alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, etc and our modern medications. Instead of curing, we are coping. Instead of finding resolution we settle for relief. We take just enough of the pain away so that we can be comfortable.
Its palliative care for the masses.
Someone once called this a "Life of quiet desperation." We keep doing this over and over again until we become addicted to this relief. And like all addictions it eventually degrades us physically, mentally and emotionally. This modern moderation is killing us softly.
So it is natural that we bring the addiction to relief and the avoidance of resolution into our spiritual practice in various ways:
Meditation as Medication
Anything can be used as a type of medication to avoid looking at our real problems and resolving them: shopping, porn, video games, overwork, over-eating, gambling, etc. So too can meditation. We can use meditation to get into a state of calm and happiness and then try to stay there. Now there is a certain value of stress-release here and if that is all a person wants in meditation that's fine but then it becomes a therapeutic practice not a spiritual one.
Now some gurus say that the purpose of life is to become happy but I disagree. If that was the case then why don't we just take drugs? Happiness is the by-product of a something else not the goal. And on the spiritual path it is the result of waking up to the true self and abiding more and more in that state. So if one wants to get enlightened then one must allow the states of calmness to be there when they arise but not be addicted to them.
A meditation teacher once told me that the Buddha said the attachment to calm and bliss is the "cave of Satan". We can get sucked into this cave and say there and never awaken.
Even so the "light" of this lightness of being will eventually shine into the shadow parts of ourselves and the parts of ourselves that need to healed will surface. Some of us might think that the spiritual journey should all be light and airy but there are times when we must face the heat and smoke of the fire to be purified.
So meditation instead of freeing us can trap us in the same culture of relief.
The Dissociated Witness
In some systems of spiritual practice a method of passively observing of one's internal state is cultivated, where the person is partially in their experience and partially separate as if witnessing it from a distance. It is a silent mindfulness practice that can be very valuable and can help a person face and disentangle their suffering. But there are pitfalls here.
One can over-identify with the witness, falsely thinking the witness is the true self. It is not the true self, it is just another ego state. (There is someone witnessing the witness. Who's that?) When the seeker gets addicted to the calm state of the witness they can dissociate to the point that they are not experiencing their experience anymore.
They are actually using witnessing as a way of relief and avoiding contacting deeper issues in themselves that need resolution. I have seen people (not everyone of course) come out of meditation retreats like this. They are calm, shining and very peaceful. They appear to be enlightened but the sense of themselves is very very far away. There is a sense of equanimity about them but it is actually an emotional distance. They have backed themselves up into some other internal universe. Their pain is still there but they have become separated from it.
Another method we can use to get stuck in relief and avoid resolution is theorizing. A friend of mine Tad Hargrave once said: "The best way to avoid meditation is to read books about meditation". We can read and understand everything about family roles in dysfunctional families, the effects of abandonment, co-dependency and abuse but this will not resolve our issues. Intellectual understanding often does not transform pain; it only skims the foam off our simmering suffering to make our pain less ugly.
Real understanding is the result of facing the rawness of our difficultly, getting through it and finding a new deeper wisdom on the other side. Similarly we can explain away our hard times with the sound bites of new-age aphorisms and superficial comments that we can pick up anywhere: "Well it's just my bad karma". We can avoid our difficult financial situation by saying "Money is just an illusion" or avoid looking at how we are hurting others by saying, "I am not responsible for their reactions." This is just a subtle way of closing down to ourselves and rationalizing our lack of compassion for others.
Sometimes we can use techniques like affirmations and positive thinking to avoid a deeper self-investigation. These techniques are valuable on the spiritual path when we need a little boost when the mind is going off track into negativity but are they are not cure-all remedies for the deeper work. They are only band-aids. Even Louise L Hay in her book on affirmations "You Can Heal Your Life" confessed that she went through extensive emotional expressive therapy to heal her childhood sexual abuse. She only mentioned this in one paragraph in her book.
These techniques can provide a sense of relief for a day or two until the symptoms of our pain re-surface and unfortunately many people can feel defeated and blame themselves for not getting the relief that was promised when maybe they were just not using the right remedy.
The Spiritual Personality
I've been noticing this phenomena more and more. I call it the spiritual personality. Sometimes seekers in observing the calm, happy and loving demeanor of teachers might think: "if I imitate this behaviour perhaps it will get me enlightened". This "Fake it 'till you make it" strategy often works in other realms of life but on the spiritual path it is actually "Fake it 'till you make it fake".
It is the ego's misguided attempt to somehow leapfrog over the difficult task of self-inspection and getting to self-realization without the inner work. It's another addiction to relief by avoidance. It is also the ego's attempt to somehow get love, attention and admiration from others.
The real spiritual path is not so much about being calm all the time it is more about being authentic. It's only logical that if we want to find a deeper truth in life we need to be true. We cannot get to a deeper reality by being unreal.
Enlightenment is more about "enrealment"i.e. being true to your experience in the moment rather than manufacturing a facade which if done enough becomes a trap for the rest of one's life. It can get awfully lonely inside a personality.There's great suffering that comes from not knowing one's true self and compulsively acting out of the false persona.
I see people stuck in this personality on my Coming Home retreats and after a period of time of asking "who am I?" this ego state will shatter and the real individual inside will be freed. It's an amazing phenomenon to behold. There is great joy for people in this. Suddenly they feel whole, complete and natural again. The energy they have used to prop up a phony personality is released back into themselves and they become more alive and vibrant.
It is very much like being re-born. I sometimes wonder when Jesus said , "You must be re-born to enter the kingdom of heaven" if he was actually referring to the experience of discovering one's true self.
So what can we do to overcome our addiction to relief?
Conscious Surrender – Being Washed by Yourself
There are times when attachment to relief breaks down: The silent witnessing does not stem the onslaught of our suffering. The affirmations have to be repeated incessantly and we get worn out. The dry intellectual understanding and spiritual sayings falls down gasping and dies. The loneliness inside our false personality becomes unbearable.
The relief has left and is not relieving anymore.
What do we do?
Sometimes all we can do is let go of holding on. To just surrender to the way it really is in us. To allow whatever is inside of us, to surface and come out...to let the tears fall like rain, the anger thunder and the fear shake rattle and roll. To let the full expression of what is inside unblock and move through us. ...but to do this consciously with intention...to have our goal be that as we let go, the movement of it all will travel to the place where the pain all began and we will be become aware of its original cause.
We can ask of our suffering as it is releasing: "What is this all about?" or "What is the truth of this?" asking it to reveal its wisdom to us rather than imposing some new-age aphorism on it.
We let it flow, but stay in the know.
We don't just wallow in it. Wallowing is getting to a certain level of our suffering and resisting the rest and staying in it unconsciously. It may not look like relief but it is relief from the deeper feeling.
Conscious surrender is allowing the difficulty we are feeling to be there and also staying awake to its truth, as it is releasing. A good friend of mine Murray Kennedy, a retreat leader in Vancouver calls this "being washed by yourself".
This obviously takes some courage and it is a skill. The ability to trust and let go fully can be developed if we do it a few times, it's like learning to ride a bike. It becomes easier.
The remarkable things we will notice as we learn to let go, are some important principles:
- All blockages within do not get resolved by finding relief.
- Relief is temporary.
- When we let go, the blockage has a natural tendency to find its own resolution. It will naturally go back to its source and reveal to us what actually caused its existence. ..its part of the flow of nature.
- What is blocked wants to unblock and what is contained wants to be released.
- By holding onto relief we are actually imprisoning ourselves.
As one person realized on my one of my retreats:"Life is like school only you get the test first and then the lesson". Wisdom will come by itself when we get out of the way.
The Great Magic of Others
But there is one other thing when added in makes the whole project of resolution much easier. It's a profound magic thing that we often overlook. It's actually not a thing...it is another.
More specifically it is the empathetic presence of another individual.
When we have another person just sitting with us just offering their non-judgemental attention, not trying fix us, or give advice, just hearing us, without interruption with the spaciousness of an open heart then I can tell you real miracles can happen. That person can be a friend, a partner or a therapist.
There is a therapeutic power in the still alive listening presence of another. The energy of their attention is added to ours and it augments the natural flow from relief to resolution. Healing and wonderful new insights occur much quicker than doing this alone. Permanent resolution can occur.
I have witnessed miracle after miracle of this so many times on a retreat I facilitate called Coming Home where the conditions are set-up for listening with full presence and people ask one another the deep questions of life: "Who am I?" "What am I?" and "What is life?" People let go of their addiction to relief, false beliefs that trap them in suffering and issues often return to their source and resolve.
Frequently due to the self-inquiry process individuals directly experience the magnificence of their true self and are freed from the isolation of living in a false personality.
It turns out there is a divine reason there are others in the universe. Besides all the advantages and disadvantages of other people, when we can find an environment where others can empathetically listen and we can do the same for them, real resolution can happen.
So this is the conclusion of my ranting and I hope this may shed some insight that can inform you on your spiritual path. My hope is that you can look at any endeavour you are taking towards self-healing and awakening and ask yourself:
- "Is this trapping me in relief or is it bringing me to resolution?"
- "What can I do to find resolution?"
This ongoing questioning will challenge you but at the same time prevent you from going up a lot of blind alleys on your journey of liberation and self-realization.
Be you to fullness
For more information on the Coming Home Retreat go to:
For more information on Russell's one-to-one work go to: