Near Enemy #2: Everything Happens for the Best

What are ‘near enemies to the truth’?  Borrowing this phrase from Buddhism, I use it to refer to slightly distorted versions of spiritual teachings—statements that are close to a profound and subtle truth, but are distorted just enough to make a big difference over time. When we’re talking about deep and fundamental truths, getting it a little bit wrong doesn’t matter in the short run, but it does in the long run, just like a tiny adjustment to the rudder of your boat makes little difference at first, but after 1000 miles, it lands you on a different continent.

Now, some people object to the use of the word ‘wrong’ in the previous sentence, subscribing as they do to the idea that the only necessary criterion for truth is it feels true to me. This view is as dangerous in spirituality as it is in politics, because it usually means I want it to be true, so I'm going to believe it, regardless of the facts. If you don't see how dangerous this is, or if you doubt whether there really are facts or universal truths, please read the second half of the previous blog post and the Addendum to this post.  

Understanding the Near Enemies to the Truth, and why they are near enemies and not the truth itself, is hugely important for any spiritual seeker who wants to get past the beginner stages and into the deep (and deeply fulfilling) spiritual work. Having said that, it’s important to note that if a Near Enemy is near enough, it can be a Temporary Ally for a beginner. But as the stakes get higher in spiritual practice, there is no such thing as ‘close enough’ anymore, and your comforting affirmations must be sacrificed on the altar of truth, or else your spiritual progress stalls. With that brief orientation, let’s look at this week’s Near Enemy.

Near Enemy #2: Everything happens for the best

Last week we addressed “Everything happens for a reason”. Sometimes that phrase is used to mean “You’ll see, some good will come of this (painful or challenging event)” which is just a softer form of “Everything happens for the best”. In the 21st century, such a proposition seems manifestly absurd (um, Syria?), so why am I calling this a Near Enemy, which by definition is a teaching that is close to the truth?

Let’s begin by comparing this Near Enemy to a teaching found in a Tantrik scripture: nāśivaṃ vidyate kvacit (Svacchanda-tantra 4.314) means both “Nothing exists that is not God” and “Nothing exists that is not a blessing”, because the word śiva literally means ‘blessing’ as well as being a proper name for God (note that Sanskrit has no capital letters, allowing for the double meaning here). But this phrase must be understood as a verbal shorthand. Even though in the nondual view everything is God, that certainly does not mean that we experience every single thing (or feeling or thought) as God. Such a (sustained) experience is the result of a lot of spiritual work. By the same token, though anything and everything can be experienced as a blessing, we often can’t experience it as such without spiritual work, especially if it’s a painful event.

I like to put it this way: all events contain potential blessings, and the more intense the event, the more potential blessing-energy it contains. The events we call ‘painful’ or ‘challenging’ are more accurately called “events that require work to extract their blessing energy”. Imagine if you were able to authentically see all painful and/or challenging events in this way. Wouldn’t it be a true paradigm shift to experience all challenging events as not bad or wrong or unwelcome, but simply those that require some work to extract their blessing energy? Note the phrasing here is carefully chosen: it’s usually not enough to simply see a blessing in a painful event, since that is often nothing but a conceptual overlay: we must do inner work to extract the palpable felt-sense and clear perception that the painful event is in fact a blessing.

If, in lieu of doing this work, we simply comfort ourselves with belief in the statement 'Everything happens for the best' we can feel a little better about things, but in the long run that very feeling constitutes an obstacle on the spiritual path, because when we feel our pain fully without sugar-coating it, we are much more likely to do the real inner work. 

How do you do this work? That depends on the person and on the event, but the general guideline is this: first, feel all the emotions triggered by the event fully, pushing none of them away, while at the same time striving to unbelieve/lay aside the associated 'stories' or mental constructs that attempt to explain why you're feeling these emotions or whose 'fault' they are. Allow the emotions to surge through you like a rushing river of energy (or drip through you like a dribbling stream of energy, or sink through you like a stone moving through mud, or whatever's authentically happening). Be intimate with the emotional energy, without identifying with it (making a self out of it). When it has finished moving through (at least, for the time being), you feel into the Center, the still point, the inner core of your being, and you ask the inner wisdom to reveal the innate blessing(s) in the event. Be careful not to jump to a comforting thought that may or may not be true; feel your way, carefully and honestly, organically and vulnerably, into what innate wisdom reveals to you—patiently waiting as you would for the opening of a beautiful rose.

How do you know when you have successfully done this work? When you feel authentic gratitude for the event. You have finished extracting the blessing energy from a painful event when a) the pain of it is mostly or entirely digested/resolved, and b) you feel deep gratitude for the event, of the kind that makes your heart overflow and tears come to your eyes.

So the Truth in relation to which “Everything happens for the best” is a near enemy is: Everything can happen for the best—if you’re willing to do your work. This is why one of my teachers always used to say, “Let it be for a blessing.” He understood that whatever it is, it can be a blessing, but that depends on you. Now of course this means that if (and only if) someone successfully extracted the blessings from every painful and/or challenging event, then in reference to that person’s life, we could rightly say “Everything happens for the best.” But we need not aspire to that difficult-to-attain ideal in order to deeply benefit from the present teaching:

Anything can be for the best—so do what is necessary to let it be for a blessing.

Examples are legion. Viktor Frankl experienced his time in a Nazi concentration camp as a blessing, and found that his affirmation of the value of life was much more powerful, meaningful and fulfilling than if he hadn’t been in a concentration camp. Christopher Reeve, who once played Superman in the movies, was paralyzed from the neck down, a condition he came to characterize as a blessing for which he was profoundly grateful. This and many more examples are collected in Dan Gilbert’s brilliant book, Stumbling On Happiness. And it’s good to cite extreme examples, because they make us think, “If those guys can experience much more challenging conditions than those in my life as a blessing, maybe I can do it too!” That affirmation is valuable as a motivator even if you can't know for sure that it's true. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that sometimes, despite his or her best efforts, a human simply does not have the emotional/spiritual resources to digest the pain and extract the blessing energy of a challenging event. And if she does not, it would be wrong of her to then beat herself up for it: after all, no one chooses the degree of emotional/spiritual resources available to them. No one ever said this work is easy; the question is, is the effort worth it in every case? The answer, I believe, is yes. Because even if you can't fully digest your experience, there is palpable benefit in partially doing so. 

What is the culmination of this work? How far can a person go with it? Further than you might think. I know of a fully awakened being, someone who refers to himself as “an ordinary fellow who’s completed his work” and wishes to remain anonymous, who has reached a point where he effortlessly experiences every painful and challenging event as a blessing. He trusts the Pattern (aka Divine Intelligence) so deeply that he actually feels the blessing energy of a painful event while in the midst of the pain, well before the specific blessings of that event are revealed. He actually feels deep gratitude while in the midst of the pain. Since he is no longer capable of experiencing suffering as something 'bad' or 'wrong' (though it remains unpleasant) and is grateful for literally everything, he is one of the few people on Earth who can honestly say, All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. That statement is true if and only if it expresses someone’s direct experience; otherwise, it is an absurdity (as Voltaire thought it was).

While I certainly haven’t gotten as far as he has with it, I do experience deep trust in the Pattern, a trust that is rarely shaken by painful or challenging events. I look forward to the day when it is never shaken, and I know in my bones such a state is possible. The trust in Life that I experience, while not yet 100%, is already the most precious fruit of my entire spiritual practice. The most fulfilling kind of trust in Life is surely the felt sense that any painful event is pregnant with blessings, giving rise to gratitude even before those blessings are revealed.

~ ~ ~

Important addendum: in this discussion, I allude to states of consciousness in which one directly (nonconceptually) senses the truth of things. How is this different, then, from the person I implicitly criticize at the beginning of this post who ignores the facts and clings to “what feels true for me”? It is different, in a subtle but deeply important way. In the latter case, one is emotionally attached to the feeling that arises when a certain proposition is believed. A person might feel so good when they sincerely believe a certain proposition that they cling to that belief despite evidence that disconfirms it. This is very different from what happens when we successfully strip away beliefs and are thrust into the raw naked is-ness of life and begin to perceive that-which-is-true whether we like it or not and that-which-is-true whether we believe it or not. This state of consciousness we could call preconceptual because it is a state of direct perception prior to the formation of interpretive concepts; but unlike the preconceptual state of an infant, it is suffused with full awareness and wordless clarity, a kind of piercing insight that can be formed into a variety of verbal expressions that vary (within limits) in accordance with the mind-frames of the listener(s).

When Billie Holliday sings about the “old folks” who say “everything happens for the best,” she’s talking about a comforting belief that God has a plan and it’s a good one, a belief the old folks are advocating for. She very much wants to believe them, because this proposition is comforting for anyone who can manage to believe it. But this is the difference between religion and spirituality: the former consists of comforting beliefs (and thus, if we’re honest, much of what people today call spirituality is actually religion) and the latter consists of the willingness to strip away all beliefs and see what’s really true, whether you like it or not. How unbelievably fortunate are we, then, to live in a universe where it’s actually true that every event is full of potential blessing energy, in proportion only to the intensity of the event? The question now is, are you going to be satisfied with just believing that, or do you want to experience the level of reality where it’s as undeniably true as the blue of the sky or the wetness of rain?

Billie Holiday, 'Everything Happens for the Best', 1939.