You know Goldilocks, don’t you? She’s the little girl whose encounter with the three bears is a classic example for everything that’s “just right.” In fact, her story of just right has become a principle, an effect that denotes the optimal conditions in a variety of disciplines including psychology, medicine, and economics. Turns out that the Goldilocks Principle is very much applicable to sadhana or spiritual practice (and to life in general) as well.
Before we get into the nuances of the spiritual path, let’s take the example of an ideal childhood. As a parent, my natural impulse is to protect (and overprotect) my children. I’d rather have them taste only the sweet and positive aspects of life, and often find myself wishing that I could take all the dark, gritty stuff that’s going to be inevitable in their lives.
Even if it was possible, what would be the point of that? How would they ever grow and evolve, and tap into their reserves of strength and goodness without being challenged? And so, we step back and allow our children to fall and to fail. An ideal childhood is therefore “just right” in terms of ease and challenges. Children who are challenged to a certain degree in an environment of deep love and support from their caregivers thrive and are considered to be “well-adjusted.” Excessive challenges that are beyond their capability to process or traumas such as abuse or shaming, and lack of nurturing lead to long-term emotional and psychological issues. For the most part, we don’t question this commonsense wisdom.
When it comes to the spiritual path, however, the Goldilocks Principle is often forgotten or ignored, leading to many pitfalls and needless heartaches.
The Goldilocks Principle on the Spiritual Path
To succeed in any sadhana, we have to meet certain prerequisites, which we will presently examine. The most common mistake we make is to use the spiritual path as a balm for something else, like a failed relationship, financial loss, health problems, and other life struggles.
Often, these struggles do indeed end up being the stimulus for us to explore the meaning of life. They catapult us on to an authentic, transformative spiritual path. There’s little doubt that spiritual practice helps with many of these struggles by giving us a different perspective and healing our wounds.
However, without a significant and conscious effort, these issues don’t easily reach the point of “just right” where the sadhana can bear its magical fruit.
Take meditation, for instance.
Yes, it will lower blood pressure, mitigate anxiety, bestow a sense of peace and calm, and temporarily take us to higher levels of consciousness. However, until we consciously fix our neuroses, it will not lead to the permanent shift of identification that is known as Self-realization. It won’t even lead to a permanent state of peace – the kind that permeates all interactions and states of mind. Even if we are granted glimpses of the highest truth, the neuroses hold us back from flowering fully into it. They also continue to poke through the temporary states, resulting in disharmony and inability to function optimally in the world.
For the meditation to succeed in permanently ejecting us out of our ordinary state of consciousness, the conditions have to be “just right.”
The Just Right Conditions for Sadhana
For a sadhana to succeed (by succeed I mean result in a permanent shift of identity), the following conditions are optimal:
- Health. This hardly means that one must be fit or athletic. It means that when our health is poor, it’s very hard to focus on something like sadhana, which requires physical, mental and emotional energy. On the other hand, an obsession with the body is a detriment and distraction. Chronic illness isn’t a barrier to success in sadhana as long as we do what we can (change our lifestyle, seek help, etc) and thereafter conserve energy by not worrying incessantly about it.
The just right condition is to maintain health to the best of our ability for the purpose of sadhana, since all spiritual disciplines can only be practiced through the body-mind.
- Resources. If we are constantly stressed about money, it’s harder to focus on sadhana. Yes, there are exceptions, but in general, it’s easier to escalate in meditation when we don’t have to think about the next meal or a roof over our heads. Self-deception arises when we deny our need to be financially secure as a “lower” or “less evolved” goal. This shows up as a resentment toward those who do have the resources or work toward this goal. Even if we were to go away to a cave to meditate, we would need to attend to practical matters such as food, clothing, and basic amenities (unless we plan to live on alms or the generosity of others).
The just right condition is to view wealth and resources as opportunities to further our sadhana.
- Discipline. One of the biggest obstacles we encounter in our spiritual journey is a lack of discipline. This applies to not only regularity of practice, but the constant flitting from one practice to another, following a host of teachings without being established in any of them, hankering after the next “advanced” practice without a mastery over the basics, not making the time or effort to grok any one practice and plain old laziness. The other extreme is an obsessive adherence to discipline with no flexibility. In this case, the discipline overpowers the practice, and becomes one more aspect of our limited identity. We can obsessively hang on to a practice or a teaching long after it has done its job. Until we learn to let go of a teaching, a teacher or a practice, we remain unavailable for the next magnificent step in sadhana.
The just right condition is to commit to mastery of a practice while being okay to let it go when it has done its work.
- Faith. Lack of faith in the sadhana is another big obstacle to progress. If a patient believes that a medicine is not going to work, it won’t. On the contrary, if s/he believes that it will, even a sugar pill will work. Without faith, no practice will yield its results. On the other hand, blind faith doesn’t take us too far either. Unquestioning faith in a teacher or organization that is abusive and crippling leads to greater entrapment, not freedom.
The just right condition is faith accompanied by commonsense, and a healthy self-esteem.
- Self-esteem. This is where many of us trip up when we come to the spiritual path as an escape from our problems. We try to overcome our low self-esteem with our spiritual attainments (real or imagined), but it never works. Instead, it ends up creating a more complex psychological issue loaded with insecurity, and constant monitoring of our reputation. On the other hand, becoming spiritually literal while suffering from low self-esteem makes us paradoxically arrogant, self-obsessed and narcisstic.
The just right condition is to have worked through our issues enough where we are comfortable in our own skin and have forgiven our pasts, resulting in a natural humility and ease of being.
- Relationships. Since most of us are destined to live and practice among others – family, significant others, friends, community, or spiritual sangha, learning to relate in wholesome ways is crucial for progress. If we are constantly offended by what our peers, leaders (political, spiritual, or otherwise), friends and family members say and do, there is little hope for real progress in sadhana. Finding fault in others is a deeply ingrained issue arising from a host of factors including lack of self-esteem, childhood traumas, lack of insight, and inability to process emotional ups and downs. On the other hand, excessive attachment to friends, family, spiritual teachers (see Faith, above) and sanghas is also an impediment to progress.
The just right condition is the ability to live in harmony with others with a generous dose of emotional and psychological independence.
- Maturity. Emotional maturity is the ability to see things in wholes rather than in parts. When we lack a mature perspective, we are unable to handle the energetic shifts that occur commonly in sadhana leading to what is known as purification. These shifts can show up as anxiety, fear, irritation, lack of ability to focus, despondency, hopelessness, physical pain, and so on. Lack of maturity leads to making all of these into stories, attaching to them and reacting to them. The reactions can vary from lashing out at others, self-pity, or giving in to the symptoms instead of patiently and non-judgmentally watching them arise and subside. When we haven’t worked through our struggles or have pushed them away into suppression or repression, they come back up with a vengeance and add to the purification symptoms. Emotional maturity is not about spiritual bypassing, but it’s not about attaching to stories either. I’ll write more about this in another post.
The just right condition is a balanced stance that swings to neither spiritual bypassing nor drama, is open to all experience, and is infused with wisdom.
- Wisdom. Perhaps the most important prerequisite on the spiritual path is discernment, which is the basis for wisdom. In all of the above issues, we have to know when we are swaying to either side of the optimal condition, and this takes discernment. Discernment is cultivated through working on our issues with compassion but also a certain degree of sternness. Just as we do with our children, compassion doesn’t always mean that we baby ourselves. Nor do we punish ourselves. Ideally, we hang out with those who can help us discern between true self-compassion and self-pity when we lack perspective.
The just right condition is to conscientiously work on all the previous conditions, which foster an increasingly refined discernment.
- Love. When we go about our lives in a closed-hearted way, we necessarily remain entrapped in our mind-made prisons. For wisdom to sprout and for higher knowledge to illuminate our perception, our hearts must be open. Undoubtedly, this is hard if our life experience has been one of hardships and broken trust. For a sadhaka, the greatest challenge is to allow the frozen heart to thaw, to learn to trust again and to approach life in a light and open-hearted way.
The just right condition is to keep the heart open in the context of discernment and common sense.
At first glance, all these optimal conditions may seem daunting, but working on them is part of the sadhana.
Additionally, spiritual teachings aren’t the only ways to accomplish the “just right” conditions.
The work may involve seeing a therapist/counselor. It may involve making amends with estranged family members. It may involve traveling to see a close friend you had a falling out with years ago, which is eating at you. It may involve letting go of a relationship that isn’t working, or quitting a job that is stifling. It may involve moving to another city (or country).
It almost always involves making lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, quitting smoking or other substance use, less use of electronic devices or social media, more reading, more sitting still, spending time in nature, writing, singing or doing what tugs at our heartstrings.
Signs of Just Right
Whatever the route to “just right” may be, there are certain sign posts along the way to show us what we need to work on at any given time. The refinement never ends, as layers and layers of stuff are revealed as we delve deeper into our own psyche.
How do we interact with people – those we love and respect – do we smother them with our affection?
What about those that irritate us – do we promptly cut them off?
How do we feel when we look in the mirror, or when someone points out a shortcoming in our perspective?
Do we have the discipline to stick to a spiritual practice for a while or are we “practice shopping” and always seeking the next one?
Do we get moody, fearful and anxious during purification, or is it increasingly easier to simply notice it without becoming attached to it?
In general, is there an increased sense of trust in the universe, a lightness of being and sweetness in daily life, or are we focused on the political, social and cultural “wrongs”?
Ultimately, there is really no substitute for long and arduous work when it comes to spiritual attainment. If we subscribe to the instant gratification scheme in sadhana, we remain in the cycle of hope and disappointment with every new spiritual concept, teaching or practice that comes our way (particularly in this age of information overload).
Ideally, the path is made easier when we have the guidance of someone who’s been there, done that. When our own discernment fails, the teacher/guide can help us see the way ahead. There is a certain “just right” quality to the teacher/guide as well – s/he is available to help, gives us enough to work on and enough to be challenged, and refrains from spoon-feeding us or demanding things (obedience, loyalty, favors) in return.
Like Goldilocks in the story with the three bears (at least the version I grew up), the “just right” on the path of sadhana does lead to a happy ending.