When I take a break from reading self-help books, sometimes I gravitate towards other inspiring but intense topics. Usually, the History/Memoir genres. And in the last year or so, I’ve found myself exploring very heavy subjects and yet unable to stop, thanks to some incredibly powerful writers. This exploration has also led me to question many things about spirituality. How can spirituality explain all the bad stuff that happens?
When I read about the Burmese genocide, the Tibetan massacre, or how the Aboriginals were abused in my homeland, Canada, I go numb.
A part of me begins to look at every little comfort I have – be it a hot shower on-demand or the opportunity to drive around whenever and wherever I want to in my city – as a luxury.
And the other part of me – the one that wants spirituality to be able to explain all of the good and bad stuff that happens in the world – goes blank.
This reaction is strongly influenced by my reading of the following books:
- Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
- Escape from Manus Prison by Jaivet Ealom
- Namwayut by Chief Robert Joseph
- No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
As someone living a life of great privilege, at first, I wonder if perhaps, it is even dismissive to talk about spirituality in the face of adversity? When someone is robbed of all their dignity, freedom, and sanity, does talking about “karma” or soul contracts even make sense?
In such circumstances, telling someone they’re destined to have experienced atrocities seems like a way to rob them of their last freedom – their mind’s ability to fight for freedom.
So then, how does spirituality explain all the bad stuff that happens??
Here’s something I’ve observed as a theme in the above books. Those survivors of the worst degrees of trauma didn’t actually spend that much time in their book ruminating on the question at hand. Can’t say what was happening in their heads while they were living those traumas, but in their book, they demonstrated a kind of conviction that said, I have the right to live a higher quality of life. And I will do what it takes to fight for it.
Sure they’d elaborate on the horrors that went on, but it was evidently done to bring awareness. It was less about hating their abusers, questioning God, or pitying themselves. They quickly got over that part.
So if anything, a lot of their journey was about them figuring out how to reclaim their lost freedom. And not so much focused on the freedom lost. In one word, their journey started with acceptance.
Every time I put myself in their shoes, I constantly found myself thinking: if I were you, I would have given up by this point. But I am not them, and they are not me. Thankfully.
So my first insight from this was:
What if we’re asking the wrong question?
One of the deepest-rooted shadow wounds running through the human psyche is that of the Victim. It’s the mindset that life happened to me. It’s the part of us that takes things personally and then makes us feel defeated.
And I wonder as I read these stories of courage – what if it’s not about why something happened, but rather what we chose to do about it?
It’s undeniable how intense the trauma in question can be, and no one can come out of it unscathed. But then I remember what trauma expert Dr. Gabor Mate says, trauma isn’t about what happened to you, but what you made it to mean about you.
So in essence, knowing we all have different degrees of a bad hand of cards dealt to us, the one thing that makes or breaks our journey is the relationship we have with ourselves through it all.
Do we consider ourselves worth fighting for? If yes, then there’s probably little time left to spend fanning the flame of the victim mindset, blaming others, or feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s time for actions that can turn that bad hand of cards to our advantage.
From this, we can consider this second insight:
There’s always a way.
It’s in these most dangerous situations that the survivors were able to channel magnificent amounts of creativity. Whether it was trading cigarettes to illegally acquire a phone that would later save their life, or finding the weakest link in the system to help them escape, these people simply did not give up.
And it makes sense – the defeated, victim mentality is a completely different part of the brain than the resourceful, creative mind.
One has to pick their alibi smartly. Whichever version of the mind we choose to believe – the defeated or the warrior – becomes our self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, without being dismissive of our feelings or of our pain, it became increasingly clear to me that those that triumph over their worst nightmares are the ones that know they can. And then, they get to work!
From that, I also recognized this one hard-hitting truth:
Faith alone doesn’t resolve problems.
While prayer, chanting, and meditating are great methods to come out of the aforementioned internal enemy (defeated mind), they alone aren’t enough to fight the external enemy. Eventually, the survivors had to give up their belief that someone was coming to save them. And somewhere along the way, they also gave up their faith in a higher power.
What was common, however, was that the only faith left, was in themselves. It was faith that they would do whatever it takes to get out of there, even if it meant losing their lives fighting for freedom.
And this also makes sense to me from a personal experience. Sure, I’ve hit multiple low points in my life and called for divine intervention. When nothing shifted and I got tired of seeing “signs”, I became very angry at the Universe. Eventually, I gave up on my hopes for grace and chose to fight for what I wanted, regardless of what destiny had laid in front of me.
Result? The Universe didn’t seem to mind my anger towards it at all, I wasn’t punished for using my victim mindset to fuel myself out of the rut. It probably got me closer to my vision of a higher quality of life, than when I was simply praying or succumbing to my fate.
In other words, faith without action leads to failure (and sometimes, worse).
But how does spirituality explain the bad guys?
Unfortunately, there are people who do unnameable things and don’t take accountability for it. They go out of their way to make life worse. And all the while, they believe they’re right (I’m oversimplifying their motives, but those interested can go down the rabbit hole of criminal psychology).
It’s hard to say whether these things are predetermined or happen as a result of free will. But if courageous men like Chief Bobby from Namwayut can talk about reconciliation, then there must be something to say about forgiveness for the unforgivable.
Also, as an enthusiast of past life regression, here’s what I can tell you about being the bad guy.
It really humbled me to discover one of my own notorious lifetimes. Eons ago, I saw myself as a destructive, rowdy bully that turned his village over. The mayhem and rage he carried felt shocking, even in a regression session. I can’t relate to that lifetime at all, but to notice that I too was not always “good” brought perspective.
I became aware of the repercussions of my actions, which have followed me all the way to this lifetime, eons later. Yes, karma is very real and also a very complicated subject that can create a deeper spiritual context. But rarely can it be used as the first choice to help us deal with circumstances.
I also think of the Buddha’s story and how he was able to change the heart of a criminal and encouraged the man to become a monk himself! That’s powerful and I wonder how often it happens. From the books mentioned above, I didn’t get any glimpse of remorse from the abusers.
Ultimately, our spiritual power lies in the knowledge that we get to choose what side of the story we focus on. And to me, that’s what spirituality is really about. Said more dramatically, it’s not about the story, it’s about the hero’s fight.
Where does divine intervention come into this picture?
In Sanskrit, there’s a powerful word, svakripa meaning self-blessing. Blessed are those that bless themselves. In every memoir I’ve read above, I noticed that divine intervention may have been painstakingly slow to show up. But here are some examples of how it did:
- Grace showed up in the form of strangers going above and beyond to help the person in crisis.
- It also showed up in the form of new opportunities opening up overnight, like a new government policy or a job opening that could bring some respite.
- Sometimes it was money becoming available last minute to support an escape.
- And at other times, it was just brilliant timing with no obstructions.
Sometimes, divine intervention isn’t about the grand, fixed-in-one-go moments. It was mostly about the small, incremental ways in which the Universe kept nudging the person to move forward. Even if at the moment it didn’t feel like a breakthrough, in retrospect, we can feel that it was.
My consensus on this heavy question at hand, about how spirituality can explain the bad stuff, is this: don’t lose hope.
Spirituality can’t be used as an escape from our pain, otherwise, it will become our weakness. It should become our strength as we work towards the solution. How? Here are some suggestions:
- As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, as well as spiritual mystic Dr. Caroline Myss, would say, it’s nothing personal. Emotions matter, but if they’re keeping us focused on “why me”, it’s time to shift out of them. It’s time to create acceptance of what is no matter how painful the situation, so that we can make the most of what can be.
- Yes, it could be our individual karma or collective karma. Who knows? Ruminating on facts (even if they’re spiritual) can become just as detrimental as ruminating on emotions.
- The Universe has our back, AND that’s a blanket statement that can create false hopes and inaction. We can either rely solely on grace. OR we can do our bit as a Karma Yogi and trust that the Universe will meet us somewhere along the way. In all the stories I’ve been able to read yet, the latter was the common denominator.
I’ve had many misconceptions dispelled as I stepped into the shoes of some powerful writers. It became an opportunity to reevaluate what faith and God really stand for. If anything, from this reevaluation, I walk away with a stronger spiritual foundation.
And like I said before, I sense that it’s not about the story, it’s about the hero’s fight.
Vasundhra is the Founder & Writer of My Spiritual Shenanigans. After seeing 11:11 on the clock one fateful night, her life turned around. Ever since, she has been blending modern psychology and ancient spirituality, to help herself and people around the world elevate the quality of their lives.
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