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Mariana Caplan, Ph.D. Headshot

The Soft Overcomes the Hard: Walking the Spiritual Path with Excruciating Humility

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I began my spiritual life as a hard core practitioner. I was one of those young women who, when I bought my one-way ticket to India, decided it would be cheating to have a guidebook as it might interfere with my inner guidance, or a suitcase, as I needed to be able to travel light and trust the universe to provide. Does the universe really provide toothpaste? I wanted God, or Enlightenment, or at least my projected fantasy of those things, and I somehow imagined that really hard work, exhaustion and self-denial would support that dream.

When I entered an ashram (spiritual community) at the ripe age of 25, I donated my car and half my money, and engaged in years of spiritual austerities and practices from morning until night to the point of sheer exhaustion. I engaged in "support groups" where my ego was grated down to a pulp. I was on fire for truth, and wanted to travel the ways of the great ones. It sounded valiant for my ego to be burnt to a crisp, or to be "annihilated in love" like Rumi wrote. To follow my passion for God to its end.

When people talked about equanimity, peace and balance I thought they were somehow not "hard core" like the real seekers were. When people spoke of the middle road, it put me to sleep. I thought they were all vanilla Buddhists.

I learned the hard way, through a long bout of chronic fatigue, shot adrenals and a traumatized nervous system in my early thirties. I also became aware how, in the name of spiritual development, I was sustaining and even strengthening my shame, embarrassment and loathing toward my ego. It was as if somehow having an ego -- although I really did not know what it was -- made me inherently bad.

I undertook my yoga practice with the same rigor. Sweat more, overcome resistance, study harder, breathe deeper, longer, more, more, more! Fortunately, by that time my chronic fatigue had set in, so my body imposed limitations that spared me both from unnecessary injury, and from becoming a tyrannical yoga teacher.

Not that my endeavors were in vain. All of our sincere efforts do bear fruit, even if they are not done just right, and there is a place for deep rigor, discipline and austerity on the spiritual path. What pains me is all the unnecessary self-harm, self-negation, self-denial, self-hatred and suppression of individuality that many of us experience along the way.

The turn in my perspective came when I "got sick of being sick." I needed to heal my body, and in doing so understand the internal errors in how I had been approaching the spiritual path. My efforts had been valiant and good, but I still needed to see deeper, and redirect my efforts in a way that was more nurturing and supportive to my body and my poor, beaten-down ego.

If all goes well, there is a softening in all of us, although it doesn't always go that way. The passage of time and seeing the repetition of our own errors often softens our righteousness. Teachers discover their own relational fallibility, and life experience ideally humbles even the arrogant spiritual practitioner. What a friend called "the excruciatingly humbling" nature of life.

Finally, years later, principles such as equanimity, harmony and balance mean something to me and I value them immensely. The once-dismissed and even scorned upon concepts of ease, gentleness, safety and softness have come online once again. Amazingly enough, these principles do not contradict passion for the path, love of God or commitment to transformation. They instead provide a vehicle by which these deep fires can be stoked, contained, channeled and expressed in terms of radiance, effective work and sustainable transformation.

Through the seasons of life, we come to see that many of those valiant efforts are in fact a subtle egoic defense to shield us from authentic transformation rather than to support it. We convince ourselves that we are practicing heroically by setting up routines and disciplines that are ultimately unsustainable -- emoting and meditating so intensely that we are actually distracted from a subtler and softer level of feeling, and exhausting ourselves to such a degree that organic integration within the body is an impossibility. Of course most, if not all of this, is unconscious and thus we become more deeply emotionally defended in the name of spiritual warriorship.

By engaging only our strength, and not our vulnerability, we are unconsciously assured that the more fragile, sensitive, scared places in our psyche will be kept at bay. Clothed in the bullet-proof armor of spiritual teachings, we block ourselves from facing important parts of our totality, and in so doing we deny ourselves unity, all in the name of oneness. When we are in spiritual leadership functions and have not integrated the tender and vulnerable parts of ourselves--perhaps relegating them to the "merely psychological" or even worse to the dual and therefore unreal parts of ourselves--we propagate the confused perspective that to grow spiritually we must exhaust, suffer unnecessarily, and suppress important parts of our experience.

I remember sitting on my bed when I was 21 in my first solo studio at the University of Michigan reading the Tao Te Ching, "The soft overcomes the hard..." I pondered this strange phrase intensely, but could not make any meaning of it. Many of the deep questions of the path and of life must be lived into rather than answered philosophically, and premature answers often short-circuit the benefits of living these important questions.

The ego is not designed to be broken, much less destroyed or killed. Humility comes through being sanded down by life and disillusioned through the exposure of our core beliefs and our unconscious, but ever-present, psychological conditioning. Wisdom often comes through the error part of "trial and error."

When I visited my Sufi mentor Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee in my early twenties, he said, "Nothing really happens on the path before 20 years." I was horrified. Would I really have to wait 20 years before experiencing the benefits of the rigorous meditation, yoga, study and service projects I was engaged with? Was nothing changing between now and then?

Yet we see that the years of our lives fold under us as seamlessly as day turns into night, and no moment of kindness, generosity or genuineness is wasted. Through sincere practice and intelligent guidance, our energy and efforts towards transformation become more discerning and effective.

Learning to soften into ourselves is a skill that is often learned rather than innate. Our deep vulnerabilities are revealed and integrated through skillful and loving approaches to the trauma and psychological wounding that resides within. The interior walls that separate us from ourselves and the world are penetrated through self-love rather than smashed with the wrecking ball of forceful techniques. There are no shortcuts. May we soften our way into deeper communion with ourselves, others, and the Divine.

I will be doing a NYC and Brooklyn teaching tour for the first time in 10 years in May, thus I wanted to say warm hello to the HuffPost New York readers, and excitement to return to my native East Coast for a visit. Info is on my website.