Most of us think of willingness as a good start, but feel that willingness alone won’t get anyone very far. Instead, it’s common to hear the axiom ‘no pain, no gain’ or a close variation on that theme. We’re told from the time we’re quite young that success is impossible without hard work, persistence, and many failures along the way. Many base their life on this belief and work so hard for the elusive goal we label success; they miss the rest of their life. Yes, it would appear that some people ‘make it’ almost overnight, but when we take a closer look at their story, we usually find that they worked very diligently to get where they are and struggled long and hard with setbacks and disappointments along the way. From this scenario, we’ve extrapolated the idea that if something is worth having, we must give at least 110% to get it. (Or take if from someone else who has done the work.)
The ‘no pain, no gain’ ethic is as prevalent in religion as it is in the secular world. We’re regularly presented with the picture of the ascetic or suffering saint that must go through hell to reach heaven. This archetype causes us to assume that hard work and suffering are what God expects of anyone who wants to live a spiritual life. Religion perpetuates this myth by reserving the title of savior, master or saint for only a very special few whose life is a model of sacrifice and renunciation. Is it any wonder then that most people feel that a direct relationship with God is either out of their reach, or a road they would rather not go down? Instead of experiencing the disappointment of finding out that their efforts didn’t measure up, many go through the motions at church and hope that they can travel to heaven on the backs of their religious leaders. However, spiritual masters are quite adamant that we must each encounter the Divine on a personal basis:
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path—Buddha
A clear vision of Reality may be obtained only through our own eyes, when they have been opened by spiritual insight—Shankara
There is nothing outside yourself, look within. Everything you want is there—Rumi
Light the lamp within you…knock on yourself as upon a door and walk upon yourself as on a straight road—Dialogue of the Savior (gnostic gospels)
Keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you—Jesus, Matthew 7:7
Each spiritual master who has approached the Divine tells the same story. However, they also make it clear that they were not special. It was their heart’s desire led them to a direct connection with Source, not a special calling or predetermined relationship with God. They each want others to know that the Divine wants to be known, and can be known, by every one of us. And most of all, they want you to know that this connection is not about suffering or sacrifice, but pure joy! But those words will never fill a church or its coffers, so we’re told stories that reinforce the idea that only a ‘chosen few’ will ever know God. You might be imagining at this point that we titled this blog ‘Willingness’ because willingness is necessary to take our spirituality into our own hands. That’s true, but there is also a more comforting aspect to the word.
As we said earlier, in the secular world willingness is considered a beginning. Where the Divine is concerned, willingness denotes the state of a heart that is open and ready for something new. We can’t hold a treasure if our hands are already full of trinkets we refuse to part with. Willingness is a symbol for empty hands that are ready to receive. Those willing and open hands do receive, but not through their own effort. After all, if those hands picked up a tool or tried to do things on their own, they would no longer be empty and willing to receive.
Willingness means letting go of the need to do something and relax into the knowing that the Divine will be the one to fill your hands. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son illustrates this point. If you recall the parable, a rebellious son demanded that his father give him an early inheritance so he could live as he chose instead of working with his family. After quickly squandering everything he had, the young man was destitute and starving. However, he had the good sense to admit to himself that his way wasn’t working. At that point, we could say that he had dropped the trinkets he had been clinging to. He was willing to return to his father with empty hands and beg for mercy. But there was no need for him to beg, since his willingness to return was all that mattered.
As the young man approached his home, he saw his father running out to meet him. Not only did his father refuse to listen to his pleas for forgiveness, he filled his hands with priceless gifts. He was dressed in a fine robe and shoes were put on his feet. These items demonstrated to all that his father rejoiced at his return. A ring was put on his hand to signify that he had not lost his place in the family he had so foolishly thrown away. As he completed his walk home, he was supported in his father’s arms. We are like that young man, in that we too have decided we would be better off living a life apart from the Divine. When we realize the mistake we have made, we can empty our hands and willingly hold them out to the Divine to be filled with the remembrance of our true identity. Our willingness is all that’s necessary. The Divine will support us the rest of the way.