Having now been inside my garden through the gates of Ecological Consciousness and Social Consciousness, it is time to enter the third gate—Personal Consciousness, which is your awareness of yourself in relation to the world. Before you enter, let me reiterate that one gate is equal to another in value because they are complementary, in that each gate reflects a different part of us. This means that one gate may be more familiar than another, depending on our orientation in life, but not better than another.
Because those who enter my garden through the gate of Personal Consciousness are often struggling with their fears and concomitantly their self-centeredness, it is imperative that they see as well the goodness and creative power sleeping within them as they strive to accept the other-centered responsibilities of psychological maturity and adulthood. Having said this, I am obligated to forewarn you of the three challenges you will face on entering the garden through the gate of Personal Consciousness.
The first challenge concerns the immaturity of self-centeredness and greed, which an aging boxer, cut and bruised from having just fought his last match, captures eloquently as he turns to the audience and says: “I came into this world a babe with my fists clenched wanting everything. I leave this world a man with my hands open wanting nothing.” In this spirit, Dr. Tichenor, part of the Volunteers In Medicine, abides by the principle that a living is made by what one gets, and a life is made by what one gives.
The second challenge is the impatience of youth, exemplified be a teenaged boy in a hurry who bumps into and knocks down an old man, saying: ”Get out of my way, old man.”
The old man, upon rising from the ground, regards the youth (who has paused momentarily in emphasis of his words), and replies: “Son, as you now are, so I once was. As I now am, so you shall one day be.”
The third challenge is the legacy we leave our children and our children’s children through the decisions we daily make—decisions that become their consequences and thus a consequential mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected.
The challenge of our personal legacy is encompassed in a question that was once posed to the psychiatrist Carl Jung. When asked if there was any hope for the world, Jung replied that it depended on how many people were willing to do their inner work. In other words, to heal the world we must first heal ourselves. This is but saying that the world is healed in the collective sense to the degree that we each individually heal ourselves.
In the sense that we collectively are each an integral part of society, society is a multifaceted mirror image of ourselves. To change the image, if it is unpleasant to us, we must change ourselves. As we do so, we will find the reflection cast in our direction to be whatever we have chosen to become because this is the way of personal choice and future consequences—the path that leads to self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, in turn, is a lifetime of discovery. In that sense:
Inner struggle is the key to self-knowledge.
As such, this essay has been exceedingly difficult to write not only because the issues are both clearly personal in an emotional sense and simultaneously elusive in language but also because I must be openly honest with myself if I am to come even close to saying what I mean in a language fraught with limitations to the expression of feelings. Because this essay has been an unmitigated challenge for me to commit to paper, I realize that it may be equally hard for you to read. Should that be the case, I ask your forbearance.
Even though I do my best to plant the flowers and shrubs of my garden in places suitable for them, I sometimes misread their requirements for the amount of necessary sunlight. When this happens, I witness their struggle to survive, despite the planting instructions from the nursery. In addition, the whole unseen dimension of the soil and its health comes into play as a vital determinant of the outcome.
At times, I understand what a plant is telling me, and I move it to a more appropriate place, where it ceases to struggle and thrives. At other times, it struggles valiantly, but dies no matter what I do. Gardening is thus an open-ended experiment of life in which it is my privilege to participate, for not only do I learn about my garden and its occupants but also about the inner labyrinth of myself.
Like the plants in my garden, we humans also experience situations that cause us to struggle, often on a seemingly interminable basis. For us, however, struggle can be thought of as resistance to that which is perceived as “reality.” As such, struggle, be it with a severe illness, the death of a loved one, or the loss of our job serves to focus our attention, to rivet our concentration on the circumstance with which we wrestle until it is resolved or transcended by acceptance of what is.
Dr. Carl Jung has written in this connection that, “the most important problems of life are all fundamentally insoluble.” His premise is that they can only be outgrown or transcended, which happens by accepting the problem and opportunity it offers for personal growth and development through the inner struggle of self-mastery.
Circumstance is the doorway to experience; inner struggle is the key with which the door to self-knowledge is unlocked. We grow and change the most when we are out of our comfort zone. The result of being out of our comfort zone, even a little, is to gain a measure of freedom by expanding our comfort zone, by learning that we can survive our discomfort and thereby make the unknown (the cause of our discomfort) a known with which we can cope.
To grow and change, we must begin to appreciate inner struggle as an ally of the heart, as part of a process to be embraced even as we embrace life itself. Struggle, after all, is but an aspect of life and the freedom to live it. Pain goes hand in hand with struggle, and pain offers a gift with its own high purpose. An anonymous author wrote that, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live. He’s forfeited his freedom. Only the person who risks is truly free.”
The greatest value of inner struggle is that it directly opens us to the experiences and the muck and mess of life, which, if we choose, translates into compassion and a true helping hand for those who struggle as we do along life’s path. Einstein said that only by widening our circle of compassion would we find our way out of the violence, mistrust, and exploitation that today formulates the world’s curriculum. In her autobiography, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross looks in retrospect over the strenuous terrain of her life and concludes that the greatest reward is always accompanied by helping others.
Struggle is a tool of transformation when it is embraced as a positive lesson. In this sense, we are like children climbing the endless stairs of self-mastery one step at a time. Our most intense struggles come when we are trying to climb up to the step immediately above; this is our immediate circumstance or crisis. When we finally arrive on the next step, we have a level area on which to rest awhile and to travel at an easier pace. This is our time to assimilate the experience of our struggle and to distill the newly found sense of achievement into wisdom. This is our time to gather our strength and our courage to climb up yet another step, which is identified by our next crisis or opportunity for growth, which, as Jung emphasized, cannot be achieved without pain.
All of our struggles are ultimately experience aimed at self-mastery, which is our only true freedom. Self-mastery is a silent strife deep within our hearts. It is the battle in which we stand inwardly face to face with ourselves in one of the most severe tests we face along the path of self-knowledge, which leads to self-mastery and spiritual growth.
I call these inner struggles, devoid as they are of distraction and instant relief, the foxhole test because they remind me of a soldier sitting wet, hungry, cold, cramped, and terrified in a muddy hole on a moonless night. A steady rain is falling, which makes sleep impossible even if he could quell his fear of the unknown creeping about in the black night of his imagination. This man has all the time in the world to consider what might happen as he faces alone and afraid that unknown time when the enemy has no face.
There is no one to support him, no one to see his bravery as he constantly strains his eyes and his ears for some slight sign of danger, all the while choking back his terror. And there is no hero’s welcome, no special recognition, no medal of honor when the war is over for this valiant soldier. There is only the private knowledge that he did his duty to the best of his ability in a strange place, under difficult circumstances, and that he faced alone his test—the terror of his imagination.
I often find working my garden to be my foxhole test, especially after returning from working overseas, where the problems I face seem so huge, so impossibly complicated and hopeless that I want to run away from them, but cannot. Thus I go into my garden and work, but find nothing in my garden to distract me from the problems I must somehow resolve. My garden becomes my foxhole, where every direction in which I turn I find myself spiritually naked and intellectually bewildered.
As such time, I ponder of the notion espoused by Italian dramatist Vittorio Alfieri: ”Often the test of courage is not to die, but to live.” This is the inner test no one sees, the test only I know about. This is the test of my courage to keep on keeping on when all about people are oblivious to my struggle. This is the hidden, silent test that we each experience in the solitude of our own hearts. Then, at about age fifty, I learned something Russian-French author Anne Sophie Swetchine learned over a century earlier, namely that “In youth we feel richer for every new illusion; in maturer years, for every one we lose.”
At some point in those early years of gardening I began wondering, as I watched this plant or that struggling to survive amidst its neighbors, if they conversed with one another or if they were alone in their fight to survive. Even though I was trained in science and taught that plants could neither think nor feel, I cannot help but wonder what lies behind the silence of their inner strife. While I still do not know because there is no way for me to share a plant’s experience of life, a troubled plant has nevertheless become for me a symbol of the foxhole test, a test of life that I know well.
To get a sense of what the potential possibilities of self-knowledge can be, let’s turn for a moment to one of the inspired verses of the Katha Upanishad, which many centuries ago clearly defined who we really are:
When the wise realize the Self,
Throughout all time, the journey towards greater self-knowledge and spiritual unfoldment has been the quest most worthy of one’s courage— to see the Self and life truly, for at journey’s end is the treasure of true wealth: the inner light of self-understanding.
Text © by Chris Maser, 2009; Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2009. All rights reserved.