Exhaustion. Exhaustion is one of the most powerful spiritual elements we can experience. We often hear of one form of this concept when people talk about addiction and ‘hitting rock bottom’. It is often said that an addict has to find their rock bottom first in order to finally want to help themselves. No real transformation can occur until the addict exhausts whatever fuel has powered their chosen path. Sometimes this exhaustion occurs in the mind, and it appears we make a new decision. Other times, the fuel of the body runs out before the spirit gives in- physical death is the result.
Most people spend their entire lives trying to avoid exhaustion. There is a great fear attached to losing some measure of the control we’ve come to think we have over our lives. We believe it is a blessing when we are relaxed and experiencing pleasure, and a great punishment, or ‘bad luck’, when we experience tension and pain. This is actually far from the truth.
Innumerable drug addicts have transformed their lives when they’ve finally found their bottom and experienced exhaustion. Almost like a switch, in some cases, the fuel for their addiction is extinguished like the flame of a candle reaching the end of the wick. Innumerable drug addicts have also fought so hard to keep their chosen addiction that their body could not wait for their spirit to catch up. It’s as if the wick was drawn too far through the bottom of the candlestick, and the fire burns through, and then beyond, the wax. The result is a fire that destroys everything around it.
More often than not, we experience relative exhaustion- exhaustion related to a specific thing within our experience to which we’ve attributed our suffering. In the above example it is drugs, but it could be anything. It could be exhaustion with a job, relationship, our health or even minor things like how we look, a car we drive etc. The scale can go up, or down, but the workings are the same. Reaching ‘that point’ with whatever the subject is, leads us to some kind of change. This is the more worldly context of exhaustion’s power.
From a spiritual perspective, these worldly things are merely hints at the spiritual element of exhaustion. They are important, they are teachers, but still barely scratching the surface of what is waiting for us.
In the relative examples of exhaustion, pick whatever example works for you in your life, the catalyst for some change appears to be exhaustion with a specific worldly thing. It appears to be just like spiritual exhaustion, but its basis is different. Worldly exhaustion comes from pain avoidance and pleasure seeking, in a basic and conceptual sense. It is your sense of ‘self’, sometimes referred to as ego, your identity as an individual person, that is driving you to act based on self interest. To go back to the drug example, an addict will continue to use until that point where the ego no longer sees something to be gained. When the fuel of pleasure is completely exhausted, the sense of self will then begin to search for pleasure again and to now avoid whatever it has come to identify as a source of pain. Where drugs were formerly the path to pleasure, they are now empty, and the addict has a glimpse of the ability to actually change. But the change is only from one thin to another- the pleasure seeking has not ceased. Granted, in the worldly sense, there can be a hierarchy of such seeking (one is better served being conditionally addicted to fitness rather than pain killers).
Often, the ego, the pleasure seeking, pain avoiding sense of self, will test the waters with a former source of pleasure. It believes that it might still be able to have its cake and eat it too, to ‘control’ the former source of pleasure enough so that it can still be of use, but this time without letting rock bottom creep in. Of course, this is a total illusion. If the fuel for the circumstance is truly exhausted, nothing could make one go back. If it is not, nothing can keep one from going back. This is the difference between an addict who relapses and one who is finally done. This is also why, quite wisely, most addicts will never say they are ‘cured’- they recognize the danger of believing the ego could ever be ‘cured’ in the worldly sense.
Spiritual exhaustion will mimic the relative exhaustion we experience in the world. It is a phenomenon that Alan Watts refers to when he says ‘The biggest ego trip in the world is getting rid of the ego’. Zen refers to this when describing the way to enlightenment as ‘no way’. Moses received this same teaching when God showed him grace and mercy in acknowledging the difficulty of the position Moses was in while trying to tell others God’s ‘name’- He provided ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I am that I am’ depending of translations. What this is all pointing to is that all action, seeking, change, vibration, movement, all things other than the stillness and being of the Absolute, are games by a pleasure seeking, pain avoiding, self/ego that sees only its own individuality.
When we become exhausted by something in the world, our ego pushes us on to the next thing, the next hope of pleasure. This is a game. This is a hall of mirrors that will keep us from seeing the Truth. Even when we believe we are finally going to ‘give up the world’ and seek God, we are simply replacing the worldly game with the spiritual game. We may view one as more moral, more beneficial, than another, from a relative perspective, but the game is the same- the ego wants something it likes and wants to avoid what is deems painful.
Sometimes this sobering awakening to the spiritual game can be referred to as the ‘dark night of the soul’. As a drug addict finds that their drug of choice no longer feeds their pleasure seeking, a spiritual seeker will find that they have been unconsciously using spirituality to service the ego’s desire for pleasure, even though it was cloaked in the most holy of illusions. In both cases, the ego can lead one to destruction after such a realization. Ironically in a final attempt to avoid pain, the ego can even lead to our death in a final bid to avoid the pain of the realization that it is trapped, and helpless. In reality, this is a doorway to freedom.
If one is truly exhausted at this point, beyond our ego’s false version, then stillness, surrender, silence, occurs. None of these words can actually describe this, they are just pointers. There is no more seeking, no “thing”, no idea of ourselves, no ego to run from pain, or seek pleasure.
While worldly exhaustion is merely a game we play with ourselves, it is a necessary starting point. It is a great teacher if we can see it as such. It is only dangerous as far as we believe it to be real, rather than a teaching to be learned, and then discarded. We wouldn’t make life choices tomorrow based on a mere dream we have tonight, would we?
Don’t be so quick to run from exhaustion. Let it empty out what has no more purpose. In the space that remains, words are of no use. We must be there, not think of ourselves there.