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Our Two Challenges

by Ruth Cherry, PhD

Self-awareness is our first life challenge and self-acceptance is our second. First we struggle with the inner conflicts inherent in being human—Am I good enough? Do I do enough? Am I worthy?

These questions exert an unconscious pull on our daily energy. Our doubts and fears are real and demand our attention. So we do our healing work in the first decades of our lives. We work through layers of self-condemnation, shame, and hurt--over and over--until we sincerely arrive at a place of peace. That peace at our center can’t be shaken or diminished after we have acknowledged every critical thought and heartache.

Genuine self-acceptance emerges only then. Self-acceptance is not pride. I don’t accept myself because I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I don’t accept myself for any “good reason.” Self acceptance isn’t based upon performance.

After I have worked through conflicts and healed wounds in the first half of life, I move to a level in myself deeper than my mind can access on its own. In meditation I experience my divinity and I carry that “knowing” that truly God lives in me wherever I go. The peace and self-acceptance that results shifts my awareness from a purely personal viewpoint to a transpersonal stance. I don’t have to react to anything. I know that at my core I am better than I am at my ego-constricted moments.

Once I have experienced God’s acceptance of me, not for what I’ve done but just for being, I can accept myself. And since I can accept myself, I can accept others. In fact, I have learned to greatly respect the men I have known through my work in prison. Those who have committed murder and served twenty to thirty years for their crime have spent their lives searching their souls.

First, they reach sobriety which often takes two to five years. (Addictions to alcohol and drugs influence 95% of the crimes committed in the state penitentiary where I work.) Most of these men were young, rebellious, and impulsive. They chose experiences over safety and pushed aside fear. They took whatever consequences ensued from their unlawful behavior, saying, “I took a risk. I knew what might happen.”

And they have lived in cramped, inhuman conditions, not complaining. After so much time they say, “It doesn’t matter where my body is. I pray and I meditate and I am available to my comrades. What more is there?” And they smile slightly and turn away.

I can feel their peace. They don’t struggle or resist or judge. They have moved past the self-hate which dominated their consciousness for more than a decade after they became sober. Upon realizing the gravity of their actions and the pain they have created for their victim’s family and for their own family, they have forgiven themselves. One man said to me, “I could spend my life despising myself as I did for fifteen years or I can get on with it and be of service to someone else.”

Learning self-acceptance in these circumstances can instruct us all. I view these men as advanced spiritual students who went to the lowest points a human can reach. They were willing to experience themselves as vile, horrid, worthless beings condemned by respectable folks.

And they then committed to stay on their own side and brought themselves out of their misery. They suffered for decades moving deeper inside. Comfort was never a possibility for them. Distractions were non-existent. Their lives have been focused on survival in soul terms. Not one of them set out to pursue spiritual development but when there was nothing else, they moved in the only direction they could--inward. Because they had no escape, they kept their focus on their centers. Eventually, they came to their own place of peace and forgiveness and self-acceptance. What a journey they undertook.

Most of us dabble in spirituality. We talk about gurus or cushions or practices or paraphernalia. We acknowledge hard times when depression overwhelms us. We even look into our Shadows and shiver. But I doubt that any one of us has embraced the horror these murderers found inside them and in their lives.

Because they had to, they went through unimaginable anguish to accept themselves just so they could grow into fully human beings. They could only discover their humanity through experiencing their divinity. Resting in their essence in meditation, they experienced God’s unconditional acceptance. That was the only experience that offered them hope. And they have relied upon that ever-new experience daily.

They have no good reason to love themselves. They have no life without experiencing God’s acceptance at their core in meditation. They are totally devoted to and dependent upon knowing God. Isn’t that true self awareness and self acceptance?

We can learn from these men who have lost everything but their spiritual core.

Ruth Cherry, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in San Luis Obispo, CA. Her specialty is midlife when psychological and spiritual dynamics merge. The power of the unconscious at midlife to heal and to transform is tapped in meditation. Besides writing about meditation, Ruth leads guided meditation groups weekly. Her web site is www.midlifepsychology.com.

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