I recently heard a recording of an old lecture by Ram Dass, the one-time Harvard psychology professor whose spiritual journey spanned over half a century. In the lecture, he tells a story of how, years into his spiritual awakening, he was struggling with a feeling of being stuck “between heaven and earth.” He yearned to get even closer to God, but then an imaginary teacher set him straight. The inner commentator said, “Ram, you are a human, right? So why don’t you take the curriculum.”
The temptation with spiritual work for me, too, has been to get carried away with the heavens. I want to speed on to holier realms and pursuits and get away from having to deal with the sticky pettiness of our human predicament. The trouble is that by doing so, we separate ourselves from the most potent (and toughest) paths to what we like to call enlightenment.
Working through one’s character, blind spots, and finding inner sobriety by learning to love—or perhaps to apologize—when all we want to do is close off and leave the scene, is the true and most humbling test for our “holiness.” To attend to the curriculum of real-life enlightenment is a time-tested crucible for forging character and learning to be a human.
The resolve needed to follow through when we feel we have consumed all of our mental, spiritual, or physical strength has been known in Finland for centuries as sisu. It goes beyond ordinary perseverance and denotes digging into reserves we didn’t know existed. It gives the fire to wield the steel-strong discipline needed to keep working on ourselves, to give our gifts to the world, and to not give up on ourselves or anyone else. At its best, sisu is what—after a decade of research into the topic—I call gentle power, a kind of integrity-fueled fortitude that resides within every human and pushes us toward our highest expression.
My journey with this enigmatic construct began a decade ago, when I went to University of Pennsylvania to study applied positive psychology. I was looking for answers regarding how humans strive for their best selves and how we overcome our greatest adversities. The main premise of positive psychology is the elevation of the human condition through virtue, character strengths, and more recently, to go beyond the individual as the primary focus of our enquiry.
The Finnish idea of sisu—“doing what must be done”—not only became my research focus within positive psychol-ogy, but my personal practice and life philosophy.
For one part of my PhD, I decided to study sisu empirically through consecutive ultraruns the length of New Zealand. I wanted to experience what overcoming adversity means in real-life moments of sisu—to explore that tender space between “giving up” and “keeping on.” I imagined ultrarunning as a fitting metaphor for life since life itself is our longest endurance event, and we are all on it. Sure enough, after months of running, I came to view these moments in which I kept on going gently vs. when I let the experience run me over as a metaphor of the everyday moments of sisu. Ultimately, what I call gentle power came down to keeping my heart open for connection vs. contracting from connection.
In those moments of sisu, I also learned this: If I brought my attention to my breath and body—by simply slowing down enough to see more clearly into the wonder and mystery of what was happening—I found without exception that there was a strength greater than my willpower waiting to be accessed. My only job was to remember to return to it and to strengthen the habit through repetition.
In the words of Ram Dass, “Until everybody is free, nobody is free.” Sometimes the most spiritual act that takes us closer to God (by the virtue of taking us closer to the image of God nearest to us) could be to help your spouse empty the dishwasher, stay patient with your child who is throwing a fit, or open an authentic dialogue with someone whose life views are different from yours.
Positive psychology, I learned, is one practical toolkit to explore for science-based methods to aid our everyday walk of enlightenment. Sisu, on the other hand, reminds us that we have way more strength and fortitude than we think—and that to go beyond the moment when we believe we are “done” lies in the next conscious choice to stay open to life and life force. Sisu is a philosophy of unfolding the divine through what we humans do at our best: Show up to the sacred grind of the everyday and do what must be done.
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