There are two main reasons why people seek. They are (a) freedom from pain and (b) longing for something better. You may think that the two reasons are the same, but there is a subtle distinction between running away from something and running towards something.
Relief or Gain
The person who seeks freedom from pain will often settle for any kind of relief. Temporary numbing will suffice. People who feel pain often go down the path of using drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food, sex, video games, and other forms of numbing to decrease their discomfort.
The big problem with the numbing approach is that the effects wear off. Realizing the futility of numbing is often the first step onto the spiritual path (it was for me). The person realizes that numbing will never achieve lasting change and that the pain always comes back when the effects wear off.
The person seeking something better is different. The positive impacts of the things he or she has been engaging in have been felt and there is longing for more.
To give an example, a person fleeing pain has been starving in the desert and will settle for a stale old cracker, while a person seeking something better is sated but has become interested in the culinary arts.
People who seek freedom from pain often practice more intensely than those who are already feeling well. If you are starving, you will do anything to get food, if you are drowning, all you can think of is air, if you have a tooth ache you can’t get to the dentist fast enough… you see my point.
There is a third reason, although rare. It is open-mindedness and curiosity, where the search is for truth, not for relief or gain. The few who seek this way are labeled true seekers because of their pure motive.
For Me, It’s a MixIn my case, the reasons for seeking have been a mix of relief from pain (my primary motive when I started on this path, both because of family history and personal behavior), need for gain (I wanted more when I felt the positive impacts from meditation, contemplation, and my increased capacity to love), and the occasional pure search for truth (a deep internal drive to know without need for personal reward).
Intensity, Duration and Outcome
Overall, it can be tremendously helpful for spiritual seekers to determine why they are seeking. Being blind to the reasons can result in unintended consequences, especially for those who are willing to do anything to achieve freedom from pain.
If you are a seeker (and, if we are being honest, you probably are; why else would you be reading this column), then ask yourself why you seek and write down your list of reasons. You may realize that your motivations are mixed, like mine are. That is normal. Human beings are complex and parts of us are often at odds with each other. But knowing your reasons will be helpful. You will understand the incentives behind your intensity or lack there of.
As a spiritual teacher, I have found, for example, that without a concrete list of reasons, people are rarely motivated enough to engage in their spiritual practices on a daily basis. Whether the practice is meditation, contemplative reading, prayer, service, or ritual, the reason why will set the tone for intensity, duration, and eventually the outcome.
Nietzsche was right when he noted that a person with a strong enough why is willing to endure any how.
Think about it, compare it to you own life, and you will see he was right.
Author & Interfaith Minister