The Soul Grows by Subtraction
The soul grows by subtraction. ~ Meister Eckhart
Every day, I’m fortunate enough to witness the wonder that 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart was talking about. It seems so paradoxical, doesn’t it? But, it gets clearer when you understand what needs to be subtracted to allow the soul’s growth.
It’s what I call Learned Distress. It’s the feeling we all absorbed early in life that there is something wrong with us being just the way that we are. Learned Distress comes to overwhelm our natural well-being, which is our soul’s energy embodied within us. Well-being is not only what allows us to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally, but it is the source of our creativity and uniqueness. And, it is what allows us to discover and fulfill our life purpose.
This soul energy or well-being is meant to be the automatic, generating force behind all the moments of our lives. It is the kernel of energy we begin with in the womb. And then, from conception until the age of 2 1/2, our little brains are sponges, absorbing how people around us feel about being themselves. The purpose of this sponge-like time was to allow our soul’s energy to grow in the unique way that fit with our surroundings. To become even more of the well-being that we started with.
But, the people around us didn’t always feel good during every moment in which we absorbed how it feels to be human from them. And unfortunately, humans don’t have any rational, thinking capacity before the age of 2 1/2, so we couldn’t evaluate the feelings we absorbed to decide whether they were good for us, or not. We couldn’t say, “Mom’s just having a bad day. I’ll throw this one out.” Just like a sponge absorbs everything it is placed in, our little brains absorbed all of how people felt around us. And, our brains took it in as “this is how it feels to be me.” The negative feelings we absorbed become Learned Distress, this feeling that “there is something wrong with me.”
After the age of 2 1/2, your sense of self—the storage tank for these feelings—becomes the automatic, generating force behind all the moments of your life. Moments are generated equal to the intensity and quality of feelings stored in the sense of self. So, Learned Distress is the source of moments in which you feel the same as you did when you absorbed that negative feeling. Learned Distress has some big common themes, some of which are, “I don’t matter,” “I don’t fit just as I am,” “I have to (or can never) be perfect enough,” “I have to win at everything,” and, “I always need others’ approval.”
The work I do with clients works with the brain during sleep, when it is most open to change, to permanently remove layers of Learned Distress. This is when the soul growth that Eckhart talked about gets to happen. Well-being finally gets the breathing room it needs to grow, and the soul gets to start to express what it came here to do. Very often, my clients discover what they’re really on the planet to do for the first time, and without the crushing difficulty that Learned Distress puts in the way, they begin to fulfill their life’s purpose.
Since each person’s life purpose is unique, the outcomes of this growth are diverse and often surprising. Some find satisfaction with the path they’ve been on all along, but had felt wasn’t perfect enough until they unlearn that particular piece of Learned Distress. Others find an entirely new path and the resources they need to follow it. Sometimes, the soul’s growth means the beginning of a new relationship, and at other times, it means the end of one. What I always tell my clients at the beginning is that I have no idea what unlearning their Learned Distress will look like, but I can tell them that the general direction will be towards them feeling better and everyone around them benefiting from that in some way.
What I love most about this “subtract to grow” process is that it is absent of the hard work, the striving, that we often associate with the idea of growing and moving forward. Removing layers of Learned Distress can be messy and painful at times, but the growth that comes as a result of it often happens so easily that I have to point it out to my clients. Their well-being generates good moments as automatically as bad moments used to be generated, so just as effortlessly as the bad days used to happen, the good days now happen without their hard work.
Does Eckhart’s paradox make more sense now? What is your soul ready to say, once your Learned Distress is subtracted?