The Princess and the Pea Phenomenon

by Dan Joseph -

As a child, you might have read the fairytale called "The Princess and the Pea." For those who haven't heard it — or for those who might not remember it — the story went like this:

Once there was a young prince who was in search of a princess to marry. Unfortunately, although he searched far and wide, the prince couldn't find a suitable mate. Then one night, during a rain storm, a young woman showed up at the prince's castle seeking shelter.

She claimed to be a princess and the prince was enamored of her. However, the queen mother was skeptical of the young woman's claim and decided to subject the woman to a test.

The queen ordered the castle servants to stack twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds on top of each other. She then placed a dried pea at the bottom of the stack. "If she's really a princess," said the queen, "then she'll feel the pea beneath all these beds."

When morning came, the queen went to greet the young woman. "How did you sleep?" she asked. "Oh, terribly!" said the young woman. "I'm nearly black and blue! I don't know what was in the bed, but it was terribly uncomfortable. " And with that, the queen decided that she must be a real princess — for no one else could be that sensitive.

Our Little Peas 

Like many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales, this story can be seen through a spiritual lens. I'd like to use it to illustrate an idea about the spiritual journey that I find important. Every so often someone will say to me, "When I began my spiritual work, I thought that I'd feel better but lately I seem to be feeling worse. I'm more conflicted, more stressed than ever. What is going on?"

Princess and the Pea phenomenon

I sometimes share the following idea with them, which I call the Princess and the Pea phenomenon: As we take the steps along the spiritual path, many of us become increasingly sensitive to our "inner blocks." Resentful thoughts which we tolerated before now become quite distressing. Self-critical attitudes that were previously part of the background noise now feel sharp.

With every step we take, our unloving thoughts begin to feel like uncomfortable splinters. This increased sensitivity clarifies the inner landscape and shows us where we need to make changes. As A Course in Miracles puts it, "the mind becomes increasingly sensitive to what it would once have regarded as very minor intrusions of discomfort." Before, we could easily tolerate this discomfort; now, not so much.

Like the princess, we begin to feel the little peas between layers and layers of mattresses.

Making the Shift

Now, in a way this dynamic is a good thing. If we didn't become more sensitive to our inner blocks as we went along, we would very likely take a few steps along the spiritual path and say, "Good enough! That feels better than before!" And then we would stop and set up camp at that point.

Instead, we become increasingly unable to tolerate our unloving thoughts. 

We begin to feel them with an almost absurd sensitivity, just as the princess felt the pea. This motivates us to keep going, to continue the sorting-out process as we exchange our old thoughts for kinder ones.

Ultimately, I suspect, we will reach a point in this process where anything less than perfect love — perfect, divine love toward ourselves and others — becomes unwelcome. That love is all that will ultimately satisfy us. Everything else will produce discomfort.

Speaking personally, when I began reading A Course in Miracles, I was struck by how lofty some of the ideas were. Over and over, the Course teaches that we are infinitely loveable children of God, filled with such holiness that should we open our eyes to this holiness in anyone — even for an instant — our lives will be instantly transformed.

The glory of God is within everyone we meet, says the Course. And this glory is within us as well. To see this holiness is to fill our hearts with love. Wow! I thought when I first read that. Those are some pretty "high" thoughts! They certainly sound nice, at least. Now, eighteen years later, I have a different view.

Those thoughts aren't lofty spiritual musings; they are oxygen. 

All of my other thoughts — my resentments against that person, my worries about this thing, the perfectionistic ideals that I hold against myself — are like smoky air that I choke on. And my life is a back-and-forth vacillation between the clean and dirty air, with the smoke becoming more difficult to tolerate each day.

I hear similar reports from other folks on the spiritual path. The peas, the smoke, the burden of our unloving thoughts weigh upon us more acutely with every step we take. Eventually we decide to toss a few peas, breathe some clean air, drop a few weights. This is wonderful; we walk on freer and lighter. Even as we do this, the remaining blocks become clearer.

I suppose that this is why spirituality requires an ever-greater commitment as we move along. 

Having become more honest with ourselves about our blocks, it is more difficult to hide them. And now that they are revealed, our only choice is to commit ourselves more fully to the process of change.

Like a stream that begins as a trickle in a desert, the spiritual path collects water from its tributaries and draws us more powerfully as we go along. With each new bend, it becomes harder to hold on to our old thoughts — and more of a relief to finally open to the flow of divine Love.

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