Almost twenty years ago, I sat on the front porch of an A-frame perched on a ridge at Zen Mountain Monastery gazing at a star-filled Catskill Mountain sky. At that point, I knew it wasn't working out. I was going to leave.
I had absolutely no idea what my next move would be.
For decades, I had thought, "once the kids are grown, I can finally DO IT!" At long last, I would leave the chaos of contemporary life and head for the hills. There I'd find the Teacher and a sangha -- and really get spiritual.
Now, after only six months of residency, I knew I was done.
So much for that idea. Now what?
Though I respected many of the folks involved, and saw that the monastic life appeared to work for some, I now knew it wasn't for me. I wasn't going to get off that easy. I was going to have to get out there on the streets and work it out for myself -- again.
I wish it was always that easy.
I came of age in the 60's. For some of us geezers who had experienced the widespread Spiritual Awakening of that era (with or without chemical assistance), breaking free from the empty materialism and incessant busyness of the modern life to "head for the hills" seemed like the Answer. We were, after all, "stardust...golden." We had to get ourselves back to the Garden.*
For some of us, that meant moving back to the land. For some of us, that meant heading to the ashrams and monasteries (or the hermit's huts and caves) to find the Ultimate Answers. Though I had set off from college to "save the world" as a school teacher, I, myself, had burned out and hit the escape button on the keyboard of my life several times over the years. Yet, each time, I had quickly felt morally obligated to return to the mainstream to, at least minimally, fulfill my parental karma.
Then, at age 55, when my youngest child had graduated from college and I had another long-term relationship come to an end, I thought "I guess this is my chance. I'm going for it!"
Guess again. This wasn't IT!
My tour of duty at Zen Mountain Monastery was, I think, the final time I barked my shins on the way up that particular wrong tree. I realized, in my bones, that the true spiritual journey for me was one of Connection, not separation from, what Zorba the Greek characterized as the "full catastrophe" of Life.
Although I didn't have a clue as to what that would look like, I knew in my heart of hearts that I just wanted to help out, to serve. In launching off into the unknown, I was coming hOMe to my heart's deepest aspiration.
This doesn't mean that I don't think there are Teachers and Teachings and Spiritual Communities that can provide us with support and guidance along the way. The opportunity to engage in intensive meditation retreats is a special blessing, and I am grateful for the opportunity to dive deeply into days, weeks, and months of such settings over the years. I honor and respect those who have dedicated their lives to these efforts and will continue to sing their praises -- at times. (In fact, I highly recommend that you attend a meditation retreat if you haven't yet. Even a full day or a weekend can be transformative.)
Yet, for me and, I think, many of us, the True Spiritual Journey doesn't involve heading to the hills forever. It involves diving ever more deeply into our lives as they are -- with as much skill and grace as we can muster.
Once we discern that our deepest yearning is to Connect, to serve all life, the Practice unfolds as both the means and the ends of cultivating the clarity, kindness, compassion, and equanimity to do that. With Practice, we learn to face ourselves and our lives honestly, squarely, and wholeheartedly. With Practice, day by day, we become more Present -- ready to rock!
Ultimately, things get clearer. We figure out what to do. At that point, the Universe supports getting it done. Everyone and everything becomes the Teacher and the Teaching!
What more could one wish for?
* I wrote about my take as a member of the Woodstock generation in "Woodstock Forever" for the Progressive a few years back.
Originally published, March 2014. Revised.