I came home from my first trip to India full of spiritual ideas. What was enlightening and what wasn’t. What was holy, sacred, pure; what was decadent, ignorant, unworthy. There’s nothing worse than a convert and I was completely obnoxious. Then—on a date with a down to earth person—I had my holy bubble popped.
I’d been regaling this person for half an hour about my spiritual adventures, which were real but overblown, going on about my favorite teachings (“The Dhammapada!” “I am That!”) and the meaning of Enlightenment (capital E) when my date blinked and looked completely lost. After a pause, he asked, “Do you mean kindness?”
I wanted to punch him. No, I don’t mean kindness, you jerk (this is what I was actually thinking.) I meant Cosmic Consciousness (capital C.) I meant an actual raison d’etre. His plain word insulted the gorgeous philosophy I was so in love with. I had the urge to pay the bill and run out of the restaurant. Instead, I sat where I was and realized that I had just met my next teacher.
I came home from the East with a rarefied view of what spirituality meant, an infatuation rendered from poetry and gospels, ashrams and monasteries, pilgrimages to sacred places and intense meetings with beloved books (locking souls with Irina Tweedie or Peter Matthiessen.) But in day–to–day life, as skillful living, as moment–by–moment kindness—that kind of spirituality I knew little about. I understood quickly why the householder path is even steeper than the monastic (according to people who’ve walked both.) To live in the world as a half–awake person while dealing with money, relationships, sex, career, ambition, competition—that was a serious learning curve.
The first hurdle to get over was the false divide between what was spiritual and what wasn’t. To help with this, I got a wallop from Chogyam Trungpa in his classic Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 300 life-changing pages that destroy the notion of enlightenment as more aggrandizement for the ego. I realized that I substituted one ladder—in my case a magazine masthead—for a holy one and missed the entire point. There was nowhere to go, no destination, no contest, no gold star to collect at the gates of Heaven for meditating till you wanted to kill yourself.
Samsara really was nirvana. Tantra, the dance of opposites, really was the path of wisdom. To live in the world as a yin-yang person meant reconciling disharmonious parts into a mystic whole, a coincidentia oppositorum. The more I practiced this in daily life (chop wood, grit teeth, carry water, growl) the more fascinating it became. The things I used to believe were the problem (life’s trivia, aggravations, interferences, irritants, logjams requiring forced patience) were part of the solution, in fact, if I could get past my “either–or” mind. This constant crow–eating called for radical humility; it meant not separating the profane from the sacred, and getting that the messy, petty, niggling, conflicted, mundane, banal stuff—balancing the checkbook, driving in traffic—is warp and woof to the holiness of the world. When you look at the world this way, it turns your values on their head. Concessions that, to the ego, look like defeats turn out to be victories for the spirit: Giving in when I wanted to fight. Accepting what was offered instead of grabbing for more. Remaining still instead of fleeing in a blaze of seeker heroism.
This householder path brought cognitive dissonance on a daily basis. To deal with this, I put together a list of fifteen to–do’s to help me walk this checkered path. Here they are in no order of importance.
- Say enough. In a “stay hungry” world, sufficiency, satisfaction, contentment, non–greed, and resting in the present moment (with all its limitations) are often seen as signs of lassitude or loserhood. This is propaganda. Enough is enough.
- “Yes” prevails. Affirmation, generosity, expansion, opening, gratitude, resilience, and getting bigger is your preferred daily orientation. More space, less pain. The world can be a naysaying place. Don’t swallow the nemesis.
- Love anyway. There are a million reasons to close our hearts, harbor grudges, disappointment, bitterness, resentment, withdrawal, and refusal to give a hoot. When the petty voice inside says “No”, get over yourself and love anyway.
- Only connect. See #3.
- Everyone matters. If “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,” as John Lennon wrote, then you need to be nice to the guy on the street who flips you off for not giving him money even if you want to kick him.
- Self–care now. Go overboard with personal affection. Indulge yourself, comfort yourself, enjoyyourself, be good to yourself. There’s no such thing as too much self-kindness as long as you believe #5.
- Money matters. “It’s a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money,” Albert Camus said. I learned this lesson the hard way by staying poor for most of my life. Then, I started admitting that I like money. I don’t covet it; it doesn’t rule my life; I don’t make my important decisions on its basis. But I like it. We’re not enemies.
- When you’re falling, dive if possible. Dive deep no matter what you’re doing. Seek out the further reaches of things, the nuggets that come from full immersion. Don’t hold back. Get soaked.
- “Why?” is the wrong question. Don’t waste time on why. Why is philosophical masturbation, an ontological cul–de–sac that never gives a definitive answer. The right question is always “How?”
- Cultivate desire. Contrary to what the pious preach, desire is a good thing. Say no to self–righteousness and judgment of the creature self. Bless your animal.
- Boundaries are bogus. It looks like you’re sitting in a parking lot, waiting for a spot, in your Buick, leering at a girl in a halter top, drinking a Tab, and listening to the Doobie Brothers on a bad stereo, but actually you are floating in the Net of Indra, a vast, seamless, inter–galactic time–space continuum connecting you to every other being in the Divine order at every moment of every day. Cultivate a quantum view. It helps with #5.
- All of us are leaving. When you see the world through mortal eyes, you undergo a major conversion. No one (and nothing) is quite as scary or unforgivable. Try seeing others as frail mortal beings who are facing the same awe–inspiring, terminal loss as you. It makes you a nicer person.
- Keep a Sabbath. Whether or not you keep an actual Sabbath, protect your Sabbath of the mind. Take a pause. Guard your inner refuge. Walk the labyrinth of your deepest self.
- Beauty is everything. “Beauty will save the world,” as Dostoevsky believed. It’s helpful to live this way. Seek the true and the beautiful.
- Start again. Like all of nature, we’re always beginning. Allow yourself to start over at every moment. Experience your life is practice. “Do not hurry, do not rest.”
My life feels better when I practice these things. Enlightenment isn’t so far away; the ending of seeking is coming home. This is where I want to live. Enough is enough.