Everyday enlightenment

We find what we search for – or if we don’t find it we become it. Jessamyn West

For years I loved the idea of retreat – an ashram – the top of a mountain – anywhere so long as it was far from the madding crowd.

Here I would wake with the dawn, enjoy deep meditation and contemplative walks, be struck by profound insights between bowls of rice and green tea and later descend: enlightened.

(Not to mention skinny and with glowing skin.)

After that, truth in hand (as if such a thing exists), my proper life could begin.

Thankfully the need to earn a living prevented it then and has continued to thwart me to this day.

Since moving out of home at 19 I have always balanced work with at least one other thing – university, writing, the visual arts.

My yearning to be a ‘paid writer’ waned with the seemingly insurmountable statistics of publishing and countless rejections that, however nicely phrased, did not come with a cheque.

So I’d go from a lecture to the restaurant and record in the wee hours the frosts that settled on a couple eating in silence or how fear contorted into appeasement serving drunks at 3am.

When finally I entered the ‘proper’ workplace I learned what I could, and studied after hours to learn more.

I extended myself out of curiosity and not because I wanted promotions. Nonetheless the progress I made I dismissed as ‘not the real thing’. That would come.

I still put paper to pen but now on weekends where the characters resembled in no small part the office.

And I waited.

My day job was just a detour, I thought. At heart I knew a best-seller would bring financial independence and a house in Tuscany where I’d grow tomatoes and, aside from hosting bohemian lunches, write all day and slip back to New York with tomes tucked under my arms: successful.

(Certainly bronzed and fit as a fiddle.)

Marriage, and later kids, did not alleviate the juggling act, as like most modern couples, my ex and I relied on two incomes to get by.

Gradually I learned to accept the competing pull of biology, necessity, personal time, and identity, physical and emotional health – as most of us do.

And while I still longed for those awe-inspiring gurus, I decided at the very least to get up before the boys to do yoga. And at night after folding the washing, I wrote, or painted.

This is how I learned the power of consciously carving out time within the daily routine. It’s cumulative and unlike that mountain, within reach. Before I knew it I had five books under my belt and a meditation practice.

While there were times I thought I had drawn the short straw and even felt envious of those who had better ‘options’, circumstances meant I just had to get on with it.

It was the perfect way to learn that no matter what you do, the critics will come. I can tell you now that if you are seeking approval for the decisions you make – there is no way to win.

For example (and you can extrapolate this to all areas of life):

Those who work full-time learn to dodge the glares of colleagues as they dash out to collect kids, where the guilt of leaving on time is replaced by a different variety of having left them in care. Guilt served two ways, Columbarus might say.

But part timers discover just as quickly that according to others it’s not just work they don’t take seriously enough, it’s also parenting.

As for those who look after kids full-time, well, there’s always the strained silence when someone asks you what you do at a dinner party and the closing of ranks to keep out ‘those others’ who are not like you.

Let’s not even go to the question of choosing or not to have kids or being able to. Judge, judge, judge.

We all do it – just the parameters change.

As Chodron says, “we are all capable of becoming fundamentalist because we get addicted to other people’s wrongness.”

But wait – is there a better to way to explore the distinction between who you are and what you do?

This is where you discover what drives your choices (including constraint), or learn to make meaning despite the limitations that life delivers (usually that you were not expecting). There is no better time or place.

This is it.

Let’s face it, it’s easy to theorize about who you are, to ‘be yourself’ when you’re alone without others to prod and poke at the construct. But retaining that under pressure, or in the light of another’s disapproval?

And while you can develop a form of patience sitting lotus, try not to lose the plot at loved ones when you are sleep deprived. That is not just words on a page, that is walking your talk.

Or holding back when someone has just splattered his or her personal unhappiness all over you – pure genius!

Harvard Business Review writer and CEO of the Energy Project Tony Schwartz suggests that a regular practice that pushes you beyond your comfort zone makes you systematically stronger.

Minutes accumulate and what we do over time shapes our lives. That’s the mountain.

So today:

  1. Name your mountain. Is it a spiritual retreat? A month off work? A return to studying a course you never believed possible? What qualities would this provide you with? (Time out, a break from routine, interesting facts). How could you bring those qualities into your life as it is currently constituted? (Ten minutes meditation, one new thing each day, a daily alert from the online dictionary.)
  2. Don’t wait. Do one thing to create that quality in your life right now. Then try to practice it each day.


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