Reflections on a spiritual life
In 2008, I spent my birthday in my first Buddhist retreat. It changed my life, and has profoundly changed the path I have taken and who I am. My birthday now marks not only the day I was born, but the beginning of a new way of living. It’s thirteen years since I met the Buddha’s teachings and embarked on my spiritual journey which is a fair amount of time (almost a third of my life), so I thought I’d offer some reflections on what I’ve learned on the spiritual path, especially for those who are newer to it, but also for me, to remind myself.
- The excitement of the honeymoon phase really does wear off, and there will be times when it feels like nothing is happening and nothing is changing. When things are stagnant it’s hard to find motivation. When the practice gets boring, or even begins to seem easy (and therefore boring) it takes discipline to keep going. Somehow you just have to trust that continuing on, day after day, is the right thing to do, because when the bad times arrive you’ll be able to lean on all that practice.
- Because bad times will still arrive. I think I thought life would be easier. But the spiritual path doesn’t stop bad and sad things happening. There will still be heartache, you will still lose people you love, you will still get hurt, and you’ll still get sick and be unable to control things in your life. There will still be pain.
- And there will be times when it feels like you’ve gone backwards, like things are even worse than they were before you started on this stupid spiritual path. You’ll wonder, “how did I end up here, again?” You might even blame yourself, that you didn’t practice enough or do the right thing. But it’s all just life being life and doing its life thing. Problems and struggle are a part of life, they don’t mean you’re doing it wrong. And good spiritual practice doesn’t mean you get good things thrown at you in life.
- All it means is that you start to respond differently to what life is throwing at you. Instead of running from it, or trying to numb it with alcohol, or parties, or social media, or wallowing in it and having a pity party, you’ll learn to be with it a little more honestly each time. You’ll learn to let the difficulty buff away your sharp edges and let you soften more each time. At some point life will throw so much crap at you all at once that you’ll have to give it all up. All the ways you try to protect your vulnerable centre, you’ll have to give them up, and let your heart break open and then the teachings will fall in (one of my favourite quotes). At some point, you’ll open to the sadness of life, and, perhaps just for a second, accept it, before covering it up and running away again. But the more you stay, the more your heart will open, because it isn’t just your sadness, it’s the sadness of being human. And being able to just be with that sadness is a phenomenal gift.
- A wise woman once told me we come to the spiritual journey through suffering or love, and when I heard that I thought, “who the hell comes to this path through love?” I thought we all had to wade through the mud kicking and miserable to get to this path, so bogged down that when we found it, we grabbed onto it with all our strength because we knew how rubbish life was without it. But it turns out it’s true. Love brings you along the path, and for me, it was through suffering and seeing how vulnerable we all are that my heart opened and I could experience love. Honest, vulnerable, beautiful love. Love which expands as you give it and lets your heart open even further.
- The outer world and the culture you live in will tell you there are better, more exciting ways to live than the one you’ve chosen. It will tempt you with fads, food, men (or women), money, praise, fame of the type you desire. It takes a lot of guts and conviction to stick to what you know is right instead of following the herd or being pulled in another direction. But the Dharma is truth, whether it aligns with the morals of the people you are surrounded by or not.
- Keep going. The teachings will never lead you astray.