When I turned 50, I took a deep dive into dharma.
COVID was keeping us all indoors, and I suddenly had access to tons of Buddhist resources I’d never had before. I was in Zoom squares with some of the biggest names in the biz. Since I’d been a solo practitioner for years and years, I was delighted to make friends from different traditions and from all over the world.
As someone who connected to spirituality through recovery, I looked around for a ‘home group.’ I sat with several groups from several traditions—Vajrayana, Zen, Theravada… Finally, I latched onto a Meditation Teacher program developed by some mindfulness industry superstars.
From the beginning, my instincts told me it was not the path for me. However, I met great people and participated in an online retreat (still COVID era). The program had a good pedigree and lots of important folks attached to it, but as time went by I felt a steady swell of alarm.
At first, I critiqued the program and found fault with this and that. The biggest red flag, especially for someone in recovery, was I found myself developing resentment toward the program. I squirmed on the hook of ‘should I stick with this and see it through?’ or ‘should I get while the getting’s good.’ It didn’t help that every month a chunk of tuition was being sucked out of my bank account.
Resentment is insidious. Soon I started to feel cynical and snarky about all things mindfulness. Even my favorite Buddhist teachers and teachings started to annoy me.
The friends I’d made through my dharma explorations were lovely folks. I respected and admired them lots. At the same time, I felt duplicitous showing up for meditation sessions, smiling and bowing, while feeling apathetic about the whole thing.
Finally, at the end of last year, I formally cut ties with the meditation teacher program and the meditation groups I was a part of. The reason I gave was that I wanted to revisit my Western mystical roots. Maybe that was even my intention. But as soon as I’d said so long, I dropped all spiritual pursuits. I was burnt out.
Maybe it was pandemic stress. Maybe it was the encroaching ugliness of the cultural landscape. My sponsor of fourteen years had recently died. My day job as a non-profit exec was testing all my limits. One of my closest lifelong friends took her own life. I felt exhausted, flat, and drained.
Then it hit me. A full-on vipassana insight. I was suffering.
You’d think someone so studied in Buddhism would spot their own suffering from a mile away. Not me. I’d been swigging all three poisons: attachment, aversion, and confusion.
Addicts and alcoholics can often thunder along, enduring lots of suffering, and just keep going. That tendency doesn’t disappear when you get sober. It can be very tempting to hide in your own delusion. To cling to your comforts. And to push away all that doesn’t fit.
As soon as I touched my suffering, my stress and confusion evaporated. I could accept compassion from my own heart. I felt how I’d been moving through life with gritted teeth and clenched fists–all knotted up over solving some sort of high-stakes spiritual puzzle.
I settled into silence and serenity. I rested at ease and followed my breath. Effortlessly, all the teachings, all the truths I’d absorbed over the past 30 years were available. Intuitively, spontaneously, I took refuge…
The last few weeks I’ve spent as grounded as I’ve ever been. Feeling connected with life. Tender with compassion. And conscious of the interconnection of all things.
I’m no longer worried about solving my spiritual path. I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to defend. I have ‘ceased fighting anyone or anything.’ And my ever-changing ‘I’ is not taking itself so seriously.
The Buddha’s last words were, “Be a light unto yourself.” and “All things must pass.”
That’s how I try to practice these days. Listening to my intuition. Drawing from the many precious teachers and teachings I have been lucky to encounter. Remembering everything changes, all the time, and nothing lasts. Understanding we’re all in this together. That we all need kindness and compassion. That until we are all free, none of us are free.
May you, dear reader, and all beings everywhere be happy, joyous, and free.
Artwork: Dessicated Buddha by Gonkar Gayatso