Mid-life, there is no place left to hide. The panic that follows this realization is such a common phenomenon in our society that we’ve named it. Over the years, I’ve witnessed and supported friends in the grips of a “mid-life crisis”. Buried beneath their unlived lives, excavation is an overwhelming prospect. Change comes at a cost. They delve deeper into their vice of choice. More wine, more bread, more plans or more stuff. Anything to stay numb, they “re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic”. A few are hopeful that a new romance or job could fix their internal dilemma. They seek the aid of therapists, playing a weekly game of whack-a-mole. Some are flat out depressed and find relief in medication which doesn’t seem to last for long.
And now, it’s my turn.
This month I turn forty-five. I’m restless and swarming with questions. I feel guilty that I’m not grateful for my blessed life. I fantasize about buying a one-way ticket somewhere far away and warm where I can shed my identity. Wondering how I ended up a statistic in the status quo with all the work I’ve done, my default mode is to shake the world for answers. I know that happiness is an inside job and yet I still grasp at worldly structures and conclusions until I get into enough pain and become willing to try another way.
This week, a quote I love, penetrated my self-centered turmoil.
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
When I first heard this Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote years ago, I assumed that I was already living in the second sentence. Having had a handful of spiritual experiences, I considered myself a transformed being. What I have come to understand is that yesterday’s awakenings did not turn me into a spiritual being once and for all. I wish it worked like that and it does not. The gravity in the world around me is powerful. I am continuously pulled by longing and disturbance. Staying connected to my spiritual nature takes a Herculean commitment. I must tend to my spirit like the keeper of a sacred fire. My most important job every day is to stoke the flames. I do this by engaging in practices like meditation, prayer and seeking support in spiritual communities.
If cultivating a spiritual life sounds like work, it is. No different than going to the gym or taking a class or anything else that yields results with consistent effort. So why bother? Why add one more thing to your busy day that doesn’t directly correlate with advancement in work or personal relationships? Because everything falls into place when I nurture my spirit. It’s a relief when I connect with an energy greater than my identity. Running the show is overrated and exhausting. My way never lasts for long. I must continue to row the boat of my life, but relinquishing the navigation to the higher intelligence found in my deepest consciousness ensures that I will end up where I am meant to be.
I celebrated fifteen years without alcohol on January 2nd. Friends and family outside my sober network associate my achievement with extreme discipline. It’s awkward to explain in passing that I can’t take credit for my course change that included giving up alcohol and other substances that were blocking me from deeper communion with spirit. I don’t drink today not because I fear alcohol but because I know that alcohol is a false idol. It could never provide me a shred of the contentment I have found in my sober, spiritual life.
When I’m living as a spiritual being, I feel unconditionally loved. This is a miracle for a little girl who believed she was broken and unlovable. No human relationship can make me feel loved for long. We cycle through relationships our entire lives blaming people when we don’t feel loved enough. We have an expectation that family, friends, and spouses should offer us endless love and support. This can be true for the luckiest among us, but human love never quiets the patient whisper that tells us every time we fall that we will never be enough. When I take care of my spirit, I am at peace, whole, complete, exactly where I longed to be my entire life.
And when I slide back into unconsciousness and treat the world around me like that’s all there is, I become afraid. Afraid of not getting my way, afraid of getting older, afraid that I will enter my grave with the song still in me and afraid of death. Death is the mother of all fears. Studying Buddhism this Fall while simultaneously expanding my meditation practice eased this primal dread. The truth of our existence is that each of us will die. Everyone we know will die too. It’s not tragic, it’s the promise of our humanity. When I am planted in my spirit, I see that death is just part of a cycle and life is everlasting.
As we evolve into smarter rats, we believe that we have more control over our lives and the world around us than ever. Control is an illusion. Our choices obsess us, they become our masters. We are worn out by the endless decisions required of us to navigate mundane life. Choices perpetuate the illusion that we are running the show.
There is a reason monks live in monasteries on mountaintops wearing the same robes every day and eating what is offered to them by villagers nearby. I only understood this after staying in a monastery Labor Day weekend for a silent meditation retreat. Simplicity is a pathway to spirit. As is silence. The shiny bells and whistles of the modern world distract us. If I do not carve out time to be alone, I lose my way easily. Pain, my loyal guide, nudges me back on track when I stray too far away from a spiritual solution. Few among us come to spiritual practice naturally. The majority of us find our way after surviving through the dark night of the soul. We roll our eyes at the concept of God until we lose a loved one, get sick, have our heart broken or our house burns to the ground. Only then do we turn to prayer.
For those of you that associate prayer with religious doctrine, I invite you to suspend your belief that religion is the opiate of the masses. That’s too easy an out. Try it on that different religious institutions are spiritual support systems all in service of the same force. When I “take the good and leave the rest” in spiritual practice and my entire life, I am surprised by what I receive.
My favorite line in the Big Book of AA is, “God could and would if he were sought.” This has always been true for me over the past fifteen years. Please don’t take my word for it, if you are in pain, go seek for yourself. And if you are not ready yet, your time will come. And it’s never too late.
Four books I recommend reading if you are interested in developing a spiritual practice: