Since I started this blog, I have received a number of emails from some dear old friends about what is going on in their lives. I apologize for not yet having had the time to reply individually (I will), but one thing that struck me was how so many of them had a common theme: I want to dedicate my life to Dharma, but I have to do all these ordinary things, so I feel dissatisfied with how both my ordinary and spiritual life are turning out.
Oh, how I know this one well!!! I have struggled with this my whole spiritual life. We do the meditations on precious human life, death and so forth and we are inevitably lead to the conclusion that there is no point doing anything other than Dharma with our lives. But that naturally raises the question: well what does that mean to only “do Dharma” with our life? We look around, and we see people who are living in centers, ordained, teaching Dharma, working in a center, etc., and we conclude “a spiritual life looks like that.” We then look at our own life and see all of the things which “prevent” us from living such a life. We then start looking at our friends, our jobs, our partners, our kids, our student loans, our worldly responsibilities and we start to grasp at all of these things as “obstacles” to our spiritual life. But since, for whatever karmic reason, we still have to do all of these things, we feel like we have some nasty obstacles in our life and we become very dissastisfied that we are not able to live up to the ideal spiritual life of our imagination.
At this point, what we do is we start to take the “minimal enagement with our worldly life” strategy. In my case, for example, I had a 10 year period of my life where my main goal was to minimize the amount of “normal work” I had to do. For example, I would take jobs that demanded very little of me and that were below what my normal career potential would have been. I did so so that I had “more free time” to “do Dharma.” Then, when the people I worked for came in and asked me to do things, I became internally upset, frustrated and dissassatisfied with having to do these things. I would only minimally engage in my work, out of a strange fear of being somehow contaminated by having to engage in “worldly activities”. So not only was I taking jobs below what my normal capacity would have been, I was underperforming in them.
I also did this with my family. For the longest time, especially in the early days of my practice, part of me viewed my relationship with my now wife as an obstacle to being able to live this fantasy ideal life of a Dharma practitioner. But my karma of being with her just wouldn’t go away!! 🙂 I then later made the same mistake with my kids. My wife wanted kids, but I was afraid of them becoming obstacles to my practice – being able to meditate in the morning because I was tired from having to look after them at night, being able to go to teachings and festivals because of the cost of bringing them along or the difficulty of finding babysitters. After we had two kids, I was “double-D done” in terms of having more kids because it was just so much work and so interfered with living up to my mentally constructed vision of what a Dharma life looked like.
And look at me now: I have a life-consuming job and I have five kids!!! What happened?!? How can I now externally have such a completely worldly life yet still internally feel like I am completely (well, almost completely…) dedicating my life to Dharma. There have been a few key moments in my life which have enabled me to internally resolve what are in fact false contradictions between our so called worldly life and our spiritual life. Early on, when I was having trouble with my girlfriend at the time (now wife), my first teacher Gen Lekma told me “she is not an obstacle to your practice, she is your practice.” This was a revolution in my mind. Before I got married, I had a vision in which a Buddha handed me a child and told me “this is where you will find your heart.” When I was opposed to having a third child because for me it was just too much work, my wife asked me, “so why do you strive so much to have more students at the center, aren’t they too more work?” Checkmate! And finally, for my career, at the last Summer Festival before Venerable Geshe-la retired, he said something to the effect of how it has been true for the last several decades we, as a tradition, have been on the extreme of Dharma (and that is OK, it was what was right at the time), but now we need to find the middle way between our spiritual life and our worldly responsibilities. When he said this, it hit me the middle way is not some 50%/50% between our spiritual life and our worldly life, because that is still grasping at our worldly lives as being inherently ordinary, rather we should simultaneously strive for a 100%/100% solution in which our so called “worldly life” is the training ground for our 100% spiritual life and our 100% spiritual life will be realized by fully living up to our full “worldly potential.” I was reminded of what ex-Gen-la Samden had said that retreat is a state of mind, so if we have a mind of retreat, we can live our entire life as a retreat.
It all fell into place for me. All life contexts are equally empty, so any life can be “perfect” for our spiritual life. I could be spending all of my life working to cause the Dharma to flourish but still grasp at it as being inherently ordinary, and for me I will be living an ordinary life. Or I could live a completely normal life with a full-out career and family, but relate to that life as my spiritual retreat and training ground, and that is exactly what it will be. The original name I considered for this blog was “life as retreat” to reflect the (near) complete resolution of all contradiction in my mind between my external normal life and my internal spiritual life. My life, as it is, is my long-term spiritual retreat.