The seasons can change quickly here in
– at times seeming to go from the chill of winter straight into the sweltering heat of summer with hardly a trace of spring, or from summer to autumn over the course of an afternoon! It felt a little bit like the latter this year as we transitioned from a summer drought that seemed to never want to end into the chilly nights of fall over the course of just a scant few days. Of course, I’m speaking very subjectively right now. I don’t have any temperature charts in front of me showing the highs and lows of recent days in order to compare them to the averages of seasons past. I only have my experience of the passing days to go on right now, and my memories of seasons past to compare them to. (By the way, as I edit this we’re enjoying once again the warmth of summer. Such is the nature of St. Louis weather!) Missouri
Taking stock of where we’re at with respect to our spiritual journey is a similarly subjective exercise. As the years go by and the difficulties that we’ve overcome become hazy memories; and the comforts of our individual existence further crowd out the realities of that which we share; and our struggles to come to grips with who and what and why we are, and where our lives are going seem like just so many growing pains of our teen years long ago; and our current worldview or metaphysical belief system has become so entrenched as to make it feel as though we were born with it firmly intact, it might feel as though we’re no longer on a journey at all. It might feel as though we’ve arrived; we’re happy, saved, awakened, blessed, content, etc. If so, be grateful and enjoy it! Unfortunately, though, such feelings, like all others that are rooted in impermanent causes and conditions, can change more quickly than the St. Louis weather. And that is why it’s good every now and then to reflect upon the spiritual nature of our lives and make certain that we’ve not strayed too far from the path that is our truth.
Autumn, for me, is the perfect time for such introspection. Regardless of when the autumnal equinox might occur or how quickly the change of weather might take place, autumn for me begins with a certain scent hanging on the cool evening breeze at the close of a late summer day. Perhaps it’s the dryness of the vegetation infusing the air with its earthy essence, or maybe it’s the faint tingling in my sinuses as I breathe deeply the cool, crisp air. Maybe someone somewhere has built a fire – farther up north perhaps where the seasons have already done what they’re about to do here – sending the inspiration of a thousand associations wafting wherever the wind might blow. That is when autumn begins for me. And when autumn begins for me, so begins another season of reflection and introspection. For just as the sap of the bushes and trees withdraws each year into the nurturing embrace of the earth, there to prepare for another spring, so my consciousness is drawn inward in order to prepare for a new season of spiritual growth and renewal.
Yes, my experience of the seasons is subjective, but what is spiritual practice if not subjective? Whereas the practitioner of science might presume the existence of some unwavering observer watching over the ever-changing phenomena of the world, the spiritual practitioner knows that it is precisely the ever-wavering nature of the observer that makes the self such an interesting topic of study. And so, regardless of the measured length of night and day, my autumn comes whenever it comes. All of my autumns come whenever they come – as do my winters and my springs.
A couple of weeks ago we marked the autumnal equinox with a weekend long meditation retreat; and with it I vowed to deepen my spiritual practice. (By the way, be careful if you ever decide to make such a vow of your own. The last time I vowed to deepen my spiritual practice my life flew apart at the seams! Funny thing, though, my practice did deepen!) Alright, I suppose I’ve digressed a bit. What does it mean, anyway, to say that we are deepening our spiritual practice? Well, the first things that come to mind are quantity and quality.
Quantity is the easiest parameter to understand. Whatever it is that you engage in as part of your spiritual practice, just do more of it. Do you pray? Do you commune with nature? Do you create? Just do so more often. Ah, but isn’t it strangely perverse how that which makes us feel most fully alive ends up being shoehorned into our meager spare time as if it is an obligation to be reluctantly fulfilled rather than the most fulfilling of things we can do? Indeed, whereas quantity might be the easiest of parameters to understand, it is not necessarily the easiest to address. Our lives are so tightly packed with obligations and complications these days – like those interlocking Chinese puzzles – that it’s difficult to change the quantity of anything.
Okay, so what about quality? If it’s hard to do something about the quantity of time spent engaged in spiritual practice, then maybe we can do something about its quality. Yes, but how exactly do we pray with greater intensity, or commune with nature with a more profound sense of connection, or create with a greater spirit of…, er…, creativity? Two things come to mind: intention and (you guessed it) quantity. It’s true that we can go through periods during which we are kind of sleep-walking through our spiritual practice, or going through the motions, if you will. If that’s the case then, yes, reexamining our intention and making appropriate adjustments to our focus and our diligence might be just what we need to do to regain quality. On the other hand, though, the quality of so much of what we do is a direct result of the quantity of time and effort that we devote to it. So, perhaps we have no other choice but to solve that Chinese puzzle that is our life, throw away a piece or two, saw in half a couple more, file down a few edges, and then call it our own!
Intention for me, with respect to deepening my spiritual practice, means working to arrange my life around spiritual practice rather than allowing secular existence to dictate the nature of my practice. Specifically, this means that I intend to continue my usual attendance at our Zen Center, in addition to going each weekday morning before work – something that I’ve heretofore only considered a theoretical possibility. “Hey, I meditate at home already,” I would tell myself. “And, besides, morning is one of my most productive times to write.” Well, you know, after one of the first times I showed up on a weekday morning, somebody remarked to the group as we were about to depart: “It’s great to have such a large group of people to meditate with.” And in that moment I knew that my practice was indeed deepening. After all, I did vow to save all beings, didn’t I? And what better way to help save them than by helping to create a community in which to practice? Oh, and my writing? I’ve found that I have enough time in between leaving the Zen Center and heading off to work to get in a good hour and a quarter of writing at one of my favorite coffee shops!
So, my life is now entering a new season of spiritual practice. I’m not completely certain where this path is taking me, but it feels right. It feels like I’ve given myself a tune-up and achieved greater congruence between who I think I am and what I actually do (see seamlessness). It feels like I’ve arrived at an important junction on this path that is my life, and made the right choice on which way to turn.
Speaking of spiritual practice and paths in life and arriving at junctions: sketching out a spiritual autobiography is a great way to gain greater awareness of yourself as a spiritual being – what work you’ve done, what insights you’ve attained, what remains to be done, etc. I was going through my files the other day and came across a transcript of a lecture that, among other things, provides a great example of a spiritual autobiography. Please follow the link to Margaret Katranides’ 2007 Jonathan Plummer Lecture given at the Illinois Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). The title is Knowing and Not Knowing. As I reread it I wished that I’d stumbled across is as I was writing my own On Not Knowing series of blog posts some months ago. I would have referred to it specifically at that time. I got to know Margaret and many other fine spiritual practitioners during my time spent sitting in silence with the Friends here in
. I invite you to reflect on her words and perhaps gain inspiration from them as you begin your own spiritual autobiography. Perhaps doing so will usher into your life an entirely new season of introspection and subsequent spiritual growth. Thank you again, Margaret. And thank you, everyone. St. Louis
Image of a Chinese puzzle from Wikipedia Commons via:
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank