The Pearl, vol. 65: When lifestyle hacks stop working

Dear Oysters,

Sometimes I despair that, in spite of all my efforts, I have not made much progress on the spiritual path. But in one significant way, I have noticed a change. It is in the different way I have approached my work since coming to Washington, D.C.

When someone asks me about my job teaching students through the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, I say things like: "I feel better when I leave teaching than when I arrived." Or, "it gets me out of the house and into the world." Or, "the kids are wonderful."

In these moments, when I feel light-hearted about how I earn my keep in the world, I can tell that my attitude has changed. Gone is the sense that there is a "perfect job" out there for me, and that I have simply failed to find it. Gone is the sense of "not good enough" compared to whatever my colleagues may be doing. 

For once, I am not over-thinking. I am not fidgeting or squirming in my new role, craning my neck to see if I can see anything better around the corner. I am just settling in, working, doing the best that I can. 

In my hours spend working from home, things are not so straightforward. After the first few hours of each morning—during which I might write, or practice, or correspond with clients—depression, anxiety, and hopelessness creep into my consciousness. Once I no longer have the energy to apply myself to discrete tasks, things turn dark. I do chores, listen to podcast after podcast, trying to drown out this feeling. I think about why I have this emotional pain, and how to get rid of it. I consider going on more hikes, or switching to morning yoga classes, or taking a nap at the precise hour of the day that my existential discomfort usually reaches its peak. I wonder if the pain will go away once I have more friends here, or once I have more work here, or whether I'd feel better if Susan were around more. 

After all, doesn't pain mean there's something wrong with me? That is the toxic belief underlying my attempts to escape. We’re supposed to be happy; things are supposed to be easy—and if they’re not, we just need to tweak a few things. (Enter lifestyle hacks, productivity tips, and a heap of articles entitled 5 Simple Practices for a Peaceful Day.)

Despite my attempts to plot out a life without suffering, thanks to the Buddhist teachings, I know better. No little tweaks to my external circumstances can dissolve the suffering that is inherent in existence. It’s only inner transformation that can help with that. But man, inner transformation feels really terrible sometimes—especially when it involves letting go of how I view myself, and reality, and the world.

Over time, I've learned that a meditative life doesn't exclusively produce the calmer, happier, more productive outcome that's often advertised. In fact, meditation practice can be deeply unsettling and disruptive. Over time, the practice uproots what we usually hold onto, leaving emptiness behind. Although this may be called liberation, the process of integrating it isn’t always smooth or easy. 

These days, I am a little more prepared for the "bumps" of spiritual learning. And this week, thank God, I found this article by Pema Chodron. She actually describes enlightenment as the ultimate loneliness—but she describes it as a "cool loneliness," not the hot and agitated loneliness we may be familiar with. I'll share a favorite quote: 

 

[In life], we just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. 

 

Stay salty, Oysters. And if spiritual nerding-out isn't your thing, please enjoy some cat photos below. (And to get these essays delivered to your inbox, click here.)

Love,

Ellen