Valuing the Spiritual Desert

Last night, I dreamed of trudging through a muffled, snowy suburban landscape — no plows, only fallen power-lines and blessed quiet.

When I was little, a blizzard swept through the place where I lived, dumping an unexpected three feet of snow in the middle of March just when the daffodils had started to push the tips of their green fingers up through the dirt. I don’t remember if it had been a long, cold winter that year, or how quickly afterwards the spring rushed in to lap up the melting snowdrifts in the Kmart parking lot. All I remember was the excitement of getting a week off school, and the quiet humming joy of the crystal sky stretching from horizon to horizon above the neighbor’s roofs.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of hard winters that seemed to last forever, and I’ve cursed plenty of early spring blizzards that swept through and dumped their last word perfunctorily on top of a delicate season trying to give itself birth. I’ve had grown-up problems and pains in the ass that left me grumpy, frustrated, miserable and wishing desperately for a sunny day and an excuse to blow off maturity and head outside to sit under the magnolia blossoms for a while. Somewhere along the way… I learned to dislike winter, sometimes even downright dreading it.

But despite that, or maybe because of it, I also got stuck. For the past few years, life has been one Big Plan after another: moving, wedding planning, career changes, marriage, moving, child custody battles, career changes — it never seemed to end. With Saturn cruising through its return in my astrological chart, flirting darkly with my ascendant and its dance-partner Pluto, it’s been an intense few years, full of obstacles, limitations, restrictions, frustrations, and spiritual winter.

Through it all, my response has been to buck up and plow through it. I’ve girded my loins, shouldered my burdens and trudged on down the road, pushing through with stubborn willpower what wouldn’t give way to simple hopeful optimism. I’ve been the slave driver on my very own trireme. Row! Row! Row! I’ve blogged and blogged, overcommitted and over-produced — only to watch my writing fall away into the internet ether. I exercised and ate well so I’d look good in my wedding photos — only to put on fifteen pounds and end up with the worst hair day of my life, as storms swept across the vast expanse of ocean in a display of wind and lightning that dwarfed all thoughts of budgets and matching napkins and family awkwardness, leaving nothing but awe and adoration in their wake. Again and again, I’ve told myself I would be better than the stereotype of the frazzled, modern woman: I’d be a better stepmom, a better leader, a better wife, a better eco-conscious tree-hugger, a better nearly-30-something. I had a plan, and I’d push through.

But I’ve stopped meditating. For the first time in my adult life, I haven’t sat in regular meditation for nearly a year. It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long. For as long as I’ve been old enough to hold a pencil, my poetry, my writing, has been a meditative act. In high school, I began meditation in earnest as a spiritual practice, and that simple work of sitting kept me sane and grounded through college and the soul-wandering that came after.

So that’s my confession: I haven’t meditated in nearly a year. The other day, I sat down to renew my work, and my brain, that chattering monkey mind, wouldn’t shut up for one second. Plan, plan, plan. Row, row, row. Enamored with its own frenetic activity. And there are, after all, so many things I want to do, so many things worth believing in and working for.

Still, that’s not the worst of it. The real confession is this: it’s not so bad. When I was meditating regularly, I was living deeply in the moment, able to slip into that space between the worlds with a breath, able to reach out and touch the raw, trembling heart of my being, so gentle, so terrible, so real. Now, I’m living life at 6.5 instead of 9.9 — and the truth is, 6.5 isn’t that bad.

It’s hard work, it’s randomly frustrating and sometimes alienating, and it’s a lot more full of snark and cynicism. But really, it’s no tragedy. It’s a bit dumb, and somewhat numbing, but you can still get things done, you can still push through and accomplish the goals you set for yourself, and make a small difference and check off your to-do list. And if it seems like maybe it’s a bit more work than it ought to be, or you’re not as connected and refreshed and fulfilled as you thought you’d be, or you can’t catch a break from the universe like you used to, well, it’s still not so bad that you can’t get used to it. That’s the thing: at 6.5, you get used to it.

It’s a humbling experience, being well-adjusted. Seeing life at 6.5 and finally having it sink in that the spiritual desert doesn’t feel like a tragedy at all, really. No wonder most people don’t meditate daily or pour libations to their deities or sit in quiet contemplation or make time for real conversation with the people they love. No wonder it’s hard to prod people into a deeper spiritual life. Life at 6.5 is, let’s be honest, good enough.

But then, I don’t just want a life that’s good enough. I want an extraordinary life, a deep-rooted and radical life. I want a life that shines.

So I sat down to meditate again. I made meditation just one more task on my to-do list, one more way that I would prove myself the better person, force myself into the mold of accomplishment and success that I had made for myself.

It didn’t work.

Of all the baggage I carry through my 6.5 life at the moment, the lightest of all are the lessons I learned from the depths of spirit. And one of those lessons is: you can’t make enlightenment into an accomplishment. If you do, you’ll never arrive, because you’ve missed the whole point.

So what’s a slacker contemplative to do? I don’t know if I know what the whole point is. But the lessons of spirit still whispering seem to speak of transformation, transfiguration. The re-enchantment and consecration of life at 6.5. There are whispers: stop rowing, stay here, learn the value of this space…

And then last night, I dreamed of trudging through a muffled, snowy suburban landscape — no plows, only fallen power-lines and blessed quiet. The whole earth seemed to stretch out before me, no traffic to dodge, no noise to escape, no plans or baggage or excuses. Just the quiet humming joy of sky, and the excitement of a kid set free from the classroom for a little while and tasting that freedom with wild delight and curiosity. At last, freedom.

Here am I, my gods. Still a child in this world, holding out my tongue to catch the here-now as it falls.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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