After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
From “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path" by Jack Kornfield.
For almost everyone who practices, cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.
The only surprising thing is how unexpected this truth can be. It is as if deep down we all hope that some experience, some great realization, enough years of dedicated practice, might finally lift us beyond the touch of life, beyond the mundane struggles of the world. We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom, not the sure heart’s release.
|Says one Western lama, “What became clear is that spiritual practice is only what you’re doing now. Anything else is a fantasy."|
Every wise voyager learns that we cannot hold on to the last port of call, no matter how beautiful. To do so would be like holding our breath, creating a prison from our past. As one Zen master puts it:
“Enlightenment is only the beginning, is only a step of the journey. You can’t cling to that as a new identity or you’re in immediate trouble. You have to get back down into the messy business of life, to engage with life for years afterward. Only then can you integrate what you have learned. Only then can you learn perfect trust."
Like the monk in the ox-herding pictures [a traditional Zen parable], most of us have to reenter the marketplace to fulfill our realization. As we come down from the mountain, we may be shocked to find how easily our old habits wait for us, like comfortable and familiar clothes. Even if our transformation is great and we feel peaceful and unshakable, some part of our return will inevitably test us. We may become confused about what to do with our life, and how to live in our family or society. We may worry how our spiritual life can fit into our ordinary way of being, our ordinary work. We may want to run away, to go back to the simplicity of the retreat or the temple. But something important has pulled us back to the world, and the difficult transition is part of it.
One lama remembers:
“When I came back it was as if my 12 years of experiences in India and Tibet were a dream. The memory and value of those transcendental experiences was in some way a dream challenged by the culture shock of returning to my family and to work in the West. Old patterns came back surprisingly quickly. I got irritable, confused. I wasn’t taking care of my body, I worried about money, about relationship. At the worst point I feared that I was losing what I had learned. Then I realized I couldn’t live in some enlightened memory. What became clear is that spiritual practice is only what you’re doing now. Anything else is a fantasy."
The integration of spiritual experience is a process of many years. After a three-month silent insight meditation, retreat participants are cautioned to expect 12 months of transition states, of joys and disappointments and newfound wisdom, as they learn to take into their lives all they have seen. The rule of thumb for those who have been in a monastery or traveled to Asia is that 5, 10, 15 years away usually mean 5 or 10 years of transition just to reestablish one’s life in a whole and grounded way.
One insight meditation teacher tells of five-year cycles. Her first five years of intensive practice opened her to a vast inner world of profound, liberating understandings.
“It’s as if my heart absolutely needed that stability and nourishment before I could begin to touch the grief of my past. But then when it finally came up, the next five years was the opposite. The well of pain and agony was equal to the ecstasy of the years before. I guess I had to have both."
In a similar spirit, a Christian contemplative abbess found an enormous grace on first entering her monastery, but then a cycle of difficult practice arrived.
“The life of our community was simple and sane, and I threw myself into it with all my love and energy. I did this with all the skill of a very strongly formed and defended personality. Deep prayer and meditation experiences sustained me for a long time. After some years I felt I could trust the community, so I rested for a breather. Around this time, one of the older sisters died. I had been close to her, and it triggered a succession of memories: the death of my twin brother at our birth, the near-death of my mother, the distance, hatred, and loss of my father. I realized how split off my life had been because of my sorrow. I saw that even in the monastic community I had lived on the surface, had been running from the grief and emptiness. I finally stopped. That realization started years of healing work to find the place where the grief, the monastery, the pain of my own life, and the pain of the world could be held in the same sacred heart."
Ordinary cycles of opening and closing are necessary medicine for our heart’s integration. In some cases, though, there are not just cycles, there is a crash. As far as we ascend, so far can we fall. This too needs to be included in our maps of spiritual life, honored as one more part of the great cycle.
A Zen koan…is asked of students who have experienced a first awakening: “A clearly enlightened person falls in the well. How is this so?" One Zen master reminds his students, “After any powerful spiritual experience, there is an inevitable descent, a struggle to embody what we have seen." The well we fall into can be created by clinging to our experience and spiritual ideals or by holding inflated ideas about our teachers, our path, or our self. The well can be the unfinished business of our psychological and emotional life–an unwillingness to acknowledge our own shadow, to include the human needs, the pain, and the darkness that we carry, to see that we always have one foot in the dark. As bright as it is, the universe also needs us to open to its other side.
From “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path" by Jack Kornfield. Copyright c 2000 by Jack Kornfield. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc .