This afternoon, I go to the first meeting of my clerical skills course. Yes, I feel apprehensive about showing up for training in a course that’s probably designed mostly for young women fresh out of high school. Why, my enrollment confirmation letter even listed me as female despite the fact that I’m virtually certain I checked the “male” box on my application. Not only that, but I’m concerned that I won’t be able to learn many of the skills taught in the course and that I’ll thereby fail, and I wonder what I would do then.
However, I’m trying to follow the advice of Eknath Easwaran that I read this morning. He says that we must learn to anchor ourselves in the present moment instead of distracting ourselves, as most people do, with memories of the past and anticipations of the future and with their attendant emotions that prevent us from being fully alive, loving, and potent in the here and now. Yet, Tony Robbins and others say that in order to be happy, we need to discover who we really want to be and what we really want to do in life and conceptualize or visualize these longings to ourselves in terms of clear goals and concrete, skillful approaches to achieving them. Yet, how can one live fully in the present while, at the same time, striving to achieve goals for the future? There’s probably a way to do this, but I’m not sure what it is.
Speaking of Easwaran, his thought for today begins with an anecdote about Saint Francis. One day, three young men approached him asking for his blessings for them to become religious hermits, each living and practicing spiritual disciplines in his own cave. Saint Francis advised them to be hermits, but to live together as a family of hermits in a cave, with one acting as the father, another as the mother, and the other as the child, and then changing roles each month. Easwaran explains that the most effective, albeit challenging, spiritual practice is not something you do alone in retreat from the everyday world. On the contrary, it’s maintaining mindfulness in the world of family, work, friends, and all of the problems that arise day to day.
I think he may well be right. What is the point in practicing alone or in a monastery all one’s life? What is such a person able to give to the world that so desperately needs the mindful lovingkindness, equanimity, empathy, compassion, joy, and wisdom that one has taken such pains to cultivate? Yet, if one cultivates these qualities in retreat from the world and then ventures back into the world to try to give to it what he's learned, isn’t he likely to be so overwhelmed by the buzzing confusion and everyday demands and challenges of living in this alien world that he can’t give it anything valuable? On the other hand, how can most of us, who aren’t extraordinarily blessed with spiritual talent to begin with, make significant spiritual progress while working hard to live day to day in this world?