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A few years ago, a fellow said to us, “In ten years, I am going to do what you have done. I am going to go off alone into the woods, and live a spiritual life.” Recently, before the ten years was up, he died.
The spiritual texts of virtually every tradition are full of stories of men and women who go off alone – to the desert, to the woods, to the mountains – to live a spiritual life. But living a spiritual life is not about going off alone to the desert, to the woods, or to the mountains. That is, it does not have to be a literal ‘going off alone to the desert’. There is nothing special or particularly spiritual about any of those locales, and there are plenty of people in the desert, in the woods, and in the mountains, who are not living, and do not want to live, a spiritual life.
What is meant in the texts by ‘going off alone to the desert’ is a complete turning away from the old ways of thinking about ourselves and about life and about God. Clearly, all of that is an activity which takes place nowhere else but inside our own heads and hearts, and therefore, in the final analysis, it must be done without others. And, for obvious reasons, it helps to do it where there are as few distractions as possible. Thus, a desert or an isolated mountaintop makes a good choice. But it can be done, and it has been done, anywhere. All that is really necessary is our willingness. Remember, God is the Teacher, and God is infinite; so, wherever there is a student, there is the Teacher.
More than anything else, the spiritual path is a house-cleaning process. It is not about learning; it is about unlearning: releasing all the mental stuff we have collected and accumulated over a lifetime, even many lifetimes. It isn’t that we do not know the Truth. Rather, it is that we have draped so many thoughts, memories, and expectations, so much theory and conjecture and conviction, around it, behind it, and over it, that we no longer recognize it. We are so certain of the rightness of what we believe, that we are appalled by the suggestion that it is all silly and foolish, not to mention dead wrong. We have forgotten who we are so thoroughly we have forgotten we have forgotten. But it can all be undone. We can be restored. The Teachers all say it: The Truth will set us free, and, by God, they’re right!
At this very moment, everyone of us has a life. A spouse, children, debtors, creditors, friends, enemies. A job, a hobby, a habit. A home, a car, a computer. Hopes and dreams and fears. All of this and more is what each of us calls “my life”. And the only difference between all of that and a truly spiritual life is we ourselves. None of those people, activities, or things is unspiritual. In fact, there is nothing in your life, nothing in the whole world, that is not spiritual if you are. But to that, we all whine, “Sure, that’s easy to say, but where am I supposed to find the time. To read. To wonder. To meditate. To pray. Even to smell the flowers! I’m too busy making beds, washing dishes, taking the kids to school, negotiating with colleagues and competitors, jogging, playing tennis, trying to be a good person. That’s why I want to put it off, because then I’ll have more time.” And to all of that, God promises, “You make the decision, and I will provide the time.”
We do not need to be afraid of failure, for this is not something we do alone. But neither is it a group activity. It is between us and our God, and it can be done right here, right now. Call upon God, your Teacher. Fall upon your face, metaphorically if you must, literally if you can, and cry out. God is incapable of ignoring a heartfelt call from an aspiring seeker. If you mean it, you will be guided, and your life will be transformed, just as it is now, into a spiritual curriculum. Your life will be your path.
But do not delay. Immerse yourself into this process with enthusiasm, and you will be on your way.