Where we look for answers to this question can make all the difference between fantasies and dreams come true.
I’ve been teaching at Kripalu for more than 15 years now—and throughout most of that time, I’ve been Kripalu’s Senior Scholar-in-Residence. Each year, I teach hundreds of people in hatha yoga programs, in yoga philosophy programs, and in personal growth programs. Sometimes I feel like I’ve inadvertently landed on one of the great pilgrimage routes of modern times, seeing—as we do here at Kripalu—a river of more than 32,000 contemporary seekers a year: modern versions, sometimes, of the ribald seekers of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or the more innocent characters of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Each of these contemporary pilgrims brings along his or her own story, of course, and each story is compelling. But over the years I’ve come to see that these stories, unique as they are on the surface, often have one central longing at their core, one insistent question: How can I live fully?
Our seekers phrase this question in so many different ways: How can I live a passionate and authentic human life? How can I discover the full potential of this human mind, body, spirit?
Henry David Thoreau said it fiercely almost 150 years ago when he built his cabin next to Walden Pond. “I went to the woods to learn to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what they had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived!
When awakened, this hunger to live fully will drive us—as it did Thoreau—to go to any lengths; to throw ourselves against any complex set of life circumstances; to face any fear. As Jungian psychologist and author Carol Pearson teaches, this inchoate hunger gives rise to what she calls the Wanderer—a human being willing to do whatever is necessary to find her true self. A human being willing to leave behind the comforts of ordinary life. Willing to leave behind the many pleasures and distractions of our age. Willing to leave behind even safety and security. Ancient yogis called these Wanderers sramanas, or, literally, “strivers.” They devoted their lives to the search for freedom, enlightenment, and fulfillment.
The archetypal Wanderer sets out on a journey in search of the True Self. We all know the taste of this journey—because each of us has set off on one at some point in life. We know, too, that when I talk of “wandering,” I’m speaking metaphorically. We don’t have to leave home to wander. Though our quests sometimes need to be made external, seeking is primarily an internal act. Thoreau, himself one of the greatest pilgrims of the 19th century, never wandered far from home. “I have traveled extensively in Concord,” he said.
When the urge to rediscover ourselves emerges, many of us are drawn, at first, to dramatic forms of pilgrimage. We come to believe that in order to find ourselves, we need to leave our “old” lives—to find some entirely new country, new occupation, new spouse, new me. That perhaps we need to retreat from the world altogether—and thereby leave its complex vicissitudes behind us. American poet Mary Oliver speaks of this urge in her poem “A Dream of Trees”:
There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,
A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company.
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
A few wild stanzas! Most of us identify with the longing expressed here, and have our own vivid fantasies of the sanctuary we need in order to give birth to our own wild stanzas. But, alas, just as we’re settling into our delightful fantasies, the poem turns:
And then it came to me, that so was death, A little way away from everywhere.
Trouble in paradise. Oliver acknowledges that this dream of a protected, idyllic life—powerful and universal as it is—is somehow not quite right. She alerts us to the fact that this dream might have an illusion at its heart. And she doesn’t mince words. The sanctuary of our fantasies might be a premature tomb.
Early on in spiritual practice, most of us try on this idyll of retreat in various ways. Retreat, of course, is an enduring part of contemplative life—but have we examined what really happens in a skillful retreat? My experience is that if we’re on an authentic spiritual path, it won’t be too long before we discover—as Oliver does—that real spiritual practice is always an advance, not a retreat. Spiritual practice gives us tools to move more deeply into life—into the realities of our body, our heart, our relationships, our work. Meditation, yoga, self-study: these ancient practices, sometimes derided as mere navel-gazing, actually help us learn to be present in the midst of every difficulty of contemporary life. The contemplative traditions point us right back to real life—and they equip us mightily to awaken to it.
In the final stanzas of her poem, Oliver lands squarely on this not-so-obvious truth, especially as it pertains to her life as an artist:
There is a thing in me still dreams of trees,
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.
I would it were not so, but so it is. Who ever made music of a mild day?
Some of you might raise a challenge to the comments I’ve just made. After all, haven’t I spent the last 17 years devoting my life to teaching people on retreat—and to developing Kripalu as an effective retreat center? I have. And during that time, I’ve very often wished to retreat myself—even wished to retreat from the retreat. But I’ve come to see, in these years, the extent to which a skillful retreat is indeed an advance.
It’s quite true that seeking always involves leaving something behind. But what is really left behind? Maybe not what we think. Maybe not our lives as they are. Maybe our lives are already OK. Maybe they are already full of everything we need to live fully and authentically. Maybe we’re leaving something else behind. But what? In my experience, seeking always involves leaving behind the fixed ideas we have about our lives, about what it means to be a human being, and about what will bring us real happiness and fulfillment. Retreats don’t change our lives as much as they change where we stand in relationship to our lives—and our capacity to see the hidden possibilities there.
It is our fantasies about what life should be that we need to leave behind. It is these ideas to which we are in bondage. And what are these fantasies? Not unlike the narrator of Oliver’s poem, contemporary Western fantasies about fulfillment often center around dreams of an idyllic insulation from the trials of life. They center around the acquisition of wealth, power, fame, and leisure—all things that appear to protect us from life’s ordinary mess. We fantasize that someday we’ll be able to stuff our saddlebags with our 401(k)s and equities accounts, and with all the other things we need to live the good life, and disappear into the sunset to live happily ever after—far (at last!) from the “laments” of the crowd. In this fantasy, there is quiet, leisure, control, safety, predictability, no mess. A gated community. A dream of trees!
But is this really our road map to fulfillment?
Alas, it turns out that a steady diet of leisure, ease, and unlimited options does not lead to fulfillment at all. In fact, contrary to conventional thinking, studies show that we actually feel happiest and most fulfilled when meeting a challenge—when bringing skillful, concentrated effort to some compelling activity for which we have true passion: our work, an important relationship, our religious practice, a sport, an art form, a beloved hobby. At the end of life, most of us will find that we have felt most filled up by the challenges and the successful struggles for the development of mastery, creativity, and self-expression—in spite of terrific obstacles. It turns out that human beings are willing to risk discomfort, mess, conflict, and danger (even sometimes annihilation) in pursuit of the expression of our gifts, talents, callings—our precise and idiosyncratic genius.
Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, the distinguished author of many books on optimal human experience, has studied this phenomenon closely. In order to do so, he invented a new research technique called the Experience Sampling Method—wherein respondents wore electronic pagers for a week. Every time the pager beeped, respondents filled out a questionnaire about their current experience. It turned out, much to everyone’s surprise, that almost everyone felt “happier, more cheerful, stronger, more active, more creative, more concentrated and more motivated” when deeply involved in a challenging activity that required skill, patience, and concentration. During leisure time, people felt considerably more “sad, weak, dull and dissatisfied.” People felt best when they were right in the thick of their lives—even in adversity.
We human beings thrive on experiences that develop our skillfulness in living—challenges and struggles that bring us back to the pulsing, throbbing heart of human experience. In fact, think of the last spiritual experience you had. Most likely, it will have emerged from a moment of challenge when you were stretched and had to bring all of your skillfulness to bear on a complex situation—a moment in which your confidence in living was enhanced. You discovered within you a new capacity—perhaps for love, for courage, for creativity, for tenacity, for acceptance, for insight.
We human beings cannot escape the persistent call of the potential inside us. Each of us has a special brew of gifts possessed by absolutely no one else on the planet—and most of us feel some persistent and ineffable responsibility to these gifts. We feel them calling for expression. The brilliant work of Cziksentmihalyi and others reveal a surprising truth: if we don’t find a way to put these gifts at the center of our lives, we will never feel fulfilled. These gifts represent a kind of vocation—a call. In the yoga tradition, this duty is sometimes called dharma. Dharma is a complex word in Sanskrit—a word that in various contexts can mean path, truth, law, or teaching. But it also means vocation. Indeed, in the yogic view, all of life can be seen as a great pilgrimage toward a full embrace of our particular genius.
So how can we live a passionate and authentic human life?
Yogis found that the most reliable way to live fully is to discover our own dharma—and to do it full out. To bring everything we’ve got to the task. To live fully committed to the gifts that have been freely given us, to cultivate them into a state of profound mastery—and to dedicate our mastery to something bigger than ourselves. Our gifts may be gifts for relationship, art, music, science, math, gardening, cleaning, cooking—whatever! In the authentic development of these gifts, we will both find ourselves and transcend ourselves at the same time.
When Thoreau headed to Walden Pond, he had recently left a failed attempt to join the fashionable literary scene in New York City. He had no gift for that world whatsoever. Thoreau retreated to his quiet cabin by the pond. But his retreat was an advance beyond his wildest dreams. There he discovered his true voice—his true calling—and it was a calling that brought him right back into the world. Even on Walden Pond, he “bent his heart toward lamentation.” Through his great essay “On Civil Disobedience,” he profoundly affected our contemporary world—and became an important teacher for Mahatma Gandhi and for Martin Luther King, Jr.
As it turned out, Thoreau’s ordinary life in Concord was already full of everything required to live fully and passionately. He simply needed to let go of his fantasies about what a literary life should look like, and turn his attention to the fullness of what was already there. Our lives are already full of everything we need. We don’t need to distract ourselves or run away. We need to move more deeply into them. We need to surrender to the exact situations of our lives and let them stretch us into who we really are; to plunge into our lives headfirst, and embrace even the vicissitudes, the challenges of adversity. Who, indeed, ever made music of a mild day?