Life is about Training
Life is about training--or at least it can be. Every day presents a tremendously important opportunity to train ourselves spiritually, mentally, and physically in order to purify ourselves and become the clearest and most loving people we can be. Each moment invites us into an intimate relationship with Life, and it is up to every one of us to the best of our ability to purge ourselves of the spiritual toxins ("greed, hate, and delusion," according to the Buddha) that poison that relationship so that we may be fit to live joyfully and in peace. It seems to me that this is what we are all here to do.
Once during the time that I lived at the monastery I visited some friends in their home as a part of my annual family visit. While I was there I was shocked to discover that they had no spiritual ambition: they were interested in improving their material circumstances but cared little, it appeared, for anything beyond that. Their daily efforts were directed towards creating comfort and immunity from distress rather than challenge and the sort of intensity that expands awareness and deepens compassion. I have the same predilection for ease within myself, of course, and so I could sympathize with their life-orientation, but was appalled at their acceptance of it. "Oh my god," I thought, "They aren't going anywhere." Where there is no application made there is no result, and this applies just as much in the spiritual arena as anywhere else.
I have set up my life from the beginning of adulthood to train. At the beginning I only had a dim awareness of what this means, and the ends I worked towards seem without value to me now, but the intention has always been there, even if I have often failed to ratify it. As a young man I chose to live outside (in a truck first, then a van) so that I might have time to study philosophy. When I was not required to work for money I would read often eight hours a day; the remainder of the time I spent walking alone and prospecting for insight within my mind. Later, after books had failed to deliver me the clarity and peace I was looking for, and after I had discovered spiritual practice, I entered the monastery: a place devoted exclusively to the training I needed but did not yet understand. At the monastery I learned what it is to devote a life to Life, and as I left the monastery many years later the desire remained to do that. In many ways it was stronger than ever. Now, after two and a half years back "in the world", during which time I have experimented to see if there are other things than spiritual training that call to me, I find myself once again setting up a life that is oriented around my desire--my need, even--to be in an intimate relationship with the intelligence that animates all that I perceive.
What this looks like on a practical level is simplicity. Anything on the content level that does not support awareness needs to be eliminated. This is terribly difficult territory to navigate, however, because spiritual practice is not about deprivation. We need to be challenged in order to grow, not to avoid challenges, and it is the stuff of our lives that provides the necessary trials. It's also critical to a healthy life to let go of work sometimes and just relax. Fun is good. Perhaps another way to say it is that everything in life needs to be intentional. Does this thing in front of me (a relationship, a work, an amusement) tend to carry me towards my authentic nature and intimacy with Life, or away? I avoid purely social relationships and unproductive work; I do nothing if at all possible just to "pass the time". I would rather meditate instead--and exercise my body, and read the words of those who understand how to live skillfully or have some useful thing to teach me, and go on long mindful walks, and talk about things that matter with those who also want to live intentionally, and do what good for others that I can do. Life, it seems to me, is too short and too precious to do otherwise.
Life involves outward work, and it is essential that we all work to provide what we need as individuals and as a community in order to thrive, but this is not what life is fundamentally about, at least in my book. Work that does not keep the largest perspective in view, one that contains the understanding that there is no separate self--that selfishness lies at the root of all our human problems--lacks value in my estimation. In particular, work that has as it's dominant motivation to make money is worse than useless, even if the product has value in some people's eyes. Like most others I am required to work for my livelihood, but I do this as consciously as I can. In three weeks or so I start my summer job. I have the good fortune, I am grateful to say, to work for someone who values integrity over the bottom line. This is the reason why I continue to work for him. He wants to produce excellent work (alone and through his company) not just because this is what pleases people but also because that's the kind of person he wants to be. He wants to provide an honest, generous living for his family and all those who work for him. I like supporting that. At some point I expect to work exclusively towards the good that I feel I am here in this life to contribute, but in the meantime I feel satisfied with the value of my outer work with him. And I believe the assertion is true that spiritual types have made for centuries, that a work done prayerfully and with full attention has value apart from the end it produces. This is the way I wish to labor. The point for me is that everything I do fit within the larger vision I have for myself and my life, which is to be as free as I can, to be my true self as best I can, to be as loving and as generous as I can, in this lifetime.