Why The Spiritual Path Is More Than A Consolation Prize
“The spiritual path is a consolation prize for people whose lives have gone to hell.”
I wrote that in my journal when I was in my mid-30s and nothing was going according to plan. I had left my six-year marriage. A few years earlier, my parents had divorced after 37 years. I had no kids or boyfriend, no savings, few possessions, and no concept of who I was amid all this destruction.
Thankfully, I had yoga. I found that dragging myself to the studio was the only thing that consistently made me feel better. Often, I’d break down sobbing in the middle of a hip-opener. But I’d always leave feeling more grounded and hopeful than when I had entered the room.
As a result of my ghostwriting and freelance editing career, I blessedly had been exposed to Buddhism, working on both Infinite Life by Robert Thurman, PhD and The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, MD. I was able to call to mind lessons from these books: Life is filled with suffering. We can only control our response to it. I read spiritual books, old and new, and came to see gratitude as the most fundamental emotion.
Following advice from wise friends, I embarked on my first and, one year later, second Vipassana 10-day silent meditation retreats. These were immensely challenging experiences. Rather than running from my agony, I had to sit ... and sit ... and sit ... with it. The long fingers of anxiety gripped me and shook me to my core. In many ways, it sucked. But overall, the experience offered me access to a new place deep within myself: a place of peace.
While doing this work, I went on that rant about the path to enlightenment being for suckers. People who lose out in life. Those who get their way—like many of my friends who had found partners in college, gone on to lucrative jobs in the tech industry, and were having kids already—well, they don’t need to be seekers. They’re just ... happy.
But then, life started to improve. The spiritual work began to pay off. First and foremost, I forgave myself, as well as my ex-husband and my parents. I realized that I’d become a far more compassionate person. When life had gone according to plan, I’ll admit—I probably had more than a little judgment for people who were struggling to work things out. Now I was one of those people. Buh-bye judgment.
Slowly, I learned to love myself again. I discovered that I was not, after all, the sum total of my outward appearances: college grad, successful writer, “perfect” family. I was the opposite: The person who I was on the inside. I got in touch with my true purpose, which is to share love and joy as best as I am able. Eventually, I even met and married the love of my life.
Then, in the past two years, I encountered another difficulty: Infertility. I have longed my entire life to have my own children. Now, I’m being forced to accept that that may not happen for me.
But you know what? It’s amazing. Because in the midst of these latest challenges, I am able to fully appreciate how that decade of spiritual work paid off. Ten years ago, I would’ve been miserable. Frantic. Obsessive. An emotional wreck. Instead, I have surrendered.
I think of my lessons from yoga: Allow life to unfold with deep breathing and heart opening. Be in the moment. I recall the mantra of S.N. Goenka during the Vipassana retreats: Accept things as they are.
I re-read spiritual books, which teach that while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. I embrace what is so. I give thanks for my copious blessings every single day. And I trust that whatever little being was meant to come into our lives will find his or her way to us.
The spiritual path isn’t for suckers or losers—though most of us find our way onto it during the most difficult moments of our lives. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
The spiritual path is here for a reason. It is the way of many wise people, stumbling saints, recovered criminals and addicts, imperfect helpers, and gifted healers who have journeyed through life before us. How blessed we are to have their guidance. They have shown us the way to what matters in life—peace, joy, gratitude, and love.