A Monk In The World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life… by Wayne Teasdale

img_1828Wayne Teasdale’s writing is gentle and steady. It felt as though he was right there with me, speaking soft and clear when I was reading his book. Perhaps he was there. Upon finishing, I wrote in my journal that I wished I could ask him a few questions — impossible now since he died in 2004. Instead of letting that thought go, however, I decided to write out a few questions anyway to see if I could answer them with insights gained from reading, and with spiritual guidance from the gentle monk.

One question I would love to ask this highly educated man, who spent years with Bede Griffiths in Shantivanam, an Ashram in India, and who devoted his life to praying, meditating, learning, writing and teaching, if he truly thought awakening to the Divine is open to everyone?  In his book he offers his thoughts on discipline and gives wonderful suggestions about how to approach a life that can truly open to the Divine.  It would require a strict routine of praying, meditating, and reaching out to others. Is this possible for everyone?

Typically, we say there are many demands on us and we simply do not have enough time to pray, meditate and contemplate, and then figure out a way to translate all of it into action. We simply to do not have enough time to live the way we would mean to live if we were given an opportunity to do so.

I believe it is true that we have many demands to be part of our family, community, culture, and nation. We also struggle to survive and provide basic care to those for whom we are directly responsible. We do not live in a nation where the majority of people believe strongly that we all deserve healthcare, an education, food, and a home. We actually live in a place where we believe hardly anything is a necessity. Of course, all of these things are necessities, and we could probably all agree to that, but we just would not agree that necessities should be free. They may be a right, but they are certainly not free. And, even if  a necessity is subsidized to almost free, or a shared burden, there are subtle and not so subtle grades of the so-called basic right or necessity. For instance, water is a necessity, but its quality varies depending on where you live, what kind of pipes you have and whether or not you can afford to buy good filters or premium bottled water. It appears our society believes necessities can be given in the form of crumbs, rags, and expired surplus to those who cannot afford high priced goods. If you cannot buy it then you get what you get seems to be the American way of thinking. The result of necessities being dispensed according to income is that many of us spend a lot of time working to purchase quality necessities. And why wouldn’t we? Who would want to drink contaminated water polluted by some waste dumped by all those who can afford luxury necessities?

Another bind, I think, for Americans, is the scarcity fear. We are afraid of running out of things and that we will not live comfortably enough, so we work extra-hard to buy so many things we do not need. We also spend a lot of our time trying to sanitize our surroundings so that we search neighborhoods that are neat and organized, and in many instances, we do this to ourselves as well. If we feel averse to something, we walk away from it. We certainly learn about facing our fears. We talk a great deal about life being messy; the problem, however, is that we were never taught how to identify our fears. And, even if we have identified them, some, such as death and sickness, are still taboo.

And, for those of us who have children, well, it adds an extra dimension of worry and consuming to our lives. We want to expose our children to everything wonderful in life, but the main source of agony — for me at least — is that I’m not sure if life can be engineered in such a way. Art lessons. Music lessons. Soccer. Baseball. Will this endless purchasing make my daughter’s life a quality life? I don’t know and I hardly have time to pray about it.

As I write this out the question still puzzles me. Is the Divine open to everyone? Is it open to me even when I must put prayer aside and take my daughter to school because the bus did not come again? Can I really meditate en route to make a purchase?  I know it is up to me to limit the distractions in my life. But, having said that, I also know that my family needs an education, food, clothing, shelter, and INSURANCE: eyes, teeth, primary care… all of it!

Yes, we can reduce. But, I believe we live in a society that is unwilling to accept the Divine, and as a result it is difficult to structure a life so that it is open to the Divine. Monasteries structure life so that life itself can be open to the Divine. For the average individual, though, it takes an enormous amount of effort. The monk can get away with detaching from the world. We all expect that. An individual, who begins to detach from secular goods because she is seeking the Divine, might be labeled depressed when she declares she gave away her goods and no longer wants to talk. Perhaps, this is where monks, and other spiritual organizations could give more help. Stop wasting time during Sunday sermon dancing around possessions. Guide us by living the life, and allowing us to live it alongside of you. I believe this is what Wayne Teasdale was attempting to do. He was a monk in the world in order to demonstrate that it is possible to be in the world and open to the Divine.

Another question would be regarding compassionate service, which seems to involve everything from spontaneous responses to someone in need to more routinized forms of volunteering. Here is where I usually get completely lost. I get bogged down when I think of volunteering. I begin to think about the people I’m keeping out of work because I’m volunteering. I also begin to feel as if my volunteering or service is sort of a hobby and I’m reserving one day a week to do good. I do not believe this is what Wayne Teasdale means when he gives all these great suggestions about service and reaching out to others, but the organizing of it all can feel uncomfortable.

I also think about my family. I spend a lot of time making sure we live in a clean house, my children see the appropriate doctors, get fed, do homework, learn life skills, and in general have fun. One of my children is special needs. She requires double the effort. I think about how I would love to spend my day helping others and come home to an empty house so that I can have a space that is quiet, neat, organized and free from demands. Wayne Teasdale brings up Mother Teresa in his book.  I think about Mother Teresa too. I wonder if she could have raised a child who wasn’t very responsive to her; but nevertheless she had to be there everyday trying to figure out how she was going to meet the needs of someone who seems to have endless needs. Mother Teresa lived among the poorest of the poor. She did face endless needs. She did face unresponsiveness. Did they live in her house, though? A million different faces or the same face everyday? Does it matter? Now that I’m writing this question out I’m beginning to see the endless demand, whether it is in one face or a million, does not have a result understood as successful according to societal norms, or business norms.

In the end, when you set out on a spiritual path you are going against the grain. Even though there are countless spiritual guides now, and lots of books on meditation, and feeling good; nevertheless, moving beyond pop-culture requires work. I have exhausted the library system in my area. When I tried to get my hands on some of the writings suggested in Wayne Teasdale’s book I was disappointed that I could only find a few books by Thomas Merton.  Next stop will be the local used book shop. If I cannot get anything there I will have to go online. Here’s where spirituality begins to look like a luxury: expensive books, expensive retreats, and expensive teachers. On the other hand, that could be a spiritual lesson.

I do think the Divine is open to all. There are many paths to it. There really isn’t a how to method. Wayne Teasdale offers his life experience as what worked for him, and if you are drawn to him, and find yourself reading his book, then probably you are on your path and will get some much needed guidance.





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