The sky is showing pink over the canyon as I spread my yoga mat this morning. The house where I’m staying this week sits on the high edge of a ridge. We’re in the middle of Los Angeles, but it could be deep country, and in the early morning, the air smells like lavender, and the traffic sounds rising up through the canyon are like distant ocean waves. The terrace I’m sitting on looks Mediterranean—warm red bricks, potted plants. But over to my left is a stone Ganesh, the elephant-faced deity who is invoked in India as the remover of obstacles. He looks like a whimsical garden statue, but in truth, he’s testament to the fact that Maggie, my hostess, is a long-time spiritual practitioner with a small, well-chosen collection of sacred art.
She and her husband are generous with their hospitality: sometimes when I’ve stayed here there have been five or six other people staying at the same time—swamis, Brahmin priests from India, friends, family members. Downstairs, the phone will be ringing; friends will be gathered around the kitchen table, another meeting going on in the den, food being prepared. Upstairs, in Maggie’s meditation room, a Sanskrit chant will be playing low over the speaker system, and behind it, there is always a palpable feeling of silence. She’s good at maintaining that delicate balance between family, work, service, society, practice, and the rest of the “ten thousand things.”
I’m fascinated by the different ways that spiritual practitioners balance their inner and outer lives. This is not an easy thing to do, especially for someone who has a lot going on and doesn’t want his or her practice to turn into just one more thing that they feel duty-bound to do. People are constantly saying to me, “I want to meditate, but I just can’t find the time!” and when I look at their lives, I see why. It takes major commitment to fit in a serious meditation practice while you’re earning a living, taking care of a family, offering some kind of community service, maybe even getting enough exercise to keep up your health.
It’s certainly an issue for me, though in my case the balance tends to skew toward practice. I tend to be a tunnel-vision sort of person, with a tendency to get completely caught up in whatever I’m doing. A few years ago, I created a pie chart, which had little sections in it with headings like “work” “meditation practice” “friendship” “exercise” “recreation” “family” “community service.” Then I calculated how much space each section took up. Taken together, “work” and “practice” made up more than three-quarters of the pie chart. Since then, I’ve made a deliberate attempt to give conscious time to other pieces of the pie, but unless I make checklists and schedules and then force myself to stick to them, I’ll often look up and notice that I’ve spent an entire day doing nothing but practicing and working at the computer.
So, I look carefully at people who do well with balance, trying to discern their secret.
Today, I’m spending the afternoon with Richard, a friend who just came back from nine days of a retreat in Joshua Tree, the desert just south of here. In his 20s, as a graduate student at MIT, Richard had a dramatic spiritual awakening. One effect of it was that he would intuitively, and accurately, “know” the answers to every physics problem his professors came up with. The state lasted a few months, then faded. Life went on. Then, a couple of years ago, during a meditation retreat, the energy that had been active came alive again. He now spends a lot of time doing meditation practice and also has a highly active dream life, full of symbolic journeys, visions, and mystical insights.
He tells me about one of his dream sequences as we drive out Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Coast Highway. The sea is glassy, calm, glittering in the sun, and when we stop to walk on the beach, some young men on boogie boards are tumbling in the waves. Richard talks about an exercise they did on his retreat, in which they “practiced” dying. They did rituals where they gave away everything they had and said goodbye to the people they loved. As he imagined saying goodbye to his wife and daughter, he wept for a long time, especially when he thought about not being able to see his daughter grow up. I ask him if he really thought he had experienced dying. He thinks about it for a minute, and says, “It was interesting to see what doesn’t die.”
Then we sit quietly for a while, watching the ocean merge into the sky.