The Three Trainings: Morality

This would be a good time for me to discuss what goes into Buddhist practice. There are three specific trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom (often called insight). All three are necessary for a balanced practice.

The first, morality (sila), is what keeps a yogi on the straight and narrow. It is encompassed by the eight precepts, which for most householders (anyone who is not a monk or nun) are limited to the first five. They are as follows:

  1. Non-harming. This one is often interpreted as a prohibition against eating meat, although not all Buddhists are vegetarians. I have noticed, however, that retreat centers all serve vegetarian meals, and many are focusing on vegan food. In general, though, the non-harming precept can be understood as not engaging in violence toward other living things. I have been less likely to kill insects or rodents since becoming a Buddhist, for example, and I am in a Facebook group called People Against the Unnecessary Killing of Reptiles. When my neighbor told me she had beaten a nest of garter snakes to death with a shovel I was horrified. I also believe that limiting or eliminating meat from one’s diet is a good thing to do if at all possible.
  2. The second precept forbids a yogi to take what is not offered. Roughly, this encompasses stealing, but can also be understood as avoiding such conduct as cheating on income taxes, dating someone in a committed relationship, failing to return something one has borrowed (I’m guilty of that one), or otherwise helping oneself to things that belong either to someone else or to the community. Some of my colleagues would grap handfuls of items from the office’s supply cabinet far beyond what they needed for their work. Other people get greedy around food, especially in an office setting (guilty!).
  3. The third precept rules against engaging in sexual misconduct. For monks this means celibacy, whereas for householders there are a number of possible interpretations. Traditionally, it has meant avoiding sex outside of marriage. Today, people could regard sexual misconduct as any kind of sex that is nonconsensual, a failure to respect other people’s boundaries, or a lack of honesty in sexual relationships. Taking responsibility for one’s health and safety and that of others is part of this precept as well. Finally, avoiding sexual contact in relationships where there is a power differential is vitally important: mentors, employers, managers, and teachers must not take advantage of their power over others. Unfortunately, many scandals in the Buddhist world have had to do with violating this precept.
  4. Next is the precept of right speech. First and foremost this precept forbids lying, although I expect that extreme circumstances such as lying to Nazis about hiding Jews would be an exception. However, in ordinary life, lying to take advantage in a situation or even to save oneself embarrassment is forbidden. Even lying to avoid hurting someone (for example, denying one has had an affair) is contrary to right speech, although it is up to individuals to figure out the particulars. What about white lies, such as admiring a friend’s new haircut when you hate it? Probably it’s best to refrain tactfully from being too enthusiastic, although with practice you can figure out how to give warm feedback without lying: “It’s so much fun to try out new things!” This precept also demands we avoid gossip, harsh speech, hurtful speech, or even unnecessary speech. A person could talk a bit about the weather with someone, but it’s best not to waste hours in idle talk.
  5. The fifth precept admonishes against consuming intoxicating drugs or alcohol that lead to carelessness. Among other things, it’s difficult to practice when one is high or drunk. I have found that even a single glass of wine takes the edge off my ability to focus. Can a good Buddhist have a beer with friends? Traditionally the answer would be no, but many modern Buddhists see no harm in a drink now and then, or the occasional use of marijuana. It all depends on how it affects an individual. Many people arrive in pragmatic dharma circles having had experience with psychedelic substances, and some continue to experiment with them, often in the context of scientific studies. For these individuals, taking such drugs responsibly includes careful attention to context and setting.
  6. With the sixth precept, we arrive at the group of three that apply especially to people in monastic settings. The sixth involves training oneself to avoid eating after 12:00 noon. Some people on retreat voluntarily undertake this precept, while others can honor it by not eating in between meals and having only a light supper for the evening meal. I have always wondered how anyone could manage to stop eating at noon, but a monk I spoke to about it told me that people get adjusted to it. Occasionally at my local meditation center we will take visiting monks out to lunch after a Sunday dharma talk, and I have noticed them loading up their plates at the buffet several times. I guess that’s how people adjust to it, considering that we all need a certain amount of fuel to get through the day!
  7. The seventh precept enjoins monks and nuns from dancing, singing, or indulging in entertainment; wearing perfume, jewelry, or cosmetics; or adorning the body with garlands. Lay practitioners might choose to dress modestly and simply, and minimize distractions such as TV shows, movies, novels, parties, and the like. It all sounds extremely dreary, but on the other hand there is something to be said for keeping one’s mind from getting inundated with mental noise day in and day out. I know that fussing about my hair or my wardrobe takes energy and creates agitation. I also know that it is extremely easy to get completely caught up in the lives of imaginary people and the actors who portray them, and that such entertainments can take up significant real estate in my head.
  8. Finally, the eighth precept forbids lying on luxurious or high sleeping places, or sitting on high or ornate chairs. The Buddha was especially concerned with two things: first, that monks and nuns not place themselves above others in status; and second, that they not indulge in luxury. While this precept applies to people in monastic life, a householder today might think in terms of living simply as a way of minimizing the stress of maintaining many possessions. Similarly, laypeople can find that opting out of the competition for status is a component of a more satisfying life.

So those are the precepts. Morality goes hand-in-hand with the two other trainings, concentration and insight (wisdom), which I’ll write about later.

Pragmatic Dharma

I realize now that this blog is in danger of turning into a cliché about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, how it changed my life, and how you, too should try this wonderful technique. I apologize to those for whom this is true, but that’s not what this blog is about. For example, in many respects I am still the same silly, dysfunctional human I’ve always been, with the emphasis on human. I am not any more productive now than I was before; in fact, I’m now much less productive, although that has nothing to do with meditation. I am still distractable, I still get anxious, I still get depressed. I haven’t tried playing the violin in several years, but at the time that I stopped I was still unable to perform in public. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed, enough so that I look on my life as a story about before and after. The “before” person is becoming less and less visible to me as time passes, although I can talk about her story when I put my mind to it (granted that there is no one definable person on either side of the turning point). The “after” person has been meditating, engaging in online discussion forums, reading dharma books, attending retreats, and generally being Buddhist-y in an unobtrusive way. She’s also been binge-watching TV series (loved “The Americans” with all the sex and violence), killing time on Facebook and Twitter, obsessing over the news, and fussing about all her self-sabotaging ways.

There is also the difficulty that the Laurel I have described to you so far is a bit of a tormented soul, not to mention quite the drama queen (remember, I have diagnosed myself as an aversive type). I told my history to the lead teacher on one of my retreats years ago and he said, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a sad life.” I was taken aback, because I really didn’t recognize myself in that description. Later on while meditating I entered a deep concentration state, and had the equivalent of a lucid dream of myself as a 4-year-old child, dancing to a pensive piano tune. I felt the embrace of love surrounding me, knowing that my parents adored me and that I was safe. No, I cannot say I’ve had a sad life, even if I did grow up to become aversive and an occasional drama queen. Nor is this description of myself meant to be self-denigrating or a disarming tactic. We are all of us dealing with our stuff in our own way, and my way tends to be what you see here.

I must return, however, to myself at my turning point, wringing my hands and crying over my failure to overcome my stage fright. I had been reading Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (MCTB for short), and at that moment of despair I resolved to take on a dedicated meditation practice. The book I’d been reading is the foundational text for an approach that is called pragmatic dharma, and so we must turn to that phenomenon and get a sense of what it is about.

Its first overriding feature is that it is goal-directed, and the goal is transforming insight, awakening, enlightenment. The term “enlightenment” is so loaded that I hesitate to use it at all. People attach all sorts of mythology to this term; in addition there’s the problem that if you put three dharma teachers in a room and ask them what enlightenment is, you’ll get more than three answers, along with a lot of hemming, hawing, and “I don’t knows.” The leading teachers in the pragmatic corner of the spiritual marketplace don’t even all agree about what the goal is or how exactly to approach it, although certain contours emerge.

There is, along with goal-directedness, the belief that old, traditional teachings are useful only insofar as they contribute to progress. If a certain meditation technique or belief produces results then it’s fine, but if it creates confusion, blind alleys, or even serious misbehavior on the part of esteemed teachers (all too common, unfortunately), then it must be subject to rigorous criticism. Typically, the approaches that lead to abuse are anything that elevates the teacher to the position of a godlike guru whom students feel they must obey if they wish to progress. “Crazy wisdom” is one such approach: the suggestion that beyond a certain level of attainment, a person no longer has to observe normal moral standards. Rigidly hierarchical structures amplify this effect.

Most traditional Buddhist centers in the east and the west emphasize secrecy in discussing stages of insight and other attainments. Pragmatic dharma by contrast endorses openness, public discussion, and feedback from many sources. There are dangers in doing this, chief of which are competitiveness and grandiosity. Another problem is the real potential for embarrassment when a claim to an attainment proves premature. Still, the benefits outweigh these disadvantages. People learn that awakening is possible, and get to see how others are doing it. They also are inspired by the feedback loop that keeps their practice front and center. Being in close companionship with others who are doing the same is a wonderful motivator.

This companionship exists mostly on online discussion forums, but over the years there have been opportunities for people to meet at conferences and get-togethers. In addition, Buddhist and other meditators have participated in scientific studies regarding the effects of certain kinds of meditation practices on the brain. The wealth of information now available to anyone with access to the Internet has exploded just in the 7+ years I’ve been practicing. The irony is that none of these developments would be possible without the much-maligned Internet, the very medium that has been such a source of distraction to me and others for so many years.

Turning Point

My commitment to a meditation practice came about as a response to my stage fright, oddly enough. After I left graduate school I had stopped playing the violin entirely, and didn’t pick it up again for a couple of decades. I was just too busy, and besides, I did not need any more stress in my life than I already had. Eventually, though, I hauled the instrument out of a closet, sent it out for repairs, and tuned up the strings.

I was miserably out of shape, but after giving it some regular, gentle practice I was surprised to find at least some of my technique beginning to return. My husband suggested a simple piece for me to play during the prelude in church. People have a tendency to catch up with their friends during this time, which helped keep the nerves at bay, but they perked up and listened to me that first time because no one had had the faintest idea that I could even play.

I had no idea how it would go. I touched the bow to the strings, and within seconds realized that I was shaking. I worked with the situation, let things gel a bit, and carried on. After the fact I had reason to feel encouraged: after all, I hadn’t played in public in many years, and now I had actually done it. My listeners were amazed and impressed, and so I decided that I would make a point of acclimating myself to performing. I recalled my fear when I first tried singing solos, as well as my nerves teaching classes. Repeated exposure worked in those cases, I reasoned, so repeated experience playing in this low-stakes setting should have the same effect.

Over the years that followed I played church services, I joined the local orchestra, and I even played for a couple of weddings. I became part of a flute, violin, and piano ensemble at church that performed for less formal services once a month. I learned new music, becoming acquainted with the organ and violin repertoire (not large, but wonderful). What I found was that again and again, I would improve to the point that it seemed my nerves were almost gone, only to have them come roaring back the next time I tried to play. Obviously, the violin was nothing like singing or lecturing for me.

Then I hit on another possible solution: I would try the viola. I thought that a new instrument with which I had no fraught history would trick my brain into thinking that I could make mistakes without shame. I learned a new clef, a new arrangement of strings, and a new, longer fingerboard. I congratulated myself that I was improving brain function by forcing myself to undertake something challenging in middle age. Unfortunately, though, the instrument was in essential respects the same as the violin, with all the same liabilities.

By the time I began playing viola I had begun taking beta blockers for my nerves. At first they seemed to be the answer to all my prayers, until they stopped working. I increased the dosage and the pattern repeated. I realized that continuing on that path was dangerous, so I settled on a dosage that seemed reasonably effective and stuck with it. Playing with the pills became my new baseline, following the same pattern as playing without them had been in the past.

At Christmas time in 2010, I played a nice little romantic piece on the viola in a small church service and felt good. The very next time I played, however, I forgot to take my pills. Maybe I was subconsciously feeling sufficiently confident that I thought I wouldn’t need them; who’s to say? I was doing the slow movement to a Brahms sonata, an exquisitely beautiful piece, but from the outset everything fell apart. I was completely blindsided, then frantic, then plunging ahead just trying to contain the damage. Afterwards I felt a toxic mixture of shame, bitter failure, frustration and grief. I retreated to a room in the church basement where I paced the floor, wringing my hands and crying, and then I thought of Daniel Ingram’s book. I thought, why not try it? What do I have to lose? And so I resolved then and there to undertake a meditation practice.

 

 

Twitter, Distraction, and Geeky Buddhists

By the autumn of 2010 I was on the last leg of my career, although I didn’t know it yet. I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia almost six years earlier, and had been managing to maintain a full-time schedule during that time. My symptoms were frequent upper back and neck pain, headache, unreliable sleep, and “brain fog”—a sense of operating without full command of my intellectual faculties. Sitting at a computer for long hours was especially miserable. In the meantime, any time I tried to settle down to reading something I would start to nod off. The one positive outcome of the diagnosis is that it made me more likely to keep up with regular exercise, which helped enormously.

I had always had a tendency to distraction and difficulty focusing; in fact, at one point I was even diagnosed with adult ADD. The one place where I found myself completely on task was the classroom. Teaching may have been stressful in some respects, but the pleasure of interacting with students kept me feeling fulfilled in my job. What was difficult was prioritizing tasks, “juggling” (a word I have come to hate) the responsibilities of class preparation, research and writing, and committee work. The advent of technology only made things worse. I was distracted all day by email, and the entertainment potential of the Internet was a constant source of temptation. So, knowing that I was making a huge mistake, I signed up for a Twitter account. I had already been spending way too much time on Facebook and did not need another drain on my attention, but I had just taken a summer workshop on learning to navigate an iPad and got sucked in.

Twitter proved to be a greater instant-gratification device than I had ever experienced before. I pursued a number of interests, watching intently as tweets accumulated in real time. I also browsed a bit and found corners of the Internet that I would not have accessed otherwise. It was on one of these random excursions that I hit upon Buddhist Geeks. The name itself was intriguing, so I read further. There was an interview with a guy named Kenneth Folk, who claimed to be enlightened. I had never before known anyone who would say something like that so openly. He even claimed that others who followed a similar path to his could become enlightened as well, and he mentioned a book by a certain Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It was apparently available in PDF format for free.

My prior exposure to Buddhism had left me impressed, yet unwilling to commit for a variety of reasons. Two years earlier I had briefly attended a meditation center in my town and brought home some books from their library. After reading about traditional Buddhist beliefs and cosmology, I thought, I have enough trouble with the doctrinal system of Christianity; I don’t need to get myself enmeshed in another one. But a year later I did some intensive reading for a potential new course that included units on eastern spiritual traditions, and wondered again whether I might want to pursue it further. Then when I saw the interview with Kenneth Folk and the claim that ordinary people could get enlightened, I thought, “That sounds like a cool thing to do,” but didn’t really see it applying to me. Nevertheless, I found the link to Daniel Ingram’s book and downloaded the file onto my Kindle.

It was awkward scrolling through it on that platform, but something about it intrigued me, beginning with the author’s description of himself on the title page as “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” (arahant being the Sankrit term for an enlightened individual). Who on earth would say such a thing? The subtitle was “An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.” From the outset the book was direct, quirky, and borderline confrontational. The mysterious author identified himself as a gen-X emergency room doctor, clearly a highly accomplished person. I immediately began to view his life in comparison with my own, and proceeded with a mixture of fascination and jealousy.

The message of the book was simple: it is possible to experience genuine transformations by training the mind in meditation, all the way to what we call enlightenment. There is a series of stages outlined in a fifth-century Buddhist commentary, and an assortment of powerful meditation techniques (or to use the author’s term, “technologies”), which lead to awakening when taken seriously and pursued diligently, just as Kenneth Folk had said in his interview. As I continued to read, however, I reached a point where I could no longer follow the author’s meaning, and so I set it aside, once more thinking to myself that it would be intriguing to try something like that, but not for me.

Eventually, that book would change my life. To this day, whenever someone asks what is the most significant book I’ve ever read, I say it’s that one, hands down. Nothing else even comes close.

 

The Four Divine Abidings

The Brahmaviharas, or Four Divine Abidings, circumscribe the four attitudes of mind that are the highest level response to one’s experience and to other beings, human or animal. They are metta, translated as loving kindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy (sometimes translated as appreciative joy); and upekkha, equanimity. These qualities of mind can be cultivated through practice in meditation, until they become the framework for one’s interior life.

The most familiar to western Buddhists is metta, an attitude of unconditional love toward every living thing. There are phrases we can repeat to ourselves in meditation for individuals or all beings: may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be healthy, may you be safe and protected, may you live with ease and with joy. The exercise is most effective when concentration is deep, but we need not be perfectionists about it; repeating the phrases throughout the day, whenever we happen to think of them, is also well worthwhile.

The far enemy of metta is hatred, while the near enemy is attachment. When we first attempt to do metta, we unfortunately realize that we can’t say with sincerity that we wish good things for every living being. An immediate example is certain kinds of harmful creatures, like wasps, mosquitoes, or poisonous snakes. There are even harmless insects and reptiles that bear enough of a resemblance to harmful ones that we feel an immediate response of disgust when thinking of them. How are we supposed to wish good things to a bug?

More troubling are people towards whom we have complicated feelings, or even uncomplicated hatred. That is why it is recommended that we undertake metta practice in stages. There are four specific types of recipients: ourselves, benefactors or friends, neutral persons, and adversaries. Many Westerners have even more trouble expressing love for themselves than for adversaries, feeling they don’t deserve it, or that in loving themselves they are in danger of becoming narcissistic. A good beginning might be a benefactor, or even a neutral person, someone one sees from time to time but with whom one doesn’t have a close relationship.

As we begin working with metta, we encounter attachment as well as ill-will, which is why saying metta for intimate partners or family members is as complicated as for adversaries. We want our partners or children to be happy, successful, healthy, and strong because when the people we love are thriving, we are thriving, whereas when we have a depressed spouse or a sick child, we ourselves are naturally wounded as well. While such responses are understandable, they ultimately do not lead to peace of mind, and can even get in the way of our ability to care for the very persons whose lives are most important us. Ask any adolescent what they most want from a parent and the answer is likely to be, “space.”

Karuna, or compassion, is the response to the suffering of others that opens us to intimacy without the burnout we are likely to feel when we become identified with it. The far enemy of karuna is cruelty, while its near enemy is pity. Pity, feeling sorry for or commiserating with someone, turns the other’s story into our own, making it all about how awful we feel for them, or conversely it can set us apart from the other, causing us to see ourselves as immune to the other’s affliction. Cruelty is rejoicing in another’s suffering: “Good! I’m glad he got what’s coming to him!” While we like to feel that there is justice in the world and that “bad” people get punished, indulging in the desire to judge and punish other people can only be a source of unhappiness.

Compassion is characterized by spaciousness, which can occur only by our emptying ourselves of ulterior motives. Just as metta is wishing good things to everyone unconditionally, karuna is openness to the suffering of all regardless of what anyone deserves. There can be feeling for others, a movement of emotion through ourselves that brings us into intimacy with them, including tenderness and sadness, but without resistance, rumination, or the urgent need to fix whatever is hurting.

The third brahmavihara, mudita, is a joyful response to something beautiful and good. Sympathetic joy is the rejoicing in something good that happens to another, which may possibly be the hardest of all the divine abidings. When we think of someone we dislike for any reason, the last thing we want is to see that person thrive and prosper, especially if that person benefits through actions of injustice. We certainly don’t want someone who is arrogant, unprincipled, phony, or undeserving to get a promotion, admiration, or love from someone we admire.

The near enemy of mudita is identification, while the far enemy is envy. In the case of identification, we want those whom we favor to thrive because their success enhances our sense of self. Professionally, we want people we’ve mentored to do well as a testimonial to our influence and good advice. Still, we may not want them to do too well, which would put us in danger of being surpassed by the beneficiaries of our patronage, and tip our good feelings over into the territory of envy and resentment. We feel envy when we see people who are richer, better looking, healthier, or more influential than ourselves. Why should they have that big house, that beautiful family, that loving spouse while we are stuck in a small apartment, divorced, childless, and sick with worry over our bills?

Practicing any of these brahmaviharas is fiendishly difficult because they bring us up against our own sense of lack. Envy, ill-will, or identification all speak to a depletion within ourselves, a feeling of not being enough. When we think of another person having what we lack, we want to latch onto that person’s success in the hopes of owning some of it, or else see that person’s happiness diminished. We don’t even have to experience misfortune in our own lives to feel this way; we can want to see someone fail even when we are ostensibly doing well. The driving force is the deficiency we feel within.

The last brahmavihara is equanimity, upekkha. This is the ability to be with whatever comes up, to disattach oneself from outcomes. At first glance it may seem to negate the other three, which call for all-embracing good wishes, compassion in the face of suffering, and joy in the face of good fortune. Underlying all of these attitudes of mind, however, is the recognition that we do not control outcomes, and that good and bad things come to everyone.

The near enemy of upekkha is indifference, while the far enemy is panic and despair on the one hand and manic joy on the other. It is easy to confuse equanimity with a lack of caring. How can anyone be reconciled to the death of a child, or the tragedies that affect entire populations displaced by war or famine? How can a good person say “let it be” to monstrous cruelty? No matter how deep our practice, there will be circumstances that plunge us into overwhelming grief and pain. The point is not to no longer feel these things, but to be willing to feel them on behalf of ourselves and others. Having felt them, though, we go on; we do what is necessary, comfort ourselves and others, and above all not add any more than necessary to the weight of suffering in the world.

The Divine Abidings are a recognition that all beings desire happiness, regardless of their relation to us in life, and that our goal is to promote the sum of happiness in the world, and to diminish suffering. When we repeat phrases to ourselves—in the case of karuna, “may your suffering diminish, may it end,” and in the case of mudita, “May your good fortune continue, may it increase”—we are training the mind to turn to these thoughts automatically. We can think of them throughout the day as we encounter others, while express compassion for ourselves when we find we are feeling a sense of lack or depletion. The overriding recognition that things are as they are is what returns us again and again to inner peace.

 

 

My Brilliant Career

Most of my adult life was dedicated to the business of building a career. I had always known that I would have one, and was driven by the belief, or even the commandment, that it should be brilliant. As I’ve remarked earlier, quitting was shameful. With the arrival of the women’s movement, I got the message that settling was just as much a deadly sin. I had failed in my initial plan to become a violinist, and so I found an alternative: an academic career pursuing my interests, which were entirely within the framework of the humanities. I majored in history in college, but almost completed a philosophy major as well; in fact, my senior honors thesis was so philosophical that at the very end of my four years I changed my major to Intellectual History.

“As opposed to what,” people would ask, “dumb history?” I laughed, but it was hard to explain, especially as the definition shifted during the time I was a student. History of ideas? Or the history of texts in context? The history of how people express meaning? And then, there was the question of what was included. Literature? Philosophy? The fine arts? Any and all of the above, I would say, elaborating that I had had so much trouble choosing that I finally landed in a field that allowed me to have everything.

The only trouble was, at the time of my graduation from college in 1976, there were no academic jobs to be had. The demographics of my generation were to blame: when the baby boom generation first began reaching college age in the 60s, graduate schools responded by accepting more students to increase the number of newly-minted professors. Unfortunately, there was the lag between bringing these people into the pipeline and sending them out, because of the length of time it takes to train a college professor (anywhere from 4 to 12 years, roughly). Thus for awhile there was a limit in supply, until the inevitable crunch occurred as the baby boomers cycled out of college and into their adult lives.

Graduate departments did not notice this fact immediately, and so as applications for admission to colleges and universities began to slacken, the supply of PhDs continued undiminished. Not only did the number of people still in training remain high, but new ones were being admitted year after year. Academic departments are like any other unit within a hierarchical organization, in that they operate to increase their share of the whole through expanding in size wherever possible, and thus during the heyday of the 60s these organizations had enjoyed their expansion. They did not easily arrive at a decision to contract, even if they found themselves almost overnight unable to place their graduates with the same success as earlier.

This bit of history is of little interest to most people, but to the academic world it had devastating consequences. I had been celebrated in college as an excellent student with wonderful prospects, but suddenly I found myself in a position where the sky was no longer the limit in terms of what I could accomplish. Still, my narcissism was such that I was convinced I could not fail. I took some time out between undergraduate and graduate school, ended my first marriage, and then went ahead with my plans.

Throughout the years that followed I was obsessed with landing a job. I got a series of temporary positions after five years in school, completing my dissertation at the end of my first year out. I sent out applications each fall to every school offering a job even remotely in line with my experience, attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association each winter to interview with those that had indicated an interest in my application, and returned home in an agony of expectation waiting to hear further. I eventually landed a job at a fine liberal arts college in the Midwest, far from family and friends, and remained there until retirement two years ago.

I recognize that I am one of the fortunate ones, and have no complaints about the lot I drew in my vocational life. I also recognize that I made sacrifices to get and keep that job, and that throughout my career I often wished I had chosen differently (I even find myself revisiting the question in retirement). When I was applying for jobs 30+ years ago, I was under the powerful illusion that I would be blissfully happy if I attained my goal. I also regarded the difficulties of my job search and early career as a miserable burden, resenting those who seemed to have an easier life—mostly older, established professors, which I myself would eventually become—and wallowed in self-pity at the unfairness of it all. It’s not that I didn’t know about the multitudes of people in the world struggling to survive in war zones or in extreme poverty, but I simply did not relate their lives to my own. And so I spent my young adulthood mired in self-centeredness and delusion.

The job search and subsequent career also threw me into relentless competition with countless others, equally or better qualified, who I feared would rob me of my prize. The real prize, I found, wasn’t just a job doing meaningful work or an income, but self-esteem. I invested my entire self in winning this competition, regarding my competitors with a sense of grievance. Most frightening of all was seeing how easily I could be surpassed or replaced. The fear was like a choking sensation in my throat, as if I couldn’t breathe, as if these doubles of myself would suffocate me. For if someone else could do everything I could do, only potentially do it better, or be more attractive or more praised in doing it, then what was I? The answer was that I was nothing, nothing at all.

I Become a Christian

I grew up in the Congregational church, although as a child and young adult I had little interest in being a Christian. As I grew older I realized that I was angry at God for what he had done to my brothers, and that I could neither understand nor forgive that outrage. To love God and believe in his promises was for me tantamount to saying that it was just fine for my brothers to be as they were, and as a witness to their suffering I would never do that. Through college and for years afterward I lived in that state of stalemate.

So what changed? I remember one incident in particular, the one that precipitated my leaving my first husband. We were arguing about something trivial on the morning we were to drive a significant distance to visit his family, and like so many trivial arguments this one became heated. We needed to drive two cars, because we had just purchased one and were driving the other, a loaner from his parents, back to them. I was already nervous about the drive and feeling that I couldn’t go through with it, but when I told him this his anger quickly escalated. He got physically abusive, shouting threats, pulling out a gun and pointing it at me, and then throwing me to the floor, where I lay crumpled in sobs, thinking I was going to die. Then out of nowhere I began to pray. I told God, “if this is my time to die then I accept it, but if not, help me through this!” Suddenly my fear and distress left me, I stood up, walked into the next room where my husband sat sulking, and said, “Let’s go.”

As soon as he got what he wanted he dropped his rage, but I didn’t forget what had happened. My prayer itself amazed me at least as much as the immediacy of its answer. I recognized that there was something within me that I had tapped so rarely as to be almost entirely unaware of it. Where did this sudden calm come from? How was I easily able to do what a moment earlier had seemed impossible? I didn’t know, but later I would return to this experience as I felt drawn more and more back to church.

In graduate school, studying medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history, my attraction grew. I was puzzled because I had so many reservations about Christian doctrine, but a course on monastic culture opened in me a desire for solitude and prayer. I loved St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs, the mystics’ allegories of love, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I began attending an Episcopal chapel during a year-long post doc in Alabama, and continued for over three decades. During this time my faith waxed and waned, because I could never fully sign on to the Nicene Creed, even as I recited it week in and week out. Yet even in the absence of perfect faith, I felt loved. I understood intuitively that to love God and be loved by God were one and the same. I also understood that out of human clay, God in all His glory became manifest, transforming the base metal of our human nature into pure, radiant gold. I began seeing a spiritual advisor, then stopped, then returned much later to another, and stopped again.

Throughout this period I cried a lot, out of gratitude and an over-abundance of feeling. I cried in church, through hymns, through sermons, and with certain Bible passages, the Book of Ruth in particular. I was excited to learn that the spiritual writers considered tears to be a holy gift. I wrote in a journal and prayed the daily office. My favorite theologian was Meister Eckhart, whose sermons were the perfect expression of what I felt and believed. I became interested in my dreams, recording them in my journal. One day as I was writing I began to meditate on the mirror image of the desert and the garden, the transformation of the one into the other, when suddenly I felt myself enveloped by the most powerful, exquisite sensation of pure love. I stopped writing, in tears, gasping for breath, and thought, no, no, I can’t, I can’t, please, not yet. And then with the most perfect tact it withdrew, leaving me wondering what possibly could have just happened.

Experiences like that are open to so much interpretation, yet who can know absolutely what it was and what it meant? Like my earlier experiences, it became part of my story, even during long years when my attention was elsewhere. Life intervened, and although I continued to go to church and sing in the choir, I became enmeshed in my career and my family, absorbed by triumphs, disappointments, challenges, griefs, routines, and drudgery. In the parable of the sower, Christ describes the seed that falls everywhere, some on fertile soil, some on barren land. Of the seed that takes root some will grow and flourish, but other seed will find itself choked by weeds. That was perhaps my situation. My little plant never fully died, but it did not flower in quite the same way again.