At breakfast with a friend recently, we talked about some of the challenges of parenting young children. He has a four year old and our family has different children in the house as we wrap up requirements for foster-adoption.
Beyond the obvious challenges of taking care of practical matters like feeding and naps, negotiating parenting styles, and lack of sleep (our son didn’t sleep through the night consistently until the age of four), there’s another subtler factor that drains energy.
It’s a constant state of vigilance. It can manifest as a kind of low-grade anxiety. “Where’s the baby? Why haven’t I heard the usual sounds of cooing or banging or crinkling for a good two minutes now? Don’t pick that up! I need to move the computer where he can’t get at it.” And so on.
In most spiritual paths, especially in the American idiom, that of an achievement-oriented culture, we’re often sold on a linear, growth-oriented spirituality. We hold on to the peak experiences as exemplary and often sweep the valley experiences under the rug.
We also have hot-button words we use to either ask for help, or in our world of social media, get a certain kind of attention that doesn’t cut to the core of the matter. We’re “struggling with depression” or are “suffering burn-out.”
Both of which obviously need to be dealt with when they arise. But what happens when it’s not so clear cut?
It’s dryness. It’s the edge of depression. A lack of vibrancy or color. A fairly innocuous way to describe it would be “a fallow period.” But this isn’t just a lack of productivity. For me it’s a kind of depletion. Phsyically. Mentally. Spiritually.
The practices that sustain a deeper connection through these times become all the more arduous, because it’s precisely a disciplined body-mind that is foundational for disciplined spiritual practices.
Poor sleep, diet, and lack of exercise means I have a much harder time maintaining a consistent, daily contemplative practice.
And in the past year we’ve had two failed adoptions, both situations drawn out over a long period of time, a layoff, a new job, a book publishing process also repeatedly postponed with my editor struggling with life-threatening health issues, then finally out and needing a promotional push, fost-adoption process, a friend going through divorce, and all the little daily tasks to knock out.
With high demands and an inconsistent schedule, those daily disciplines that keep the body-mind balanced have been sporadic at best. The choice has often been between sleep or contemplative practice, or even a seemingly well-deserved but counter-productive veg session.
Talk about protracted low-grade anxiety.
For a would-be Luddite like myself, being tethered to a computer for work and the ever-present cell phone doesn’t help a ton either, of course. Ditto the information overload in the inbox: “All the movies and TV coming in July!” “Sixteen books every literature lover has to read right now!”
It feels like the right time for a blanket, a wall, and some drying paint.
As we collect experiences and anecdotes, we develop go-to narratives for how to deal with these things. In the midst of his suffering, Job’s friends offered platitudes instead of just being present with him in his suffering. In the throes of deep depression when he could hardly get out of bed, a friend of Parker Palmer’s didn’t offer cheap solutions, but just came to spend time with him and rubbed his feet.
In our contemplative tradition we have a framework to make suffering purposive: call it a Night of Sense, a Dark Night of the Soul. Adopting a narrative of stages of growth (whether linear or not) allows us to situate our suffering in a context.
But of course as we experience it, even this macro level language of stages and movement feels abstract. There’s no immediate relief or palliative. Even the go-to escapes don’t feel right.
It’s what author Kathleen Norris calls identifies as acedia, a paralysis of soul, originally the eighth “deadly sin,” but so pervasive and effervescent as to be dropped for the other more clearly identifiable ones. It’s usually listlessness or torpor; a kind of deep apathy. For Norris, though, acedia can take forms of torpor and laziness, but also mindless activity, of frivolous disengagement:
“Acedia is not a relic of the fourth century or a hang-up of some weird Christian monks, but a force we ignore at our peril. Whenever we focus on the foibles of celebrities to the detriment of learning more about the real world- the emergence of fundamentalist religious and nationalist movements, the economic factors endangering our reefs and rain forests, the social and ecological damage caused by factory farming – acedia is at work. Wherever we run to escape it, acedia is there, propelling us to ‘the next best thing,’ another paradise to revel in and wantonly destroy. It also sends us backward, prettying the past with the gloss of nostalgia. Acedia has come so far with us that it easily attached to our hectic and overburdened schedules. We appear to be anything but slothful, yet that is exactly what we are, as we do more and care less, and feel pressured to do still more.”
On the other hand, the caring professions have a term for getting burned out from prolonged, sustained engagement: compassion fatigue.
In the Eastern wisdom traditions, suffering is the first noble truth acknowledged. Life is full of suffering. It’s part of the warp and weft of things. In our culture – and I fall into this myself – it is easy to feel like a failure when we experience these valleys. We add another layer of suffering on top.
“I’ve had all this spiritual growth. Helped others find their path. Had awakening experiences. Bursts of tremendous energy and productivity. This shouldn’t be happening.”
But this, too, is another ego contrivance. We all have our path to walk. The peaks and valleys are all a part of the journey, neither experience defining of a life, neither form an identity. One aspect of the contemplative path that has helped me during this time is a focus on the body if I notice myself turning to a story to explain where the suffering is coming from.
This can quickly turn into a mental gripe session of all the reasons life became overwhelming. It becomes an exercise in fault-finding.
It’s been more helpful to focus on the physical experience. How is the “lowness” manifesting? Where is the weight? Where is the tension? I allow myself to hold that in my awareness.
There are of course also periods of lack of awareness, unconscious reactivity, irritability. Those become litmus tests for my inner state. What am I resisting? What am I accepting? What resentments am I cultivating?
One of the classic lines of the zen tradition is “before enlightenment, after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water.”
The outward form remains the same. There is work to be done. There are life situations we have. There are fires to walk through. From the cultivated contemplative perspective, though, we are playing out our role, given our temperament, genetic predispositions, and life situations.
We can awaken to profound spiritual truths and still, there’s more refinement in store for the body-mind.
Is it a Dark Night of the Soul? Who can truly say in the moment.
Sometimes, the best we can do is accept, release. Stay attentive. Stay committed to practices that cultivate this kind of attention and practice them as best we can. And when we don’t and suffering intensifies. We accept. We call out and observe. Even welcome.
Sometimes when we’re off balance, the thing to do is simply to allow ourselves to be off balance. Instead of trying to get back up and fight the good fight or run the race, maybe there’s time for a small circle of quiet, to lie down, and to abide, maybe for a short time, maybe for a whole season.