Sunday, April 3, 2016

Down in the Valley

"Surrounded by Mountains"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

As I sat outside sipping a cup of coffee this morning, I recalled that only a week ago I was celebrating Easter Sunday at a beautiful church service – great music, lots of enthusiasm, a real “mountaintop” experience; but now it’s all back to normal and I’m back in my ordinary routine.

When it comes to walking a spiritual path, people often talk about their “mountaintop” experiences, perhaps a time at church, a moment of enlightenment during a meditation, maybe a time of “heightened” awareness while listening to a beautiful symphony – lofty, uplifting experiences of transcendence, “mountaintop” experiences.

This morning when I woke up as I was thinking about my experience on the “mountaintop” last week in church, I was suddenly struck by the fact that I live in a valley, in the Coachella Valley, the low desert region of Southern California. I spend most of my life down in the valley. I was also struck with the realization that this is where I walk the spiritual path, not up on a lofty mountaintop, but down here in the valley of my everyday, ordinary life.

It’s often quite harsh down in this desert valley, the days are hot and the soil is dry and sandy. When I walk in the wilderness outside my house, there are no roads and the trails are often unmarked and hard to follow; and yet this valley is also one of the most beautiful places in the world especially in the springtime when flowers grow wild in the wilderness and desert trees glow with yellow blossoms.  In some sense the valley is an almost perfect icon for walking on any spiritual path.

Many people limit their “spirituality” to a time in a church, in a temple, or to that period of quiet meditation; but then when church is over and the meditation mat is put away, “spiritual” time is over. Then it’s off to work or school or home, off to the daily chores, to the same old-same old rather boring routine of everyday life that has little or northing to do with the spiritual journey. And yet our everyday routine life is also a deeply spiritual place where we can find our deepest wisdom and greatest truth if we are available to it.

I think of something the poet, Chris Wiman, once said about his own spiritual path:

To be truly alive is to know one’s ultimate existence
within one’s daily existence.

Whenever I am able to find truth and beauty in the valley of my daily existence, I indeed become more truly alive.

As I see it, the spiritual path on which any of us may walk doesn’t so much call us to extraordinary mountaintop experiences as it directs us to walk more fully aware on the ordinary path of life.  An essay in one of my favorite Buddhist magazines puts it this way:

It turns out that when we honestly dare to be ordinary
the wisdom of the universe opens up for us.
We get to watch for what each day is telling us and asking of us.
And as we are able to notice more,
a whole new world of miracles unfolds without end
because we become available to it all.

Buddhist teacher, Susan Murphy, offers this wise advice about living in the valley of ordinary time:

Don’t miss anything
Everything counts
Everyone counts
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you

It turns out that if my gaze is always set upon the mountaintop I will always miss what’s going on down here in the valley. I will miss everything in my everyday life and everything counts. Down here in the valley a whole world of miracles is unfolding every day.

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