Life offers its wisdom generously. Everything teaches. Not everyone learns. Life asks of us the same thing we have been asked in every class: “Stay awake.” “Pay attention.” But paying attention is no simple matter. It requires us not to be distracted by expectations, past experiences, labels, and masks. It asks that we not jump to early conclusions and that we remain open to surprise. Wisdom comes most easily to those who have the courage to embrace life without judgment and are willing to not know, sometimes for a long time. It requires us to be more fully and simply alive than we have been taught to be. It may require us to suffer. But ultimately we will be more than we were when we began.”
― Rachel Naomi Remen
It’s summertime, hot and humid. Everything outside is parched, wanting water: lawn, flowers, shrubs, and trees. Inside, there is the sound of two window air conditioners and small fans that are doing their best to redistribute cool air. I’m sitting by the banana tree in the dining room hoping to find inspiration for this post. Outside, a man is walking by tugging a heavy suitcase on rollers. I hear a sound like a basketball being dribbled, then silence.
I’ve been sitting here with nothing written and seemingly no inspiration for two hours and fifteen minutes. I’m experiencing one of those doldrums kinds of days. Not exactly depressed, just no wind in the sails. Nothing is suggesting itself as a topic, or rather many things have, but I have dismissed them one at a time.
So much of my life has been lived in this kind of state. There’s nothing particularly wrong here but neither am I feeling super-alive and inspired. I’m here, I’m having a good day, but I am also just kind of going through the motions. I remember when I was in grad school hearing a talk by Nobel Prize winner Arnold Kornberg who spoke of having these uninspired days. He said the key for him was to find something useful to do on those days. Anything. Those were the days he said when you might make all your stock solutions for routine lab procedures. I remember often cleaning my lab bench on my off days. If inspiration wasn’t forthcoming, at least I could end the day having accomplished something positive.
And this is the way that “spiritual” life is too. I put spiritual in quotes just because we tend to think of it as something special and quite different from ordinary life. But is it really? We may imagine spiritual life as something that is always glow-y and radiant, always tingling our spiritual senses. And there are those moments, for sure. But so much of life is just the “rice and beans” experience of basic living. We go to work. We clean the dishes and monitor finances. We replace a broken shoelace and put gas in the car. We work through inevitable upsets that occur in our families and friend groups. We wake up grumpy, depressed, or just kind of blah. It’s not exactly a desert experience of feeling the absence of spiritual presence, but neither is this a place of ease, flow, and joy.
How do you work with your off days, your days in the doldrums? (I hardly want to call them “off” because I imagine that for some of us, they are more the norm than the exception.) What are some of your favorite things to do when your muse is nowhere to be found?
Life is fleeting and precious. Though we cannot demand that our mood shift on a dime or that inspiration always be at our side, it’s my experience that we can with practice, more and more skillfully work with every kind of moment, potentially finding in any of them, the precious now, hidden in plain sight.
Here’s to your ongoing awakening!