Recently at a dinner party, I was being intensely irreverent as I said something challenging about monks, or the monastic life. I think it was, "I'm so over monks. It's so much easier in a cave. They should try sex and kids." It was in the midst of talking about my new life as an "insta-mom". My fiancé's three children entered my life this past year and out went my ivory tower spiritual idealism. Shit just got real.
Before going on, I want to point out that I have family members who've chosen the monastic life, and yes, I'm aware that my generalization of monastic life was facetious. Time spent deep in contemplation, free from the world, can be beautiful and full of awareness, and holds its own challenges.
Prior to meeting my fiancé, I spent a few years living on my own. I lived in a tiny little cottage by the ocean, with my tiny little dog. We had long walks on the beach. We had luxurious evenings curled up with personal growth and spirituality books. I meditated all the time. I could choose social time or quiet time. I had broad expanses of time to integrate life and to be with myself.
I look upon these years as important "cave years." I tasted the nature of myself without much influence. I wandered shadowlands and dreamlands. I came to know myself without the other. And that is one part of knowing the self. The inward path.
The outer path is to come to know yourself through the other. Through your love for them, and your resistances. Four new people in my life has been quite the initiation. This family has offered me a deep engagement with the Self, as I've come to experience myself through my interactions with each of them.
I have come to understand that you can only truly learn through direct experience. During my time in the Cave Years, I explored concepts and theories. I dreamt of what I yearned for. But direct experience takes you, forces you into the present moment, if you are willing. It's in this present moment reality that you come to truly see how you show up in the world. What you hold as beliefs, truths, fears – these will surface in the direct experience of your life, especially through relationship with others.
The enlightened life is probably somewhere between the intensity of doing and the emptiness of nothing. It is a place where you can be yourself in the midst of doing, in the midst of others. It is being able to hold presence, a sense of openness and relaxation, as life revolves around you. A place where you can observe as you interact, so that you can act with conscious choice instead of react. A place with broad expanses of space, even as you share this space with others.
I am nowhere near this nirvana! But as I jump into the wild terrain of learning how to be with younger souls, I can use my years of inner work and contemplation to track myself, to track how I show up, where I lose my presence, where I am triggered, what is easy and what is not. This is my deep practice, to track how I am being, to develop awareness. Then to do the work of balancing the self, mapping out new territories of my inner world.
The ideal life is probably made up of caves, sex, work, partners, people, kids, whatever you want to create. It is in the balance of things. Let experience in to help you gain self awareness and growth. And seek out cave time to breathe, to see.