In the Northern Hemisphere where I live we’ve just celebrated the fall equinox, a time when the earth gives forth abundance. And the sun and moon model balance, giving us all equal day and night—equal light and dark. It’s a unique moment to ponder big questions.
And standing in my overflowing garden preparing for harvest, I’m struck by the idea of maturity. All the plants—that my husband has lovingly planted from tiny seeds and spent months caring for—have grown to maturity. And my mind, working the way that it does, immediately starts pondering spiritual practice and wondering: What does it mean to have a mature sense of spirituality? What does it mean to have a spiritual understanding of ourselves and our world that has been watered, fertilized, weeded, pruned, and every other gardening metaphor we can think of…
One tough answer from the garden is that having a mature sense of spirituality means understanding that we can’t escape the realities of change and death. Standing in my garden during the harvest I can see that we’re in a moment of abundance, but I can also see that this side of the earth is turning toward darkness. My garden is about to become compost.
Life, as complicated as it is, can be described in simple terms… It’s a path of change between the points of birth and death. We were born. And we will die. In between these two extraordinary moments we experience constant change. Everything is always changing. We don’t have to do anything for the reality of change to impact every single aspect of our lives. It just does and it always will. The constancy of change is an utterly dependable truth.
And I’m guessing this is why so many people claim to hate change. We hate it because we have no control over it. We can’t stop it. We can’t shore it up. And our attempts to deny it always fail. We are embodied beings, clinging to a planet that’s spinning through space and, whether we think about it or not, we know that death is coming. It’s a daunting and wild reality that we find ourselves in. And it scares us.
We fear change because we’re wired for survival, which leaves us biased to search out the negative. We don’t fear change because we’re worried good things are going to happen. We fear change because we have an innate need to keep bad things from happening. And ultimately, we fear change because we don’t want to die. We don’t want to become compost like our gardens. The yoga sutras-s teach us that this fear of death is an inherent part of us, no matter how wise we are (Yoga Sutra 2.9).
But the fear of death isn’t the only inherent part of our being. The act of caring is also wired into our brains. Knowing how to care is a fundamental part of our survival instinct. And this amazing fact leaves us with a choice.
We can spend our lives focused on what scares us. Or we can try and learn how to care for the world better. More often than not, we’re stuck somewhere in between. Sometimes we allow our fear to paralyze us and we standby in the face of injustice. Sometimes we allow our desire to care to bring forth our courage to fight against oppression. Sometimes we allow fear to keep us small and we hold back on our dreams. Sometimes we decide that we care so much about our dreams that we have to move past anxiety and take the next step no matter how terrifying it is. Of course, we can cycle through all these feelings and choices in a single day—in a single hour.
This constant mashing up of fear and caring is all part of the world of change. Remember, everything is always changing. And it’s not going to stop. Spiritual practice is about moving through the reality of change with intention. A mature spiritual practice is one that understands that change is unabating.
Hospital Chaplain Amy Wright Glenn wrote that:
All that is seen, touched, tasted, held, heard, and thought shifts with each passing moment. This is true whether our perception is pleasant, unpleasant, beautiful, or horrible. Impermanence describes so much of our human experience perfectly.
Yoga teaches us that what we see, touch, taste, hold, hear, and think are real. Life is real. But it is indeed impermanent. We can’t stop the reality of change. But we can work to direct the course of change in our lives. This is spiritual practice. This is the work of transformation. And it’s also where our spiritual resources, which we’ll talk more about next week, become critical tools.
Fear might always be a part of us. But it doesn’t have to rule our lives. We can choose to accept death as the cost of life and focus our attention on nurturing and building our capacity to care.
Compost is an essential part of a healthy garden. Death is an undeniable part of life. So if we want to be spiritually mature human beings (and I hope we do!), we have to find ways to accept the realties of change and death. Please understand that this isn’t a call toward morbidity. A mature spirituality is balanced. We take the middle path. We remember that death is real. And we remember that life is real.
Here at the beginning of Autumn, we’re somewhere in between the moment of birth and the moment of death. We have equal day and equal night. And in this middle point, the abundance of the garden is beckoning to us. It’s the time for feasting. We’re being called to celebrate life. Here, at the beginning of Autumn, we’re called to notice and revel in the fruit of our labor so that as we turn toward darker days our hearts are filled with abundance and care.