The Messy Business of Spiritual Practice

Recently, in classes and sitting groups, I’ve been quoting the transpersonal psychologist and prolific author Ken Wilber on the place that spiritual practice occupies in our lives. From his book No Boundary:

Real spiritual practice is not something we do for twenty minutes a day, for two hours a day, or for six hours a day. It is not something we do once a day in the morning, or once a week on Sunday. Spiritual practice is not one activity among other human activities; it is the ground of all human activities, their source and their validation. It is a prior commitment to Transcendent Truth lived, breathed, intuited, and practiced twenty-four hours a day.


Their source and their validation. That is, our practice is the source, the ground, from which everything else in our life originates, and the measure by which we evaluate how we spend our time. Meditation is not separate from other activities but integral to them. This orientation towards integration is, in my opinion, the number one sign of a mature spiritual practice.

As moving and wise as this passage is, though, it feels a little too neat. As with most quotable wisdom, it makes the whole endeavor feel just a bit too easy. And so I have also found myself wanting to quote from Wilber’s Grace and Grit, a book about the life and death to an aggressive breast cancer of his wife, Treya Killam Wilber. Grace and Grit is a combination of personal memoir and Wilber’s signature intellectual style, and the mixture elevates both strains. It is also full of Treya’s own words, excerpted from her diary. Both Wilbers were serious practitioners, and the result is a deep and compelling investigation of practice — of life — during a time of terrible difficulty.

The passage that best exemplifies life’s messiness occurs a year and half into Treya’s diagnosis. She has undergone an operation, radiation treatment, and a mastectomy, and is in the middle of chemotherapy. She requires 24-hour care, and Ken has stopped writing, quit three editorial jobs, and stopped meditating. What’s more, they have just moved into an unfinished house at Lake Tahoe, so they are effectively trying to build a house while taking care of Treya. That’s the ground situation. Here’s the scene:

It is 7:00 A.M., a bright, beautiful morning in North Lake Tahoe. Our house is situated about halfway up the mountainous hills that rise dramatically from the most beautiful lake in North America. From every window in our south-facing house you can see the entire lake, the stunning white beaches edging it, the black mountains in the background, covered with snow nearly year round. The lake itself is a color of azure-cobalt blue so intense, so deep, so electric, I wonder if there isn’t some sort of huge power generator hidden somewhere in its depths: This lake doesn’t look like it is just blue, it looks like a switch has been thrown and it has been turned on.

Treya is sleeping quietly. I take a bottle of Absolut vodka from the shelf and I very carefully pour four ounces into a cup. I drink it in one quick gulp. This will last me until exactly noon, when I will have three beers with lunch. Throughout the afternoon, I will drink beer — maybe five, maybe ten. For dinner, a bottle of wine. Brandy through the evening. I will never get drunk. I will never pass out. I will rarely even get tipsy. I will never neglect any medical problems that Treya has, nor will I shirk any fundamental responsibilities. If you meet me, you will not suspect that I have been drinking. I will be alert, smiling, animated. I will do this every day, without fail, for four months. And then I will walk into Andy’s Sporting Goods, on Park Street in South Lake Tahoe, to buy a gun meant to vaporize this entire state of affairs. Because, as they always say, I can simply stand it no longer.


So much for hewing to the path. Wilber’s dedicated spiritual practice seems to be nowhere in sight, much less “the ground of all human activity.”

Wilber does not buy the gun, and those four months turn out to be the low point from which he rises. But I wonder if, even in this time of such darkness, his practice is not also there. He watches himself sink into despair, observes his decisions to cope through alcohol and numbness. He notices, to paraphrase Ajahn Sumedhodarkness is like this.

His story is great reminder that living a conscious life does not exempt us from making bad decisions, from plunging into darkness, even from completely going off the rails. Our spiritual practice will never exempt us from being human. Wilber’s No Boundary passage is still just as essential, just as true, even though we will all go through times of Grit.