Among Other Things

Martha Henry

This January, in the bleak days of a New England winter, I was unemployed, mournfully alone, and having a bad hair day. It suddenly occurred to me that I could solve all of my problems by becoming a Buddhist nun.

I’ve been enamored of the contemplative life for as long as I can remember. I like quiet and study and certain kinds of prayer and meditation. The idea of chucking the workaday world of cocktail parties, jackhammers and emotionally limited men has always appealed to me, but in the past, there was always a good reason (job, husband, mortgage, etc.) to keep from entering into a committed spiritual life.

But for the first time in twenty years, I found myself free of all commitments. It was a precarious, yet thrilling time. I had to create a new life for myself, hopefully learning from past mistakes. I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want, but what I did want was less clear.

In between sending out resumes and trying on various interview outfits, I downloaded an application for Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia. I read over information about living at the abbey. I looked at what was left of my bank account and reread my lease. I could do it—if I really wanted to—I could leave behind what was left of my life and spend a year as a full-time, shaved-head Buddhist.

In February, the phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with job offers. I was going through the necessary motions of creating change, but nothing was working. An ice storm covered the streets and sidewalks. I was depressed, believing I’d never find work or love again. The Everything-Changes Truth seemed to be under the weather.

NunsThe Gampo Abbey application sat on my desk. I’d filled out the easy information, like name and address, but I hadn’t gotten around to the more thoughtful parts, such as “Tell us more about your motivation for coming to Gampo Abbey.”

Then I heard about a job that sounded both interesting and challenging. I had a good first interview. I was trying not to get my hopes up, but it wasn’t working. I started to throw away all the cover letters I hadn’t sent for jobs I wasn’t really interested in. And then I tossed the Gampo Abbey application.

I realized that my fantasy of becoming a 24/7 Buddhist was just that, a fantasy. Partly I didn’t want to give up sex and drugs and rock and roll, because when done responsibly, I’m fond of all three. Partly, I want more time for study and meditation, but I want that among other things. Those other things are travel and movies and sometimes sleeping late and brown suede boots. I want to live in the world of freedom and too many choices. It’s not that I’m not ready to become a nun, it’s that I never will be.

I got the job and I’m back in the world of PowerPoint and office politics, often wondering why I was so eager to return. Recently, my hair has been behaving. There’s even the promise of a good man.

Sometimes it’s helpful to be faced with the option of having what you think you want, then realizing that that’s not it at all. Craving, for all the bad press that it gets in Buddhism, can be a very useful mirror. What we want is who we are, even when what we want is to finally give up wanting.


[Image: iStockPhoto]

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