"But I stay. Buddhist practice has trained me that the edge that feels like breakdown is the edge you have to lean gently against. I have fallen back from it a thousand times, refused to grow. What we might call a mature practice gives one little more than the ability to hang a minute longer on the verge of annihilation. I think of myself as a bat on the curtains, resolving to hang. The curtains are on fire.
"But gratefully I realize that this life at Sitka is giving me exactly the conditions I need to work and make progress, the rhythm I love best: I get up with the sun, have a cup of tea, sit meditation, and get down to writing till noon. Mostly I write poetry, a discipline I have followed all my adult life, more precious in that it comes to what the world would call 'nothing.' I seldom send my poems out, I don't exert myself to publish them. But I know that whatever else I do in the world I do because at birth I was poured into a poet's skin. If I don't practice this craft I am being unfaithful to the core of my identity, like a musician who refuses to practice scales.
"Spiritual practice as distinct from religious belief or intellectual assent has to be daily and regular. It's more important that the exercise be regular than that it be difficult. If we skip the practice, it's as dumb as going on stage at Carnegie Hall without that daily foundation of scales. When you are stretched or frightened or shocked, when grief has just crashed through the picture window, you have to fall back on a practice that has become second nature. When the curtains are on fire is not the ideal time to start spiritual practice although it can be a moment of awakening.
"There are exceptions to this rule, which is why Luther spent such a long time in the outhouse pondering grace. I know musicians who practice little and play well. Every symphony orchestra is full of such stories. Perhaps these musicians are carried along on some ancestral gifts or gilded DNA. There are people gifted like that in the spiritual realm. Some children are born into families irradiated with spiritual presence; such children seem to go out into the world with the right wardrobe, as it were, and all the moves in place.
"For the rest of us, there's practice.
"After these morning scales and calisthenics, I like to spend the afternoon in some physically strenuous activity. I had hoped my afternoons would include work in the ceramic studio or volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center, but both of these alternatives have been blocked. The potter's wheel at Sitka has been set counterclockwise by the Japanese potter who preceded me, and I am too inexperienced to reverse it. The wildlife center in town has been closed by local ordinance, and the next alternative is several hours' drive over the mountains. None of these setbacks surprises me. When you set yourself up a spiritual program, a pilgrimage, or a retreat, it's inevitable that your plans fall into ruins from the get-go. If you miss your train or break an ankle in whatever Kathmandu of the soul you are visiting, it's a sure sign you are on the path. It's another version of the first law of spiritual dynamics: breakdown is the path to breakthrough."