Lee-La Land. “What’s that?” you ask. According to Hindu philosophy, leela (sometimes written lila) is a Sanskrit word for “divine play”—this wild play of life that unfolds on the timeless stage of the universe. In Lee-La Land, each of us is here in a particular body for a finite amount of time. Some days, this bodily existence is bliss. Other days, it’s brutal. But whether we experience sweetness or shit, beneath the choppy surface of our life drama, our true nature remains untouched by pleasure and pain—so says spiritual wisdom. We simply need to realize the truth behind these words and move from conceptual knowing to embodied experience. Fortunately, that is what Lee-La Land is all about: It’s a grand adventure to discover, or remember, who we are.
Most of my life I’ve had an insatiable ache for something I could never name. As a teenager I was certain there had to be more to life, and figured if anyone knew what it was, it had to be the mystics from around the world. I wanted to know how Rumi wrote profound poems, each one a delicacy that wet my eyes. I was desperate to understand how Teresa of Avila experienced the ecstasy of Divine union, and the Baal Shem Tov saw the entire universe as a manifestation of God. I longed to break bread with Jesus, stroll in the forest with Buddha, and enjoy some mountain tea with Lao Tzu. Call me crazy and irreverent, but I aspired to hang out with these fine folks and discover just what it was that made their hearts blossom with love and their bodies’ shine with light.
This deep yearning for my own mystery ignited a wild fire in my heart. Right away I started to devour spiritual literature, plumb the depths of my psyche, and sob for no reason whatsoever. The self-help section of every bookstore became my second home. I took refuge in music, practiced meditation, and wrote love poems for a man I had never met. Often, I stared up at the sky. Some moments were full of awe; other moments the vastness was just too vast and I ran inside to eat a bowl of cereal.
More than anything I wanted to be happy, but happiness felt so far away. No matter how much I read, studied, practiced, contemplated, and cried, I continued to find myself on the merry-go-round of suffering with all of my habitual patterns, negative emotions, and worries intact. It didn’t help that I approached my spiritual life the same way I approached everything else: with aggression, impatience, fear, and doubt. C’mon, wake up! I screamed to my heart. You’re not compassionate enough! You’re not selfless enough! You haven’t practiced enough! In no time, my mind transformed spiritual teachings into arrows, which I pointed at myself.
Very quickly it became clear that waking up wasn’t going to be easy. Whenever I looked within, hoping to find an ocean of peace and bliss, I found dirt and cobwebs instead. Frankly, it sucked. I wanted love, compassion, enlightenment—you know, the simple things—but I kept running head first into my ego. No one ever told me spiritual life would necessitate diving into my shadow in order to find my light, and I was less than thrilled about the situation.
Eventually, after galloping through life like a metaphysical maniac for so many years, I woke up one day completely exhausted. I mean really exhausted. This wasn’t the kind of exhaustion that a good night’s sleep could cure. This was the kind of exhaustion that had me in bed for over two years, with nothing but my crazy mind to keep me company. Suddenly I had no energy to be a super devotee, diligent meditator, or passionate seeker. My holy woman project crumbled. All I could do was sleep, sob, and—rarely—surrender.
It was during this incredibly challenging time that I took an honest look at myself and really did not like what I saw. In my fervent quest for “enlightenment,” I had cast certain parts of myself aside. Imagining I could somehow transcend my ego without first becoming a whole person, my life was way out of balance. Still, I didn’t know how to make a change. The only option was to sit in the very center of the fire and admit that I knew nothing.
As things go, of course, this delightful dismemberment turned out to be an invaluable experience. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I began to explore the edges of my authentic self and reclaim the discarded pieces of my being. Grief, loneliness, desire, fear, insecurity, desperation—all were invited to the table. I had no choice, really. Exhaustion made it impossible to hold things together. It was as if life took the tightly wound ball of yarn that was my “self,” grabbed the loose string, and threw it into the sky. My concepts unraveled, and the weathered rope that once tethered my boat to shore came undone. Terrified, I drifted out to sea with only my raw heart to guide the way.
In many religious traditions there is a notion that we must cast off our small selves in order to truly commune with the great mystery. Certainly this makes sense, for it is not easy to feel the divine presence if we are full up with our own self-importance; we need to empty ourselves of ego so that something new may emerge. At the same time, if spiritual teachings are used as a means of bypassing the totality of our human experience, in a sense we are not living up to their full potential and purpose.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the great saints and sages is the way that they embody their humanity completely. They don’t say, “To be enlightened you must discard your human life.” Not at all! Rather, so many of them delight in simple pleasures such as drinking a cup of tea, watching the clouds, smiling at the flowers, sharing affection, and singing songs. Their lives are the true scriptures, and so are ours. As we contemplate the fine print of our experience and approach the messiness of life with reverence and curiosity, we find countless diamonds of self-knowledge beneath the storyline.
I offer this blog in honor of the sacred human journey. May my little slice of Lee-La-Land inspire you to study the holy book of your own unique and precious life.