In My Year of Living Spiritually, Anne Bokma documents a diverse range of soulful first-person experiences—from taking a dip in Thoreau’s Walden Pond, to trying magic mushrooms for the first time, booking herself into a remote treehouse as an experiment in solitude, singing in a deathbed choir and enrolling in a week-long witch camp. Along the way, she reconsiders key relationships in her life and begins to experience the greater depth of meaning, connection, gratitude, simplicity and inner peace that we all long for, and offers an inspiring roadmap for readers' own spiritual journeys.
I begin the new year the way I always have, with a bunch of earnest resolutions. For decades this trinity of trials has been pretty much the same: get in better shape, save more money, get organized. But this year I’m tackling something new. One of the things holding me back from living a more spiritual life, I realize, is my addiction to busyness.
The truth is, if I’m not engaged in work, filling up my social calendar, relentlessly tidying my home, doing errands and generally keeping on top of everything, I’m not sure what to do with myself. It’s as if my life only has meaning if I’m occupied every minute of the day. I have zilch in common with Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist and chemist, but I know exactly what she meant when she said, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” For Curie, what needed doing was isolating radioactive isotopes and discovering polonium and radium; for me, it’s meeting writing deadlines and getting dinner on the table. Still, the work never seems finished.
One of the things holding me back from living a more spiritual life, I realize, is my addiction to busyness.
Busyness has always been a badge of honour for me. My version of the Ten Commandments is my to-do list, and I follow it faithfully. I tell myself I will get to all the things I really want to do—read more, spend more time with friends, volunteer, write poetry, take a cooking class, nap on the couch—when I complete my list. Of course, this never happens, because I keep adding things to my list. In a perverse way, this list is a comfort; it makes me feel good, the way addictions usually do. At least in the moment, when I experience the mood boost of crossing off another item; maybe not so much at night when I fall into bed exhausted and wonder why there weren’t more moments of grace or simplicity or wonder in my day. Being busy makes me think I’m living life at full tilt. This, I know, is a problem.
Self-sacrifice often goes hand in hand with being over productive. Women in particular are raised on the notion that good people take care of others first. We wait until everyone else has a full plate, and then we take the leftovers. It’s challenging to tend to our spiritual selves when our lives are full of multitasking, duties and obligations. We can put ourselves on the back burner and become people who simply do things instead of people who experience them. And when we do put ourselves first, we often feel guilty. “Women are their own worst enemies,” says the writer Erica Jong. “And guilt is our main weapon of self-torture. Show me a woman who doesn’t feel guilty and I’ll show you a man.”
The trouble with believing your life has value only if you’re constantly busy is that you can never sit still. My husband can spend an entire Saturday afternoon on the couch, napping, playing guitar and doing puzzles. I admire this ability of his. I do. But I have to admit sometimes it makes me angry. Doesn’t he see everything that needs to get done?
The trouble with believing your life has value only if you’re constantly busy is that you can never sit still.
What my daughters have witnessed is a mother in constant motion. What kind of example have I set for them? Will they grow into women who do too much? Women who take care of everyone else and neglect themselves? Will they think their lives don’t have meaning unless they are accomplishing some task or another? I didn’t pass religion on to my kids, but I exemplify a go-go gospel. There’s a very good chance they’ve inherited the Calvinist notion of salvation through productivity that I was raised with.
There are a lot of people like me who complain about how busy they are. The idea of adding spiritual practices to already jam-packed days can seem oppressive. Who’s got time to meditate or read, join a singing group or go for a midday walk in the woods, no matter how enriching it might be? Yet the average woman spends five years of her life shopping and thirty hours a week doing housework. Maybe we owe ourselves a break. Maybe we need to lower our standards. Better yet, we can insist our partners and kids do their fair share.
Now, I’m looking for more ways to claim back precious hours. By far the biggest time drain for North Americans is how we entertain ourselves. On average, we spend eight and a half hours, the majority of our waking time, “consuming” media on our tablets, smartphones, personal computers, video games, DVR s and TVs. Do the math, and you’ll see where all our free time is going. More than 70 percent of us sleep with or next to their phones.
I’ve been as guilty as anyone. My phone had become my Bible, the thing I clasped in my hands as if it held all the wisdom of the universe. Similarly, Netflix had become my church; I regularly worshipped from the comfortable pew of my couch. I easily gave in to the lure of a new TV series, a cliffhanger podcast, the perennial ping of text notifications. I didn’t daydream anymore, not in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or standing in line at the grocery store. I wasn’t leaving any openings for spacious boredom.
I didn’t daydream anymore, not in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or standing in line at the grocery store. I wasn’t leaving any openings for spacious boredom.
All this digital consumption, I’d come to see, put me in danger of never being fully present in my life. It also put me at risk of losing one of life’s greatest pleasures: reading books. That formerly steadfast attachment had been replaced by more superficial attractions. Books could no longer compete with the slender and alluring piece of technology I cupped in my hand as tenderly as a lover’s face.
In 2017, Anne Bokma embarked on a quest to become a more spiritual person. After leaving the fundamentalist religion of her youth, she became one of the eighty million North Americans who consider themselves spiritual-but-not-religious, the fastest growing “faith” category.
In mid-life she found herself addicted to busyness, drinking too much, hooked on social media, dreading the empty nest and still struggling with alienation from her ultra-religious family. In response, she set out on a year-long whirlwind adventure to immerse herself in a variety of sacred practices—each of which proved to be illuminating in unexpected ways—to try to develop her own definition of what it means to be spiritual.