My spiritual journey began at age 26. At that time, I was not consciously seeking a spiritual life. So it was quite a surprise to me, while visiting my father in his lovely apartment on Seattle's Magnolia Hill one August weekend in 1994, that I unexpectedly discovered a spiritual perspective that deeply resonated with me in Deng Ming-Dao's book 365 Tao: Daily Meditations. I found the book sitting on my father's living room bookshelf, and I opened it first to a description of a heron standing in flowing water in a state of "lucid stillness" patiently waiting for a fish. The image made a lasting impression. Something in me wanted to live in such a peaceful yet readied state. It was my first introduction to American Daoist thought. The next day I bought my own copy. Twenty-four years later, its pages are now dog-eared and slightly yellowed and stuffed with bookmarks and cherished photographs and small scraps of paper scribbled with bits of insight and fervent prayer.
SPIRITUAL TRAINING & EDUCATION
Eleven years after discovering American Daoist ideas, I met a Daoist master living a quiet rural life in the western United States. I began full-time intensive study of his unique form of Daoist self-cultivation, a practice influenced by the kung fu tradition he had learned from his teacher three decades earlier. From my teacher, I learned yoga, dao yin, chi kung, visualizations and diet. Most importantly, during this period I spent countless hours in nature, and I spent long hours in the company of my teacher and his wife at their home. I learned from, and literally absorbed, my teacher's kind, peaceful presence and gentle way of being.
Toward the end of my first three years of concentrated study, I taught yoga, chi kung and meditation at a minimum security women's prison, and then after a decade of living away from my family, I returned to live with my mother, a pianist, poet, and stained-glass artist living on Spokane's South Hill. I continued to practice and teach from her peaceful home studio, and eventually also provided yoga and meditation instruction to three homeless shelters in the city. I continued my private studies with my teacher once a year for the next three years.
Then after nearly seven years of focused, full-time study, I transitioned from a sequestered life of spiritual practice, teaching and reflection to a more traditional life of college, career building and committed romantic relationship. During this time, I completed a B.A. in sociology with a focus on community and media. Post graduation, I shifted my research focus to the sociology of spirituality and contemplative instructional methods. After a lot of trial and error, I initially settled on instructional design as a paid profession, completing a master's degree in the field. I chose to specialize in the use of contemplative practices (often referred to as contemplative pedagogy) in adult education. This allowed me to maintain my spiritual practice while earning a living in peaceful surroundings of my choosing. This over time developed into video editing and documentary work. I enjoy using my creativity and imagination to help others and to support causes I care about.
ABIDING SPIRITUAL PRACTICE & PLAN B
The transition from practice to profession was difficult but worthwhile. Temporarily my priority shifted from Daoist practice to searching for a meaningful and financially sustainable vocation that would suit me and support a life of devotion. During this period, I doubted my decision to leave my monasticism and the safe hermitage of my mother's home. But I came to understand that when we are far enough along in our practice, if our destiny is not to be appointed keeper of a specific wisdom tradition, if we are not designated as a lineage holder or expected by our master to become a spiritual teacher, then we will quite naturally be drawn toward living a more integrated life, if only out of practical necessity. The moment we embrace a wider role, the freedom and potentialities become tremendous. But only if we keep to the middle way and invest great energies in maintaining that which we've worked so hard to attain. This becomes even more demanding than the initial years of arduous practice. The jagged cliff we constantly climb becomes a continuously inverted outcropping.
Finding a balance in the West between a deep spiritual calling and the need to make a reasonable-living doing meaningful work is an extremely difficult journey, especially if one takes up the spiritual path as an independent practitioner, as with the Daoist hermit lineage of my teacher. There are no institutional structures of support to rely on, no religious communities to join, no salaried designations like pastor, priest or rabbi to attain, no monastery or abbey to live in, no formal financial support to fund a life of spiritual devotion and outreach, unless you already have your own. And, at least initially, if one is called to put in many hours each day to maintain a rigorous practice of devotional exercises or ritual, it may just be that during that time of intense effort, traditional paid work becomes an intrusion and presents itself only as a tremendous distraction, if not a complete impossibility.
I struggled with this greatly. During most of the years of my initial spiritual awakening and cultivation, I lived far below the poverty level. It wasn't as dire as it might sound however. Intense spiritual practice naturally leads one to desire for less material things. Poverty wasn't so much a psychological burden as a practical one. But as a result of my calling to full-time practice, I experienced at times homelessness, lack of access to good nutrition and medical care and long periods of unemployment or underemployment. Basically, for most of the last decade, I lived as an unaffiliated monastic. It was only after achieving a consistent baseline level of peacefulness, that I began creating a manageable life that included both spiritual practice and a livable income working from home. With the assistance of my family, I was able to return fully to the path of a Daoist practitioner having created, in the words of Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer, a Plan B for myself. For this I am deeply grateful. (Here's a link to Fischer's wonderful article, "Why We Need A Plan B.")
MY CURRENT PRACTICE
Over the last decade, my regular habits of Daoist asceticism have ebbed and flowed in their intensity as the balance and rhythm of my life have required it. I maintain a personal practice with a far deeper appreciation of life's pleasures after having necessarily relinquished so many of them early on in order to attain better health, mental clarity and peacefulness.
Each day I remain cognizant that I can only support others spiritually to the limits of my own experience and to the limits of my own inner freedom and compassion. Each day I continue to practice and gradually grow beyond my limits. Everyday I am aware of my teacher's instruction to, "Teach only what you know." I am guided by the inspiration and support of the Daoist practices I received from my teacher and also from the wisdom traditions of the many faiths about which I continue to learn and to experience as honored guest.
I've learned that 'maturing and becoming' on the spiritual path is a natural and never ending process. Its ebbs and flows must be honored and accepted. That's a really difficult task, especially if we first begin practice with the hope of major, permanent self-improvement. But as it turns out self-acceptance comes with deepening spirituality, which means that eventually we circle back around to find that wherever we are and whoever we are is actually always okay.
Kai Dailey is a Daoist practitioner. She spent seven years studying yoga, dao yin and chi kung with a Daoist master in North America. She's maintained a daily meditation practice for the last 20 years. She currently studies Chen-style with a Daoist taijiquan master.
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