Lessons from a Spider

By Jen Whinnen

This past summer I relocated and now live half the year in Portland, OR.  The costs of living and the proximity to family made the “half NYC/half Portland” idea make sense and so here we are, embarking on yet another lifestyle experiment.

So far I have found that Portland is a city very interested in what’s “in season” and what’s coming up “next season,” which is kind of ironic, because Portland doesn’t really have seasons. It’s a temperate climate. It has two seasons; rainy and cold or sunny and warm.  Coming from New York where the weather is like the extreme mood swings of a toddler, the relative calm of Portland doesn’t exactly scream “seasons” to me. But, perhaps that is why people are so interested in seasons here. They like to imagine that talking in variables will make noticeable changes in their environment.

Whatever the reason, one of the seasons we have experienced thus far is Bug Season.  August is spider season. It comes after wasp season and before stink bug season. Of all the seasons, Bug Season has been my least favorite. And of the bug seasons, spider season ranks last. In August spiders were everywhere.  In bushes, in trees, between trees, on the grass, in the flowers, on our ceiling, in the corners, on the car door, in the sink, in the tub, hanging mid air from who knows where, if you can name it, a spider had claimed it.

One morning a spider spun a web between the posts of our front porch and I came within an inch of getting a face full of web and squiggly spider. I was an inch away from panic attack level screams of “get it off me!” hysteria when I noticed this little punk tiger striped arachnid sitting there upside down in middle of his web staring at me. Just sitting there watching and waiting.  He must have thought he was pretty clever.  Why build a web in the rhododendrons and blackberry bushes when you can bag a human? He must have thought “enough of this small time game hunting! Capture bug, ruin web, eat bug, fix web, and capture another. What a waste of time.  I’m gonna kill a person and be done for the season.”

It had been like this for days so it was not a surprise when, outside my window, I saw a spider spinning a web one morning. I’ve seen spiders spin webs before, or rather, I thought I had.  I know I’ve seen it on nature shows.  But, until that morning, I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a spider work.

It was fascinating.

The web she was making was huge. She’d picked a spot between two large tree limbs that were pretty far apart so the circumference was about the size of a garbage can lid.  And this was a little spider. She was about the size of a nickel. That something so small could make something so big was quite a feat of engineering.  How many times did she leap from one branch to the other before she got it right? If she fell to the ground, would she climb all the way back up and start all over again? And if she made a lot of attempts, did she go back to that same spot?

And the way she worked was so interesting.  There was so much power in her. It looked like she was hovering in the air; flying from one end of her invisible web to the other, spinning line after line in an intricate, specific pattern.  She was deft and fast and worked with clean precision. She knew exactly what to do next, which direction to go. She’d make a line somewhere and then double back to the center of the web to reinforce it and then head back out again.  Her long, fuzzy, little legs would make the minutest adjustments to the thread, making the web stronger, more exact.

Her life is basic: catch and kill, eat, survive, reproduce. Wash, rinse, repeat.  She works away, busily engaged in the practice of just doing what she’s doing.  She’s not straying from her task she’s just at it, busy and focused. It’s cyclical and repetitive, but it’s leading towards something.  Completely focused on the task she was a great example of controlled concentration.

Yet, she is so fragile. She’s literally hanging on by a thread.  This fine line of invisible stuff, if I wanted, I could wipe it down with one finger.  On the other hand, it suits her needs.  Her web is as weak as any other spiders, but unlike the ill-planned web of my would-be captor, she’s built it well.  She’s picked a great spot; high in the trees near the fruit where bees and bugs will fly by.  It’s partially covered under the eaves of the house so it’s sheltered from the wind and the rain.

Watching her work made me wonder, “Is my life really that different from a spider’s?”  Life is fragile and cyclical and ultimately, it is redundant.  We do the same things over and over again. Our bodies do the same things over and over again. It is amazing and fascinating, but it is not unique.  It is mundane. This kind of plodding focused, dogmatic dedication to her work isn’t really that dissimilar to mine.  When I pay attention to how I deal with the mundane it guides me towards a life I want.  Likewise, I’ve noticed that when I act like the spider on the porch, making poor choices and living a disconnected life, regardless of how beautiful the dream is, will draw me further away from what I am seeking.

Sitting there watching that spider I realized a well balanced life is mundane.  A balanced life is not a string of passionate love affairs, but a monotonous cycle that helps draw me back to the middle.  It’s about how I spin my web. When I live on the fringes of it, when I over extend, spin too wide, spin to small, when I lose focus or pick a bad spot, people walk through it, the bugs avoid it, the wind rips it to shreds and I go hungry.  When I focus and am consistent, when I do the work of learning how to deal, life begins to reveal itself, it lays out a pattern. It tells me where to go and reminds how to get back, it reinforces the learning.

For good or for ill, it is not the grand gestures that make us who we are but the mundane.  The routine itself reveals the Self.

With this idea in mind, I embarked on an experiment. My goal was to cultivate a more consistent meditation and writing practice. I am not very good at either, but both are important to me. When I meditate it helps clear my head and I write better. When I write it’s a form of meditation.  So, I decided I would meditate and write every day for 45 days. My plan was to get up in the morning, meditate for 30 minutes and then sit down and write for 30 minutes.

Like any well made plan, it was a good one.  It was the new car of plans; shiny and bright, I was excited about it and I wanted to take my New Plan out for a spin as soon as possible. But, just like a new car, the New Plan lost 20% of its value as soon as I drove off the lot. I found that a new plan gets banged up pretty quickly when you are in the middle of a move.  It is also really hard to keep a New Plan going when you have children on summer vacation who want a lot of your attention.  And of course there were just the days.  Days when I was simply too tired, sick, stressed or distracted, days when I sat there and nothing came and nothing worked.  And there were days that I just didn’t care anymore. Like my little friend’s web, my link to my process is fragile. It is tenuous and slips out of my grasp quickly.

But, I keep at it. Sitting as often as I can and writing as often as I can after. It’s becoming more and more a part of my life.  It’s almost, almost a routine. I have learned through the mundane process of just getting up almost every day and doing it, that even if there is a break in the routine; I am laying down the foundations for what I am seeking.

The “holiday season” just ended and now we’re in the season of resolutions and new beginnings.  We are constantly inundated this time of year with messages telling us that now is the time to make those changes you’ve been wanting to make! So often we start off the new year thinking “yes! This year gonna be It!” only to get frustrated and disappointed when the days come that don’t turn out to be It.  We lose faith in ourselves and the process.  Whether you start a New Plan today or next month doesn’t matter. What matters is starting over.  And then starting over again. And then starting over again and again.  My New Year’s resolution is the same one I’ve had since I started this project six months ago. To be routine. To go back to the process again and again. To stick to the practice.

The results will take care of themselves.

this post was taken from Jen’s personal blog “The Year of the Spider” on 1/2/14. To read more, click here: http://yogajen.blogspot.com/