February 26, 2013

It's All Well and Good Until It's You

I can talk a good game about suffering.  I have a very well-developed theology of the cross and the desert.  It's one thing talking about it and another thing to live it.

I wanted my life to be easy.  I suppose everybody wants their lives to be easy.  I wonder what it is in us that can generate that expectation when all we have to do is look at the world around us to see that life is hard.  But not my life, I thought.  I will do everything right, and I will thereby prevent every difficult consequence.  Never mind that I couldn't prevent my parents' divorce.  I couldn't prevent my mother from dying.   Nothing would dissuade me from the idea that I could control my own destiny.

The irony is that, rather than diminishing my suffering, my desperate desire to manage my life down to the smallest details served to increase my suffering instead.  There is a lot of life to be managed.  I worked at it full-time and then some.  The pressure was amazing.  It squeezed out of me not goodness and peace, but anger and frustration borne of the unacknowledged impossibility of the task to which I had set myself.

I have given up the quest.  I have laid down my sword and surrendered to the dragons.  The fact is, they will come and breathe their fire either way.

At first I was terrified, thinking that I would be immediately consumed by what was to come.  If I wasn't constantly on guard against the onslaught of the world, I reasoned, I would be overtaken and vanquished.  That is not what happened.  I am still alive.

That doesn't mean it's not hard.  It is.  The onslaught does come.  It's painful, sometimes so painful I feel like I won't be able to endure it, that I will come apart at the seams and there won't be anything left of me.

I've had to practice sitting with the pain.  My first impulse is still to wish it away and, when that doesn't work, to somehow make it go away.  That's the impulse I have to check, again and again and again.  Instead, I allow the pain to come.  I do exactly the opposite of what that initial instinct demands.  I welcome the pain.

That doesn't mean I want it, but I allow it.  It washes over me.  I have to keep breathing and breathing.  Sometimes, when it's bad, the desire to push it away keeps resurging, and I allow that too, allow it to come and go.  And I ride the pain.

Then there comes a glimmer of peace.  It's not in place of the pain; it's in the midst of it.  It's the eye of the storm.  That's a good image, because it feels like it's right in the center, with the pain swirling all around it.  But that center is a place of rest.  In the center, there is no pain.  I simply am.  It is difficult to remain there and not get drawn immediately back into the swirling vortex, but I keep breathing, keep returning, and the pain recedes, and I realize that I am not my pain.

A wise spiritual teacher has said that that swirling of emotion is like the weather around a mountain.  "I" am the mountain.  And the mountain is the dwelling place of God.

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