Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Whole Truth - or moving in that direction

There's a lot of talk these days about Living in the Present Moment. Everywhere you go, some magazine you pick up has something about it - usually about the joys of the moment and how much richer and fuller life is if we pause to notice the sunset, the chirp of the birds, the blue of the sky, the wonder of being alive. And it certainly is true. Life is richer and fuller if I take the time to be more fully present to what's around me.

But what I notice about this is that the experiences that are described have a certain sameness to them. I think that without exception the ones I see and hear described are of pleasant moments. I don't believe I have ever heard someone extol the virtues of the Practice of the Present Moment and then describe how they relaxed and sat still and opened to the world around them, and then heard the screams of some small creature being killed by an owl down in the woods, or heard the sound of a toilet being flushed, or became aware of a small persistent sound that meant that something was seriously wrong with the furnace. All of these have happened to me while practicing the present moment.

I have nothing against enriching my life with pleasant experiences. I like doing that a lot. But I also have a persistent aversion to the relentless optimism of our culture, especially when it's carried to the extreme that it quite often is, and becomes insistent that unpleasant experiences can not be admitted into consciousness. "Oh, you don't really feel that way." Ever heard that one?

This is an old and ongoing issue in prayer and meditation. People have a terrible problem using the Psalms in prayer because so much of their content is very negative, and Americans don't think that strong negative emotion can have any place in prayer. A great many people - myself among them - approach meditation with the unconscious expectation that what it's for is to make us feel peaceful. We work very hard at praying positively and making ourselves feel calm and then we're surprised that we have problems with our prayer and that our meditations are dry and difficult. Some years ago I finally had the grace to realize that was because I wasn't really trying to pray; I was really trying to keep my prayer from going where it was being led. I was really trying to perform surgery on myself, and my self was fighting back. It didn't want to be cut up, and it didn't want to be ignored when it tried to tell me something. God can be very persistent when we resist.

There are techniques that will allow you to put away anything disturbing and achieve a space of interior calm, no matter what is going on. But they are hard to do and they are always temporary. What is there inside waiting for us is always willing to wait a little longer, until we are available again.

This week has offered a wonderful example of this. I've been the refectorian again this week, and we had a huge group in the house, which has meant that a sizable portion of each day had to be spent attending to the multitude of details that go into getting a large group fed. I've written about this before and described the difficulties and annoyances of the whole task.

This week, right out of nowhere and completely unexpectedly I found that the job was a total joy. I loved doing it. I loved all of the details. I delighted in putting everything else aside and running downstairs for more peanut butter. I felt really good about needing to resupply the containers of tea, and finding where the coffee filters had gone to. It was a real foretaste of paradise to have my ministry this week be the care and feeding of my community and our guests. And not surprisingly my prayer was also flowing right along and my meditation time was an experience of serenity. What a great week!

Until Friday, that is. On Friday morning I woke up as usual, got 6 carafes of coffee made, got my shower and settled down for some meditation before the first Office, and all hell broke loose inside. Something in me shouted at every possible moment that disaster awaited around the next corner. Every time I tried to be gentle with my thoughts they told me that there were 20 different kinds of difficulty awaiting me in the refectory, and they were all going to be disastrous in their effects and they were going to cause trouble and embarrassment for me and for everyone else. The day hadn't even begun and my prayer was a shambles and it looked like serving breakfast was going to be a miserable failure. It was anything but paradise.

OK - I could have chosen the road of pacifying those feelings. I could have pushed them aside, at least for the time of the meditation, and by an effort of pure will, found a more peaceful place. But I was pretty sure that being ignored, my feelings would just take revenge later. What I needed to do was to take the present moment seriously. What I had was a big case of interior chaos. That's where I was - that was the present moment. That's where I needed to be.

So I turned to it. I took it seriously. I looked at all of the awful stuff that I was imagining and did my best to give it some open space in which to unfold. "What's this about?" "What do you need?"

Ah. Yes. I was feeling overwhelmed. This happens to me. It's part of my makeup. It's part of having grown up in my family, and being the child of two parents whose families were poor and who had survived the Great Depression at considerable cost to themselves. I suppose that it might have been something telling me something serious - every now and then it is. But this time it was the more frequent message that my system as just out of balance. It happens.

To point myself back in the direction of balance I've learned that I have to divide my tasks up into little parts. When I'm in this kind of mood I get overwhelmed very easily. So making the coffee for 50 people can easily send me into interior screaming fits. But opening one bag of coffee at a time... oh, I can manage that. Then putting the coffee into the filter. Yep, that's doable. Letting the machine pour hot water over it - seems simple enough. You get the idea. Everything has to be chopped up into small parts and accomplished one at a time. Then my insides will listen to me, and will settle a bit.

It wasn't pleasant - I won't pretend that. It was difficult and I didn't like the way everything felt. But it was possible, and it got done and even more important I did it without biting anyone's head off, which is always an issue. And even though it felt so unpleasant, it was also deeply satisfying. I was given a message, I heard it, I did what I needed to do to respond, and I got through.

And that was very good.

It also made for a much, much better meditation than pushing all of my stuff aside and forcing myself to be calm would have.

We all have to practice this as we can. We all have a different balance point and we can all handle just so much, and we have to work with that. My answer won't be your answer. But for me I know that the answer is that the present moment - as much of the present moment as I can awaken to - is better than trying to choose only a part of the present moment and trying to make myself fit into that. Wholeness really is more satisfying than surgery.

No doubt there will be more about this as time goes on.

6 comments:

Gannet Girl said...

My experience is that practicing attention to the present moment when the moment is good, or easy, or fun, makes it possible to be in the moment when it is none of those things. A lot of what happened in the aftermath of my son's death last year is lost to my memory, prevented by the shock and horror from being retained at all, but another chunk of it, agonizing stuff, I was very present to and remember clearly -- the product of prior practice of attentiveness.

MEH said...

Yes, Bede, the answer is that we are all different - different crisis points, different 'alleluia' points, different places of wondrous calm. As you know the past few years have not been easy for me in terms of health. It was with the 3rd or 4th knee surgery I settled down and went with the procedure and the aftermath. I was out of the rehab hospital faster than usual.
It is sitting and making a decision that we are ourselves and there is no formula that will get us to see it. It is a moment of inspiration and insights that comes and goes as out life moves and grows.

joel said...

I couldn't agree with ya'll more. Sometimes we have to sit momentarily with those dark moments ...and see what they teach us. It can be just as important as joyous moments is my experience.

Br Bede Thomas Mudge OHC said...

Thank you for 2 very insightful responses. Yes, practice with the pleasant moments does make it possible to be with the really awful ones. Even more, practice with the moments that are just slightly unpleasant or disturbing prepares us for the bigger things that we all meet sooner or later. And knowing how to do this is a different process for each of us and is always a work of grace. Each of you expands what I want to say very beautifully.

Greg said...

Thank you for your honesty. It is good to know that even monks struggle with the same internal conflicts as we laypeople.

Karen Lea Siegel said...

Interesting...I've been having a month or so of this, in working on a couple duets with a friend. We've now performed one twice, and the other once, in two different churches...that was the simple part. The tough part was being present to all the emotional stuff that the work was bringing up, and staying as absolutely grounded and centered in the Spirit as I could possibly manage. It's been...challenging, but glorious.