Session 2 – Freedom within the shape of your life and emotional landscape
In the first talk we looked at freedom with our minds. This week I want to look at the possibility of inner freedom within the shape of our lives as they are:
● in our life circumstances,
● with our inner emotional terrain
This quote by Mirabai Starr captures the theme in a nutshell:
"It is by showing up for the full encounter with reality that we discover our hidden wholeness, which was, of course, present all along."
Freedom within our life circumstances
I have a memory from childhood, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, of having that thrill of joy, feeling that life was good, and that everything was fitting into place perfectly. I remember belting out the song “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day; I’ve got a beautiful feeling, everything’s going my way.” Of course, much to my disappointment, this beautiful feeling didn’t last, and sadly things didn’t keep going my way. But this is a strong wish of ours, and an expectation that we unconsciously carry around with us.
Somehow in our Western psyche we have developed a mindset that life should go well, that if we plan correctly and live good lives things should run smoothly, and pan out more or less in the way we want them to – things should go our way, and when they do, we are convinced that we have found the correct formula for life. From childhood we have the “happily ever after” myth drummed into us, and our religious training has reinforced this very powerfully. If you do good, then God will bless you. If you discover the will of God and live obediently, then everything will fall into place like a well-oiled machine. What I find strange about us humans is that all evidence from our lived experiences is to the contrary, yet we still hold onto these fictitious expectations. How odd and slow we are. So when something goes awry, we ask ourselves questions like “Where did we go wrong?” or “What did we do to anger God?” or “When did we step outside of God’s will?” Or "Why me?"
But I’ve begun to realize that these expectations we have of life are rather primitive. Because life does not go smoothly. No matter how good we are, or how carefully we plan and try to foresee all the possible outcomes and make contingencies, life has a way of throwing surprises in our way. Life just doesn’t go as we expect it to. This is life as it is.
Eckhart Tolle says that he can sum up the plot of every movie that has ever been made in 3 words: “Something goes wrong”. Otherwise there would not be a story. But this is a lovely summary of life: something goes wrong. Or a more colloquial expression: “Shit happens”. And this acknowledgement of life as it is calls us to a different response. Knowing that pain, suffering, frustration and disappointment are a given becomes the backdrop. That’s how it is, so why keep fighting it? This is what Buddhists call “the such-ness of life”.
So how do we respond to this suchness? Cynthia Bourgeault says that there are two ways to respond to the surprises and unexpected turns of life. One can either be in a state of brace, where you resist what is happening, bracing yourself against it, or you can yield to what is, letting go of your expectations, frustrations and perceived “rights”, and ease into the “isness” of the moment. This, she says, is surrender. She writes:
The word ‘surrender’ itself means to ‘hand oneself over’ or ‘entrust oneself’. It is not about outer capitulation but about inner opening. It is always voluntary, and rather than an act of weakness, it is always an act of strength … because it opens the heart more directly to the more subtle realms of spiritual Wisdom and energy. …. When the attitude of prompt surrender has become permanently engrained in a person while still in bodily life, that person becomes a powerful servant of humanity whose very being radiates blessing and spiritual strength.
Lived in this way, with this attitude of open surrender, life with all its unpredictability becomes a continual open invitation to surrender. It is a more adventurous way of living, because it is more open-ended, loaded with surprises around the next corner. We are in fact acknowledging that we do not know and cannot control what is going to happen next, and we are entrusting ourselves to the Real, to God.
On the other hand, whenever we resist what is, spiritual teachers say that this is actually one of the leading causes of our suffering.
We have all sorts of lists of conditions for our happiness, that we will one day be happy if we look a certain way, or own that car or house, or have a better job, or if our partner learns to be the way we want them to be, or if our neighbour stops doing that irritating thing, or if we attain spiritual perfection etc. Our minds give us all sorts of formulae which we are convinced will lead to happy lives, formulae such as career success, health, wealth, security etc. Thomas Keating calls these our “Programs for happiness”, which he says mainly center around three primary needs: our need for security, our need for approval and our need to be in control.
And so we go about trying to alter reality to fit our programs for happiness, but this is doomed to failure, because reality has a way of being beautifully messy, contradictory, unpredictable and real!
James Finley says that if there were zero variance between our conditions for happiness and what actually is, we would be perfectly peaceful and contented, and would no longer suffer. In other words, if our expectations of what life should be like for us to be happy are exactly aligned with what is actually happening, we’d stop suffering. Our suffering is caused by our resistance to the things that we think do not fit with our expectation of what a perfect moment would look like, and by anything that threatens the hard boundaries that we have created around our sense of self – such as when somebody says something that offends my identity as “the teacher”, or “the spiritual person”, or “the likable person”.
But why does this practice of surrender “open the heart more directly to the more subtle realms of spiritual Wisdom and energy.”?
One reason is that the ego, by definition, resists reality, because its very existence is defined by hard boundaries, assertion of “our will” against “God’s will”, or against what is Real. And you can literally feel this resistance in yourself, like a wall forming against the moment.
So what we are invited to do, the only thing in fact that we can do, is to drop our resistance to what is happening, and soften to the moment in non-judgmental receptivity. This frees us from ego-assertion in that moment, and opens us to the bigger space of wisdom knowing.
Living life in moment by moment surrender allows life to become an opportunity to practice “a thousand letting go’s”. Each letting go is a gift to us, because it is another dismantling of our over-involved ego which clutches so hard to control, pride and self-assertion, but the letting go of our hard outer resistance also opens the possibility of exploring our inner landscape, and as we become present to whatever is happening, without and within, we become a little bit more free of the power of our ego. Life becomes a wonderful range of opportunities for spiritual growth and inner transformation.
This attitude of surrender, of yieldedness, is closely related to inner freedom. Our tendency to clutch onto our possessions, expectations and plans is actually a form of being trapped. We believe that our happiness and sense of okayness depends on things working out as we want them to. This leaves us in a very narrow sqished-up space, and leaves very little room for alternatives or adventurousness. So we become imprisoned by our expectations.
By yielding, on the other hand, we begin to discover an enormous space outside of our narrow expectations and plans, we discover the expansiveness and spaciousness of God, and of life, and it becomes possible to find peace in the midst of chaos when we let go of our knee-jerk responses of anger, frustration and disappointment.
We also start to recognise beauty and opportunities that we didnt see in our angry resistant state eg burst tyre and the nature around, and home affairs queues and the shared humanity all around us. This response of surrender does not mean passivity or turning a blind eye to injustice! Rather, an initial response of unconditional receptivity to the moment, whatever it is, open us to the “larger knowing”, the metanoia that we looked at last week. Our typical dualistic mind is continually judging the moment, dividing it into “good” and “bad”, desirable and undesirable etc. Any action that comes from this dualistic place is born out of friction and ego, and will therefore add to the friction and violence that is in the world. If we instead let go of our judgment of the moment, and open to the raw unvarnished real of what just is, we are moving into the unconditioned space in us that is frictionless, and free from ego-grasping. Action that emerges from this place is more wise, and likely to have more long-lasting impact. It wont add to the divisions or violence of the world, because it comes from an unprejudiced knowing, from a place that is free from ego angendas, and from an undivided heart.
And so this attitude of welcoming and surrender does lead to wise action. The attitude is encapsulated in the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the courage to change the things I can change.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Grant me the wisdom to know the difference.
This wisdom emerges from the open receptive space of non-judgment.
This is not always an easy movement to make, from our small ego-driven wills to an open receptivity to the moment, as it does involve letting go of our juicy pride, and a sense of our deep conviction that we know what should be happening, but whenever we do this we find that we have fallen into a more spacious, free, humble and peaceful space. And every time we do this, we are discovering more of our true selves, which tend to be hidden and over-ruled by the ego self. Every letting go is an opportunity for the real self to emerge, and this self is utterly free.
The sense that I have been having is that there is a whole different dimension to life that we can start to open to, a depth dimension that is not constricted by circumstances. An image that I have been finding helpful as an analogy of this additional depth dimension is one of being in the sea with wild waves breaking over me. It can feel absolutely overwhelming if one stays on the surface level of the waves, but one can dive deeper, beneath the waves. Down there, below the crashing surface of the water, if you go deep enough everything is peaceful and quiet, and the waves lose their threat.
This depth dimension offers a whole new sense of freedom, the freedom to dive deeper into this inner journey into God, into this spacious, quiet and peaceful place within ourselves that is always there, where we know that we are held, loved, and ultimately secure, and through this where we find the freedom of deep contentment and well-being no matter what the surface restrictions of our lives are. It does involve a conscious letting go of our habitual patterns of reaction and resistance, but releases us into this free open space. Richard Rohr describes this as falling through your life circumstances into your life. Your actual life, who you are in the depths of your being, and in God, is so very much vaster than your life circumstances, so don't be trapped by them!
Something that it has taken me a long time to start appreciating is that this life, as it is, is the greatest teacher, if I let go of my attempts to glamorize or improve it, and rather open to it with this attitude of surrender and receptivity. And this is something that I have been learning over the past few years – that God is continually tending our souls, through everything that comes our way. Everything that life brings us is an opportunity for growth, and has the power to transform us! Particularly when we are out of control, or when the experiences are difficult. I recently heard a beautiful line, that love is always working towards our total freedom. Our task is to open to the work of love, tending to us through the REAL.
Joyce Rupp suggests that the difficult and painful parts of our lives are doorways to our spiritual growth. She writes: “We find ourselves grumbling when life does not give us all we want or when the price of transformation costs us dearly. Failures, defeats and disillusionments temporarily wipe out our hope of reaching the promised land of our true self until we realise these very experiences are steppingstones to the wisdom we need.”
She goes on to say that by choosing to recognise these experiences as the doorway, and choosing to allow ourselves to enter through them, we will move into the space beyond which offers more freedom, and takes us deeper into God, and closer to our true selves.
So often we miss the transformational potential of the moment because we are looking for other-worldly miraculous and spectacular interventions, and we miss God in the everyday aspects of our lives.
We expect great flashes of wisdom and inspiration from God, magical writing on the wall, and God is coming to us all the time in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. Richard Rohr says: “God comes to you disguised as your life.” We need to begin to open our eyes to our life circumstances, to stop resisting them, and to recognise these as God coming to us in fresh, adventurous and unexpected ways, bringing us wisdom and tools for growth and transformation.
Freedom within our inner emotional landscape
I used to think that the goal of the spiritual life was to feel “inner peace” all the time. And I used to be a bit confused about this surrender practice, thinking that it meant that I should conjure up some kind of inner peaceful state, and in the process override or negate the inner tension I was feeling. But I have come to realise that the invitation is to say yes to the moment as it is, and receive it for what it is, all the way down - not just the outer circumstances but the inner emotional texture a well. There is a profound freedom that is possible with this open non-judgmental receptivity to the moment, and a peace that is deeper than an emotional experience.
Eckhart Tolle wrote: “Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender.”
We need to begin to honestly acknowledge and open to whatever is going on inside of us emotionally. We have become so used to suppressing and judging our emotional responses if they are difficult emotions, or trying to grasp onto them and make them last if they are happy ones, and we need to start changing these patterns, by recognizing, naming, and allowing room for whatever is going on inside of us, without resisting or clinging. But hand-in-hand with this we have to learn the art of self-compassion. Pema Chodron, who has a strong emphasis on compassion, has commented that it is difficult to teach compassion to people from western countries because we have not learnt how to show ourselves self-compassion.
On a retreat some years ago, I had come face to face with some of my deepest darkest fears, and had realized how much power they have had over me my whole life, and how much I have hated them and tried to fight them. At the time I was working with a picture of Mary receiving the Christ-child, and was struck by her attitude of receptiveness and surrender. While working deeply with this image, it struck me that my calling is to receive this person that I am, in her entirety, and to nurture her into fullness of life. It struck me that where I have rejected and scorned my most fragile, vulnerable parts, my wounded parts, the challenge to me is actually to welcome these, as I would a new-born baby, and to tenderly nurture them into fullness of life. As I have worked with this, I have found it a very powerful practice. When I have felt that familiar paralyzing fear, I have consciously imagined holding that fear in my arms like a baby, naming it, stroking its head, or touching the part of myself that feels that fear, welcoming it and letting it simply be there. Somehow this has removed the overwhelming power of this fear, and although I have still felt the emotions, they haven’t totally swamped me. I’ve been able to find a space in myself that is larger than the emotions, and that can hold them.
One of the important ways that we can work with our emotions is first to let go of the narrative that fuels them, the stories our minds tell about the feelings and their cause are like throwing logs onto a burning fire, continually reinforcing the emotional fires. Then try to welcome our emotions, allowing them to be here, - you could do this by naming them and bowing to them, feeling them in our bodies physically, their shape, whether they make us feel hot, jagged, shaky, icy, whatever – and doing this with kindness and compassion. If you are doing this as a prayer practice, you could picture allowing yourself to be held in the nurturing embrace of God.
As we do this we are allowing our emotions to become re-integrated into the whole of us, rather than giving into the old pattern of scorning and rejecting them. But when they start to feel overwhelming, it is important to return to the breath as a stable anchor, a safe space, before proceeding again with moving into the felt sensations of the emotion. Each time we can dare to stay present to the difficult emotions, some of the tyrannical power that they have over us is diminished, and we are also learning that we have an immense inner courage and stability. This allows us to live in a less victimised kind of way, and to bring this courage more and more into our daily lives
One of the practices that is encouraged by Contemplative Outreach is the Welcoming prayer or practice:
· Find somewhere to sit where you are comfortable and relaxed. Gently focus on your breathing for a while, and allow yourself to become still.
· Become aware of what is happening in your emotions and your body, and then pray :
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me in this moment because I know it is for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions.
I let go of my desire for security.
I let go of my desire for approval.
I let go of my desire for control.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person, or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and the healing action and grace within.
So the spiritual journey is not teaching us to escape our difficult emotions, but rather to learn to notice and welcome them, allowing them to have a space within us, so that eventually they lose their power to terrify us and control our lives. Matt Licata: "Healing is not a destination, it is your willingness to love all of yourself, to take all of life - the joy and the sorrow of it - into your vast heart." As we open our hearts to the parts of us that we have rejected and abandoned, we are opening to the vastness and tenderness of God’s heart, or the Universal Heart, that is spacious enough to hold all of us, even the parts that we would rather turn away from in shame or fear. And as our hearts start to open into this expansiveness we discover an ability to extend this same compassion to others, because our hearts are discovering what James Finley calls “the boundary-less deathless nature of love”.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wote:
How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all cultures – the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
So you mustn't be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything that you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, or any depression? After all, you don't know what work these conditions are doing inside you.
Ruth Burrows wrote:
“Surrender and abandonment are like a deep, inviting, frightening ocean into which we are drawn. We make excursions into it to test it, to see whether it's safe, to enjoy the sensation of it. But, for all kinds of reasons, we always go back to dry land, to solid ground, to where we are safe. But the ocean beckons us out anew and we risk again being afloat in something bigger than ourselves. And we keep doing that, wading in and then going back to safety, until one day, when we are ready, we just let the waters carry us away.”