July 18, 2011

Strategies for Stillness

Today's first reading contains one of my favorite verses in all of the scriptures, Exodus 14:14,"The LORD himself will fight for you; you have only to keep still."

A simple doctrine, but one of the hardest to put into practice. It's our interior distraction that keeps us simple prey for everything that makes us unhappy, with thoughts and feelings swirling around and darting about all over the place. We need some interior stillness if we are to surrender to the God who wants to fight for our freedom. Indeed, God has already won the victory over misery and sin; it is us who have not yet consented to receive it.

But we can't just decide to have interior stillness. We need to practice, and practice demands a plan, a strategy.

It seems to me that our lack of interior stillness comes from the afflictive emotions such as anxiety, fear, and anger. There are two standard ways of dealing with these emotions.

Some people turn afflictive emotions in on themselves and become anxious, afraid, self-hating, and depressed. Instead of taking responsibility for their feelings, they do violence to themselves instead.

Others attempt to export these feelings into others, usually by taking emotional advantage of loved ones or caregivers (including pastoral caregivers.) They might feel better themselves after raving or complaining, but the amount of affliction in the universe has not been reduced, only transferred from one heart to another.

Unfortunately, sometimes the sort of people who get into ministry suffer a double dose in this regard. They tend to be the sort of introverted people who turn feelings in on themselves and become anxious and depressed, and they are also often the sort of are just a little bit codependent on those who claim to be suffering, and become willing conspirators in the false compassion of letting someone export their pain into the consciousness of those they seek out for care.

So, back to strategies for fostering interior stillness.

1. The sort of person who violently turns her afflictive emotions back on herself needs to realize that such a thing is false responsibility and a failure to really believe that the soul is lovable before God and deserving of better treatment. We might not be able to believe that we are adorable just the way God made us, but we can consent to the truth that this is how God feels. That's the beginning of better self-care.

2. The sort of person who tries to feel better by exporting his anxieties needs to take responsibility for himself.

3. In all cases, we need some kind of prayer practice that helps us to dis-identify with our thoughts and feelings. After all, the things we think and the feelings we happen to have, both good and bad, hardly exhaust who we are as unique and unrepeatable creations of God. And yet, without any practice of letting go of conscious thoughts and feelings as they arise, we will simply act as though we are how we feel and what we think. Through contemplative prayer we can begin to touch the more interior person who is prior or superior (pick your metaphor) to our conscious selves, and thus we find that in the rest of our daily lives we are less bothered by the chaos of our minds, less thrown about by feelings and ideas as they arise.

4. Finally, something like 'guard of the heart' is very useful. We have to decide that nobody has the right to occupy our consciousness without our permission. So many times we continue a difficult conversation with someone in our mind, long after the real conversation over. Or we waste time rehearsing arguments or conversations that might happen. In all of this we are placing our attention into an unreality, and as long as we chase things that aren't real, we will find ourselves unhappy. When we practice guard of the heart, we consciously remind ourselves that others are not allowed to export their fears and anxieties in our hearts. To the person who is a little codependent, this seems cold and unfeeling, but in reality doing so will help us to see clearly how we can truly offer help to another.


Greg said...

Very helpful analysis. Especially accurate for mediators or peacemakers who must enter troubled mental territory, empathize with the parties, and lead them to a quieter place where creative solutions can be found.

The description parallels ideas I presented this past weekend in a talk on The Face of a Franciscan, which addressed how a Franciscan, in seeing the divine in the Other, is able to bring the Presence to a situation so as to bring about harmony and peace.

You may be familiar with the phrase The Face of a Franciscan from the wonderful works of Murray Bodo.

atara said...

This is fantastic! I'm a #1 most of the time. Excellent wisdom.