When it Rains it Pours – Personal and Spiritual Practice in the Face of Adversity
This is my second attempt at writing this post… the first one was eaten up by the software-updating gods at wordpress.org. It happened after I had spent hours on refining it and getting it just right….
From now on I am writing in Microsoft word and cutting and pasting into my blog…. Lesson learned!
It is typical of how things have been lately: Problems, uncertainty, pressing deadlines, things not working out as I had planned…. .
Isn’t it curious how adversity seems to arrive like Phone and Internet Company marketing schemes? They tend to come in bundles! Neatly or messily bundled barrages! There is little we can do about these types of onslaughts; they are like tidal waves coming at us, trying to flood our awareness with their excess of unruly currents that want to knock us over.
But we can decide how we want to deal with them: We can pull ourselves out of the maelstrom and organize our thoughts about the challenging issues by categorizing them:
Issues we can deal with directly (what we have control over).
Issues that are best delegated to other people to deal with.
Issues we can hand over to the Universe to deal with.
Now we have clarity and can spend our energy more efficiently.
Category 1 is where we can focus our energy. We have little to do with the outcome of the kind of issues in category 2 and especially category 3.
We can attempt to inspire people to act on category 2 type issues, but with category 3, we hand it over to chance, to the Universe or to God, depending on how we see these things, and we hope for the best.
It has been the category 2 and especially 3 type problems that have interfered with my sleep from time to time lately.
Letting go and letting God requires internal stamina. And of course, when we are under pressure and the chips are down, we are much less likely to have this kind of inner strength available. It seems easier to curl up in the fetal position and let the dark thoughts have their way with us.
In my case, I used to have a tendency to think that if I somehow just occupy my thoughts with worst-case scenarios, they will be LESS likely to happen.
We all know that spending our energy lying awake at night worrying is counter-productive. This kind of anxiety drains our energy. Energy that is usually in short supply at times like this! We are much less likely to have what it takes to inspire others to deal with category 2 type problems, and certainly to deal directly with our category 1 type, when we allow our energy to get wrapped up in anxious thoughts that go nowhere. We then tend to float aimlessly about with no direction or sense of purpose. Our worry-filled thoughts become like the debris from actual tidal waves.
And this type of negative thinking debris tends to knock over more in its path than the actual tidal wave itself…..
Now, I don’t know about you, but even though I know that negative thinking brings me nowhere, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the inclination to still do it!
It takes an effort to pull myself out of these kinds of negative, mindless and deceptive practices of negative thinking in times of stress.
But it takes more than just effort: For a long time, I have enjoyed a regular practice of writing in my gratitude journal every night. When the tidal wave of issues flooded my existence a few months ago, this part of my daily practice went out the window. I am a master at rationalizing my behavior, so I told myself that I had become so adept at gratitude thinking that I effortlessly now integrated it into my daily life; it had become a part of my normal way of thinking. No need for me to sit there at night and yawn over my gratitude journal. No, I had reached a level of sophistication with it now, where that kind of pedantry of putting pen to paper was not necessary anymore!
Or so I told myself anyway…..
At night, when the worry monster was wrapping itself in my thoughts, I felt a sense of relief that I didn’t have to also wreck my brain with coming up with things for which I was thankful… I could entangle myself in my worry-blanket and let it overtake my awareness.
And then a friend of mine asked me how my gratitude journaling was going. He shares this part of the path with me, and once in a while we chat about our practice. I replied confidently:
“Well, it is going great – I automatically integrate my gratitude into everything I do… it has become second nature to me!”
He made it clear that he missed his practice of writing in the journal, he too had let it slide, and I agreed to start writing in mine as well, as part of a re-commitment to the process.
Honestly, I was not thrilled about it. I felt a sense of discomfort about having to conjure up at least five things that I feel grateful for every evening before bed, not because I don’t have a lot to be grateful for. I do. But part of my agreement with myself with regards to the gratitude journal is that the journal entries have to be timely, specific and felt. No autopilot “just get it out-of-the-way” type entries for me! It is not ok to just write: “My husband, my sons, my family, my clients, my work, my friends, my house, etc.” every night. Because those are some of my biggest blessings, and for them I am grateful with every breath I take. But I find that it is most meaningful to me, if I journal about some of what I notice around me, as I go about my day.
Well, evening came. I read a book, got tired, placed the book on top of the stack of books on the night stand, and turned off the light. The worry monster was looming, and I was about to take my magic carpet ride on my fearful thoughts, when I remembered:
“Darn – I have to write in that gratitude journal – I promised to do it”
It was the furthest thing from my mind to write in that journal… I just wanted to sleep. And the inner rationalizations started up as a chorus of Sirens tempting me:
“Just do it tomorrow – you don’t need to do it now – do it later – do it tomorrow – nobody will ever know – just go to sleep – who really cares anyway….”
No!!! I had promised to do it – and I was going to do it!
So I turned the light back on again, and reached for my journal and pen on my nightstand. As I lifted the journal, the entire stack of books on the nightstand fell onto the floor – and several of the bookmarks that were placed in the books to help me remember where the quotes for my dissertation were…. well, those bookmarks fell out! I now had to try to find those passages again…
After putting the books back, I sat there in bed with my journal. Opening it, I noticed the many pages of journal entries; all the feelings of gratitude I had meticulously logged over the months and years.
“Well, I sure had a lot to be thankful for then… ”
I stopped myself…. It was clear that this kind of thinking served only to pull me deeper and deeper into the quicksand, left by the tidal waves that had saturated the ground of my being. I deliberately refused to allow this negative thinking to get the best of me…
I cleared my mind, found the last journal entry (from months ago), and put the pen on the page at the empty part of the page below it…
I was not feeling grateful… I was tired!
I decided that to get going, it would probably be good not to judge myself too much with regards to the content of my journal entry. Instead of beating up on myself, I felt a hint of compassion, which is easy for me to feel for others, but at that moment it, I directed it at me. And then I just let the pen guide me. It started writing:
“I am grateful for re-committing to writing in my journal”
It felt familiar, safe and like an old friend coming back to me.
A personal or spiritual practice, once established, is like that – a dear old friend.
There was a sense of wonder as the pen scratched the surface of the page. And as banal and trivial as my journal entry was, it was true! I wrote another entry:
“I am grateful for seeing a picture of my son at camp with a funny hat, and a smile on his face.”
The gratefulness now started to flow, and once the floodgates opened, more and more gratitude was flowing. As the words hit the page, it were as if the meaning of them was translating into the sensory nerves of my fingers, traveling up the muscles of my arm, and inscribing itself right on the ventricles of my heart; it were as if gratitude was embedding itself tangibly in my soul.
My darling husband. My sons… they were all in my thoughts, and the blessings in my life were pouring over me.
The gratefulness was real. It was not imagined or just passing thoughts. Writing it down in my journal made it come alive. It was relevant. It was however not about the quality of what I wrote, it was about my connection to it – how I felt writing it.
After completing my entry, the worry-blanket no longer seemed enmeshed in the fabric of my being. It was instead neatly folded in the bed next to me, and I could disassociate myself from it. I had a new perspective, and I could physically as well as mentally feel that I have so much to be thankful for. Heck, have you ever considered what a wonder it is that we flip a switch and the light comes on? Or we turn a faucet and hot or cold clean water flows out? It is just wondrous if you think about it….
I am delighted to be back with this part of my practice. It is there as a trusty companion. Maybe what we do consistently with our practice in the good times, will sustain us in the more challenging times?
However, it takes a lot more effort to get “into it” when the chips are down. Mindful and deliberate effort! Just like muscles we exercise in the gym, we can exercise our gratefulness muscles. It seems to give us mental stamina to endure the crises. If we have practiced enough in the good times, our spiritual practice “muscles” might even have some degree of “muscle memory” should we lapse for a time….
When I find myself in the roaring floodwaters of life, I can pull myself up onto a little floatation device of my practice from time to time, and gain a new perspective. Life includes moments of pain and uncertainty. It is unavoidable.
However, it is also in the wake of virtual tidal waves in our lives that we tend to gain a deep appreciation for what is.
The other day, my youngest son and I took two days off from my busy schedule and went to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. I watched Dylan’s face light up at the sight of the animals as we walked there hand in hand, and time stood still… I was completely wrapped up in the magic of the moment. I believe the moment was especially dear to me, because it was a stark contrast to the tension, stress and uncertainty of the previous weeks. It was celebratory. After sitting in my office holed up over intense work for a few weeks, the experience of being out in the sunshine with my son, completely present, felt so extra special.
Challenges offer an antidote to taking things for granted, when you gain perspective.
The world may knock us for a loop, but this was a reminder to me that having a good personal and/or spiritual practice helps me keep my equilibrium. It helps me to not let the panic of the bad times or the careless euphoria of the good times get the best of me. The gratitude journal is a component of my practice. And it is the one that is the hardest to do in trying times, but I also find that it is a very important one.
Because of my gratitude journal, I get a chance to remind myself that it is indeed possible to feel joy and gratefulness even when things fall down around me. I remind myself that there are opportunities in all things, if I don’t stare myself blind on how things used to be; journaling helps me gain that perspective.
Now, my blog posting is done here for the second time. It was possibly better the first time around…. But by writing it in Microsoft word rather than on my blogging site, I picked up a few new tricks that will make my blogging easier in the future. As my grandma used to say:
“There is nothing so bad that is isn’t also good for something…”
Here’s to continued joy in all the aspects of yours and my journey forward; through tidal waves, quicksand, falling rocks, mountain climbs and beautiful vistas!