My House Burned Down. I Saw The Moon. (Buddhist Poem.)
Last week I asked about perspectives on suffering and how they translate into culture. This week I want to talk specifically about what can be learned from hard times. Abraham Lincoln said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” This sums up nicely the roll I think adversity plays in our lives. When everything around us seems to change, we are left to notice what is unchanging. Loosing everything only shows us what can’t be lost. When disabling health challenges take away the sense of meaning we get from what we contribute, we are left with the possibility that the inherent value of a soul is not measured by what we do, but is established by our very being.
When our illusion of control melts away, we are left to leave it in God’s hands. Fear of things “getting worse” only invites us to notice what is untouched by “better” and “worse”. When we are utterly alone in the world, God becomes more real.
It’s not that loss, illness, and isolation are necessarily ideal or welcome. Who knows their cause and if they are really necessary in the grand scheme of things? But, when bad stuff does happen, Grace seems to have a way of scooping up the dangling threads and re-weaving them back into a pattern even more beautiful and strong than before. So, we can end up grateful for hard times that we would never have chosen.
When I had a disabling illness and lived my life in bed, I struggled to find value in life through what was left available to me: prayer, sending light into the world, seeing the Christ in everyone I happen to meet in my little bedroom, elevating my own consciousness. I say I “struggled” to find meaning in these things because I also had to accept that I was utterly unable to actually DO any of them amidst active, persistent, all-consuming suffering. I could think about them, but I couldn’t really do them. I could try to remain committed to a heart open to the whisperings of the Spirit, but I only succeeded for fleeting moments. I had to let go of my attachment to doing something worthwhile with my life, doing anything at all, or even being proud of how I was handing illness. I had to let go of utterly everything, even the desire for meaning itself. Life got really simple when there was nothing to do but notice the mountain in my back yard.
I can’t say that I would sign up for these experiences again, but I can say that by living out some of my worst fears, I became free of them. I’m no longer afraid of embarrassment, disappointment, being misunderstood or alone, a “wasted life”, “wasted talent”, or “not reaching my potential”. I’m not even afraid of failing to fulfill my “purpose” or missing out on having some grandiose “calling” to serve and help others, (making me “special” in the process.) These fears were my masters before.
I’ve come to think of adversity affectionately as “forced Buddhism”. Far from the “attachment to non-attachment” that can come from reading books and “trying” to let go of attachment, real experience of limitation and suffering over time caused me to get so used to the idea of permanently unfulfilled desires that I gave up on them entirely. This sounds garish and depressing (and at times it was), but absolute lack of desire is also what Buddhists call Nirvana. This is because the flip side of desire is fear. During one “awakening” type moment, I found myself in total presence, with the total absence of desire and its accompanying fear, and it was the pinnacle of joy. Things I might endeavor to create seemed more “choices” than “desires”, because there was no longing for anything to be anything other than what it was. This was a peak experience that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks, but over time it has become grounded and stable through long term illness and the acceptance that comes with it. Ultimately, if we believe that at the soul level we cannot be harmed, even by the ultimate loss – death – then what is there to fear?
Now, as I’m returning to health and activity, I’m taking these perspectives with me. It is a profoundly more joyful life.
Here are my questions for you:
Have you experienced surrendering completely to a painful emotion (such as resignation) and finding that there was a joyous flip side to it?
Do you have experiences where loss or limitation simplified your life and made God show up more clearly?
If we are “saved by grace after all that we can do”, do you think you could accept an acute illness where you really couldn’t “do” much of anything for a long period of time? Would you fear your salvation?
Has adversity strengthened your faith? How?