In church yesterday, a visiting speaker spoke about fear. How when you deal with fears directly and see them for what they are, the matters often remain as clear and as contained as a small glass of water. In another form, however, the same glass of water can become enough fog to obscure an entire street.
The illustration was given in reference to King Herod’s reaction to the news of a Messiah and the terrible result of his fears, but it was an interesting echo to my own reading and thoughts lately.
After finishing a 100 day reading series of Biblical passages about the life of Christ over the summer and fall, I’m currently journaling my way through Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart. It’s a Buddhist book on mindfulness, and I understand that’s problematic to some Christians, but with a few notable exceptions (Merton and Nouwen and Keating come to mind) I have trouble growing the contemplative and peace-oriented part of myself with a steady diet of mainstream American evangelicalism.
A few days ago, while responding to chapter five, I read this quote: “It is said that we can’t attain enlightenment, let alone feel contentment and joy, without seeing who we are and what we do, without seeing our patterns and our habits. This is called maître—developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves.”
This was my (mildly edited) journal response:
A first today, and an interesting experience in terms of zen as well as parenthood.
Iris had a terrible night. Up until 9:45 (grumpy and manic, alternately), awake half a dozen times during the night—often difficult to resettle and needing to nurse, and up for the morning (decidedly cranky and fragile) at 6:45.
Anyway, I was rocking her, trying to settle her down for her first nap and she kept wigging out. It went on for what felt like forever, although when I looked at a clock later it turned out to only be half an hour.
And the whole time I was trying—not to “control” myself or feed myself a storyline of the strong mother or the spiritually awesome person—but just to keep recentering myself on the reality of the moment. For the first time, I could see that my anger and anguish was coming from my own consciousness, not reality. I could see the storylines I was reacting to:
° This is awful
° I didn’t get enough sleep to deal with this
° What if every day is this hard for the next five years?
° What if it’s my fault Iris has sleep issues?
° What if I’m doing something wrong?
° How convenient that Carl can’t nurse and never deals with this
° I hate being a parent
° I’m a terrible person that I hate being a parent
And each time I felt my emotions growing huge in response to these storylines, I could see to my surprise it wasn’t real. What was real was: Sitting in a warm, dim nursery. In a comfortable chair. With a mild headache. Cradling a crying baby, who isn’t in pain and isn’t being harmed. Just exhausted and frustrated.
Detached from those storylines about what the moment meant, I found the moment itself surprisingly bearable.
Not my favorite, sure.
But not my least favorite either.
It’s not that it solved my problem. Iris is still sleep-deprived, and after I spent half an hour getting her to sleep she woke up crying again five minutes later. But it’s a bit like stopping a wound from hemorrhaging. If you can stop your energy from escaping in highly dramatic plot lines, and keep it peacefully within… then you will have enough energy left over to meet whatever challenge you are actually facing. Not the challenge you conjure in your fantasy world. Not the story of epic catastrophe and total destruction your fears might be feeding you.
Just the thing that is actually happening.
Of course it all sounds simplistic and natural. Truth usually does. It can be surprisingly difficult to remember this, however, when we’re actually in situations of extreme discomfort. When we lose jobs or have conflict in our marriages, have intense deadlines at work or are navigating parenthood for the first time.
I was thinking about all of that again this morning when we pulled back the living room curtains and saw the street and trees full of fog. Let’s go for a walk, I said.
A perfect morning for it. We didn’t see a single car pass, and Iris was so cosy when I scooped her out afterwards that she went down for her nap without a fuss and is still sound asleep.
Awareness is good.
Peace is even better.