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When crisis has meaning

I find it very useful from time to time to re-read books I’ve read before, not necessarily from cover to cover but maybe dip in and out of. I was so re-reading Marianne Williamson’s book “A Return to Love”, based on her teachings from A Course in Miracles. One sentence jumped out for me (it’s full of sentences like that!): “As ministers of God, we let our careers be an expression of our own depth, of what really matters to us. Knowing that we are acting on behalf of a higher purpose than our own self-aggrandizement gives us the joy we are all seeking”.

I find that thoughts like this tend to jump out just at the right time. They can be like sanity-checks, or wake-up calls, or awareness-raisers that put us in touch with a higher reality for a moment. What am I doing all this for, what is the point of it all?

Many will right now be wondering that. It is as though the fruits of their labours have suddenly gone up in smoke leaving them without the familiar sign-posts and with no clear indicators of where they are supposed to be going. When you’ve lost your job in the middle of some major upheaval like now, that is very likely the experience. Or you’ve experienced a natural or man-made disaster and all that you had has gone. Or you’ve just lost someone suddenly and unexpectedly, and everything that you took for granted has somehow seemingly evaporated. Nothing is the same any more.

It is that what matters to us has gone and we are left without clear guidelines. People can feel lost, disorientated, confused, angry, frustrated, bewildered. They may get stuck in wanting the old state to return, the “normal” to resume business as usual. Except it won’t. Nothing stays the same. As Buddhists say, all is impermanent. What is crucial is how we deal with it.

These occasions are wake-up calls. They are very important. They may be times for you or I to review where we are going, what we are about and what we want, to look at our values and, due to the enormity of the situation, to really get clear what we fundamentally are all about. How much that issue gets addressed can make all the difference to the level of meaning that is gained from the situation.

For example, I might spend years chasing my career and find it all collapses and I am left needing to rebuild anew. As I look back at what I was doing, I might suddenly see that what I was really doing was chasing some money-cart, forever just out of reach until it crashes and I find there’s nothing there – the cart was empty!! It was an illusion, a state of mind. So I start to review what I’ve being doing, dig deep within and get clear that there is some deeper purpose that I now need to serve. The age of materialism had masked my real purpose from view.

Had any experience like that? Been chasing some illusion?

No matter. What’s key is the realisation of what is really important, as Marianne says, what really matters, higher than self-aggrandizement.

I don’t know what occurs for you. For me, it’s a rush of blood, like my heart leaps, a sense of joy, an aliveness, an upliftment. I feel all at once totally clear and content, like everything has meaning once more.

Among other things, Marianne is making the point that, to have meaning our lives, our careers, what we do, where we are, our choices, need to be aligned with what matters to us. If what you do, the actions you take, the choices you make are not so aligned, you will know it at some level of your being. There’s a disconnection from truth, from who you are.

So these events that come along are perhaps meant to remind you once more of who you really are, to “re-mind” you, to realign your thoughts, to re-connect you with truth.

Do you have this challenge at the moment?

It can be in any aspect of your life, where deep inside you know you are not being true to who you are. The challenge won’t go away. It will keep poking through the veils of illusion, prompting you towards your ultimate reality. How much longer will you go on avoiding it, a-void-ing it?

The Void, what we fear, is actually a place of deep peace. That is perhaps the paradox of life.

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Dark night of the soul

Have you had times when things have been such that you’ve hit prolonged periods of pain, depression or illness? Have there been really hard times in your life when all has seemed to be going against you? Sometimes we hit really low points when we despair or feel utterly stuck and constrained. This is when life seems to close in on us and it appears that this is all we’ve got.

Some people call this sort of time a dark night of the soul. The phrase derives from the 16th century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, who was imprisoned for his beliefs in a cell in which he could not sit or lie down. His experiences and his fortitude amidst the seeming impossible have blessed us all and provide great teaching. I’m reading a great book about this experience at the moment called “Dark Nights of the Soul” by Thomas More and also reflecting on my own experiences.

These times when we hit rock bottom are very important. We might imagine them as “bad moments”, to be forgotten as soon as they are over. “Don’t go there,” we think, “it’s a bad place and you might not get out”, which doesn’t help much equip us with skills to help us learn for the future. In fact the more we resist a dark night, the more we get it: “what you resist, you get”, is an old saying. It is far more constructive to open yourself to the experience, to stay with it, enter into what is so very bad, so that you can get to the heart of it and learn whatever it has to teach you.

Dark nights of the soul are spiritual and well as psychological events. It is when our faith is tested to the utmost. Come out of it we can, and with important learnings about ourselves and life which strengthen us, make us wiser, purge us of ego characteristics that don’t serve us, enable humility in the face of adversity, bring about a greater acceptance of life, ourselves and others. How we come out of it is in itself a teaching, since we can learn skills about how we manage life that we hadn’t fully got before.

How we handle adversity is also a teaching. For example, over the last 3 years I’ve been tested severely around financial issues, such that in the end there was only one way to go and that was to face and feel the survival and faith fears that lay beneath the surface issues. For ages, I used to wake up in the middle of the night terrified. If I indulged the thoughts, away I would go in my mind to Armageddon. What I learned to do was to shift my awareness to the feeling, fully embrace the feeling and let it wash though me and slowly evaporate. In time I learned that fear was not to be feared. Just let it be. It is an illusion.

So too are the thoughts that support it. Just as I learned to release the feeling, I also learned to not be attached to the thoughts. Yes, I knew the theory; now I had to practice it. Noticing that I might be caught up in a vicious circle of negative thinking was crucial. I repeatedly reminded myself (re-minded myself) to stop the thoughts, to drop them. Slowly the habit would reduce, as a habit it was, and there came a point when I no longer felt the panic as I had done. That doesn’t mean the pattern has gone; it does mean I have mastery over it, rather than it over me.

So, dark nights of the soul have to be faced and embraced. This is where we get tested. As Neale Donald Walsch says, “In the absence of that which you are not, that which you are, is not”. He means it is a law of the universe. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you say you are something, expect to meet its shadow in the world somewhere, maybe its opposite polarity. It’s your shadow and you need to learn to integrate it before moving on. You will be much the wiser for it. Once you make a stand for something, expect to get tested on it. When you come through it, you’ll really know it’s for real, who you are.

More of this topic to come.