Sister Joan Chittister tells the story of a seeker who once asked an elderly monk “What is it you do in a monastery?” And the old man took a minute and then he answered “oh, we fall and we get up, and we fall and we get up, and we fall and we get up again.”
Do you ever feel like your life is following the same pattern? We fall down, we get up, and we repeat the process. What spiritual principles can we learn to help us bounce back more fully when we do fall down?
First, let’s be aware that we tend to focus more on troubling events than on happy ones. It’s a fact of our wiring.
Research tells us that our brains have a built in, hard wired “negativity bias.” More neurons fire in response to pain than in response to pleasurable physical sensations, and if you think about it that makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Being chased by a predator? Better take off, fast!
However, this bias also results in our having a greater tendency to hang onto painful events or memories even when our physical survival is not threatened.
Our brains are like Teflon for positive experiences, but Velcro for negative ones. You can probably see this happening in your own life in insidious ways. For example, at the end of the day, what do you find yourself focusing on? The dozens of things you did right, or the one mistake you made? If you’re like me, it’s likely the latter!
This tendency is important to remember as we figure out how to navigate life’s challenges. Which are you – Teflon or Velcro?
For a Teflon person, life’s stresses just slide off, like eggs in a pan. Teflon is a material that offers no resistance, and items on it just don’t stick. It’s like those slick green metal roofs on buildings in places that get a lot of snow and ice. If those roofs were not highly slippery, the weight of sitting snow and ice would crush the houses. However, the roofs are made to let the weight just slide off.
At the other end of the spectrum, and it is a spectrum, is the Velcro gang. (You know who you are!) This group is made up of those who dwell, focus on the problems life has dealt them. Penn State professor David Almeida says it’s these Velcro people who end up suffering health consequences down the road. This is not surprising to those who know that our minds play such a part in creating our physical reality.
Do Teflon people have problems too? Of course they do – the difference is in how they perceive them. Teflon people are less likely to permit these stresses to derail their wellbeing, or take over other aspects of their lives.
So, what practices can we use to help ourselves better weather life’s problems, letting them slide off without draining our energy and joy?
All spiritual systems are ways for us to rise above what Father Richard Rohr called the stumbling stones in our paths. Our spiritual practices help us remain connected with what he calls our True Selves, which are whole and at peace throughout it all. Think of the ocean – at great depth the waters are peaceful and quiet, while above roar the wind and waves. Our goal is to keep in contact with the deep and peaceful waters below, even as life may hand us turmoil and pain.
My reflections here are based in part on Father Rohr’s book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” There he found it helpful to draw a distinction between our younger years, spiritually speaking, in which we create the container that we later fill with experience, awakening and wisdom. We need the rules found in the first half of our spiritual journey so that the structure is in place to support our continued growth. Our challenge is not to remain focused on the structure, as it’s only a means to the end.
Sister Joan Chittister calls this distinction the difference between religion and spirituality. She tells the story of a dying Sufi master, whose disciples are gathered around him in great distress. They cry “Master, after you are gone what shall we do? He answered “I am a finger pointing at the moon. Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.”
Religion is the finger pointing at the moon, which is Spirit. It is not itself Spirit. The rules, structures, and rituals are only tools to help us see the moon.
She writes “the very purpose of religion is to enable us to step off into the uncharted emptiness that is the spiritual life, freely but not untethered. We have under our feet the promise of the tradition that formed us and the disciplines that shaped our souls. We can then wander through the pantheon of spiritual traditions freely, going deeper and deeper into every question from every direction. In the end, we become more, not less, of what we ourselves know to be our own religious identity.”
Where do we see instances of such useful tradition? You will find in Islam that all observant Muslims are called to pray five times a day. Many Catholics and some Protestants pray daily according to a lectionary, or list of daily readings. Many Buddhists meditate and pray daily, often more than once. Hindus often have a shrine in their homes in front of which they pray daily.
Many spiritual seekers not following a particular faith tradition also incorporate a daily structure of prayer, reflection, silence, or meditation. Such a structure provides the grounding we need to maintain our balance in times of difficulty or stress.
Carl Jung says that “the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”
Have you found that life’s problems can be solved, like a puzzle or a tough project at work? I haven’t found that to be the case. Instead, I have had to learn to let life’s headwinds flow through, around and over me as my world changes and a new normal emerges. I haven’t solved my problems, but have lived through them and grown because of them.
I am also reminded that life’s “greatest and most important problems,” as Jung put it, might not always be life-altering events. Every day we face stress, difficulty, disappointment or pain. We are faced with the critical question of how we choose to perceive these daily stresses and vicissitudes of life, because over time they will surely wear us down if we let them. Do we welcome life, however it shows up, or fear it?
I spoke recently with a friend who described a disturbing trend in his life. As he put it, “I used to be a nice person” but now was not. He was becoming more fearful about nearly all aspects of his life, and it affected his viewpoint and his relationships. Bit by bit, he was hanging on to the negative he saw around him, and at some point he began to expect that all that came his way would fit that profile.
He wanted this pattern to stop, but could not figure out how to make that happen.
I suggested that he begin a short daily practice of reflection, prayer and silence, simply to slow his busy brain for a few minutes a day and open his consciousness to the presence of Spirit. I suspect that we need these conscious, regular efforts to keep our hearts expanded, or our natural proclivity for the negative may cause our walls to close in.
Awareness and commitment help us break this cycle. We know that such fearful thinking doesn’t represent who we are. Instead of walking through life with our heads down, let’s give ourselves those daily practices that help us to remember, as author Thomas Merton wrote, that we are all walking around shining like the sun.
Here at One World we frequently quote Thomas Merton, one of the wisest spiritual seekers of the last century. You may recall that Merton was a Cistercian, a Trappist monk dedicated to a life of contemplation, silence, and daily prayer. That is the structure that formed his spirituality, and even though he borrowed and learned from other traditions, notably Buddhism, he used those practices to nourish his walk on his own path.
So, what does your structure look like? More importantly, how does your structure help you successfully weather life’s challenges, and, if it does not, how can you change it?
Father Rohr gave some suggestions for thought as we consider our daily practice. Here are some of his recommendations:
First, give yourself what his tradition calls a Sabbath, a day of reflection and retreat to rest in the awareness of God. You can call it whatever works – a time apart to renew and refresh helps us remain centered and at peace. A full day is best, but even several hours helps!
Second, take time for acts of service. Father Rohr writes that service to others “allow[s] natural welling up of love to flow outward in acts of justice, healing and compassion… Life is not about you, you are about life.”
Third, find and treasure spiritual companionship. The Celtic tradition gives us the idea of “anam cara,” or “soul friend.” Such a friend companions you on your journey, acting as a support, mirror, and counselor. Father Rohr writes “if you do not have someone to guide you, to hold onto you during the times of not knowing, you will normally stay at your present level of growth. Seek out a sacred companion you can trust to be honest and present to your journey, who can reflect back to you God’s presence in your life and world.”
So, this week, let’s consider the structures we have that keep us connected to Spirit. Are there any practices or rituals from years past that continue to sustain you? What new practices have you developed, and how do they move you forward on your spiritual journey? Do you follow them daily, and if so do you find that to be a grounding practice? Think about your spiritual journey, and identify for yourself those practices that feed your soul. Share them with us, and let’s move forward together!
 Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. N.p.: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. Print.
This blog is based on Rev. Melanie’s talk on March 12, 2017.
You can listen to the entire talk on our website or on YouTube at our One World Spiritual Center channel.
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center