Muddling Through

fear

Our left brain view of the world believes strongly in strategy. Planning and controlling the future is an uncontested goal for most modern administrators and politicians. They seek a utopian, perfect algorithm that will beat even the common image of the know-all, do-what-he-likes God.

But when you see the chaos rampant in The White House or the confusion in the British government’s approach to Brexit or when you speak privately to most CEOs, the reality is very different. Behind the facade of being-in-control is the fact of fear, uncertainty and just trying to see how to muddle through from crisis to crisis without losing face or bonuses. People are generally surprised – with a vague sense of gratitude to something – when things work out as planned.

This is just Life, where the best-laid plans can be swept away in an instant by a hurricane, a medical diagnosis, drop in exchange rates or clicking ‘send’ by mistake. No wonder we are afraid and deal with fear by embedding ourselves in secure routines which ‘holidays’ only serve to reinforce.

Maybe this is where the ‘fear of God’ can come to our rescue. According to Scripture it is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is a bad translation, however, because it evokes punishment or guilt. We are rightly frightened of neo-Nazis but that is a different kind of fear. The fear of God is more like the sense of vastness and vulnerability we feel looking over the edge of a high cliff, or the wonder at the moment of birth or death or the mutual declaration of love, or the night before marriage or monastic profession.

This so-called fear of God is less like ordinary fear and far closer to wonder, awe and sheer excitement at seeing our familiar world being deconstructed and transformed. It is the revealing of new ways of being that we were unaware of or sceptical about before. The parables of Jesus effect this revelation by their exaggeration and near-absurdity. Would any father be quite so welcoming to a prodigal son? Would anyone sell everything for sheer joy to buy a field or a fine pearl? Would anyone who couldn’t fill all the seats at their banquet really bring in street people and social rejects?

The very far-fetchedness of these ordinary-seeming stories with their weird spin serves as an explosive device in the familiar arrangements of our mental and emotional world. Yet, once we have accepted this revelation of the unknown, we feel not the anxiety and insecurity we dread and evade, but a new kind of peace and the mysterious certitude of faith. The irony is that the way the church tells these dynamite stories usually makes them sound like a lullaby.

There is another way to balance the real, frightening unpredictability of life with a calm and humorous adaptability to circumstances. That is found through meditation as we make a habit of poverty and powerless-ness and discover that these qualities of consciousness are not the cause of psychological fear but the antidote to fear of all kinds, except the fear of God.

In saying the mantra we recognise and accept the muddle of our minds and lives. Eventually, we become fearless. We walk through the minefield of life with a lighter step. In that acceptance we begin to see potential and pattern in chaos. We remember that the Spirit of God can do what management consultants cannot. It brings cosmos out of chaos and sets the experience of creativity way above the compulsion to control.

No Decoration

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The present moment is the whole mystery. But it is so inherently simple, unadorned and simply what it is, that it is like one of those leaf insects, so perfectly camouflaged into its environment,  that it is easily missed.

Meditation is radically simple attention to the present moment. When this work of attention reaches a degree of purity it cuts through the razzmatazz of the mind. Layers and layers of thought and imagination that we have piled on top of the present peel away like old paint.

Until then, it can be frustrating, trying to be present. It can feel like looking from the outside into a warm and cozy house through an impenetrable window while you are drenched with rain and shivering with cold. Over time and in grace, the outsideness disappears. The window becomes a friend and we are inside. In fact we are both inside and outside and therefore free of that illusion – illusions are always one-sided –  that makes us feel forever as if we were outsiders.

Being in the present is to be an insider – a citizen of the kingdom as the New Testament said to its first readers who were, for the most part, total social and economic outsiders. To be truly on the inside is not to be first class, enjoying special privileges. It is to know that the sense of being outside – for both the have and the have-nots – is equally an illusion. In this way contemplative experience promotes social justice and equality because it dissolves the fear of losing what you have to those who want to take it away from you.

I have wandered from my original point which is the easiest thing to do when you are trying to talk about something that is self-evident. The present moment. In meditation we sometimes are led into a space where the great tide-currents of the mind become still. The energy is stronger for being still. Thoughts and problem-solving, fantasy and fears recede. Complex emotional and logistical anxieties are relativised and right proportion reigns. Meditation doesn’t solve your problems. It makes you aware that you are not your problems and that you are not imprisoned in them. You no longer have to decorate your mind, tidy it or make yourself look attractive. You become like a person totally assured of acceptance and love.

Outside the present moment we are always fiddling around trying to make things better or nicer. Inside the present moment we see that things are always becoming better and nicer if we allow them and collaborate with the power of goodness that is in all things all the time. We don’t need to re-create the world but to be in the world as it is.

The deep human instinct to decorate oneself, beautify oneself and one’s surroundings yields to the perception that we are adequate, more than adequate. We do not have to win recognition or admiration. We can quietly celebrate – and if we feel like it, even loudly – celebrate this.

Nevertheless it is hard to accept at first. The first stage of the opening of the present moment, as we get free of compulsive analysis of the past and scanning of the future, is surprisingly ordinary. You might then think, ‘well it’s calm and quiet and trouble free, but all a bit plain. Like being given a plain digestive biscuit rather than your favourite cookie. Is anything more going to happen? What about the glory of the Lord, ecstasy and bliss?’

You are not ungrateful but still wondering ‘what next?’ and that tells you you are no really in the present moment. It is a good place to be and you have to learn to be there and work inside and outside from this new place of calm and quiet. It is within you but you will find that you are influencing the external dimension too. Martha and Mary get on better. The ordinary is just what it seems because it is not what it seems.

So, when the mind calms down in meditation, keep up the work of attention, let go of the remaining thoughts and questions. And then, in this plain and quiet mind, pure streams of joy begin to bubble out of their deep source