I would like to share a guest post with you from one of our community members and moderators in the Virtual Chapel. Jeff Campbell wrote another guest post about a year ago called The Universe Breaths in Me. This is an excerpt from his newest book coming out mid October 2020. I hope you enjoy his reflection as much as I did!
I think that the low point of my life was a hot summer afternoon well over a decade ago. Our kids were young at the time. All three were squeezed in the backseat of our car. We were driving along a freeway with all the windows open. We couldn’t afford to fix the air conditioner. We couldn’t afford lots of things.
I am not an idiot, neither is my wife. We had both had flat tires before. We should have known. In fact we knew. But we didn’t let ourselves know that we knew we had a flat. On a hot summer day. We couldn’t afford roadside assistance. We couldn’t afford a new tire.
We looked at each other fearfully. “We better check it out.” I said. “Why don’t you take the next off ramp.”
We got off on what is surely Massachusetts’ longest offramp. The sound morphed. It took on a grinding note. I grasped on to the possibility that maybe there was something like cardboard that I would just be able to pull out from under the car. The sound didn’t sound anything like that. I hadn’t seen anything before it all started. But hope, stupidly, springs eternal.
There were more problems and fears that dominated my world than I would have been able to name. Mental health struggles. Parenting insecurities. And of course, money, money, money. The finances were a symptom and a cause of our problems; the lack of money prevented us from solving many of the other ones and the huge stress levels prevented me from attaining the discipline that would have nudged our finances in a more healthy direction.
By the time we pulled over there was nothing left of the tire. And somewhere deep down inside I knew that. But life had gotten very difficult for my family and me. And it was about to get much worse. Within a few months of that time I began to struggle with anxiety and depression. Within less than a year I would be nearly debilitated by these challenges. It was not my finest hour as a father, husband, teacher. Therapy and medication were huge assets in my recovery. They were incredibly necessary first steps.
I don’t know if it was God’s hand or dumb luck that led me to discover contemplative practice at this time. Contemplative practice was the incredibly necessary next step for me. Contemplative practice taught me about what to do with my fear. It taught me to face down the highly unlikely negatives so that I could deal realistically with the much more likely challenges I would face, so I could, for example, identify that “Thumpthumpthumpthump” was a flat tire, even as much as I didn’t want it to be.
I’d like to share what I learned with you today.
Left to my own devices, when I am not using the things I have learned in meditation, when I am angry, I come to identify myself with my anger. When I am hurt– whether it is a physical or emotional pain– I see little of myself beyond that pain. When I am lonely, I come to think that I am the loneliness itself. When I am suffering I see so little of myself beyond that suffering. When I am afraid, that fear is so omnipresent that I feel swallowed whole by it; I see nothing of myself outside of that fear.
It became natural, then, to wish to disconnect myself from the suffering, in whatever form it arises by distracting myself. If I would just not think about the loneliness, I will remind myself that there is more to me than just that.
This doesn’t often work for me. Does it work for you?
Contemplation has taught me to dwell in my suffering. Not forever. Not even for an hour. But for a while. A few minutes. Half an hour, maybe. Even something physical, like a headache. When I stop running from that hurt and spend a moment occupying that space I usually discover two things quite quickly.
The first thing I discover is that when I turn off all my distractions, all my attempts to ignore it, it is usually not as bad as I thought it was. I suspect the energy I put into trying to shield myself from this makes it worse, not better. The second thing I discover is that even if the suffering was bad as it seemed, it is just suffering.
So when I explore my loneliness, there are other parts of me. They are directing myself back to this place. I am reminded that I am not my suffering, that this suffering is only an experience I am having, because I have enlisted something which can stand over the loneliness and behold it. I can watch my suffering with interested compassion and in doing that I learn that I am so much more than it.
Many of us begin with grand abstractions. We deal in a world of generalities. One part of the contemplative journey is to learn to dwell in the specific and concrete reality we find ourselves in. I explore more than study my suffering and transform it from a general abstraction into a particular lived reality. Not just back pain, but this particular back pain. Not just loneliness, but this particular loneliness I am feeling right now. We learn to be present to this particular moment. We learn to name this specific feeling. We come to attend to this particular hurt. If we sit in a car with an obviously flat tire, we name that sound for what it actually is rather than driving it down to the rim.
Many types of spiritual practice, contemplation, and meditation work on this in a subtle, behind-the-scenes kind-of way. We build our tolerance for these difficult emotions by simply exposing ourselves to them. Today, I’d like to introduce you to a spiritual practice which faces this head on. There are a few different forms of ‘welcoming prayer.’ What they have in common is their focus on naming and owning emotions which would otherwise be hard to take responsibility for. What follows is one of my favorite versions.
Making exercises like this one a regular part of your life might just transform your life. It certainly did that for me. And since I began a regular practice, every time I have had a flat tire, I’ve known what it was the moment it happened.
- Create a safe, quiet environment for yourself. Turn down your phone and consider lighting a candle.
- Breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Take a mental inventory of where you are, right now. List the feelings you are experiencing. Do your best to engage this with a non judgmental attitude. Your feelings are neither good nor bad. They simply are.
- Choose the feeling which seems to be the most impactful. Think, or say “Welcome ___________” (E.G. ‘Welcome, Fear. Welcome, sadness. Welcome, anxiety. Etc.)
- Breathe once.
- Say, or think “I let go of my desire for security and survival.’
- Breathe again.
- Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.’
- Breathe again.
- Say, or think ‘I let go of my desire for power and control.’
- Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire to change the situation.’
- If you wish, you can repeat this process for a second, troubling emotion.
This selection is a lightly modified version of a selection from ‘Discovering the Essence: How to Grow a Spiritual Practice When Your Religion is Cracking Up.’ by Jeff Campbell, to be published by Anamchara books October 15, 2020. If you would like to sign up for a free email preview of the book, featuring selections and spiritual practices, you can sign up by filling out a contact form at https://faithingproject.com/
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.