by Joe Ragon
Progress, not perfection!
The wrong time to start practicing our spiritual walk is when we’re getting dashed against the rocks. That would be like trying to run a marathon having done no preparation or training. This is a consistent problem in me (and humankind, I think). My nature is to turn to God when I’m in trouble. Do I really need to meditate and pray when all is well?
For me, the “marathon” had to become an existential issue. Getting to the point of not wanting to live allowed me to find God’s peace. Does everyone have to reach “the bottom” before they let go of the illusion of control? I don’t think so, or maybe it’s just that everyone’s bottom is different.
For me, being “present” is the key!
I’ve always read the verse “Take every thought captive…” and thought the way to do that is just by thinking about the things you’re supposed to. In other words, use my “will power” to control what I think. I’ve recently learned that this is not only impractical, but I also doubt if it’s even possible.
Throughout my life, I have identified with my thoughts so much so that I believed the voice in my head was me. That’s not a bad way to live when the voice is saying “you’re great, everybody loves you, you’re children honor you, you’re fulfilling God’s purpose, your life is meaningful and purposeful”.
I think it was Carl Jung who said that “man cannot stand a meaningless life”. I think he was right.
When I’ve identified with the voice in my head and he, all of the sudden, or over time, begins to say “you’re a failure, your children don’t honor you, you are not fulfilling God’s purpose, God doesn’t even see you, etc., etc., etc.”, then you’re in a horrible spiral with what seems like no way out and, ultimately for me, no desire to get out. This is literally hell on earth!
When I first found God’s peace (when God found me), it was pure grace. I was a suicidal, alcoholic mess and God just reached down and literally rescued me. The subsequent period of amazing peace is what I now believe to be the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus said is “within you”. I had an amazing feeling that I can’t describe in words. Over a period of time, that feeling began to lessen and the “old me” started coming back: anger, resentment, anxiety, etc.
I began to listen to the voice in my head... or maybe he began to change what he was saying. It boils down to me letting go of control, or the illusion of control. A big problem comes when I start trying to take back control. With the help of others, I’m now learning how to no longer identify with the voice in my head. When I am led/controlled by my incessant thinking, I constantly worry about the future (or the mental construct of the future which is always worse than what really happens and is sometimes completely made up by my mind). When I’m not having panic and anxiety about this illusory future, I’m regretting the past. In both cases, the scenarios that keep running through my mind are much worse than anything that actually happened or might happen. What’s more, they, past and future, are the only things that I can’t affect. In other words, I’m spending all my time thinking (worrying) about stuff that I can have zero impact on. And as a result, I’m being completely absent in the only thing that I can impact - the present moment!
Imagine what sort of quality my work is when I’m constantly existing in a past and future mindset, completely beset with anxiety over both. I can tell you from first-hand experience that the work quality is poor. It’s not only about work quality, when I’m always in the past or future, it’s impossible for me to be present in my relationships. Guys are bad at this anyway. We’re always looking for something to fix.
Our wives or daughters are needing us to listen to them and we’re looking for a problem to fix and when we don’t find one our minds are off to the races, worrying about the next problem (past or future). It is impossible for me to “be there” for my family when I’m not present! It seems simple and painfully obvious now that I’m writing it down... ;-)
Accepting What Is:
For most of my life my identity has been rooted in the “confidence” I wrongly placed in my abilities. I looked at the world as a series of problems and lucky for you all, I’m here and I can fix all this stuff.;-) Sadly, I’m not joking. I believed in my own intellect almost unconditionally. I acknowledged God but often only verbally and I felt that I really didn’t need his help. So, for me, it took everything falling apart to admit that “I need help”. This is where God stepped in. The peace of God that I experienced was based on me relinquishing control, although not voluntarily at first. As a controller, I always saw things as “something I need to correct or repair”. Let me unleash my superior intellect on this, I’d think. How could anything not be better if I, at least, gave it my advice or consent? How can people not do what I say? LOL!!!
It’s easy to accept what’s happening when it’s generally all good. But when it’s not, what do you do? When I reached the point of not being able to fix the problems, still viewing life as one problem after another, my purpose seemed unclear and I completely lost my bearing along with any semblance of peace.
Thanks to God working through some great people, I’m learning how to find God’s peace in the “present” moment. I’m learning how to take control of my thoughts and not identify with them (2 Cor 10:5). When I do this, I find purpose and contentment in the smallest things. I no longer need to know what the big picture is. In this way, I seem to be able to accept what is, without fighting against it or seeing it as a problem. This includes being able to accept some serious stuff that a few months ago would have sent me over the proverbial edge, and possibly the literal one. As with my recent story, God allows us to go through hard things to help us learn and grow. Just like with physical exercise, our spirits grow, or we grow spiritually when we go through “difficulties”. If you’re like I was and see hardship as God not blessing me or me not pleasing God, it makes sense that we would suffer as a result.
If we see what we’ve historically labeled as “difficulty” as an opportunity for growth, will our perspective be different? It’s really not even about that, if God really is in control and I’m really not, He has allowed whatever is happening in my life and when I view it as a problem, I am making myself “against God”. When I completely let go of illusory control, I can accept whatever happens and have peace in the midst of it… as though what the Bible says about this is true.
By the way, I’m not referring to my man-made, self-important “theology” that I’ve developed with my keen sensibilities and superior intellect - I’m referring to the truth of God… which can hardly be explained with human words. It’s the truth that was exemplified when Paul and Silas were joyfully singing in their jail cell after having been beaten. It’s the truth that showed itself just after Paul and Silas were singing ... that shook the ground and broke open prison doors and walls!!!
Let us NOT lean on our own understanding, especially people like me who tend to think they’re pretty smart.
Practical steps that help me be more present
Like I said earlier, waiting until the wheels are falling off to start working on being present isn’t a good plan. Of course, that’s what most all of us do. Also, if you’re enjoying the blissful peace and tranquility of being present, stand by just a moment as God’s about to allow an opportunity for growth to come your way.;-)
I’ve discovered that I do way better with the “difficulties” of everyday life when I do my spiritual practice every day without fail. My spiritual practice consists of prayer, meditation, and scripture - every day. It started when I was taught to realize that the voice in my head was not me. I then started to observe it instead of identifying with it and allowing it to run unobstructed in my mind. Also, breath meditation has allowed me to quiet the voice in my head which has been a huge part of me finding the peace of God again. Meditation is hard for me as I’ve always had an abundantly active mind. That’s why it’s so important for me to meditate daily. How can we experience God’s peace when our minds are constantly tormented? I for one cannot! I also pray every morning, in fact, it’s the first thing I do when I wake every day. I repeat some rote prayers which help me remember that I am relinquishing the illusion of control and that I submit myself to God’s purpose for my life. The more I do this, the more the prayers come to mind whenever some trigger happens or the voice in my head starts spinning its tales. Also, I can do breathe meditation anytime throughout the day to help bring me back to the present moment. Sometimes it’s only for a breath or two, but it helps me immensely.
Since I’ve been doing this every day, God’s peace has returned in a marvelous way. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the scriptures I read seem much clearer and more impactful.
On this strange journey of life, it took me going into the depths of darkness to finally find the Light! Life is the proving ground of God’s word and I’m thankful that He is true!