Making up stories

When people interact in a way that precipitates a negative response in us, the most common coping strategy is to create a story for ourselves which somehow explains their behaviour.

The story appears to be helpful because it gives us some semblance of control. Of course, the control isn’t real. The story too, then influences our next interaction, usually not in a good way.

The problem is – everything is happening in our own heads. And I certainly know that for me, my reactions and interpretations of what is actually happening is decidedly diminished when I am feeling threatened or belittled. So the very story that I have made up is substantially less reliable than normal precisely because I am battling feelings of rejection.

It is an urge that is almost impossible to resist. The only way out of it is truth-telling and vulnerability. When you can do that, the storm passes remarkably quickly. Once the storm has passed you can get on to dealing with what is actually important.

Too often relationships are broken over issues that are almost inconsequential. When you find yourself reacting very strongly to something – ask yourself what is actually true. More often than not, we react strongly to things because we have an insecurity and the overreaction is a self-protection mechanism. If we can just tease out what belongs to me from what the other has actually done, we can then have a conversation with the one whom we perceive to have caused us harm. More often than not, the harm they caused is not intentional and the relationship can be restored.

What control?

A few days ago I found myself answering a question posed by a friend on how one has a semblance of control in life by saying ‘what control?’ On reflection I realised that I had let go of the desperate to find my place in the world and to be able to rationally explain what that was.

It is perhaps no coincidence that I was reading some Thomas Merton this week. I stumbled across this paragraph and found it both deeply resonant and disarming.

‘Nor do I promise to cheer anybody up with optimistic answers to all the sordid difficulties and uncertainties which attend the life of interior solitude. Perhaps in the course of these reflections, some of the difficulties will be mentioned. The first of them has to be taken note of from the very start: the disconcerting task of facing and accepting one’s own absurdity. The anguish of realising that underneath the apparently logical pattern of a more or less well organised and rational life, there lies an abyss of irrationality, confusion, pointlessness, and indeed apparent chaos. This is what immediately impresses itself upon the persona who has renounced diversion. It cannot be otherwise: for in renouncing diversion, he renounces the seemingly harmless pleasure of building a tight, self-contained illusion about himself and his little world. He accepts the difficulty of facing the million things in his life which are incomprehensible, instead of simply ignoring them. Incidentally it is only when the apparent absurdity of life is faced in all truth that faith really becomes possible. Otherwise, faith tends to be a kind of diversion, a spiritual amusement, in which one gathers up accepted, conventional formulas and arranges them in the approved mental patterns, without bothering to investigate their meaning, or asking if they have any practical consequences in one’s life’ (from Notes for the Philosophy of Solitude in Disputed Questions)

Certainly my own journey into my interior has been incomprehensible and yet in the chaotic darkness of unknowing there has been a gentle drawing which was my guide. As the lived experience of the chaos recedes I find I am changed – I no longer crave control.

Soul connections

Occasionally you meet people with whom you seem to have a deep soul resonance.

It is so much more than a simple confluence of interests. I have had the extraordinary privilege of meeting three such people in the last couple of months.

Two of the three are a married couple – I first met them five or six years ago and then we simply haven’t had contact. Then I met them again a week ago and was invited to participate in a weekend they were giving this weekend.

What has struck me in particular about this interaction is that, for me at least, there is a strong response in the depths of my being. I don’t remember it being there when I first met them. We spoke the same language (in a spiritual sense) and we had a common desire all those years ago, but I didn’t experience the deep resonance.

Something has shifted. I don’t know what it is – I suspect the we have all grown in the intervening years.

I have strong sense in my relationships with all three people that investment in the relationship is going to be valuable and fruitful. In both cases (which are slightly interconnected) it is likely that we will work together to do some form of spiritual formation for others. But I can’t help feeling that there is a gift for all us in simply spending time together.

I’m looking forward to seeing what evolves.

Watching the waves

I went body boarding last weekend for the first time in years. I had been hampered for a while by a frozen shoulder and then just didn’t quite get round to getting back in the water.

I was inspired to return to the waves when I went for a walk with a friend on Muizenberg beach.

I had forgotten the how meditative it is. As you bob in the water watching wave after wave; waiting for just the right combination of timing of the break, size of wave and your own position.

Then the joy of catching the wave just right.

And then, you start all over again, making your way through the breakers and begin to watch the waves again.

There is a simplicity and an immediacy to the experience which is tremendously freeing.

If you put yourself out there in the waves and are attentive, sooner or later you’ll catch one – it reminds me of the life of prayer – if I just keep showing up and I am attentive, sooner or later, something shifts, something catches and it takes my breath away.

Third party interference

Imagine a scenario for a moment. There are two people who are part of a larger community in conflict.

Different members of the community respond in different ways. Some clearly pick sides; some steer well clear and let things work themselves out; and some decide to intervene.

It is the last group I want to focus on – those who intervene are very rarely truly neutral. They usually have picked a side but want the conflict to end.

Unfortunately those who intervene almost always intervene in such a way as to escalate the problem. They clearly are trying to help the person they favour, but they tend to do this by attacking the other person. The result – fuel to the flames!

The only way to successfully intervene is when you see that a person that you care about is being an ass, and you are able to lovingly set them straight. The only reason the intervention succeeds is because the established trust in the relationship is sufficient to contain the criticism.

Any other approach will fail. No one is going to change their behaviour for the better when they feel threatened.

Gary Zukav in ‘Seat of the Soul’ talks about the importance of intent. A few days ago I found myself grappling with this. I was about to challenge someone on a particular issue. But I realised my intent was to make life easier for a third person with whom I have a close relationship.

Whilst my advice may have been useful, I cannot give it because I know my motivation is not purely in their best interest.

Examining my own intent is a useful guide to me in navigating conflict.

A turbulent month

I haven’t written on my blog for a while, mostly because I didn’t know what to say.

March was a month of big decisions. At least one big decision. In the face of a real offer to take up a position in different line of work in a different country I chose to stay where I am.

Given that, when I began the journey which resulted in the offer, I wanted that job more than anything it is amazing that in the end I turned it down with such peace.

What is far more remarkable is the profound inner healing that pursuing this path has brought me. The story is impossible to describe in this forum. Each step required leaning into the discomfort of my deepest fear. And at each step I was met with love, care, compassion and support.

When confronted with the fear of the next step, I was bolstered by the memory of stepping out of my comfort zone and being embraced with care just days or weeks before.

It never crossed my mind that applying for a job could turn out to be a profoundly transformative experience and yet it has been.

The faultline I once only recognised when I felt the interior earthquake in my being, is now much closer to the surface of my consciousness. I feel the friction of the small interactions and I am now much more able to make better choices. Choices which were not even available to me before.

I am left with profound hope. If such healing can happen in me in such an unexpected way, maybe just maybe there may be hope for our world. As hate speech spews from the newsfeed and daily allegations of corruption and dirty dealings are revealed, I believe more today than ever before that transformation is possible.

There is a cost – we need to allow ourselves to be changed and we need to lean into those places of discomfort which exist at the growing edges of our being.

It isn’t easy, and we need to support one another along the way. Perhaps the most challenging thing is that we need to let go of any idea we may have of what the change should look like. It is only when we step forward into the unknown in good faith that transformation is possible.

I wouldn’t have dared to start the process if I had known how taxing it would be, I couldn’t have imagined that this would be the outcome. Nothing external has changed in the least, but I am not the same person. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for the healing.