Dearest monks and artists,
Happy New Year!
We begin our Midwinter God online retreat tomorrow. I offer you this reflection on the spiritual practice of being uncomfortable which is at the heart of the journey of descent:
Part of my daily contemplative practice these last several years has been yin yoga. In yin yoga, the poses are held for long periods of time (anywhere from 3-20 minutes). The physical effect is a stretching of the connective tissue of the joints. The spiritual invitation is to go to the edge of my discomfort and rest there, staying present to my experience over time, to soften into the edges, and continue to breathe. Each morning I willingly go into uncomfortable places to practice being at these edges of life.
The wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers offer many parallels with their spiritual journey and the path of yin yoga. These wise elders went out into the desert, the place of barrenness where life is stripped bare, and they sat with their discomfort paying attention to their inner experience. In this wild space they confronted their inner voices, the temptations, the distractions, the tyranny of thoughts that would arise. They kept showing up until they could begin to cultivate a sense of equanimity. They were seeking hesychia, which is the Greek word for stillness. It means more than silence or peacefulness; there is a sense in which the stillness is the deep, shimmering presence of the holy.
We each have a threshold of tolerance for uncomfortable or painful experiences. When we stay within this range we can be present to what life brings us in the moment. When we drop below our threshold we become numb to what is happening and seek out things that help us avoid the pain, like drugs or overwork. When we move above the threshold our anxiety kicks into overdrive and we feel panicked, unsettled, or ill at ease, always grasping at control.
The only way to widen our threshold of tolerance is to dance at its edges, to consciously go to uncomfortable places and stay present. When we risk the unfamiliar, our resilience grows and we become more capable of living life fully.
In one of the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers a monk comes to visit Abba Moses and asks him for a word. The reply he received was: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” The monastic cell is a central concept in the spirituality of the desert elders. The outer cell is really a metaphor for the inner cell, a symbol of the deep soul work we are called to, to become fully awake. It is the place where we come into full presence with ourselves and all of our inner voices, emotions, and challenges and are called to not abandon ourselves in the process through anxiety, distraction, or numbing. It is also the place where we encounter God deep in our own hearts.
Connected to the concept of the cell is the cultivation of patience. The Greek word is hupomone, which essentially means to stay with whatever is happening. This is similar to the central Benedictine concept of stability, which on one level calls monks to a lifetime commitment with a particular community. On a deeper level the call is to not run away when things become challenging. Stability demands that we stay with difficult experiences and stay present to the discomfort they create in us.
Wherever we are, we are called to stay in the monk’s cell, which means to stay present to our experience. As a culture we rarely acknowledge the value of being uncomfortable. We strongly discourage people who are grieving to stay with their sadness, but instead tell them to “cheer up” or “move on” rather than explore what grief has to teach them. We are forever seeking the next thing to make us feel good.
So much of what passes for spirituality these days is about making us happy, about affirmations and having positive experiences. We engage in what the Sufi poet Hafiz calls “teacup talk of God” where God is genteel and delicate. Sometimes we really need this; we need to remember that we are good and beautiful and whole just as we are.
But sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wildness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience. We may cultivate a freedom we have never known before because our fears become something to move toward rather than away from.
By staying present to the discomfort of life we grow in our resilience and our ability to recover from the deep wounds that life will offer us again and again. We grow in our compassion for ourselves, as we learn to embrace all of the vulnerable places within. And as we embrace these in ourselves, we grow in our compassion for one another. We grow in our ability to experience hesychia—that deep presence and peace—in the midst of life’s messiness and uncertainty.
In light of what we have endured in 2020, growing our capacity for presence in the midst of uncertainty is a gift we offer to ourselves and to the world.
You can join us for a journey to practice staying with what is uncomfortable, making space for it to shape and transform us, in our 6-week Midwinter God online retreat which begins tomorrow.
We also have a day retreat this Wednesday for the Feast of Epiphany if you are ready to welcome in the joy of new insight and discover into your life.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE