A Constant Squeeze on the Heart
In her 2018 book, The Magnanimous Heart, the Buddhist teacher Narayan Helen Liebenson writes about the transitory nature of life and the spiritual challenge it brings. The conditions of our particular lives- our jobs, homes, relationships, the bodies we inhabit-are always changing, and with change comes loss. We know at some level that we will completely lose all these things eventually, and this awareness creates a “constant squeeze on the heart.”
Most of the time, that squeeze remains out of our conscious awareness. But in times of crisis or acute loss, the reality of life’s impermanence becomes clear and the limits of our control are laid bare. Surely this is one of those times. We’ve endured months of unprecedented limits on our activities and grave fears for ourselves and others, if not actual losses of jobs, income, or loved ones. Then came the brutal killing of George Floyd. The fatal squeeze on his neck reverberates through the social uprising around us and in the vise grip on our own hearts.
It is human, under the stress of change, to double down and try to exert control. “Conditions do not tend to cooperate with our personal agenda,” says Liebenson, “and yet, we try to do everything possible to make life cooperate, trying to get something out of conditions instead of surrendering to what is being asked of us here and now.” Believing that we cannot live without what we have now, we try to hold on, and this only squeezes the heart more tightly.
What might it mean in our current context to “surrender to what is being asked of us here and now?” How can we move through change open-hearted, especially when we are in anguish? And how can we use this time to deepen our relationship with the God who is unconditional and truly sustains us?
Contemplative wisdom in every tradition invites us to pause and begin right where we are, in the present moment. As each moment passes, we encounter the ‘dust to dust’ nature of our existence and our own vulnerability in that. Yet paradoxically, in letting the moment go, we find all that we need. Liebenson calls this the “enoughness” of the present moment. As Christians, we believe that this is a gift from God received in prayer. As we practice letting go and opening our hearts to God in prayer, “enoughness” can become a kind of container and a presence alongside even the most painful of experiences and feelings as they move through us. We meet, in the words of James Finley, “the God who protects us from nothing and sustains us in all things.” Letting go in prayer is also practice for letting go in life; anchored in God, we can settle into the ‘flow’ of life and learn to feel secure at a deep level even when things are changing around us.
Reflecting Peace Toward Others
Since the present moment finds most of us still in quarantine to a large degree, surrender may also mean acceptance of and even curiosity about our circumstances. What are we learning from the confines of home? As with early Christian monks who were instructed to “Go to your prayer cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” the removal of familiar routines may allow us to see more clearly those ‘conditions,’ on which we have become overly reliant or which may be separating us from God.
One of my first reactions upon learning that I would be spending the foreseeable future ‘sheltering in place’ was anxiety about not being able to go to the gym. A trivial thing to lose in the scheme of things, no doubt, but being limited in this way provided an important window into my own human limitations. What became apparent to me over the succeeding weeks was that exercise had become an attempt to overcome the physical changes that accompany aging and lead, ultimately, to death. Underlying my anxiety was the fact that in recent months I have lost several friends who seemed healthy until being diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Suddenly, shockingly they were gone. In prayer, I have felt, in the midst of grief and fear, an unconditional and abiding Presence that is helping me to accept the reality of physical change. When I do return to the gym, I hope it will be a little more enjoyable and balanced with other activities, including rest.
But the death of George Floyd and all that it has unmasked are surely a call to action beyond ourselves. I believe that it is from this sacred center, anchored in God, that we move outward with open hearts to address those conditions that must be changed to create a more peaceful and just society. Etty Hillesum, the Dutch Jewish woman who was deported and killed at Auschwitz in 1943, said that “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others.” For me, it will take time to discern in what particular way I am called to do that. But as ‘sheltering in place’ turns from weeks into months, there is a gift of opportunity for prayerful discernment and for building up a reservoir of peace within ourselves that will bear fruit in our actions.