“A whole-hearted, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.”
— A Buddhist teacher revealing
“the secret to happiness and equanimity”
From John Wesley’s Journal, Feb. 26, 1743:
“I visited those that were sick. One of these had kept [in] her room for many months, so that she had never heard the voice or seen the face of any preacher of ‘this way’. But God had taught her in the school of affliction. She gave a plain and distinct account of the manner wherein she had received a sense of her acceptance with God, more than a year before; and of a fuller manifestation of his love, of which she never after doubted for a moment.”
What follows is today’s Lenten meditation in our continuing series of, admittedly, sometimes heavy meditations over the 40 days of Lent leading up to the happier day that is Resurrection Day:
Buddhist teacher and author Christina Feldman* tells of a Buddhist teacher who was asked:
“What is the secret to your happiness and equanimity?”
The teacher’s answer: “A whole-hearted, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable.”
Life is hard, life is a struggle, and like the old bumper sticker that was very popular for a lot of years used to say, “STUFF HAPPENS.”
The actual bumper sticker put it more bluntly but you get the point.
Stuff happens. And sometimes the random stuff of life happens to us big-time. Bad stuff seems to come in waves sometimes. As Annie Dillard puts it, “Sometimes it feels like all the forces of the universe are arrayed against us.”
In hospital chaplaincy I used to sometimes hear people tell stories of such awful things overwhelming them over a short span of days or weeks or months or years that it was all I could do to keep my equanimity in trying to be still with them and just listen and allow them to talk their pain and grief off their chests. A part of me wanted to just say, “Well, I know it’s hard. Can I say a prayer with you now?” And with prayer duty done, I wanted to bolt for the door and step outside a while and go swallow gobs of chocolate at a nurse’s station or something.
There’s a reason there’s always lots of chocolate at a hospital nurse’s station.
A hospital patient I visited once had just received news that a granddaughter had been killed in a car wreck. This patient already had endured six–an amazing six deaths of people close to her– including her husband, children and siblings, all in less than one year’s time.
And now came news of the beloved granddaughter, which made seven.
All I could say, repeatedly in her frequent pauses for weeping–make that our weeping– as she talked about these family members who were her life to her, was, “I can’t imagine how that feels to you.” I still can’t imagine how it felt.
The last thing she said to me after I had wept with her and prayed with her and was headed out the door was, “God never promised it’d be easy, did he Chaplain.”
“Only that he’d be with us,” I reassured her. And with that she managed a bit of a smile.
I couldn’t believe this amazing woman’s faith and equanimity in the face of such constant tragedy. And I still can’t believe how deep and mature in faith and hope a Christian like her is capable of being.
But such faith, and hope, happens. Or can.
“A whole-hearted, unrestricted cooperation with the unavoidable” is not the exclusive, peaceful domain attained by a Buddhist who has grown to accept the randomness of “stuff” laying them low in life. That peace-filled embrace of the unavoidable, which leads to healing and some measure of comfort, is what all seekers in all great faiths are seeking, and what many actually attain, even in the face of all the forces of the universe sometimes seemingly arrayed wholly and entirely against them.
We Christians speak of growing and arriving at such happiness and equanimity, which is peace, in terms of “peace beyond understanding.”
Jesus teaches us, as so many characters and stories in the bible teach us, that one secret to happiness (actually the joy from which happiness can sometimes spring) and equanimity in life is learning to embrace “the unavoidable” hardships of life. One learns from spiritual practices like prayer, worship, bible reading and all the rest, and from no small amount of perseverance in the practices.
I’ve long had an abiding interest in Buddhism and the spiritual practices of that faith tradition, which in in so many ways parallel the Christian way. My dear friend the Buddhist, poet and author Stephanie Rogers, who has many years of experience in grief counseling in hospice, always reminds people that “the only way out of grief is through it.”
As a Christian I always took that saying of Stephanie’s and framed it with grieving people with the image of Christ walking with us through the dark valleys of loss and mourning and grief. Christ walks with us through our dark valleys toward the bright light of healing and renewal. Sometimes all we can do is surrender and let him pick us up and carry us.
Put another way in the Christian scheme of things, sometimes the weight of our cross is too much for us to bear and we just hand it over to the one who was nailed to it in the worst event of suffering imaginable, an event that wasn’t exactly random, which he accepted and cooperated with.
A Christian, like a Buddhist, accepts, or learns to accept through the two faiths’ different means of the embracing of suffering, that hardship and more suffering in life are unavoidable. Once accepted, then comes the never-ending spiritual practice and discipline required in both traditions, and all great faith traditions for that matter.
But I am a Christian. And as for we Christians, we can either try to escape hardship and grief by over-drinking, over-eating (too much chocolate, perhaps), over-sexing, over-shopping or a million other unhealthy and potentially destructive escape routes, or we can follow the examples and teachings of Christ and so many characters in the bible, and so many biblical stories, and learn to “cooperate with the unavoidable” in life.
We only have to look to our own Christian Psalms, which other faiths honor and respect and sometimes turn to and for good reason, to find the Psalmists processing pain seemingly beyond belief–some of them to the point of lashing out in anger at, or frustration with, the Almighty.
“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
When the Jewish rabbi Christ uttered those agonizing words in his suffering on the cross, he was quoting right out of Psalm 22.
Speaking of embracing suffering; see Judaism 101 for that tradition’s unflinching take on it and how to handle it. And Judaism’s tradition, Christian brethren, is our tradition still, to a great extent.
The Psalmists that we find crying out in anger or agony in so many such “lament Psalms” as Psalm 22 inevitably end up singing God’s praises before a Psalm is over, but the point is that they embrace the pain and agony on the path to healing and hope renewed. They remain in conversation with “the Father” even if for fleeting moments they hate the Old Man.
When people say to me as a pastor–”I know we’re not supposed to be angry with God. . . .”–I cut them off and say, “Wait a minute–where is that written?”
Stuff happens and will. Suffering will ensue. It will be hell sometimes. And we might even curse God in it in the midst of (like Job’s wife advised). But God has very large shoulders and thick, God-like skin and can take our ranting. And anyway, our suffering can be transformed, and healing can always happen,
and then . . .
well . . . I always thought about investing in and marketing bumper stickers that say, “HOPE HAPPENS.”
But I don’t know.
That might be a risky venture in a world where practices of instant convenience, instant comfort, constant entertainment and “instant gratification” make suffering and its embrace in faith a hard sell.
*Christina Feldman is the author of a number of books, including Compassion and The Buddhist Path to Simplicity. The quote was taken from a 2008 article by Feldman in the Buddhist journal Tricycle, “Long Journey to a Bow.”