Let’s see now…we’ve had an unarmed man shot to death in Missouri with resulting unveiling of the fault lines in our racial history; we’ve had horrible news out of the Middle East and Ukraine and elsewhere in the world; we’ve seen someone many of us admired lose a long-fought battle against depression; and, oh, by the way, a 6.0 earthquake just took place about 5 miles from where I am now sitting. And school is starting, as well as the program year. So how are you doing?
We’re fine here. Really, we’re fine. But I find myself feeling very tired and thinking, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve got nothing to be tired about.” And then the kinder voice in my head says, “It doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ve got something to be tired about. You. Are. Tired. That’s just a fact.”
So when I’m asking, how are you?, that’s a serious question. How are you? What is your state of being right now? Pensive? Anxious? Excited? Calm? Frazzled? Sad? Confused? Afraid? Overwhelmed? Distracted? Angry?
You don’t need to tell me. But I think it’s important for you to know this about yourself. How are you, really? Not how you think you ought to be, or how you want to present to others. But just between you and God and anyone else you trust: how are you?
This isn’t about fixing it. It’s simply about noticing. We are very quick to judge ourselves, I think, because we believe we are supposed to conform to a certain type of personality. I think you know the type I mean: the Holy Ones. The calm, rational, thoughtful, prayerful, gentle, kind, patient, loving, prepared for everything ones. Who never eat junk food.
And so when the frazzled, irrational, thoughtless, prayerless, harsh, unkind, impatient, hateful, ill-prepared parts come out, I know my reaction is a) to eat junk food, and b) to try to send away those parts of me that I judge to be unacceptable.
Many years ago now, my then-spiritual director introduced me to the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, whose advice on mindfulness has helped me many a time. In Peace is Every Step, he writes about how too often, we try to surgically remove the bits of ourselves that we don’t like, that we think don’t belong, like anger or fear. Instead, he says, we can transform these things through love and attention.
He has a technique that I find very useful. The first step is to recognize what you are feeling, which is mindfulness. The second step is to acknowledge that feeling’s presence, as a part of you. Hanh writes:
It is best not to say,”Go away, Fear. I don’t like to you. You are not me.” It is much more effective to say, “Hello, Fear. How are you today?” Then you can invite the two aspects of yourself, mindfulness and fear, to shake hands as friends and become one.
The third step is to take care of the feeling — and in so doing to take care of yourself. "You calm your feeling just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby…So so, don’t avoid your feeling. Don’t say, 'You are not important. You are only a feeling.' Come and be one with it."
Once the feeling is calm, you can let it go. But even then, the important thing is not that the feeling is gone. There’s still one more step, Hanh writes. The final step is to look deeply, “to see what is wrong, even after the baby has stopped crying, after the fear is gone.”
One of my favorite verses in Scripture is 1 John 4:18 “Perfect love casts out fear.” But what I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh is that fear does not get cast out through violence and rejection, but through caring concern that transforms it into something else. What a different image of fear, to think of it, not as an evil thing that I should shun, but as a crying baby that will be calmed with my care. I have found this to be true in the past; I trust that this will be true again now.
Take care of yourself. All of yourself. Not just the acceptable bits. Because all of you can be transformed by love.