Jacob Hess, Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson, and Ty Mansfield recently released the book “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints” with Deseret Book.
I’m not the only one who has said in recent weeks that this feels like a movie – but one we’re living.
I’ve personally always loved disaster movies – even the ones with cheesy scenes of the hero rescuing his sweetheart from a top of a disintegrating skyscraper.
But what if you’re the one on the toppling building?
That’s kind of how it’s felt to many in America and all around the world these days – especially those who have fallen ill or lost a loved one. I’ve also been grieved to see the tears on faces of small business owners grappling with the possibility of losing it all – along with thinking of the many for whom a job lost means no way to feed their families (undocumented immigrants won’t get any checks in April, and many countries around the world have little safety net, no food bank, etc).
Economic downturn creates both physical and emotional desperation, quite independent of the mounting health risks all around us.
How do we keep our heads (and hearts) in a time like this – when we most need them?
That was the topic of a special message this last week by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a man most widely regarded as responsible for kick-starting the American mindfulness revolution. It was with his 1988 best-selling book, “Full Catastrophe Living” that really caught people’s attention – a phrase comes from an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba the Greek
When asked about his life, Zorba hints to his travel companion of a full spectrum of both wonderful and challenging experiences with a “wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!’
This, as Jon clarifies in his book, “was not meant to be a lament, nor does it mean that being married or having children is a catastrophe.” He continues:
Zorba’s response embodies a supreme appreciation for the richness of life and the inevitability of all its dilemmas, sorrows, tragedies and ironies….Ever since I first heard it, I have felt that the phrase ‘the full catastrophe’ captures something positive about the human spirit’s ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within it room to grow in strength and wisdom.
Although especially applicable in times like we are living through, neither does catastrophe here only refer to “disaster.” “Rather,” as Jon elaborates, “it means the poignant enormity of our life experience”:
There is not one person on the planet who does not have his or her own version of the full catastrophe…[That] includes crises and disaster but also all the little things that go wrong and that add up. The phrase reminds us that life is always in flux…and constantly changing. This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything.
Latter-day Saints might remind Jon, as I once did personally, that not everything is temporary and in flux. And that thankfully, there are some things we can depend upon as foundational absolutes and unchanging realities. This includes: the love of God, the hope of a continuity in future relationships, and the possibility of ongoing healing and growth through the gracious power of Christ.
Yet however supported by these bigger hopes we have as believers, we’re asked to go through some really hard things along the way – facing some of the same anxieties, despairs, and pains to which all the human family are subject. Against that backdrop, this Full Catastrophe Living advice underscores something significant, and easy for any of us forget.
Especially this: No matter what comes up in our lives – good, bad, or ugly – there’s a “still quiet place” inside ourselves where we can rest and from which we can hold and watch it all.
That’s very different from many of our daily experiences – coming to feel, particularly in recent years, an increasing fragility – that in order to be okay certain things around (and inside) us, need to be just the way we decide they should be.
And in good times, that works out okay – you know, those times when we have the luxury of setting up our lives to be just right: this is how we want the rooms around us to look, this is how we want our day to go, this is how we want to feel emotionally, this is the food we want to eat, this is the temperature in the house and the car we really would prefer.
As Thomas McConkie once pointed out, though, “as soon as we get things just the way we want, things change on us.”
Some of these changes – the little ones – are happening all the time. And as we’re finding out in this 3-D adventure movie, even bigger change can happen quickly and dramatically – which is precisely when our dependence on things-being-the-way-we-want-them is tested the most.
How do we respond?
In some cases, not so well. This is the moment we’re prone to melting down – or escaping into one of our many available fantasy worlds available (take your pick – drive-through doughnuts and an endless palette of sweet delicacies – or more online shows than you could watch in several lifetimes).
It’s also easy to devolve into the despair of hating-and-fighting against what’s happening. For all of us (me included), it’s all too common in moments like this to stay fixated on what’s going on around us that we don’t like – with far less attention to the ways our response to that all may be complicating matters. Listen again to brother Thomas McConkie, speaking of this discovery in an online class he and I created together:
On some level—sometimes it’s very apparent and sometimes much more subtle—we realize there is some fundamental resistance to what is. We have resistance to ‘This is happening to me, and I don’t want it to be happening, I want it to go away.’ So, we push against it, or we run from it, we distract; we invite harmful influences in our lives. It might be drug abuse, it might be compulsive gambling [or so many other things]. We do these things to deny the very conditions that are present in our lives.
Resisting illness is one thing. How about emotional pain inside or physical discomfort in the body? Or relationship pain from unaddressed trauma from the past that needs healing?
How we engage the full picture – the bitter and the sweet – (if we even engage at all) will determine so much of not only our days ahead, but also our ultimate future – and the person we will have become once we arrive there.
If, as we all have the option of doing, we decide to check-out and either distract or numb ourselves from feeling what we’re feeling, or experiencing what we’re experiencing – what will that mean in the end? How will this influence our hearts changing – or not – in the interim time period?
Alternatively, what if we could be here in this moment – exactly as it is? How would it feel to stand in our lives – no matter what that means?
This is no gruff, drill sergeant demand for confronting difficult things – “grow up and accept the hard things in life!” It’s simply a call to pay more attention to what we’re resisting and avoiding – and an encouragement to try something else instead. One more from Thomas, a Latter-day Saint mindfulness teacher I love and respect:
What I’m talking about is a kind of courage, and a kind of sincerity, where you look at your life and you’re willing to just see what’s there. And you realize in doing so, that where you are really losing your energy, what was really causing your suffering—what you didn’t realize was causing you to suffer—was all the energy you were spending on avoiding, all the energy you were spending on resisting. When you stop resisting, when you stop avoiding, and you look—you open your closet and look at that bogeyman, and you realize that you’re equal to that task, and that you can look at it and it won’t destroy you. It’s a willingness to hold your life–all of your life in awareness. It empowers you to take account and to start moving in a direction that feels right.
However nice this might all seem, what’s really the point of practicing such brave non-avoidance? Might it be a little crazy to pay more attention to things that are hard?
Although strategic avoidance can be helpful for any of us in the short-term, consequences can build up long-term when we no longer have the ability to navigate painful situations or emotions. As Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, an international expert in griefputs it: “When we limit our ability to tolerate the dark emotions, what we do, in a sense, is we also limit our capacity to experience the positive emotions in life. So, our life becomes very small so that we can manage this constricted emotional state.”
None of us lives out such a constricted, reactive, fearful life intentionally. More often than not, we fall into it assuming it’s how we need to survive in a difficult, often painful world. My wife Monique once taught a class for women struggling with the challenge of obesity. On the first day, she invited them to “eat whatever you want this week – no diet or rules, except one: pay more attention to how what you’re eating makes you feel, moment by moment.”
The next week, a woman reported to the class eating what had been her ‘forbidden fruit’ – peanut butter M&M’s. Now that her endless dieting had been suspended, she ate a large bag of peanut butter M&M’s that weekend – the kind of food she ate when she was “being bad.”
This time, however, she just let herself feel what it was like…in her body, her heart, her mind. With surprise, she announced to the class, “you know? I’m not sure I like peanut butter M&M’s as much as I thought – at least not that many at a time!”
I’ve seen similar discoveries take place for individuals trying to find more lasting freedom from pornography. Rather than getting lost in a cycle of despair, frustration and shame, if they allow themselves to really feel what it’s like in the hours and days after falling back again in an episode of pornography use – the numbness, the emptiness, the complications with precious relationships, the loss of peace – guess what many say?
This isn’t really what I want! In fact, this isn’t as good as real life – and there is so much more joy and peace in a life of freedom.
Once you’ve arrived at this clarity, what happens if you fall back into the same old indulgence – another doughnut run, another Oreo binge, more online junk food?
Same question. With as much gentleness as you can, ask yourself: how do you really feel in your heart, mind, and body right now? Is this really what you want?
God wants us to learn from His prophets. And He wants us to “learn from our own experience” as well, like Adam and Eve were encouraged in the garden.
Are we letting our experience teach us? What are we learning from the messy, and rich experiences in our lives?
That insight is hard to come by when we’re forcing things to be what they’re not – or trying to control circumstances more than we’re able.
But if we can learn to rest in a place of deeper calm and compassion, get out your note pad: because the learning will never stop.
Maybe you’re persuaded by some of this “being with life as it is – no matter what” idea. But it still sounds a bit abstract – and can feel impossible for many of us, especially in hard times.
So how do we actually do this in real life?
The classic answer to that question is encouraging people to meditate. The number of supports out there to learn how to do just this is both mind-boggling and certainly welcome in a world so increasingly unbalanced and agitated. For those who can find the time and energy to take up a meditation practice, there’s no doubt it will pay dividends for both physical and emotional health. (If there was doubt before thousands of studies were conducted, there should be little now).
Years ago, I was convinced that the secret to reducing stress among my own faith community was convincing them to meditate. But meditation is only one way to cultivate a deeper intimacy with a calmer core – and after witnessing the difficulty in my own students of introducing a brand-new practice into the fabric of daily life, I began to notice the surprising amount of opportunities for silence and stillness already embedded within our own faith practice.
Sabbath. Temple. Scripture. Prayer. FHE. Date Night. General Conference. Sacrament.
Does that sound like a checklist of Things to Do this week? If so, honest question: Why?
Why wouldn’t we think of the whole list, not as a bunch of things To Get Done – but rather, a relieving inventory of all the opportunities throughout our weekly schedule when we have a Really Good Excuse to Pause – stopping and intentionally bringing ourselves into a place of stillness, silence, and communion.
How might that single pivot change our experience of the gospel – or the rest of life, for that matter?
That’s the core question at the heart of our new book The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints. Along with other benefits mindfulness offers for our collective emotional and mental health generally, it’s the potential for reconnecting our spirts to The Spirit that has most intrigued me about it all. This report from a mother who emailed us shortly after reading the book is not the first time we’ve heard this:
I struggled for years with having a desire to pray, read scripture, and go to the temple… these things I knew I should be doing started to feel more like a list of “to do’s” and chores to be done.
As I read this book, my heart began to open and my intention for why I wanted to do them changed. I now yearn for setting aside time to be with God… to take moments of silence and mindful prayer… to feel His love for me as I take shelter from my storms in His Holy home, and to hear Him speak to me through scripture. I strive to be more mindful and present with my children and spouse, to truly be with them, and I have felt a deepening connection with those I love.
Isn’t that what we all want? That deeper connection, tranquility and peace?
Sometimes, a catastrophe can be a trigger this kind of reconnection with what we most love. Sometimes, however, not even a catastrophe can do it.
So, let’s make sure we’re ready! Ready to receive whatever God has for us at General Conference – and beyond.
And ready to receive whatever precious learning God is ready to provide for us. As President Russell Nelson wrote in a book called “Hope in Our Hearts”:
All of God’s children encounter challenges and frustrations in life. That is part of our mortal experience. We also know that truly faithful people are produced not by fleeting flashes of exuberant effort but by continuous consistency in keeping the commandments of God. As we follow Jesus Christ, pressing forward one step at a time, we can do all that the Lord would have us do.
Alongside whatever toilet paper and food-storage we’ve got in place, let’s make sure to cultivate a deepening capacity and spiritual power to do just that, by investing in a little more silence, stillness and communion in the days and weeks ahead.
And rather than feeling captive in our homes, let this pandemic be a nudge towards cultivating sanctuary at home – shifting from in-home lock-down to in-home retreat.
A retreat that comes not on the misty mountain tops of china – or a beautiful beach somewhere else.
But right here. And right now.
Amidst all the messiness of daily experience – and the full catastrophe of precious, rich life all around us.
No matter what, our precious Lord can be with us, reminding us “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end.”