In my imagination, I always envisioned the anxiety and stress in my life to be similar to being on a merry-go-round. As a child, the merry-go-round was one of my favorite things to do at the playground. My playmates and I would alternate between being ‘riders’ and ‘turners.’ I remember having so much fun on the merry-go-round, laughing and urging the turner to turn faster. Contrary to the opinions of the eternal pessimists, I hold fast to the belief that the journey of life is ultimately about beauty and peace—not merely surviving or enduring the madness. As human beings, our natural, untainted state is that of peace and love; any and all deviations from that state of existence are just that—deviations. It is unnatural to the spirit to be filled with anxiety, turmoil and fear.
There was a time for me when life felt like a merry-go-round spinning out of control. Something that was designed for fun and pleasure, somehow transformed into the ride from Hell. To make matters worse, the greater the internal anxiety the faster the ride would spin. Any and all desperate pleas to God to stop the merry-go-round (or at least let me get off and just watch for a while) seemed to go unanswered. That is, until I realized that my own internal state of being was the key to alleviating all of the stress and tension in my life. I prayed diligently for peace. I begged God to show me the way to a life of peace. What I learned was that before the ride of life gets to be too much for my soul’s sanity, there is a place I can go to essentially get off the merry-go-round. In the monastic tradition, it is referred to as “interior silence.”
Everything about my life seemed to be spiraling out of control. All of my efforts to honker down and wait out the storm seemed to be failing miserably. Worse yet, it felt like my whole being was under attack, from the inside out. It puts me in the mind of some sort of cancer diagnosis where the doctor explains to the patient that their body is attacking itself. I had been recently devastated by a relationship failure that completely blindsided me by opening up a deep well of long repressed childhood issues. When I realized that what I thought was heartache from the loss of a relationship, had opened the flood-gates to heart wrenching childhood memories that had never to that point been allowed to surface, I knew I needed help. I had apparently exhausted all of my ability to repress these memories, and it was now time to face them. So I had been in counseling for several weeks leading up to this point in my life.
While in counseling, I discovered some things, dealt with a lot of things, and gained the confidence to start living my life free of guilt for my aversion to family dysfunction and drama. With all of this emotional progress, it seemed the more issues that I resolved the more other issues presented themselves to be resolved. I was still dealing with the sadness of a failed relationship, but it was nowhere near the severity of the excruciating heartache of my childhood memories. My career presented an internal crisis all on its own. I knew there were some unresolved issues in the area of my vocation/career, but I relegated them to the back of my mind because I knew ‘I needed to make a living.’ I believe it was in the writings of Father Thomas Keating that I learned for the first time all of our repressed and unaddressed issues do not disappear over time, but are stored in our bodies—wreaking internal havoc. There goes the popular lie that “time heals all wounds.”
The more I tried to repress the knowledge that I was not doing with my life what I had been created and gifted to do, the more my body screamed at me through pain induced tension and anxiety. The muscles in my shoulders felt like balls of knots accompanied by sharp-shooting pains. This, along with a tension headache, was my daily and constant companion. They were there when I woke up in the morning and lingered throughout the day until I dropped off to sleep at night. Every attempt on my part to alleviate the pain was futile. On many days, the pain was so great it brought me to tears. During times of higher than usual stress, the headache and shoulder pain was joined by pain in my jaw area caused by compulsive jaw-clenching. The ‘unaddressed issues’ stored in my body began to make their presence known in the most profound way.
Everyday at work, I struggled to keep it together emotionally. To help make it through the day, I started doing my twenty-minute centering prayer sessions at the Catholic church near my office. I did it twice a day. In the morning before I started work I walked two blocks to the church for prayer and I would go back in the afternoon as a part of my lunch break. I sat through a few afternoon masses if I arrived around that time and just did my centering before or after. I found the chants and sung prayers different from what I was used to in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, but quite comforting. One of my seminary professors had shared with me that once or twice a year he went away for a few days on a silent retreat. While researching contemplative prayer, I also looked up retreat locations to try for myself one day. At the time it was just a casual interest. Before I could put much thought into it, this casual interest was upgraded to an urgent need.
Part 1 (Part 2)