Keeping our Head in Difficult Times
Dr. Stephen Fulder
In Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’, he asks: ‘if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs’. This is the theme of this article: how we can live with trust and ease during difficult times.
We are living in times of unprecedented anxiety. The global recession makes us fear for our pensions and our jobs. The global ecological catastrophe creates a sense of insecurity and we are not really sure if the world itself can go along supporting us and our children as it has done up until now. We may be living with long term and apparently insoluble conflicts. We are all drowned in an uncontrollable flood of media and internet information much of it negative, which adds to the general tension, worry and disturbance that is a frequent side effect of modern lifestyle.
Mostly we respond to all of this with a deep sense of anxiety or un-ease, that just doesn’t seem to go away. It is as if we forgot what ease, inner peace and real joy really feel like. Think of the famous joke about the telegram sent by a Jewish mother to her son on holiday: “Start worrying, details to follow”. We often turn for help to medicine (17% of the US population are taking some kind of pill to lift mood) or diversions such as TV, or addictions such as alcohol, or escapes such as the shopping mall.
So where do we find inner trust, confidence and steadiness to hold us through difficult times? No-where else but inside us. We cannot expect life to endlessly provide us with comfort and security. We have no option but to find the resource of trust from within. And of course it is there inside waiting to be invited. Think of the way we started life: the complete trust we had in our mothers, in the world which we explore without hesitation. I have watched amazed and delighted as my 2-year old grandchild allows herself to fall asleep in almost anyone’s arms, and how if she falls down off a step, she will feel pain, cry, and get right back on it again. Of course fear accumulates in our life as we learn to be watchful of ourselves. However trust is there in equal measure.
For many, strong beliefs represent our main shield against life’s challenges. Belief in God, in the priest, rabbi or guru, in the Messiah or the Buddha or the Saints, or even in concepts such as ‘democracy’, provide some kind of inner confidence. However these are fragile defences, because they are dependent. If things get difficult we often blame these powers above for not protecting us.
Faith is a deeper and more sustainable place to keep us steady. It is softer than belief, and less dependent on promises. Faith gives us a sense of being held, or covered. For example a Jewish image is that of being covered ‘by the wings of the Shechinah’ (the female divine spirit). In Buddhism there is the key practice of Taking Refuge, or finding a deep home, in the Buddha (not the person but the Buddha-like qualities within us) the Dharma (the spiritual journey and the truth) and the Sangha (the community).
But trust is an even more reliable and sustainable quality. It is built into the Buddha’s last words to each member of his community: ‘Be an Island to Yourself’. It is the sense of steadiness, in the midst of all ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. It is not trust that things will be good or better, because we cannot control the future. But it is trust that is like my granddaughter’s – trust the world to be what it is, and to feel a sense of belonging and intimacy with life whatever life throws at us.
There are several ways to help us develop such trust, and to antidote the anxiety. One fundamental shift is to move away from asking for or expecting the outer weather to be kind to us. We tend to blame the world or to blame others for all the problems. Instead we ought to be asking ourselves what is our inner climate like, and what are we going to do about it: “We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. It has its terrors, they are our terrors, it has its abysses, those abysses belong to us…” says the Poet Rilke. After all, it is in the end up to us how we receive the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.
This movement requires us to take ownership and responsibility for our state of mind. Generally this involves some kind of ongoing practice, meditative, contemplative or psychotherapeutic. But it is worth every ounce of trouble because this basic shift can bring us much joy and fulfilment.
Another antidote is engagement in helping, in caring for others, and in generally sowing seeds of goodness and moral integrity as we go through our days. According to the law of karma, which is actually common sense, the kinds of actions we do in the world and for others tends to boomerang and affect the quality of our own life. In this engagement we feel less anxious and there can be a growing sense of an inner and outer smile. We feel our life is worth more. For example, we can often feel quite guilty and helpless about the ecological degradation of the planet. However it may be that the guilt simply stops us from changing our lifestyle. We just keep doing what we have been doing and feel a bit bad about it most of the time. Whereas if we took a caring, engaged role, going out to help, it would sweep away the paralysis and guilt, and brings us back to joyful service.
A third direction is basically to take ourselves a bit more lightly. To take things as they come. We are not the centre of everything, and we do not need to be obsessed by what I am, what I need and what I expect. An image of lightness from the Sufi tradition is the straw basket. The wind may come and blow the basket, tumbling it over and over, but because it is light it cannot break and it ends up sitting there when the wind has died down, quite intact. Let us be light and free and trusting. If the winds of change and difficulty take us we can roll with the punches, but cannot be destroyed.