We all have a center: a core, a place deep inside where the essence of who we are resides. This is our true will, our destiny; it’s who and what we’re called to be… and who and what we want to be.
Finding this center is a challenge. From the day we’re born until the day we die there are people telling us who and what we should be. Some are helpful, some mean well but are misguided, and some simply try to mold us into what they want us to be. Our environments influence us, as does our evolutionary heritage of instinctive behaviors that helped our ancestors survive in the wild but aren’t always helpful in civilization.
These challenges are huge, but if we are mindful and diligent, through study, practice, and trial and error we can figure out who we really want to be. The feeling that comes from knowing what you want to be and starting out on the road to becoming just that is amazing. You’re filled with meaning and purpose and you have a (mostly) clear idea of where you’re going from here.
And then you’re greeted with a rude interruption.
Maybe it’s a minor annoyance. Maybe it’s a life-altering event. Maybe it’s something you think isn’t worthy of being upset about… but you are anyway. And all you can think is “I can’t do this!” The visions of fulfilling your destiny, of being who and what you most want to be start to fade away. That disappointment makes a bad situation worse.
I’ve been there a lot this year. On one hand, I’ve got more direction and more clarity about my true will than I’ve ever had and I’ve made some good progress towards it. On the other hand, I’ve had a series of challenges, difficulties and unpleasantries that are unrelated but unending.
Here’s the truth – these things never go away. Becoming a powerful magician or a devoted priest – or a good Druid – doesn’t exempt or protect you from ordinary troubles. The Buddhists have it right – after enlightenment, you still have to chop wood and carry water… and deal with the realities of life.
Empty platitudes aren’t helpful. Telling me “just don’t let it bother you” is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Now not only am I upset with whatever has interrupted my progress, I have to deal with the accusation that my problem isn’t really a problem and that I’m overreacting (not that I don’t occasionally overreact).
“My students think I don’t lose my center. That is not so; I simply recognize it sooner, and get back faster.” – Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, as quoted by Thorn Coyle in Kissing the Limitless
Ueshiba’s approach is the most helpful one I’ve found. And whether it’s because I’ve had more practice in dealing with difficulties, or because I’m getting older and wiser, or because I now have a calling that I’m burning to fulfill, I do seem to be returning to center faster these days.
First, do no harm. I remember a time as an undergraduate when I arrived on campus for a bus trip to a trade show in Nashville. I thought the bus was leaving at 4:30 – it had left at 4:00. As I walked back to my car, keys in hand, I was so flooded with anger (at myself – it was totally my fault and I knew it) I threw my keys into the adjacent intramural field. The release I felt from heaving something as far as I could was quickly replaced by the panic of realizing I needed my keys. I found them after about ten minutes of searching and learned an important lesson.
Whether a difficulty brings anger or sadness or frustration, don’t make a bad situation worse by acting impulsively.
Feel what you feel. Few things are as arrogant as telling someone they don’t have a right to feel what they feel. Perhaps your reaction is out of proportion to the situation or perhaps it’s not helpful. Deal with that later. In the moment, accept that your feelings are real and valid. Do no harm – to others or to yourself – but allow yourself to feel what you feel.
Accept what is. Whether the problem is major or minor, whether it’s a routine annoyance of life or a major systemic injustice, dealing with them effectively begins with accepting that what is, is, and what is done is done. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to try to change things, but creating change (through mundane effort or through magic or through both) works best when you begin with a rational look at the way things really are.
Do what must be done. Plan a funeral. Go to a doctor. Start looking for another job. Start working more effectively in your current job. Apologize. Accept an apology. Walk away. Do what you have to do to fix the problem or to begin adapting to the new reality.
None of the above involves spiritual practice (other than perhaps mindfulness). Sitting in meditation while your house burns (literally or figuratively) is at best a poor job of prioritization. If you have an emergency then deal with the emergency – don’t pretend the emergency doesn’t exist or that it will go away if you don’t think about it.
None of the above involves abdicating your responsibilities. As a Pagan, my gods don’t want me to “turn it all over to them.” My gods have their own work to do, they’ve asked for my help in doing it, and they expect me to take care of my business so I can get back to why I came into this world in the first place. They aren’t unsympathetic and they’ve been known to lend a hand from time to time, but they aren’t mommy and they aren’t going to make it all better.
Once the immediate situation is stabilized, it’s time to start focusing on your true will again.
Remember your center. What is it you’re called to do? What is it you must do? What is the dream of who and what you want to be that a short time ago filled you with joy? Remember it. Recall the dreams, the visions, and the plans. Don’t try to do anything yet. Just remember your center.
Perform an element of practice. Meditate. Pray. Walk. Write. Make an offering. Serve someone else. Whatever is your strongest spiritual practice, do it. Even if it’s forced, do it. Even if seems empty, do it. The spiritual practices that helped you find your center will bring you back to your center.
Recommit to your center. Remember your calling, your true will. Revisit your idea of what the journey was going to look like and how you were going to approach it. Are those still good? Do you need to make revisions? If you just experienced a painful but minor annoyance, you probably don’t. If you just experienced a life-changing event, maybe you do. Just remember – if this was your destiny, you will find a way. You don’t have to find that way now. Right now all you have to do is focus on your center and practice.
Look for meaning and wisdom. Do not jump to this step! In the immediate aftermath of an unpleasant experience all of us are inclined to assign more meaning to an event than it deserves. It’s OK to scream “why?!” but obsessing over why is not likely to be helpful. But after you have done what must be done and after you have returned to practice, it’s good to look back as dispassionately as possible and see what you can learn.
I have friends I love and respect who see every event in their lives as a lesson. I’m not going to tell them they’re wrong, but I’m not one to read deep meaning into everyday occurrences. Things break. Jobs go away. Relationships end. People die. Nature is both beautiful and deadly. Most of these things don’t have a specific meaning for you – they just are.
But sometimes there are lessons involved. Maybe you need a different approach. Maybe you need to re-evaluate your priorities. Maybe you need to let something go to make room for something else. Don’t waste time looking for reasons where none exist, but if there’s something you need to learn, learn it as quickly as possible. Einstein didn’t say it, but doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results really is insane.
Recommit to practice. It is through dedicated spiritual practice that we find our center. It is through dedicated spiritual practice that we advance toward our destiny. It is through dedicated spiritual practice that roadblocks become obstacles and obstacles are overcome. The more and longer we practice, the stronger and more resilient we become. The more we practice the less we stray from our center even in bad times, and the more quickly we can return to it.
How long should all this take? It depends. Does your child have a cold or does your child have cancer? Some things obviously take longer to process and longer to deal with than others. Give yourself the time you need.
I don’t know that I’ll ever get to the point where others think I never lose my center. Ultimately what others think isn’t important. What’s important is that I continue to get better and better at recognizing when I’ve lost my center and that I learn to return to that center as quickly as possible.