So much of modern storytelling we see in TV shows and movies revolves around the plot device of epic conflict & resolution. Our scrappy heroes are constantly having to deal with one crisis after another in a never-ending Sisyphean stuggle to overcome evil and tragic circumstances. You can almost predict when something terrible will happen next — a character gets a moment of peace and feels, for a brief time, happy. Sorry, the writers say. Can’t let you stay there too long. Release the Kraken!
I’m not complaining about this, mind you. I enjoy watching a good battle. But sometimes I feel as if we’ve gotten so used to seeing life through the lens of dramatic storytelling that we start to see ourselves in a similar light. We imagine ourselves as the heroes, fighting in an epic struggle against the forces of evil and chaos. Constantly we must find it within ourselves to conquer all or survive for another day.
Sometimes our theology will reinforce this tale in our heads. I was once part of a submovement within Christianity that believed we are all locked in an eternal battle between God’s hosts of angelic beings and the demonic hordes of satan (spelled with a lowercase s, I kid you not). If you’re having a particularly bad day or don’t feel well, beware! It could be the work of demons! If something extra wonderful happens to you, such as you get an unexpected check in the mail, well that’s clearly a heavenly breakthrough!
It’s exhausting. Living your life on a daily basis as if everything around you is representative of constant spiritual warfare is a recipe for emotional and mental disaster. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Instead what I’ve come to realize is you don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to read into every event, every circumstance. You don’t have to come to large-scale conclusions about the trajectory of your life on a bad day. I’ve learned, through the practice of mindfulness meditation (or if you prefer religious terminology, contemplative prayer), to find peace in the moment; to find a way to step back from the swirl of busyness and worry and expectation and recapture my gratitude simply to be alive. I’ll remember that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, goodness. I’ll return to that place of belonging, of wholeness, of being comfortable in my own skin.
I don’t need to be a hero. I don’t want to fight off evil minions and save the universe. I’ll leave that to Captain America. What I do want is to grow in my love for humanity, my appreciation for a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, and my thanks for a few more dollars in my bank account so I can eat a burrito. Because the simple life, the minimalist life, the good life, isn’t about what you do. It’s about what you choose not to do.
I would argue that seeing yourself as one of the “good guys” engaged in a constant battle to overcome evil is inherently self-centered. It’s self-focused. And it’s not certainly not conducive to cultivating a sense of wellbeing.
The counterintuitive nature of meditation is that, while critics see it as a self-indulgent exercise that directs our attention toward ourselves and away from others, it actually helps us grow in awareness that life, the universe, and everything is about far more than the constructed reality we carry around with us in our minds. Our fears, our desires, our expectations and dissapointments when those expectations aren’t met—all dissolves like mist in a contemplative session. And that strange sort of lack, of becoming spiritually naked, of coming into contact with the Divine bringing nothing of value except the simple essence of our aliveness—it’s incredibly liberating.
But such freedom comes with a price. Your sense of identity may currently be caught up in crisis…which means your status as a victim, as an underdog, will come into question. Are you willing to give that up? Are you willing to walk away from the battle? Are you able to see yourself as deserving nothing, contributing nothing? “Emptying yourself” as a spiritual practice may sound nice in theory, but it can be surprisingly difficult in practice. As anyone who has embarked on a serious journey of inner work will tell you, walking along the path of meditation will mess with your ego big time.
But it’s the only way I know of to get out of your own head, to get your life out of a crisis-based narrative and onto a healthier track. Mindfulness is the key that will unlock a wider world of mental clarity, emotional stability and, ultimately, a genuine sense of fulfillment and happiness.