J. Randall Ory
29 - The Practice of Stillness - Part 3: Seasons
It’s hard for us to conceive of surrender as the key to anything. We fight our way through life without hardly even knowing it. It just seems natural to have to contend with everything, and for everything. If we are not hard at it, how will anything happen? The key to happiness, so we think, is anything but surrender. But surrender is not giving up, laying down, and letting the moss grow over us as the sun sets and life passes us by. It is really the beginning of a different kind of work, contending for a different kind of life. It is actually a contention with the thing that is killing us, and making us most unhappy, and that is ourselves. We imagine that the real work, and the real fight is always outside ourselves in the world at large. We are busy, busy, busy working to get that paycheck, that next bigger house, newer car, better behaved kids, more respect, higher education, and so on. We are duking it out with everything and everyone around us, fighting to make sure we get ours in a world where the strong come out on top, and the losers have to watching others live the life they wish they could have. But we are fighting the wrong fight, and working towards the wrong things. Not that it’s bad to have any of those things, but that those are not what really make us happy, or life good. When we do not have the proper goal, we will work towards the wrong ends without even realizing it. When we think the good life is in the external, in the work of our hands and not our hearts, in the fight with others instead of ourselves, we will not be truly happy. We must turn the fight back towards ourselves, and see that what is keeping us from true happiness is inside us. Jesus, like any good spiritual teacher, always understood that the key to everything is within. When we conquer the forces inside us, and master our inner life, we will be happy and content, no matter what we have or where we are externally. The fight for contentment is with ourselves, with that part of us which will only be satisfied by more. The irony of spiritual progress is that we become more by pursuing less, because true contentment is learning to love yourself, by yourself, no matter what you have externally. Contentment is a matter of being, not doing or getting. Doing and getting are an exponential game, the more we get and the more we have, the more it takes to keep feeling satisfied or content, because the true point of contentment in this game isn’t in what you actually have, but in the action of getting. It is like feeding a growing black hole inside us. The goal of the spiritual life is to uncover, face, and shrink that hole. That’s why asceticism is paramount, because it is the opposite action of getting. It is the action of letting go. And that’s why stillness is the opposite of external acquirement, because stillness is reaching towards the goal of eventually being content with nothing, nothing but who we are inside when everything else is stripped away. It is that stripping away which is the real work of the spiritual life.
What we find, as we step away from the paradigm of external acquirement and into the process of surrender, is that our lives are no longer defined by slaving away for that next big payoff – that next car, vacation, house, clothes, promotion, position, and so on – but by the next lesson in becoming more ourselves. As we tune into spiritual growth, we find a new rhythm at play. We are not longer dominated by the ticking punch-clock, by the monotonous march of a metronome called "progress." We are no longer in what appears to be an upward climb towards the penthouse peak of the good life, which is really a slow, methodical stumble towards the grave. As we turn our attention inward, we break out to the wider spaces of fields and pastures where life is measured in the slow amble of the simple seasons of deepening spiritual growth. It is the sway of these seasons, like the trees waving in the breeze, which begin to reorient our lives to a different pace, which slows us down to the point that time itself becomes infinite. This is life reoriented towards the space of eternity. The pace of material acquirement is ever quickening. We must keep getting more, and faster. The pace of internal growth is ever…., slowing..., us..., down…, to the green pastures and quiet streams the Jewish king David talked about in the well-known Psalm 23. Do you feel the pressure of this fast paced life? Do you feel like time is always running out, days are never long enough, the to-do-list always growing longer? This is not the pressure of the energy of God in the universe. This is the negative pressure of life disconnected from God. This is the frenetic pace of life in the shadow of death, running full tilt towards death by trying to run away from it. But God’s invitation is to let death catch up, to step into that darkness in order to enter a more calm, quiet place. A place where everything slows down, where we can catch our breath in the space of what seems like a grave, but what actually becomes the soil of rebirth into a new way of living. The journey towards the peace-filled stillness of Shalom cannot come but through the death of all that is pushing us in the opposite direction. The opposite of the life lived by the metronome pace is a life lived by the seasons of God’s renewal.
What is your favorite season? I used to say that my favorite season was Spring. That’s when I was born, after all. But more than that, what I liked most about Spring was rebirth. Spring is the season when everything is coming back to life. The cold darkness of winter is winding down, and the promise of growing green is peaking through every bud and sprout in a refreshing whisper of good things to come. I love the hope of that season in between dead winter and busy summer, where we are able to slowly ease out of our winter blues and into the burgeoning brightness of bluer skies and better things to come. For that reason, I’ve always loved Spring. But my favorite season has slowly changed these last few years. I still love Spring. But my new favorite season is now all of them. If you think about it, what makes Spring so welcoming is the cold, calm season of winter, preceded by the slowing and cooling down of Fall, which seems so nice because we’ve been running in hard sweat all summer, which began in the hopeful promise of Spring. It is not the seasons that I really have come to love, but the rhythm of the seasons that make life feel always in a constant state of renewal. What I’ve realized is that this renewal is what I love the most, which requires the movement of every season. I also believe that the rhythm of this renewal is God’s inherent message in the book of creation about how we are intended to live. The very earth itself is singing to us through falling leaves, falling snow, blooming petals and bright summer days of what our lives are meant to be. The earth sets the pace of the life we were made for, and it is a steady, slow, four step dance towards becoming grounded in the very ground we walk. One of my spiritual mentors gets up every day, walks out into his back yard barefoot, and literally grounds himself by stomping in a soft patch of bare earth. The problem of the modern world is that we’ve somehow worked ourselves out of sync with the world around us in so many detrimental ways. We're no longer grounded in the rhythms of that world. We’ve created our own rhythm, and tried to make the world keep pace with us. But in case you haven’t noticed, that pursuit seems to be wrecking the world and us with it. There is a very strong call today to slow down our pace of consumption, but not a strong call to slow down the pace of our lives, and we cannot do the one without doing the other. We cannot continue consuming at an ever-increasing pace while trying to use up less of the earth. There is a frantic disconnect between our intentions and our heart, between our actions and our ecological philosophy. No one, or not many, are connecting the problems of our planet with the problem of our ego, except for God. You may cringe at even the mention of the Jewish scriptures, especially the prophets which seem to only portray a very pissed off kind of God. And I get that. I’ve read those scriptures hundreds of times. But did you know, the mains themes of God through those prophets are for the powerful to stop abusing the powerless, and for everyone to stop abusing the earth. These are the two most important things the whole Christian Bible is about. God’s first desire for humanity is that we treat each other right. His second is that we treat the earth right, and the two are closely linked. For all our desire to be good people, we will never get there if we don’t understand how to slow down and get in tune with the message of the very universe in which we live.
The message of the universe, in case you didn’t know, is that everything is in a slow, progressive evolution towards renewal. The disconnected pace of current human culture, especially in the over industrialized West, is the fast-paced run towards our own demise. We are trying to get so much, so fast, that we are burning the world down around us, and everything will die as a result unless we learn to slow down. We have been trained to live apart from the world, to use it to get what we want, and we are quickly using it up. And part of that world is people, which are also getting used in the process. You see, we cannot take a disconnected approach towards the land without also developing a disconnected attitude towards others. The ego self sees everything at the disposal of its desire for more, even other people. The ego self truly imagines the peak of life as a pyramid, where everything and everyone else is here to serve us, to prop us up at the top by being layered parts of the bottom. The ego self re-imagines the whole world as existing to serve itself. Everything, in this paradigm, becomes a commodity to be bought and sold, including other humans. Human trafficking is just the extreme final outcome of this mentality. We are all, often, lesser participants in this disturbing drama, to the extent that we buy into the idea of happiness through external acquirement. If you’ve ever stood in any line for any reason, and fumed about all those people in your way, then you know what I’m talking about. People, in the paradigm of self-centeredness, are objects and obstacles. They are only here to do what I want, and I’m constantly confronted by the frustrating reality that, most of the time they are not. The ego thinks the problem is always outside, never with the ego itself. “If only the world bent more to my will,” is the constant cry and disappointment of the ego. But the call of stillness is to recognize that our will towards anything is the real problem, because we are so out of tune with the world around us. The world, in case we didn’t notice, is operating under a different will, other than our own. That will is clearly expressed through seasons.
The energy of the universe, which I would call God, is constantly ordering all things under one unifying flow. If you pay attention, the earth and everything in it is in perfect rhythm with that flow, except for us. No tree, bush, or plant ever rejects the call of spring to bloom, or of winter to take and break and rest. No animal, bird or insect ever decides to try and work against the current season by actively acting as if it wasn’t happening. Birds always birth their young in spring. Squirrels always store up for the winter. Bees and bears hibernate, and we can tell the age of a tree by the rings which the seasons produce. Everything honors the rhythm of life which God has put in place, except for us. The sun goes down, and we turn on the lights. The harvest comes in, and we press it into processed food. We fight against the rhythms of renewal by resisting the very impetus of that renewal, which is death. We fight for eternal spring, and against the very process which always brings it back around. We do not know how to live on the earth, in tune with the earth, simply because we are unwilling to die. We have become like vampires, continually sucking the life out of an ever-dying summer and fall, instead of letting things go the way of death in order to come back to life. This is not just quaint metaphor. We literally expend earth's resources to create summer in winter and winter in summer. It’s called a HVAC system. We cannot acclimate and adapt to the world. We must strive to acclimate it to us. I’m not trying to say that a measure of comfort is evil, but we are burning up to many resources simply for the purpose of sitting in our comfortable boxes of isolated control, where we are the center and all that matters is wherever matters to us. We move through life in this delusion, operating against the flow of the very earth which sustains us. The call of seasons is to live in a way that sustains the earth which sustains us. I love the phrase “mother earth.” I also love the way the catholic saint Francis of Assisi called everything brother and sister. Everything to him was brother tree, sister moon, brother flower, sister fox, father sky, and mother earth. He understood a deeper connection to God through a bigger view of the material world. He knew he belonged to the big, big family of the universe, where we are all siblings charged with sharing and caring for each other. This is a vision shaped by the rhythms of a bigger earth, and a smaller view of ourselves as humans. We are not individuals, but individual parts of a greater whole. And the rhythm of that greater whole is grounded in the energy flow of a God who calls us to surrender our attempt to make life what we want, in order to fall into the life that has already been decided for us. It is evident in the flow of life all around us, and the dissidence of the life we have calculated for ourselves, which is constantly interrupting, twisting, and destroying that flow with obvious effects for those willing to see it. In this view of reality, we only have one choice. We can give in to that pre-existing rhythm, or resist it.
We will never, ultimately break the divine dance of that rhythm by resisting it. We will only end up breaking ourselves, and for a time perhaps the world along with us. It is the breaking of that world, and each other, which God is trying to rescue us from, by calling us back to the rhythms so inherent in everything around us. The journey of personal transformation embodies that rhythm. We will go through seasons of death, renewal, growth, and harvesting which will lead us back to death again, in order to start all over. If you spend very much time with me at all, you’ll notice that I’m always talking about my life in terms of what season I’m currently in. I’ve come to define the movement of my life so much in this way. It’s just another way for me to say, “this is what God is currently teaching me, or doing in my life right now.” I’m always in lesson with God, and always the lesson of becoming more who God made me to be. It is a process pregnant with great expectation, hope, and renewal. As I’ve grown in spiritual things, I’ve come to see all of life through this lens of constant renewal. Even when I’m going through winter (the season of death), I can relax and trust that the painful process of loss is still leading me to greater renewal. It is the hope, formed by a long experience of these continuing rhythms, that has grounded me in the reality that everything comes back to life. My current season is what I’ve come to call my “season of irrelevance.” It’s been a season of loss, especially in my friendships and relationships, but also in some parts of my identity still grounded in how I think others should treat me. But like all such seasons, its bearing out towards a greater peace. In this season I’ve realized that the very expectations I’ve had towards others has only burdened me with the disappointment of unmet desire. I’ve come to realize that any expectation with love is smothering, and that all relationship is truly a gift. I'm also learning to celebrate relationships in the space where nothing is expected, and everything given is a constant surprise and joy. I’ve even been going through some rough times in my marriage. It’s challenged me to recognize some very unhealthy ways I’ve taken my wife for granted, and forgotten the gift of her choosing to be with me every day. I’d come to expect, even demand her presence. Now, I’m learning to see it again as something new, which is the very definition of renewal. Seeing things in new ways is part of renewal. Understanding that the earth, and its resources, may not always just be here to provide what we need can help us be more careful and conscientious about how we treat the earth. Seeing every person alive as a gift instead of an inconvenience, as the purpose of life instead of purposed to make my life better. We are all a part of this moving, living, breathing organic system we call life on earth, floating in the great expanse of an ever-expanding universe. But we must be expanding our consciousness to see it, and get in tune with it, in order to keep from being out of sync with it. Seeing our lives in the flow of our own individual seasons, and as a part of the cosmic flow of Divinely oriented seasons is just one way we participate in that. But it also helps us mark the rhythm of our lives in a slower and more discernable pace towards the true growth of ever-expanding happiness and peace. That is the peace of moving through every season towards greater stillness. It is a stillness marked by the rhythm of a dance I am participating in, which I did not instigate, cannot control, and do not need to worry about keeping up with. It is the dance with a God who is leading me, as I learn to stop trying to lead myself.
I like to imagine it most like a little girl dancing with her daddy, standing on his toes. God in no way expects us to set the pace, establish the rhythm, or even dance our part in our own strength. Our part is simply to enjoy the ride. We only get to participate in what has already been decided for us, trusting in our leading partner to take us somewhere good. I can tell you; nothing is more satisfying or comforting than recognizing the seasons of my life. It’s not just the certainty of knowing where I’m at, where I’m going, or what I’m supposing to be doing or learning in any moment, but that all of my life is grounded in something other than me. I have nothing to figure out, nothing to do but get in tune with the dance already happening all around me. It is so grounding to relax into this rhythm. It truly brings peace through stillness. I’m not trying to get anywhere, or accomplish anything. God is doing it all for me, in me and through me. I’m just a little kid dancing on toes, held in the cosmic embrace of the life energy of Love itself, which never leaves or dies. I can be still in this space of knowing that I am cared for and directed by the same energy flow holding the entire universe together. And if God is constantly holding something that big together, he/she is certainly able to hold little ole’ me together as well. The very flow of seasons speaks to me of the flowing rhythm of my life towards greater and greater renewal. It tells me, the very universe should fall apart before I do. The very reality of a universe that holds together holds me together to. Entropy is part of the dance, the reality that everything is constantly falling apart to be remade anew, and better. The center does hold, and only the lessor things of an external me fall apart, in order to get put back together and made more whole. It is this greater wholeness which I must see, as I pass through the death of my smaller self, which was never really me to begin with. When I can see the vision of the dance I am in, I can see through death to what’s coming on the other side, even when I have no clear idea what that will look like. Then, I can let go, falling into the grave calmly, and wait to be reborn again. Then, I can relax in the flow of this continual dying, because I have already begun to be continually reborn. I know it, because I was willing to step into it blindly, and thus have begun to see to the other side in the lesson each season brings. I can wait patiently through each winter, trusting, knowing spring will eventually come. I can rest calmly in the midst of entropy, knowing that my true center is not falling apart, but rather becoming more held together and centered with each passing destruction, as the layers of my false identity fall away. In short, I am learning how to be still.
I wonder what it will take for such a driven society to learn that kind of stillness? What will it take for you? I know what it took for me. It took falling apart in ways I could not overcome. It took an encounter with entropy too great to resist. It was my own personal humpty dumpty moment, but it showed me that falling apart was what Id’ been moving towards all along; what I’d been avoiding, but what I needed most. It takes some kind of great pain to come that place, to stop us in our tracks, to defeat the current trajectory of success that’s appeasing our ego, and just feels too good to let go. Something has to feel bad enough to convince us that this “good” pursuit of self-centeredness is what’s actually pulling us apart. We have to come to a place where we’re finally willing to give up, let death catch up, to see that it was only the shadow of our little self casting large illusions of greatness on the walls of our little minds. No one can say when you’re ready for that. Not even you. But you can start getting ready now. You can begin to embrace stillness through the willing practice of asceticism, through small steps of letting go of now what you have to let go anyway, one way or another. Death is coming for us all. The best we can do is stop and face it sooner than later, and see through the shadows the gift of life waiting on the other side. Are you ready for that? No one ever is. The best we can do is start embracing it as best we can, right now. God will take care of the rest anyway. Life on the other side is beautiful, simple, breathtaking and full of greater peace. It is a kind of contentment detached from me needing anything, from me growing to see that I already have all I’ve ever needed, in the energy flow of Love. I hope you’re beginning to see the good in all this, and getting a better taste for stillness and Shalom. Let’s keep walking that way together, and see what all this can bring. It’s going to be good. You have to trust that. Sometimes, when everything’s falling apart, that’s all you can do. But, somehow, doing that together makes it a little better, a little more bearable. I can assure you, from the other side, that it’s going to be alright. I hope you can trust my experience enough to help you keep going. Shalom.