God, grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference
First, let me make it perfectly clear I think parking an infant on top of a Great Dane is a terrible idea. But the photo illustrates a point, which I'll get to in a minute.
If we're honest, one reason we're drawn to seek spiritual resilience is that we want to feel better. Whether we're coping with relationship issues, financial stress, loss of a loved one or the uncertainty brought on by a pandemic, we would like to be able to reduce the wear and tear on our emotions. Spiritual resilience includes the ability to enjoy life at a higher level and to waste less time spinning our wheels. But spiritual resilience offers more.
In previous posts we looked at the deeper dimensions of gratitude, hope and joy. We distinguished between gratitude and simple enjoyment; hope and optimism; joy and happiness. We said spiritual emotions were not simply an escape from pain but rather resulted from our ability to transcend pain by tapping into an underlying sacred dimension.
Today we'll spend some time considering the spiritual emotions of serenity and awe; we'll tackle compassion and inspiration next week. At the end of this post we'll also take a look at our body's information feedback system and the impact it has on our emotional state.
I chose the above photo because the baby and dog look pretty darn serene--and because I figured you'd already seen more than your share of photos of peaceful moonlit lakes. In reality, while spiritual serenity tops our innate fight-or-flight response, it is not to be confused with a numbed-out, frozen emotional state or with being asleep.
Serenity is an indication that we are at peace with ourselves and our world. It arises not from a lack of caring but rather from a deep acceptance of what is and the ability to see life in perspective.
Serenity can spring from a variety of sources. Buddhist serenity rests on the insight that everything changes and that our attachments and attempts to be in control are futile. A Christian’s serenity is rooted in Jesus’ example and ultimate triumph over suffering and death. The word Islam translates as the serenity that comes from surrendering to God, while Jewish serenity trusts in God’s covenant even in the face of persistent persecution and tragedy.
Serenity is a peace that transcends current circumstances and rests in the very deepest recesses of our hearts. Br. David Steindl-Rast writes that serenity comes from a radical trust—trust in life and trust in God. He says, “Going forward in faith is not a train ride; it’s more like walking on water. The life of faith is a continual test of trust.”
Peter was able to walk on water until his trust wavered. Serenity lies in being able to keep our eyes on the prize and find the calm center of the storm even when the wind and the waves are churning around us.
Awe stops us in our tracks when we come upon a sunset, a night sky sprinkled with stars, or a large body of water. Awe automatically makes us aware of scale: our tiny presence in the face of some kind of immensity. When we look at a night sky we usually feel small in a good way (unless we’re feeling particularly lonely or confused, when a night sky has might heal us - or make us feel a whole lot worse.)
When we encounter the truly awesome, we are reminded that we are not the masters of the universe - and that we and the universe are the better for that fact. We have a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves, something completely outside our control. Awe transcends logic and is beyond argument; it is a way of directly knowing.
Until fairly recently most humans lived in close contact with nature. While the experience wasn't always pleasant, it had a certain humbling effect. The limits of human control were hard to escape, even for the very wealthy. C.S. Lewis reminded us that humility is not denying our talents but instead remembering they are gift. Awe evaporates rather than crushes the arrogance that leads us to believe we are the center of the universe and the source of its benefits.
To keep our egos in check, to keep our sense of the world reasonably accurate, we need to revisit awe frequently. We experience awe when we give our attention to something marvelous, whether to the elegance of a mathematical equation, the majesty of a piece of music or the precision of a colony of ants whisking their eggs to safety after their hill has been totaled by a toddler with a stick. If we pay attention, opportunities for awe are everywhere.
THE BODY'S INFORMATION LOOP
We used to think that our bodies took information in through our senses, processed it, and then directed our bodies to take action. We now know that the nervous system embedded in every inch of our body sends information to our brains in an ongoing feedback loop, often intensifying our reactions to an event. Way too often, this loop gets in our way.
Our spiritual practices can work by interrupting a negative feedback cycle. I leave work, notice the sun setting, and thank God for the beauty. My physical reaction, which has been simmering all afternoon and perhaps prompting me to take action that makes things worse, settles down.
If I pay attention, I can learn from this moment to:
1) Not assume that just because I'm agitated there is therefor something wrong and
2) If I take action to calm my physical agitation I can settle into a clearer sense of reality and deepen my spiritual resilience.
This week, try using body awareness to notice a moment when your physical reaction is causing you to blow an event out of proportion. Try using a spiritual practice you've learned to directly intervene with your physical response.
Quote from I Am Through You So I, p. 77
Top photo: Buzzsharer.com