By Katherine Murray
Lately I have been thinking a lot about right and wrong, good and bad. About the ways we experience events in our lives and quickly judge them to be one or the other. I wonder whether we are shaping our experiences — for better or for worse — when we name them this way. And, if we think we are helping to create our experiences (that is my working theory), another important question follows: “Is there a way to bring God into this process so we create can peace and harmony before things spiral into upset and discord?”
Being able to make quick judgments about whether something is right or wrong is a necessary protection that’s probably coded into our DNA somewhere. The original “fight or flight” impulse that gets triggered in the amygdala of our brains works overtime today, sending us into “fight or flight” mode for all kinds of occurrences, big and small. We have so many triggers, real and imaginary — bad news, worries about bad news, hearing about someone else’s bad news — we live floating in an ocean of media dramatizations of bad news. If we’re not careful, we can live in a state of high alert, under continual stress and near-panic, wondering how and what to react to next. That’s not a good life for our cells, our brains, or our spirits.
The heartbreaking mystery of Malaysia 370 is a clear example of our struggle to define — and thereby control — the unknown. If you followed this story at all, you saw and maybe felt the roller-coaster-like, grasping attempts we take at making sense of our experience. Sometimes mystery can be awe-inspiring, and at other times, terrifying — especially if our safety or the safety of those we love is in question.
Not knowing, whether we’re talking about a new job, an illness, a relationship or just the future in general, can cause such anxiety that it monopolizes our brains and elevates our blood pressures. When that kind of emotionally-charged loop is going on in our thinking, it’s hard to be open to anything else. We’ve defined whatever’s triggered us as “bad” and we’re reacting to it with anxiety or fear — which means “fight or flight” is in control. At that point, sitting in silence and listening for a new option — a different story, one with Light in it — is a hard, maybe almost impossible, thing to do.
Perhaps this trouble began for us back in the Garden of Eden. The tree Eve chose the apple from was the only one God had put off limits: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Notice that it’s not the “tree of good and evil” but rather, “the knowledge of good and evil.” Deciding what’s good and what’s not was taken out of God’s all-knowing dominion and suddenly became the purview of the smaller brains of Adam and Eve. Looking out through their eyes, basing reactions on their limited experiences, having no ability to see how the whole created system worked together; now they would decide for themselves what was good and what was evil and react accordingly. Perhaps that’s when our powerful little amygdalas evolved into being. Suddenly our new “seeing” made it impossible for us to see Paradise any longer. And we found ourselves expelled from the Garden, launched into a struggle with life that involved fear and fight or flight.
But I wondered, what would the world — and our daily experience of it — look like if we were able to get a glimpse of our experiences through pre-apple lenses? What if we didn’t immediately push ourselves into labeling them “right or wrong, good or evil”? What if we were able to rest in a sense of God’s leading, of harmony emerging, of truth arising in a created order in which all is unfolding and revealing itself? That sounds a bit like Paradise to me.
George Fox believed strongly in the “perfectibility” of mankind, and he maintained that earthly perfection was possible for all who choose to turn to the Light. He said, God hath given to us, everyone of us, in particular a Light from himself shining in our hearts and consciences […by] which light we came to know good from evil, right from wrong, and whatsoever is of God, and according to Him from what is of the Devil […] and it is perfectly discovered to us the true state of things. He also connected this perfectibility to our pre-apple state in the Garden of Eden by saying, But I say you are redeemed by Christ […] to bring man to the peace of God that he might come to the blessed state and to Adam’s state he was in before he fell, and not only thither but to a state in Christ that shall never fail.
So, is it possible to invite the Light into our experiences before we name them Good or Bad? Can we turn away from our accelerating emotional reactions long enough to sit in silence and listen for the Love of God to help us understand what we see?
I’ve always counted on the verse in Isaiah where we are promised help in our decision-making: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21) Some folks might think of this as listening to their conscience; others trust that inner voice as spirit or intuition. I think of it as listening for an inner opening, a space within that I have learned to recognize and trust as deeper than any emotionally charged thoughts I may be thinking. This deeper sense is at its most profound point a transcendent feeling of peace and connection, and it brings a momentary freedom from the circumstance, whatever it might be. I remember, gratefully and usually with great relief, God’s Allness and Love.
In the Forward to George Fox’s Book of Miracles, Rufus Jones offers us a clue about how to do this when he describes a time George Fox healed an injury to his hand. He writes,
There are many instances, given in his Journal, of the curative power of faith over his own body. Here is a characteristic instance of this power:
There was in the company a mason, a professor, but a rude fellow, who with his walking rulestaff gave me a blow with all his might just over the back of my hand, as it was stretched out; with which blow my hand was so bruised and my arm so benumbed, that I could not draw it to me again. Some of the people cried, “He hath spoiled his hand for ever having the use of it any more.” But I looked at it in the love of God (for I was in the love of God to all that persecuted me) and after a while the Lord’s power sprang through me, and through my hand and arm, so that in a moment I recovered strength in my hand and arm in the sight of them all.
I was fascinated by the phrase “I looked at it in the love of God” and wondered what that might feel like. Looking at something in the Love of God might be to invite its present perfection to show itself to us. Looking at something in the Love of God could involve an appeal to God to “Help us see this as You see it.” Looking at something in the Love of God might mean to hold to its inherent, non-negotiable Goodness as a part of all existence. Perhaps if we welcome it, if we look for it, if we desire it, this Look will arise for all of us in the moments before “fight or flight” kick in.
I would offer the possibility that none of our stories are wholly Good or wholly Bad, wholly Right or wholly Wrong. But they all have the potential to be Holy.
In real life, because our stories never end, perhaps what we need isn’t “fight or flight” but a turning — turning to Spirit, turning to listening, turning to a waiting on God to help us recognize the true state of things.
There are some practical ways we can help remind ourselves to invite Spirit’s input into our interpretations before we head down that slippery slope of emotional reaction.
We Quakers are generally comfortable with waiting in silence for Spirit to speak, and we have well-worn the path of turning within. But I think we can also, with some self-awareness, recognize when we are triggered by our emotions.
It is possible to experience fear, anxiety or racing thoughts as an invitation to turn and listen to Spirit. To slow down, seek rest, and calm our minds and breath. This allows us to release
our fearful interpretations of the circumstance — if only for a moment. As we turn toward Spirit, we may find the presence of heart and mind to understand what’s happening in a different way. We could experience the breath — and breadth — of peace. Our panicked sense of “fight or flight” can be calmed and brought to ease with a moment’s turning.
Father Thomas Keating teaches Contemplative Prayer as a way to help train our minds and spirits to pause and wait on God using a single word that has meaning for us. This simple practice can help us move beyond all the images and events we may be reacting to. In his teaching on Contemplative Prayer, Father Keating makes a point I think is very important — he says, “Doing this practice right isn’t the point; the point is, turn from your busy mind to your quiet spirit.” He maintains that losing our presence of mind is actually a great thing, because it’s the turning that teaches our brains the way back to peace. He says, if you forget your contemplative word 100 times during a single five-minute session, great! That means you’ve taught yourself 100 times in a single sitting how to remember God. Soon it will be second nature.
In their book, Mindfulness and the Brain, authors Jack Kornfield and Daniel Siegel provide scientific evidence of the importance of “turning” from outer events to inner ones. In studying the brain waves and CAT scans of Buddhist monks and nuns, they saw that states of deep meditation light up portions of our brain that are different from where our rational thought takes place. These areas are consistent with transcendent states of relaxation and peace. They even wonder whether this is a part of the brain that participates in and contributes to a collective consciousness.
Kornfield and Siegel also found that turning back to meditation after being interrupted dramatically strengthens our ability to reclaim our peaceful state. It’s the turning that matters, because it’s strengthening the pathway for our minds. So the turning — from fear to Love, from definition to possibility, from the world to God — is the important thing. Let’s keep trying, Friends. When fear or confusion invite us to paint our experiences as threats or tragedies, let’s speak peace to our emotions and turn in silence, inviting the Light to reveal to us what we need to know. My sense, my hope and my experience tells me that we will feel loved, comforted and supported beyond anything our rational minds can explain.
Katherine Murray is a long-time convinced Friend who attends West Newton Friends Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is currently in the recording process and serves as a hospice chaplain at Hancock Regional Hospice in Greenfield, Indiana.