Well, the much-hyped end of the world on Saturday did not quite happen. No earthquake, no rapture, no rising up of the perfect, no revealing of the wicked. As the predicted time passed across the world, the tendency was to reduce the whole event to the delusions of a small fringe group. However, the roots of the idea reveals a psychology that is found not only in those evangelical Christians who believed in Saturday’s date so fervently. As one Christian commentator said before the event, this type of forecasting tells us little about God but tells us a lot about those who make the predictions.
For one thing, it reveals a way of dealing with the unsatisfactory nature of this world by looking for something or someone to come “fix” things and transcend this world. There are a lot of uncertainties in the world today, stemming from economic uncertainties, the difficulties between nations, religions and cultures, and from natural disasters. And there are always uncertainties in our personal lives. Things change. People close to us get ill or move away. This can make us feel very insecure and one tendency is to look to something outside, or someone stronger than us, to steady us on this uncertain ground. It is always tempting to seek for some lasting security and we do so frequently, trying to hold onto some aspects of our life or someone who has come into our life. However, the foundations of mindfulness are quite different. They are based on seeing that change and ambiguity are simply the nature of things in this world, on realizing that life lacks the very things that we feel we need most, such as permanence, security, and certainty. Our everyday practice is to increasingly feel this personally and move towards relaxing in the uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect us. This means that when we come up against the anxious nature of this world, or even its disasters, or when we encounter change and setbacks in our lives, it does not mean that something is wrong with us. Understanding this allows us relax with ourselves as we are, without always thinking that there is something lacking in us, or missing in the world.
The second implicit idea in this picture of the end of the world is what it says about us and how we need to be in order to “qualify” for this moment. It sees the direction we need to be going in as having “perfection” as its goal. Now as I said in yesterday’s post, healthy striving and moving forward toward our full potential is a good thing. However, this spiritual notion of “perfection” can give rise to some dangers. One is that it can build upon an unhealthy perfectionism and unrelenting standards which is frequently linked to shame and the need to earn approval. This “tyranny of the should” as Karen Horney called it, gives rise to a deep sense of never being “good enough”, leading many people push themselves and better themselves because of a fear of being judged or disappointing others. Having the notion of “perfection” as the way to define ourselves can give rise to a compulsive running away from ourselves. It also, ironically, can mean that we become slow to do anything, fearing the mistakes we may make and possibility of failure.
Another danger lies in the suggestion is that the goal is to become “perfect” rather than to becoming “whole”. However, we are not called to move toward some kind of flawlessness or faultlessness but rather towards completion or wholeness. As Jung rightly pointed out, this means that we hold onto all aspects of our self, including the “shadow” parts which have their roots in the unconscious: The realization of the self … leads to a fundamental conflict, to a real suspension between opposites…, and to an approximate state of wholeness that lacks perfection. … The individual may strive after perfection … but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness. In some sense we are always “on the way” rather than ever getting it fully together.
The final danger is in the way that any type of “leaning towards” pulls us out of this moment and how it actually is. Our focus is not on any future, “better” moment, but on this one, even if it is not as we would want it. The best way to prepare for the future – or the “end of the world” if you like – is to care for this moment and then the next moment. There are enough distractions in the world today, including these spiritual ones, pulling us away from noticing where our life is, now.
Meanwhile, here we are, missing the fullness of the present moment, which is where the soul resides. It’s not like you have to go someplace else to get it. So the challenge here is, Can we live this moment fully? When you ask a group of people to spend five minutes watching their own breaths moving in and out of their bodies, just as an experiment, they discover that their minds are like bubbling vats, and it’s not so easy to stay on the breath. The mind has a life of its own. It carries you away. Over a lifetime, you may wind up in the situation where you are never actually where you find yourself. You’re always someplace else, lost, in your head, and therefore in a kind of dysfunctional or nonoptimal state. Why dysfunctional? Because the only time you ever have in which to learn anything or see anything or feel anything, or express any feeling or emotion, or respond to an event, or grow, or heal, is this moment, because this is the only moment any of us ever gets. You’re only here now; you’re only alive in this moment. The past is gone, and I don’t know what’s coming in the future. It’s obvious that if I want my life to be whole, to resonate with feeling and integrity and value and health, there’s only one way I can influence the future: by owning the present.
Jon Kabat Zinn