I was listening to this brilliant podcast by Rob Bell this morning. A surfer, he describes one day getting swallowed by a big wave – in surfer talk, it’s called ‘going over the falls’. In that moment when you go into spin cycle, you don’t know which way is up and down, pounded by the water and dragged under. All you can feel is panic and all you can think about is how much you need to breathe and can’t. Your natural instinct is to thrash around and fight it, using up what precious energy you have. Instead, the best thing is to stop struggling. Eventually the set of waves will pass, you will pop up and the ocean will be calm once again.
Bell’s point is that when we are going through a wave of crisis – a difficult, overwhelming time – our natural instinct is to fight it and to pour all our energy in to the struggle. But it’s just a wave; it is not permanent and not every moment will be like this moment. The best thing is to be still. Let go and it will eventually pass.
Being still is a foreign concept. In our world where we are assaulted with information constantly from every angle, our minds jump between work and responsibilities and family and housework and emails, checking our twitter feeds whilst simultaneously watching our favourite series on Netflix. Being still feels unnatural and strange. Our human instinct is to be busy – to fix things and find solutions. When we are overwhelmed with difficulty, the most natural thing is to go into overdrive, not be still, and to resist the urge to do this is uncomfortable.
For the last few months I have been battling anxiety. If you have ever experienced anxiety you’ll know how awful it can be. There are the physical symptoms of panic such as insomnia, racing heart, shortness of breath, chest pains; on the flipside there is the mental torture of feeling like you are losing your mind, on the verge of having a breakdown, or must be an awful person because the most horrific intrusive thoughts pop into your brain unbidden.
Initially it was so awful I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat and could hardly face work. Yet I kept telling myself ‘I can cope. I can cope. I can cope’. It was my mantra. I Googled obsessively and read books and brought herbal supplements and gave myself goals and fought. Hard. Every day was a battle against my mind. I thrashed around like a surfer caught under the wave, desperate to breathe.
And yet I found, and am still learning every day, that the battle is not in fighting but in being still. When I stop fighting so hard and trying to cope, I find more peace. When I let fear in instead of running away, it gets less scary. It feels like the most unnatural thing in the world, but it works. The victory begins in stepping back. It is absolutely counter-intuitive to everything I have ever known, and I am only now just learning how to do it, through mindfulness and prayer and sheer force of will. But I do it with hope that this moment is not forever, this wave is just a wave, and I will be in a calm sea eventually.