GIVEN the ubiquitous culture of individualism and consumerism in which — like it or not — we are all steeped, it is no wonder that many people seem to think that perseverance, remaining stable and rooted, implies a rigid stubbornness that is repressive and can lead only to stagnation.
But perseverance has nothing to do with stagnation or stifling creativity. Rather, it is to stand firm and be persistent. Perseverance is precisely what enables us to rise to the challenges presented by life’s inevitable changes. It implies engaging fully with the situation at hand, and remaining steadfast in the face of obstacles, in spite of what might initially appear to be more appealing prospects.
This is not the same as being fatalistic. The situation in which we find ourselves may, as was the case with Jacob, require us to contend against it. Nevertheless, in order to engage more effectively, whatever the circumstances, we have to understand that the challenges we face may be an opportunity for growth. Failing to take responsibility, by blaming others, or constantly flitting from one thing to the next will be more likely to increase our frustration than resolve it. Growth, by contrast, comes from persevering through adversity.
Perseverance enables us to overcome our conditioning and become who and what we really are.
In spite of the times when life — or just our meditation practice, for that matter — seems bleak, or even hopeless, it is perseverance, rather than giving up when we cannot be bothered to make the effort, which gets us through. “Be persistent,” Paul says, “whether the time is favourable or unfavourable” (2 Timothy 4.2).
Perseverance enables us to create those positive habits that help sustain us on the journey. Unfortunately, however, we are often unwilling to do more than the minimum required to achieve immediate results, not realising that sometimes it is necessary to make a sacrifice in the present for the sake of a greater reward in the future.
Jesus introduces his story about the widow and the unjust judge as a parable about the need “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18.1).
Perseverance is thus an essential part of faith. It takes trust to make a commitment for the sake of an outcome that cannot be known in advance. We should be able to see something of the truth of this in our own everyday experience. Mastering a skill, establishing a career, or even just getting to know somebody are ordinary examples of things that cannot and do not just happen instantly, but take time — perhaps even a whole lifetime — and come to fruition only as the result of sustained commitment.
Like any discipline, meditation requires time and effort. And, as we have seen, the wilderness within is fraught with obstacles and distractions. If we manage to stick at it, however, we may in time cultivate sufficient mindfulness to maintain our focus and avoid being led astray — at least for a few moments. Thoughts will not cease as long as there is breath in the body, but their constant flow might slow down a little. If and when this happens, we may experience a gap opening up between them.
This inner space is truly silent, truly empty. In its stillness it is timeless, because time implies movement. Abiding in this gap, free from all the noise and clutter with which we normally fill our minds, we may experience an awareness of the still centre behind the surface activity of our conscious mind. We may find that we have stopped repeating our mantra.
We may even stop breathing for a few seconds, without realising it, forgetting for a moment our physical discomfort, or indeed that we are a body at all. We may have the feeling that we are unlimited consciousness, pure essence of reality. In this still, silent, empty space at the heart of being itself, we may become open to the possibility of an encounter with what is; we may find ourselves present to the presence of that which is God. Although, of course, as soon as we realise it, we have had another thought. . .
Being present to God comes at a price, however; for it means being open to scrutiny and the attendant risk of being transformed from who we think we are into who God knows us to be. If God is truly God, he must see everything we do, and know everything that resides in our hearts (Psalms 139.2-4, 94.11, 44.21; cf. Matthew 6.8).
If we were really to live as if we truly believed this, it would be profoundly life-changing. I would never do or say half the things I do if I really believed it was all seen and recorded, and that I would be held to account for my words and deeds at the end of the day. This is why sticking at it is the necessary foundation for spiritual growth: it implies taking responsibility for our actions — and their consequences — and thereby acknowledging a truth of things greater than that which we simply decide for ourselves.
Through perseverance, especially when the going gets tough, we — like Jacob — encounter God, the deepest reality of what we are, and are transformed by that encounter, becoming, as a result, more than what we were. Jacob emerged from his struggle as a new person. “You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the stranger said, “but Israel; for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32.28).
It is through the very struggle with God that Jacob becomes who he is really meant to be.
This is the second of three edited extracts from The Wilderness Within by Nicholas Buxton (Canterbury Press, £12.90 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-84825-657-6).