Storms of the mind: is peace possible in the middle of great tension?

Christ and the Storm Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

How many hours of peace did you experience over the last week?

I’ve asked several people this question over the years and I’m always amazed how many answer “none.” How is it possible that in a full week – 168 hours – a person is unable to experience even one hour of peace? Well, it’s no mystery when one considers how many life-alienating things we involve ourselves with today.

Take one of many possible examples: the endless stream of inventions meant to save us time and energy.

We all know how this little charade plays out. One contraption comes along (say, email, cell phone, social network sites, etc.) and sure enough it saves us time and energy; however, the time and energy saved is quickly replaced by another duty, which, of course, comes with its own special contraption to save yet more time and energy. This surplus of time and energy paves the way for even more duties and before you know it you feel your life to be an automated, mechanical nothing performing tasks wholly alien to your real being. Peace becomes a completely forgone issue. Who has time for it?

This and many other alienating aspects of our world can make for internal storms that are often as intense as they are random, leaving any sense of peace completely shipwrecked.

So, knowing that abandoning the world and/or removing those aspects of the world we dislike is not possible, at least not for the majority of us (how many of your coworkers ever moved to Tibet and became a monk?), how on earth is one to quiet the storm against such forces?

When I come to questions like this I often find the best answers alive and well in the historic Christian faith. The story of Christ and His disciples caught in a great storm on the Sea of Galilee gives the greatest lesson ever on what real peace looks like.

The scene is dramatic. The disciples were fighting a storm so powerful and threatening that they were beside themselves in terror. A few of the disciples were actually experienced fishermen, assumedly familiar with sailing troubled waters. But no matter, they very much believed this was their final hour, death was imminent. Lucky for them they had God in the boat; trouble for them He was asleep.

We all know the story from there. They rouse the Lord and scream out in fear, “Do you not care that we perish?” Christ rises and first rebukes the storm then turns to His disciples and rebukes them for their lack of faith. What’s curious in this story, among a thousand other things, is what Christ rebukes the disciples for.

In a past life when I was a charismatic, Word of Faith Christian I assumed He rebuked them for not ‘taking their authority’ against the storm and ‘casting it out in the name of Jesus.’ But actually He rebuked them, not for failure to quell the storm, not for forgetting the proper incantation from the Word of Faith book of spells, but for their failure to be at rest within it. Their lack of faith had nothing to do with their powerlessness to stop the winds, instead their lack of faith was the failure to follow Christ’s simple example of remaining in peace.

But perhaps “simple” and “remaining in peace” should not be used in the same sentence. Nothing is more difficult in this life than to remain in peace.

If Christ had never taught on peace He would have said quite enough through His example on the boat that night. He displayed the epitome of rest in the tension of a life threatening situation. The text gives no indication that He ever intended to quiet the storm. He was perfectly fine, asleep even. It appears He settled it only to calm the nerves of His disciples.

The storm is a perfect analogy of how the psyche works. Storms are caused by opposite poles: a cold front and a warm front in collision. Psychic “storms” are also caused by opposite poles in collision – mental poles: good and evil, humility and pride, hope and disappointment, assurance and fear, one’s genuine self and his shadow self, consciousness and the unconscious, to name just a few. Calming a storm would be cake if one could just remove one of the opposing fronts, same goes for the psyche, but both tasks are thoroughly impossible (assuming one is not God).

If it is impossible to remove a contrary pole, and thus the tension it creates, then the superior way to peace is not to waste oneself attempting the impossible, but rather to develop a state of rest that allows one to remain in the storm – in the mental tension – without becoming unsettled. This is mastering your environment in a way almost totally foreign to popular thought today.

Easier said than done.

Truth is, as terrifying as a natural storm at sea can be, enduring a psychic storm can be no less terrifying.

For this reason most of us want to eliminate the tension immediately. It’s no mystery why people are quick to turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, self-harm, video games, literally anything that has the power of distraction. When in the middle of a storm the only goal is to get out of it as quickly as possible, whatever the cost.

I see this every day as a therapist. I counsel the depressed, the angry, the aggressive, the suicidal, etc., and the nexus of their problems – the part that they can actually control – is almost never ‘out there,’ but rather a conflict lodged deep within their own psyche. The storm they feel trapped in is an internal storm through and through no matter how much the they want the battle to be external. Having an external, objective target to fight against is always easier than facing the dragons within.

Lasting peace – not the kind of peace that comes during times of ease, but the kind that endures all seasons – requires a sustained confrontation with one’s inner world of tension.

From a counseling point of view there are many ways to engage this tension, but let me share one that I’ve found effective and can be practiced by anyone with the will to try.

Depending on the particular case I often counsel people to endure the tension of sadness or anger, or whatever the reoccuring emotion is, for a short period (and by “endure” I simply mean to sit with the tension as if to meet it face-to-face). For some maybe 30 seconds is long enough. After that I have them use whatever coping skill they have used previously against the problem. Then the next time the tension comes they are to endure it for a little longer, maybe this time for a full minute before breaking into their coping skill, and so on until the person can face themselves for any amount of time without flinching.

This slow and steady process of becoming acquainted with one’s own inner suffering, rather than immediately cutting it off with a deflection or a coping skill, allows the person to build that internal ‘peace muscle.’

On that note it should be said that the Christian faith witnesses to the “gift of peace” that only God can give – peace which no amount of will power can establish – but even with this gift lasting peace requires the individual to engage in honest encounters with his or her real Self (something that prayer and confession naturally create). Like any offensive battle, these encounters only come through an act of will. Without the development of the whole person peace has nowhere to to build a permanent resting place in the soul.

After time this acquaintance with the Self allows the person to trigger his or her own internal healing process without the help of medication or therapy. As a Christian I believe that God is present for anyone who seeks Him, and since He is the giver of peace it follows that His peace is available for anyone in any condition. If God truly gives the “peace that surpasses understanding” then true peace is not found in any accumulation of knowledge about peace, but rather an entering into relation with it – residing IN the One who is peace.

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3 thoughts on “Storms of the mind: is peace possible in the middle of great tension?

  1. This is something I instinctively know but keep ignoring because of the difficulty. Thank you for the reminder, I really needed this right now.
    I like to read your perspective regarding psychology with your Christian faith. In search of inner healing, I’ve finally come across basic concepts (like shadow self) that really shed light on many of my issues. I come from evangelical/charismatic background and spent years thinking I just needed to pray/worship more or whatever. Looking back now I can see that I used these means to avoid/suppress my pain rather than actually dealing with it. The last few years have been pretty interesting in trying to find healing, knowing and believing in God as the ultimate healer and using “secular” methods to get there. Long story short, that’s one reason why I enjoy reading many of your posts 🙂

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