Tag Archives: Toni Bernhard

On giving up…

It must be an act of grace, or of something beyond the individual will, which enables certain people to give up at certain times. Whether the giving up occurs gradually or swiftly, with great fanfare or absolute stillness, giving up is not something that can wilfully be done. It can be allowed or it can be resisted, but it cannot be done. And that is where hope lies. Not hope in continuing effort, but hope for some kind of mercy. Hope that today or next month, or five years from now there will come a time when the struggle will be sacrificed…

There is always room for great hope. For at every level of despair there is the possibility of giving up. In the midst of every dimension of delusion there are sparkles of sanity…. In the early years of life, giving up usually takes the form of faith. A leaping forward into a belief that one is loved, accepted, forgiven and redeemed just as one is, with nothing special needing to be done. In later years, giving up more often comes from despair. From the wisdom of realizing that no amount of continuing effort, no amount of fixing, will enable one to ‘get it all together.’ Despair then is forever a doorway to life.

Gerald May, Simply Sane: The Spirituality of Mental Health

We so often in our culture view giving up as the last thing we should be prepared to do. “Never give up!” we advise the cancer sufferer, the depressive. “Never give up!” we encourage the one struggling with the failing marriage, the failing business. “Of course, I never gave up…” says the hero returning from the war, the survivor hauled from the shipwreck.

But if we are honest, we know the state of not-giving-up is not something we can always achieve, nor is it healthy to try cling to it regardless. Life is given to us only for a while, and to give up in the face of terminal illness is sometimes a victory far more than a defeat. There are times in any endeavour when our only access to grace is in surrender – where we have to accept that try as we may, the marriage is over, the business is going to the wall.

Of course I am not advocating spinelessness. Of course we try. Of course we do our very best to keep going, to keep afloat in the storm, to save our life’s work, our life’s partnership. But sometimes it can’t be done. Sometimes even our own life cannot be saved – in the end that will come to us all – and then what shall we do?

There are seasons. “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted… a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance… a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away…” (Ecclesiastes 3.2ff) But we don’t want to accept the seasons: we want to buy fruit out of season, eat strawberries at Christmas, parsnips in high summer.

We run on desire, so much of our lives. We “want/don’t want” as Toni Bernard puts it. This refusal to give up can so often come down to this hunger, this wanting, and the suffering and dissatisfaction that come inevitably with wanting, with the sense that if only we can have this, or avoid that, then everything we be all right, that then we shall be peace.

Peace is grace. Grace is love, “strong as death” – far stronger. Love, grace, peace – these will outlast death. Even despair, if it is released, becomes a different kind of hope. Let it go, whatever it is, for only then can it be given back, “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…” (Luke 6.38)

On not clinging, and love…

Impermanence is the first mark of experience common to all human beings. The second one is what Buddhists call no-fixed-self. Like uncertainty and unpredictability, no-fixed-self was a concept unique to the Buddha’s teaching. He took the radical step of applying impermanence even to what we think of as our self. Twenty-five hundred years later, neuroscientists are coming to the same conclusion; they’re finding multiple circuitry in the brain, but no fixed seat of the self. As Pema Chödrön noted… “nothing is static or fixed”. That would include this notion of self.


Toni Bernhard, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

Some months ago I wrote,

It’s a great comfort to know that God’s presence is waiting in… times of emptiness and loss, but it is confusing to know that finding him in the good times is sometimes actually harder. I cannot find another way than the odd self-denial of silent prayer, ceasing even to ask for the awareness of God in prayer, but going on in plain faithfulness, without reward, simply out of love. Then, it seems, in the paradoxical way of these things, God will in the end, even in the sunlit days, find the emptied heart in its still place, waiting in the bare inkling of Light, even in the memory of Light, and fill it with isness far more real than words, or longing.

I think that for me, part of the problem is that when things are difficult it is relatively easy to accept impermanence; when they are good, then we want to retain them, guard them, just as we would keep those we love free from age and disease. Of course, if we were to manage to keep them safe from change, they would no longer live, since life itself is process, flux.

That is why clinging to the good times is so deadening. We can’t do it; but the mere attempt is enough to freeze our hearts, cut us off from the sweet life that burns in the fragility of now. All that lives is vulnerable, changeable, fleeting. That is its beauty, and its tenderness. Only the mercy of God is constant love; love is the Light that plays on the dappled stream of change. and we call it life.