"I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc walked along leading her men towards battle. At one point, though, she doubted herself and was afraid she might be wrong about her intuition. She turned to the soldiers and asked them to sit and rest.
She found a nearby church and went inside. Joan bowed her head. She prayed and asked for guidance. She needed to affirm herself in the moment in order to carry on. In a short time she relaxed and knew that what she was doing was right. She stepped out of the church, got back on her horse and led the men into battle.
At such times, and we all have them, doubt may arise. We look around for support or signs of clarity. How do we know what we are to do? How do we decide? We must pay attention and reflect on what is happening around us.
In Sanskrit the word “dharma” is “right action.” In the loftiest sense, our dharma arises out of who we are, where we are in life, what happened and who comes before us. Our life path includes skills, challenges and inclinations. We must pay attention to all these together to become clearer. Like a sword burnished in the fire, we can act with clarity and decisiveness when we pay attention. From a daily practice of still mind, it is possible to perceive and to respond.
A Still Mind
In many traditions people perform practices on a daily basis to clear their minds and promote strength of heart. Sometimes the right action is not obvious and often not predictable. That is why practices on a daily basis are important. Musicians and athletes practice daily to be ready to play well. For Joan of Arc one practice was prayer and silent reflection.
With the capacity for a still mind we can step up when needed. The moment may not fit with where we thought we were going. It may feel like someone tugging at a shirtsleeve, seeking our attention. Our frame of reference may not invite or have a context for what is trying to break through.
Actually, there is no way to know when we might need to step up and act. We may be called to save someone, to save ourselves or to provide information, all in a split second. We don’t know when we might face death, pain or even experience a flash of insight.
The plane was full on flight 93 on 9/11/01. A group of passengers recognized what was happening when terrorists moved to take over the plane. They knew it was going down and they could hear that the men wanted to hit something important. In that moment with minimal time to talk it through, they had to act. These people were heroes. In the midst of facing their own inevitable death they acted fast and averted a more serious disaster. We know this from cell phone contact they made with family members. We never know when a moment like this will arise.
A recent example of people taking action occurred in North Dakota in December 2016. During the fall, thousands of people came to protest a planned oil pipeline which would have threatened water resources and burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation and surrounding areas. They remain camped on the land in deep winter to take this stand, thousands of people. Military veterans, inspired by their actions, stepped forward to protect “the water protectors” from over-zealous police officers.
Wesley Clark, a veteran and son of retired Army General Wesley Clark, led a group of former soldiers to meet with the elders of the tribe. They got down on their knees, bowed their heads and asked for forgiveness for actions against Native Americans done generations ago. This is dharma in action. Part of dharma, or life duty, arises out of quiet reflection and the need to take responsibility. Wesley Clark was inspired to recognize the long term harm by previous generations, accept responsibility for it, and let it go. The Native elders offered forgiveness and responded, “We do not own the land. The land owns us.”
Stillness of mind is a great achievement, yet it is not static. We cannot reach a still mind by trying hard or pushing. Stillness of mind comes from cultivating the ability to let go of thoughts, to be humble, to be present. We move in and out of that still mind. To attune to the ebb and flow of the rhythm of action is to learn our own dharma, our duty. A person who can touch stillness within can leap into action in a split second without thinking.
We need to discern by looking outward at the world and then at the details of our lives right in front of us. Sometimes the mind gets quiet when we do our duty in the moment. There is a rhythm in daily chores and interaction with people. When we pause, we are in tune. Things clarify. We hear the hidden wisdom, the still, small voice that is often drowned out by activity. Listen to that still small voice. What am I to do? How am I to be? Who am I to speak to? What can I offer?
Coming of age into adulthood implies taking responsibility, accepting the yoke of life’s work. With it come freedom and the satisfaction of alignment with life’s purpose. With it comes belonging. We take responsibility for our community and our country. Robert Frost once said, “Freedom is working easy in harness.”
Coming of age implies rising to the occasion of whatever time we are in. Attuning to seasons of the year is one way to experience alignment. This practice helps us to be more aware of other cycles in the life span.
We are in a tumultuous season in our country. All of us are asked to to listen and respond to questions of the moment. Perhaps our country is coming of age and we are all part of that transformation. Everyone matters. Only with the capacity to tap into inner stillness and clarity will we achieve transformation. When we work this way as individuals and collaborate with each other, we will be a part of the transformation of our country.