Today is the 260th birthday of William Blake, and on this special occasion, I wrote another reflection inspired by his illustrations of the book of Job. It is about the lessons on surrender.
Surrender is one of the fundamental concepts of the meditative practice, and at the same time it is one of the most difficult concepts to understand, to accept and to enact in life. We often struggle with it, or even against it, again and again it puts us to test, and sometimes we pass it, while other times we fail. Surrender has to do with giving up something of our own and instead accepting the conditions of someone else. When we talk of meditation, or of spirituality, we often say that we need to surrender, and that calls for two questions. The first one: what it is that we need to surrender? The second one: when we surrendered, then to whom or to what?
The meditation I practice is about growth. It is about developing your capacities, about trying to become the best of what you can possibly be individually, and, as much as possible, improving your community and your society. In the process, we often develop a subtle ego, a feeling of moral or spiritual superiority, a false arrogance in believing that we know best how things should be done and what is the right thing to do, what is just and who deserves what. The first of our questions then would be relatively easy to answer (though not very easy to enact): we need to surrender, often, and repeatedly, all kinds of false ideas, false identities, false presumptions and habits, we have to try to gradually shed everything that prevents us from eventually manifesting our truest and purest Self and fully identifying with that Self.
Now, let’s talk about the Book of Job. It is one of the most puzzling stories from the Old Testament, perhaps because it is about surrender, perhaps also because it challenges one of the allies of our subtle ego, – a sort of retributive justice we often use to explain misfortunes (usually the ones that happen to others). It is a belief that suffering must always be the punishment for sin (and that whoever suffers must deserve it), and, correspondingly, that health, wealth, and happiness must always reward “goodness” and “righteousness”.
I’ve been inspired to ponder about the story of Job and to write this post (asecond one already), because a while ago I came across amazing illustrations by William Blake. He made two sets of watercolours and one set of engraved prints. Luckily for us, they are nicely collected and available in the public domain here [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Blake%27s_Illustrations_of_the_Book_of_Job], and so I invite you to explore these illustrations also while you are reading the post. It means a lot, that of all the themes of the Old Testament, Blake worked so much on the story of Job.
So, here is the story of Job. Job is a righteous man, well-respected, just and pious. God has a discussion with Satan about Job’s devotion to God, and Satan claims that Job is only pious because he is doing well, he has everything one might want in life, but were he to be deprived of his wellbeing, he would not remain faithful to God. God accepts the challenge and allows Satan to take away everything that Job has: his wealth, his children, and eventually his health, to see that Job will remain pious even when the blessings he is enjoying are stripped away from him. At first Job stays strong, but eventually, as things get worse and worse, and also as Job’s friends begin to say that Job must have committed some sins, to be so badly punished by God, Job loses his calm. He insists that he has not done anything wrong, he doesn’t know why God is punishing him, and eventually he feels that to die would be better than to suffer so miserably. It seems, justice is a huge issue for Job, he feels that his suffering is not just, and so he calls on God in despair. This is why the book of Job is so interesting, so challenging and so philosophical at the same time. It contrasts our human sense of justice with the divine justice, our human character with divine qualities, our limited human capacities with the infinite nature of God.
Then something happens. The Lord answers Job from the whirlwind. The response of God is very interesting, for in beautiful details it tells Job that while Job knows very little it is the God who is present and is working though all aspects of nature, all elements, the whole creation. It doesn’t directly respond to Job’s plea, but it brings his existence into perspective. Job recognizes his own caliber, and then God restores him back into his wellbeing, gives him back his wealth and family, his respected position, but, most of all, his solid faith in God.
Now, what are the lessons to learn from the Book of Job with regard to a meditateve practice?
I remember, one of the things I still had in my teenage years, was the feeling of closeness with God, the feeling of God’s presence, the sense that I could talk to God. It was not just the belief that God existed, but also the feeling of trust that God takes care of things, and everything will eventually work out. As I was growing up, I lost this feeling, became close to being an agnostic, and that has dramatically changed the emotional quality of my life. One of the first things I rediscovered once I settled into the practice of meditation, was that sense of emotional security, the feeling that things are happening the way they supposed to happen, and everything will be alright in the end. It isn’t just a belief, rather, it is a tangible feeling of the flow of energy that is healing, calming and comforting.
Something that occurred to me recently, also with the help of the story of Job, that to be able to “surrender”, we have to have at least some sense of who or what it is that we are surrendering to. We need to have and to sustain the experience of some Power that “runs” the universe, in all those beautifully detailed aspects that we read about in God’s response to Job. We need to trust that Power, whether we call it Divine, or Nature, or Universe, that it cares and takes care of everything, including us. This experience of the established connection with the Energy of the Universe is what ultimately sustains us through the challenges that life might bring, and it is the condition of us remaining balanced within and stable, even when the outside conditions are turbulent. It is not enough to rationalize and to understand, it has to be experienced, and the experience has to be established, as Job says (quoted by Blake): “I have heard thee with the hearing of the Ear but now my Eye seeth thee”. It was not enough to “hear” God for Job to maintain his sense of what God was, he had to actually “see” God, and that has restored his connection which he was losing when challenged with suffering. This is why we keep insisting in our meditation classes, that no matter how much you read, and how much you know, you will only progress on this path through daily practice of meditation, for that is the only way to have an actual real experience of being connected to the Energy, and to establish that experience within you.
Something that often came up in the old Christian and anti-Christian arguments about the existence and nature of God with regard to the problem of evil, was the whole sense of bafflement, that Job also experiences, that how can the benevolent and powerful God allow for the “suffering of the innocent” in the world? A way to approach the issue from a slightly different angle in this: in the story of Job, who actually has the need for that drama of loss and suffering to take place? Does God need to test Job through suffering? Obviously, not. When God appears to Job and responds to him, Job’s suffering is never addressed, neither is the notion of justice, that is not what is at stake here. It is Job himself, who needs to go through this experience, firstly to be able to see where he is at, and how strong is his state, how pure and how true is his understanding of himself, how adequate is his understanding of and trust in God. Secondly, through this experience Job can learn, he can grow a little further, he can shed that (already very thin, after all he is a good and pious man) layer of subtle ego and self-righteousness, which, when tested with loss, pain and nightmares, makes him think, that he is the one who knows what is just, that he can make a judgement, and he is right to be disturbed when that judgement is clashing with reality, thus bringing God into question.
So perhaps we can try out this approach. When things are not going according to our plan and our preference, we can take on a challenge and use the unpleasant (disturbing or even painful) situation to test ourselves, our state, our attitudes, our reactions, unlimitedly, the level of out surrender. We don’t need to go through suffering as horrible and painful as that of Job, regular small or bigger challenges of our lives will do.