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The Storm Before the Calm

landscape-695137_1280No matter how many times I experience The Storm Before the Calm, it always sneaks up on me. I never recognize it until I’m fully lost in it; bruised, drowning, desperate for relief. Storms are devilishly clever at disguising themselves. “I’m Hurricane Bob!” “I’m Tropical Storm Betty Sue!” “I’m Low Pressure System Barry Manilow!” Don’t let them fool you. No two storms have the same name, but they all wreak the same kinds of havoc.

Of course I don’t mean literal storms. I’m talking about periods of intense disturbance we go through prior to deep and lasting personal growth. I suspect we all have these Storms Before the Calm. But I don’t think most people recognize them. So it’s about to get unbearably metaphorically meteorological up in here.

A Storm Before the Calm begins long before we see it. It’s born in deep wanting—maybe a subtle itch, maybe a yearning so strong it rattles our teeth. It begins down in our guts, and eventually we begin burping it up, asking God (or Whatever) for resolution. Maybe we consult priests and offer formal prayers; maybe we gag out strangled cries that never even make it to language. Either way, we’re begging for change, for fulfillment, for something better.

We want this to happen smoothly and prettily, a sunrise illuminating a perfect summer morning. We expect it to happen this way.

And Whatever says, “Mmm-hmm.”

We forget that to give us more than we currently have, life must make us more than we currently are. And that the first act of every creative change is the destruction of the existing order.

Make no mistake: when we ask for better lives, we are calling the whirlwind.

When the Storm hits, we don’t connect it with our wanting, with our calls for help. We feel blindsided by misfortune, attacked by circumstances, drowned in agony we can’t control.

Loss of control is the essence of the Storm. We may lose control of our emotions, our actions, our work, our relationships, our bodies, everything. It all devolves into chaos—not just the normal inconveniences of daily life, but disruptive, preoccupying chaos, events and feelings we can’t ignore. Plans fall through. Efforts fail. Jobs disappear. Relationships end, or become fractious and impossible. Controllable? Ha! A Storm Before the Calm barely feels survivable.

I tend to recognize the Storm Before the Calm just after I become convinced that I’m cursed. During some of my worst Storms, I’ve felt like a cockroach that God (or Whatever) was trying to kill, first with a rolled-up newspaper, then with a shoe, then with a ton of bricks. After every mammoth blow, I’d be dismayed to find myself hideously alive, missing my head and most of my thorax, but still able to creep forward on my single remaining leg. While, I imagined, God rushed off to deploy the nuclear warheads.

That’s when I remember.

Wait, I think with my tiny, headless-cockroach mind. There’s something about this feeling, this horrible, horrible feeling…it’s not like ever before, but yes, it’s that bad. I think it may be the Storm Before the Calm!

And God (or Whatever) whispers, Bingo.

That dim flicker of recognition is the moment I feel the sea change. I’ve done it enough to know roughly how it’s going to play out. I relax into the belief that Storms Before the Calm come to destroy us, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. And that this is grace unfolding. I know that the greater the gift we’ve requested, the wilder and more violent the storm will be, and the deeper the grace.

Contemplating this—that the Storm isn’t a curse, but preparation for the blessing—ushers me into the Calm. Right then, just like that, I feel the pain ease. Before the wind dies down. Before the argument is resolved. Before the disease heals. Before the rent is paid. The Calm doesn’t come because the Storm is over. It comes because I’ve moved into the truth.

Truth is always calm. Still. Gentle. Quietly and intensely alive.

I think almost everyone goes through this pattern. If we look, you can probably remember breaking through a few Storms into the Calm yourself: “Oh, right! After my nervous breakdown I discovered meditation and Klonipin, and things got so much better,” or “True, it was after Jack left that I finally got the nerve to quit my job slaughtering cattle.”

Right then, just with that tentative step toward a different interpretation of ill fortune, the Calm begins. It feels faint at first, but dropping attention deeply into it—focus more on it than on the Storm—begins to reveal that it’s VAST. So huge a million hurricanes could rage inside it and never disturb its peace. That Calm itself is what we really are. Every single pathetic-looking little human is bigger inside, far bigger, than any storm ever seen on earth.

Sometimes, when I can’t reach the Calm, I’ll just stomp into the Storm, betting wildly that it’s more benevolent than it seems. With a sort of inner Viking war scream, I’ll open the grim and complicated spreadsheets from the bank, or go get the painful medical test, or initiate the conversation I’m way too afraid to have. If there’s nothing else to do, I’ll sit in a silent room, refuse to distract myself, and face the tempest in my mind.

If I do this bravely enough, a weird thing happens. Right at the center of every Storm I find its eye—the one part of my flailing self that can see clearly.

From that still place right inside the storm, all the horrible luck, the stress, the pain, the shame, the loss, begins to reveal itself to me as an incomprehensibly perfect, intricately choreographed rearrangement of the universe, meant specifically to do one thing: Fulfill my longing.

“Oh,” I notice. “The illness came to teach me to relax.” Or, “Oh. The job loss came to teach me that people will help.” Or, “Oh. I failed because I had to discover that I’m worthy of love, no matter what.”

Oh. I called the Storm. It came because I asked. And it’s exactly—exactly—what I needed.

At that moment, I realize what my favorite yogi Nisargadatta Maharaj meant when he said, “Don’t you see? God is doing this all for me.”

Not to me.

For me.

Oh.