Where’s your spine? You’re spineless. Have some backbone. Phrases like these tend to be uttered by the mean and misguided to point out another’s fear or hesitancy. Horrible, hurtful … and, it turns out, inaccurate.
Of course, as with most concepts in our language that have become warped and contorted, it has some basis in the truth. Our spine is indeed the source of our strength, our courage, our autonomy, our attunement, and lots else.
Our spine, called the backbone because the vertebrae can be felt and sometimes seen through the skin on our back, actually runs right through the center of our torso. It’s a kind of tent pole, if you will, that holds our bodies up. It’s the core of our energetic field. Keeping our attention on our spine keeps us attuned to ourselves, our truth, our needs, our edges, our experience.
Some of us do this naturally. Many do not (*raises hand*). Instead, we reference the world outside of ourselves. (By “reference” I mean put our attention on; make central; use to determine how, where and who we are in a given moment.)
This particular pattern of attention references anything but self. It instead goes through life asking, usually unconsciously, “what is the situation here and how can I blend into it so I’ll be accepted? What is this person up to, and how can I give them more of what they want, or be like them, so that they’ll love me?” Someone who does this pattern can be charming, nurturing, generous. Emotional. Loving. They can also be overly social, scattered or chatty, seeking feedback through protracted eye contact or touch, and not especially adept on third plane without others doing things for them.
Having never gotten enough—food, nurturance, attention—as a little one, we are always reaching for more love. More approval. We’ll contort ourselves however we can to get it. We’ll abandon self—not by leaving our bodies, but by liquefying our field to merge with others’. (Which, if the other person isn’t accustomed to behaving the same way, they might feel invaded or ‘slimed.’)
The physical phenomenon beneath this pattern of attention is that we’re not aware of our own core. We’re so accustomed to referencing others that we forget (or actually, never knew) the same resources are available within, and that we are capable of holding ourselves up. We’re looking everywhere but at our own center, our own spine—hence, spineless. But not cowardly. How can someone unaware of their own capability willingly reject it? Would you do this on purpose? Of course not. As with all survival strategies, we can’t know what we never learned. Can’t do what we were never shown.
The great news about any habit that has its roots in our physicality is that we can address it there. We don’t have to spend years analyzing it or unearthing its initial causes. (I mean, sure, we can do that for kicks, too, if we want. It’s just that emotional wounding—any wounding—results in a warped energy field. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of going directly there.)
There are lots of other ways to take this up. Any martial art, where you’ve got to know where you are before you have any hope of interacting successfully with another, is a failsafe way to build core. (I didn’t realize this was what I was doing when I started Aikido, but I know that it’s helped me reference core to the point that my mergey tendencies are almost undetectable now.) Same is true of partner dancing. Pilates is the most obvious one as it goes right there: its stated purpose is core strength. There are also balancing exercises and meditations where we visualize our core going through our body and extending into the earth and up into the heavens.
With our attention on our spine more consistently through one of these practices, we can then start to notice where our edges are, when we might be invading someone else with our needs—and when that is happening to us.
We can help our friends who do this pattern too. Rather than engage their need for feedback (or in addition to it), we can put our attention on their alignment, their capability. Their spine, really. Pay as much attention to their courage and autonomy as to their great hugs and delicious brownies.
This is a small piece of a huge topic: a lifetime of behavior built on a strategy used to survive as a baby. We’ll explore it and others in Intro to Energy Basics.
The other day I overheard someone say, “Oh, I overlooked that. I’m a terrible person!”
I know this lovely being to have perfectionist tendencies. But what hadn’t been so starkly clear to me until I heard this language is how he conflates his value as a human being with never making mistakes. On the rare occasions he slips up, this is what he says about himself. To himself.
And to others.
Panning back I suddenly re-witnessed a lifetime of this. Me doing it to myself; others doing it to themselves; others doing it to others; others doing it to me.
Yes, doing it to. This is an attack. It’s an assault. It’s a holding of an impossible standard: perfection. And not just perfection, but perfection according to an individual: a subjective, ever-moving target, impossible to reach or sustain.
There are some who do this prevalently, but even those of us blessed with a modicum of perfectionism will sometimes perceive others’ mistakes as affronts. If someone “messes up,” according to us, they’re a terrible person. They’ve attacked us with their awfulness. When really the opposite is true. We’ve devalued them with our assessment. We’ve deemed them unworthy of living (or at least living in our presence) because of their flaws. Our fear of our own imperfection leaks, often mercilessly, onto others who probably don’t hold the same standards for themselves (or they do, but the standards are distinct from our own.)
This breaks my heart a million times over. Especially since it’s not possible to project onto others what isn’t going on a thousandfold in ourselves. “I’m a terrible person” is a chant that took root at the back of some of our skulls at a young age. Our lives became about proving this isn’t true through constant vigilance, striving, performance, judgment. Never relaxing, never settling, never feeling okay. This can be too much for a body and mind to hold. No wonder we foist some of the burden onto others.
This isn’t a universal survival pattern, but it’s pretty common—even celebrated—in our culture. Achievement, productivity, performance determines our worth. Look at cover letters. Look at commercials. Look at the damn Olympics. Mistakes don’t factor in. They’re not allowed. They’re covered up, condemned.
Of course there are wonderful things about perfectionism too (every pattern has a light side). Without the minds and talents of our über organized friends we wouldn’t have beautiful design, helpful systems, or vital infrastructure. We need these tendencies in the world. It’s just that harm is caused when we are unconsciously driven by them.
So what to do?
Challenging though it is to try to deprogram a lifetime of learned behavior, we can always start with compassion. Turn toward that voice that asserts that we or anyone else who is flawed is also awful. Connect to it gently. Ask it where it got these messages. Find their origin; question their truth.
We can spend time around those we judge as being chaotic or messy or not having their shit together. Connect with the joy, ease and creativity they may also bring. Notice that mistakes as we perceive them don’t actually result in death or anything close to it.
And hardest of all: we can let ourselves start to feel. Feel the pain and sadness inherent in holding ourselves and others to such impossible standards. Feel the freedom in doing something insane like not paying a bill right away, or being two minutes late, or not being the one to replace the empty toilet paper roll. Feel into what your body and heart are asking for in a given moment versus what Should Be Happening.
And for the love of god, go easy on yourself with this. Don’t apply perfectionist tendencies to the task of loosening them. Easier said than done, of course. So, get support. Don’t do this alone. (Yes, I know you’re capable of doing it alone, but that’s not the point here. Quite the opposite, in fact.)
Under behavior—any behavior—is our essence. Our true value and worth. Who we really are. A beautiful, already perfect soul comprising love and joy. There’s nothing to prove there. Nothing at all. It is she who we’re looking to connect with.
We’ll explore this and other patterns in upcoming posts, and at the Energy Basics workshop coming up next month.
I wrote this for my coaching school’s blog in 2011, the same year I started aikido. At the time I didn’t connect the two. (Hindsight can be a lovely thing.) Though the context is coaching, hopefully it’s clear how this applies to any practice.
I was recently introduced to a learning model that’s opened up a lot of space around my own development and my work with clients. It’s known as the four stages of competence, the stages themselves being: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.
Unconscious incompetence is when our blind spots are still blind, and we’re blissfully ignorant of what we’re capable of growing into. (Or maybe it’s not so blissful, and that’s why we seek coaching.) Once introduced to the new possibility or skill we want to develop, we may begin vague cognitive understanding of it, but the rest of our system has no reference for it yet. We don’t yet know what we can’t do.
Conscious incompetence then ensues. This is the stage when we are aware of the thing that needs to shift but we haven’t yet shifted. It’s having the desire for change while feeling stuck being how we’ve always been. I’ll talk more about this in a second.
Conscious competence comes when we’ve gotten the hang of the new skill or quality, but it’s not yet second nature. For example, if we’re learning to drive a car, we still need to pay attention to which way we need to turn our ankle to reach the brake pedal, remind ourselves to check the rearview mirror, and largely ignore whomever is riding with us so that we can concentrate on what we’re doing.
But eventually, finally, blessedly, comes unconscious competence, when we’ve embodied the new skill and it starts to happen automatically. We’re cruising with the radio on full blast, with our attention on the scenery, on our companions, on our own inner life.
But let’s back up for a moment to that second stage, conscious incompetence. This phase can be pesky. Actually, it can be hell. To use the driving example, it’s the stage when your mother is sitting terrified in the passenger’s seat, digging her nails into the dashboard and pushing down on the nonexistent brake pedal with both feet, shrieking at you to not hit the squirrel. It’s rolling backwards down hills and bouncing off the side of the garage. It’s making mistake after mistake after mistake and thinking you’re never, ever going to get it.
Can you see how this applies to growth edges in self-development? You are invited into a new narrative that is possible for you, but which you have not yet embodied. It can be immensely frustrating to see a new way of being in front of you, understand and be inspired by the possibility of it, and yet still employ your old set of behaviors because it’s all your system knows to do.
I had a client who had always believed that he was the catalyst for everything that happened in his life and in the lives of those around him. He didn’t think people would do things if he didn’t remind them. Once he realized it was possible to trust that the world could take care of itself, he began to taste the joy and freedom that comes with being able to let go. So he didn’t understand why, soon after he had this realization, he was still micromanaging his employees and doing the lion’s share of tasks at home. He became frustrated with himself and wondering why he was “sliding.” Which, of course, wasn’t the case at all. He was just learning.
When we encounter conscious incompetence, I think we have a choice. We could let our inner critic grab the mic and begin a running commentary on all the ways we’re utterly inadequate, for not being The Better Person We Know We Can Be, which invariably snowballs into greater self-loathing and a much slower progression toward the new way.
Or, we can remember what it was like to be a teenager learning to drive a car. We can observe toddlers learning to walk, falling on their little bums again and again and again. We can appreciate the how huge it is to be aware of something that wasn’t even in our consciousness until now. We can give ourselves permission to fall, and crash, and fail, and cry. We can surround ourselves with a support system of folks who will pick us up, dust us off, encourage us, forgive the messes we make, and remind us how far we’ve come.
And then finally, when we’ve reached that blissful state where we’re so used to our new way of being that we’re no longer aware of it, those same folks can remind us of the time when we thought it was impossible.
And this is the gift we have the privilege of giving our clients as well: letting them bounce off as many garage doors as they need to, and reassuring them that one day, they’ll be on cruise control.
Sometimes at the beginning of class I have students walk around the mat feeling into different parts of themselves – center, feet, heart, the room, the earth, the universe, playing with what part of them is “driving,” experimenting with surrendering control and letting themselves be driven. Checking out how all of this affects their movement, interaction with others, feeling of themselves. Does it feel familiar? Is it new? What do you notice?
Regardless of what students are instructed to focus on, the intention is to awaken to how we move through space. To do so with attention in our physical being, rather than on the usual thoughts or judgments or goals or whatever is coming through our headphones. Out of the head and into the body.
This is vitally important for a million reasons, one of which is cultivating our ability, in any given moment, to tell what is true.
In these times when there is so much noise, so many claims, so much information flying around, we have a lot of sorting to do. Right now especially we are privy to much that historically has been harder to access, that had been behind the curtain, that we had to go looking for. Injustice is no longer only blatantly obvious only to its victims and warriors. It’s now in all our faces, all the time. These facts are ticker-taped across our awareness on a daily basis. We’re seeing shifts in our world that have potential for massive healing or destruction. Unless we take up residence in a Siberian cave, we cannot deny that it’s happening.
And yet, some do. Still. Even now. Why?
In anticipation of some difficult conversations and downright brawls in the years ahead, I’ve been reflecting on this. What is the difference between a being who is in contact with the truth versus one who believes rhetoric and refuses to abide facts? (Of course I am framing it this way for the sake of argument, acknowledging fully that it’s not so black and white—pardon the expression—as that.)
It turns out that knowing and believing are not the same thing. One lives in the mind. The other, in the body. On a topic of oh, say, systemic racism, to say that we’re merely disagreeing—that one person’s “truth” is just as valid as the other—is inaccurate.
Facts are of the physical universe. Science, for instance, relies on evidence—that which we can access via our earthly senses. “Gut feelings” are called that because they are actual sensations in the tummy. To have access to our senses we must be in our bodies, be attuned to them, know how to operate them. For many, this is unimaginable. We’re just not gonna go there. With good reason: we’ve all been invaded and traumatized, on purpose or not, consciously or not. We’ve gotten messages that our physicality is not a safe place to dwell. Not to mention that it’s been trained out of us for generations—Descartes saw to that.*
Denying our bodies by and large means a retreat to the mind. Not exactly a Siberian cave, but definitely a wind tunnel of myriad arbitrary ideas. In that abstract, un-rooted place where nothing is really real, we can pick and choose what we hold on to and what we let blow through. With nothing solid to test that truth against we usually end up surrendering our attention to whatever cacophonous presentation is the most relentless.
If this is what belief stems from, and I think it is, we can literally believe anything. Overwhelming and disquieting, to say the least.
Knowing, on the other hand, is when our cells vibrate with the truth of something. It lives in the gut, in the skin, in the spine, the throat, the connections between our muscles and bones. It’s when, for instance, considering a potential situation makes you feel solidly planted several inches deeper in the ground versus twitchy and spacey. Or when you’re somewhere and know you need to leave immediately because you feel that certain kind of nauseated. Everyone’s tuning mechanisms work a little differently. It’s up to each of us to learn our instrument.
It’s no coincidence that the deeper I’ve ventured into my aikido practice the less confusing things have become. (Mind you I say less confusing, not not confusing.) Over time, practice has connected me to the divining rod that is my body. I know what’s true more of the time because I can feel it. Not because I read it in a book or saw it on the news or heard someone say it (even if they’ve said it a billion times). As my attention is trained on ever subtler nuances of movement in myself and others, I become more aware of what it feels like when my cells sing in resonance with a thought or action that is true or right or loving or kind, or that forwards wellbeing or evolution—my own or the world’s.
Ai is unity. Ki is energy. Do is the way. When we practice aikido we’re unifying with the god force that runs through all things. We’re doing it to heal ourselves and heal the world through our alignment to ultimate rightness. Training helps us attune more and more to THAT truth—the one that, if we feel into it, is actually rather simple and obvious. It’s nothing to do with what our parents or newsfeeds or priests or friends or teachers or addictions have vied to install in our minds.
It’s a tough thing, choosing to abandon the conditioned behavior of hunkering in our heads, sorting information based on what ‘makes sense.’ The body can be unfamiliar territory, full of wounding and aches, full of memories we’d rather not dredge up, full of demands to move in different ways than we’re used to. It’s also our most necessary instrument in discerning what our life is for.
More on how we might navigate this tricky business in upcoming posts.
*If you’re a fan of utterly profound, gently delivered insight and are not yet following my friend Justin Wise’s blog, On living and working, I invite you to resolve that on that double.
The sonic boom that was this election and its ensuing ripples are waking up what has been latent in all of us. It’s calling us all to our truest selves. The world has made a clear request and demands our authentic response, and right swiftly too.
For many, the response comes in the form of fear and hatred being worn brazenly on the outside: the emergence of our collective shadow. For others—for me—it’s a neon sign pointing to my own ignorance, and an understanding that I have a lot of catching up—and acting—to do. Big time. Things are moving fast now and whatever’s been asleep in us has been roused. No time to lose.
Something that deflated in significance, almost all at once, has been my hesitancy to say things: to participate in social media, to share my writing publicly, to say what I see. I’ve historically withheld my full participation, even though, undeniably, this is where people see and hear and share and learn and interact the most. I’ve been resistant to the inevitable tide, overwhelmed by being in contact with so many people’s thoughts and emotions and lives in such close range all at once (not something my Gen X body has easily adjusted to). And of course there’s my own crippling self-consciousness. Online and and in real life, I’ve kept a filter up to protect myself.
I’ve been supporting my close friends’ activism with a kind of distant admiration, harboring deep feelings about what is right and true, but flabbergasted most of the time by subtleties and nuances and brilliant points I would never have thought of. I know I’m always missing something so I gave up trying to follow. Plus there’s potential conflict inherent in all of it—a lifelong terror of mine. Heaven for fend I have to choose a side, or worse: that things get unpleasant.
Anyway, none of these feel like excuses I can rest in any longer. It seems dumb that I ever have.
I realize this: I’m a beginner at activism. Like anything new it will start awkwardly and I’ll make many mistakes. I’ll say the wrong things; I’ll inadvertently offend. But it has to start. I’ve been avoiding this because it’s felt too hard, too complicated, too impossible, too overwhelming. It’s been intimidating to take up because I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s why people shy away from aikido or painting or cooking or whatever … because after a few stabs they can’t do it perfectly so fuck it.
But now, it seems, there’s very little to lose (I say “seems” because what is happening in the world is not new—it’s just that the volume has been turned up). So I’ll do this badly for awhile. Maybe forever. But I’ll do it. Dignity be damned. I owe it to the world to finally extend my gaze past my own overly examined navel.
Still, as I toddle out on undeveloped legs in my effort to finally contribute something more than crossed fingers, I acknowledge my klutziness. I acknowledge that it took a threat so giant, glaring and global to finally make me see and be willing to stand up. Like so many, before now, I wasn’t ready. Now I am. I humbly request the forgiveness and support of those who have always known better.
Fortunately I’m steeped in a community of experts. My apprenticeship has been occurring even as I’ve resisted it. I have all the resources a beginner could ask for.
But this is foundation of mastery, isn’t it? Don’t not do something because you fear doing it badly. Whatever call you hear, no matter how mysterious or foreign or shadowy seeming—move in that direction. Start in tiny increments if you must, but do it now. I’ve never been one to go in for urgency but damn. Most of us—definitely I—have been asleep for so long that the world had to issue us (and by “us” I mean people who haven’t been suffering for generations) a rather horrifying ultimatum.
If you haven’t already connected to your response—what life is asking of you at this moment in history—I suspect you don’t have to dig too deep to unearth it. Find it, my friend. Find your heart, your voice, your strength, your calling. Find the support that is so near at hand to help with its emergence.
Listen, and begin.
We’ve been training for this our whole lives….
I am not ‘trying to be optimistic’, though as a straight white lady living comfortably in a relatively sane and insulated pocket of the world, I could certainly exercise that luxury. Those ‘trying to be optimistic’ are those whom this disaster won’t touch—not initially anyway.
I’m not weeping in terror, either—my privilege doesn’t give me the right to do that, at least not for myself and my own safety.
No, the cause of my own insomnia last night was shock at a response I did not see coming: I am willing to fight. I am going to fight.
I’m grateful today for my aikido training in ways I could not have predicted. The layers of fear it’s brought up and burned off. The anger and rage that’s behind that, that has been sort of bubbling and quaking and not directed anywhere, just feeling like energy, like fuel. Changing shape and changing me. The spiral rising up my spine that in this moment has me feeling far more courageous than I ever I thought I would or could. Far more angry too. Far more willing to fight for those who might need me to defend them. This is in stark and shocking contrast to what would have been my reaction not long ago: “I will pray and hope and be nice to everyone and see what happens.” No way. I mean, I will pray for sure. I’ll be kind, I’ll nurture, I’ll love. But I will also use what strength I have in service to those who don’t have the resources I do.
The question that arose for me back when Voldemort first appeared on the scene, which I never asked publicly, was, “if we want him to go away, why are we paying so much attention to him?” Fear and revulsion and resistance are as nourishing a food to such beasts as adoration and support are. More so even. We’ve fed him with our attention all along, we who hate him. Understandable—we couldn’t just ignore him and let him do what he did without having tried to stop him.
Nonetheless, here we are. America is as dangerous and violent and fat and fake and greedy and dishonest and vile as the sludge demon we’ve elected to represent us. This needed to be revealed. The box is open; the beast is out. No amount of hope or optimism will put it back in. No amount of shiny lacquer will cover over what we now face as a globe.
But I’m not fighting the great reveal. I’m honoring it: honoring what’s being shown in me, in us. I’ll fight instead for those caught in the current of this necessary and horrible revelation. The ones who are in actual, immediate, physical danger should this monster actually ascend to the throne and be put in charge of the CIA and given the bomb codes. Before he actually executes the destruction that we all fear.
(The question my outrage asks now: could we possibly let him? How can we let him? Is there not any way to shove a stick in the gears of this invisible machine that is relentlessly consuming us? Could those who allegedly know better simply refuse to keep handing him power, laws be damned? Doubtful, I know. This is a stone of wrong that’s been clogging the artery of evolution and is finally on the move. It hurts like hell, this breakage and this release. But again, we couldn’t sit on the lid any longer.)
So yes, those who are most vulnerable in the face of this need warriors to fight with and for them, but I can’t and won’t beseech you to begin or keep training for this reason. It’s not how it works anyway. Aikido is a spiritual path because you are literally, actively training for whatever the world needs from you—and you can’t necessarily know what that is. Practice, it seems, reveals that too. Because it blasts open parts of us that we didn’t know were shut down. Like what just happened in our country, it unmasks the ugly bits of us—releases them, gets them on the move, transforms them into something else. Calls us to our highest selves. This doesn’t always mean warriorship. It often means peace, kindness, patience, forgiveness—any number of qualities that, in their purest, un-contorted, agenda-less form are necessary for a healthy soul. Ones you have to work hard to find. Ones that life, I can assure you, needs you to find.
Maybe it’ll take something as monstrous as this election to understand why you’ve been training. Maybe it’ll be subtly revealed in your daily interactions. Most likely it’s both, but nothing happens if you don’t return to the mat and face it. The world doesn’t need you to fight, perhaps, but it does need you to confront your own demons. This is the only way anything gets healed.
This is bringing out the worst in those who are the worst. But it seems to me to be bringing forth something else in the rest of us. What is it for you?
I wrote this in 2012, on the eve of that year’s presidential election. Different time, different context, different issues, different writer. I could (and probably will) make points more trenchant and relevant to today’s particular flavor of chaos. Nonetheless … much of it still feels true.
The world is unraveling. This is not news. Of course it isn’t. It’s only recently entered my understanding in a more visceral way that it’s undeniable now, but it never wasn’t the truth. The election is futile. No matter what happens tomorrow, we’re still headed toward decline. Obama may slow the decline, Romney will accelerate it, but either way, nothing will be fixed or solved with either of them in office. Nor will it be fixed or solved by us recycling or paying attention to the weather patterns or cutting fossil fuels. It’s too late. We’re being ripped apart at the seams. For so long we’ve felt the tug. Now it’s starting to rip.
It’s okay, there’s nothing we could have done. This is the direction of our evolution. It’s an inevitability of an ever-expanding universe. Nothing we do or don’t do, or have or haven’t done, would or could ever stop it. If you close your eyes and sense your insides – the mini-universe that resides in you – you can feel the pulling there too. The audible rip; the sensation of dynamic polarization. The expansion and near-explosion. It’s hard to bear. Tearing hurts. Disintegration is uncomfortable … we spend our energy and our dollars and our lives trying to prevent that very thing in its every form. We destroy ourselves trying to prevent destruction.
But here we are: a society and a world encroaching on not existing as we always have. The ways we’ve done things and are still trying to do them just don’t hold up in the world that it is. The world is changing, and so many of us are frantically grabbing at the frayed edges of what once was, pulling with all their might and attempting in vein to lash the shreds together, hoping they’ll hold. They won’t hold. We need to let them go.
But we can’t because if we do, we’re surrendering ourselves to the unknown. To pain and chaos and strife and possible death. To definite lack of control. Having let go, our only recourse is to sit and watch it all fall down. Those of us who hide and ignore and distract won’t be able to. We all have to be here for it, and we don’t know what it is. We have to trust. We don’t know how to trust. We can’t let go. So we fight.
Our fighting takes every imaginable shape. We fight injustice, we fight diseases, we fight wars—both in them and against them. We fight with each other, we fight ourselves. Oh, so hard we fight ourselves. We fight against feeling pain, intimacy, pleasure, anger, hopelessness, fear. We hold our bodies so tightly against these things that they ache and distort and crumple and decay far more quickly than they’d otherwise need to. And then we fight the failing and when we can’t we go back to pushing it—and anything that reminds us of it—out of our consciousness.
And we go with all our might at the things we think we can fix. We perceive a problem and we villianize whomever we’ve decided was its perpetrator. We lash outwardly with blame for our inner hurt. We turn such a blind eye to our own incompleteness and raise pitchfork mobs out of others with similar pains, and go after the village ghost monster bent on making him pay. We don’t recognize that we’re each of us wading through our own worlds of hurt and just heaving it on to one another: here, you carry this for me. It’s all your fault anyway. You bear the burden.
But this isn’t a wrong way to be; it’s how we are. It hasn’t caused the unravel. The unravel was coming. The unravel is us moving from Capricorn to Aquarius. It’s the game board changing, and life and the universe requiring something far different from us than most of us know how to live. So we man our old battle stations and prepare to ward off something that has no way of being destroyed. It’s merely a shifting world, and our only choice is to shift with it … or not.
So how, I now wonder, do those who are willing to let go facilitate the letting go of everyone else? Ha. We don’t. We don’t because that would be interfering with a process we understand to be inevitable and natural and that will have its own relationship with each being it encounters. We can’t meddle – it’s counter to the spirit of what’s going on. It would be just another attempt to hold something together. To “save” something, be it order or justice or the fabric of society or values or each other. There is no saving to do. There is only letting go. In joy, in joy, and with open hearts. There is only release.
There can be celebration, I imagine: celebration for the astoundingly magical unfolding of existence. Laughter at the absurdity of it all. The comedy, the brilliance. Comfort in the fact—the only real truth we have to go on—of the unstoppable expansion of the universe and the changing nature of all things. I’ll raise a glass to that.
But whatever happens tomorrow has already happened. IS already happening. We surely can’t stop short, throw up our hands and say forget the whole thing. For our own understanding of survival we need to keep going. It’s just that I can see now that our actions are empty, but we have no others at the moment. We’re in the throes of an enormous universal limbo. We’ve let go of one trapeze and can’t yet glimpse another one to grab. We’re hanging in mid-air, and there’s no evidence of a net to catch us. So we’re feverishly attempting to weave our own out of what we’ve always used: fear and hope and words and thoughts and things things things. We drive toward a solution and our efforts dissipate into the blackness so we redouble and try harder. It hurts, it makes us tight and tense and yet we know no other way.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
— From “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte
A few years ago I was in a state of, shall we say, spiritual disorientation. A limbo between a very solid What Had Been and a blackly obscured and unknowable What Was To Be. That liminal state where it feels like there’s no ground under one’s feet (usually because, in every respect but physical, there isn’t). All I knew for sure was that everything felt wrong. All I felt able to do was wander around – literally. Searching, maybe, or simply keep moving lest I get sucked into the black hole that yawned, terrifying, at the edge of my consciousness.
In retrospect, I was in the very early stages of one of the most massive, devastating, and necessary changes of my life. This feeling was Life shaking me awake from what had become a deep and complacent slumber – you are more than this, it whispered. Time to move on; time to get going; what lies ahead you have no way of knowing, it irksomely quoted Tom Petty.
I had no conscious inkling of this at the time, though. I just felt generally unsettled and awful, with nothing I could point to as a reason. There was no evident injustice causing my despair, no major loss inspiring this grief. Nothing I could use to explain in a way anyone else could relate to. It was coming purely from within—utterly invisible and impossible to describe, so I didn’t try. I didn’t tell anyone. Instead, I wandered through the hills near my home, crying a lot, not understanding. I wasn’t suicidal but had the thought more than once that if death came for me I wouldn’t mind. I’d go quietly.
It was rough.
One day my wanderings took me to a familiar hiking trail, drew me toward a familiar tree. It wasn’t a particularly magnificent specimen. It didn’t stand out except for its position relatively close to the path. It was a scraggly old pine whose lowermost foot of grayish bark had been scraped or eaten off by some creature or other. It seemed elderly. It was a being that I always felt compelled to greet in some way, with a touch or a wave, as I moseyed by.
Today I stopped, my heart full of questions that had no words. I leaned against my tree, back-to-trunk, breathed, breathed, my inner critic judging me as usual for being pathetic and dramatic. My ego terrified of being seen by anyone who passed by.
Despite all this, as soon as I connected myself to the tree I felt the web of intelligence it shared with all the other trees, with the ground, the ancestors beneath, the sky above, the all of it. The whisper of breeze through the leaves overhead, the rustling of life in the undergrowth—none of it was random noise. It was the harmonious hum of all existence, the lucid voice of the everything.
I was in a holy place, I knew. Guidance was available. I didn’t know what to say. What to ask. I just knew I needed help. So I asked for that. Asked for help.
I feel like my heart is breaking, came my silent confession.
Then let it break, I heard in noiseless response.
Let it break.
I did. Then and there, the elderly tree still holding me, I let my heart break. A quiet, heaving, knowing sob. An opening, finally, into the expanding territory of my soul. A painful stretching of the heart to take in all I was becoming aware of. Permission, finally, to feel it all—even the stuff that hurt. Especially the stuff that hurt. It swept in to fill the void for a moment, nearly more than I could bear, but enough to glimpse where this all was going.
For a second, just then, there was orientation. Ever so briefly I felt my place in the world again. The tree helped me see not only where the ground was, but where my ground was. For an infinitesimal moment, I could almost make out where I was headed. It was a place I didn’t understand yet. There were no answers, but there was information.
Let it break. My heart needed to break, my space to crack open to allow for this expansion. Much of my suffering had come, I realized, from trying to Keep It Together when clearly It was not even a thing anymore. Trying to sustain a shape that wanted me to shift. Holding fast to a branch as the current of life endeavored to move me downstream.
There was also the suffering caused by trying to leave the darkness too soon. An old metaphor that never fails to wow me is that of caterpillars transitioning into butterflydom. They literally liquefy in their chrysalis. This cannot be comfortable. Interview any moth you meet: they will not, I’m sure, look back upon their cocoon days with nostalgia and longing.
And it doesn’t end there: they must, once they awaken—giant new wings wound around them in this space that is suddenly and clearly too small—fight their own way out, however long it takes. To help a butterfly out of its cocoon is to kill it. It must break out on its own.
So must our souls, stirring in the confines of what is no longer ours to be. There has to be a break, a tear, a rending, as we emerge new into the blinding light. None of it is comfortable. All of it is necessary. It is nature. Our nature.
It took ages, lots more miles of hiking and plenty more pain, but eventually my outer world did come into alignment with what I was catching foggy glimpses of in those first days.
I’m remembering this now, I think, because I find myself in the midst of another one of these giant, nameless shifts that is taking its sweet time revealing itself. It’s showing up as anxiety and despair running through every channel of my life—some acidic compound, perhaps, being poured through the lines to purify them. It’s having me crave silence, sleep, alone time, wandering. It’s inspiring inner critic attacks about how I need to be more productive or at least dooooo something with or about what I’m feeling. It helps to reflect on an earlier occurrence of Whatever This Is. I did eventually make my way out of the chrysalis, tottered confusedly for a bit in the blinding newness, and grew accustomed to the new self that had been gestating during all those months of perplexity and pain.
It’s the hardest work of our lives, and can be the most fascinating if we stay awake to it. To recognize something is amiss, acknowledge that where we are is no longer relevant and something else is calling to us. To not deny it, fix it, contain it, or even define it. And definitely to not paint a veneer on it so that things still seem shiny and okay. On the contrary, we need to move forward into the mystery. To allow our hearts and our worlds to break, to be upended, to sit motionless in the dark and let ourselves liquefy. Trusting that eventually we will emerge and unfold into something far bigger than our old minds can just now hold.