To Pema Chödrön – I fucking love you. You’re the most badass Buddhist nun on the planet and without you, I would never have discovered the tenderness needed to hold my darkest emotions. And the technique.
And to Graham and the Big Feels Club – you’re right, sometimes there are no words for feelings. But we keep trying.
Lately, I’ve been in hiding.
Everything I thought I knew about myself and the world has collapsed. I thought I was good at vulnerability. I sucked, big time. I thought shame was just something I didn’t feel, doing everything so well. Well, I wore every single piece of vulnerability armour in the book. I thought love and fear were opposites and couldn’t coexist. I was wrong.
I was so, so wrong. About so much.
I had no idea how to delve into my darkness. I didn’t even think it existed. Unbeknownst to me, childhood trauma, coupled with being in places with terrorism and civil strikes had left me with a hypersensitised internal alarm system that freaked out at the slightest touch. The sheer pain – and shame – was so great that I jumped to numbing – working, talking, planning, thinking, eating, volunteering, studying.
I had no holding space. Self-compassion, self-kindness, gentleness and tenderness were not words in my vocabulary. I escaped the fundamental ambiguity of being human through my head – my body was in a constant state of muscular tension, shallow breath, always alert for the slightest attack, slap, strike, beating, and heart-space buried under decades of hardening.
I acted out my hurt, instead of feeling it.
So lately, I’ve been reclaiming my forgotten feelings like lost children I had abandoned long ago – fear, shame, anger. And making friends with them. Softening. Dying to illusions. Illusions like, I’m a good facilitator. I know emotions well because I do NVC and can name them. I’m kind. I’m open. I’m patient. I’m loving. I delve into painful inner work.
It’s almost a relief. I don’t have to pretend anymore. I’m just as terrible at vulnerability as the next person. It feels liberating, to embrace my hopeless ordinariness.
To say, wow, I have been hurting a long, long time.
So this piece is about what’s been happening as I’ve been embracing fear. The almost constant state of panic I’ve been in my whole life and not known. The brighter the light of love, the darker the shadows that can be illuminated. And gentle self-love is illuminating some terrifying things. My heart-space is becoming far bigger than I’d imagined it could be, to contain it all.
Pema’s work has been a lifesaver (thank you Brené Brown for harping on about her!). She gave me words when I lost them completely – I’ve been in near silence for almost two months now – and when I realised I’d hit my limits with NVC to communicate what life felt like in simple, cookie cutter vocabulary. And Graham – I know you’ll get this too.
Here’s something from the dark night of the soul.
Here’s the answer to the question I asked myself one afternoon: what is going inside of me right now? And how has fear gone from being the enemy to becoming loved as a friend?
Love is a tenderness that opens me. Fear is a force that closes me. But the magic is at the edge, the point where love is in a constant process of dissolving, relaxing, integrating, embracing, softening, witnessing and fear is solidifying, hardening, making tense, fusing, separating. When love fully allows fear to just be, something quite extraordinary happens. The unconditional stillness of love embraces the speed and urgency of fear. Yin holds yang. Groundlessness contains the desperate longing for ground, certainty. But the ground is always shaking. It’s a constant release, because fear is always rising up again and the quiet tenderness of love rises with it to hold it. It’s a very passionate place. It’s a constant churning, mixing, unmixing, a messy carnal ground where paradox is a felt experiences rather than an intellectual conundrum – it’s naked, raw, disgusting, beautiful, ugly, divinely ordered. Meditation isn’t about stopping thoughts but rather about awakening the heart-mind – welcoming it all and watching, wondrous. And a heart and body that is alive pulses and throbs, thrums and quivers. Being in the now is both exceedingly gentle and deeply sensual. The unfinished animal is unassuming, visceral, delicate and undevoured. The dance of life isn’t to rid the thoughts or to lessen the fear, the pain, the stories, nor to fuel them through more thought. Rather, it is to experience it all fully, knowing that allowing is all we can do – an exquisite scrambling-unscrambling, fission-fusion ad infinitum. The trick is to relax with whatever arises. Relax with fear. Relax with joy. Relax with sadness. Holding on to any one thing will cause tension for its opposite. Rather, the heart is wide open to contain it all – the ultimate act of love and trust. To be the soft animal that I am is to allow myself to just breathe into this unabashedly vulnerable death-rebirth, over and over and over. It sounds violent and tumultuous and terrifying – and when I’m drowning in the darkness, it definitely feels that way – but it is actually an exceedingly soft and trembling spaciousness, an ecstatic grace. This to me is daring greatly.
When I’m in that space, I somehow no longer fear fear nor idolise love. It’s a place where everything could reduce to fluxes of energy in an instant, solidifying to matter, dissolving back. Tenderness is a bigger place than I had imagined. It’s a place of healing but also of being. I’m neither self-expecting gentleness nor pushing away force – rather, fully feeling the energy of fear behind force and softening in. Am I acting from fear or love then? Both and neither. When one embraces the other, it’s breathtakingly intimate, and I allow fear to just be, over and over and over, whenever it arises. Somewhere, I note I cannot feel a distinction between them anymore – it’s all just a throbbing energy in a place beyond words – and I’m on the edge of something, and very, very alive. It’s spiritual, but also mundanely, maddeningly earthy and very real, very connected. I’ve never felt this way before, except, perhaps, in one sacred human act.
It’s bizarre how the simplest frustrations of daily life can take me to this place, if I so choose. When the phone rings and I’m taking a nap. When the dog barks in the middle of the night. When my mother says something. When the traffic is too much to bear. I notice the unease, then, and I have a choice. I can shut down, armour up the soft spot with rage, indignation, blame, bitterness, resentment or numbing, or I can lean in with tenderness. I can be curious. I can fully witness the story I am telling myself about how the way should work so that I should feel a certain way and bravely allow the fear entirely, the wanting, the hurting. Without adding more story to story. I can touch the wanting, taste it, smell it, feel it, embrace it, without any compulsion to act – just to be with it. I can open my heart even to the demon of fear, only to discover it is a small girl frightened by the shadows on her wall. I can make friends with fear, welcome it with a smile when it arrives, along with its companion, shame. The more I treat the part of me that is afraid with love, the better I learn to relate to fear and the deep wounding shame has caused in my life. The point isn’t even to get rid of fear or lessen it somehow through this befriending. The point is just to relate to it more kindly when it emerges – and it will, in a thousand different forms. Fearing fear, I strengthen it and allow the storylining to run havoc until I’m disconnected from my soft spot completely, my vulnerability, my sadness. I alienate others. I divide them into friend or foe – those who comply with my demands, and those who don’t, and the latter could become the former in a single act of imperfection – including myself. The thing is – fear is so afraid of itself, it’ll wear any mask to get through. So I can often be blindsided by a story that’s grown so big it’s become invisible. Even an expectation of care or tenderness can be a subtle mask for demand based on fear of its opposite: pain. Somehow, when I go in with my heart wide open for anything – no expectations of how I should feel and hence what someone should or should not do – I feel less pain overall. Not because I pushed the fear away, but because I turned towards and embraced. And when life doesn’t go ‘my way,’ I can humbly question why I was so hooked on ‘my way’ in the first place. I inevitably end up in the swampland of fear or shame – again. It takes so much courage and compassion to touch that place, over and over and over, not expecting it to be any different, any less painful. It softens my frustrated wanting. It opens me up to those who I think have hurt me, but who were probably also acting from fear. Or love – I don’t actually ever know and admitting that terrifying uncertainty of why people are doing what they’re doing to me has been one of the most humbling things I’ve ever done. Having faced the bottomless well of fear in my own being and having become the spaciousness that contains it, I can appreciate the sheer kindness that is needed. I have been the people who have hurt me. I have been the people I have hurt. There’s nothing left to feel but tenderness and compassion for it all.
There’s a profound intimacy, here. When I’m in that place, even the feeling of the carpet under my toes, the cupboards or tea towel in my hands can become so startlingly vivid that I can feel it in almost every part of my body. It’s excruciatingly delightful. When I stop and look, really look, I am rendered breathless by even the white of the ceiling, witnessing the interplay of shadow and light so keenly that I come close to a psychedelic experience. The dustbin and shelves and pillowcase take on a heartbreaking animation, come alive at once. It can last a few minutes to a half hour before the magic wears off, but I am shocked into awe enough to be reduced, softened again. I realise I don’t know anything about anything – including myself. I open again, watching, awake, relaxed into fear, uncertainty and not knowing.
How does going to this place help in the overwhelming hyper-sensitisation and numbing experience of daily life? First, I notice my own shadows more quickly. I note when I’m about to get hooked, by a story, a subtle judgment, an expectation I myself am carrying. Secondly, if I enter life from the place of profound encounter with insanity and groundlessness, I may have enough playfulness within me to simply see the story for what it is – a manifestation of fear – comfort the fearful shadow within me in that same moment with lovingkindness and let the story go. Smile at fear. Thirdly, when I do get hooked by a story that’s spun its momentum so far out that I’m well and truly triggered and unable to interact, I know I can take space and return to stillness, over and over and over. I’ve been in darkness before, I remind myself, sobbing so hard my chest aches when I’m on the total verge of shut down and the stories start to run havoc, distracting me from my sadness, What am I unwilling to feel? I ask myself. What would it feel like to fully allow the fear? What was I really, truly craving from life, in that instant I was hooked? What would it feel like to fully allow the longing? At some point, it dawns on me that those I have judged must feel this too, the same fear, the same longings, and I cannot help but feel release, compassion. The whole situation takes on a certain kind of grace and humour, even – I was freaking out because my mother offered me pancakes – and I can laugh.
I’m connecting – at long last – with the wild feminine and wild masculine. The dark feminine and light feminine, dark masculine and light masculine. I’m starting to get what wholehearted means, really means. I will fall, over and over and over. I recognise I cannot set out wanting to fully undo a lifetime of fear and shame encoded in my body – which would, rather, reject parts of me that I’ve been repressing. I can only change how I relate to them, how honestly I witness them, how tenderly I hold them. My only saving grace right now is slowing time right down. The spaciousness in the day to simply retreat into my room and sit with the feelings at anytime has been a great gift. I’m seeing patterns more clearly. Patterns, shadows, ways I’ve been, thought I should be or wanted the world to. The New Way of Being isn’t even a way, then, really, but a wilderness. A gracious allowing. A place of no expectations of how I should feel, but welcoming and feeling it all. A place where the only boundaries are there to keep me from being ‘hooked’ by my storylines so completely I cannot return – a place where all external boundaries help me keep my internal boundary between presence and process, gentle witness and shadow so that the shadow doesn’t accidentally take over. It’s almost primal in its simplicity. If I can see the shadow, there must be a me other than the shadow that is being seen. If I can go further and allow the feeling underlying it, there must be a space of allowing greater than the pain it contains. And the greatest paradox – the moment it is allowed, really allowed, I relax, they both melt, and I witness the oneness in the twoness. Integration. Something shifts, dissolves. I laugh and cry, wondering, why did I never do this before? Or maybe I did – as a child – and just forgot.
Without doubt, surrender is the hardest and easiest thing I have ever done.
— 11 Jan 2018
Pema Chödrön – quotes I adore:
“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”
“The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”
“nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know
…nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. but what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. if we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. it just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.”
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
And my favourite articles of hers:
Other great things:
John Welwood articles:
And his books Journey of the Heart and Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships are brilliant also. Why do we bother with relationships before working on childhood trauma?!
This one had me bawling my eyes out on every chapter, hits the nail right on the spot ❤