Plato’s Cave: Compassion for the Resistance

While my work started fourteen years ago focusing on the wedding transition and evolved eight years ago into the motherhood transition, in recent years I’ve realized that the healing of anxiety that informs the crux of my work is intimately connected to the biggest transition of all: crossing the threshold from living one’s life with fear in the driver’s seat to transforming into an empowered life where the Loving Adult is in charge. This is no small change, and it’s not one that occurs within the span of a week, a month, or even a year. No, it’s the work of a lifetime. And while we may experience a free ride during certain stages of the transition between living life from wounded self to being able to respond to the wounded self and live from our essence – times when grace whispers us along like floating downstream on gentle currents – at other times we experience profound resistance to shifting out of the negative voices or false beliefs that dominate our lives.

A few months ago, a member of the Conscious Weddings E-Course sent me an email containing a re-telling of the allegory of Plato’s Cave. She suggested that the parable could be understood as a representation of our challenge to break through the illusions about love and marriage that our culture propagates. She was absolutely right, and I took it a few steps further to include the transition of healing and the resistance that arises when the ego senses that its days are numbered as driver of your life. What strikes me most is that this was written over 2000 years ago, which means that resistance is deeply embedded into our codes of psyches. In other words, it’s natural to hold on to our habitual and comfortable ways of seeing, believing, and behaving. It’s natural to grip for dear life to that which we know and understand. It’s natural for the ego to hold tight to its familiar ways. No one wants to die, even – or especially – the wounded and fear-based parts of ourselves.

When we view our transitions and resistances through this lens, we can bring compassion to this challenging process. Instead of berating ourselves with statements like, “I should make a different choice. I know what I have to do and now I have to do it. What’s wrong with me for being stuck?” we can say, “It’s scary to change. People have struggled with this transition for thousands of years. I’m sure that when I’m ready, I’ll climb out of the cave and commit to a different path for my life. But for now I’m going to practice bringing compassion to myself instead of judgement.”

Note: The first line of italics are from my e-course member and the subsequent lines are mine.

***

Fictional dialogue between Socrates (Plato’s teacher) and Glaucon (Plato’s brother)

Plato sets a scene in which there is a group of people deep within a dark cave. The people are bound by their hands, legs, and necks and have been in the cave since childhood, they have seen nothing else their entire lives but what is in the cave. They are unable to stand or move their heads. There is a firelight burning slightly further away from the prisoners and slightly beyond that, there is a path with people carrying all sorts of artifacts- statues of humans, of animals, etc. The prisoners see nothing but the shadows of the artifacts that the people are carrying on the path, and they assume that the shadows are real. Any voices they hear from the people talking they attribute to the shadows. These prisoners know nothing else – the shadows are reality.

This is our childhood notion of romance, love, marriage, and what creates sustaining peace. We assume that the images we’re presented are reality, that if we only achieve the “right” things and find the “right” relationship, we’ll find happiness. We think that the shadow is the truth when in fact it’s a far cry from reality. 

Socrates asks what would happen to the people if they were allowed freedom. “Do you not think they would stand? Do you not think he would look towards the firelight?” The problem, of course, is that the people have never actually looked at firelight. Their entire lives they have only looked at the shadows. The firelight would hurt their eyes and they would not understand that the shadows are not reality. “It hurts them to do this (looking at the firelight).” Socrates says, “Suppose someone tells the freed man that what he’s been seeing all this time has no substance, and that he is now closer to reality and is seeing more accurately, because of the greater reality of things in front of his eyes – what do you think his reaction would be?”

This is our first moment of enlightenment, when we are told that our fantasies of romantic love, marriage, and life are not reality, but that reality is so much richer and deeper than what we have been led to believe. Because we’ve never seen the truth – the firelight – it’s difficult to look at. The light of the truth may be painful to see when you’ve only looked at shadows your entire life. 

Of course, the freed person is bewildered and still believes that what he has been seeing his entire life is reality and the firelight is a lie. If the freed person were forced to look at the firelight, he would run back to the familiarity of what he has known because he believes that what is more familiar is the truth.

Our first instinct is to run back to what we have known our entire lives: the lies about love and romance (love is an omnipresent feeling), that others are responsible for our happiness, that it’s not safe to live from our essence or true nature.  

(Here is my favorite part for anxiety, so I’m going to quote directly):

“And imagine him being dragged (compelled) forcibly away from the cave up a rough, steep slope, without being released until he’s been pulled out into the sunlight. Wouldn’t this treatment cause him pain and distress? And once he’s reached the sunlight, he wouldn’t be able to see a single one of the things which are currently taken to be real, would he, because his eyes would be overwhelmed by the sun’s beams?

“He wouldn’t be able to see things on the surface because he is so used to seeing the shadows in the cave. It would take him time to get used to the situation, first seeing the shadows of people from the sunlight, then eventually being able to see objects in the village. Eventually he would be able to see the heavens during the nighttime and eventually the sun in its proper place.”

For anxiety, it feels like we are being dragged out of the cave, kicking and screaming, and it is extremely painful to be subjected to reality. It causes us pain and distress. It will take time for the freed person to adjust to the new knowledge he is receiving. He would only be able to move forward in small steps, as the new sights and knowledge are overwhelming.

 Over time, however, the freed person realizes that life is good outside of the cave and will feel sorry for the prisoners still in the cave and want to help them.

In the story, the point is that the enlightened educated individuals will be dragged out of the cave, kicking and screaming, but once they are enlightened, they feel pity for those in the cave and eventually go back to teach them, despite their resistance. There is a good drawing of the cave on this website: http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/cave.htm

***

We are often dragged out of the ego-cave kicking and screaming. It hurts to change. It’s scary to risk stepping out of the life we’ve always known and learn to ways of seeing, believing, and behaving. I’ve worked with clients who have spent years resisting growth, who have all of the tools at their fingertips but resist taking the committed and daily actions that would transform their suffering into peace. It’s not an easy leap; in fact, for many it’s the most challenging transition of all and can feel like nothing short of a death experience (because it is). But if you’re going to see life as it is instead of watching the shadows of life parade across the cave of your safe and comfortable world, leap you must. It’s the only way to freedom.

12 comments to Plato’s Cave: Compassion for the Resistance

  • sarah

    sheryl – i was really struck and it’s left imprinted in my brain (from our session) how this post is exactly about what’s been happening with me. how the disappointment about being resistant is what keeps me resistant. thanks for pointing that out in such a gentle way.

  • I’m so glad it left a gentle imprint, Sarah. It’s exactly this clear seeing that will allow it to transform.

  • Carly

    Thank you for this new take on the ancient story. I know this story well, but hadn’t thought of it in the context of the transitions / committment / relationship anxiety space before. It reminds me of a dream I had, some years ago now. In my dream, I was awaking to find myself on a bed in a cabin. I had the sense that I had been there my whole life. At the end of the bed was a man and a young androgenous child. The man said to the child “Don’t worry. It’s natural for her not to fear us. But we can make her afriad”, and they began to attach me with their nails and teeth. I started struggling, saying to them “Don’t you see how crazy this is, and how crazy we’re becoming!! This is mad! It is just because we are so isolated in here. We don’t realise how crazy we have become”. I struggled toward the front door, fearfully, knowing that I had never opened it. When I stepped out on the portch I was confronted with a beautiful landscape – ocean, fields, forest. But the overwhelming feeling was one of terror. It was so unfamiliar, so large, and I was so alone. I felt the impulse to return inside – to the world that I knew, and where at least I was not alone. But I knew I couldn’t do that. I felt dispairing and trapped, and howled to the sky. Then I woke up, and my partner said I had been speaking in my sleep. I had been saying “Growth”! I do judge myself for finding growth and change so terrifying. I judge myself as cowardly or weak. But I can see that this just prolongs the feeling of being trapped. Compassion for the terror, tenderness for the courage.

  • What a profound dream, Carly. Wow. Thank you so much for sharing it – and it’s amazing that it’s remained so vivid all these years. I think the archetypal dreams are like that.

  • ildiko

    Dear Sheryl,
    Thank you for another gem. I am so grateful. Your writing IS comfort, direction and connection to me..
    Let me share a little..
    Two days ago we remembered the passing of our son, Matyi (the Gift of God) from this earthly existence, which happened one year ago.
    My body remembered the pain of death and letting go.
    Two weeks prior we travelled to the Red Heart/ Red Center of Australia.. through the desert.. literally and in inner reality also..
    We wanted to turn back halfway so scary was the unfamiliar scenery and experience.
    the fear was strong and on the morning of decision we were given a double, full arched rainbow as a sign of encouragement and hope.
    we traveled to the Heart, and there was tremendous growth..
    two days after our return I had a dream. My Spirit-Son came to me and embraced me. He looked deeply into my eyes and asked an amazing question: “Are you really afraid to die?”
    Then he asked about all our family members one by one the same question..
    In my dream this dream was a dream (I never had a “double dream” before), and I was sharing it w/ my family.
    Then I woke up to this level of reality and was pondering about the Question and asked for guidance to feel the meaning.
    I was given a strong sense-impression, that Matyi was gifting me/us w/ a compassionate reassurance: “It’s Alright that I am/we are afraid to die” AND “It is Alright to die”.. the death that is necessary if we want to show up in Life as our Authentic/Enlightened Self..
    It is hard to give the energies words that were radiating from his being, words, voice and embrace..
    It was both unconditional love/acceptance for what IS and encouragement for what may be.. for the risk to take on the challenge..
    May you be blessed for not holding back, for sharing your gift and bringing freedom and empowerment to us, humans.. xoxo

  • Dear Ildiko: I am so deeply touched by your comment and your willingness to share it here. Your dream is so powerful I hardly have words to respond, except to say thank you. Thank you for your willingness to share it, to be brave and vulnerable with such a precious and meaningful dream. The wisdom that came through is wisdom that anyone on a spiritual path and anyone who fears death – which is everyone! – can receive comfort from. Many, many blessings to you.

    And I find it interesting that two of you shared potent dreams in response to this post. I think there’s something about the archetypal nature of the allegory of the cave that inspires this level of conversation.

  • muff

    I am so grateful that I stayed up tonight roughing through a lot of interwebian heart loss stories because I found this one. The truth of this story is hitting me hard. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Peace, love and future joy from a very sad human determined to change her fate and state.

  • sarah

    Carly, I appreciate you sharing your dream here. It really struck a chord with me, and I’ve felt the same way for a long time in my life. I’ve been struggling with living in my head rather than out in the world, and I just thought about this concept when I went grocery shopping tonight. I was trying to not be in my head, but felt so much terror and anxiety and felt like I was almost shaking. I judge myself, too, for being terrified to change and grow, but I noticed how much compassion I felt for you in reading about your dream. You’re so not alone in being scared to go outside. :)

  • Erin

    I’ve realized throughout the journey of getting married that I fear anything with permanence. Once I get there (i.e. actually getting married), I am (generally) okay and can handle it, but getting there is so hard. I fight and fight and fight to stay in a place that is comfortable and one that I can “escape” from easily. I am so resistant to moving beyond my comfort level, but once I do, I’m almost always happy I did. It’s a very bizarre mental battle, but it’s comforting knowing that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  • Livia

    So so true. Since finding this website I have been able to recognize that I had this unrealistic idea of what love and marriage looked like. From watching the Disney movies as a little girl and thinking that I would one day find my *perfect* prince charming to seeing the “perfect” celebrity couples that I looked up to as a teenager. It was this unrealistic lie that had been fed to me all of my life. I’ve been so anxious and panicked that that is not how things are. I have been having such a hard time accepting my fiance for who he is (a non perfect human being like the rest of us.) It pains me to let go of what was so real to me.

    On a totally different note: The wedding venue that my fiance and I had was going to be at a close family friends home. Someplace very familiar and comforting to me as I spent a lot of time there as a child. Recently, the owner of the house passed away and the property is unfortunately going to have to be sold. My parents and I scrambled to find another venue (and did) that I love and is also “homey” but very unfamiliar. I woke up this morning with major anxiety because they are now paying for this place (the other place was free) and I realized that I feel like I no longer have an out. My parents are now investing in this relationship and it is feeling very permanent and in a way I worry about letting them down. Point to this story: I am finally going to sign up for the ecourse. Once again I have been so pushed out of my comfort that it spiked my anxiety and I am now ready to take an even bigger step towards healing. So excited to get going.

  • Erin: Yes, the journey of getting there is often the hardest part. I see so many women and men struggle throughout their engagement and experience significant relief after the wedding (although it’s not a magic elixir, so I always want to be careful not to set up that expectation).

    Livia: Welcome to the ecourse! You will find yourself amongst the most thoughtful, compassionate and wise women and men you can imagine, with the information and tools you’ll need to heal from your anxiety. I’m so glad you’ll be joining us.