We are not taught to meet life on life’s terms. Left to ourselves, we have this nifty little defense mechanism called an ego that will shift and move and invent and convince in order to remove us from meeting life square in the eye. All of the ego’s intrusive thoughts and fear-based schemes are, in fact, finely crafted and often convincing escape hatches designed to remove us from touching the raw places that define being human: our loneliness, pain, fear, uncertainty, and transcendence.
I work with pregnant women who have the thought “I don’t care about this new life.” I work with people in loving relationships who are dragged down the rabbit hole of anxiety by the thought, “I don’t love him/her.” I work with new mothers who become terrified by the thought directed toward their baby, “I hate you.” Because we’re not taught how to work with our thoughts effectively in this culture, the only choice the untrained mind has is to believe the thoughts and take them at face value. None of these thoughts are literal. They’re like dream symbols that have to read as metaphor. They’re sneaky defense mechanisms that protect us from the profound vulnerability of loving someone as fiercely as we do, sentries that try in vain to protect us from the uncertainty of life.
Quite often the defenses are so thick that even upon reading that last paragraph the ego pipes up with, “You don’t love your partner fiercely.” Yes, I know. And I also know that every time I ask a client why they haven’t left yet, the tears of gratitude and connection start flowing. We protect those tears like a sacred, untouched spring that lives at the center of our hearts. We build walls around that spring, then appoint an army to stand guard. It’s a miracle that anyone gets inside, ever.
Alongside our thoughts, we also use the myth of “I’ll be happy when…” as an escape hatch. We fall prey to the insidious cultural message that says, “You’ll be happy when you graduate from college, land the job, get married, buy the house, get the dog, have the baby…” But when each of those milestone or events occurs and you still feel restless and uncertain, you wonder what’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong. It’s just that there’s no escape hatch for life, meaning we can’t avoid the inherent loneliness, pain, uncertainty, and transcendence of being human. Let’s explore some of these states a bit further.
Life can be a lonely journey. This loneliness is heightened during initiatory times – getting married, trying to conceive, having a baby, losing a loved one – as this is when we’re most vulnerable and are being called to the next stage of growth. Like the young boy who is sent into the forest alone as part of his rite of passage, we are sent alone into the dark regions of mind and left to learn how to grapple with the forces we encounter there: our fears, our thoughts, our pain, our uncertainty. The boy-becoming-man must be alone for it’s in his loneliness that he cocoons into himself and discovers latent resources that are waiting to come alive. Likewise, the woman-become-wife or the man-become-husband must journey the path alone, recognizing that it’s when we meet the feeling of loneliness itself instead of trying to escape it that we surrender into what is meant to be learned.
But of course it’s not only during initiations that we feel lonely. Loneliness seems to be part of the human experience, for it’s an undeniable fact that nobody, no matter how close they may come to our hearts, is living inside of our bodies and seeing life through our lens. One of the most common intrusive thoughts that plagues the mind struggling with relationship anxiety is, “Does my partner get me? Do we have enough connection?” One of the unspoken diamonds embedded inside these questions is the invitation to embrace our fundamental, existential loneliness. When we’re hooked on these questions we’re fixated on the ego’s convincing escape hatch that we wouldn’t feel lonely with someone else. When we recognize, on the other hand, that loneliness is part of the human condition, we can learn to meet our fundamental solitude, and perhaps even become friends with it. Then the solitude changes, paradoxically, into friendship – but it’s our own internal friendship instead of expecting another to fill that place of longing.
Life can be a painful journey. For some, especially the highly sensitives, pain is a part of daily life. We don’t even have to know why we’re crying, but when we slow down and soften we find that a layer of sadness sits in the middle of an open heart. I’ve shared this quote from Pema Chodron many times as it expresses so beautifully the inherent pain of life:
“Bodhichitta is our heart–our wounded, softened heart. Now, if you look for that soft heart that we guard so carefully–if you decide that you’re going to do a scientific exploration under the microscope and try to find that heart–you won’t find it. You can look, but all you’ll find is some kind of tenderness. There isn’t anything that you can cut out and put under the microscope. There isn’t anything that you can dissect or grasp. The more you look, the more you find just a feeling of tenderness tinged with some kind of sadness. This sadness is not about somebody mistreating us. This is inherent sadness, unconditioned sadness. It is part of our birthright, a family heirloom. It’s been called the genuine heart of sadness.”
We try to escape this genuine heart of sadness. We try to escape largely because we haven’t been taught that it’s normal, that the only response being asked is to meet the sadness, to hold it as we would a child. We’ve been taught to judge the sadness, to equate it with weakness, to “buck up and get over it”. Get over what? That life includes pain, and that if you’re a sensitive being you will be highly attuned to this pain on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis? There’s no getting over life. There’s no escape hatch.
Life can sometimes be a transcendent journey, but which I mean there are moments, minutes, perhaps when the soul expands, when not just the physical body breathes a full breath, extending beyond the familiar boundaries, but the soul does as all. Transcendence is when the soul recognizes itself, when the infinite part of me remembers itself by seeing itself reflected somewhere in this finite world. The quest for transcendent experiences is not a way to bypass the inherently uncomfortable fact of being a human in a physical body. But we can seek transcendence as we seek oxygen for these moments in time where we are simultaneously lifted out of ourselves and remembering ourselves oxygenate our souls and make life worth living.
Where do we find transcendence? There is no formula. We find it by following the faint whispers of yes until the quiet song awakens into full chorus, until the transcendent moments aren’t isolated experiences but mark out daily and even hourly life. This may happen when you’re hiking in the hills, sitting in prayer, looking at art, writing a poem or memorizing one, working a dream, climbing a moubtain, sitting on the beach, or petting a cat. We leap from lily pad to lily pad of yes until they string together to create one green path that guides our days and nights.
We must make space to invite the yes. We must carve out a quiet room in some corner of our busy lives to hear the insects singing. And we must know that transcendence is not the goal, and is not, in fact, separate from the pain and loneliness, the fear and vulnerability that define being human.
Transcendence is meeting life on life’s terms, putting down the armor, stopping the fight, and simply saying, “Here I am. I allow life to flow through me and with me. I say yes to life in all of its varied expressions of pain and beauty. Here I am.”