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Not Afraid to Fall Apart


Take a 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition from Asia and drop it into the blender of postmodern American consumer culture. Add science and multiculturalism to taste, and mix at Internet speed. This is 21st-Century Buddhism -- a weekly blog for the Interdependence Project. In this space, I'll talk about the issues that Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners face in our time and our place. I'll also bring in occasional posts from other guest bloggers who are contemplating these issues. If you have something to say, write to me at dhblogfeedback (at) gmail (dot) com.



Episode 16:

Not Afraid to Fall Apart

Chogyam Trungpa once said that all our neurosis comes from wanting to move away from discomfort. We are experts at moving away, escaping, covering up. Our basic impulse to shrink or recoil from what makes us uncomfortable is the root of addictions of all kinds, and it is also the root of every form of hatred and prejudice.

Unless we're in denial, most of us experience a basic and ongoing sense of discomfort in our lives that is present, if only as an undercurrent, even when when things are going well. Even when we get what we want, when we acquire the things that supposedly will make us happy, still in the back of our minds there is always that nagging feeling of shakiness and uncertainty. We don't have it all together, and yet we feel that we are supposed to.

There are two common neurotic styles of reacting to this shakiness and uncertainty. One neurotic style is self-denigration. We amplify the underlying feeling of uncertainty and discomfort by feeding it into a story-line about how messed up we are. No wonder I don't have it all together, we think. Other people have it all together, but I'm stuck here feeling shaky and uncertain because (as the story-line goes) there's something basically wrong with me. I'm falling apart, and it's my own fault, because I'm (fill in the blanks). If I could only get (fill in the blanks) or become (fill in the blanks) then maybe I could get it together.

This is Tara Brach's "trance of unworthiness," the eternal fountain of low self-esteem and depression. Such a self-denigrating attitude produces habits of negative thinking and neurotic behaviors that stifle our spiritual growth and keep us imprisoned in discontentment and despair. People who are stuck in self-denigration always seem to be at war with themselves. When taken to its logical extreme, it leads to suicide.

The other neurotic style is arrogance. We react to the underlying feeling of uncertainty and discomfort with an attitude of denial; we cover it up and attempt to hide it by puffing ourselves up with vanity and pride. We pretend that we do, in fact, have it all together -- or that, if we don't, it's only because someone else is holding us back. The by-product of arrogance is the story-line that goes, Nothing is wrong with me; something is wrong with you! Or: If I'm falling apart, it's your fault. On the small scale, the personal level, this attitude of arrogance and blame produces people who are rude and aggressive and self-centered and abusive. On the larger scale, the social level, it produces hatred and conflict between political parties, between ethnic and religious groups, and between nations. It produces the most gruesome political monsters. People who are stuck in arrogance always seem to be at war with someone else.

Arrogance and self-denigration might appear to be energetic opposites, but they're actually flip sides of the same coin. Their similarities are greater than their differences. They're both ways of moving away from that underlying discomfort, and both of them generate neurosis. They both involve fixation, hardening into a pattern. And neither of these neurotic coping strategies does anything to make the underlying feeling of discomfort go away. We still feel shaky and uncertain, and we never quite manage to get it all together for more than a few minutes at a time.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we're always falling apart inside -- even if, in the case of arrogance, we might be in denial about it. Look at Tilda Swinton's magnificently crafted character in the film Michael Clayton. In public she projects herself as a vicious lawyer who is cold and hard and in control -- the epitome of arrogance. But in private, she is always falling apart, doubting herself, trying desperately to hold it together, sweating and puking with anxiety and fear.

Self-denigration sometimes masquerades as humility, but true humility isn't despairing, neurotic and negative. True humility is a state of being open and receptive -- not assuming that you know the answers, and not holding on to fixed opinions. By the same token, arrogance sometimes masquerades as confidence, but true confidence isn't puffed up, conceited and bloated with its own prejudice. True confidence, in fact, looks very much like true humility: it's a state of unbiased openness and receptivity, a state of being okay with not knowing all the answers, okay with the shakiness and the uncertainty.

Humility means knowing that we don't have it all together, and that even when we do get it together, we can't keep it that way: we're perpetually getting it together and watching it fall apart again. Confidence means knowing that's the way it is, and we're still basically okay. We can let ourselves fall apart, and come back together, and fall apart again. We can meet the messiness and the shakiness and the uncertainty of life with some sense of equanimity -- not indifference, but equanimity, a mind that holds humility and confidence in equal balance.

In the end, we are all going to fall apart completely. When that happens, all the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put us back together again. When we face that fact and really take it in, then perhaps we can get on with the business of living in a less neurotic way. We can stop worrying about how to get it together and keep it together permanently, because we know what an impossible fairy tale that is.  


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