I sometimes think that my life has proceeded by way of a series of breakdowns and reconstructions. Such episodes haven’t exactly been frequent in my life, but they have represented important turning points. There have been three times I can recall where I’ve hit emotional bottom, learned something important about myself, and found a release that led to significant growth taking place.
In each case there had been a long period of holding on to some pattern that had been causing me pain (usually unacknowledged). I’d been a tightly-closed bud. This was followed by a catalyzing event (in each case it involved being on retreat) in which I became fully aware of the pain I’d been causing myself. The pain of remaining closed became too much. Then there was a grand finale of emotional release and a spiritual awakening into greater wholeness and well-being. The bud opened, albeit painfully. Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)’s quotation* — “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” — seems to perfectly encapsulate that process.
…to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs.
I realized how important friendship was to me a few years after taking up Buddhist practice. I was on a retreat which had the theme of spiritual friendship (coincidentally the theme of last month’s blog). As part of the retreat we studied a series of talks on the theory and practice of friendship, or kalyana mitrata, and we also spent time with each other, as we do in my tradition, getting to know one other and developing friendships. (It’s not like that in all Buddhist traditions — sometimes retreatants are not allowed to talk to each other or even to make eye contact). All of that was great — the part of the retreat I was anxious about was where we were going to talk in small groups about the spiritual friendships in our lives.
Basically I thought that it just hadn’t happened for me — that spiritual friendship just wasn’t a significant part of my life. I mentioned the word anxiety in relation to this part of the retreat, but it wasn’t the terror of public speaking or the nervousness one experiences about revealing oneself to relative strangers that I was experiencing, it was more a kind of embarrassment at not having anything to say, while everyone else (I imagined) would.
The evening arrived when it was my turn to “share” and I started off by apologizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say much. But there were a few people who had helped me or attempted to befriend me, to various degrees of success, and I thought that I should at least say something about them. And to my surprise, I found myself overcome by emotion. I’d try to say something and the words would get stuck in my throat, turning into inarticulate sobs. I’d collect myself, let the emotion subside to the point where I could speak once again, and the same thing would happen again. And again.
Loneliness became my defense against loneliness.
I realized a number of things. I’d remained tight in a bud. I’d come to Buddhist practice because of painful experiences in which I’d lost friends and experienced loneliness and suffering. Those experiences revealed the world to be an unreliable place, and I was looking for a spiritual tradition that emphasized looking within for happiness. I thought that with Buddhism I’d found a way to close myself off from the world. A famous Buddhist saying was “Fare lonely as a rhinoceros horn.” And inspired by this kind of thinking I’d been resistant to opening up to friends. I was guarded and wary, and suspicious of looking outside of myself for happiness and wellbeing.
The isolation I was imposing upon myself created a deep sense of loneliness, but I managed to avoid acknowledging those feelings. After all I didn’t want to take the risk of developing and losing friends again. Loneliness became my defense against loneliness. So remaining tight in a bud was painful. But not painful enough to make me change.
It was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself.
It took two weeks spent on retreat, reflecting upon friendship — and more importantly experiencing friendship in the form of the small group in which we were sharing our stories — before I could really start to experience the pain of the closed bud. I always think it’s very significant that it was in the very act of communicating with others that I came into a more intimate contact with myself, that the moment in which I started to open up to others was the moment in which I opened up to myself and acknowledged my pain.
But the bud was now opening.Difficult though it was to experience the pain that I’d managed up to that point to avoid, there was also a sense of the light finally making its way into the heart of the bud. I experienced gratitude towards those who had been kind to me in the past and who had tried to be a friend to me. And I could see how I’d limited myself, and how I could no longer keep doing that. I’d seen the risk of remaining tightly closed, and it wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take. I’d been stuck, but now (for a time at least) I was unstuck, free, an open and opening bud.
And in that moment, as I sat in a circle, I realized that I was being fully accepted. No one was judging me. No one was thinking less of me for having been a closed bud, or for having shown my vulnerability. Instead they were quietly and compassionately being there for me. We were a circle of opening buds, all of us having decided that the risk of remaining closed to each other was greater than the risk of opening up. We were open to each other, blossoming. And the reward of that was more than worth the pain of having opened up.
* This quote was originally attributed to Anais Nin, but it appear that these words are not found among her works and that the quote was actually composed by Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton). You can read the story here.