Elizabeth Appell: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

Elizabeth Appell (aka Lassie Benton)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.

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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.

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36 Comments. Leave new

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  • Loneliness became my defense against loneliness..omg that quote so defines me right now, it is ringing in my brain over and over. Its hard to change that thought or action when it has been with you for so long, to open up and allow a person to penetrate through the closed walls…friend or lover sometimes even family it is so scary…

  • Searching for this quote which popped into my head this morning, I find your thoughtful and articulate post. Your words “Loneliness became my defense against loneliness” leaped off the page at me and at once I felt my heart ache.

    I have reached the point described perfectly in the quote by Anais Nin and the pain of loss is intense, but along with it comes the hope that the time of blossoming has begun.

    Thank you for your post of seven years ago and thank you to the guidance that brought it to me at the pivotal and perfect moment.

  • I really appreciate reading this article and all of the awesome , honest, and vulnerable comments.

    Reading various books by Tara Brach (Radical Acceptance and the trance of unworthiness), Byron Katie (challenging false thoughts), Eckhart Tolle (ego and its defenses), Brene Brown (shame and vulnerability), The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer (closing the heart) and Nonviolent Communications by Dr. Rosenberg has helped me realize how I protecting myself doesn’t help me to get my emotional needs met.

    I severely shut down, numbed and isolated myself beginning at the age of 12 from neglect at home and abuse from a bully. I already believed that men and women couldn’t be trusted, and they would only hurt me based on my dysfunctional parents, and then going through a series of incidents afterwards seemed to confirm that “I was unlovable”, so I shut-down even more, isolated more, and resorted to addictive/obsessive behaviors to ignore and suppress the pain, but I was never getting my emotional needs met, that can only be met by being vulnerable and honest and open with friends or strangers. I realize now that I had been lying to myself all of these years about my worth and value that is inherent in myself and everyone else on this planet. And lying to myself, that I don’t need anyone else and that people can’t be trusted resulting in depression and OCD. Now, I am slowing opening up my bud at the age of 47 (after a decade of intense periodic crying) and learning to be vulnerable, open and honest with other people at the risk of feeling uncomfortable feelings of abandonment or rejection again, but that I am able to tolerate and deal with them now as an adult who has done a lot of healing work on myself.


  • Thank you for writing this. I find that no matter how many friends I make or how many places I go or how much money I spend, I am always lonely. After the death of my grandmother, nothing seems right. I lost my dog within the same month, my job and my apartment two years later and now, I just can’t seem to figure out what I want out of life. The funny thing is, I’m not even sure I ever knew what I wanted out of life but what I did know is that, I could go visit my grandmother and feel at ease for the time that I spent with her. Now it just seems like I have no one who can provide that level of comfort for me or provide that type of ‘company’ that she was able to provide, a meaningful type of company. I actually came across this blog because I decided to pop in an old Alecia Keys CD that I listened to on my way to visit my grandmother a couple weekends before she died. This quote is recited by Alecia Keys during the first few seconds of the CD. I came home and decided to write about how I felt and ended up searching for the quote to learn more about it’s origins. I ended up writing the following:

    But I remember, I do…
    I remember the day I drove 252.3 miles to your front door and was terrified to see what the disease had done to you. I remember that day like I can recall the last few hours of my life. I remember leaning against my car, for what seemed to be a long time, crying. I just stood there, looking through your apartment window from the parking lot, remembering each and every time I sat in that dining area while you cooked and talked to me about me and my life and how you wanted the very best for me. I still, to this day, do not know what that is.
    It was before hospice came in and transformed your living room into a mini hospital. It was before you couldn’t walk on your own. It was before you couldn’t feed yourself anymore. It was before it was too difficult for you to talk. That day, I just leaned against my car, before you even knew that I had come to see you, and cried. That day, I knew, that the cancer was real.
    Before that day, cancer was just a word, a thought- something that the doctors told you, you had- something that, for two solid years, you were being treated for. But, before that day, it was never a reality. It was never something that we could see, even when you lost your hair. That was just from the chemo, not the cancer. Even when you were sick and in the hospital and could no longer go to work or go bargain hunting- that was just the chemo, not the cancer.
    So I sit here again, crying and remembering that day, all because I decided to pop in an old compact disc into my CD player, not realizing that this was the same CD that I listened to on that day when I learned that you, were in fact, dying. Regardless of how much I tell myself that I’m ok, I’ve moved on, I accept that you’re gone…I’m not, at all, ok.
    It would not at all be weird if you showed up at the front door and rang the doorbell. That statement, if any, is a sure sign, that I am definitely not ok.

  • I came across this blog post just today – over 5 years after you wrote it. I have always loved this quote and had forgotten about it. Such great timing since I leave tomorrow for “Heart of the Matter” Transformation Retreat in the beautiful island of St John. Thank you for the post – I have now subscribed.

  • […] think I found this blog because I googled the Anaïs Nin quote (ps, since we’re talking about names – I f-ing […]

  • I am 63 and still stuck in many ways and without giving form and names to my life experiences this time around till now, i ams tuck on the perhaps common scenario of ‘marrying my mother’ in as much as I have attracted a relationship the same as my relationship with my mother who from my perspective was unable to love and I always felt that lack of love and acceptance. I am sometimes sad when I feel the pain of being ‘stuck’ in my relationship and sometimes the gratitude of the opportunity that this lesson is available to me. I felt pain again today when I felt shut out. i have tried the psychonalyses and understanding approach and have a cerebal construct of where I am at but ‘mind fucking’ a situation does not cure it. I am still in process and choose to not continue in the pain of being in the relationship yet not physically leave the retationship. I choose to change myself so that I do not choose to remain in this pain. I now ask for help. A road to follow, a path to open, insructions from those with clearer vision than this soul who is clinging to being unloved. Did I come upon thise site by accident. I choose to believe not and I want to justify many parts of myself with glorifying justifications of my lifes journey and say how well I have done so far and how far that I have come which I then see and me feeling very inadequate ad unempowered. I am ‘mind fucking’ the situation so will simply return and ask for guidance as it may, I trust come to me. My head if full of words and my heart empty of love. Please help me.

  • Thanks very much for sharing yourself so honestly with us. This piece really moved me. I can identify with with a lot of what you wrote. In my care, I have this really awful tendency to take myself to the brink of disaster every few years, only to pull back just in time. I think if I can take your lesson and stay open, I can brake that patter, Thanks again, Marcus

  • When I came out of the closet, this quote really made sense

  • Two weeks ago I experienced an extremely fulfilling yet confusing dream. For awhile I had trouble remembering my dreams, but this one hit me like a big yellow bus. I remember it clearly, the clearest I had ever remembered a dream. I won’t describe the entire thing because it’s extremely detailed, however, I eventually came across correlation to my dream with Anais Nin. I had never heard of this woman before then, and decided that maybe I had to do some research. After reading up on her life, her experiences, her morals/beliefs, I decided it would only be beneficial to dig into some of her journals. It was exciting how it was so inspirational to me, but at the same time was interestingly linked to my own thoughts/beliefs. For the past two weeks I have been lightly reading more and more about her because I feel like I need to head in some direction to fulfill my own life. But am I looking to hard for something that may never give me an answer? Today I decided to just read some quotes she gave and stumbled upon your blog. I’ve been going through the toughest time of my life, however I’m only 20, so I know this is step one. I’m finally diving into life experience after being sheltered and naive for 18 years. Taking all emotion and reality in, in such a short period of time has resulted in anxiety, stress, confusion, loss of hope. But for the first time, Anais has lifted some weight off of my shoulders. But I know there’s more to this, and I have to dig deeper. Your blog is extremely fulfilling for me. I felt completely connected with what you wrote and I just wanted to feed you a little about my experience. Keep up the awesome work because you really have your head on straight. Thanks for this opportunity to feed the public some down-to-earth thinking. It’s much needed.

    • Hi, Suzanne.

      Thanks so much for sharing, and for your very kind comments about this site. It’s wonderful to hear that you find it beneficial.

      As they say nowadays, “It gets better.” Hang on in there.

      I think it’s wonderful that you’re exploring Nin’s writings. I’ve never done more than check out the odd quote myself.

  • Thank you Bodhipaksa. I spent several hours, during the first few months with my (then) new Buddhist partner, crying. I could not figure out why. At the time, she told me that my heart was opening. I too was a tight bud. Her unconditional acceptance of me allowed me to blossom. Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

  • Valencia Ray MD
    January 4, 2011 1:51 pm

    I understand how our wounded egos can create loneliness, the very thing we want to avoid. It was a major self-defense mechanism for me for a few decades. Trying to hide behind a mask of invulnerability creates the very thing we fear – loneliness.

    I must say though that while there was a series of events, some like yours, that lead me to being able to free myself from this self-imposed tight bud, what has ultimately set me free for the past 20 years from feelings of loneliness is knowing, truly knowing, my connection to Life/Source and loving and accepting myself as a result. It’s easier to feel vulnerable when one does not have feelings of shame and self-rejection to hide. Loving the shadow and the light, integrating them, seeing them for what they are, is very powerful and takes courage. The fear of rejection now seems like the major illusion that it is.

  • I was just searching for this powerful Anais Nin quote, when I stumbled across this wonderful essay. I have a good friend who is turning down a new job even though he hates his old one. I can tell he is miserable, but his misery is familiar, and as such has a certain power over him.

    What we are familiar with, what makes us feel safe, can have power over us if we don’t watch it.

    I enjoyed your post – it was very thoughtfully written, and I was engaged the whole way through.

    I wonder how I can help my friend see that this is a risk he must take. Life is too short to work a job you hate for paychecks that don’t bring you any happiness, which is the only thing you really need.


    • It’s very hard to persuade someone to change when they’re clinging to a particular experience. It’s often more than clinging to a job, but also clinging to the sense of self that accompanies the job — being a victim, feeling hopeless, eg. When you tell the person you think they’re making a mistake they often end up clinging even more to the painful situation and the view of themselves that keeps them in that situation. Giving up trying to persuade may, paradoxically, be a way to help them move on. When your friend is no longer actively clinging, they’re more able to be objective about what they’re doing, and therefore more free to change. It may well be that simply encouraging your friend — in a non-judgmental way — to express how he sees his situation will help him to recognize his fear and begin to relax his clinging. Being in a hurry to get people to change rarely works — it takes time and a certain amount of spaciousness, often, before people can start to move on. Or sometimes people really need to experience a crisis before they realize that they no longer have an option to let things go on as they have been.

  • This is why vulnerability is true strength…
    Is it the way out of the bud :)

    But it is seen as such only for those who have dared to blossom
    Understand that those attacking you for daring to blossom are those tight in the bud, and suddenly you can meet attack and criticism with compassion and even contribution. And all of a sudden you are bearing fruit!

  • i am now being to blossom around being a grown woman and i do feel scared , fear of being laughed at bulllied attack , ( history ) it is time to move forward and let go of the past and be brave and confident and be beautiful inside and out as i am im just frightened.
    I wish you all ove little opening precious buds of nature , god intented us to be happy and free.

  • Reply
  • Bonnie Over the Sea
    August 8, 2008 7:21 am

    Hi Marcia,
    Just wanted to reinforce the idea that no matter where you go (yep, even in the deep South!), you will find spiritual kinship. It just takes longer in some places than others. You have to trust that there are good, kind people everywhere, and you never know how or when you may have the opportunity to meet them. Again, the opening of that tight little bud is required in order to be ready for all the experiences that the universe can offer you. If you feel you’ve been “exiled” to a place, it’s hard not to convey that (even without realizing it) in your demeanor and in the extent to which you open yourself to new possibilities. What a wonderful twist of fate it would be if you found the closest friends of your life in this unexpected place! Stranger things have happened. I wish you all the best!

  • Hi Graycard,

    I’ve been in Insight Meditation retreats which involved no communication (even eye-contact) and found it valuable, but that was after years of practicing in a more Sangha-based community. The value for me of the no-contact retreats is that it allows me to focus more on my own experience and also be less caught up in meaningless communication. But if I’d been a newcomer I’m not sure how I’d have got on. I think I would have found it depressing.

    Most Tibetan traditions are pretty Sangha-based, as is Thich Nhat Hanh’s movement, and of course the FWBO, but to some extent we have to work with what’s available in our local area. There may well be Tibetan and Thich Nhat Hanh groups in your area.

    All the best,

  • I’m profoundly interested in pursuing this spiritual friendship and would be deeply grateful to hear of retreats or workshops that might foster it, in a tradition like yours that permits the exercise of friendship. I’ve been to one of the other kind and left after 45 minutes when the “no talking” rule was announced.

  • Hi Trish,

    Thanks for commenting and for replying to Michel.

    Michel — I looked up your IP address and it looked like you’re in Pennsylvania? (Honestly, technology can sometimes seem a bit creepy). Anyway, my local Buddhist Center is also a retreat center, and since it’s in NH it’s perhaps not too far for you to travel for a retreat. You can check it out at https://www.aryaloka.org. The folks there are really great.

  • Hi Marcia,

    I was so glad to read at the end of your comment that you’d found a job. I’m sure that will be helpful in many ways. Being unemployed can severely dent our self-confidence and hopefully you’ll feel more of a sense of purpose and engagement in your new position — and an opportunity to show your effectiveness. And the other benefit of course is social — work is one of our most important ways of forming connections with other people.

    And I sympathize with your “exile” in the South, where it can be much more difficult to find people interested in spiritual traditions other than Christianity. You might want to take a look at our Open Circle, which draws together a community of people interested in exploring Buddhist teachings without assuming that they want to become Buddhists. The Open Circle is based around a study text, and the point is to take the teachings, reflect on them together, apply them to everyday life, and share the results with the rest of the online community. It’s much more than just a discussion forum, though. People have their own home page, for example, and so it really is very effective online community.

    There’s a link to more info on Wildmind’s home page.

  • Hi Stephen,

    I’m truly delighted to hear your story! It seems that, like me, your self-imposed loneliness was a result of a lack of self-confidence. It’s a terrible burden to carry around, that sense that we’re not “good” enough to have friends. I’m glad that you’re now free of that burden.

  • Hi Dom,

    It certainly can be hard to find a suitable arena to risk blossoming, and in my case it took me some time to learn to trust others enough to reveal my vulnerability (and in some ways I guess I’m still working on that).

    The Buddha placed great emphasis in his teachings on finding suitable friends, and given that there are some shortcomings with your existing friendships it may be that you need to enlarge your social circle and find new friends who are more likely to accept you. It’s not always easy, but finding a sangha (spiritual community) would be a good first step. There may be local practice groups, and you could also look for retreat opportunities (or hopefully both).

    It may also be — although I’ve no way of knowing, of course — that you’d find more acceptance from your existing friends that you might think. It might be worth sharing a little and seeing how that goes.

    A third option, which doesn’t rule out either of the others, would be finding a good therapist or counselor. A good therapist acts, in effect, as a spiritual friend, giving us acceptance and helping us to tap into inner resources that we didn’t know existed.

  • Michel – I’m not sure who your question is addressed to … probably Bodhipaksa but, as I am unsure how often he is able to view these comments, I’ll risk ‘jumping in with both feet’ and say that both Bodhipaksa and I belong to the F.W.B.O. (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) which, yes, has Centres – or at least activities – in 24 countries (possibly more now?) around the world. I live in England, Bodhipaksa in New Hampshire (I have never met him!), I have just recently met two fellow retreatants, one from Holland and one from South Africa and we have a lady in our local Sangha from Poland! I am therefore very hopeful that you will have an FWBO centre where you are and that you are able to make contact with them. I wish you well,

  • Thank you for sharing this experience with me. I recognize myself in the bud you describe. The group of Buddhists you’ve been on retreat with are very ‘enlightened’ in a specific way. My experience with other groups is, that the practices focus very much on the self, which (for me, anyway), has become a hindrance in becoming (more) communicative, including building friendships.
    Is the Buddhist group you did retreats with, known throughout the world?

    Best regards,


  • Thank you all for sharing such intimate details of what you are feeling, after reading the above post. It seems that I stumbled across these posts today, quite by accident. Until I started reading that is. Now I realize that I have stumbled into the right place. I too shut myself away from people, and fear any contact that makes me feel vulnerable. I stay at my desk for lunch, read or clean when at home, and try not to think of to much at a time. I feel safe, lonely, and like a bird in a gilded cage. A self imposed cage. That is the worst part of it. I am just beginning to find peace in meditation, and seeking more from the Buddhist way of life.

  • I have been lonely all my life – always ‘different’ in some way – until I found the Dharma and, more precisely, my local Sangha. The lack of judgement I found there taught me to start judging myself less harshly and the Buddha taught me that I, too, have potential (yes, even ME!). I agree with you, Bodhipaksa, that retreats are a great way to discover other ‘closed buds’ – that become friends – and, in my experience, just ‘putting out there’ (i.e. verbalising in a group) what you are experiencing, just seeing it for what it is, helps enormously to see it (and yourself, and others) in a more healthy context. It then ‘re-lights my fire’! This is my first visit to this site …… I’ll be back!

  • I have always used my employment as my defense against loneliness. Having been unemployed for many months now, I have become isolated and defensive about reaching out and making new friends. I am in a new location, due to my husband’s employment, and I can’t seem to fit in to any social or spiritual communities here. I am a social and political liberal who has been “exiled” to South Carolina!
    Right now, my two closest companions, my son and daughter, are in the process of moving far away for their respective careers, and I am on the verge of despair without anyone to talk to about it. My husband is no companion in this area. He wants no part of spirituality of any kind and is not interested in hearing me “complain.”
    I do have a meaningful job lined up that will begin in a few weeks, and I am hoping that I will find solace in my new work that will ease my loneliness.
    Thank you for this posting and for giving me the opportunity to put these thoughts and feeling into words.

  • I used to believe that I didn’t need any friends. That since I had always been lonely, that I could survive as a lonely individual. Each year the lonliness got worse as I pushed other people away and as I pretended that it was an ok situation to be in. While it took baby steps to crawl out of my self-imposed cage, I have a sense of freedom that I didn’t have before. It wasn’t just that I was lonely, it was that I judged myself so harshly that I thought being lonely was the type of life that I deserved. I am now so grateful that I have friends who I can express emotions to as it helps me to deal with problems so that those problems don’t drag me down.

  • Thanks, that struck a chord.

    It’s hard for me to find the right arena to ‘risk blossoming’ though. I can see how the supportive atmosphere of a retreat might be suitable for opening up, but if I did that with my few friends there’d be, well, issues to say the least!

  • Hi Jenny.

    I’m pleased to hear that you’re experiencing a sense of relief or release as you write. Sometimes we feel much better once we’ve been able to name to ourselves what is going on that’s been causing us suffering, and sometimes (as I mentioned in the article) expressing that to others, as a kind of confession, comes as a huge relief. We no longer need to pretend to ourselves and others that everything’s OK. We can accept that to suffer is not a failure, but simply a part of life.

    All the best,

  • loneliness became my defence against loneliness is just where I am, just what I am realising. This summer I have wrestled myself to a standstill; now I am looking for what I have ignored, shunned, kept boxed down, within and without. There is a breaking open feeling of pain and release as I write this, that I recognise to be more real than my defences.


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