“The only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening, so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule your life.” –Pema Chodron
I love discovering spiritual principles at work in the world around me. They are unexpected and surprising, yet perfectly formed. Like a nautilus shell, or a starfish.
Recently, I have discovered the beautiful symmetry of helplessness.
I have always hated feeling helpless. So I make sure I am not helpless. I am the one flagging the waiter down to get the check, making an extra call to double-check that there is really no availability, finding a way, someway somehow. Useful, yes. Rewarded, often. And also, a way to escape the feeling of helplessness itself: a refusal to admit that nothing can be done, that I lost, that I am vulnerable, that I can be hurt.
In my last relationship, I often struggled with feeling helpless. The person I was with at times chose not to listen to me, or could not hear me. And so . . . I talked calmly, I talked loudly, I argued rationally, I made emotional pleas, I threatened, I begged. And maybe, eventually, I got my way. Until it all fell down and the cycle started again. Rather than truly own up to this cycle and my part in it, I simply insisted all over again that this person would hear me. Rather than admit that this person could not meet me, I worked hard to hold up their end of the relationship for them. Until one day life gave me the gift of making the dysfunction so bad I could not ignore it any longer, and I paid life back by paying attention. And so I left.
Right now, I am in the final stages of ending this relationship, wrapping up loose ends. And this person is still repeating the same patterns of broken promises. And I–the new, strong me, who left–what do I do? I feel helpless. So I leap right into my part: “He can’t do this to me,” or “I will figure out a way to get him to listen.” The same broken record, stuck in the same broken groove.
But this time I catch myself. Okay: I took the big step of ending the relationship, but I find myself back here again. What do I still need to learn? The answer arises naturally: the very thing I am struggling with IS the answer to my question. I am back here so I can FEEL what helpless feels like.
The more I resist feeling a certain way, the more likely it is that I will “find” myself in situations that cause that emotion to arise. To break the cycle, I need to surrender and let myself feel.
I am trying to wake myself up, and my feelings are my alarm clock.
Okay. What does it feel like to experience helplessness? The very first thing I become aware of is how much effort I have been putting into avoiding this feeling. I was approaching life with a big sign that says “YOU CAN’T HURT ME.”
I surrender– I take down the sign. Life can hurt! It is life! And people disappoint you and accidents happen and sometimes you lose. Surprisingly, this admission feels like cool relief. It feels sweet to be human. It feels sweet to be capable of being hurt. This IS life. I can feel life touching me, because I am not trying to hold it at a distance.
Emotions are like a knot that only tightens the more I pull against it, and then as I relax it slips free.
I let the messy, vibrant energy of LIFE sweep into this vulnerable place I have been trying so hard to protect. My heart relaxes as I release my grip. And as I relax, light and space and movement rush in and blow away the last shred of my resistance.
And I laugh because I suddenly understand why I have been trying so hard to not let down my guard. I thought that if I experienced pain, if I “lost,” if a situation got messy . . . that it was my fault. More than my fault: it meant I was not good enough to get it right. I have compassion for the part of me that believed this. I send love to myself, and gently let go of this belief. Encountering obstacles does not mean I am a failure. It is just part of being human.
Opening wide to the uncomfortable experience lets it become just that: an experience–a bird flapping through my sky. I can experience it without identifying with it, without confusing it with who I a fundamentally am.
Having reconnected with my own basic worthiness, I regain my true power. Deep, full, expansive breath. Suddenly, I have many choices before me. YES I have the power to enter into this situation holding the highest intentions for both me and him. YES I have the power to protect and honor my own needs–or, to give up the fight if that ultimately brings me greater peace and joy. YES I have the power to forgive him. YES I have the power to refuse to get drawn into a negative cycle.
Ultimately, I replace the illusion of control I tried so hard to maintain with a much more profound power. Although I can not stop painful experiences from arising in my life, I always have the choice to meet them with love and integrity.
So what does all this mean? Externally, nothing has changed. I still have a tough situation on my plate. But now I accept that it may not turn out perfectly–and that is okay. I am no longer struggling with myself.
The symmetry is complete: by experiencing ‘helplessness’ fully, I can let it go.