From The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron
“When I was about six years old I received a teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved, and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”
Right there, I received this pithy instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
West Wind #2 by Mary Oliver
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
Each time Bill Murray’s Phil Connors wakes to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” blaring on his clock radio in the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day” we viewers feel the tension tighten. How will Murray’s character respond this time as he wakes in the time loop he seems caught in, doomed to relive over and over one of the silliest days on the calendar?
Given what we know of him as the film begins, his evolution follows a predictable arc. A self-important prima donna, he moves with each awakening from befuddlement to outrage to full-throated hedonism: gorging himself with food, swiping money from an armored truck, honing pick-up lines for the women who suit his fancy. But no matter how he satisfies his pleasure in these one-day sprees, everything is wiped away the next morning.
And so the film takes a darker turn, as he makes his way through creative ways to do himself in. But each time he wakes again until he declares to his co-worker that he must be a god. Of course, he’s not a god. What he is, is stuck: stuck in self-absorption, in self-pity, in this narrative that tells him that he must be a victim of the universe.
The Jungian analyst James Hollis says that he often begins workshops he leads around the world with the question, “Where are you stuck?” It’s interesting, he says, that never in those workshops does anyone ask him to define what he means by “stuck.” Even translated to other languages, everyone jumps in and starts writing in their journals, suggesting, he says, “that the concept of stuckness is quite close to the surface in our lives.”
How about you? Where are you stuck? What is holding you back from the life you would like to live? The answer is not always as simple as it may seem. That’s because often what’s bedeviling us is not the stuckness that presents itself. For example, all the ways we get stuck around food usually speak to deeper hungers in our lives – longing for love, for attention, for reliable presence.
So, when we try to deal, say, with cravings or binge eating we stumble again and again because we haven’t addressed our deeper anxiety. As Hollis puts it, “under each stuck place there is a wire, so to speak, that reaches down into the archaic field and activates a field of energy of which we are largely unaware, but has the power to reinforce whatever is holding the line against change.”
The result can be something like the experience that Pema Chodron described, where we are marching around with our fists balled up kicking at anything we find, furious at a world that will not treat us as we feel we deserve.
It reminds me of one of the early Star Trek movies. Do you remember? In it, Earth is threatened by an alien force inside a massive energy cloud. But that force, which calls itself “V-ger”, turns out to be the remnant of a Voyager probe sent centuries before that had been upgraded by aliens who sought to help the probe complete its mission by returning to Earth. Once the Star Trek crew figures out how to complete the code so “V-ger” can send its information, it is appeased.
How often do we turn ourselves into V-gers raging or withdrawing over perceived slights and inattention that activate our deep anxieties? It’s hard, Hollis says, because these anxieties can be grounded in what he calls perceived existential threats, such as fear of being overwhelmed and being abandoned.
Early in life, he said, we experience what he calls “our relative powerlessness in a large and potentially invasive world.” So, it’s little wonder that in time we develop strategies to assert some control in our closest relationships. Likewise, he says, to avoid abandonment, we may focus our energy on achievement to assure ourselves that we are needed, or at least that we receive ample praise.
We concoct strategies to protect ourselves, and they serve us for a time. But they’re rickety, fragile, and reactive. As Pema Chodron puts it, “we let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid.” And in time our defenses suffer damage. So, we get out the paper and twine and patch them up. The result isn’t pretty, but we stick with them because we figure that’s all we’ve got. But it’s not. We have another capacity – deeper, wiser, kinder – that only needs to be activated.
It shows us that many of the scripts that guided us in times of stress are remnants, rear guard actions from our youth or childhood. We can honor them: they offered what service they could at a times of difficulty. But as we’ve grown we’ve become more resilient, and we see that the emotional hazards that we feared are not quite so fearful. They are, in fact, invitations to grow, to be kinder, more open.
“Sometimes,” Pema Chodron teaches, “this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. “But under the hardness of that armor there is a tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved.”
James Hollis makes a similar point. “Sometimes we have to go there, the place of fear, in order to grow up, to recover our lives from all the assembled defenses, of which denial, repetition and rationalization are the accomplices. “Only in those moments when we take life on, when we move through the archaic field of anxiety, when we drive through the blockage, do we get a larger life and get unstuck.”
Phil Connors seems to get that, too. When he’s had enough of self-indulgence, he turns his attention to his fellow travelers in Punxsutawney: saving a boy falling out of a tree, a diner choking on his meal. He learns to play the piano and becomes the life of Groundhog Day parties. He uses what he learns about the residents to counsel and console them.
Along with Murray’s love interest in the film, played by Andie McDowell, we are astonished at the person that Phil Connors has become. In the space of a day, this first-class jerk has become one heck of a decent human being – except, as we know, it took more than a day, maybe 10,000 days or more.
And it’s true that it can feel like we need a lifetime to climb over all the detritus in our past, the old scripts that haunt us and still carry enough energy to divert us from living in tune with our true selves.
It seems to me that this is the challenge that Mary Oliver’s poem “West Wind #2” addresses. She speaks as one tempered by experience, one who at some point in her life did, as she puts it, leap into a boat and begin rowing. And it is plain from the context that she was not rowing with a destination in mind: she was rowing away, and not away from a clear threat but from some threat she anticipated, an imagined pain or fear she hoped to escape.
It’s the context that breaks our heart, for it’s plain that what she was running from was something that in fact could save her, something whose power, thankfully, was strong enough to interrupt her impulse to escape, that gave her the insight to write this compelling poem. And that power, she is clear, is something that opened her eyes to a larger life, something she can only think to call love.
“There is life without love,” she says, and you don’t want to go there. Whatever your fear, your insecurity, your self-doubts, you will regret running from it, hardening your heart against its call. Stuck as you may be in the armor you thought would protect you, you must give it up. Lift the oars from the water and rest. Take a moment to heed what she calls your heart’s “little intelligence,”that inner wisdom that awaits us. And then go . . . go.
Not toward some comforting, warm embrace but right back at what you sought to flee, that tumult of uncertainty and risk. Such is life lived with love, full of bumps and bruises and no guarantees, where we learn what Pema Chordon calls “the tenderness of genuine sadness.” Something that, she says, “can humble us when we are indifferent and soften us when we are unkind. It awakes us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference.”
Our heart’s awakening, and our own true home.