“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.” ~ Frank Herbert
“If you’re really listening, if you’re awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold evermore wonders.” ~ Andrew Harvey
Maybe the problems we face are not meant to, nor can be solved. Our determined beliefs tell us otherwise.
We can solve our flat tire and painstakingly slow computer, and we are fortunate to have our broken leg fixed at the hospital. These are relatively simple issues to deal with. But the same linear, quick-fix mindset from which we approach these human dilemmas we naively apply to larger, more complex and perennial challenges—to relationship and organizational conflict, drug abuse, mass shootings, climate change, genocide and war, to name a few.
If only we just… we say, thinking to know the answer.
But is that really what this situation calls for? Another linear, straightforward solution? Do we know the underlying reasoning that draws this predicament forward into our lives, and the lives of others? Have we wondered why these issues keep resurfacing despite our brilliant solutions, our hard-earned strategies?
Maybe our understanding of these incredibly complex challenges is vastly incomplete, and therefore these dilemmas are more unsolvable than we are willing to admit. Maybe there is only so much we can do. And what if that is the case?
Delusion of the how-to mind
”Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” ~ Agnes de Mille
There is so often tremendous arrogance in a mind that believes it has the answer. The humble mind knows there are innumerable, untraceable, incalculable, mysterious influences underlying the complex issues we face at home, work, and in society at large. There is a limitless web of uncontrollable factors that cause two or more seemingly separate parts to collide into chaos and suffering, factors that no mind can possibly understand and that shape the human story.
We may know what is happening, but in no way can we know the full extent of why a predicament occurs and are therefore grossly limited in knowing how to solve it. (Again, I’m not speaking about fixing tires.) We point to an answer believing it to be it; and while there can be temporary relief in implementing our solution, how many times does it only lead to more complex, head-scratching issues; to, as Winston Churchill said, “one dam thing after another”?
The narrow “how-to”, “solve-it” mind easily succumbs to the delusion of it. Because of its quick-fix need to know, it very often believes that simply removing, altering or adding something will be a panacea. That’s all that binary logic can conjure, the logic mankind so heavily depends on. It researches, calculates, consults, innovates and advises; it creates the latest gadget and technology, rushes to the newest legislation, medication, weapon, treaty or policy, and there you have it, that should finally take care of this long-standing issue. We’ve got it figured out now!
Black and white solutions are fabricated from black and white minds, ones lacking the openness and sensitivity to nuance needed to attune to the unfathomable depth of complexity at hand, the unfathomable grey connecting and giving rise to the parts our literal eyes lose themselves in.
There is tremendous naivety here. Another solution, just one more brilliant, well-thought strategy, and this time, once and for all, we hope to wipe our hands clean of the issue and move on. That’ll do it. Alas, we will finally have “peace”!
Isn’t that what politicians keep promising their strategies will lead us to? Peace? Isn’t this the reductive mindset behind how we try to “eliminate” poverty, inequality, crime and disease? Another dose of anti-biotics or anti-gang interventions, and that should hopefully do it! Isn’t this the same arrogant-need-to-know mindset that so liberally assumes itself to be an “expert” or “master” in a particular subject, while forgetting there is infinitely far more that we don’t know than know? How often do we see people generously calling themselves experts or masters? Isn’t this the same how-to-figure-it-out mind that drives conventional schooling to put greater faith in product over process—in measurable outcomes over immeasurable exploring? Isn’t this the same quick-fix mind that seeks to resolve complex behavioral issues through simple three-step “behavioral strategies” (such as when dealing with child tantrums)? Isn’t this the same hubris and binary thinking that compels academics to pedestalize knowledge, intellect—the answer? How comfortable are academics with uncertainty, with not having the answer? Isn’t this the same narrow mindset behind Western medicine’s over-reliance on quick-fix, symptom- (surface) focused medicine? How comfortable are allopathic doctors with trusting the body’s immense capacity to heal? The more toxic the medicine, the less faith in the body. Isn’t this the same black and white attitude encouraging those in despair and loss to be strong and move on, to not dwell too long in the messy, unpredictable grey of grief?
No matter the level of rational intelligence behind our solutions, simplistic, linear, quick-fix strategies can never lead us to peace. There will never be an it! Something more is needed, something we were taught lifetimes ago to deny. It begins with learning to listen more deeply to that which gives rise to and connects those diseased, chaotic, warring parts.
The unexpected doors in disorder
“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.” ~ Patrick Overton
I’m all for removing guns or adding gun control measures. I’m all for preventing oil pipelines from being built across land that isn’t even ours in the first place. I’m all for new systems and technologies that support more efficient communication and better healthcare and care for our planet. I fully support these causes and initiatives, for there is indeed wisdom in proactivity and order, in innovation and improved systems. There is wisdom in removing, altering and adding.
But there is also forgotten and more ancient wisdom in disorder and uncertainty. For it’s when trouble arises, trouble we are powerless to, that the door knocks loudest. It’s why disturbances arise in the first place. To unsteady us. To redirect us to what we have been ignoring. They are messengers reminding us that there is something larger at play, a whisper, a truth wanting our attention, a knowing beyond steeped knowledge that we have long forgotten.
Our suffering and specifically powerlessness lead us to the golden gate where truth knocks from the other side. There we are boldly summoned to consider that we are not in as much control as we think. An opportunity is given to understand that there is much more going on behind the scenes of what we perceive from our literal, surface-oriented mind. There are underlying truths, reasons, ways rationale cannot understand. There are archetypal patters our old mythological stories reveal again and again. There is order in the disorder, reason in the treason, as my friend says. And it takes a certain amount of suffering to bring us to our knees where we finally release our stubborn quest for “security”, our narrow, personal worldviews and agendas, and open to hints of deeper, infinitely wiser organizing intelligence.
“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor. Perhaps, in a way, that’s where humanity is now: about to discover we’re not as smart as we thought we were, will be forced by life to surrender our attacks and defences which avail us of nothing, and finally break through into the collective beauty of who we really are.” ~ Marianne Williamson
Indeed, suffering is part of the human story. It is a necessary human dilemma, for now.
Oh, how we want life to be all clean and sanitized, to be “positive” and “fair”, to look a certain, shiny way. We don’t want “bad” things to happen to “good” people. And we want all the “bad” people put away and the “bad” things to stop happening. Sorry, but that’s the fairy tale we cling to that has nothing to do with reality. We cling to it, just as we cling to our dream of a Knight in Shining Armor or Heavenly Woman rescuing us and leading us to a fairy tale relationship and life.
“Bad” is part of life, like it or not. For one thing, “bad” people and situations have always been around and keep on coming. Clearly there’s a reason for them being here. They have something to offer. Secondly, how many times have “bad” experiences led you to “good” opportunities and learning? How often has it been the down periods that have lifted you higher than you’d ever been? Could the “good” have taken you there?
Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz would tell us that it often takes a tornado to lift us to a higher plane of living; that it can take unexpected detours and wickedness to wake us up. Our illustrious mythological stories tell us of these and other ancient and unavoidable archetypal patterns embedded in the Cosmos.
They remind us that life eventually calls for adversity. Moving smoothly as expected tends to not push us into the crucibles we need, yet not necessarily want or expect.
Accepting and surrendering to the sinuous, mercurial and arduous nature of life is the beginning of humility, of realizing that maybe we aren’t in as much control as we think; that there are greater forces at play that can make it impossible to understand the why and how. Accepting and feeling this utter powerlessness is the entry point into our hearts, and life.
Fear of heartbreak
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen
Continuously fixing problems as our go-to approach is how we bypass the mystery wanting to announce itself, the unfathomable agendas beyond our personal agendas, the light in the crack. And it’s how we avoid the heartbreak of living in a volatile world.
If only we just come up with a solution… if only we figure out the answer… then we won’t have to drop down and feel the devastation of what it means to be a suffering human living amongst other suffering humans. We get to remain above the neck, away from the fears inherent in powerlessness and uncertainty, in not knowing what to do. We get to remain distracted in discursive thought, away from our quivering, neglected, crying skin, away from the long-standing pains in our body, those same pains that are not separate from the pains of the world. We get to remain thinking, believing ourselves to be in charge, not realizing how our narrow, busy mentation serves to conveniently keep us separate from heartbreak longing for our attention.
It’s a tremendous fear to face—to realize the stark reality of our powerlessness; that we may not have an answer to human suffering. It’s one of the most painful things for humans to experience—watching those we love experience loss, be lost, and live in despair; to witness catastrophe after catastrophe, leaving families impoverished and displaced, leaving people scratching their heads in sheer devastation. The worst fears play out in our minds—our loved ones spiraling out of control, never to recover, not surviving through their ordeal. Or worse: cities aflame, children dying, martial law, the world coming to a horrific end. We think that if we don’t take charge we, others, the world, will evaporate into extinction.
This fear, and the idea that we have the solution, comes from our childhood wounding when our parents weren’t there for us and we felt the need to control our environments to feel safe. Our primary caregivers were Gods to us, hopefully tending to our biological needs of survival and bonding. Without adequate care for our physical and emotional needs—and most of us did not receive adequate care—we learned that it was not safe to trust. This early imprint altered how we perceived and related to life. We projected this distrust onto life and born was the idea that we must control life to feel safe.
Our hearts closed with pain and isolation. This pain and the sense of separation that arises from withdrawal and distrust led us up into our controlling minds, away from our hurting, neglected bodies, bodies that could not safely feel and express emotion. Our disassociated rationale got busy, thinking and thinking, conjuring strategies for self-preservation, for managing environments (how can I feel safe, gain approval, win love?). Schooling and the West’s love affair with self-sufficiency, reason and ambition cemented this pain and need for control further.
A clear inner recipe was established for believing ourselves to be in far more control than we actually are.
Our need to control others and the world comes from a survival instinct to self-control. Without having ever tended to the frozen pains of our developmental trauma we continue to hold ourselves tightly together, avoiding our wounds, keeping in check so as not to feel. A natural extension of this is our addictive need to fix and remove the pain and suffering in others. We can’t be with theirs because we can’t be with our own. We struggle to simply offer empathy to another’s suffering, to walk with them in their hurt and agony, without offering a way out. We struggle with compassion, which means to suffer with, because we are so preoccupied with trying to remove another’s experience—because we have yet to be with our own suffering.
What we don’t care for within we try to remove in others. What we avoid within we seek to control without. Again, this addiction, as all addictions do, stems from a feeling of separateness from self, and therefore life.
“Those who have the greatest need to tell others what to do have the least faith in themselves.” ~ Paul Ferrini
Without feeling and healing our own wounds, giving them the compassion they long for, we can’t rest in the heartbreak of our human story, and therefore the stories of others, and the ongoing heartbreaking realities across the globe. Heartbreak is part of what we have come to experience, not having everything nicely and neatly put together. We are here to tolerate and accept how much we don’t know, can’t control, and to feel the utter heartbreak that comes with powerlessness, uncertainty, chaos and the pain of the human experience—to sit with all of it without having a solution for it; without going to the how.
A client of mine was frustrated, overwhelmed and exhausted from having to do everything herself. A mother of two children, she was experiencing little support from her husband and parents in the way of childcare and doing basic household duties. She felt there was no other option but to always “have to have it all together”, a role she was rightfully tired and resentful of.
My first response was not to explore solutions but offer empathy, not just for her struggle, but for the longing she had for support. She longed for “freedom”, she said, for being free of the constant burden of responsibility. “You have every right to be exhausted,” I said. “It’s too much for any one person to handle. You deserve to have the love and support you desire”. I then paused, and said nothing more.
As she took these words in her heart began to break. Her eyes welled up and tears started to trickle down her cheeks. It was a beautiful experience for her to be met right where she was without anyone directing her away from her experience. That was until something did redirect her attention—her knee-jerk, controlling, logical mind decided to chime in: “But I just want to know how to get the support I need!” my client suddenly exclaimed on logic’s behalf. I wasn’t fooled. Gently I redirected her back down into the body, into the heartbreak, into just feeling, into grieving having long lost her freedom to habitual responsibility.
How so often leads us away from feeling. If we just figure out how, then we don’t have to feel.
Being the responsible one was a longstanding pattern for her. She was not going to find the solution she desired from this old fear-based, controlling identity formed in her early years. She wasn’t going to find her way out of her dark hole by letting the responsible one lead the way. Something else was needed, something found in her long-forgotten body. For the sake of her wellbeing and family, her solutions needed to come from the light shining through heartbreak.
Albert Einstein wisely noted, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If our thinking is to make any difference it needs to be rooted in feeling. Then thinking takes on a whole new quality.
Heartbreak, if we allow it to, re-roots us and reminds us who we are. Our challenge is to remain rooted by staying with the sheer heartbreak of it all and not letting the mind usurp our feeling state, not succumbing to temptations of disassociated-solving rationale.
There, grounded in our feeling bodies, we remember that we are here to grieve for ourselves, others and life, as tribal societies around the world teach us, to live with a broken heart, not fix it, and let unbounded grief lead us to places our minds can’t take us.
We are here to weep and wonder, and have that be enough. Our mind says it’s not enough; we must do something. But that’s because it wasn’t safe to weep and wonder as children. As such we were taught that we were not enough. Being our full-bodied, raw, mercurial, wild, unpredictable, emotional, ecstatic selves was not enough. It was not safe. Growing older we then projected this belief outwardly through our unconscious desire for the world to be sanitized, orderly and “good”. We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. We gave up the wild, unpredictable nature of our being for the futile dream of a predictable, “secure” life.
It’s no wonder we as adults struggle to, as the Beatles urged us to, Let It Be—to not rush in and fix and solve; for our primary caregivers, school teachers, etc, did not allow us to simply be. There were too many agendas leading us away from our wild, open, wondrous, feeling hearts. It’s no surprise that as adults we struggle to trust and hear the whispering words speaking from our hearts, calling for nuanced attention, for subtly in detail, trapped we are in spirals upon spirals of literal, surfaced-oriented, thought-based solutions.
As such, the predictability of linear logic is far more secure than the subtle capriciousness of our whispering hearts. And so the unpredictability and powerlessness of suffering, yours and other’s, and the heartbreak that comes with it are all too overwhelming. And yet they are doorways awaiting our attention, necessary ones we must all eventually walk through if, as Leonard Cohen bespeaks, we want the light to “get in”.
Time and again we are given opportunities for this, to have our hearts break open to life such that we return to how we were as children—inhabiting our feeling bodies, deeply attuned to ourselves, to subtly, in intimate conversation with life. Heartbreak, including the heartbreak of not knowing, of being powerless to personal hardship, disease, mass shootings and war, longs to lead us back to something we once instinctually knew, felt, as children—our inner light. It longs to invite us into the golden gate through which we touch hidden dimensions of life whispering to us from other worlds, ancient worlds that know what we have no way of knowing—the why and how.
“When he abandons discriminating knowledge, non-discriminating knowledge of itself arises within him.” ~ Masanobu Fukuoka
If only we just rest long enough without grasping for answers. If we just lay still in the lush field of uncertainty and tears we may experience life finding us. There, unexpected solutions poke their way through the open gate in our hearts, ones no level of brilliant rationality could have ever conjured, ones that provide a deeper, more complex understanding of the why and the much needed how.
It’s a different kind of intelligence the world calls for now, not intellect, but heart-based, soulful intelligence. The heartbreaking beauty of suffering takes us there.
“My heart is broken and I never want it to mend.” ~ Brother Blue
If we look closely we’ll find beauty in suffering, a certain poetry in the heartbreak of the human story. It is the sad, painstaking irony artists have tried to convey to us for millennia—subtle worlds reaching through them, inspiring their paintings, sculptures and stories, inviting us to feel, and in feeling remember that suffering is an unavoidable part of the human story, try as we might to paint life otherwise; and to remember that it takes difficult, often excruciating and usually uncontrollable moments to lead us to our knees and heartbreak where we succumb and give way to the enormity and beauty of life. In this surrender we find peace.
Indeed, beauty arises in realizing this, in sensing the story that never was. It arises in feeling a deeper eternal truth beyond suffering, suffering that has its roots in holding onto the story of who we think we are, to the personal, to needing a domesticated, predictable, “fair” and “secure” world, one that can best uphold an idea of self and life that has nothing to do with reality itself.
Beauty is the heartbreaking, visceral realization that what we thought was simply untrue. It is a deep sigh and let go, a relaxing into, an inner Yes to what ultimately cannot be avoided; it is a courageous surrender to the truth that life is not what it seems, and that the human story is indeed a tragic one that goes nowhere.
And so the invitation is one that will never end so long as the story continues—to bow to suffering, bow to life, to give way to it, to the beauty suffering opens us to; to not only surrender to heartbreak, but to learn to live with it, to make a life of living with a broken heart.
From here service, making a difference, has more power to create positive and lasting change. Our actions are less entangled in myopic, fear-based personal agendas and separation, and arise more from the wisdom of an open, tenderized heart. We come not to fix, not to apply narrow, reductive strategies based in ideas of what we—our individuated sense of self—deems best, but rather to serve from a deeper sense of communion with all things.
Trust moves us, an understanding that we cannot possibly know why something is happening. We don’t come bearing “the answer”. We arrive humble, alert, attuned to that wishing to move our hands, feet and tongue, to that which we must allow into our hearts through the brokenness we surrender to.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wilde Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart