Recognizing Sanity Within Confusion

by | Sep 2, 2022

The natural state of the human heart is open and vulnerable. While the heart is meant to be soft and exposed, it is our nature to protect it from any emotional and physical pain. I have noticed that within a state of contraction I am protecting my open, tender heart. 

Observing others in a state of contraction – my cats, my little sister, and myself – I sense the vulnerability and aliveness that exists. When my cats hissed at a dog they were sensitive, focused on their feeling of vulnerability and sought safety. My little sister in a moment of aliveness felt vulnerable and in embarrassment retracted into a state of restriction. 

When I feel the intensity of fear and love in my heart, I feel an urge to insulate my heart and retract into a limited identity based on fear. Intrinsic aliveness is our fundamental nature but it is also our natural inclination to build a cocoon around our heart to insulate ourselves from the intensity of our open, vulnerable existence. 

Part 1: Jasper and Loki 

I first noticed aliveness within fear-based contraction in my cats by looking at their hair. Over Thanksgiving break, a friend stayed at my house with her dog, Kit. My two cats, Jasper and Loki were not thrilled at the idea of sharing their space with a new and threatening animal. 

We had to mediate interactions between the pets to make sure everything went well. As soon as they were introduced to Kit, Loki and Jasper’s hair stood straight up and their tails were big and bushy. Jasper was the most frightened by Kit’s presence, while Loki kept a distance. 

Kit was a very loving and gentle dog, but that meant nothing to my cats. Jasper would stalk Kit while hissing and growling. She was upset about how the cats were treating her, and stayed close to my friend. 

My cats were unable to recognize that Kit wasn’t an actual threat. They are wired to defend their territory, and act instinctually. While contracted by fear, there was an obvious element of aliveness and vulnerability to their experience. 

Jasper and Loki were extremely sensitive to the presence of Kit, and their somatic response was to look intimidating.   

They seemed extremely present and aware of the dog’s movements at every moment. Their nervous system was activated and their instinct to protect themselves and their home was a sign of aliveness within their “fear-based contraction.” I observed a similar sense of aliveness when watching my little sister dance and experiencing contraction in response to feeling vulnerable.

Part II: Bella 

My little sister Bella is five, and I’m beginning to notice her experience embarrassment and contraction in social settings. Bella and I enjoy being together, and one night we decided to turn on music and my friends and I danced for her mom and our dad. 

She was very involved and loved that we would hold hands while dancing. When I let go of her hands, she would stop and sit on the couch. The second I would let go of her hands, I could feel her become vulnerable and frightened. 

It appeared to me that Bella was gaining an awareness of herself that could be causing her to feel nervous and scared. Contracting from fear, Bella sits back and watches others play or dance. Bella seeks close contact in order to feel safe, because she feels sensitive and vulnerable on her own. 

When I let go of Bella’s hands, she felt a gap that made her contract into fear. Within the gap, Bella had a moment of penetrating aliveness that occurs within a human experience. I also noticed that she would contract more as her mom and our dad would tell her not to be embarrassed and to dance. She became more unwilling to dance and would even stop engaging whatsoever. Just as Bella’s parents met her fear with disapproval I also meet my fear with conflict and tend to contract away from discomfort.

Part III: Myself

My heart often feels exceptionally tender and vulnerable. This vulnerability and openness stimulates an amount of discomfort and pain I have conditioned myself not to feel. Within this pain are stories – self-fulfilling prophecies – that tell me I am not good enough. 

When I listen and ask what is calling for my attention, what I discover is a deep longing for love, attention and space. My conditioned identity responds with guilt or defiance. Then there are moments that my heart calls for my attention intensely and with training in “loving-kindness” meditations, I experience my hardened identity crack open and feel this longing and love in my heart.

When I experience longing I quickly drop into a well of sadness that is so deep I become engulfed with terror. It scares me to acknowledge the extent to which I need to love and be loved. I contract against my heart’s longing by telling myself something like: “too bad,” “stop being so needy,” or “just be grateful for what you have.” 

The pain of my longing is intensified by the coldness and hardness that meets it. This hardness is the cocoon that has solidified around my heart, preventing a whole felt experience. My experience at Naropa has not been one of gentile emotional catharsis; instead I am plunged into my pain without warning. This overexposure has shaken me to the extent that I have been unwilling or unable to experience my discomfort.

I have noticed a pattern of being fully in or fully out of pain, either sinking into a pit within my body or escaping my body completely. It has been my task to expose my wounds bit by bit and mindfully protect myself from intense pain that causes me to shrink away. Attending to my pain slowly and gently allows me to heal. Welwood (1992) believes “the first and most difficult step in healing is to expose our wound – our disconnectedness from our larger being and the pain that causes. In this pain is our healing. 

If we turn away from it, we only add another link in the chain of contraction and denial that constitutes our dis-ease. If we attend to it, however, it will put us in contact with those aspects of our experience we have cut off or denied.” Exposing myself to suffering, I have experienced powerful and beautiful affection and sadness simultaneously.

After weeks of oscillating between pain and withdrawal, I went for a walk and connected to my pain in a larger way. I walked, listened, and attended to my heart. I realized that I have a huge and powerful capacity to love and be loved.

 I learned that by containing this love within a small box under my sternum causes me tremendous pain and suffering. I have created this cocoon around my heart because of a faulty coping mechanism that told me feeling a longing for love is dangerous. As I saw this in myself I felt my cocoon break open. 

“What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves in order to avoid feeling pain” (Welwood, 1992). The hard shell I created around my capacity to experience love cracked a little and I felt the intensity and extent of my ability to love and the intensity to which I desire to feel loved.

Opening my heart has been an exceptionally joyous and sorrowful experience. I cherish the boundless love I have discovered in my heart and not holding it back or containing it in my cocoon creates much comfort and joy. 

The openness and vulnerability of my heart, however, also invites profound sadness. It is not an experience of sadness I feel the need to escape but it is a vast sadness that connects me to the world. The sorrow feels intertwined between myself and the “fragile beauty of life as a whole.” I connect to how Welwood (1992) describes this experience: 

“The sweetness is that when reality breaks our heart, it is calling on us to soften and open. As we soften and expand, we discover a sweet, raw tenderness toward ourselves and the fragile beauty of life as a whole.”

Noticing the fragile beauty of life, I have become more interested in the world. I love to take time and notice the ordinary magic in the details of everyday life. In Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book The Sacred Path of the Warrior he mentions that “the warrior feels that the world is naturally full of interest: the visual world, the emotional worlds, whatever world he might have. 

So interest or inquisitiveness manifests as raw delight, delight together with redness or tenderness.” I am delighted to see the details in a twisting tree trunk, the details of my emotional experiences, the details of someone’s voice or eyes or story. Even in the details of my own cocoon I see intrinsic wisdom.

 “When we look back to the cocoon and see the suffering…, that inspires us to go forward in our journey of warriorship. It is not a journey in the sense of walking in the desert looking ahead to the horizon. Rather, it is a journey that is unfolding within us… we find that the attributes of the Great Eastern Sun are reflected in every aspect of our being.”

Trungpa, 2000

Looking beyond the constricted identity I have cocooned myself into, I see the wisdom in my casting. In order to “perceive the history of sanity, (I) need the curiosity and effort to look beyond immediate appearances” (Welwood, 1983). Beyond the encasement of my judgments and withdrawal, I see the sensitive and tender heart of a child. 

The cocoon was formed to protect an open and soft heart from the startling vicissitudes of life. As I recognize how I limit my experience to protect my heart and apply mindfulness practices, I sense my heart’s ability to exist soft and vulnerable without constraints.

The essence of my heart is open and sensitive and it is my nature to create a cocoon to protect my vulnerabilities. When my heart feels the intensity of its vulnerability and I react by shrinking away, I recognize the aliveness and wisdom of my whole experience. I trust in my experience of openness and contraction and I accept that I will habitually fluctuate between these two states.

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