Lately I’ve been reading the Jungian analyst James Hollis’ latest book, What Matters Most and also the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. Apt reading for the New Year, I would say. Not books that give pat answers or easy solutions. Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst contemporary with and colleague of Sigmund Freud, would have said we don’t solve our problems, we outgrow them.
“Outgrowing our problems” is different than avoiding or ignoring them. A child’s developmentally growing taller and out of her clothes is not a forced effort, but it is a change over time that is experienced. True, it is nigh on impossible to run away from our childhood growth spurts out of our own shoes. However, as adults, we similarly need to continue experiencing growth and to evolve psychologically—outgrowing our old psychological soles, so to speak.
We may think as adults that we’re done with psychological change, we’re unable to change. In fact, we’re always changing, always in flux and process, if not one way, then another. “Set in our ways” doesn’t mean we’re exactly like we were; it may mean we’re putting all our energy into fighting ourselves—treading water in the same place rather than swimming in the flow of life.
We all have life themes—call them scripts—that we learn in childhood. Our families of origin bequeath us these themes or scripts unwritten, unbidden. Our parents don’t tack the family mythology on the refrigerator. We don’t read them aloud everyday off the breakfast cereal box. But we inherit a script—a mythology, i.e., a family narrative of who we are and what life is—anyway. Our family of origin creates a milieu in which we develop our themes for life. And then it becomes our task for the rest of our lives to outgrow the script we’ve memorized so well.
The caterpillar may think it’s a caterpillar in that cocoon. In order to be able to become a butterfly with room to fly, it actually must struggle and chafe against the hole that it makes to break out. Likewise, we need to experience some struggle in our lives in order to break out of and away from old family scripts. The caterpillar needs to leave his comfort zone and so do we.
Both Pema Chodron and James Hollis note how we need to become psychologically uncomfortable and face the fears of our own unknowns. What is it about ourselves that we are afraid to face? What prejudices? What outmoded ways of thinking do we need to change? What family script is no longer “us”? James Hollis notes, “The meaning of our life will be found precisely in our capacity to achieve as much of it as possible beyond those bounds fear would set for us.”
Fear is a natural part of life. Pema Chodron tells us that embarking on our spiritual journey is like getting into a tiny boat and casting off into the ocean to discover unknown places. Eventually we encounter fear. “Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover unknown places. Eventually, we encounter fear. Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.” Chodron reminds us that fear is universal. She describes: “we wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft open bodies of anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold onto.”
And yet letting go and casting off into our psychological unknowns and out of our comfort zone (which is often also our “discomfort” zone) is what we need to “do” in order to become more fully human “beings”.
Casting off into this unknown sea means facing our fears, feeling our feelings, not running away or ignoring the uncomfortable parts of our lives. This takes courage, but it also takes tenderness—we need to be gentle with ourselves. Pema Chodron focuses on our need for loving kindness towards oneself—“the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others.”
Perhaps we can be kinder to ourselves and others on this awakening journey if we consider, as Hollis does, that we are all “verbs,” not “nouns.” In other words, none of us is a finished product, a done deal. Constantly in process, we are indeed outgrowing our own soles. Perhaps that is, pardon the pun, our soulful journey!