Suffering and chronic states of struggle are not ’caused’ solely by what happened to us in the past. Some research suggests our perception of what happened is even more impactful, along with how we have come to organize the experience in our brains and nervous systems. There is so much hope in these recent revelations from the field of neuroscience. Even though we cannot change the past, we can reorganize our relationship to it and engage the world in a new way, one rooted in self-compassion and clear, loving awareness.
In the nearly miraculous discoveries in the area of neuroplasticity, we are seeing that we can transform the context in which we hold, organize, and make meaning of what happened to us in the past. Even if our early environment was mired in disruptive attachment, chronic empathic failure, abuse, and neglect, it is possible to create new neural pathways and give birth to more cohesive, flexible, and integrated narratives. Your brain is luminous; your nervous system is holy; the cells of your heart are consecrated with sacred life energy. With new levels of self-attunement, self-kindness, and clear seeing, these discoveries can come alive within you.
While the work of integration and encoding new circuitry is not easy, and requires just about everything we have, there is hope. While it can seem like moving a mountain, the pathways are open, translucent, and not as solid as they appear. In their own way, they are longing to be reorganized into more integrated and cohesive forms. They are hopeful that they will be restructured.
You are a Gift
I do not speak all that often about hope, as I am a great fan of hopelessness as a wrathful and transformative companion on the path. There is a certain magic in the core of hopelessness, but the art of mining that gold has been lost in our modern world. You can still find it; it is buried inside your heart. It is not some disembodied, theoretical, philosophical hope that is offered here. It is embodied, untamed, creative, and alive. It is not a hope that things will turn out the way we want or believe we need them to, or that our most cherished dreams will not be shattered. It is much more radical than that. It is a hope that is a wild sort of confidence in your true nature, which has never been unhealed. It is the kind of hope that you shout out in the four directions from the rooftop, and embody with the sun, the moon, and the stars as your witness. It is the hope of wholeness, and the utter workability and sacredness of your emotions, your feelings, and the temple that is your own body. It is the hope that your vulnerability, your tender heart, and your ripe being are gifts here, without which the planets may fall out of orbit. It is the kind of hope that is not passive but is the material of revolution.
The Alchemy of Hopelessness
Navigating this hopelessness is tricky territory as the mind is wired to find relief from and to resolve contradictions rather than rest inside them and mine the creativity and magic that are found only there. If we’re not careful, we can easily fall down the rabbit hole of desperation and despair, and lose our way. Reaching out to others who can help provide a home for these energies to unfold and transform within us is so very important. It is very natural to at times make the commitment to deeply explore these energies in an embodied, direct way, while at other times it is most intelligent and kind to return to safer ground. The loss of hope is usually deemed a very bad thing in our world, a profound cosmic error and a dark place that serves as an obstacle or obscuration on the path. There is another view of this, embodied by other cultures and peoples and seekers who have come to discover the loss of hope as a very creative, rich, alchemical place. But we must honor our own experience and trust it to guide us either through the hopelessness or into it, as we deem in our own best interest. There is no right path for everyone. For many, it is often a matter of shifting back and forth between the various approaches.
I have been honored to witness this unfolding, illumination, and transformation in many men and women over the years who have been kind enough to allow me to accompany them into the wild internal landscape where there is no map, no guidebook, and no clear assurance that it will all turn out according to their plans, wishes, and dreams. While the unprecedented activity of love will never conform to our preferences—for it is far too creative for that—it comes offering aliveness and wholeness, which may be what you have been longing for all along anyway.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot allow love to reorganize your life. It’s simply not true. Don’t ever give up. Love will never, ever give up on you.
The Space for Choice
When feelings of shame and unworthiness appear, they come not as obstacles to harm but as invitations to reorganize. Holocaust survivor and pioneering psychiatrist Victor Frankl is widely quoted as having said that our freedom is found in the space between stimulus and response:
Between every thought and action, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our potential for growth and freedom.
Just as the anger is surging, the emptiness is looming, and the feeling of abandonment is arising, in the moment of embodied meeting, there is a choice. While we may not have much say as to what presents itself in a moment of activation, we do have a choice (and can train ourselves to have greater choice) as to what behavior we engage in response. Will we act urgently to turn from our immediate experience, exiting the aliveness of the here and now, strengthening the neural groove of self-abandonment and denial? Or will we take the path of self-compassion, turning toward ourselves in times of difficulty, and commit to a new way, one that is rooted in loving awareness and the willingness to be our own best friend? Will we dare to practice kindness, to practice peace, and to step off the battlefield of self-aggression, shame, and blame?
A Deep Commitment to Care
The next time you are triggered and caught in a looping narrative about what is wrong with you, how wretched you are, or how life has failed you, slow down and make contact with the felt sense in your body. Drop under the very compelling storyline for just a moment and locate the burning in your heart, your belly, and your throat. Train yourself, with kindness and gentle friendliness, to notice that holy moment that opens between your awareness of the feeling and the impulse to act, the habitual tendency to either deny what is there or to urgently seek relief from it through fueling a storyline or engaging addictive behavior. It is hot and sticky here, claustrophobic and restless, and filled with opportunity and even magic. Becoming familiar with this space that Frankl describes is one of the most significant and life-changing realizations on the journey of wholeness. There is so much power and freedom in this middle place if you will take the time to familiarize yourself with it and explore the implications of its invitation. But it does take practice. And courage. And the deep commitment to care for yourself in new ways.
The Old and New Pathways
As the visitors surge in a sensitive nervous system, they appear alongside a doorway. While the doorway may appear to flash open and closed, it is actually always open, though at times it can seem hidden. On one side of the door is the old circuitry of self-aggression and abandonment. It is the path well traveled, and the grooves here are deep. By denying or dissociating from what has appeared—or acting out toward others or in toward yourself with shame and judgment—you reenact the ways your vulnerability was met as a young child in your family of origin. While of course there were moments of attunement and responsiveness, our culture does not have an inspiring track record when it comes to holding intensity and energies that cannot easily be controlled. The spin is back to numbness and safety as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences of closing down to the majesty of what we are as sensitive and embodied human beings.
Depending on the ways you came to organize the experience of empathic failure, you will be guided into unique configurations of fight, flight, or freeze as the spontaneous creativity of ‘here and now’ is replaced with the early circuitry of ‘there and then’. Though these strategies were once intelligent, creative, and adaptive, many are discovering that they no longer support their vision for a life of intimacy, connection, aliveness, and meaning.
On the other side is the new pathway of slowness, empathy, attunement, and kindness. Of meeting, containing, and metabolizing the dysregulating narrative, emotional intensity, and body-based raw sensation using capacities you once did not have. Not as a goal to further shame yourself for not perfecting, but as an intention, an aspiration, a lifelong practice to open into. And to return to over and over again.
No matter how things are flowing for you at the time you read this, you can start exactly where you are, afresh in this moment. There is only this moment.
Take Your Time to Heal
In my experience, we open into the sticky, pregnant, raw vulnerability in stages; we can’t just go straight to ‘loving’ our fear, rage, grief, sadness, and hopelessness. Many hear that they must accept and love everything that arises in their experience and end up using this teaching as a way to attack themselves when they inevitably ‘fail‘ yet again, not devoted or pure or spiritual enough to do the right thing. But in the attempt to get to safe ground as quickly as possible, we end up bypassing some of the very rich, messy, holy material along the way, which is filled with life and sacred data.
As we learn to recognize and tolerate the very difficult and disturbing feelings and sensations, for very short periods of time at first, we can slowly continue our journey with them. From tolerating to containing them within the self field, and discovering in a deeply embodied way that we can hold a lot more than we originally thought, we realize that this material is not attacking us from the outside; it is not arising to harm us but to reveal the path of integration. As we deepen in our inquiry, we can slowly begin to say ‘yes’ to even the most disturbing feelings, to accept that they are here and that the most loving, wise, and kind approach is to allow them to be here, to call off the war and acknowledge that this is the way reality is appearing in a given moment. Not a ‘yes’ that we ‘like’ the feelings or hope they will stay, but a ‘yes’ that is grounded in the deep knowing that arguing with reality is the root cause of nearly all of our emotional struggle.
The Heart Knows, the Body Knows
This is when the work becomes profoundly transformative. Beyond mere recognition, toleration, containment, and even ‘acceptance’ is the radical practice of opening our hearts to our pain, to our fear, to our sadness, to our rage, to our hopelessness, to our despair, and to our grief. This is madness to the mind! Why would we do this—what would it even mean to open in this way, to move toward our vulnerability and surround it with presence and warmth, not just ‘tolerating’ it but entering into loving communion with it? Yes, this is bewildering to the mind, but the heart knows…the body knows. In this deeper level of inquiry, we may come to discover that clear, cognitively oriented insight is not enough to penetrate the most subtle levels of our being, but that this journey is ultimately oriented in the activity of the heart. Here, we can explore what it would mean to love ourselves and our experience as it is at the most profound levels, to hold it as we would our little baby who is cold, scared, and feeling lonely in a crazy world.
On this journey from recognition through unconditional love, we must remember that we cannot skip steps—and we do so at our own peril, as well as to the peril of those around us. We must start slowly, with a non-urgent kindness, rather than needing to come in and storm the castle and ‘heal‘ ourselves in a couple of hours. It is this urgent need to ‘heal’ that is often yet another hidden expression of self-aggression and self-violence—of encoded shame, blame, and self-hatred—and the remnants of an early environment lacking in empathic attunement. But we can recognize this now…and choose another way.
This is an excerpt from Matt Licata’s latest book, The Path is Everywhere republished with his permission.