The Transformative Power of Holding Uncomfortable Emptiness
I’ve had the opportunity these last several months to ‘check-out’ of my NYC life and spend much time alone in the country – in nature. It is a time of great transition for me and a time of great sadness. My habitual pattern of behavior – in the midst of great adversity – is to retreat into self-imposed isolation. It is also a time of tremendous inner-work and the surfacing of incredible, albeit painful insights.
My amazing therapist suffers from chronic Lyme disease and told me that one of the symptoms of this strange disease is depression. As I’ve recently discovered that I too have this disease, it has caused me to look-back over the course of the last year and see if I couldn’t attribute certain changes in my yoga asana practice and my typically buoyant mood with the creeping manifestations of the symptoms of Lyme. Notwithstanding a physiological reason for my physical and emotional exhaustion of these last several months, I can certainly, finally admit that I’ve been depressed. It is the first time in my life where that dreaded word has had such profound, personal meaning for me. I never thought that I’d be susceptible. I thought that I had ‘built’ the appropriate wellness-supporting lifestyle to respond to this unwelcome guest. It seems that I can do a really good job in fooling myself. We all can.
I have not been able to write for what seems to be almost a year. My last piece was for Shamanswell.org and it feels as if that was years ago! My plan for this past summer and fall was to do a copious amount of writing. I have so much foundational material that is lying dormant - just waiting for my re-visitation that I thought it would be a very productive time. As it stands, I took a tailspin into an abyss from which I feel I’m only just now somewhat emerging. So much for ‘Plan A.’
Our society does not support lengthy sabbatical unless you’re an academic of merit. We are typically confined to what amounts to two weeks a year for ‘vacation,’ but that length of time does not support the level of transformation – the level of respite – of which I’m talking about here. I have taken-off long periods of time from work, but usually it is between jobs. That’s the only time I could carve-out a month or longer to really ‘dig deep.’ It may be considered a luxury by most, but for me it has been an absolute necessity. Without these periods, I shudder to think how I would be – what I would be. As Jiddhu Krishnamurti so eloquently said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Therein lies the rub and therein lies my reason to check-out as often as possible and for extended periods of time. The reconciliation of my various ‘worlds’ requires it.
A great friend and teacher, Abdi Assadi often says that “not knowing is knowing” and that almost all of us suffer from an underlying, unexamined, chronic anxiety. I can attest that these statements hold great truth for me as I’ve experienced them first-hand. A lengthy period of holding one’s anxiety – one’s depression – one’s profound sadness – one’s unexpressed rage – one’s unfathomable numbness or nothingness - can be a powerful laboratory and catalyst for transformation. It is yet again the lessons of “The Dark Night of the Soul” of Saint John of the Cross, and the old adage that “it is always darkest before the dawn.”
Our society expects us to continually weather the storm and be hardworking, productive, ‘positive thinking’ citizens – even if it means taking various prescription medications to give us the ability to push forward and push through. I am not criticizing the immense benefits for millions of people that take that path – I am only saying that my path of periodically ‘checking-out’ has worked for me in its own curious way. Holding ‘emptiness’ for any period of time is a scary thing. I completely understand why many choose to avoid it or escape it. It is what comes-up out of the emptiness that we fear. I often have the opportunity to see the defective ‘programming’ (patterns of self-destructive behavior) for what they are in those periods of ‘emptiness.’ It is with the highly-skilled assistance of my loving therapist that I can work with some very difficult issues and complex concepts. I have learned so much. I have so much more to learn. I have developed tremendous gratitude for these periods of uncomfortable emptiness because what transpires is a profound transformation that otherwise would remain hidden.
We cannot be the best versions of ourselves without facing the deepest, darkest recesses of our psyche. Of this I am absolutely certain. I can still surprise myself when a pattern of behavior is triggered in me and the resulting feelings of shame and self-loathing once again rise to the fore. It’s as if I’m watching a bad movie with the typically recognizable, ridiculously predictable plot and I’m powerless to get-up and walk out of the theatre. Self-forgiveness is all we have at our disposal in these times – and perhaps a bit more mindfulness is developed – a bit more skillfulness – to recognize the feelings and patterns as they are emerging, and allow us to insert an interruption. Breaking these cycles and patterns of behaviors takes tremendous courage, skillfulness, and compassion.
I honor you that practice holding these periods of uncomfortable emptiness and depression. And I honor all those that are able to ‘check-out’ of their lives from time-to-time in order to experience a period of retreat – a period of deep and meaningful healing. Our lives are indeed our greatest teachers and we must allow for the lessons to emerge from the fertile fields of our unconscious and into our conscious minds so that we can then meet the next challenge, the next opportunity, as they present themselves – with a bit more grace and skill.