Hanging Out With The Mess

“If we begin to surrender to ourselves — begin to drop the storyline and experience what all this messy stuff behind the storyline feels like — we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.” ~ Pema Chodron

The quotation above was one of the first I encountered when I first began studying dharma several years ago. I had heard a few teachers mention, “drop the storyline,” as advice for sitting with difficult emotions, and the well-crafted, pithy phrase stuck with me enough that I sought out the origins and discovered Pema Chodron, one of the most revered teachers and authors in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. It’s good advice: the further away I’m able to move from the narratives I create and the closer I’m able to get to the pure, felt emotion of the moment, the better able I am to catch my mind from becoming ensnared in negative thoughts that threaten to spin out of control.

I’ve used this technique to realize that flashes of anger are actually hurt feelings, to realize that anxiety I assigned to specific circumstances was actually much more deeply rooted in my general experience. I’ve watched the quality of the feeling shift subtly from moment to moment until the hard knot that had formed in my chest loosened just enough to give me a felt sensation of the solidity of my narratives crumbling. And along with these realizations, a side benefit that often emerges organically is that I’m better able to handle these emotions, better able to accept them, ease out of the scope of their paralysis, and move along with my day. I’ve come to think of dropping the storyline as one of my most effective coping mechanisms.

However, in the throes of some particularly intense worry, I recently found myself impatient with my favorite little mantra, stay with with the icy, gnawing pin-pricks of mounting anxiety without catastrophizing projections to keep me company. Pulling down a volume of collected dharma excerpts from my bookshelf, I ran across the quotation above, reminding me of the fuller context of the phrase I’ve come to use as shorthand for “getting on with it,” and it occurred to me that in my appropriation of “drop the storyline” for quick fixes of discomfort, I’ve been skimming over, just barely touching in with the the richest part of this practice, the chance to access and actually spend time inhabiting “the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness.”

It’s true that there’s unquestionable merit in merely stopping to breathe through discomfort long enough to watch it dissolve. But if I’m able to hang out in the space created in that experience of dismantling my narratives, there’s also a wealth of bittersweet vulnerability that can give little flickers of felt connection to the currents of discomfort/distress/pain/ suffering which is intrinsic to this human condition. It becomes possible have compassion for my own confusion and recognize the confusion fueling the actions of others as the same burden.

The expansiveness of this space has no perceptible boundaries or familiar ground, which is both terrifying and freeing. It’s hard to stay with such a sensation, much less welcome it. But then, if I hang out a bit longer, I can see that even the perceived terror and freedom are potent, extracts of storyline, that they too can be dropped, And what is left is just open space where I don’t need to label my experience. This space doesn’t bar my thoughts or narratives–it has enough room to accommodate them all. It’s just that here, I can watch them float by with gentle curiosity before they are absorbed back into the nothingness from which they came…at least until the phone rings or I look at the time or I start to daydream yet another imagined storyline.

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