Crisis has a knack for dynamiting the status quo.

And when two come along, double-barreled, with the pandemic and the massive protests and outcry against racial inequality, our knotted up places easily can be laid bare. But, any type of massive change, including leaving one’s country of birth to begin a new life in a very different culture, can be a crisis of identity and have the same effect. My first couple of years in Italy certainly revealed a congested tangle of conditioned behaviors that just weren’t serving me anymore. As vigilant and anal-retentive as I was, too much of what happened in the transition refused to happen according to my will and preconceived ideas.

So, what did I do? I went into fix-it mode. I tried to untangle the big knotted up place within me through the sheer force of my will. Guess what? That only made matters worse. Eventually, I wore myself out trying to do the impossible. I only succeeded in making the knot tighter and bigger. It was only when I quit trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and when I began to see more clearly my internal conditioned entanglements, that life seemed to start correcting things for me. I remember thinking at the time, That’s interesting.

And, then I drifted off to sleep again. The allure of the familiar, albeit imperfect, was just too strong. Who wants to enter a wilderness of unknowing?

What makes up the knotted up places that keep us from liberation?

A lifetime of conditioning. Too often we live shoving our pain, unresolved, into the basement of our psyches rather than steering into it and letting it run its course. So much of the pain has been steadfastly avoided that we douse ourselves in forgetfulness. Or, we obsess about it, adding more knots to the congested mass.

Consider this quote by Alan Watts from his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity:

“The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain. But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by this inner effort to get away from it, to separate the “I” from the feeling. The effort creates a state of tension in which the pain thrives.”

The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts, written almost seventy years ago, to me seems tailored-made for these tumultuous times.

All too familiar strategies.

Does any of the following sound familiar? A crisis hits, knocking a person off-kilter and totally and inconveniently toppling plans and daily routines. After a bit of an internal temper tantrum, a person makes a mental show of telling themself that they can let go of their attachments and stay open to life taking a different course. That lasts a few days, maybe a week or two. Then, when the status quo, when life as one knows it, isn’t righting itself into being again in short order, another petulant spell of life being beyond one’s control rears its head. Then, more mental trickery, of bargaining with God (or the big “Whatever”) that they’ll duly hunker down again and behave.

I’ve done the above many, many times time in my life. And with George Floyd’s tragic death coming in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve seen these tendencies to reignite themselves. And, the giant knotted up place inside of me is more visible than ever. Like most people, I’ve lived too much of my life with the pain of its congestion lodged in my solar plexus. I hate that feeling. I want to do anything I can to get away from it.

But, I’m learning that struggling with and picking at the knot is the absolute opposite of what will free me.

A war with oneself to untangle our knotted up places isn't the answer.

The futility of a knot trying to untie itself.

As I’ve watched myself in action more and more, I’ve become keenly aware of this. Think about it, dysfunctional thinking trying to take the helm and steer towards a resolution with itself. But, I offer that this is the crux of the endless wrestling match with have with ourselves.

Eckert Tolle couldn’t have said it better in his spiritual classic, The Power of Now:

“Imagine a chief of police trying to find an arsonist when the arsonist is the chief of police. You will not be free of that pain until you cease to derive your sense of self from identification with the mind, which is to say from ego.”

Yet we tend to “keep at it.” We keep picking at our locked-up places like a strict internalized parent determined to whip us into shape. Sometimes I’m aghast at the cast of internalized characters who step onto the stage of my internal drama.

It just doesn’t work, not in the long term.

I’ve found Eckart Tolle’s The Power of Now a worthy companion as I navigate the locked-up places in my psyche.

Simple but potent awareness.

Face it, most of us have been conditioned to swing into action, to do something to correct ourselves, and to chase away the pain that dogs us. The idea of shining the light of awareness on the dark, scary, places—our knotted up places—seems ridiculous. What is that going to do except make us recoil even further from our lesser selves and feel the agony of our darker emotions?

Plato said, “Know thyself.” It “was the first of three maxims inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Wikipedia).” Most of us don’t really know ourselves. We don’t watch ourselves. When we remain unconscious to the well-worn grooves of our neural pathways, we sleepwalk through our lives.

Might we start rewiring our brains and edging towards wholeness by becoming familiar with our knotted up places? Might our internal entanglements start loosening organically as we compassionately see the fullness of ourselves, both dark and light, more clearly?

A process of subtraction, not addition?

One of my favorite books of all time is Awareness, written by Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest. If there is any one book that started (and cheered) me along in the journey towards opening my eyes, it’s been this one. I love that much of his message is not about doing, but about undoing. And, de Mello posits that that happens by steadfast awareness of one’s mind and behaviors, without judgment.

“As one man said, “I got a pretty good education. It took me years to get over it.” That’s what spirituality is all about, you know: unlearning. Unlearning all the rubbish they taught you.”

How can anything fall away from us until we see and feel the dysfunction and falseness of it? I believe this is part of what Buddha meant when he said, “Be a light unto yourself.”

Are you ready to leave the status quo and the safety of the known?

Are you ready to look at your knotted up places, your pain, clearly in the eye without running? I can ask these questions because they are ones I keep asking myself. I challenge myself on this front, knowing my lifelong tendency to go with what is familiar and with what I think I can control. A further question I ask myself is, “Are you willing to place your trust in the unknown?” I usually pair that with yet another question, “Are you willing to set aside your insistent ideas of an ideal life and see where the great river might take you?”

In The Untethered Soul, The Journey Beyond Yourself, Michael A. Singer says:

“Becoming familiar with this pain is part of your growth. Even though you may not actually like the feelings of inner disturbance, you must be able to sit quietly inside and face them if you want to see where they come from.”

No one likes to experience pain. It’s no wonder that we resist and run. At best, we look for workarounds, thinking that we just don’t have the strength to walk through the fire that may hurt like hell at first, but eventually liberates us from our knotted up places.

Compassion, always compassion.

I’d like to close these reflections with what I believe is the other powerful arrow in our quiver, an equal partner to awareness, and that’s compassion for oneself. We can be incredibly brutal taskmasters with ourselves as long for we believe we should be a better version of ourselves. We can be kind to other people while being anything but loving with ourselves. With rare exceptions, we’re all making our way through and out of a maze of conditioning. We’re waking up. And wrapping one’s arms around oneself, comforting oneself as we began to see ourselves exactly as we are, right now, is essential for healing. Anger at oneself and guilt, especially guilt at being less than perfect, aren’t the answer.

“Guilt is really self-condemnation and self-invalidation of our worth and value as a human being.” —David R. Hawkins

During these trying times, I believe that compassion, not only for each other but especially for ourselves, is essential medicine as we reach for wholeness.