Updated: Apr 22
"The big squeeze is one of the most productive places on the spiritual path and in particular in this journey of awakening the heart. It's worth talking about because when we find ourselves in that place again and again, usually we want to run away; sometimes we want to give up the whole thing. It's like 'burn out'; it feels extremely uncomfortable and you can't wiggle out of it. It's like a dog that gets its teeth in your arm and you just can't shake it off. Times of the big squeeze feel like crisis periods. We have the aspiration to wake up and to help at the same time it doesn't seem to work out on our terms. It feels impossible for us to buy our situation and also impossible to throw it out. Being caught in the big squeeze humbles you, and at the same time, it has great vision. This is the interesting part — it softens you and yet it has a big perspective." Pema Chödrön
A few days ago I acted like a complete belligerent freak to my therapist. In the past month, (or few years?) I have been in what Pema calls the big squeeze, that tight, stripped down, raw place that somehow births some of the best insights of all. The place where known and intellectualized wisdom becomes embodied. I wrote this to a student this week, "LIFE HAS BEEN SO INTENSE. And yet the fruits from this ragged old wind blown tree have been juicy. However, the only thing I was feeling grateful for when I walked into my therapist's office, which is really just a cozy room in her house with tissues and a snuggly blanket, was the fact that I managed not to have a panic attack this week. I was boasting about it. My therapist, god bless her, said, "I am experiencing you as very young right now." Obvs, I was totally offended. Doesn't she know how much I have to do everyday just to make it through, parent the best I can, and pay the bills? Instantaneously, the pent up bitterness of my 43 years exited my body. I was tight, angry, and my words were cutting. I think I said fuck at least 20 times. It was the perhaps the most fucks per session we'd ever experienced together, and she loved every minute of it. I gave her a piece of my mind, and let her know that I had no interest in being in my inner wisdom. I literally said those words: No interest in being in my inner wisdom. After I was done, and I realized she had pulled the bitterness out of me on purpose in order to show me that I could experience anger and be a god damn mean person without being afraid that she was going to freeze me out, punish me, try to fix me, or silence me, I felt like a little puppy, ashamed of my behaviour and ready to be back in my heart space, back in my goddamn inner wisdom.
When I was a kid I was sent to my room for crying. I once skinned my knee when I fell off of my bike going down a steep hill, and my mother's response to my tears was to tell me that I had a low pain tolerance. There was absolutely no room in our little house, for anyone's emotions except for my mother's. In order to offer me an alternative experience, my therapist cultivated a space where I could feel the grace of being loved, even in my anger. In clinical psychology land we call this a corrective emotional experience. When it was over, and my cracked open heart was ready, the little seeds of the teachings landed and took root: I am loveable and worth it, no matter what flavor my emotions arrive in. I had an opportunity to really feel that, to feel free to be exactly as I am with all the constructs of personality stripped away. There were no shoulds or shouldnts, rights or wrongs. There was instead, an old, old anger met with love, and when suffering is met with love, that's the essence of compassion.
In the past, I have put forth the idea that our practice might be in line with asking the question, "How can I keep my heart open in the face of suffering?" Another way to say this might be something like, "How can I stay soft and in the expansive space of freedom and love, even when I am suffering, there is a war, trans kids are being stripped of their rights, 10 and 11 year olds are depressed, and the planet is dying?" And, at this point I would like to continue our conversation with a new insight. We can’t. I'd like to course correct by simply saying, FUCK THAT. There is no possible way to stay open and free and in love all the fucking time.
So, what to do? Ram Dass gave us a beautiful phrase that has always resonated with me: loving awareness. Contained within the word love we have the expressions of the care that is relational, the love between you and I and the space that exists between us. We also know or perhaps experience devotional feelings toward god, the universe, or even the light that resides in others. We might feel love most when we are in nature, and the wonder and awe we experience there cracks us open from the sheer beauty of it all. And then also, there is the awareness part of loving awareness. Contained in the word awareness, we have the invitation to wisdom. This comes from the Buddhist lineage. Wise love, I have discovered, means coming to an understanding that our hearts open, our hearts close, and that the heart like everything else, has it’s seasons. It's not permanent, it's not personal, and it's not perfect. Our cycles mirror the moon, the trees, the ocean, the rain--all of it. The expectation that the heart wouldn’t have cycles, I have come to realize, is childish. In fact, it’s exhausting to try and stay any one way whether it's angry, bitter, or always in love, and it's one of the ways in which the wellness world drives me bananas. There's no room for the sweetness of the repair when our culture instructs us that we aren't allowed the messiness of the rupture. The imperative that our hearts remain open also implies an insidious judgment. When Arjuna and Krishna have their talk in the center of the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita, and Arjuna says, "No, I will not fight, my mouth is dry, my whole body is tingling," Krishna does not judge him for being in crisis. Crisis comes from the Greek word Krisis and simply means decision point. Krishna, seeing this, takes his time and has a conversation with Arjuna. He teaches him. He trusts that the teachings will land when the heart is ready. He has faith.
Which begs a few questions, "So what now? Why would we practice when all of this BS is going on in the world, my heart is breaking, and I feel terrible? Why would we sit every day, practice mindfulness, get on our mats, go to therapy, read the books, and listen to the podcasts?" Because. We want to place the seeds of the teachings on our hearts so that when our hearts crack open, they will slip inside and have a place to root and to grow.
“There's a story of a rabbi who used to teach, he said, in the Jewish mystical tradition, that his disciples to memorize, reflect, and contemplate and place the teachings of the holy words on their heart. One day, a student asked why the rabbi always used the phrase "on your heart," and the master replied, "Only the divine can put the teachings into your heart. Here we recite, and learn, and put them on the heart, hoping that some time when your heart breaks they will fall in." So it's a practice. It's something that we can train and do.” Jack Kornfield
The unexpected invitation to open is always there. Enlightenment has the flavor of freedom, always. But the truth is that we will not always be awake. And, we must trust in this grace. We place the words and teachings of love on our hearts over and over again so that when our hearts break open, they will slip in and reorient us toward what matters. And, we must also notice when we start to make meaning of those moments when we are closed off, squeezed, and tight. Are we meeting our closed hearts with judgment? Or are we taking it as a signal that perhaps we, ourselves, are in need of loving kindness and care that is without preference? Can we get curious about how sometimes our closed and rigid old hearts keep us safe?
”My prayer to God every day: Remove the veils so I might see what is really happening here and not be intoxicated by my stories and my fears.” Elizabeth Lessor