Emotional ‘shutting down’ (or closing off’) is something that happens automatically – it’s a reflex, a mechanical response. The complementary process of ‘opening up’ – on the other hand – happens spontaneously. What this means is that we can’t open up again on purpose, just because we want to, just because we think that it is the right or helpful thing to do. This is like a snail retreating into its shell in the face of danger – the retreating will occur by reflex, but once the snail has retreated there is no way to push it or force it or trick it to come out again! Naturally enough, any sort of forcing will simply have the opposite effect and make the snail even slower to eventually re-emerge. The only thing that works is patience and gentleness. It takes as long as it takes, in other words!
‘Shutting down’ occurs as a result of us trying to become less vulnerable. This is so to speak the ‘default mechanical process’ in life – we are subjected to emotional pain, we get hurt, and so we tend to shut down (or ‘harden up’) so as to avoid the pain of this happening again. The logic is that if we are emotionally shut down – to whatever extent – then we won’t feel the pain so much. Perhaps, we might hope, we won’t even feel it at all! The process of growing up and becoming adults corresponds to a large degree with the process of becoming more defended, more withdrawn from the possibility of being emotionally hurt, more secure in our ‘personality armour’. As adults, we generally manage to develop tough hides for ourselves, and as a result we better able to survive in the aggressive, competitive world that we have created for ourselves. Being aggressive and unfeeling is – needless to say – much more of an advantage for us than being gentle and sensitive and the inevitable logical conclusion of this adaptive process of emotionally shutting down is that we become more and more narcissistic and more and more closed-off to (or disinterested in) anything that doesn’t have an immediate bearing our own well-being. Closing down causes us to be like machines, just getting on with our own business, accepting whatever way of life we are given, not looking at the bigger picture, and this makes living in our mechanical society a lot easier.
If being emotionally closed down helps our chances of succeeding in the outside world it certainly doesn’t do us any favours with regard to how we are on ‘the inside’. It doesn’t do our mental health any good. Success (or sometimes simply survival) is obtained at a high price – eventually – if we go down this road far enough – we lose touch with who we really are underneath it all. We lose touch with our true nature, which is compassionate and sensitive, not aggressive and unfeeling, as our acquired generic personality-armour is. Losing touch with who we really are is a pretty big price to pay by anyone’s standards – if I lose who I actually am underneath it all then who has benefited from this successful adaptation? Who’s the winner if the authentic self is no longer there? What happens in this case is that the ‘personality-armour’ runs around all by itself, without anyone on the inside. I become ‘an outside without an inside’. I become a bundle of reflexes and hard-wired survival strategies with no heart since my heart (my core) is the sensitive and compassionate part of myself, the part that I have had to jettison in order to get on in the world…
This is of course an old story. What we’re talking about is ‘selling our birth right for a mess of pottage’. Or as we read in Matthew 16:26 –
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
Nothing in psychology is new, much as we might think that our situation is different now to that of previous ages. As has often been said, it is only the superficial trappings that have changed – the same challenges, the same human dramas emerge time and time again. The psyche remains the same. And the lessons that life teaches us are the same. The primary challenge in life – we might say – is the challenge to stay true to ourselves in the face of everything that goes on in the world. On the one hand we have the pressure of a competitive, aggressive, image-based society which demands that we be a certain way in order to fit in, and on the other hand we have the personal traumas that we go through, particularly in childhood, that cause us to emotionally withdraw, to emotionally shut down, to survive in any way we can. Either way, our own defences (our own survival strategies) are going to end up causing us a whole new chapter of suffering, which is the suffering of being disconnected from life itself. This is the whole thing about ‘becoming invulnerable’ – what we are in our core is pure vulnerability (i.e. pure sensitivity) and so when we shut the door to ourselves, we shut the door to who we really are. Alternatively, we could say that when we make ourselves insensitive (desensitized) from the pain and the ugliness of life, we make ourselves insensitive to everything else in life too. And the pain of being cut off from life, cut off from our sensitive core, turns out – in the long run – to be the worst pain of all.
As we have already said, ‘closing down’ (and becoming as a result ‘invulnerable’) happens automatically, and once it has happened there is nothing we can do to deliberately reverse it. This means that there is no way to remedy our situation by any deliberate, rational strategy – even though this what we always try to do. We can’t trick or coercive or bribe the snail to come back out of its shell! There is no such thing as strategy or method for ‘increasing our vulnerability’ – all strategies, techniques, methods, etc., exist for the purpose of decreasing our vulnerability not increasing it. If I’m using a strategy it’s because I want to be more in control and if I’m ‘more in control’ then I’m less vulnerable. We can’t pressurize ourselves not to ‘shut down’ because pressurizing (or ‘forcing’) always makes us shut down more. This means that our normal/habitual mode of ‘dealing with stuff’ is of no use to us. It is not just ‘of no use to us’, it is counterproductive. It works against us. It has the opposite effect to the one we wanted. What helps is not trying to control or manoeuvre or pressurize ourselves so that we ‘become the way we want ourselves to be’, but to cultivate sensitivity and gentleness so that that we can relate to ourselves as we actually are.
It could be said that there are two side of our nature – the ‘purposeful’ or ‘rational’ side, the side that is in control (or wants to be in control) and the side that is spontaneous, playful and ‘child-like’. The purposeful side of us is the invulnerable side (or at least it proceeds on the basis of always trying to minimize its vulnerability!) whilst the spontaneous side doesn’t act with the agenda of minimizing its vulnerability – it doesn’t act with any agenda, which is why we can say that it is spontaneous! The purposeful / rational side of us is always trying to seek advantage in everything it does, whilst the spontaneous aspect of ourselves is not seeing the world narrowly on the basis of loss or gain, advantage or disadvantage, good or bad, right or wrong. The spontaneous self is not aggressive, in other words. It’s not a manipulator.
As we have indicated, what very much tends to happen in life as we grow up and move away from the ‘child-like’ side of our nature (this movement being of course perfectly natural) is that the other (invulnerability-seeking) aspect of ourselves ‘takes over completely’ and chokes the spontaneous side. This process happens quite automatically and as we have said we don’t usually notice it happening. This is what Wei Wu Wei is saying here in this quote from Ask the Awakened –
As busy little bees, gathering honey here and there, and adding it to their stock in their hive, we are wasting our time, and worse, for we are building up that very persona whose illusory existence stands between our phenomenal selves and the truth of what we are, and which is what the urge in us is seeking.
The psychological urge to seek security and avoid risk/ uncertainty in life is both extremely powerful and extremely persuasive, whilst the spontaneous self (which is the heart of who we are) is not demanding and aggressively assertive in the way that the purposeful self is. It is therefore very easily forgotten about. We listen to the loud voice not the quiet one. We pay attention to the noisy, clamorous purposeful self and neglect its quieter, gentler companion! We feed it in preference just as a blackbird or starling will feed a baby cuckoo in preference to its own. And of course the thing that happens in the case of the cuckoo is that the real offspring gets thrown out of the nest entirely. It gets evicted, and the imposter is given all the privileges…
This neglect precisely what happens to us in the process of ‘growing up – the true self gets forgotten about, gets turfed unceremoniously out of the nest. It gets ditched. We never even notice that it is gone because we have a substitute to keep us busy. Or rather, we don’t notice for a long time – until the pain of living on the basis of who we’re not’ (rather than ‘who we are’) comes so much to the foreground that we start to realize that something is not right. When this happens we can’t help seeing that something is not right. Lavishing all our attention on the purposeful-rational self is therefore the root of neurotic suffering, and the ‘cure’ is simply to get back in touch with who we are. The snag here however is as we have said that this cannot be done on purpose, using methods and control. This is a real dilemma – we can’t get back in touch with ourselves on purpose’ and yet the other side of ourselves – the spontaneous, creative, intuitive, humorous, compassionate side, is the side that we have lost! That’s the side we threw out!
The question is therefore, how do we get back in touch with the sensitive (non-aggressive) side of our nature? How can we become non-aggressive, without being aggressive about it? How can we learn to relinquish control? The thread that is provided for us to follow is – of course – our own pain! If there is pain then there is sensitivity – how could there be pain there if there was no sensitivity? The sensitivity actually is the pain we are experiencing, when it comes down to it, and so the problem here is that we are forever trying to get away from our own sensitivity (which is our own true nature). Our automatic response is to run away from it, to build barriers. Even if the barriers are continuously crumbling or disintegrating, we are still working away at reinstating them. This is what is happening in anxiety. This is where insight comes in – once we have the deep understanding that what we are fighting against is our sensitivity and that our sensitivity is our own essential nature, then some of the automatic energy goes out of this fight, out of this bitter struggle, and we find that we start to relate to our pain in a less violent or aggressive way. Being sensitive to our own pain (instead or dismissing or disowning it as we would normally do) is how the Thirteenth Century Persian poet Rumi says we cultivate compassion –
Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.
In Tibetan Buddhism relating with tenderness to our own inner pain is also seen as a key practice in ‘recovering oneself’; in the following passage Pema Chodron explains this practice in terms of cultivating bodhichitta –
Bodhichitta is also equated, in part, with compassion—our ability to feel the pain that we share with others. Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It’s a natural opening in the barriers we create when we’re afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta.
An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.
The very thing that we are fighting against is the thing that will help us therefore. The pain which we are automatically (and violently) rejecting is actually inseparable from our own true nature, and so in closing off to it we are closing off to ourselves. That’s the only place the help can come from. Being invulnerable creates second order pain and we react to this pain by closing down (or attempting to close down) still further. If we could do this then we would, and we would not feel the pain, but the very fact that we can’t manage to close the pain down is our life-line since this is our connection with the core of who we are, which had become lost to us. Naturally we don’t want to cultivate this connection – if my essential nature is pain then why would I want to have the connection to it? This is the logic that leads us to run away, to shut down. But the dilemma is always the same – when the pain of being shut down becomes worse, more unbearable, than the pain we were originally shutting down to, what do we do then?
This of course seems like a cruel and very unwelcome dilemma to find ourselves in, but at the same time it is the healing process at work (the healing process being that process by which we recover the Wholeness of ourselves). As Rumi says,
The cure for the pain is in the pain.
Eventually, if we go along gently with the process of healing (instead of fighting it tooth and nail), we find ourselves opening up again instead of closing down, and when we open up in the face of pain we come to discover something we couldn’t ever have imagined. This might be likened to the blooming of a strangely beautiful and entirely unexpected flower, under the most adverse conditions. In Rumi’s words,
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
This is a very curious thing. The strange and beautiful flower we are talking about does not bloom under normal conditions. It blooms under adversity. As long as we are absorbing all our values from the social system that we’re born into there will be no flowering of our true nature. There will be no flowering of wisdom and compassion. That doesn’t come from adapting to society and living as we are expected to live, but only from deep within ourselves. From a mechanical tree comes nothing but mechanical fruit. To expect otherwise would be like expecting an assembly line in a factory to produce something different, to produce something quirky and unique. No matter what it may claim to the contrary, the social system wants us to shut us down – it wants us to be narcissistic and uninterested in the bigger picture. In a word, it wants us to be ‘asleep’. The flower of compassion, wisdom and love blooms under difficult conditions, not under the sleep-inducing conditions that are provided for us by contemporary culture. The generic culture gives rise to the generic self, and the generic self is the denial of who we truly are.
From an alchemical point of view, it could be said that ‘the more severely we are tested, the purer the metal that is formed in the crucible’. The starting-off point of the alchemical work of self-transformation is to be found in those parts of ourselves which we most want to reject, as Paul Levi says –
The elusive prima materia needs to be found before the opus could begin. Psychologically speaking, the mysterious prima materia re-presents, and is to be discovered in, the parts of the psyche that we deny, dis-own and marginalize, the aspects of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, revulsion for and turn away from in disgust. In Jung’s words, this “means that the thing which we think the least of, that part of ourselves which we repress perhaps the most, or which we despise, is just the part which contains the mystery.” We typically want to get rid of the shadow aspects of our personality, but the alchemists understood that our wounded, inferior and unconscious parts aren’t an accident or error, but rather, has a value and cosmic perfection to them that is stunning. Our wounds, the base material of the work, are indispensable for the accomplishment of the opus, for without these shadow parts there would be no way to make the alchemical gold.
It is of course true that very few of us would chose to walk this most difficult of paths ourselves, but if we happen to find ourselves on it (and there is nothing we can do about it), would we not welcome the message of the ancient wisdom teachings that have helped human beings throughout the ages, and which is so very different from the message that contemporary culture gives us?