“All of the teachings…are encouraging us, if we find ourselves struggling, to let that be a moment when we pause and wonder and… begin to breathe in and connect with the heart, the soft spot that’s under all that protecting.” Pema Chodron
She was furious with me; I can’t remember why. She had called in the late evening to leave an angry message on my voicemail, wanting to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was a most ignorant and hopeless and terrible and useless therapist. It was so unusual that I would personally pick up the phone. “Hello; This is Sharon;” I greeted her happily. Flustered at the unexpected personal encounter, she stumbled a bit but managed to deliver the gist of her complaint. She was quitting therapy with me; she would definitely not be coming back. I saw that I had, indeed, made a mistake. I’ve forgotten the details of what exactly it was, or I would tell you. What I do remember is pausing, then, for a moment and breathing into the pain of our relational rupture and into the feeling quality of her verbal punch. Ouch.
Relationships are hard. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel reminds me that these kinds of ruptures simply happen. It is completely inevitable, he writes, that in all of my human relationships, there will be breakdowns: misunderstandings and failures in how we tune in, listen, understand and respond to one another. Like each of us, the potential for relational ruptures is deeply embedded in the infinite causes and unique conditions of my DNA and brain chemistry. These mix in with my relational and cultural history, resulting in the unique perceptions, narratives, behaviors, and miscellaneous quirks that I have accumulated in my daily wanderings on this planet. What is crucial for the good functioning of relationship, Dan writes, is that we each, first, are able to slow down our reactivity when we recognize a rupture. Next comes kind and curious investigation of into its source(s) as we, together, aim for reconnection and repair.
This sounds like the Buddha’s teaching. He, too, invites me to a trial-and-error practice of inquiry into pain and suffering – internally and externally – with wise attention, kindness, humility, patience and courage. What’s happening? What is its cause? What is the tender and vulnerable spot beneath all of this? Only from the internal coherence and relational safety of that present moment’s inquiry, the Buddha teaches, can there emerge any real clarity for me, and for us together, about what’s needed and what might lead to personal and relational healing.
Nevertheless, in these moments, I see that a part of me often doesn’t really want to know my experience – or anyone else’s. I see how often there is an intense urgency to release that pain by leaping into a habitual pattern of trying too quickly to fix it all. Failing that, there is a pull to move against myself or others in speech or action fueled by rumination or blame. Then, too, perhaps I might just withdraw into shame and the imagined safety of making myself small and damaged and remote and invisible.
For me, this same inquiry extends into my relationships in our local community where the news this week tells of bullets fired in sleepy neighborhoods and ever deepening turmoil in the police department. There are city council rages with internal and public complaints and accusations hurled back and forth and back and forth. The community bonds of physical and emotional safety are broken and mistrust abounds. I meet with other faith leaders. I see how very much I want to know or be known. I want to avoid or escape or react against or control or indulge or judge myself or others. Ouch. What now?
Here, too, there is an invitation presence, not as an end point, but as a beginning. Might I be – first of all and simply – present? Poet Mark Nepo calls it becoming a “soft and sturdy home” for the real things of my life:
Yes, We Can Talk
Having loved enough and lost enough,
I am no longer searching,
No longer trying to make sense of pain,
but trying to be a soft and sturdy home
in which real things can land.
These are the irritations
that rub into a pearl.
So we can talk awhile
but then we must listen,
the way rocks listen to the sea.
And we can churn at all that goes wrong
but then we must lay all distractions down
and water every living seed.
And yes, on nights like tonight
I too feel alone. but seldom do I
face it squarely enough
to see that it is a door
into the endless breath
that has no breather
into the surf that human shells
On the phone with my client that night, I was able to pause. With that space, I then could breathe. There was an opening into grace. When I spoke, I allowed that, of course, she always was totally free to leave. However, I added, “I think it might not be the very best idea that you’ve ever had.” There was another long pause. She laughed. We talked a bit more, opening further to one another in warming to the possibility of healing and to forging a new depth in our relationship. We agreed to meet again in person and see if we might sort things out. We did; we talked; we listened. Together, we explored our rupture. Our relationship began to soften and to open in new discoveries and new possibility. We each grew; together, we worked it out.