“One way in which you can observe the effect of clinging to things as real is through physical, emotional, and conceptual contraction. Contraction is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. For example, the heart has to contract to pump blood, and we need materials that compress and harden, such as cement, to build sturdy foundations. When we breathe, if our diaphragms didn’t contract on the out-breath, how could they expand when we need to inhale? We could define contraction as the narrowing of boundaries, the compressing of energetic or material substances, or the congealing or thickening of conscious elements into ideas or beliefs. We contract when we withdraw or pull back from relationship.
All conscious creatures contract when afraid or threatened. A tortoise instinctually retreats into its shell for a reason. Contraction has a shielding and protective purpose in nature, but as a way of being in life, contraction can prevent us from feeling connected to the world around us. In this way we could say that contraction moves us in the opposite direction from the liberating insight of pratityasamutpada (interdependent arising).
Most of us live in a state of contraction much of the time. Of course, because everything leans, no one can actually withdraw from the activity of interdependence, but we can – and so often do – brace ourselves against life. The dynamic energy of our world keeps moving, providing us with feedback, rattling our screws loose, and we respond by continually tightening them. Exhausting, isn’t it?
We call this experience of physical and energetic tension and anxiety stress. We contract when the overwhelming quantity of stress stuns us into inactivity or reactivity and prevents us from seeing outside the constricted boundaries of our thoughts and emotions. At times everything around us feels jagged and unfriendly, and the tiniest, most insignificant events seem huge and impossible, making us feel too small for our life. The contraction that results can restrict our perspective to such a degree that we literally withdraw from participating and feeling our world.
You may notice that you have subtle ways of receding from life. Perhaps it shows up as feeling indifferent to everything that goes on around you so that at the end of the day nothing seems to have changed, as if your life hasn’t touched you. You might get pulled by an urgent need for distraction, lose yourself in substance addiction, or binge-watch television [or social media]. At times you might collapse into a frozen immobilized state of fear, take on the impossible responsibility of keeping everyone else’s emotional life together, or develop narcissistic patterns that hold you hostage in your own daily drama. Submerged in your own myopic realities you can go a lifetime assuming they are true.
Trauma is a strong word that we usually associate with extreme suffering. But trauma can also be insidious and hard to recognize. In fact, it is doubtful whether anyone gets through life without some trauma. We experience trauma when we can’t remove ourselves from a dangerous or unhealthy situation or relationship, when we are overwhelmed by an unexpected catastrophic event, or when in our vulnerability or innocence we don’t have the clarity and emotional strength to make sense of what surrounds us.
When unable to ingest and process experience, we develop beliefs about ourselves and the world that we carry into life. We generally think of beliefs as ideas, but in fact we hold beliefs in our emotional, energetic, and physical bodies as well. Our postures and the way we live mirror unconscious patterns of bewilderment that evolve around unexamined truths. We perceive the world, in turn, to reflect those patterns, affirming them and causing us to cling to the stories that arise about them.
For instance, due to a childhood trauma a person might walk through life desperately wondering, “What about me?” He may continually perceive himself to be left behind or ignored. Another person might struggle with low self-esteem and feel diminished or ineffective and wonder whey the world seems so harsh, why her relationships plague her, or why she struggles at work. While entrenched in our own confusion, we may not even question the basis of these realities, or if we do, we may often find it hard to see our way out of them. After a while they start to feel like the norm.
I bring this all up because in the practice of the tradition of dependent arising, as you shall see, we will question the rightness or truth of our beliefs. You might think that in the case of trauma to question your beliefs would be to dismiss or deny the trauma you have endured. But ask yourself this: Does questioning beliefs have to reduce your ability to respond to suffering? Does it necessarily prevent you from removing yourself from dangerous or unwholesome situations or imply that you should turn your back on illness, violence, or abuse? Human beings survive unconscionable suffering. Everyone has a story. I always feel astounded by what people go through and how resilient they can be.
But at times you may wonder if just surviving is enough and, if it’s not, what you might do about it. If you want to emerge from confusion, you will have to explore the deep-rooted assumptions you have about your mind. You will need to identify your beliefs, question them and see how they drive you. And as right as you may assume you are about yourself, your relationships, and the events of your life – even if an army of people agrees you have been wronged – you will still have to examine the truth or realness of your stories and see how they do or don’t serve you.
In a sense, exploring your beliefs can be compared to venturing outside the security of your home to see how the world works. You may have to distance yourself from the familiar in order to open yourself to a larger discovery. When you begin to flirt with the idea that perhaps there is life outside your story, you may have the liberating insight that however stuck you may feel and as dark as things may seem, stuckness is not even a possibility in a world whose only reliable characteristics are movement and change. In fact, when you pause and look more closely at things, you may discover that all these beliefs that seem to haunt you and cause you so much grief actually share one spectacular and redeeming quality: they are not true. In other words, you are not doomed.”
~ Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
‘The Logic of Faith”
“Don’t let the appearance of things outshine their nature.”
~ Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche