I've been rereading Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times lately, and I've been particularly struck in this reading by her exploration of the ways in which we aggressively attempt to solidify our ego-selves when facing situations that cause us to feel that there is no solid ground under our feet.
She claims that one of the key ways we attempt to create a sense of solidness in the face of the uncertainty of life is through aggressively stating and justifying our opinions. We make our opinions into absolute truth to be defended at all costs, and that gives our ego the sense of being solid.
As I think back to my own experience of having my whole life fall apart several years ago, I remember that one of the most threatening things about the experience was the feeling that I no longer had a solid identity. I refer to this now as the primordial goo stage of my transformation process, but at the time I didn't understand what was happening, and it was terrifying.
I can clearly remember how much effort I put into forming opinions and judgments about how the people around me were living their lives because the strength of those opinions helped me feel more solid as a person when everything I knew about myself seemed to be melting into nothingness.
In retrospect, however, I can see how this approach did much more harm than good for my own transformation process. In fact, it most likely contributed to the intensity of the brokenness I experienced during that time.
Solidifying the ego
Although the circumstances that caused the intense melt-down in my life took place within a fairly short time span several years ago, there had been a gradual process of increasing instability in my life over about five years prior to that.
A number of things (some stemming from my own choices and some over which I had no control) had slowly stripped away layer after layer of the person I had previously known myself to be. The ground under my feet felt less and less stable by the day.
I responded exactly as Pema Chödrön describes. My opinions (which were usually judgments) became stronger and more aggressive to attempt to create a solidity that was slipping away otherwise.
I think back to the way I often expressed myself (verbally and non-verbally) to those around me, and I cringe. My need for solidity made me an aggressively unkind and unpleasant person. I can see now how this approach pushed people away and set the stage for the intense melt-down to come.
I was so invested in my need to feel solid ground under my feet (at any cost) that I became increasingly rigid. That rigidity left me no flexibility to deal with the upheavals that came next, so I was more likely to shatter than to be able to roll with the punches.
It's much like the polymer clay kintsugi pieces I make. Even after curing, the polymer clay is just flexible enough to withstand my attempts to break it. It is necessary to freeze it to reduce its flexibility and make it rigid enough to break under stress.
My aggressive holding on to my opinions was no different; it set me up to shatter completely when things fell apart.
My initial response to the circumstances that led to the shattering was to intensify my attempts to grasp at solidity. My aggressiveness in holding to my opinions (particularly about others) went even more into overdrive.
I could obsess for hours over what I thought others were doing wrong in their lives, what they should be doing differently, and why my opinion was more right than theirs was. I clung to these opinions as if they were my lifeline, and I had no hesitation expressing them (sometimes verbally, sometimes non-verbally) to anyone who would listen.
Naturally, this did not exactly help me find support from others during this time because I was spending too much time judging them to allow them to get close to me, and this only added to the challenge.
I eventually wore myself out. I slowly stopped fighting the reality of the unstable ground beneath my feet and embraced the uncertainty as a chance to begin again. As I did so, the need to hold so tightly to my opinions gradually faded.
Holding my opinions loosely
Once my grasp on those opinions loosened enough for me to begin investigating them more clearly, I quickly noticed that every aggressive opinion and judgment I had about someone else was really about me and my shadow and the parts of myself that I didn't want to deal with.
The more I've faced that truth, the more I've learned to use my opinions to deal with my own stuff.
I have many fairly innocuous opinions that I hold loosely (e.g., a favorite color, favorite foods, musical preferences). Those opinions have a completely different feel to them than the ones that arise with an aggressive edge of judgment to which I now respond with gentle inquiry to discern what it is in myself that I am avoiding by holding so strongly to this opinion of another.
Approaching my opinions in this way is allowing me to hold them much more loosely, leaving room for grace and for the possibility that I am wrong or that I don't have all of the facts.
In the process, I'm learning to stand with more grace on the groundlessness that is life's reality. I am increasingly accepting that I am not solid; there are many ever-shifting parts of me that are constantly in flux of becoming and fading away.
Pema Chödrön says (in chapter 17 of the book mentioned above):
When we hold on to opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet, and violence and pain increase. Cultivating nonaggression is cultivating peace.
I am finding that this shift toward holding my opinions loosely—viewing them as temporary, incompletely formed preferences rather than absolute truth—has dramatically reduced the amount of aggression that I express ... and has increased the overall level of peace in my life exponentially.
And it all stems from remaining flexible enough to embrace the uncertainty and groundlessness instead of fighting it.
Questions to consider
How aggressively do you hold onto your opinions? How aggressively do you express them?
Have you noticed any correlation between how solid your sense of self is at any point in time and the strength to which you hold on to your opinions?
How does the strength to which you cling your opinions affect your relationships with others? How does it affect your sense of self?
Are there any changes you might make in how you hold on to your opinions that might bring more peace?