On Being Stuck

“Awareness, which is the means by which we can gain insight and peace, is a double-edged sword. It opens the path forward and at the same time illuminates the pain we experience.”

Through meditative practice and psychological exploration we begin to increasingly reveal ourselves. Our courage involves a willingness to look beneath our mask and examine the stuff that we hide away. The fear that arises as we do so is both a warning of possible danger, and an encouraging signal that we are moving into essential territory.

When we do this we often feel a great sense of relief as we discover that we do not have to hold on to old thoughts and feelings. But the sense of growth is not always evident and there are times that what we uncover initially makes us feel worse. We are suddenly reminded of our deep insecurities and harsh self-judgments, and of the intensity of pain that we have been trying to avoid. No solution or path of escape seems possible, and we feel caught in a negative impasse, trapped by fear and hopelessness.

Developing awareness means awakening our senses and expanding our vision. Our breath helps us to do this by drawing our attention into sensation and by quieting down our nervousness. It lets us gently explore what is happening now, and lets us risk moving beyond our normal defensive habits. Awareness creates an opportunity for doing things differently, but at the same time it raises alarm. We have a chance to experience greater connection and a sense of wholeness, but if that doesn’t happen, we risk being swallowed up even deeper by our pain.

At such moments it is as if we have two doors before us, one leading to an uncertain path that might in turn open to liberation or to a horrible cruel fate, and the other back into an all too familiar prison. It is scary to make this choice, for if we choose to leave the rigid restrictions of the prison we must open the door to uncertainty.

The growing edge is that place where we reach out into unknown territory, and we need to explore it not with a cudgel, but with great tenderness. Exploring the edge requires a willingness to touch the pain that has always been there. Our pain may include great trauma, but it also includes the general discomfort of just being here and now, of feeling the rawness of our interaction with the world.

Exploring this edge suddenly thrusts us into the stream of things, into the turbulence of life around and within us. We feel that there is no longer a solid surface upon which we can rest, and we try desperately to hold onto something for support. We realize we have to let go, yet we don’t know yet how to do that, and so we are stuck, desperate, unable to move.

Most of us have experienced such painful stuck places, times when we felt paralyzed and trapped. But somehow we struggled our way on, and in time we realized that though we were still stuck and not moving forward very quickly, we were no longer paralyzed by fear. We had acclimatized to the change and had started to cope with things differently. Realizing this, we again sense a new opening, a potentially better path.

The hunger for change is tremendously useful. This hunger prompts us to search for something more from life, and it energizes our efforts. At the same time the discrepancy between our desire for change and the reality of our difficult lives accentuates our feelings of disappointment and failure. Awareness, which is the means by which we can gain insight and peace, is a double-edged sword. It opens the path forward and at the same time illuminates the pain we experience.

Being stuck is a very unpleasant place, and often feels as if we are held back by forces beyond our control. Nothing seems to move, nothing seems to work, and no end is in sight. We may cry or scream, flail our arms and legs, or crawl up into a ball, but there is no escape. As painful as this stuck space is, it is part of the process of growth.

The more we get stuck and eventually get free again, we start to see the impasse in a different light. We begin to see that the stuck space is temporary, like a leaf trapped in an eddy. Stuck in the tumultuous current, we grow exhausted and hopeless from the struggle. But from a wider perspective one can see small shifts in the play of the current, and know that one way or another the logjam will break in time.

Part of the role of a teacher is to be a river guide, to point out some rocks and shoals and to give friendly advice and encouragement. Most of the advice is to tune in and relax, to pay attention to the changing river, to be willing to experiment and explore the current.

Even without the guidance of a teacher you are going to free yourself to some extent. If you do not give up, if you persevere and keep taking small risks, you will find a place where the current eases a little and soon a small slipstream propels you forward again. Each time that you feel such breakthroughs you gain additional confidence, and the subsequent stuck places become less frightening. They become simply part of the journey.

Dr. Martin Rappeport
Copyright © 2009