I had always thought of myself as a flexible, obliging person who was well liked by almost everyone. I’d been able to carry this illusion throughout most of my life. During my early years at the abbey, I discovered that I had been living in some kind of misunderstanding. It wasn’t that I didn’t have good qualities, it was just that I was not the ultimate golden girl. I had so much invested in that image of myself, and it just wasn’t holding together anymore. All my unfinished business was exposed vividly and accurately in living Technicolor, not only to myself, but to everyone else as well.
Everything that I had not been able to see about myself before was suddenly dramatized. As if that weren’t enough, others were free with their feedback about me and what I was doing. It was so painful that I wondered if I would ever be happy again. I felt that bombs were being dropped on me almost continuously, with self-deceptions exploding all around. In a place where there was so much practice and study going on, I could not get lost in trying to justify myself and blame others. That kind of exit was not available.
A teacher visited during this time, and I remember her saying to me, “When you have made good friends with yourself, your situation will be more friendly too.”
I had learned this lesson before, and I knew that it was the only way to go. I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” Somehow, even before I heard the Buddhist teachings, I knew that this was the spirit of true awakening. It was all about letting go of everything.
Nevertheless, when the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp, it hurts a lot. It’s like the Naropa Institute motto: “Love of the truth puts you on the spot.” We might have some romantic view of what that means, but when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer. We look in the bathroom mirror, and there we are with our pimples, our aging face, our lack of kindness, our aggression and timidity—all that stuff.
This is where tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about groundlessness. – From the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron