spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Broken Open


Wounded Angel I / Emily Young 2003
It had been my habit to apply black or brown eyeliner. But since February 2011, eyeliner is no longer part of the face I prepare to meet the faces that I meet, to paraphrase J. Alfred Prufrock.

It’s not newly acquired beauty expertise that has me leaving off the eyeliner. It has more to do with crying, which causes made up eyes to sting and leaves cheeks streaked and smudged.

In the last year there have been special reasons for tears – a son whose wife is suddenly deceased leaving him with a four-year-old daughter, another son leaving his wife to make a connection on the east coast, and my own exit from a long-term relationship. Now add Jennifer, a therapist who encourages not masking past pain; keeping my eyes dry appears impossible.

I wonder if the Buddha wept as he realized that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Stretching to accept such truth, I try to be at peace with present and past pain, through which I can yet become what Rumi calls “a mighty kindness.”

Often I turn to Rumi for truth shaped like a poem. In “Not Here,” in praise of the “broken-open place,” Rumi talks of human woundedness.

There's courage involved if you want to become truth.
There is a broken-open place in a lover.
Where are those qualities of bravery and sharp compassion? 

What's the use of old and frozen thought? 

I want a howling hurt.
This is not a treasury where gold is stored; this is for copper.
We alchemists look for talent that can heat up and change.    

Lukewarm won't do.
Halfhearted holding back, well-enough getting by? 

Not here.

Reading Rumi on couragously wanting “a howling hurt,” I heard again my therapist, Jennifer, praise me for being willing to befriend my pain. As a practiced deflector of praise, I was quick to dismiss my sorry tears and suggest that some might say “attending and befriending” myself was narcissistic.

But even before being beset by family tragedies, I had chosen to be in therapy. My plan was a quick fix, an emotional realignment so I could enjoy my girlfriend on a cruise to Mexico. The therapist, however, didn't think I needed fixing, despite how explicit I was about what wasn’t working. So began the crying.

Month followed month, tearful session after tearful session. I re-experienced and identified with feelings about myself that went back to a childhood of disconnection. All so familiar. Meanwhile, the cruise sailed without me.

I cried my way back through a childhood in boarding schools, to painful and scarring accidents, to raging jealousies and competition within the family, and to bouts of mania and depression.

I have read and heard of so many in therapy further demoralized at re-experiencing the sadness they thought they had put behind them. And it’s no great help when waves of shame come as one considers one’s own suffering as inconsequential in the face of other’s childhood tragedies. And yet all the wisdom tells us that the best way out is always through. So on we go, facing pain.

Sometime into the second month of tearful sessions, Jennifer introduced me to John Welwood’s book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships and that led to turning inward to feeling my own yearning for love and disconnecting those feelings from any person. This was also a cause for pain because I had no strong memory of having been loved to yearn for. Then my friend Kate found Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach and we listened to podcasts recorded in Bethesda, MD and from this followed a deliberate practice of meditation, with sittings at the Zen Center in San Francisco and at the East Bay Meditation Center, as well as at my own UU church.

Once again I turn to a Rumi poem for truth. From “Childhood Friends:”

"Trust your wound to a teacher's surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let a Teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don't turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place. That's where
the Light enters you.
And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself."  

All my teachers – Jennifer, Tara, Kate, Rumi, the lecturers at meditation practice – hold up mirrors I have feared to look into, afraid to see a face I could not look at with compassion and forgiveness. Now, the light by which I see isn’t my light at all. And it isn’t the light I had expected. And in the light, I look quite all right, even without eyeliner.

Guy Rittger
4/15/2012 09:45:16 am

There's a lot that could be - and no doubt has been - written about crying. In my own readings of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, I encountered the observation that crying is, first and foremost, the subject's initial vocal foray into expressing his/her needs to anyone willing to listen and respond. Not yet language, crying has to carry the weight of conveying all our needs - food, warmth, clean diaper, comfort, etc. - and depends largely on the ability of others to understand and respond. Later, as we acquire language, we are able to articulate our needs more directly and enter into dialogue with others to (hopefully) get our needs met and satisfy our desires.

However, as Lacan notes, desire is ultimately what persists after all material human needs have been met; that is, more precisely, "desire" is the desire to keep on desiring - for desire not to be extinguished by the attainment of the object of fantasy - i.e., that which we imagine would fulfil us were we to acquire it.

Desire emerges as the subject is constituted within language, quite literally as an "I" of discursive activity. Our pursuit of partial objects by which we satisfy, for a time, our desires, takes place within language, where we can address the others in our life and present to them our needs and demands.

When language breaks down - that is, when the subject cannot find satisfaction within discursive relationships - crying returns as a final attempt to capture the other's attention and find some degree of satisfaction, what Lacan calls "jouissance" or the bodily pleasure that accompanies the subject's encounter with objects of desire.

All of this to say that language can't always deliver the goods, as it were. And when that happens, it's not a bad time to cry.

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