the (sacred) art of breaking yourself open
“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.”
— David Whyte
At one point last fall, someone I loved was in emotional crisis. I drove to see him, both hands gripping the wheel, the freeway unfurling in front of me. It was as if the excess stuff in my life burned off layer by layer, leaving nothing but crystalline core: the sense of what truly mattered.
In that moment I knew who I was, I knew my purpose. That drive jolted me into being. I was focused and present. I was alive.
The crisis passed.
Things gradually became okay again.
I haven’t had that experience of diamond-edged clarity since, but it left a taste and texture in my brain. Life holds every one of us to a final accounting, and when that moment comes I will know if I lived fully and well: if I loved, if I contributed; if I was wise and savvy enough to recognize the beauty of the moment, and then to let it go; if I handled pain with dignity and transformed my wounds to light.
I can only imagine – except I don’t want to imagine – Elliot Rodger’s final thoughts, the life he was forced to account for just before he ended it.
It’s easy to look at Rodger and blame the usual suspects: the parents, the bubble world of privilege, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, narcissistic rage. But as Sasha Weiss pointed out, the values that Rodger expressed in his manifesto reflect the values of the larger culture that raised him. A consumer culture. A winner-take-all kind of culture. And, yes, a patriarchal culture that offers up women as images, trophies, status symbols — and objects of blame. This goes all the way back to when Eve ate the apple, when Pandora opened the box, and shows itself now in the way the women’s movement is blamed for pretty much every social ill under the sun.
You can use an object, you can scapegoat an object, you can destroy an object. But you can’t form an intimate relationship with someone whose humanity you can’t or won’t even acknowledge. Rodger was a snake with its tail in its mouth, eating himself alive, taking others with him. Sad thing is, he’s not the only one – just an unusually disturbing and exaggerated example.
I’ve been thinking about spirituality, how you might define it, and I like Bill Plotzkin’s idea about the place where you break yourself open to the Other. If perception is reality, then we each live inside the worlds of ourselves. Everything we see is slanted, colored, tainted with our own projections, biases, imaginings. The struggle is to get out of yourself and make genuine authentic contact with something or someone that is not-you: the Other.
We do this when we love. I don’t mean romantic love, which is all about illusion and projection – but the love that develops when desire makes contact with the reality behind the dream.
We do this when we put our gifts in service to the world, to something greater than ourselves.
I first came across the phrase ‘sacred circuit’ in the excellent book SLAYING THE MERMAID: Women and the Culture of Self-Sacrifice , and it’s stayed with me ever since. The sacred circuit is when you sacrifice – when you make sacred – something you have in order to attain something of much greater value. What you give to the world comes back to you, bigger and better than before. The more you have, the more you give, and the more you give, the more comes back to you, so that you have more, and give more, and so on and so forth. The fate of the world and the fate of your world become one.
(This is not to hold people solely responsible for their own poverty and illness — as payment for supposed sins in a supposed past life — but to acknowledge the power of the gift economy.)
We screw ourselves when we take ourselves off that sacred circuit. Then all we have – is the me. All we give to – is the me. Our life’s work becomes the perfection of — the me. Everything begins and ends with – the me.
The me is a very, very small place. It’s never enough, in and of itself, to make you come alive.
Life has a way of cracking us open so that, at some point, with varying degrees of emotional violence, we learn this. We learn that the fullness and wholeness we seek won’t be found in anything that doesn’t love us back; craving opens into nothing but more craving.
We learn to reach outside ourselves, toward the electric joy of the sacred circuit.
It is, ultimately, what saves us.
It might have saved Elliot Rodger, if he had known to break himself open, to expose himself to the heart that beats inside the Other, and to listen, listen, listen to someone or something beyond his own anguished prison of the me.
To do this in a culture that glorifies and celebrates the me — and all the things we buy in order to ‘express’ the me to others — is no easy matter.
But as we continue to scar ourselves, each other, and the planet, it is one of life or death.