Cover Your Feet, Find Freedom

Common sense says that when a person gets defensive it’s because they’re guilty. But I would suggest there is nuance here when people have grown over a lifetime to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. People who grow up in certain cultures repeatedly receive the message that they are internally defective, untrustworthy, or wrong and need to “get right” through rigid perfectionism or ongoing displays of guilt and shame. Even when we get out of those families, religions, or other communities, that habit of reacting to any implication of guilt and shame persists.

Discussions about the “isms” are rife with defensiveness and hostility. Cisgender people who experience “cis” or “TERF” as a slur. White people who feel appalled, hurt, and disgusted at being called “racist.” Men who experience being told their behavior is “sexist” as “a disgusting insult.” Here I am focusing on these folks, recognizing that many white cisgender men (of which I am one) feel dogpiled, attacked, that somehow it’s okay to hate on privileged people but they’re not allowed to point out when others are acting with disrespect.

What I’m trying to name, before we even go into that, is that most of us in these conversations are reacting to our own feelings of guilt and shame when we hear these things. We think the person is calling us something awful because their words bring up uncomfortable feelings, and we defend against it like we do many other experiences of shame and guilt. We lose center and the possibility for a real, honest conversation in which there is mutual healing and growth.

Certainly anyone can be an asshole regardless of gender, sex, ethnicity, level of ability, class, etc. And it is certain that these reactions happen in all kinds of conversations, even the most seemingly innocuous ones. In our intimate partnerships, a simple disagreement over folding laundry might bring up these feelings. Sometimes it is necessary to step back and care for ourselves. Developing discernment about when to engage, when to step back, is a process that begins by looking at ourselves.

“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

― Śāntideva

One way I think of this is that two things happen from the inner and outer world. From the outer world we hear something like, “I’m pissed at you about what you said.” Or “You seem to listen to other men and belittle women.” Or “Black lives matter.” In the inner world, we “hear” more messages that come from our early wounding, like, “You’re terrible and hurt people you love.” Or “You’re worthless and don’t matter.” Though these are “you” statements, they come from within. They are actually “I” statements, my secret fears about myself. And they are all lies with just enough truth to be highly persuasive.

We could spend our lives trying to get people to stop saying things that bring up these painful inner experiences, which is akin to the solution of trying to cover the entire earth with leather. We could also begin to name, defuse from, and heal those inner wounds, which would be to cover our own feet with leather.

It is worthwhile to start small and engage in contemplation. This does not have to be a politically-related conversation but rather any kind of confrontation that left you feeling confused, hurt, or distanced from someone. Journaling is useful, as it helps to get the thoughts out of our head and so we can look at them with greater objectivity. Talking to someone who will simply listen and reflect what they’re hearing is also useful.

  • Think on these questions first—What happened? What was said? What did the other person say and do? What did you say and do?
  • What was your experience? What feelings, memories, imaginations arose? What in particular troubled you?
  • Taking the most troubling part of the interaction, engage in a process of contemplation. Follow the thread of meaning deeper. For example, “What did it mean to me when this person said [X]?” “What does it mean to me that I felt this way?” “What does it mean to me that I believe this?”
  • Review this material and see if a pattern emerges, a theme, a scary/upsetting/angering story about yourself or your relationships with other people.
  • Set an intention to watch how this story plays out over the course of the next two weeks. Whenever you notice that story arising, pause to take a breath, and perhaps journal about it later. Notice how often it comes up, in what circumstances, whether it is fairly constant or limited to certain situations. Also notice when things occur that seem to contradict the story, or times when you might respond.

At this point, we’ve gone far afield of the kind of political arguments with which I framed this, and that’s the point. This is a practice to help you come to greater self-awareness and freedom with your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Rather than taking them for granted as unfailingly accurate interactions with the world, they are material for study and growth as you grow deeper in your understanding of the truth of yourself and your relationships. When we do this, the harder and more nuanced discussions go better.

We are all figuring this out. Life, politics, cultural shifts, new technologies, economic transitions. The stakes are high and yet we’re all stumbling around in the dark with only our experiences and understandings of history to guide us. The more free I am with my guilt and shame, the better able I am to hear and respond to these difficult moments. I can sit with a confrontation and take in the information that is useful and discard what is not. I can withdraw from interactions that have become unproductive and focus my energy on what is life-affirming.

Image of a pair of legs standing at the edge of what appears to be a snow-covered pier. The legs are wearing denim and leather boots.
Photo by Ian Robinson

No Judging, Just Feeling

Begrudging the happiness of others when we feel bitter is normal. Indeed, many of the so-called “negative” experiences that we vilify but nevertheless experience are often experienced—jealousy, bitterness, envy, resentment, vindictiveness, narcissism, hatred, doubt, mistrust.

I know my sample set is skewed as I sit with people who voluntarily come to therapy, but when someone starts getting down on themselves for having these feelings, I often remind them that these feelings are so common in the human experience that we actually have to work to be free with them. Many of the major religions dedicate entire swaths of practice, meditation, and contemplation toward transforming these psychic poisons.

People on a spiritual path, or those exposed to enough spiritual speak that they know what they’re “supposed” to think, tend to minimize or feel shame about having these experiences. The difficulty is that any work on the self, including spiritual work, only makes us more aware of these tendencies and thus stuck in the ambivalence about them.

One person wants to be holy but hates being single and resents everyone they perceive to be in happy relationships. One person wants to be generous but gets resentful when someone volunteers them to do an onerous task.

The language of “higher” and “lower” falls too easily into dualistic traps of “good” and “bad,” but all of this is energy and information that we can harness and transform. As jealousy and resentment can dry up and murder the soul, so too can too much virtue damage us. We can be generous to a fault, hopeful to our own detriment, “positive” in a way that denies the humanity of those who are suffering in our lives.

Image of a couple in silhouette, backlit by the Milky Way.
Photo by Meireles Neto

This is not an easy world in which we’ve become incarnated. The bitter taste of disappointment and resentment has its lessons to offer, insights into the nature of our existence and the limitations of desire and intention. So, too, can the effervescent quality of joy and love show us other possibilities, enliven us and bring us closer to something we crave. Everything in the personality might be a necessary ingredient of the person, but when any one quality becomes stuck and dominant over the rest we are in trouble.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers the concept of “self-as-context,” a Self that is the container and space wherein experience happens. Rather than clinging tightly to one kind of experience and reactively pushing the rest away, we practice a spaciousness of being and a kind of self-observation that allows for the range of experience to happen. This creates a kind of freedom in which we can set aside judgments about experience and instead see them for what they are, learn from them what we can.

Whether we like our “faults” or not, we have them, and they point to our distinctive pattern of needs and desires. When jealousy arises and we are unwilling to be friendly with it, we must either repress it, attack it, dissociate from it, or blame our partners and loved ones for it. The jealousy has something to teach us, something it wants us to know about our needs and insecurities, but because we feel weak in its grip the temptation is to do whatever it takes to avoid it.

Perhaps jealousy simply wants to be felt and acknowledged. Perhaps jealousy is telling us that our partners are not being honest with us. Perhaps jealousy is telling us that we have limited ourselves unnecessarily in deference to something not asked of us. Perhaps jealousy simply wants us to ask our partners for reassurance that they love and prioritize us. Perhaps jealousy has a message for you that I cannot name because it is unique to you.

You can discover this through being in relationship with the feeling, differentiating your awareness of Self from your experience of the emotion. And a great first step is to stop judging the feelings as “good” or “bad,” to stop asking yourself “What should I feel?” and instead ask “What am I feeling? What is this feeling about?” And then, as best you can, to listen for the answer.

Becoming Hope

I am in love with this world and it breaks my heart.

This hasn’t always been the case. For much of my life I felt divided from the world by a cynical, gray, depressive curtain. Mistrustful of myself and others, wary of being hurt or taken advantage of, I aspired to a spiritual bypassing that one writer about the Enneagram encapsulated perfectly as “The False Buddha.”

As “The False Buddha,” I could make wise or knowing pronouncements and hide behind spiritual notions about the illusory nature of the world. All of which was a way to numb the pain of being in it. If nothing mattered, then there was no reason to take risks, no reason to face disappointment and heartache, no reason to leave my comfort zone. I could swathe myself in cynicism and eat my feelings.

I found teachers who could help me untie those knots in my life force, who taught me that transcending and rising above were not spiritual solutions but forms of avoidance that were not helping anyone. What was being asked of me to fall in love with the world and everything it offers.

Today, I think of nonattachment not as the unwillingness to take action but rather the willingness to act and be with whatever happens as a result. Nonattachment is not numb or distant. Nonattachment acknowledges lust, desire, anger, joy, disappointment, despair, pain, all as worthy and valid experiences of the Self.

Desire is what leads us out of ourselves, out of what is comfortable and into the mystery and expansion available to us. Following desire grows our life and Being, but it is not a guarantee that we will get the results we want.

An image of two white-skinned hands, one elderly and one younger, touching a red rose.
“Touching the Rose”, by Jake Thacker

Which leads me to becoming hope. This expression came to me last year when I saw conflict in my communities and felt despair that people were unable to listen to each other in mutual understanding, a practice that I have long-valued and often strive for. A practice that is, as implied, a practice, something that requires effort and failure and recommitment, something that grows with repetition and learning, something that is not easy or innate.

As I saw this, feeling without hope, I realized what I was seeing was my work. Not to fix my communities and repair all the conflict—that kind of thinking is a trap that both inflates self-importance and deflates efficacy. It leads us to devaluing other people’s power and burning ourselves out. An entire community is needed to mend and strengthen a community. What my community needed was for me to show up as the person I felt needed to exist. To act in a way that would kindle hope in my heart.

Practicing hope in this way invites a practice of the kind of nonattachment I acknowledge above. Because the results are out of my hands, or I may only be able to manage one burst of right action before I need to take a break. And asking us all to step up, to become our bigger selves, is to also be faced with all the ways we limit ourselves and keep ourselves small.

No one needs to be saved so much as they need to see what is possible for them. To see what courage and risk look like, and to know that this risk was undertaken by a fellow human being.

What Gets in the Way of Open-Hearted Conflict

When we feel mistrust in each other, fearful that the other intends us harm or simply is unable to hear and have our best interests at heart, engaging in open-hearted conflict becomes difficult. More often, particularly in Western white-influenced cultures, we retreat from the emotional engagement toward an intellectualization of the problem. Successful conflict thus looks like being technically correct, using proper grammar and argumentative structure, not making any mistakes, having correct evidence. This kind of argumentation is useful for disciplines pursuing truth, such as science and academia, but unhelpful when it comes to building relationships.

When it comes to interpersonal arguments, more often than not what’s at stake are basic human social and survival questions like—”Can I be myself? Will I be safe? Will I be included or rejected? Will I be cared for?” I think conversations about “microaggressions” bring up these questions for all participants. People who live in bodies and identities that experience violence and marginalization walk around with a certain sensitivity to signs of potential exclusion or violence.

For example—as a gay man, when I hear someone use the word “faggot” I do an automatic mental calculus about the context and meaning of that word, particularly how unsafe I should feel. When I was growing up, people used that word primarily in the context of insulting each other and threatening violence. When other queer people are using that word, I usually feel okay because I know that we share certain values and acceptance and that their use of that word typically does not suggest the risk of violence or exclusion. When I’m not sure if the people using the word are queer, or how they feel about queer people, then I feel on edge.

Thus, I understand that different groups might have strong responses to certain words. They want to feel safe and included, as do nearly all humans in social spaces. I also understand that the strong push to control, abolish, or limit the use of certain words and phrases is experienced as an aggression by others.

If I angrily respond to the person who I think is homophobic who uses the word “faggot,” and insist they can’t use that word, that person might experience their own sense of threat of exclusion or marginalization. Perhaps they think I’m being unfair because they do not consider themselves homophobic and do not see a problem with their use of the word. They might think I’m being oppressive by trying to control their language. We could get locked in mutual suspicion and escalate into greater distance. We could also share our experiences with each other in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, and come closer together.

Image of a growling lion.
Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw

We don’t know how powerful we are. When it comes to interpersonal, face to face connections, we have much more influence over each others’ emotional states than we might realize. When two people are meeting, all the decades of history, systemic privilege and marginalization, economic disparity, all of that is present and yet not always fully conscious. Or so I want to believe, but often it seems the person in the position of power “forgets” their relative power and privilege until the moment they are aggrieved, and then retreats into it instead of engaging in conflict as an equal participant.

One’s boss is simply a person who makes mistakes and wants to be liked, and so may engage with their employees in a position of friendliness and equality, but the employees are very aware that they cannot have a simply human relationship with their bosses, for their economic security and job prospects depend upon staying in the boss’s good graces. Inevitably certain things stay unspoken, unaddressed.

Similarly, police officers may start a “consensual conversation” that results in the arrest of the person they are speaking with. Police officers are human beings with their own fears, hopes, strengths, and insecurities, and yet the amount of social and political power granted to them makes any interaction entirely lopsided. There is no possibility of authentic conflict. We are told to treat police officers with respect and that any disrespect we show invites punishment, but depending upon the culture and laws of the precinct, there is not necessarily a similar injunction on the officer to comport themselves with honesty and respect.

When there is no basic level of trust and safety, we turn to legalistic solutions. Rather than meet each other directly with our feelings, share our mutual experiences, name our hopes and fears, and discover the right next step—we turn toward third parties, byzantine systems of rules, authority figures to manage the conflict for us. We retreat from the basic questions of love and belonging and instead try to score points on each other. Instead of improving our sense of community and belonging, though, this leaves our resentments and fears simmering, unprocessed, unwitnessed, and any genuine expression of these ends up punished and demonized. Without open-hearted conflict, all we have is war.

Supporting Your Strong People: Some Suggestions

A friend of mine recently made a Facebook post that went viral about checking in on your strong people, or your “rocks,” that resonated with a lot of people. I can’t speak for all “rocks” but I have some thoughts that might be useful for those unused to thinking of their strong people as needing support.

Your strong people need support.

They may not ask for it or show it. You may think they are inhuman or don’t have feelings. But they are human and they feel.

Often strong people have a deeply rooted instinct to put others’ needs ahead of their own, with a concurrent doubt that others will be available, able, or willing to support them. Strong people might have a long history of feeling failed, ignored, or humiliated by the people who cared for them, so they learned how to care for themselves.

It is a strange paradox that these very independent self-caring people are nevertheless often driven to be available and helpful to others, and struggle to say no. The unconscious belief might be something like, “Once everyone is okay, then I will take care of myself.” Which never happens.

For those who are not used to offering support to your strong people, I wanted to offer some suggestions:

Photo of a Black man in a red striped shirt and ripped blue jeans standing in the middle of a scenic road.
Photo by Mohammed Faruque
  • Be assertive but not pushy.

Reach out and ask how they are, then after a few moments of small talk, ask how they really are. If they say they are fine and don’t need anything, or push you away, let them know you are available and willing to be there for them.

Avoid digging or asking a ton of leading questions, unless you know your rock well enough to ask what you know is the right question. The more you seem to want information or emotional revealing, the more suspicious and withdrawn your rock might become.

 

  • Be open to anything.

Sometimes when your strong person opens up, you won’t even realize it. “I didn’t have anything in my fridge today and had to miss lunch.” Okay? Not the end of the world?

But you may not understand the context—how important it is to them to eat regular meals, the sense of security they feel in opening the fridge and finding food. How this is an indicator that their routines of self-care have gotten lost, and how this symbolizes their sense of failure, overwhelm, inadequacy, and fears of slow decline. You don’t have to get all that right away. The takeaway is: keep in mind that the problem might feel a lot deeper than it seems at first.

On the other extreme, your rock might open up to you with some mind-blowing unexpected shit you couldn’t have predicted or even imagined they would be involved with.

And it is entirely possible that they would say either or both in the same tone. Like it’s not that big of a deal, maybe even kind of silly.

You might laugh. Laughing a bit is not a deal breaker. But once you get that this is important, try to compose yourself quickly and invite more information.

Do not, however, make fun of the problem, or imply that it’s not a big deal. In that case you might be confirming their secret fears that their problems are unimportant or no one they love can take care of them. You will lose the opportunity to support them and likely will not have another for a long time. 

  • Stay focused.

Once your strong person starts opening up, don’t check your phone or shift your focus on other priorities. That might be experienced as a sign that you are uninterested, overwhelmed, or think their problems don’t matter. They may quickly clam back up and continue pretending things are okay without telling you how you affected them.

If you do need to shift your focus, be really up front about it. “Hey, I need to use the restroom but I want to keep listening to you, so I’ll be right back okay?” “I really need to sleep, but can I call you tomorrow to keep talking about this?”

  • Be loving and supportive but don’t make a big deal about it.

It’s useful to try to keep your emotional level matching what they’re giving out. If your emotions get bigger than theirs, they will feel they have to take care of you. Examples include: apologizing excessively for some affront, expressing a lot of outrage on their behalf, or responding to vulnerability with huge expressions of feeling and care.

You may love to get big bear hugs when you’re crying, but your strong person might feel overwhelmed and smothered by it. Try starting smaller, like touching their hand or shoulder. Ask for permission to touch. Ask if they want a hug.

Let your strong person talk and try to listen with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. Check in before giving advice to see if that’s what they want, and be okay if they say no. You might offer observations and opinions if they’re okay with it. 

“Wow, that would really piss me off,” is helpful empathy. “What the hell is wrong with that person!” might be too big and might feel to your strong person like you are centering your feelings and not interested in theirs. After a few rounds of this, you might be able to have a more free exchange of feelings, but be cautious the first time.

  • Accept dark humor.

You and your rock can make liberal use of dark humor so long as it’s clear that you emotionally understand where your rock is coming from and aren’t judging or shaming them. Laughing with, and not at, is an important distinction.

If you’re not into dark humor, understand that you may hear some of it and you don’t have to laugh along but avoid criticizing it at the outset. Your strong person might be more sensitive to shame than you expect. Perhaps they hold themself to high standards and rarely give themself permission to be messy and ungracious.

Let them be messy for a while. Eventually you can bring in any needed accountability, and they will be more open to your opinion when they’ve processed. 

  • Avoid talking about how much you admire their strength.

Strong people may feel like their strength is a burden, that those around expect them to be superhuman and it’s not okay to be weak and vulnerable. They might have been criticized in the past for being cold and “inhuman,” which is even more painful.

If they are showing you vulnerability, this is an opportunity to let them know it’s okay and you love them for being a whole person. Shifting the conversation back to how strong they are and how much you admire it may end up centering your feelings, minimizing their struggles, and communicating to them that their vulnerability is unacceptable.

  • Be strategic about saying, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”

I can almost guarantee you they’re being too hard on themself, they know it, they’ve been told it before, and probably feel a sense of embarrassment about it. Instead try fostering some curiosity about what in their life makes them feel like they have to be so hard on themself. What are they afraid will happen if they weren’t strong all the time? That’s where they need support.

  • Make suggestions about steps for more support.

Strong people might be so used to taking care of their needs that when you ask “What can I do for you?” they will struggle to come up with any kind of answer at all. Sometimes your caring, effort, and presence will be more than enough. Sometimes they don’t know how to assess their needs and name how others can support them.

You might ask some general questions about what they’re dealing with and make some suggestions. If you’re a person who is comfortable with receiving care and asking for what you want, this is an opportunity to use your experience to teach them. “Sometimes when I’m down it really makes me happy when people bring me a cooked meal. Could I do that for you?” Again, try not to personalize it if the person says no, defers, or doesn’t have an answer for you. It’s really not about how they feel about you, especially if you’ve made it to this point in the conversation.

  • Apologize if needed.

If things don’t go well and you realize you hurt their feelings, all is not lost. Your taking responsibility and offering a genuine apology may be quite healing for your strong person.


Knowing when to check in with your strong folks is a tricky thing. Think about what’s been going on in their lives and how you would feel about it, then factor in that they might have the same feelings but be worse at acknowledging them, and act accordingly. Pay attention to if they seem more tired, forgetful, less gracious, more irritable, less on their game.

If there have been a lot of crises lately but things are starting to settle down, that is a great time. Often strong people learn to postpone their crisis response. When they know everyone’s going to be okay or the worst is over, then they might allow themselves to have their crisis response, but struggle to acknowledge it since everyone else has moved on.

Thank you for taking the time to care for your strong people. They are more vulnerable than they want you to know.

Find Your Dry Land: Cultivating Resilience Instead of Crisis

According to the American Psychological Association, “the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” They further state that the following factors are associated with personal resilience:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Link to Source.

One factor that I think is implicit but worth naming as an addition is curiosity, wonder, and an attitude of experimentation or problem-solving in response to challenges.

In contemplating my experience working with people in crisis, it occurred to me that a crisis could be characterized by the lack of these resilience factors. In my observation, a person in a crisis state often experiences some combination of the following:

  • Obstacles or stressors that seem inescapable, untenable, or impossible to cope with/overcome with current resources.
  • Overwhelming emotion—particularly the famous sympathetic nervous response called the “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex—or dissociation from that emotion.
  • Impulsivity in response, difficulty assessing available options and making decisions that are more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
  • Narrowing of perspective and fixation on challenges, setbacks, grievances, or fears.
  • Negative view of self and insecurity in strengths and abilities.
  • Feeling unsupported, alone, or actively opposed.

People in crisis are metaphorically drowning, and they bring up strong emotions in the people around them. When in crisis, we seem to invite others to freak out with us, join in our outrage or our terror, even though that’s not what we really want or need. We also start looking for a savior, anyone who can pull us out of this overwhelming situation and make the crisis end. We feel helpless, alone.

We are thus vulnerable to people who would exploit our crisis for their gain. We’re more likely to agree to harmful “solutions” that seem to fix the problem but get us stuck in worse. We’re more likely to give our power to people who promise us safety and security—two qualities guaranteed to no one in this world—only to learn later how much we’ve given up of our autonomy and values. When politicians and advertisers put out messages that stir up our crisis responses, we would do well to wonder what it is they’re trying to sell us.

People in crisis are like drowning victims. Those who want to help feel like we should get in the water to get them, but that runs a high risk of turning the would-be savior into the victim. (Link to source.) People who are drowning or in crisis want out as quickly as possible by any means necessary, so fixated on the existential threat that their brain’s capacity to evaluate outcomes and make reasoned decisions has been essentially turned off to focus resources on survival.

If you want to help someone who is drowning, the best way is to find your own stable ground, throw a line of some kind out to the person, and pull them back to stability. This is good advice for helping someone in crisis as well. Often what benefits folks in crisis the most is someone who can offer calm, grounding presence, who can listen while they process their distress and help them think through their options, find resources, and come up with a plan of what to do next. You might notice that this fosters resilience, as the supportive person is being that caring and encouraging relationship that helps the person reconnect with their strengths, manage the strong feelings, and think about the problem as something solvable.

If you want to find your stable ground, look to those resilience factors and figure out which ones you need to strengthen. Find someone who has experience and skill those factors, and build a relationship with them. You might start a sitting meditation practice to learn how to remain calm and observant in the midst of distressing emotions, but that is only one of many possible disciplines that can help with that. With practice, we can learn ways to move out into distress, surf its energies, and find our way back to calm.

Image of a man on a surfboard, cresting a wave, while another man watches.
Instead of drowning, we can learn to surf. Photo by Marcus Dall Col.

This post is a variation of a presentation I gave at a recent conference, which was followed by a discussion about community resilience. More on that discussion is written up in this post.

Conflict and Resilience in Spiritual Community

This past weekend I facilitated a workshop on resilience in spiritual communities for the Many Gods West conference. There was a spirited engagement from folks who have great experience building local communities and had seen successes and failures across the board.

Some of the memorable points I walked away with were:

  • Knowing the goal or mission of your community, to anchor your efforts.
  • Training and preparing leaders, almost from the first day, so they can continue the mission when the founding leadership is exhausted or passes on.
  • Identifying who is doing the work in your communities—including the invisible labor of organization and the emotional labor of tending and repairing relationships—and making sure they are supported.
  • As a complimentary point those doing the work who feel unsupported or overextended need to feel able to scale back their vision and labor to something that is workable today, to say “no” when needed, to delegate.
  • Skills around conflict are necessary for resilient relationships.

This last point became very important and highlighted during the presentation. We discussed how conflict avoidance in communities and organizations contributes to collapse and rigidity. Sometimes communities devolve into bickering, back-biting, and in-fighting where people attack and defend but never sit at the table to have an open-hearted conflict that brings them back to connection. The other extreme is when communities become hyper-legislative and make rigid requirements and rules to try to manage and process conflict, which similarly makes them brittle and unwieldy or prone to cover-ups when problems do arise.

This is not exclusive to spiritual communities, but in my experience these communities have a particular vulnerability to people acting out their wounds around attachment, their family roles, and their family styles of conflict management. We create powerful containers for connection and self-transformation, places where we want to feel trust so we can become more ourselves, and the spiritual framework often tends to heighten or mythologize the tensions and conflicts. Which provides the opportunity for even more potent healing and transformation… or more damaging explosions.

Image of a person of color holding a firework emitting thick orange smoke, which arcs overhead and obscures their face.
Photo by Ezra Jeffrey

Conflict is inevitable and normal, and successfully allowing and working through conflict strengthens and deepens relationships. So many of us feel that if we were truly honest about our wants and needs then we would be rejected, attacked, ignored, or some other terrifying thing. Perhaps at some point—or many points—in life this happened. Lacking this capacity to say and hear honest expressions of feeling restricts our ability to heal wounds and develop resilient, workable relationships.

Resentment doesn’t go away when we ignore it, it only deepens and becomes toxic. Turning toward and befriending resentment helps us to see the ways in which we’ve taken on tasks that aren’t ours to do, or ignore our needs for someone else’s, which helps us to set cleaner boundaries and even show up in relationship with more generosity and joyfulness.

One question that arose in the workshop was around conflict resolution, and fortunately there was a whole other workshop dedicated to that topic. What occurred to me in that moment was that many of us are not ready for conflict resolution because we still struggle to engage in open conflict. I have a style of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing that showed up during the workshop itself, when two participants began to have a conflict and I reacted by attempting to smooth it over and avoid it with some statement about “we disagree and that’s okay.” A moment later, I realized what I had done, and acknowledged that I had acted out the very dynamic we were discussing as a problem in our communities.

After the workshop, those of us involved in that exchange sat down to discuss where each of us were coming from. I cannot speak for those in attendance, but I felt heartened at the mutual sharing of concerns and emotional responses without shutting each other down. I do not know if any minds changed that night, but I hope the processing and softening of hearts helped us to walk away with things to contemplate.

When will loses heart

Will is a beautiful, liberatory capacity and it can become a tyrant. This tendency is one of the reasons why will fell out of favor after the Victorian age—it was talked up as a kind of brutal self-mastery, dominating all the weakness within and crushing the body and heart beneath its achievements.

You might be doing too much. You might be doing things when you need to be resting. You might be trying to take care of everyone and please everyone but find that instead you are tense, distancing, and critical of the people you think you’re trying to care for, unable to hear what they’re actually saying to you.

So often I hear, and occasionally say, the phrase “I don’t know how to feel about this.” This is a way that the mind and will slip away from relationship with the heart and body and become oppressive. We convince ourselves there are right feelings and wrong feelings and try to select the feelings we think we should have. When the feelings we do have don’t line up, we’re not sure what to do.

Mental and emotional distress arises from this discord. Our animal bodies are wondrous organisms that have all these useful signals for when we need rest, food, water, emotional care, and sex. But too often we learn it’s not safe to listen to these signals, so we learn how to read the social cues that let us know when it’s okay to listen and when not. When our emotional and biological needs conflict with the social expectations of family and community, we have tension, and the greater the tension, the more this manifests as illness.

At its best, will bridges these two realms and brings deep desires into manifestation in our social relationships. It comes from the core, converses with the heart, chooses where to invest energy based on what is meaningful, responds to feedback.

At worst, will pushes help upon people who don’t want it, pushes us to work past the point of exhaustion, keeps us grinding forward until we feel resentment and draining obligation even toward the people and work we love. If we’re not careful, we start to blame them for our experience, struggling to accept that it is we who are unable to say no, who failed to set a clear boundary, who was not honest about our needs. Then the harm deepens.

When we start edging into that territory, it’s time to step back and think about what has heart and meaning. What kind of life do I want to lead? And perhaps reflecting deeper… what am I afraid will happen if I stop doing this? What would help me to take the step of cutting away, saying no, finding time to rest? Who can I ask for support? Who can I ask to witness while I acknowledge my needs?

This too is will work. We are unlikely to summit the mountain if we break our leg running up the base. Self-honesty helps us to set more realistic, achievable expectations. We can succeed while taking smaller steps.

A white person, facing away from the camera, standing upon a grassy ridge looking toward snowy mountain peaks.
Photo by Joshua Earle

Impossible to Control

“Even though you try to put people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in a wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good. That is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”
― Shunryu SuzukiZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

Control is exhausting.

Often the control is internal, in the realm of the mind, body, and heart. The rigid policing of thought, or the repeated quashing of an irascible longing, or impatience with pain and weakness.

Control also comes out in relationships and communities. The constant expressions of jealousy or insecurity and demands for reassurance. The urgency to “fix” every single problem or moment of discomfort that comes up in a relationship. Running to the boss to tell them about a conversation your coworkers had that made you uncomfortable, though you sat there quietly.

Picture of a silhouetted figure in the air, behind whom is a sunset.
Photo by Joshua Earle

We can spend so much time controlling things that are beyond our control that we lack the energy and will to do what is actually within our power. Control seduces us into believing that somehow we can arrange our lives and relationships to avoid suffering and maximize pleasure, but at great cost. For just as we might love to feel in control, very few of us actually enjoy being controlled. (Even those who want to be controlled might, upon reflection, consider that they have some particular thoughts and feelings about who controls you, under what circumstances, and what kind of control you want to experience.) When our sense of identity and self-worth is vested in how much control we can exert, any spontaneous or unfiltered experience is a threat, which keeps us experiencing a lot of what life has to offer.

Control is also an outside-in approach to the world. We feel, if only everything goes according to the way I think it should go, then I can relax and be myself. But for too long we avoid being ourselves, trying to get a handle on things that we have no power over.

Power, in contrast, could be a model of inside-out approach. Power influences the world based on who I am and what I want. Power is my capacity for influence and action—asking for what I need, telling you what I don’t like, saying no to a draining expectation, asking for appreciation instead of seething in quiet resentment. Power is vulnerable because it comes from the self and it could be denied, rejected, or ineffective. Yet expressing power helps us to learn what works, who in our life actually has our back, and who is not a person we need to be around.

Rather than trying to manage and control things, connecting with and mastering our sense of power helps us to be responsive to the world. We express something, observe the results, and then adapt. It is not a guarantee of safety or security, which is guaranteed to no one, but it takes far less energy.

Willing with Discomfort

Some people feel they are completely without discipline and will, mostly thrown about by the waves of life circumstance, craving, accident, emotion, or simply being screwed with by others. By “some people” I mean “most people at least every once in a while.” Will is the capacity to recommit and continue following one’s intention even with these conditions.

I recently committed to studying something new, a martial art, which brings up a lot for me around my body, athleticism, and conflict. As with all new habits, the first few sessions were quite fun and exhilarating. I wanted to go around telling everyone how cool it was and all the cool things I was learning.

Beware the person who has done something new for less than a month but tells you it changed their life. For it is inevitable that after newness wears off, the practice goes through a sour period. It starts to bring up feelings of boredom or frustration as we realize we’re not as far along as we hoped, or the work is not as glamorous as we’d imagined, and we have to keep showing up to gain the benefits.

Image of a person standing on a mountain ridge with a backpack and thick jacket.
An act of will. Photo by Danka & Peter.

Getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning doesn’t seem as rewarding as hitting snooze. Those vicissitudes of life come up again—emotions, discomfort, cravings, unexpected circumstances. Giving up the practice sounds tempting, especially since it didn’t immediately make your life better. You’re still the same person, growing slowly, but perhaps not as slowly as you were when you weren’t doing the practice.

In talking about mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn advises beginners to start the practice with a curious skepticism. Believing it’s going to perfect you and go so smoothly is a recipe for overwhelming discouragement when we hit the phase I’m writing about. Believing that it’s a waste of time and will do nothing for you is a guarantee that you will get no benefit.

I think his advice applies to all new habits or practices, including mental health treatment. We ought to commit to them for at least a month, ideally three months, and continue showing up so long as they are not actively causing us harm. But do the practice with curiosity, watching your experience as it happens with interest. Let it be an opportunity to learn about yourself in a new way. Perhaps you notice a tendency to give up at the first sign of frustration, or to fixate on the practice and ignore other matters such as self-care and relationships with other people. After we’ve been doing the new practice for three months, six months, a few years, through times of hardship and times of ease, then we can accurately evaluate the power of the practice and the gains it brings to life.

Underlying all of this is the cultivation of will, which offers so much more. If I am able to bike to work in the winter gloom, simply because I said I would do it, then I am able to start the hard conversation with my loved ones about something I know we need to discuss. If I can rearrange my schedule to go to that workout class then I can flexibly commit to my dreams and my life goals. If I can let myself be thrown to the ground and get back up to face my attacker, then I can call my congressperson about something that matters to me.

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who founded the theoretical orientation of Psychosynthesis, either drew upon or happened upon a concept contained in Western esoteric traditions: that will is a human faculty that expresses one’s Higher Self. In this respect, will is not the Victorian concept of muscling through all hardship, ignoring pain, controlling vulnerability, or somehow never facing problems and setbacks in life. Will is about experiencing all of that and still moving wisely in the direction of desire.

If that’s too esoteric for you, you might think of will as a psychological “muscle” that becomes stronger with exercise. We exercise it by committing to doing something and then doing it. Simple but not easy. Start with what’s achievable for you, and build from there. With practice, we gradually expand feeling that sense of agency and meaning in life.