The importance of cultivating self-awareness as we age cannot be underestimated. The spiritual teacher and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön says “the ability to know yourself, to move closer and closer to yourself and to know, for example, that you’re feeling lousy, to really know you’re feeling lousy; kvetching about it and know you’re kvetching about it! Criticizing yourself about it, but to also know you’re criticizing yourself about kvetching about it! Through this sort of self-reflection there is a state of ‘awake’ that happens where you’re strengthening the quality to be awake right now rather than strengthening the quality to be asleep” (not asleep in the sense that you’re in your bed in slumber, but rather a waking state of unconscious awareness that most of us inhabit without a deeper examination brought about by self-reflection). She goes on to suggest that “without the ability to self-reflect, we can’t know transformation, because it is in the present moment, in the ‘nowness’ that if you have a complete relationship with yourself where you know what is happening with yourself, you can really feel what you feel then you have a chance to transform this discomfort into something productive and this takes some time, patience and cultivation.” (E.g. inner work). This ability does not just happen as we age. It is true that with age comes the ability to be wise and discerning, but it is not an automatic transition from young and naïve to old and wise. Our greatest opportunity to transform ourselves with age is in our own capacity for and cultivation of self-reflection.
In moments of confusion and inner discomfort, the degree that the ability to reflect (E.g. remaining present and awake to inner discomfort) gets stronger, is the degree to which we either commence a process of disentanglement or alternatively we tighten our knot of mental confusion by clinging to our ego’s narrative that gives rise to our automatic defenses. For example, Pema Chödrön’s beloved teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say if you want to get ‘disentangled’ or ‘unconfused’, you must first understand your entanglement. Here entanglement can be seen as a metaphor for our own ‘habitual patterns’ that could also be described as our ego fixations or ‘personality’.
Western Psychology quite often treats personality as ‘fixed traits’ such as: extraversion, neuroticism, openness, conservative, agreeableness. To some extent this is accurate for some of these quite stable traits such as the introversion and extraversion aspects of personality. But it is not the whole picture. Buddhist psychology treats everything including people’s nature as fluid and dynamic. In many respects this is a more complex way to see ourselves and reality, but ultimately it is much more helpful for seeing our ‘entanglements’. Moreover, it gives us hope that we can disentangle, or loosen these habitual patterns that keep us stuck on ‘repeat’ in a sort of self-imposed prison of emotional angst.
As teacher, author and psychotherapist, Tara Bennett-Goleman puts it so brilliantly in her book Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart: “Expect, at some point, to want to run away from all this. It’s a little like opening a can of worms, or maybe caterpillars—you may want to shove them all back inside. But as you walk this path, you will also have glimpses of feeling freer, of a more direct connection to your life and the people in it. And once the pull of that greater freedom and authenticity takes hold, it becomes harder to turn back. Its as though an inner volcano has started to erupt, and despite the danger, we welcome the release. The pain of the truth still feels better than the pain of self-deception. As we settle into the process, at some point we tend to go through a natural grieving as we let go of old identities, familiar habits and ways of being. Eventually those caterpillars disperse, weaving themselves into protective cocoons while shedding their former identity. Unravelling the membranes of our schema patterns, we too begin to emerge from our cocoons, feeling lighter and more alive—as if, metaphorically, we were growing wings.”
Mid-Life is a period of review and can wreak havoc for those unwilling or unable to see their own ‘entanglements’ up close. Ventilating our ego-fixations and entangled thoughts, emotions and behaviours is helpful in setting us on a path to freedom. Sitting quietly with yourself, whether through meditation, or silently walking through nature can bring you into a state of ‘quieting the mind’.
It frees you from ‘monkey mind’ as Mingyur Rinpoche reminds us. Knowing your entanglements is a step towards freedom to see life, yourself, and others as they are without the narrative of who I should be or who I shouldn’t be, and this brings an enormous sense of peace and wellbeing which may see you exploring new possibilities. We may never find ‘the way out’ of the maze of our own mind, but we can develop tools to be at home with it, embrace our mind’s propensity for complexity and recognize that we can be simultaneously lost and found within it. The ‘art of becoming’ is about dropping who you think you should have been and growing into life’s fullest expression of yourself.