Drop the Storyline and Feel the Underlying Energy
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Pema Chodron, the author of When Things Fall Apart, in a retreat cabin in Crestone, Colorado. The purpose of the interview was to create a question and answer session to be included in an upcoming Sounds True program by Pema entitled “Unconditional Confidence: Instructions for Meeting Any Experience with Trust and Courage.”
The very first question I asked Pema was “How do you define this term, ‘unconditional confidence,’ and is it really possible to be confident in every situation?” Her response stunned me. She said, “Unconditional confidence really means unconditional gentleness, and yes, we can train so that we are gentle with ourselves in the face of whatever is happening.”
When Pema gave this answer, I “exited” in a certain kind of way. Everything turned white; it was similar to a blackout, but it was a white-out. The experience was brief, and I kept listening and moving along with the interview, but at the same time something had hit a deep nerve in me, and I wasn’t quite sure what the nerve was. It was as if her answer slapped me in the face.
Since the interview, I have been investigating internally the connection between gentleness towards myself and confidence in the world. The first thing I have seen is how many times a day I say something to myself that is ungenerous and even mean. I am sure this has been going on for, well, a lifetime, but the truth is I had never seen it so clearly before. Usually the commentary is about something minor: “Why weren’t you more articulate during that conference call?”, “Why did you say such and such to that person?”, and on and on. But sometimes this inner commentator takes on bigger issues, in a more aggressive way. “You will never be able to open your heart fully because it hurts too much,” or “You are not a real businessperson because you react instead of plan,” or other such indictments.
During the interview, I asked Pema what to do in these kinds of instances, times when we are just not gentle with ourselves. Her instruction was to interrupt the self-talk any way you can. I took the question further: what if interrupting this inner voice just doesn’t work? What if the situation feels impossible, and this mean voice is persistent, like a radio you can’t turn off? Her response was very direct and clear: drop the storyline and feel the underlying energy.
I have found this technique to be extremely effective (when I can remember to do it!). Dropping the storyline is like a thunderclap. A gap is created and what remains is pure energy.
At a certain point, this energy finds a direction. It moves. A friend of mine who is a psychiatrist once said to me something he learned through the therapeutic exchange, “Even if you say something you regret, what really matters is what you say next. It is all about what you do next.”
And this is what I have discovered about the connection between gentleness to myself and confidence in the world. When I am gentle towards myself, I take the next action that is needed in the situation; gentleness allows me to be resourceful and responsive. If I know I can count on being kind to myself, then I can risk “failure.” I can step into a new challenge, knowing that no matter how the situation turns out, I will be able to extend again and again. These days, I am consciously cultivating this kind of unconditional gentleness towards myself because this is exactly the kind of confidence I need.