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Embracing Moments of Collapse

Feeling baffled? Our guest columnist suggests "to honor these moments of bewilderment, to hold them as holy pauses that are rich with the potential for psychological and spiritual awakening."

I learned at 5:42 a.m. this morning that the word “baffling” was a sailor’s adjective, in the eighteenth century, for winds that blow variously and make headway difficult. I know. This seems a rather strange morning practice—to sip tea in the dark and browse online etymology dictionaries. But for many months now, I have been reflecting on the holiness of human bewilderment—what happens during those inevitable moments in life that leave us baffled.

The core questions, the aching why and some version of what is this all for, are nothing new. They circle around the human experience of suffering, loss, tragedy, pain, disease, and trauma.

Intellectual understanding betrays us and spiritual philosophy evaporates in these baffling moments.

We may understand lessons and the acquisition of character and wisdom through suffering. We may have studied, endlessly, about attachment or karma or the nature of the mind. And while all of this was once the ground upon which we stood (and will most likely return to again), right now there is no standing. There is no ground. We are suspended somewhere between an event and a flood of emotions. To be baffled is not a comfortable position for us. We may even rush over it—label it as “shock” and move on to “coping”—without looking at the deeper, spiritual complexity (and holiness) that accompanies deep confusion. I’m not positing we should remain in this period of perplexity indefinitely. But I am suggesting to honor these moments of bewilderment, to hold them as holy pauses that are rich with the potential for psycho- logical and spiritual awakening.

When we are deeply perplexed, there is, first and foremost, a sacred nod to how little we know. The knowing part of our consciousness, or the ego, slowly (or sometimes abruptly) dissolves. The ego is the part of our psyche that tries to devise, to explain, to make sense, to control, to keep things together, to hold the ship on track, to make headway. And in these moments, when we lose all illusions of control, the ego falls apart. We feel a great sense of un-knowing-ness. There is a colossal emptying out.

For most, an empty house is not a happy place to be. An empty cupboard is bare, and an empty cup has nothing for us to drink. Emptiness is something that we dodge in our Western culture, and yet emptiness is explored and embraced extensively in Eastern philosophy and mystical literature.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote,

We mold clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful.

To empty is not to create emptiness, but to create space, a space that holds potential. And space is essential to invite the company and presence of something Other into our experience. The Kabbalists call this creative space tehiru—a void or emptiness that is essential for something other to existand introduced the idea of tzimtzum—meaning contraction or withdrawal.

In his book Insearch: Psychology and Religion, depth psychologist James Hillman wrote about this doctrine of tzimtzum. He stressed that one’s internal withdrawal aids the Other to come into being.

When one withdraws, more emptiness is created. Our withdrawal creates the space needed for the Other to fully enter and exist. Perhaps, this emptying out of our ego consciousness, this withdrawal into unknowingness, is part of opening ourselves up to the Great Mystery. You see, when our attempt to explain stops, our ability to experience awakens.

These are often our most holy experiences. The ones that make us feel a bit crazy. The ones when we feel or sense or dream or envision or touch upon something undeniably numinous, something wholly Other, which the ego fails miserably to explain. It is exactly this inability to explain it away that takes us deeper into the pure experience of the Other. Indeed, the winds blow variously. The sailor is not the only one in the story. There is the wind, and the blower of the wind. There is the sea. And the moon. And the tides. And, no matter how much the sailor prepares his vessel to make headway, he is sure to face baffling gusts that leave him confused and breathless. He knows very little, except that he is in holy relation to something Other (or many Others). This he cannot explain to his fellow sailors. They don’t speak of it except to say, “The winds are baffling.” But he sees in their eyes that they too know the deeper implications of this experience.

And all of this brings us to a terribly tender place. At times, we can rest in our unknowingness. We receive small tastes, feelings, premonitions, visions, or dreams and we somehow trust in a higher consciousness, of which we know very little. At other times, we may ache with frustration. Or feel angry, betrayed, or veiled. But if we look underneath these emotions, there is often great human vulnerability and tenderness. Tired and glowing eyes, just longing to understand. And the beautiful thing about tenderness is how easily it can recognize itself in another. It reminds us that in a baffling world, we can find great repose in knowing we are not alone. The tenderness in me recognizes the tenderness in you.