Originally I heard the term, ‘going to pieces without falling apart’ on reading the book of the same name by Buddhist Psychologist Mark Epstein in early 2000. Combining western psychology with buddhist philosophy he highlighted that Western psychology has promised fulfilment through engaging and strengthening the ego. We are taught that the ideal self is a strong, individuated, constructed and reinforced over a lifetime. Yet the truth is this cannot be maintained over time. Happiness comes from letting go! Epstein states “happiness that we seek depends on our ability to balance the ego’s need to do with our inherent capacity to be.”
This is not a book review but a compassionate cry to give yourself a break! To stop! As a therapist of over 30 years, I have seen over the last months clients, and therapists themselves including myself, experience burn out and stress breakdowns. There is a fundamental need to relax the ever-vigilant mind in order to experience the freedom that comes only from relinquishing control, our endless pursuit of how we think it should be.
Epstein, in the introduction of his book, tells a story about an “eager professor who sought wisdom from an old Zen master. The master offered him tea and, on the professor’s acceptance, poured the tea into a cup. To the professor’s dismay, however the master kept pouring the tea into an overflowing cup, even as the tea spreads across the floor. “A mind that is full cannot take in anything new,“ the master explained. “Like the cup you are full of opinions and preconceptions. “Wisdom and happiness are to be found only by emptying one’s cup.”
We are full!
Two years we have spent surviving, be it COVID lockdowns, losing loved ones suddenly, an ever changing political landscape, financial uncertainty, the devastation caused by floods, endless work without seeing family and loved ones who live overseas, and the constant need to make new decisions rather than engage our automated brain and COVID itself. It takes an enormous amount of energy, focus and adrenaline to get us through, and now we are experiencing the effects of the last two years. Exhaustion! We cannot take anything else in. This exhaustion appears as deep emotional and physical lethargy, as though our internal foundations are untethered and our emotional landscape is in pieces. Some describe it as though they have post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) symptoms. A mixture of grief, frozenness, overwhelm, anxiety, hopelessness, and emotional and physical fatigue. It feels like we are falling apart.
The key to going to pieces without falling apart is surrender. The more we try and fight the feelings, go against what is innately present, the more it feels like we are falling apart, and we cannot control the emerging unchartered emotional landscape.
Clients often seek out solutions to this state via counselling, yet then the ego continues to do, plan, strategize, when one’s whole being is telling one to stop and rest. We cannot continue what we are doing without changing something, scaling what we are doing down for a time, changing the scenery, and giving ourselves novel experiences. For some, the time it takes to come home to oneself, feeling like you have solid foundations again, may take longer than others, this depends on the level of self care, the difficulties you have encountered over the last two years as well as the ongoing challenges.
How does the ego surrender when we have let it rule for so long?
The truth is there is always a little voice that knows what is needed but is overridden in pursuit of this idea of good, to achieve, to become something, someone. Quietly it tugs a little and then a little harder, and if not listening even harder. It rattles the cages of our soul until we cannot ignore it any longer. We have to surrender or fall apart. Instead of this internal war an easier way is to listen to that little loving voice that gently tries to guides you, even if you don’t quite know where it will lead you, it has your best intentions at heart.
In support of that little inner voice here is a little help….
- Stop and Rest and do nothing
- Eat well, yet lightly
- Directly experience feelings, rather than trying to change them, or think you way out of them
- Talk to your soul, let your soul talk to you – find a way through poetry, art, nature, movement, creative visualisation
- Do the things you love daily, even if it is one little thing like putting on a particular lotion, or drinking from a favourite cup, or taking your shoes off and burying them in fresh grass, make room for it
- Reach out for support – we are wired to each other and were never designed to do it alone
- Take a break away somewhere you haven’t been before
- Hang out in nature – when was the last time you watched the clouds sail by?
- Swim in the ocean – water relaxes us on so many levels
- Walk along the beach
- Come back to that one practice that you know brings you home in yourself.
- When there is energy, let yourself grieve
- With those habitual thoughts causing suffering, question them – is it true? Who would I be without this thought?
- Stop pressuring yourself to make those decisions when the time is right decisions get made
- Do that thing that you have always wanted to do, be it travel, a particular project, hobby or career. Do it, as it wants you.
- Befriend the part of you that has had enough. Lean into them, find their need, let them have a voice and a home in you, by embracing them exactly as they are. Their feelings are correct.
- Hang out with your favourite people
- REST is paramount right now, the rest happens when needed.
So how do you go to pieces without falling apart?
“So if you are too tired to speak, sit next to me, for I too am fluent in silence” R Arnold
Let go, surrender, stop fighting those feelings, stop and rest! Your being knows how to bring you home to yourself.
As Mr Curly said to Vasco Pyjamas: “...Tiredness has become the most suppressed feeling in the world. Everywhere we see people overcoming their exhaustion and pushing on with intensity – cultivating the great mass mania which all around is making life so hard and ugly – so cruel and mingles – so utterly graceless – and being congratulated for overcoming it and pushing it deep down inside themselves as it it were a virtue to do this. And of course Vasco, you know what happens when such strong and natural feelings are denied – they turn into the most powerful and bitter poisons with dreadful consequences. We live in a world of these consequences and then wonder why we are so unhappy. So I greatly urge you Vasvo, do as we do in Curly Flat – learn to curl up and rest – feel your noble tiredness – learn about it and make generous a place for it in your life and enjoyment will surely follow. I repeat: it’s worth doing nothing and having a rest. yours sleepily Mr Curly” By Leunig
Epstein, Mark (1999) ‘Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness’, R Wyler & Co, USA
Rediger, Jeffrey, M.D., M.DIV. LESTON HAVENS, M.D. ‘Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness Book review’
Cambridge Hospital Cambridge, MA 02139
Leunig: The Curly Pyjama Letters