On Becoming Beautiful & Brave: Facing the Inexplicable
Inexplicable – unable to be explained or accounted for.
What does it mean to fear the inexplicable? What does this fear cost us? What is important to understand regarding this particular fear? Why must we face it?
For this essay, I turn to the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke’s masterful way with words, showing us in his inimitable style how to both appreciate and navigate the more subtle and intangible realms of human existence.
Rilke has a particular way of bringing forth essential truths that lie dormant somewhere below the surface of our daily awareness. He contends that this most human of fears – the fear of what the ego and the mind cannot essentially grasp – is something that greatly compromises the quality of one’s interior life as a human being. He helps us appreciate that our fear will constrict the potential for closeness and depth in relationships between human beings.
Fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens.
It is human nature to move back and forth between protecting ourselves from the world, and venturing forth into the world. We can yearn for and also, at the same time, dread the exploration of anything we do not know already or understand – this includes that which lies within us, as well as that which we perceive to be out there in the world.
Orienting from a self-protective mode, we will seek to preserve what is. We will want to keep and hold onto what we already know – about ourselves, about others, and about life in general.
In contrast, orienting from a venturing mode, we will seek out new experiences. We will tend to follow our curiosity; we are willing to shift our status quos, we will readily create and pursue new possibilities for ourselves.
As human beings, we tend to move back and forth across this continuum between preservation and exploration, endlessly weaving a together a fabric of preserved habituations with newly lived experiences, as we move throughout the span of our lives.
Rilke says to us that when we remain caught in the deep fear of what cannot be grasped, explained or known in advance of our exploration (or perhaps cannot be known at all), we gradually become skewed in our orientation towards preservation tactics in order to feel secure about ourselves, and our place in life.
He tells us that this strong pull towards self-preservation and self-protection gradually (and inevitably) impoverishes the souls of human beings by constricting the range of possibilities in human encounters with one another.
By becoming overly focused on self-preservation, we deplete our curiosity, we restrict our openness to what is new, and ultimately, we repress our eros towards the living.
Life may appear more stable to us this way, but little of surprise, wonder or spontaneity can enter us. Life force energies that allow us to be moved, to be creative, or to be adventurous become threats, and are no longer able to enter us, take us, and propel us forward.
In an over-protection and high preservation mode, life will also reduce its flow out from the core of our being: Thus our moods will gradually level and flatten. Our thinking will tend to become fixed; we will believe more and value more what we already know ourselves, and we will do the same with our loved ones, orienting to life as if there were nothing new or more to know.
In addition, as we age, we tend to become more static: We find ourselves looking play it safer, we have less energy to venture; we lean more towards the ‘explicable’- and this is how we slowly become laden and fallow. Often outside of our own awareness, we develop habits over time that reinforce how ‘nothing much happens’.
For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.
It is inevitable, as we become overly cautious and careful and thus self-preserving, that we will slowly, and without noticing, gravitate towards inertia. This leaves us seemingly unable to renew ourselves within the confines of our daily lives – or to move out beyond the boundaries of daily routines at all. Perhaps the biggest indictment of our adult inertia is the experience of pervasive boredom.
Outside of pure ignorance, is it not true that human nature feels most vulnerable at the beginning point of any worthwhile or un-established path? (I suppose this is why it can be said that ‘ignorance is bliss’). If we don’t know what we are getting ourselves into, then we don’t know enough to be hesitant, thwarted or frightened by what is ‘unforeseeable’. For it is typically that which is unforeseen that threatens our sense of safety, security, comfort, certitude.
It tends to be that which we can’t see or know in advance of our experiencing, that will elicit our states of deep anxiety, which increasingly threatens us, by bringing us face-to-face with what appears unpredictable to us – in other words, what life on its own terms, brings to us on a daily basis. We may as well become threatened by what we could bring to life, as we live into it, in each day.
But only someone who is ready for everything, which excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence.
One of the basic tenets of our modern-day ‘inner hero’ work is to ‘expect nothing, and be ready for anything’. This is one of the primary tasks for an adult who wishes to grow beyond their current capacities.
This means learning to say ‘yes’ to life, again and again, as it unfolds. To develop ourselves, we must begin to take up this inclusive approach to life inevitable vicissitudes – and this is no easy task.
But Rilke’s premise implies that the reward of taking up such challenges to the ego is that it will result in a more vital life. As we relate to life on life’s terms, we will become more enlivened, and bring ourselves more to life. We become capable of bringing forth new resources, new life force energies, from within ourselves – because we will be more “response-able”, and thus less reactive and protective.
By embracing an orientation that says ‘yes’ to life, we can discover we have more to give to life, and become less inclined to simply take from it, or stay away from it.
For if we think of this individual existence often as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down. Thus they have a certain security. And yet that dangerous insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.
Again, Rilke speaks to the strong territorial tendency of our egos to carve out a small space in life, make it our own, and get overly attached to it. With this ego-preserving orientation, much of our venturing tends to be set aside, and the exploration of our own potential goes uncultivated and unrealized.
We become more ego-constricted, territorial about our possessions and our potentials. We hold onto them, rather than make good use of them, and this habituation keeps us small.
Rilke also gives us a useful metaphor here of the psyche. These ‘corners’ of our rooms, these strips of floors; they eventually imprison us due to the territorial identification and ‘hold’ we have on them. These well-worn places in our psyches become limiting and fixed as we ward off what is in the next room, yet alone in the basement.
I am reminded of the many darkened nights I’ve spent at our Journey Intensive wilderness site in the West Virginia mountain forests. There is a natural human inclination to want to use a flashlight when walking around in the darkness of night, so we can see better what is right in front of us.
At the same time, this un-natural sourcing of light makes the natural darkness surrounding what we illumine with a flashlight darker than it actually is, something threatening, to be kept at bay. When we practice instead a conscious and mindful walking in the darkness, we learn to step forward more slowly, and with a patience that slows us down, we become more be able to perceive within the darkness. It also incorporates darkness into our internal experience more intimately, and allows this inner terrain to be something we also fear less.
We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing, which should intimidate or worry us. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.
Here, Rilke makes the bold declaration of moving beyond fear, and beyond an imprisoning form of consciousness. We are all, in our essence, elemental life force energies, bodies that vibrate with energy, creatures of and from this earth. Human beings are, in this way, elemental – as we have evolved from the earth’s very chemical elements, over hundreds of thousands of years, adapting and bringing forth new and emergent capacities, as creative adaptations to our circumstances. We have physical bodies that become so like the life itself that exists here on the earth.
But our psyches have also evolved and adapted. We have many more rooms and floors to our psychic homes, compared to our ancestors of long ago. And so we can create for ourselves new troubles as well.
Rilke tells us that we need not mistrust this world, for life itself is not against us. It may be more true the other way around: perhaps it is that our own scared and hostile minds have turned against life as it is, with all its unavoidable ordeals, disappointments and tragedies. Maybe this is what locks us into the corners of our minds, so that we see ourselves as prisoners.
Rilke goes on – yes, there is terror in and of this world. But regardless, we also project this terror out on to the world from inside our minds. Yes, there are abysses in this life – and we belong to them, and so must explore them – in the same way we belong to and aim to climb mountaintops.
Yes, life is dangerous. And safety may be in the end our final danger, precisely because the failure to properly risk isn’t recognized as a danger; so subtle and so gradual is its ensnarement.
What does it mean to love the dangers at hand? Perhaps we can learn to stand in the presence of our perceived dangers long enough to extract something meaningful from it, and discover as well the newly emerging resources from within us. Vital life force energy is what can be discovered within, a life source, something to be gained from an opportunity presented by a ‘dangerous’ moment, well faced. This is what the potential yield can be.
And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses?
This is one of my favorite passages from Rilke’s great body of work. Holding to what is difficult does not necessarily glorify or ennoble suffering. It doesn’t imply that pain itself is good for you; it doesn’t mean that life has to be more grueling than it actually is.
But when we dismiss the first noble truth of Buddhist teachings – that life is difficult – and then attempt to subvert or avoid this reality in service or ego-preserving tendencies, our life of the soul diminishes, and we tend to create even more severe difficulties in the process.
It is actually a rather human venturing instinct to pursue the paths most alien to us, as our most unrealized potential lies along that part, and some deeper part of our soul nature knows this inherently.
We are following the myth of a hero’s journey when we purposely choose a path that has not already been made for us by someone else. If there were already a path, Joseph Campbell would say, it was made by someone else, and so it is meant for somebody else. We must find that path that only we can take and follow it, in order to find the bliss that is our own.
Rilke mines these types of mythic tales, ones where dragons return back, turning into their original, true and natural form – princesses! But we don’t know that in advance, as we can’t see the ‘unforeseeable’. It only comes in view as we face our dragons, our inner daemons, practiced with a fiercely loving compassion, which enters us into the realm of the inexplicable. This realm of mystery is found in all the great and timeless myths.
…perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
This final passage in particular is the one that slays the dragon in me – the dragons are my own deepest fears. This slaying moves me inwardly beyond words. Perhaps everything terrible – in me, in you – is truly, in its deepest being, simply a consciousness in us that has known profound helplessness – and is now coming forth, at last, to be helped.
On the path of awakening, we all must inevitably learn to do what it takes to hold on to this depth of compassionate awareness when we find ourselves facing threatening people, life events, or unwelcoming circumstances. Perhaps these threatening elements show themselves in their dragon forms as (primarily unconscious) cries for help.
Perhaps these aspects of our own inner dragons come forth in a similar way, secretly hoping that others might finally be able to withstand us and love us – in ways we ourselves as are yet unable to do – and know these dragons are not our true nature. This is a tall order, no doubt – facing and risking that a redeeming form of compassion just might reach towards the worst in us – if we could only recognize it as such.
What threatens you most in your day-to-day inner reality right now? What is most familiar about the way you react emotionally to your perceived sense of threat? How have you endlessly justified an inner posture of self-preservation or over-protection? How do you now get beyond the familiarity of this defensive stance?
How can you now cross a fresh threshold, and enter into a new experience or outcome?
What would it require of each of us, in the times we are now facing, to step towards a new path, and explore new potential outcomes, going somewhere we have not gone before, beyond the constrictions of ego-preservation, and leave behind our overworked, threatened corner of our room?
When we finally pass back and forth across this threshold of fear – we open to the new life awaiting us. And in this freshness and vulnerability, we can touch upon a loving compassion once more, and be made anew.
By opening to what has been alien and unexplored in us and around us, we become, inexplicably, beautiful and brave.
– Michael Mervosh
Fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished the existence of the individual; the relationship between one human being and another has also been cramped by it, as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens. For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.
But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence. For if we think of this existence often individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down. Thus they have a certain security. And yet that dangerous insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.
We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
– Rainier Maria Rilke