You've seen them, knots, tight like a fist, complicated, seemingly impenetrable. They tie boats to docks, keep hot air balloons from floating away. They can be useful and yet they can be a nuisance as well. When you touch them they feel as stiff as oak tree bark and you wonder how such a thing could possibly become undone. Knots form in the mind as well. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about such knots in his book Peace Is Every Step. Knots are "internal formations," problems our minds circulate around in the absence of clear understanding.
For instance, a person experiencing panic attacks at work may conjure up a hundred different medical diagnoses when the real issue is she is in the wrong career. Her knot is the dissatisfaction with her job, and these other ideas are adding to the problem, making it more of a tangle. TNH says of knots:
<They> need our full attention as soon as they manifest, while they are still weak, so that the work of transformation is easy. If we do not untie our knots when they form, they will grow tighter and stronger. Our conscious, reasoning mind knows that negative feelings such as anger, fear, and regret are not wholly acceptable to ourselves or society, so it finds ways to repress them, to push them into remote areas of our consciousness in order to forget them.
If the person with the panic attacks is mindful, she might take some time off to let the underlying issue rise to the surface. If she doesn't and continues to push until her nerves start to unravel, she might make that knot even tighter and create a bigger problem for herself: perhaps she might develop an ulcer or descend into a depression. TNH says "our internal formations are always looking for ways to manifest as destructive images, feelings, thoughts, words, or behavior."
Lately I've been having anxious dreams; it's as if my younger, knottier self is governing my nighttime state of mind. In one dream I am wandering the halls of my high school (which isn't really the high school I attended, but a surreal place with an Olympic size pool and a food court) looking for my trigonometry class. The bell has already rung and every door is shut; I am not only lost but late. In another, I am in
the backseat of my father's car; my brother is in the front seat. We
are driving along one of those long bridges in Florida that connects a
chain of islands. In one moment I am looking down to the aqua marine
water below and the white sand, in the next, I am looking through the
windshield into the belly of a tsunami wave.
I told a friend about the dream of the wave and she said, "dive through it and come out the other side." And I thought of Good Harbor Beach and the waves there, how in late July, they can be quite intimidating. You watch other people do it, dive into that smooth place at the nape of the wave and blip out the other side. They make it look so easy. But with every wave, there is that lack of faith, that it will pummel you. When I was younger, I was obsessed with the wave of anxiety inside me, with bodily sensations, tightness, fear and dread. I thought of failure and death a lot and had very little faith in anything. I tried therapy, but talking made me feel worse. I tried drugs, crystals, alternative medicines. I left my job as an engineer and became a catering waitress. I dated the wrong men and had very little confidence. I wrote one thousand and one pages of terrible prose. With every decision I made, I tied my knots even tighter.
But when you're young and naive, taut, convoluted knots are part of the journey. In your twenties, your untied knots link with others' untied knots forming long chains of pain. When you're older, you don't want to deal with this headache anymore. You want to untie those knots as soon as possible.
Recently, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about untying knots. The journalist, William Hageman, interviewed a knot researcher and historian, Des Pawson, who runs the Museum of Knots and Sailor's Ropework in England. He says of knots, "try pushing some slack into the knot" and "once you get some movement there's light at the end of the tunnel."
One would think this is an intuitive thing, pushing slack into a knot.
Well, slack is the opposite of tension. Of stress. Slack involves a sort of finesse, a confidence. It might involve a tool or two and it most definitely involves compassion. In untying a mind knot, one must be compassion with oneself and/or seek out compassionate persons. For me, this person is my meditation teacher, who, through the mechanism of compassion and guided meditation, saved me from my own erroneous belief system. I told her I wanted not to tie (tight) knots in my mind any longer. I wanted to dive through the belly of the wave. Whatever is churning in my unconscious, I want to identify it and be done with it. I want to illuminate it with understanding and not obfuscate the situation with over-thinking. Her advice was simple and complicated at the same time. She said, "trust yourself" and "practice mindfulness."
Here is the landscape: it is stark and gray, the trees are stiff, lifeless veins, the road is powdered with salt, the crows are haunts that ramble on, the snow has turned to old ice caked with sediment. It is cold, still, but in the morning, the air is alive with light and the birds are drunk with spring. I wake early in the morning from a jolt. It has all the signs of last year's depression, but I've untied that knot. Here is my blessed breath in a small box around my mouth; this is my sacristy. TNH claims it is the Holy Spirit, (spirit meaning breath); God breathes through us. This is why it is a sacred thing, to acknowledge the breath. To be mindful. It falls away in a few moments, the illusions, the knots, the waves, and there is nothing but the me I have always known, in stillness.