The Path is Everywhere Sample

***This sample is taken from Chapter 1, “The Union of Dark and Light,” from the book, The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You, by Matt Licata, PhD. To learn more about the book, and read additional sample material, please visit Matt’s Amazon page. You are welcome to share this sample with others, but please include a link to the book’s page at Amazon if you do so. Thank you. 

The Full-Spectrum Nature of Love

In speaking recently with a friend, I was reminded of the great bias in modern culture toward the light and away from the darkness. When we encounter someone who is feeling down, empty, or flat—or otherwise not beaming, joyful, and overflowing with hope—we can quickly become convinced that something is wrong, that they are broken and we must act urgently to fix them. Sitting in this field with another has an uncanny way of activating this same unresolved material within ourselves. For a moment, we question whether we are okay as a sense of restlessness fills the space between us.

The raw, shaky, claustrophobic feelings triggered in these moments usually remain outside conscious awareness unless and until we cultivate the curiosity and openness required to explore them. Ordinarily, however, before we know it we’re scrambling to put the other person back together again, rushing to remind them of all the gifts in their life, imparting spiritual techniques and philosophies to provide a larger perspective, and admonishing them to “get over it” and “focus on the positive,” all in the attempt to convince them that everything will be better soon and it will all turn out okay.

It is so natural to want to help another and lessen their pain. There is nothing wrong with this intention and employing whatever skillful means we have to bring relief, including sharing our own wisdom and experience. We need not shame or pathologize the movement toward reducing unwanted symptoms and disturbing emotions.

But let us be sure to keep our eyes open. In the activity of prioritizing relief, we might recognize a subtle aggression in our insistence that the other come out of their immediate experience and into the one we believe they should be having instead, especially if that desired state will keep us out of some very vulnerable territory within ourselves. Even as we wish them peace instead of agitation, joy instead of heartbreak, or clarity instead of confusion (clearly a very noble intention), it is possible we are being called into deeper territory. There may be a profound wisdom in the symptoms, an important communication from psyche and from the heart, which is seeking safe passage in the intersubjective field between. In the spirit of open inquiry, we may discover how much of our “fixing” activity arises not from true compassion for the other but from an unresolved relationship with the darkness within.

Possibly the kindest thing we can offer our suffering friend is to sit in the charged energy with them, holding their experience and staying close, removing the burden that they come out of their pain, feel better, transform, or heal in order for us to stay near. This doesn’t mean we don’t deeply wish their suffering to end; of course we do. But it does mean we are willing to slow down and cultivate a skillful, empathic awareness of what the situation truly calls for. To do so requires that we drop into the wisdom of the body, become more deeply rooted in the heart, and open to the nonconventional intelligence buried within their process. When we prioritize the urgency of relief over the slowness of presence, it is very easy to overlook the dark yet pregnant creativity and guidance that is seeking to emerge. In ways they may not be able to articulate in a moment of pain and confusion, their deepest longing may be to have their experience held rather than “cured,” to know that there is someone on this planet who can truly feel them, as they are, and that they do not need to become someone else to maintain the connection. Someone who believes in them and the innate intelligence of their experience, who can model and mirror trust in the face of confusion and is willing to stay with them as the wisdom unfolds. As we turn to embrace our own unmet heartbreak, grief, and despair, we remove the projection of our unlived lives from those around us. We lift the weight of asking that others take care of our unresolved material for us. Withdrawing this projection is an immense act of kindness that seeds the relational field with presence and compassion.

As we learn to trust and rest in the innate wisdom contained in our present experience exactly as it is, we discern that love is a movement of the totality. It is whole, never partial, and is thundering and alive even in the darkness. In the core of the fear, sadness, grief, and despair there is something real attempting to break through the dream of partiality. But what this is may never support our cultural and spiritual fantasies of a life of certainty, invulnerability, and permanent happy feelings. We can begin to embrace the radical possibility that even depression, anxiety, heartbreak, and rage are appropriate responses to a world that has forgotten, and to a person’s embodied loss of meaning, purpose, and connection. These responses are not pathological but have their own purity and are valid expressions of psyche and the heart. But we must reorganize our perception in order to attune to this level of unfolding intelligence.

From the perspective of wholeness, every inner experience is worthy of our attention, ultimately workable, and a pathway back home into presence. From within this new orientation (which may be a bit disorienting at first), the idea of a particular feeling being an “obstacle” falls away and is replaced by a deepening curiosity to know ourselves at the most subtle levels. From the center of what you are, it is then seen that life is not only the joy and the sweetness. At times it will arrive seething out of the darkness to reorder the status quo and shake the very foundation of what you thought you knew to be true. In this surging of your inner family, the transformative nature of your experience will be revealed and the portals to aliveness will appear as they are: infinite. The path is everywhere, even (especially) in the places where we least expect it.

May you stay close to your suffering and the suffering of others, careful not to cut it too quickly, remaining curious and available to the wisdom as it unfolds in unanticipated ways. Before you rush to discard the disturbing symptoms, open to the full-spectrum nature of love in all its forms, turn toward it, and finally see what it has to say.

Only Love in Disguise

What is the hidden part of ourselves we call the “shadow”? Those unwanted aspects of the personality that we spend so much time avoiding in the attempt to maintain the outward persona we have created? Many of us have come to intuit just how exhausting this self-maintenance project truly is: disowning and sequestering the darker (and often more creative) aspects of our personality while cultivating and leading with those parts we wish others to see and identify with us. Especially for those of us interested in things like spirituality and healing, we can see how much energy it requires to keep up the conditioned identities of the spiritual one, the wise one, the one who has figured something out, and the one who has transcended it all. While much of this activity is natural and hardwired, many are discovering that this level of life management has a way of cutting into the sense of fresh, naked aliveness that they so profoundly long for.

Throughout this book, when I use the words “shadow,” “unwanted,” or “abandoned,” I am referring to those feelings, emotions, and parts of ourselves that we very intelligently disconnected, disassociated, and split off from in order to maintain the critical tie to the attachment figures around us. The shadow consists of all those aspects, both positive and negative, that we were not able to provide a home for as they arose in our experience and threatened our bonds with others, or otherwise led to a flooding of anxiety and dysregulating overwhelm in our sensitive brains and nervous systems.

For example, if every time we felt sad and expressed this sadness, it resulted in anger and distance from Dad, or generated anxiety in Mom, we learned very quickly that sadness was unsafe. If we were somehow able to disembody and place the sadness outside our awareness when it threatened to manifest, we could effectively avoid the rejection and untoward reactions from our environment. This developed capacity of dissociation kept us safe and as connected as possible to the care, attention, and affection we so critically needed as young children in our families of origin. But it simultaneously had the undesired effect of cutting us off from an important dimension of our experience, creating a split in our self-identity, and divided us against ourselves in ways that continue to produce suffering and struggle as adults. Over time, then, whenever sadness arises (a completely ordinary, valid, and normal occasion in the life of any human being), we engage in a variety of avoidant strategies to quarantine the sadness from our conscious experience, distance ourselves from it, and do whatever it takes to refrain from appearing sad to others. Because the expression of sadness has become associated with aggression, rejection, or a flood of anxiety, we will (usually unconsciously) pretend we are not sad, shame ourselves if sadness arises, talk ourselves out of it, pontificate on how grateful we are instead, or engage in a variety of defensive and avoidant behaviors to keep it at bay. Obviously, this is not the best recipe for a healthy, mature intimacy, and has a way of wreaking havoc in our interpersonal relationships.

In developing these strategies, we were not getting rid of the sadness, but only burying it deeper into the unconscious, where it will be sure to leak out in a variety of less-than-conscious ways, in the form of “symptoms” of all kinds, relational conflict, and a growing sense of unease, restlessness, disconnection, and existential fatigue. The flatness that many report comes from a lifetime of abandoning their inner experience and splitting off from parts of themselves that they associated early on with unworkable states of anxiety and dysregulation. If repressing and stuffing the sadness (feel free to substitute whatever emotion was disallowed in your early environment) eliminated it at the deepest levels, this approach would be an expression of wisdom and skillful means. But the reality is that denying these aspects not only doesn’t make them go away, but it keeps us organized around them, spinning around a central axis. We continue to remain in relationship with them, though in a way that is fragmented and for the most part outside conscious awareness, where we are unable to integrate and make use of their underlying energy as fuel for our own healing (and the healing of others). Many I speak with continue to wonder why they feel cut off from life but can never quite pinpoint the cause. This ongoing, chronic activity of dissociation is often the culprit. The remedy to this may be obvious but requires ongoing work that is not easy—that of re-embodying, re-owning, working through, and integrating what has been placed into the unconscious and is one of the essential (non-negotiable) practices on any mature path of awakening and healing.

For each of us, there were certain features of our experience—feelings, emotions, ways of being, certain forms of creativity, spiritual longings, and so forth—that, when embodied and expressed, led to the withdrawal of contact, mirroring, and attunement from the caregiving field around us. As a result, when these disavowed aspects of our self-experience inevitably arose in our interactions with others, we became flooded with what felt like survival-level anxiety that we didn’t have the capacity to digest. Rather than risk complete breakdown and fragmentation in our developing sense of self, we very intelligently disowned and sequestered this material outside awareness and into the unconscious, into that dimension of our psychic experience called “the shadow.”

In response to the anxiety that accompanied the shadow material, we brought forward a variety of defensive strategies in the attempt to care for ourselves and prevent the full-scale overwhelm that our inner disquiet foretold. It took a tremendous amount of energy and creativity to isolate this material outside our conscious awareness, a developmental capacity that most achieve around the ages of four or five. Even though these strategies were critical in preserving the integrity of our sense of self—as well as, in some cases, our actual psychic or physical survival—they did not dissolve this material or heal it in any complete or ongoing way. We were able to manage it and keep it from overwhelming the psyche, but it remains active in an unconscious form, operating under the surface. It will continue to seek the light of conscious awareness until its reintegration, usually in less-than-conscious ways that get us into trouble and generate unnecessary suffering, struggle, and conflict for ourselves and others.

We need only look to our intimate relationships as very vivid reminders of that which remains unresolved within us. Owing to the power of intimacy to constellate this material and bring it into the here and now, relationship might be seen as the royal road to the unconscious, a modern-day temple and crucible in which split-off, dissociated material may be most skillfully illuminated and worked through. Especially as we allow another to matter to us, let them into our hearts, and assume the risks that vulnerable, exposed, embodied intimacy always requires, we can count on this material to vividly present itself as it longs for holding and metabolization. As nearly all of our early wounding arose within interpersonal contexts, it makes sense that it will be most powerfully activated (as well as untangled) within a relational field. Many of us have experienced this, often the hard way, in our journeys as lovers, partners, parents, children, close friends, and clients in therapy. We all know the experience of having someone we care about say something rather innocuous, or fail to respond right away or in the way we’d like, only to be flooded seconds later with unexplainable and seemingly irrational feelings of fear, rage, abandonment, and rejection.

The “unwanted,” then, are those archaic organizing beliefs and their associated bodily feelings and emotional conclusions that, when arising in the here and now, trigger a subtle (or not so subtle) outpouring of anxiety and sense of urgency. Things just do not feel safe. While on some level we may sense that our terror is not rational, this does very little to calm the storm. Something is happening in our bodies that is primal and not subject to logical analysis. In the language of neuroscience, the cool, relaxed, slow wisdom of the prefrontal cortex is “hijacked” by the urgent, irrational, speedy reactivity of the amygdala. It is clear we must respond and we spin into motion, usually by way of seeking regulation through the ancient pathways of fight, flight, or freeze. It is the undoing and reorganization of these habitual pathways—seeding them with empathic, attuned, compassionate presence—that is one of the core essences of this work.

Rather than turn toward the unmet unknown as it surges into conscious awareness—and confront with loving awareness the very shaky, restless, and claustrophobic energy that surrounds it—we move away, reenacting the young strategies and avoidant behaviors that were designed to return us to safe ground. The challenge, of course, is that by not directly and consciously working with this material as adults with capacities we once did not possess, we keep it alive, burning within us until it is inevitably triggered yet again. We condition ourselves that it is still not workable, that staying with it will overwhelm us as it did when we were young children, and that urgently seeking relief is our only option. It is as if we’ve stepped into a time machine and have returned to our lives as young children, doing whatever we must to put the fire out, even if it means abandoning and splitting off from ourselves, attacking our own self-integrity and practicing violence toward our own precious vulnerability. It is this chronic abandonment of ourselves over time that can lead to a variety of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, flatness, and dissatisfaction of all kinds. This primordial discontent—or core, existential anguish—is what the Buddha referred to in his first noble truth.

The unwanted can take form as sadness, rage, loneliness, or shame; or as a deeply embedded sense of unworthiness, fear, rejection, and abandonment. Without realizing how it came to be, we find ourselves convinced that something has gone terribly wrong that we must resolve as soon as possible, lest we decompensate and lose touch with who we are. In these moments, a very powerful practice we can do is to slow down and inquire carefully what it is above all else that we simply do not want to feel, that if we were to allow in would overwhelm us, take us out of our window of tolerance, and result in devastating and life-shattering consequences. 

We each have a certain feeling or family of feelings that have come to be associated with danger, overwhelm, and unworkable anxiety of all kinds. For example, you don’t receive a text when your partner says she will text you; you receive some feedback about your performance at work that is obviously unfair; you get into a heated political or religious conversation that constellates profound feelings of rage; you’re misunderstood or not seen as you are, critiqued and called out during an argument; your partner bails instead of listening and processing a difficult situation. Someone questions your spiritual realization or calls you a fraud; questions your business ethics or says nasty things about someone you love. All of a sudden it’s as if you are four or five years old, back in your family of origin, fighting and fleeing to get out of the burning energy underneath it all—anything to cut into the panic, groundlessness, and sense of impending danger. It’s as if the walls are closing around you, it’s getting claustrophobic, and there are no means to escape.

The invitation, of course, is to first of all breathe deeply. Slow down and feel your feet on the ground. Soothe the shock to your nervous system in whatever way works best for you—take a walk, count to ten, call a friend, take a bath, go out in nature, play with your dog, have some water, or do some yoga. Once you have calmed a bit, you can slowly begin to invite the previously abandoned material back into your conscious experience, where you can work with it and begin the gradual process of training yourself to tolerate, contain, open into, and metabolize it with adult-level capacities you did not have as a young child. This is not easy work, it’s not usually going to feel immediately peaceful or blissful, and has a way of initiating all sorts of secondary feelings of unsafety, shame, abandonment, and unworthiness. It is often messy and uncomfortable. But you can do it—one second at a time, two seconds, three seconds, and then rest.

You can descend underneath the swirling storyline for just a moment (you can return to it later for reauthoring from a more soothed, grounded place) and stay with what was once impossible to contain, tolerate, and eventually open into. Over time, as you train yourself to stay in this way, you may come to discover a certain freedom that is always present, even as you push yourself into uncomfortable territory. Like any muscle, the more you practice, the more the muscle of empathic attunement will grow and develop, and over time it will become second nature and not require a lot of effort to engage. I never cease to be astonished at how those I have worked with have evolved this capacity over time—not years, but weeks and months. Even those with the most profound, deeply embedded trauma and attachment wounding—the plasticity of the human brain and the courage of the human heart to seed new pathways are outrageous and truly awesome.

The reality is that you need not abandon yourself any longer. You are worthy of care, holding, and attunement that you perhaps did not receive earlier on your developmental journey. While the template of self-abandonment and aggression toward your experience may be alive and well in your neural net, you can rewire and reorganize the pathways. It may seem impossible to stay with what feels unbearable, but slowly, you can do it. But it does take practice, courage, curiosity, and the cultivating of radical new levels of kindness toward yourself. For many, this sort of self-care is completely foreign and was never modeled in their families of origin, but the good news is that it can be learned and you can start exactly where you are. If you are sequestering important aspects of who you are—isolating them into the shadow and out of conscious, holding awareness—you may always feel half alive, slightly flat and down, and not fully here, even if things are going relatively well in your life.

The entirety of who and what you are is welcome in the miracle of the here and now, and it is only through a fully embodied and compassionate relationship with all of you that you can discover and embody the aliveness you so deeply long for. By doing this work over time, you can discover that the shadow, in some paradoxical way, is only love in disguise, come to reintroduce you to the field of space, warmth, and presence that you are. By turning back toward yourself, you lay a new pathway of empathic attunement, hold and metabolize the energies of the somatic and emotional worlds, and become available to yourself and others in wise and loving new ways.

***This sample is taken from Chapter 1, “The Union of Dark and Light,” from the book, The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You, by Matt Licata, PhD. To learn more about the book, and read additional sample material, please visit Matt’s Amazon page.