People don’t exist in vacuums; we are tested and proved through what we do when what is most dear to us is threatened or taken away. We see who we really are when we’re our most vulnerable; vulnerability also shows us where our boundaries are.
In depth psychology, we refer to complexes, which are a cluster of mental factors associated unconsciously with a particular subject or theme in the individual’s life. The simplest way of understanding a complex is the way Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh describes it, which is as a knot. The Buddhists have a concept called an internal formation, which acts very much like the complex of depth psychology. The development of a knot or internal formation is described thus on the Awakening blog:
When we have a sensory input, depending on how we receive it, a knot may be tied in us. When someone speaks unkindly to us, if we understand the reason and do not take his or her words to heart, we will not feel irritated at all, and no knot will be tied. But if we do not understand why we were spoken to that way and we become irritated, a knot will be tied in us. The absence of clear understanding is the basis for every knot.
Put in Jungian terms, the knot isn’t typically tied the moment someone speaks in an unkind way or otherwise hurts us. The most troublesome knots have already been tied in the past, usually by a parent or significant person in our life, or knotted up around a concept such as our love or respect for ourselves, our value, etc. Proverbs 26:2 says, “like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, so a curse without a cause will not alight.” As a general rule of thumb, what irritates, angers, and wounds us can’t build a nest unless a tree is there first. When the writer of Hebrews warned Christians to let no root of bitterness spring up, he was referring to potentiality and proportion: from a relatively small beginning, a very large thing may grow.
$249.98 AND TWO KNOTS LATER
You’ve just spent almost two hours at your neighborhood Target store, buying groceries and back-to-school stuff for your kids. The checkout lines are long, so you brace yourself for the last leg of your retail journey. As you wait in line behind another mother doing back-to-school shopping, you notice that the girl at the cash register seems angry. Her mannerisms are sharp, quick, and rough. She keeps her eyes on the items and nearly barks at the customer when an item without a price tag is discovered. She rolls her eyes as she turns on the lane light requesting a manager’s assistance.
Under normal circumstances, you’d hardly notice her behavior as you went through the line. Out of boredom, you might speculate about the cause of her impatience, or associate her several facial piercings with angry young people and grin ruefully within yourself. Even if you noticed, though, you’d be most likely to smile sympathetically and ask, “rough day?” or something similar, eliciting a grudging smile from the girl at the register. You wouldn’t normally personalize her actions.
But supposing the girl has the mannerisms of your mean second grade teacher, Mrs. Smith. Second grade was hell for you that year; you never stopped feeling afraid in class. All year you had a knot in your stomach every time you entered her classroom, because you never knew when Mrs. Smith was going to whack you in the back of the head with her ruler. She regularly said that you were dull-witted and slow. It wasn’t until years later that you learned that you are neither dull-witted or slow, but that your temperament type isn’t the best at pencil-and-paper work, and that many artists, musicians, and writers share your MBTI type.
As you stand in line, you don’t consciously recall how abandoned you felt when you tearfully told your mom and dad about Mrs. Smith’s meanness, and they impatiently interrupted and told you to take care of it yourself. Your parents were no help, but you didn’t understand that they were preoccupied with adult worries. You don’t recall that this was also the year your mother was diagnosed with a uterine growth and had a hysterectomy. None of this information is consciously available to you, but all of the emotional results of these situations are very much alive and active even now.
You don’t know all this as you stand in the checkout line, of course. As you stand there, you remember nothing from the past, and thus can connect nothing. But you feel a growing irritation; a knot starts to form in your belly. Unbeknownst to you, it is the Knot of Second Grade. You feel the knot, but you cannot think the knot through as you wait in line. Thinking through the knots and thus untangling them takes much time and diligent work. Catching yourself tangled in bits of the knot as you go through life takes great vigilance. But because you’re not conscious to your knot or the snare it is to you, your exasperation increases with each impatiently scanned item and grumbling statement the checkout girl makes.
The outcome of being ensnared by our own knots depends on many factors. If you’re the only one with a knot in the situation, you may simply carry the irritation with you to the car and mentally curse the girl at the register. If she has a knot that you make worse, the two of you may get into a tangle like two necklaces in a jewelry box. Her surliness and your irritation may combine to require calling for a manager. “Your girl is being rude and rang my items wrong!” you’ll heatedly exclaim. The girl may just stand there, eyes downcast, seething with anger because her own knot is growing, a knot surrounding middle aged women like her mother (you are judgmental, demanding, and mean, just like her mom).
I’m convinced that many of the conflicts we experience in everyday life arise from our own knots or complexes, which have the power to make us into caricatures of our best selves. Our knots entrench us in such a way that it’s impossible to yield to others, because we’re fighting for truth but don’t know it. If forced to yield, we become disproportionately angry. We assert our rights; we are willing to cut people out of our lives like cancerous growths.
BEING HERE NOW
The Bible teaches that sin—missing the mark of what is loving, true, good, and right—separates us from God, our own true selves, and others. Love and truth build relationships and people. Love is unity; but there can be no unity without consciousness and awareness in the present moment. If one person in a relationship or situation is not present, but is caught up in the snare of some past knot, that person is not really there. That person is still in the past.
To love is to be present and there; Thich Nhat Hanh writes that “if you are not really there, nothing is there.” The thing is to be here now. If you’re truly in the present while standing in line at Target, the sharp movements and unhappy presence of the checkout girl can only inspire you to be empathetic and compassionate. Everything about this girl—her shabby clothing, her fingernails bitten to the quick, the yellowing bruises on her upper arms—speak trauma. Something is wrong in her life and it’s not about you. It’s only about you if you have a knot to untie.