The Art of the Breakdown

“I’m having a breakdown” is not a very commonly accepted thing to say in public.

In self-improvement circles, you break down obstacles, not your own personality or beliefs. In business meetings, giving a breakdown is code for better understanding, not something that eliminates all understanding and places you in the midst of uncertainty and confusion.

But when it comes to a person experiencing a breakdown? Whether that be a crisis of identity, a meltdown of emotions, or a midlife crisis? We don’t talk about that. It seems synonymous with going crazy. So, we don’t honor this, either.

Yet, when you look back on your life, you can see that the breakdowns are when you evaluated what really mattered to you and what didn’t. These are the times when the facades fade and we face the truth, where we lose trust in others and have only ourselves to lean on, when the habits and routines can’t save us and we must go in search of our lost instinct and intuition. Despite what society might teach us, breakdowns are not a sign that we’re going crazy. Rather, they are indicators that it’s time to lose the associations, ties, and connections with all that is not us, so we can rebuild from what is us.

A breakdown, when viewed through wise, compassionate eyes, can become one of the most potent and transformative times in our lives. It is only out of a breakdown we can regain clarity and sovereignty over our own lives.

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things dont’ really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. It’s just like that. The healing comes form letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

~Pema Chodren, When Things Fall Apart

So, rather than avoiding these periods of time that are often put upon us by situations and circumstances beyond our control, we can accept their purpose, and learn how to let them unravel us in such a way we will one day emerge from the breakdown not broken, but reborn.

Alchemy, the ancient science of transformation, gives us the best model for how to go through a breakdown, and come out the other side as an elixir. Or, turn everything that’s “leaded” in you (old, heavy, useless, valueless) into “gold” (wisdom, life lessons).

An alchemical experiment

Over quarantine, I practiced the art of alchemy in my kitchen.

I didn’t work with metals. I worked with herbs, transforming them from simple plants to magical, healing elixirs.

The process taught me what it really looks like, and what it requires, to undergo transformation.

The first step was to grind the herbs down into a powder, put them in a jar, and then add alcohol. Then, I place saran wrap over the mouth of the jar and then sealed the jar with a tight-fitting lid. The point was to hermetically seal the herb inside the jar. Nothing could escape. Everything that evaporated had no choice except to condense again. There were no outside elements added, and nothing removed.

Over time, the herb began to break down and disassemble until one jar of hermetically-sealed herbs was indistinguishable from another. They became simply prima materia, or primary material that I then used in the next stages of the transformation, eventually turning the herb into an elixir that brings healing to me each and every day.

The breakdown lessons

What does this have to do with us humans? Everything, actually, especially if you are in the midst of a breakdown, and want to use that to fuel a full body, mind, and spirit transformation.

Here is what I learned:

You don’t transform through addition

We’ve all been conditioned to believe that in order to transform our lives, we need to find just the right set of tips and tricks. We need to add something to our lives. Or, perhaps we believe that we have to first get to a certain place in life, or find the right mentor, or, or, or. But the truth is, we transform from where we are. Just as we are. We need nothing but ourselves. You are ready now. You will not be more ready later.

You don’t transform through subtraction

The transformation process is so powerful, you do not have to first rid yourself of anything. You don’t have to be “clean” or “pure” or even “ready”, whatever that means. You only need to be willing to step into the hermetically-sealed space.

No running away (distractions)

Had I opened the jar to check on my plant’s progress, I would’ve ruined the experiment. Had I not sealed it properly, I would’ve never seen the results of transformation. The key to transforming the plant into an elixir is that I gave it no escape, no way out. The jar was the place in which the breakdown of the herbs occurred. It created a place of safety, but also one of no distractions, obligations, or demands.

The first stage of transformation is the breakdown stage, whereby we return first to our prima materia, which translates to first matter, and can be seen as our essential self. Eventually, from the ashes of this stage, we will decide, with mindfulness and patience, what comes along into a new rebirth, and what is returned to the universe for recycling. But in order for us to separate what is us from what is not, we must break everything down. And here’s the thing: if you’re going to have a breakdown, it’s important that you’re in a safe, confined, enclosed space.

What does this look like in real life? If you can actually steal away to a hermitage by yourself for a week or more, where there are no outside requirements or pressures, that’s ideal. If you cannot, then do what you can to free yourself of outside obligations. Make sure to communicate to the people around that you’re undergoing an alchemical transformation, and let them provide a container of safety for you — let them take your calls, your emails, your appointments, or whatever else is possible. This way, you can dive into the breakdown stage, letting them care for the “jar.” It might require you to step away from certain people and situations that require you to hold onto ways of being that need to get broken down.

See it through

If I would’ve not let the alcohol and plant work together for the stated time (2 weeks) I would’ve had little more than wet plants on my hands. I would not have had the makings of an elixir, but something far more suited to the compost bin.

I think one of the reasons we are so scared of a breakdown in our culture is that we don’t see them through. In our society, when you fall, you’re taught to get back up as soon as you can. Our favorite hero stories and rags-to-riches tales teach us all about how you get back up. And so, after a breakdown, or a loss, or a miscarriage, or a failure — we do what we’re taught. And then, we go back into the world too soon, like a taped-up Humpty Dumpty. We get back to our duties and life as usual.

This strategy never works for long. The energy it requires to hold ourselves together eventually overpowers us, and we fall again.

Sometimes, we have to let ourselves fall apart, break down, melt down. Don’t be afraid of becoming nothing for a while, of going into an undoing. Sometimes, the most powerful realizations, and the most rewarding reclamations, come in the midst of a breakdown.

We are part of it all

Look to nature, and the cycles we are a part of. Nothing is exempt from the cycles of life. We are meant to live multiple lives within this one timeline; we are here to keep undoing and redoing ourselves for the sake of knowing ourselves — just like nature does.

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