When our lives are no longer working—perhaps because we’re stuck in life-sapping routines, or we are going through a heartbreaking loss, or simply because we are utterly confused about our life’s meaning and purpose—we are in a state of Breakdown. This can be frightening insofar as it heralds a crisis of identity. At the same time, Breakdowns—when we face them head-on—can create opportunities for awakening.

Breakdown at Age 17

I (Uhl) vividly recall a time in my junior year of high school when my parents went out of town for the weekend. Seeing an opportunity for a party, I invited my friends over and soon my house was filled with friends, beer and rock’n’roll music. But, then, halfway through the evening—though the music was still blasting and the beer flowing—I experienced a shift from being an active participant in the party to a subdued observer.

Caught in the throes of melancholy, I remember surveying the scene, as a sociologist might, observing a pack of teens, on the cusp of adulthood, releasing pent-up energy; and it was in that moment that I realized that this gathering—the pinnacle of a cool teen event—had become, for me, mostly, meaningless.

Rather than opening another beer, I retreated upstairs and picked up a Time magazine. In retrospect, I was yearning for something deeper, something that might penetrate down into the knotty mass of feelings, questions and insecurities swirling at my core, clamoring to be touched and acknowledged. Said differently: I was seeking something meaningful which wasn’t to be found at the bottom of a bottle of beer, nor in the pages of a conventional news magazine. Indeed, like the party downstairs, what Time portrayed were humans caught up in a frenetic culture, often marked by shallowness, insecurity and confusion.

Now, a half-century later, I realize that on that evening I was beginning to recognize the shallowness and confusion within my own life. Though I didn’t name it as such, I was in the early stages of Breakdown.

How does this story of Breakdown land in you? Can you recount a time in your own life when you experienced breakdown—i.e., when things were no longer working and you felt a deep sense of melancholy, of yearning, of confusion? What prompted this Breakdown? How did you respond? Where are you in your life right now?

Breakdown: Stuck in the Status-quo

In its most elementary formulation, our culture teaches us that our primary job, as humans, is to become adults! This translates to conforming to the status-quo by spending our lives rushing about working, worrying, socializing and consuming. But does this characterization truly fit your definition of what it means to be an ‘adult’? Perhaps your understandings are different, but for me, our culture’s status-quo script leaves little room for things like imagination, self-knowledge, courage, service and compassion. You can explore this by reflecting on the parable in the box, below, from author and teacher, Eckhart Tolle.

The Danger of Domestication: A Parable for our Times 

There was once a farmer who came upon a large egg of a wild bird while walking in the woods. Intrigued by his find, he carried the egg back to his farm and placed it in a nesting box within the henhouse. Eventually, the egg hatched and out came a baby eaglet!

Because the eaglet was socialized by the chickens, he behaved as they did, passing his days, clucking and cackling as he scratched the soil in search of worms and insects. But one day, when full-grown, he did something that he had never done before: He looked up! He did this when he noticed a shadow moving across the barnyard. The shadow, it turned out, was created by a magnificent golden-winged bird flying high in the sky.

Awestruck, the eagle asked a nearby chicken, “Who is that?” and she responded, “That’s Eagle, the wildest of birds; he is different from us; he belongs to the sky. We are chickens; we belong to the ground.” Never once questioning the chicken’s pronouncement, the barnyard eagle continued to live as a chicken until the day he died. Why? Because that was the story that he had been conditioned to believe as true!  

This parable challenges us to consider that—like that barnyard eagle—we, too, may have become domesticated, incapable of imagining anything beyond the status-quo recipe for a human life that has been handed down to us.

Stuck in Breakdown Without Knowing it?

Might it be that many of us are stuck in Breakdown right now—mindlessly following a life-denying script—without even knowing it! One way to find out is to simply pay attention, day-by-day, to your body’s overall energetic and emotional state. Indeed, our bodies can serve as instruments, reminding us of what brings us joy and fullness as well as what creates feelings of emptiness or flatness. To explore this, author and life coach Martha Beck, suggests using a twenty-point scale, ranging from ‘minus ten’—a strongly negative body state (characterized by feelings of confusion, sadness and loneliness) through ‘zero’ (a neutral body state) to ‘plus ten’—a strongly positive body state characterized by openness, purposefulness and aliveness. Beck refers to this twenty-point scale as our “body meter”.

What is your body score today?

You can check out how your body meter works, right now, by calling to mind three things that you plan to do tomorrow. For example, perhaps you will begin your day by having breakfast with a good friend who you haven’t seen in a month. Because just the thought of this breakfast date fills you with happiness, you mark it as a +8 on your body meter. After breakfast you will get in your car and drive for a half-hour through rush-hour traffic to work. The idea of this commute, though familiar, leaves you feeling a bit anxious, so you register it as -2 on your body meter. Once you arrive at work you will have to complete a tedious report. You score this as -8 because just the idea of it fills you with dread, causing your shoulders to slump.

Beck’s body meter can be used to gauge the relative aliveness versus deadness in all aspects of our lives. For example, you can tune into your body to sense the vitality versus blandness of your relationships with family members, as well as with friends, classmates and colleagues. Likewise, you can use the sensitivities of your body to evaluate your living situation—i.e., how you experience the place where you live—from minus 10 (awful) to plus 10 (wonderful). Being attentive to your body’s feeling states can also allow you to assess your school and/or work environments by gauging how energized/engaged (+10) versus flat/bored (-10) you are in these environments. Upshot: If you pay attention, you will discover that, day-by-day, the energetic signature of your body reveals the degree to which you are an enlivened participant in your life versus a passive bystander, flailing about in the waters of Breakdown.

Breakdown as an Invitation to Awaken 

But rather than seeing Breakdown as something to be denied or avoided, what if you were to see it as a call, from deep inside, whispering that: it’s time to let go of old, patterned ways of being; time to step beyond the deadening status-quo and into the fecund unknown; time to break free of self-pity and loneliness; time to assume agency in your life. Here are some possibilities for how to proceed from poet, Tanya Davis .

"When it comes to my work life I realize that I am in a state of Breakdown these days."

- Alex Liney, Steppingstone # 7 Guide

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