Kintsukuroi : The art of making ourselves whole again

Guest Author: Valini Pundit M.Sc. Clinical Psychologist

At my neighborhood savannah, there is a circular walking path where under normal circumstances, I would enjoy regular walks. But, nothing about the past few weeks has been normal. Yesterday, what was once routine, felt like a stealthy escape for an evening walk. I missed being outside, and I craved simply being in the fresh air, open space to stare at the sky above, the greenery around, and enjoy the sunset in the distance. When I arrived, I cautiously scanned the surroundings and saw only one familiar couple in the distance.

“Great!” I thought, “It’s a go”.

About thirty steps into my first round, I stopped and stared at the floor. I noticed what were once small cracks on the path had become wide fissures. Once insignificant, now they demanded attention and caution. I stepped aside and continued my walk with fresh thoughts brewing in my mind but the wide fissures remained at the forefront of my mind. It was an apt metaphor for mental health in lockdown.

We all have underlying vulnerabilities when it comes to our psychological health. During what we might consider, normal days, when our freedom of movement is not limited by this small virus with big implications, we go about our routines and these vulnerabilities are like the small cracks which are hardly apparent. When the world around us shifts suddenly, when the demands of life exceed our available internal or external resources, when our needs are frustrated, we experience stress. Slowly, the increased stress makes these small cracks become even bigger fissures. These then, demand attention and caution.

As the cracks widen over time, the experience can insidiously move from bearable discomfort to searing emotional pain. The challenges to our mental health in these times range from stress, worry, anxiety and grief, to boredom, loneliness and depression.  Some feel blue or irritable and withdrawn. And sometimes it is a cycle of good days or moments followed by waves of distress. We are, in such circumstances, called to adapt and adjust creatively.

One unique Japanese art is called “Kintsugi”. It’s the art of putting together broken pieces of pottery by filling the cracks with gold. It’s a 400-year old technique, but in a broader sense it’s as old as the human experience itself. It reminds us that even when we are cracked or broken, we can adapt creatively. We can create something which is even more unique, valuable and resilient than it was before.           

Gold, however, doesn’t come easily- it must be mined. The gold is the wisdom, the lessons we learn and the meaning we find from our experiences. Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who went through the most terrible experience of confinement and other atrocities during the holocaust struck his gold by finding meaning in the experience, by choosing how he would react to the situation. He wrote that “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” He chose his emotional response to his situation. 

Each time you choose to speak and act consciously, you are mining the gold. When you choose to spend a few moments mindfully, allowing the mind to heal, rest and gently focus on your breath or a mantra, you are mining the gold that will fill the cracks that will make you whole again. When we choose to respond to others with empathy, to extend our hand and heart to others knowing that they are struggling too, we are filling the cracks with gold and helping others to do so too.

We have been forced to stop and notice our individual and collective vulnerability. Before this, we might have been so busy chasing happiness on a treadmill – seeking constant entertainment and distraction, busy just being busy- that maybe we never noticed some of the cracks in our psychological health. Now many of us are breaking or finally noticing the places we have been broken all along. Coming to terms with this is difficult because there is a grief response. We grieve for the perceived loss of our wholeness. As difficult as it might be to do, try not to reject or shame yourself for the flaws that make you human. When you are tired, rest, don’t quit. Get the help you need. 

Very often growth requires deliberate effort, support and guidance. The history of humanity is filled with the stories of those who crashed, had their hearts and minds broken and rose up again to become better, stronger, wiser versions of themselves.  

There is a beautiful opportunity here to embrace these seeming imperfections that make us unique. It can be a platform for growth. All it takes is conscious effort. The small choices we make- to breathe, to exercise, to write, to talk, to accept, to have faith- these are the big steps to finding the gold with which we will make ourselves whole again. We can create something more beautiful, unique and stronger as individuals and as a society. 

You will be whole again. We will be whole again and not just that, but we will be even more beautiful than before.

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