Cocoon: how we hide in our habitual patterns to keep from feeling alive and what to do about it

It is the dead of winter. Mud and ice are everywhere. People look pale and grumpy. The bathing suit isle opens up at Target. I wish I could hit the pause button on my life and go into a deep hibernation where the world of responsibilities is a distant dream. I feel like I’m slogging through my days, trudging from one thing to the next. I feel uninspired and blah. This is a familiar feeling for me and it’s not just because of the weather. Like many people, I struggle with mild depression. There is nothing shameful about depression and in fact I’ve come to believe it’s actually healthy when you can feel it and not create a cocoon out of it. 

In Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes about the cocoon. The cocoon is a dark, dank environment where our habitual patterns are constantly re-created. We crawl into the cocoon to shield ourselves from the world.  “It is comfortable and sleepy: an intense and very familiar home. In the world of the cocoon, such things as spring cleaning have never been known. We feel that it is too much work, too much trouble to clean it up. We would prefer to go back to sleep”.  The cocoon is not the depression itself, it’s how we respond to the depression and how we avoid feeling especially painful feelings. 

I think of how common it is these days to literally cocoon ourselves up to watch Netflix or binge the latest show. People get very defensive about it too, they don’t want to feel there’s any problem with checking out, the world is just too intense. It’s not that there’s a problem with watching shows, but are you using them to avoid feeling your life? There’s other ways people hide in their cocoons. We shop, we indulge in our addictions of food, drugs, or alcohol, we mindlessly browse the internet or hangout on social media for hours. Seemingly positive things can also be a way of cocooning ourselves, like exercise or being overly social. Staying busy is a very common one. 

After a while the cocoon becomes claustrophobic. We long for ventilation and fresh air. This can manifest in all sorts of ways. We could call a friend and have tea, take a hot shower, go for a brisk walk-anything that can help us feel alive and connected to our life. In my experience, we don’t just get rid of the cocoon. It’s a sort of back and forth process as we learn how to be butterflies without the comfort of our familiar habitual patterns. Or maybe there are many iterations of the cocoon-in some stages of life we are perfectly happpy flittering about outside the cocoon and then we reach another stage of life and we need to crawl back in for a while. 

The point is, there is nothing wrong or shameful about the cocoon. Our habitual patterns make us feel safe, and sometimes that’s what we need. But at some point, the sky and the open space of the phenomenal world call to us. To be in the world as a vulnerable human being, free from the safety of our familiar patterns, is our calling. For me this is a process of becoming familiar with how I retreat into the cocoon, especially this time of year when my old friend depression comes to visit. I practice self-forgiveness and loving kindness as I exercise my fragile wings. 

A Practice

What does your cocoon look like/feel like? What are the habitual patterns you use to feel safe? Write about it. 

Practice loving kindness toward yourself and start to be aware of how and when you want to retreat into the cocoon 

Practice engaging in behaviors that feel more fresh and alive. What is that for you? Can you invite these practices even when you don’t feel like it?

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