Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Leaning into Faith

What does it take to listen to the voice of soul, to let it guide and shape our life choices?

I recently attended a workshop with Jungian analyst James Hollis whose work focuses on the the task of individuation. I see this as the work of making choices that enable us to offer the world the particular shape that the sacred mystery wants to take through our being.

One of the things that I appreciate about Jungians is that they don't demonize the ego- that necessary sense of the smaller self/identity in the world that is hopefully developed in the first half of life and can take care of the daily details. Without a well developed ego we become ungrounded, unable to cope with daily challenges, and susceptible to being tossed about or paralyzed by the inevitable anxiety that accompanies growing up and going into the world. This necessary sense of functional identity is largely shaped by the values and messages of our social, cultural, parental context. A strong ego container fortunate enough to have the resources (inner and outer) for some success in the world (and if you are reading this you have met the minimum requirement for “success” in terms of survival) begins to have delusions of grandeur, starts thinking of itself as being “in charge,” as having some kind of sovereignty. In fact, we start thinking that this small identity is all we are.

Now comes the good news/bad news and it’s the same news: sooner or later in our adult life, we encounter something we cannot control: loss. It may be loss of health or wealth or loved ones, loss of home or relationship or control over your own body.

I remember the first time I really got that I was not entirely in charge of everything that happened to me. I was twenty-two, and I was flying across the kitchen of the small apartment I shared with my large, (six foot five) strong, young husband. In a fit of rage, he threw me. The thing about physical violence is that it dissolves any illusions about being in control. You do not have to co-operate on any level to arch through the air and hit the floor. The left side of my face hit the floor first. I remember the sound of the impact more than the feel of it. And I remember thinking, mid-air, as if watching the whole thing from a distance: this is really going to hurt; I hope he doesn’t break my glasses- I don’t have enough money for a new pair. It was not the first time he’d hit me, but it was the last. And part of what made it possible for me to leave was that the aspect of self that thought she could and should make things right no matter how wrong they had gone by trying harder- my ego- finally saw the delusion in her assumption of control. That allowed a deeper, instinctual and soul-full sense of who I was to make another choice.

I wish I could say that from there on soul directed all my choices, but it is rarely such a linear process, and the smaller surface self (ego) relentlessly tries to re-establish its sense of sovereignty. Now the ego's strategies (whether distraction, distance and/or dancing as fast as it can) were developed for survival and safety at a time when, as children, we had little power to make independent choices. From a species perspective this makes some sense- it’s our version of “See tiger- run!” (when the tiger may be a disapproving parent.) What we are talking about here is changing this- learning to hear and obey a deeper voice that may be saying, “See tiger- stand still and face tiger.” That’s a tall order and, at least in the moment, completely counter-intuitive. So, it seems to me, that to do this we are going to need some faith, some sense that despite all the evidence in front of or within us, a different choice is called for and will lead to a fuller, deeper life.

What would it have looked like thirty-five years ago if I had been able to hear and heed this voice? I may have walked out the first time my husband was violent. Or, I might have seen it coming and never married him. But my faith that life was good and love was not violent was all tangled up with semi-conscious beliefs I’d been taught- that sex meant marriage (sooner or later) and marriage meant forever, no matter what. When it came to marriage my mother often warned: “You make your bed, you lie in it.” (I am sure my mother never meant to condone violence, only to reinforce the belief that you could, with enough effort, make any relationship work.)

So, I’ve been thinking about where we find the faith to listen to and base our choices on the life of the soul when this feels life-threatening to the smaller self, the ego. The soul’s desires and directives do not guarantee specific outcomes in areas that preoccupy the ego, and any particular choice may or may not work for different individuals. Someone may leave a relationship and find living alone difficult, while another may stay and find a different kind of loneliness. We may leave a job or community and find ourselves struggling to survive or thrive elsewhere. We may choose to stay in a challenging place, and the challenge may not get easier. No particular choice is right or wrong for everyone. But what Hollis contends is that what matters is which aspect of self the choice we are making seeks to serve- the desires of soul/psyche or the ego’s need for illusions of sovereignty and safety. Soul choices are pulled by the desire to live who and what we are at an essential level and offer that to the world by living it. And that may or may not be challenging or lonely or lucrative, but it is almost always, to some degree, unpredictable. The ego- the one who makes the doctor’s appointment, picks up the kids, and buys groceries so there’ll be something to eat- does not like unpredictable.

So where do we find the faith that allows us to live the soul’s desires? It comes by grace. We cannot earn it, although we can make ourselves available to it, recognize it and give thanks when it comes. Sometimes it comes in small ways when the world touches us with its beauty- in the taste of food that nourishes body and heart, sunlight after a storm, the cry of a newborn, the kindness of a stranger. Sometimes we lean on the faith of others, those who are put in our path when we need to borrow a little faith so we can keep listening, keep breathing, and keep allowing the soul’s life to guide us. In this sense we are all midwives to each other. When I was giving birth to my son and my husband told me I was “doing fine” I growled at him in disbelief. What did he know!? We both looked to the midwife whose faith was based on her experience and intuitive knowing. When she smiled and reassured us, we leaned into her faith, took the next breath, and faced the next contraction. Because believe me, when you’re giving birth to a twelve pound ten ounce baby at home without pain meds, somebody in the room better have faith that this can be done when the whole thing feels impossible. And that birthing was a walk in park compared to the on-going challenge of making choices to shape my life in service to the needs, values and desires of my soul.

That’s what we do for each other. And what grace it is that we do not all need to have complete faith in every moment in order to hear and heed the call of the soul, that we can lean a little on another’s faith today and allow another to lean on us tomorrow. We cannot hear the choice another’s soul wants to make but we can by our presence, though our companioning in faith, whisper, “Listen” and “Trust.” As I write this, I think of the overall title I gave these blogs, “The Green Bough,” and the accompanying proverb. To keep a green bough in our hearts is to cultivate faith, allowing it to grow and flourish. And with faith, we can hear and heed the voice of soul- the singing bird within that can guide our choices.


  1. I'm not convinced by your first example, Oriah. If my ego is focussed on a need for safety, being thrown across the room by someone might very effectively convince my ego to get the hell out of that situation.

    And while you say, "it seems to me, that to do this we are going to need some faith, some sense that despite all the evidence in front of or within us, a different choice is called for and will lead to a fuller, deeper life.", I think it's the opposite.

    If we pay attention to what is happening in our lives, the evidence is that the ego's choices aren't working. We are getting older, and wrinklier, and our friends and loved ones are dying, so at some point you look at that and say, "OK ego, you've had your shot and you can't do it." Something else is called for. We want a fuller deeper life, and it's the fact that ego can't provide it that causes us to bench him and put in a new quarterback (if you'll excuse the sports metaphor ;-)

  2. Dear Oriah, Thank you. This is the second time this Chinese proverb showed itself today. the sacred is speaking to me through your words here. I am listening as my spirit opens up. Growing trees with you and all other beings, Sarah

  3. Thank you Oriah. I am continually amazed at how often your writings mirror my own process at the same moments in time.Your sharing is a bit of faith that I lean into as I hope to do the same for others.

  4. Peter- What you are saying makes perfect sense- if the ego is concerned for safety wouldn't it yell "we're out of here!" at the first sign of physical violence? I mean what could indicate danger to safety more clearly?! It is a testament to... the training and formation of the female ego in our cultural context that that is often NOT the first thing that a woman's ego yells when there is violence (or the threat of violence)- but instead a whole range of other things (this must be my fault; I have to change so this will work: I must be unloveable etc.) What I do remember, after that particular incident was thinking, "I have to get out of here. I can't fix this." And I think that was the first time that I really GOT that somethings are completely beyond my control to fix.

  5. I wrote some thoughts down today. I think it might fit with this blog. I must first think with my heart then allow mind to follow. If heart speaks first nothing is lost. When mind speaks first the heart only feels hindered stopping progress forward.
    thks--mary lou

  6. I love the way that life unfolds constantly and the wonders we need to find unfold just when we are ready for it...your voice..your thoughts found me today...and it was a day of feeling lost in the way things are today...and now I have been pointed in a different way from the words and energy that flows from you.
    Thank you...

  7. Your thoughts find me this morning and like the others who have already expressed their gratitude, here I am expressing mine. It opens my eyes to the world of people so hungry for faith and peace and love. I should not fret by myself and get up from my pit and walk on. Walk free.

  8. Oriah, thank you for making yourself vulnerable via this post. I find myself constantly reflecting on Hollis' work, recommended some years ago to me by a great teacher, mentor and friend. The process of individuation isn't as time-boxed as say a mid or quarter-life crisis, and not as 'rationally' triggered as the mere passage of time.

    Your post reminds us that we must dig in and create a self of our own choosing and not merely live within the context of circumstance. Since my mother's passing in March, Hollis' work has taken on new meaning for me as 'motherless child'. I've re-committed to understanding what it means to live a more authentic, soul-directed life.

  9. I was drawn to your opening statement regarding Jung not demonizing the ego. I value that part of me that knows me and seeks to monitor and inform me on a daily basis. She does indeed keep the bills paid, the house clean and the dogs exercised. I consider myself very lucky that I was never socialized "properly" as a child. My father died when I was ten. I only knew him as the house parent. My mother worked as a waitress, a housekeeper and finally a Federal gov't clerk. I didn't know we were poor. I didn't know it was unusual in the fifties to have a Dad at home instead of a mom. I never learned that women should marry, should have children, should be christian etc etc. My grandmother was a spritualist and a magician... two very diffeent things. She was also an alcoholic and an early cancer survivor...two very different things. I think that my ego developed by way of balancing seeming contradictions. My life has been wrought with loss and pain. I haven't always made the best decisions. My ego has generally been the guilty party in thise decisions. But it was also my ego that led me over and over back into that pain to learn. In that learning I found the delicate wonder of soul, of spirit of true magic. I found joy. As I age I find more and more that I can trust my soul's purpose, my soul as a guide. But my little ego still lounges about offering both a depth of learning alongside the endless possibility of self destructing or veering off path. I am comfortable now with this seeming contradiction. I can value all parts of this being that I am.