Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Permission to Live Your Life

Last week I wrote about giving ourselves permission to acknowledge the wounds of the past so they can heal. And just as we are the only ones who can really grant that necessary permission to begin the healing process, we are the only ones who can grant ourselves permission to live our own lives.

Saying we must grant ourselves permission to live our own lives may sound pretty self-evident, but have a look at our formative training and consider how much of what we have been taught makes this difficult. Most of us in the west spend much of our time as children in school where we have to ask permission to do pretty much everything from speak to attend to our bodily needs in the restroom. One way or another we are given a lot of rules- by family, religion, advertisers, teachers, employers- that may or may not allow us to find and follow our own deep knowing of what works for us and what does not. Our feelings have been over-ruled too often.

I’m using the word “feeling” here as Carl Jung did: to indicate the function whereby we know what has value for us. This gets easily confused with sensation (since we speak of “feeling” cold or hot) and emotion (since we speak of “feeling” angry, sad, glad or afraid.) But I’m using the term here to indicate our capacity to know what has value for us and what does not.

Nathan my youngest son is a feeling type. I swear to you he knew what he valued and what he did not from the very beginning. So, when his aunt gave him a new outfit to wear that he felt was confining or silly or just plain ugly he’d refuse to wear it. As I went through the persuasive arguments (it looks nice on you; it cost a lot of money- truly meaningless to a three year old; it will keep you warm; she will enjoy seeing you in it) he would listen patiently and calmly repeat, “I know that, but I don’t like it.” I was in awe of his capacity to know and stick with what he valued, which included (in this case) his own physical comfort and appreciation for what was pleasing to his eye.

Brendan, his older brother (like me) is a thinking type and so could sometimes (sadly) be convinced by a rational argument to over-ride his own feeling function. On the other hand, when I tried to convince both boys not to play with imaginary guns (they were never given any toy guns but they did make them from sticks or their hands) Brendan, by the time he was nine, would offer counter arguments. He pointed out that although I had played with make-believe guns as a child I had no difficulty distinguishing between those imaginary games and real violence. Finally, I let myself just sink into the feeling I had when I watched them play these games (both my emotion and my valuing of non-violence) and spoke (with some weariness) from my heart.

I said, “You’re right. You are not likely to grow up and shoot someone because you use pretend guns now. But when I watch you do it. . . . I feel sick to my stomach.”

Brendan and Nathan both stopped and looked at me, and Brendan said, “Oh, okay. It’s no big deal. We don’t have to play that. There’s lots of other stuff we can do.”

And that was the end of that.

That’s the great thing about the feeling function: you don’t have to justify it or ask anyone’s permission. It just is. Now one thing might have a higher value for you than another and so trump your decision-making process. Clearly, for my sons, my gut reaction held more value to them than imaginary gun play. They were okay with letting the higher value take precedence. They (particularly Brendan) were just not willing to be convinced by a somewhat unsubstantiated and self-righteous argument. I know this gets tricky. We can get confused and sacrifice something of value to us because someone else has a conflicting value. But this particular thing, gun-play, was clearly not valued very highly by either boy.

I learned something that day. I learned that if I give myself permission to drop into my own heart and speak from there, I can save a lot of time, energy and anguish, and may even be heard. There’s no guarantee I know, but it makes me think of all the places where we try to muster convincing rational-sounding arguments where we might be better served speaking from one heart to another. I’m not suggesting we don’t often need to gather and allow facts to shape our choices. We do. But I do wonder how often we make our choices based on something much deeper (and less conscious) and then gather facts to justify our decision.

I also realize that the reason why my heart statement re: gun play had such an impact on the boys was because we had a relationship, one that we all valued. This of course means that if we want others in our lives to be open to hearing what is important to us to personally and collectively (like- the need for time alone or quiet in the morning or concerns about health care and unemployment) we need to be in relationship with one another, need to listen with our hearts to the hearts of those in our lives and our communities.

Do I seem to have wandered away from giving ourselves permission to live our lives? I haven’t. Because often, as soon as we resolve to do just that, we come up against the fact that we do not live in isolation. Ever. We are interconnected. So, granting ourselves permission to live according to the heart’s deepest values, means granting the same permission to others and being willing to engage (at least some of the time) in the dialogue that allows us to find a way to live together without anyone sacrificing that which, to point back to the name of this blog, keeps the green bough in our hearts, alive. Not easy, I know but well worth the effort.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Permission to Heal

Recently, I’ve been noticing how often we covertly and probably unconsciously seek permission from others where we are the only ones with the authority to grant ourselves permission- to be ourselves, to live our lives, to acknowledge our wounds, to heal.

A few weeks ago, a wise man whose knowledge of the human heart and psyche I value greatly, said to me, “You know, it’s a testament to the human spirit that, given your early wounding in life, you are not mad.”

I was surprised and alarmed. Surely my early wounds are no worse than most and not as bad as many. Seeing my confusion he assumed the word “mad” needed some explanation and talked about the ways madness manifests in modern life (addiction, disassociation, the inability to be in relationship, make a living, raise a family etc.)

But I’d understood what he meant by madness and, although I am all too familiar with my own neuroses, I’m generally pretty functional. I've done my therapy and other forms of psychological work and like to think I am pretty well known to myself.

What stunned me, and no doubt caused the deer-in-the-headlights look to which he was responding, was the implication that my childhood wounds were severe. I’d taken my ability to function in the world as evidence that these wounds were relatively slight. No, that’s not true. I had seen- been taught to see- my childhood as relatively free from any serious wounding and had used my ability to cope with life as evidence that this mythology was factually true.

Somehow the implication that I had suffered severe wounding as a child, coming from someone who knew many of my childhood stories, set off my inner alarm bells. And that got me wondering: Why? If I was so certain that I’d had a “normal” childhood (whatever that means) why did this implication feel so dangerous? I suddenly felt the urge to poll my friends on parental abuse, neglect, neuroses and psychoses to gauge how serious my wounds were. Again the question was: Why? Rationally I know that comparing heart and soul wounds to determine whose are “severe” and whose are “fair to middling” or “slight” is not particularly useful and potentially harmful. Although some forms of neglect and abuse are clearly worse than others, on the whole there is no “objective” scale that determines how much harm is done because there are countless factors that affect the depth of the wound (parental intention, other support, age of the child, personality traits, cultural context etc.) I also know that loving parents, doing their best, make mistakes that affect their children because they are human beings.

But I was suspicious of my own reactivity. Why all the fancy inner footwork to reassure myself that this man, as wise as he was, was mistaken about my past? Why such a charged response of alarm and confusion? Because, his acknowledgement of the stories I had shared gave me an opening I didn’t really want. It was a question of permission. Was I going to give myself permission to recognize the depth of my own wounding? I could feel my fear. Could I? Should I? Who should I ask? I don’t want to create a victim identity and/or blame my parents for not being more conscious or able to cope with the demands of child-rearing than they had been. I don’t want to wallow in the wounds of the past. Wow- can you hear the fear, denial and misrepresentation of the healing process in that statement!?

Here’s where it’s tempting to misuse spiritual teachings and practices, pushing for premature acceptance and forgiveness before the harm done has been fully acknowledged within. I’ve often warned those studying or doing ceremony with me that they cannot use the spiritual life to avoid psychological work. Jeff Brown, author of Soulshaping, calls the effort to do just this, a spiritual bypass. It won’t work. But that doesn’t keep us from sometimes giving it a try. And if your spirituality overtly or covertly tends toward simplistic magical thinking (ie- if I think it is so I will make it so, even retroactively) there’s even more incentive to avoid acknowledging past trauma in the hopes that denial will just dissolve the whole thing. This is not rational, but even those of us who do not include this kind of thinking in our spiritual understanding or practice may be susceptible to it if the things we want to deny happened when we were young. Children tend to have an inflated sense of their own power to cause things to happen. If stepping on a crack will break my mother’s back surely thinking the most powerful people in my world- my parents- are doing something harmful, tempts disaster.

No one else can tell us how deeply events in our childhood have affected our psyches and shaped our present strategies in life. We have to discover this for ourselves, although we rarely do it alone. A good guide or teacher or psychotherapist is invaluable. But at some point, we are the only ones who can give ourselves permission to see what was and is true- without trying to preserve our family mythologies or protect our ideas about our parents, without worrying about what will happen next. This takes faith because it’s pretty natural to fear that uncovering old wounds will lead to bad things. What if we discover we are wounded beyond healing? What if digging up this stuff buried in our bodies and unconscious makes us collapse in a permanent puddle of pain?

I have faith that healing really can happen when we can give ourselves permission to see and feel the depth of our own sorrow. You can’t heal a wound you don’t even know is there (even as it is directing and effecting many of your choices) and wounds don’t heal without cleaning them out- physically or with the light of consciousness. Permission to acknowledge our wounding is just one of the many things we need to do to consciously receive the gift of a human life- and only we can give ourselves this permission.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Other

A friend of mine was devastated recently when his wife of thirty years left. As they met to work out the details of their separation and divorce she said to him, “If just once you had put your hands on my shoulders and asked, ‘What do you really want?’”

I was surprised. I know he’s said this and much more to her, supporting her desire to go back to school and to try different careers many times. Of course there’s a great deal I don’t know about their marriage, but her remark made me wonder- Was she really addressing the man in front of her? Who else might she be talking to? Her father? Her mother? Or was this the voice of her soul speaking to her, asking why she had never asked herself what she really wanted in the very depths of her being?

In The Eden Project Jungian analyst James Hollis writes about how we project the Magical Other onto intimate partners in the hope that they will take us to a pre-conscious, warm, fuzzy place of undifferentiated unity. Why? Because being individuals who take responsibility for ourselves, doing the necessary work to understand how our history and our wounds distort our perception, and unfolding to be all we are- while rewarding and enlivening- can be hard and sometimes painful work. We often want the other to do what we find hard to do for ourselves. They can’t. They can encourage us as we do the work of living consciously. They can get out of the way and do their own work. But they cannot do ours for us.

One of the things Hollis repeats is that we must allow the other to be wholly other, must acknowledge that each person has their own history, perception, wounds and experience and so will also have their own preferences, dreams, hopes and perspective. When I forget this I find myself trying to convince the other that the way I see things is. . . .well, if not The Way, surely a better way. But the other is not me. The other is wholly other.

Paradoxically, each other is also another myself, another tender, flawed, struggling human being who wants to love and be love, to unfold and be all they are. Holding the tension between these two truths- the knowledge that the other is both another myself and wholly other- is how we find a way to dance together. Sadly, we can spend years swinging between the dark side of exclusively seeing the other as another myself (enmeshment) and the dark side of only knowing separation (demonizing the other.) We see this not only in relationships between individuals but between groups.

A couple of days ago, I went to the town near our home to get my hair cut. It’s a small town of five thousand surrounded by farms. The best place to find out what's going on in town is at the barber shop or hair salon.

As I sat in the chair Sally, the woman cutting my hair, asked if I’d heard about the mosque coming to town. I hadn’t, and I wondered out loud if there were enough Muslims in the area to support a mosque. Sally told me that the townspeople were expecting more to move into town once the mosque was established. Apparently many were irate and trying to figure out a way to stop the mosque from being built.

“Really?” I said naively.

“Oh,” she replied, “it’s all anyone can talk about. People are so upset.”

“That’s crazy,” I said, trying to mentally sort out if this was basic racism, or religious fundamentalism fuelled by the twelve churches in the area, or somehow related to the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“Well, you know what I tell the people who are upset?” she asked

I looked at her in the mirror expectantly. I didn’t know Sally well, but I was hopeful. She seemed like a reasonable and generous woman.

“I tell them, ‘It’s better than a crack house!’”

I can honestly say I was speechless. For a minute I thought she might be joking. But she wasn’t. Having a Muslim house of worship in the community was, in her mind, clearly only marginally better than having a drug dealer set up shop.

That’s what happens when we do not take responsibility for exploring and owning our unconscious material: the other is left holding the bag- either as a partner who failed to magically rescue us from the work of being an individual or as demons who threaten all we hold to be true because they do not see or express things the way we do. Not only does this mean we are left angry and flailing at the other in potentially harmful ways, it also means we miss the great gift of meeting the other, of knowing them and savouring their mystery, of coming together in relationship to create a wholeness (a partnership or a community) that is greater than the sum of the parts.

And that is a waste that makes my heart ache.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life: An In-The-Body Experience

Many people who focus on the spiritual aspect of life say we are not our bodies, that our bodies are merely the vehicles for soul/spirit, that the true self is something deeper or transcendent to our physical form.

As I age this notion becomes both more appealing and less convincing.

Human beings are many things- spiritual, sexual, mental, emotional- but no matter what else we are (or may someday be) to be human is to be physical. This is not materialist reductionism. I am not saying that we are only bodies, but that being human always includes being/having a human body. In my own thinking, humans are embodied souls of a particular kind, capable of a certain level of apperception (awareness of being aware) and self-consciousness that other animals may or may not have.

As someone who has had a chronic illness for years, you’d think I would know my body pretty well. But the truth is that I’ve always been able to put my attention and awareness elsewhere- out of my body. (And yes, this may in fact have contributed to being ill- although, like most things, it is not simple.) This ability to “leave my body” came in handy when participating in shamanic ceremonies or (not) dealing with painful experiences. But human experience happens in a human body. So lately, I’ve been doing my yoga, walking and other exercise not to tune up the vehicle but to increase my in-the-body awareness. At the end of a recent yoga class, lying on a bolster with my supported back arched, chest open and my arms spread wide I felt an ache that was not about structural muscles. I felt my heart ache, and I heard an inner voice say,

“The heart hungers for life lived in the body.”

Even as this surprised me it made sense. The heart- the center of knowing what has value for us, the seat of our capacity to love and access wisdom- is about valuing and loving in the context of a real human life. And, again- real human life is lived in a real human body.

Then, just as I discover a new level of willingness to welcome the gift of this human experience, I find out three things about this body.

First, my dental hygienist tells me one of my teeth is “missing.” Apparently it’s congenital- one of my teeth was never there. It’s not below the gum line, it was never pulled. It never was. In over fifty years of dental appointments no one has ever mentioned this.

Now, you might be wondering, if I haven’t missed the tooth before, why care now? But this is the third recent revelation about congenital defects apparently known to the health care professionals I’ve been seeing for decades, but never mentioned to me. I find it unnerving, and I wonder - what else don’t I know?

The first of these revelations was that my heart has what’s called a “floppy valve.” This means that every so often there is a bit of an uneven or extra beat- an arrhythmia. Nothing to worry about, but I was a little put off by the idea of something floppy in my heart. It suggests a lack of strength that hints at a lack of character. My Germanic roots frown on pretty much anything floppy.

The second bit of news came from my eye doctor. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was three years old, although there were a few golden years from twenty to forty when I had a choice about wearing them (depending on how well I wanted to see and how good I wanted to look.) I have very little vision in my left eye. When I was a child this was called my “lazy eye.” In my family “lazy” was a synonym for sinful. Sin was rarely mentioned by name. Laziness was a frequent and damning accusation, and if you think about it, not unrelated to “floppy.”

With only one “good” eye I’ve always been reluctant to consider anything that might risk infection or complications- like contacts or laser surgery. But I only recently found out that neither was possible. Contacts at my age generally use one eye for seeing in the distance and one for close up, and the brain- amazingly- figures out which one to use when. But I’m only really working with one eye, so that’s out. Laser surgery basically corrects near or far sightedness that’s a result of abnormalities in eyeball shape. The doctor told me I don’t have an eyeball problem. I have what he called a “computer problem.” Communication between my optic nerve and my brain is faulty. Laser surgery wouldn’t do any good.

Again, I was stunned. In over fifty years of eye appointments no one had every explained this before.

So here I am: floppy heart valve, missing tooth and blind in one eye from a brain problem. I sound like an old dog that may need to be put down. And, ironically, all this new self-knowledge comes just as I become truly aware of the need to be more fully in my body. This body. The only one I have/am. The one with an iffy immune system, floppy valve, missing tooth and a “computer problem”- not to mention grey hair, thickening waist, and sagging jaw line.

Some would say that the body you have/are is the “perfect” body for learning all you came into a human life to learn. I’m cautious about making virtue out of necessity, but they may be right. In any case, this simply is the body/human life I am/have to work with. And I do have faith that nothing in any of these ever-changing physical conditions interferes with the opportunity to become all of who I am and participate fully in the world – although of course it might affect some of the available choices. (I think the eye thing might interfere with becoming an airline pilot or brain surgeon but I'm okay with that.)

In fact, what I am learning is that there is a whole level of spiritual awareness that is only accessible in and through the body. Life is a gift, an opportunity to become an embodied aspect of the Great Mystery in an individuated form. Refusing or neglecting to bring awareness deeply into the body- aside from all the problems it creates psychologically and physically- amounts to refusing the gift of a human life. We simply cannot be fully present to this moment of life without being fully in our bodies.

If you want to be in the now you have to be here, and here for a human being is a human body.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Strange Kindness

I once dated a man who called me “counter-dependent,” meaning that I take independence to an unhealthy extreme. He was probably right, and this kind of my-by-self two-year-old attitude is not easy to pull off when you have a chronic illness. A couple of years ago I had an experience that pointed to some of what might drive this difficulty with receiving assistance.

In the second year of what was supposed to be a three year sabbatical (more on that in later posts- let's just say it falls under the Be Careful What You Wish For category) I went to Mexico, to a natural hot spring retreat in the mountains where I had been before. My health was not strong, but this is a place where people often go to recuperate from surgery, cancer and other illnesses, so the proprietors are diligent about water quality and food preparation. I say this because it’s not generally a great idea for someone with a compromised immune system to go where they cannot count on these things, but I had good cause to feel reasonably safe.

On my return trip, riding the bus from the airport terminal to the plane I started to feel a little dizzy. By the time the plane took off I was having chills, sweats, a stomach ache and vertigo. For those of you who have never picked up a nasty bacteria, (E.Coli, C.Difficile, Salmonella etc.) it’s like the flu times one thousand. Based on previous experience I knew that if I went to the airplane restroom I was going to spend the whole trip there, and risk passing out in a less than optimal position. So, I decided to stay put and try to get through it.

It got worse. A lot worse. The woman next to me appeared to be with a group of Asian travellers who had boarded together and occasionally called out to each other in a language I didn’t recognize. She appeared to be in her sixties, with a short sturdy body, dark hair and a broad face. At one point, as a chill shook me like a leaf in the wind, she got up, opened the overhead bin and gestured to me, offering her winter coat. I shook my head no. I was nauseous, and didn't want to worry about someone else's coat if things got. . . .well, more out of my control.

Some time later, my hands started to go numb. Alarmed, I hit the call button. The steward, looking annoyed, asked if there was a doctor on board and a young Danish physician took my pulse. He decided I wasn’t having a stroke, and we did not need to put the plane down prematurely. I apologized to the stewards who were looking and sounding increasingly irritated as they made me fill out a form protecting the airline from liability. Marginally convinced that I was not dying, I held on, alternating between hot flashes and violent chills.

Leaning my head against the window I gave up trying to stop the shaking. And then I felt something warm. I looked up to see the small woman from the seat next to me, wrapping her soft, red, wool coat around me. I tried to protest but in the universal language of comfort she just said, “Shhhh, shhhh. . . .” as she tucked the coat around me, and gently but firmly stroked my arms.

And in that moment, I was undone. I could take the indifference and hostility of the airline stewards. I could be stoic even though I was in pain and alone. But this kindness from a stranger, this giving of comfort, contact and her own garment, made my throat constrict and my eyes fill with tears. She sat back down next to me and patted my knee, looking concerned.

When we landed, still shaking, I handed the coat back to her, said “Thank you,” and motioned for the woman to disembark with her group, not wanting to even try moving before everyone else was off the plane. I passed out and was still there when the folks who gather the garbage between flights found me.

I keep thinking about how much this woman’s kindness touched me and how it offered me an insight into why it is sometimes so hard to receive. If we are hanging on by our finger nails, steeling ourselves against our own or the world's suffering, kindness can feel dangerous. It opens our hearts to our own or another’s pain. This woman's compassion showed me how infrequently I expect or even see the assistance that may be offered to me when somewhere deep inside I am caught in the belief that I must be “strong” to get through. It reminded me that compassion does not necessitate heroic acts or grand gestures, but a willingness to be with another and offer what we can. And it strengthened my conviction that small acts of kindness can have a ripple effect of blessings we cannot even imagine.