Monday, August 15, 2011

Life Reviews

Life is so daily -- Ben Belitt

My first therapist, Lou Carini, saw patients in a kind of annex built at the rear of someone's house.  The room was fairly large and almost empty.  There was a gas heater and, in the corner, there was a lamp and a chair where Lou sat and a small couch, where I sat.  There was a low, narrow table between us that held the requisite box of kleenex.  My appointment was at 4:00 p.m. and during Vermont winters it was nearly dark when I  arrived.  I'd stumble through the snow to the entrance at the back of the house.  There was no waiting room -- this was when psychotherapy was still an art, not a quasi-medical procedure.  Just 2 people talking about one person's life, inciting deep and shocking change.  It felt holy.

Many healing traditions work with the review of the simple events of a person's life.  The Huichol and Toltec shamanistic practice of recapitulation is one of them, designed to release bound energy that can then be used for expanding awareness.  The Alcoholic Anonymous practice of taking an inventory is critical to recovery.  As Esmeralda Arana describes in her book, The Path, many of the AA 12-steps have parallels in Toltec mystery practices.  Then there is the ultimate life review that is said to occur upon death.  Some near-death experiencers report the reliving of a life in an instant.  Others tell of a more detailed life assessment.  The most unremarkable moments of our lives are important and significant.

How can this be?

People are holograms.  Therapists know that if you examine the most ordinary thread of a person's life deeply enough, eventually you'll get the whole tapestry.  Freud memorably developed an entire psychology through his early study of slips of the tongue.  Using spiritual language, life is the movement of God: everything is One Thing and is meaningful.  And we don't have to go to esoteric depths to find this, either.  Zen Buddhists rightly point to the suchness of events and objects that reveals the nature of the universe.

So many of our efforts seem to be attempts to get away from life and its messy feelings -- Internet, TV, even meditation at times.  But, truly, this is It.  There are great mysteries right in front of us.  Psychotherapy, on both sides of the table, has been my spiritual practice.  It is nothing more, or less, than a sustained, awestruck and reverential look at daily life.  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Paranoia and Bliss

The ego's road to enlightenment is at times not only a pathless path, but a switchback between hellish dark nights and heavenly raptures.  The best psychological account of the hellish realms I have read is Michael Washburn's The Ego And The Dynamic Ground.  In particular, Washburn describes the paranoia that besets the wee uncomprehending human ego when confronted by the looming, permeating Ground.

          Examples of such fears are the seemingly pathological apprehensions that one is going insane,
          that one is being possessed by an alien force or entity, that one is transparent to other people,
          and that one is being conspired against or manipulated by mysterious persons or powers (p. 194).

I can personally vouch for all of these.

With every step of growth, there is a moment of terror when all the underpinnings of identity are stripped.  We wonder, who am I if I'm not the person I thought I was?  In enlightenment we discover, in St. Catherine's words, "My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God Himself."  This is pretty tough to get our minds around.  So we suffer.

But this same truth is also responsible for our bliss states.  When we know we are nothing but God's avatars, we -- our little selves -- are off the hook.  We cannot do God's job.  We are surrendered.  Our
life becomes unfathomably miraculous and we are joyfully absorbed by existence itself.

These swings between paranoia and bliss show up long before anybody is called to step on the road.  Think of the soul-crushing burden of imagining oneself responsible for every one's well being.  Think, on the other hand, of those moments of unselfconsciousness when it is enough just to be alive and to love.  At whatever level, we are never unaware of, or not relating to, the Ground.  We are either struggling with its Presence, relieved at its Sovereignty, or pretending It doesn't exist.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not Getting Ahead

A common pitfall on the psychospiritual path is to try to be a little further along than you actually are -- a kind of mental lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps.  There can be wisdom in visualizing the form you are attempting to grow into, as in, for instance, the helpful maxim of A.A. to "fake it till you make it." But I am talking about a state of inauthenticity that is usually used as a defense.   This stance is often taken by someone trying to seem "together," or "evolved," or "spiritual."  It is a professional hazard of being a psychotherapist (or, I imagine, a spiritual teacher), one that I myself have tripped over 10,000 times.  More often than not, the urgency of this stance indicates something rumbling beneath the surface that is gritty, angry, ugly, painful and excruciatingly vulnerable.

The paradox in growth is that progress (if there is such a thing) is actually made when we relax and let all of the shameful stuff show up.  We cannot evolve ourselves.  Such a notion reveals the anxious agenda of the ego that wishes to avoid pain in any way possible.  Rather, the grace of evolution seems to move when we become as gloriously, fallibly human as we are made to be.  A paragon of ordinariness.  What is truly extraordinary about us, our divinity, can best shine through when we are unselfconscious.

Some years before her death, artist/writer Joyce Keener sent me a picture of her latest collage, titled, "Is it possible to become human in the time allotted?"  She and I had had many conversations about where development seemed to be taking humans, both individually and collectively.  We marveled how age seemed to make people more of who they uniquely are at the same time as they display all of those characteristics that I call generically human.  The specific, the special, concurrent with the abundantly ordinary seems to be Nature's hallmark.  Becoming human in the time allotted is a worthy goal, to my mind, but it is not something we can do.  It is something we can allow by loving everything about us that is human.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Meaning

In the early days of psychoanalysis, finding hidden meaning was an analyst's bread and butter.  Emotional expression was pretty contained in those days and dreams, slips of the tongue and other actions often provided revealing clues to a person's inner state.  World War II, and particularly the Holocaust, triggered the Age of Anxiety, wherein the Existentialists changed the conversation about meaning.  A few, most notably Victor Frankl, wrote that the human being's ability and need to find meaning is life-saving (hinting at the wave of Humanistic psychologists to come in the sixties and seventies).  But many more felt that life is meaningless and that humans, if they need to, must conjure up their own meanings.

An echo of these somewhat contradictory views seems to continue today with some neo-Advaitins calling the New Ager's joy in synchronistic "messages" pure superstition.  But I'd like to go back to some of the questions Frankl raised.  Why is meaning important?  Why does lack of meaning in one's life sometimes cause so much pain it drives a person to therapy?

Years ago, I started to notice that transcendent experiences in myself and others carried a common theme:  every manifestation of the Absolute is meaningful.  In other words, in states of heightened awareness the world is felt to be saturated with meaning.  Not that there is hidden meaning somewhere else, but that meaningfulness is an inherent quality of creation.  Dilgo Kyhentse Rinpoche pointed to this mystery when he said that everything is a symbol but that there is no difference between the symbol and the truth itself.  No question, we love to make up stories about our experiences that carry personal meaning for us.  But if we're looking for meaningfulness, it is already shot through life itself, waiting to be seen with a clear mind.  In fact, it is usually the attachment to our personal stories that prevents us from glimpsing the mystery of life's omnipresent meaning.

If life is filled with meaningfulness, then it seems to me that nature would be designed to be sensitive to it.  Can we say that animals are responding to meaning when they run to higher ground before a tsunami?  Or a seed when it waits for precise signals from temperature and light before it begins to sprout?  Meaningfulness may create its own vocabulary, depending upon the creature.  But I like to think that we are programmed to search for meaning just exactly so that we'll keep looking beyond the human-made answers that never last.  The answers may elude us, but it is the search that makes us.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Body Enlightenment

People who have spiritual experiences often note bells-and-whistles body phenomena -- visions, energy rushes, sounds and the like.  Yet I have noted body changes accompanying the whole arc of human growth.  Sometimes the body sparks the change, sometimes change sparks the body.  As a former dancer and long-time Tai Chi student, I have been fortunate to live and work in a time of explosive interest in body-mind modalities of treatment and research: neo-Reichian body work, Rolfing, Yoga, Psychoneuroimmunology, Brain Scanning, Massage -- the list seems to grow daily.  But even the simple therapeutic moments of sitting under a tree or talking with a friend can instigate changes in the body.  And almost everybody can point to a time when dancing or exercise changed their state of consciousness or mood.

The Taoist view of the body that supports Tai Chi suggests that there are three kinds of energy in the human being (and the world): jing, qi or chi, and shen, roughly translated as essence, vitality and spirit.  The levels and expression of these three "treasures," change constantly as, for example, when heavy self-absorption prevents access to shen, or depressive thoughts dampen qi.  The opposite is also true.  There is a common moment in therapy when the person sitting across from me suddenly appears stunningly beautiful.  Yes, to know someone well is to love them and I cannot come to know someone without opening my heart.  But often this jump in beauty is noticed by others, too.  I believe this is a jump in both qi and shen.

Many physical events accompany human change.  When releasing chronic defenses against feeling, people can become achingly tired for awhile.  Pains and illnesses come and go.  So does weight.  Sexual appetite can ignite or disappear.  Food preferences are unstable, as is the ability to sleep.  But we are less clear, because it is new, on what happens when a shen-infused, spiritualized body walks the earth.   I suspect as more and more of us reach this territory, we're meant to do more than just fly off with the Immortals.

Contemporary spiritual teachers don't always address the body in their talks.  Two wonderful exceptions are Adyashanti and Reginald Ray.  Both are committed to understanding what it means to embody enlightenment and believe that enlightenment is unfinished if it is not brought deeply into human, bodily experience.  Using the Taoist model I find so helpful, this means that jing, qi and shen come into balance, both within the body and in the body's relationship to the larger world.  A fully expressed, realized body might be consciously alive and full of love right down to the DNA in the cells.  What a world these bodies might create.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Working to Wake Up

So what is it about psychotherapy -- or any other path of sustained attention -- that sometimes sparks spiritual awakening?  I've written earlier that attention is energy and that attention, especially on the present moment, is an invitation to the greater energy of life to move us, to help us grow.  That we can grow, and want to grow, is part of the miracle of evolutionary creation.  What is even more strange, in my experience, is that when we commit to allowing the forces of life to transform us, the very events of our lives seem to rearrange themselves in a way that is both profoundly challenging and helpful.

Every one of us has wounds and places of fragility.  We are human.  These "issues" are veins of richness to be mined throughout the lifetime.  Life events compel us to come at them again and again, mining new insights.  Even after we are awake and can see that there is only One Living Being manifesting Itself in ever-changing creation, we still bump into our places of pain from time to time.  But from increasingly awakened states, the places of pain are respected and loved as everything else in life is loved.

Spiritual/psychological work requires us, first, to face pain, then, to feel it.  This is where life seems to offer up to us the exact situations we need in order for the pain to be re-evoked.  All of us, at first, go into
frantic campaigns not to feel what is coming up for attention.  But, in my opinion, pain must be felt before it can be released or allowed to settle into its rightful place.  Finally we can surrender to the Life that is trying to grow us.  We can arrive at that place of integrity and peace where we accept ourselves in our entirety -- including all the gritty, messy, unpleasant and unattractive parts.  This unfathomable self-acceptance, this unlimited love for the human being we are, is no longer personal.  It is a love that expands to include life itself and is, in truth, Life Loving Itself.  The ability to view one's fallible self impersonally and with great love seems to me to be a mind-boggling (literally!) gift of evolution.  Many find that the work of life brings them to this state of grace on the deathbed.  More and more of us are finding that we cannot wait.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

That Pesky Ego

There are constant debates in spiritual circles -- is awakening gradual or discontinuous, does the ego die, is enlightenment the end or the beginning, have I got it or lost it?  My own answer is yes to everything.  We are here to embody the spiritual in a new way and nobody really knows what that's going to look like eventually.  That's why it is so fascinating to watch people grow.

But there are some common troubles folks run into along the way.  One is ego inflation -- the Sufis call it ego saint -- where the human personality takes new wisdom or ecstatic experience personally.  As we all know, the vicissitudes of life take care of this problem nicely.  The whole pride goeth before a fall thing.  Another, trickier problem is a kind of inverted ego inflation.  It seems to be more common in women and it shows up particularly in spiritual paths that involve what Carol Flinders calls "naughting."  Many, if not most, paths use some form of spiritual austerity to abrade the ego.  If you've got a ripe, healthy ego to begin with, this is useful.  But many women don't and the constant suppression of egoic needs can cause them to flip into a painful inversion:  I am special because I am nothing.  Or worse:  I am special because I am pond scum.  Man or woman, the goal is to become ordinary.

It helps me to remember that Freud never intended that we think of the ego as a diabolical mini-me that we must conquer.  Freud said, the ego is first and foremost a body ego.  The ego is a function, an organizing process, at most a virtual entity.  This is easy to see if you are lucky enough to fall into your Big Mind sometimes.  The ego keeps us from psychosis so we should respect it, but not take its voice so seriously all the time.  The spiritual seeker needs courage and healthy ego function.

I don't know what an increasingly spiritualized Nature intends for our egos.  Sometimes I think we'll share an ego, like a hive, except that evolution seems to push for individuation and diversity.  My own observations say we'll become more unselfconscious, happier and therefore more altruistic.  Maybe not so left-brained.  I also believe we cannot grow unless we learn to love all of our human equipment, bodies and egos included.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rx: Love

A recurring theme on this blog will be the simplicity and ordinariness of spirit.  Like many, I used to believe that the spiritual was exalted, elsewhere and available only to a few.  I thought that spiritual awakening would perfect someone, making her relentlessly kind and untroubled.  Come to find out that nothing changes except the capacity of perception -- and this changes everything, especially over time (how could this be otherwise?  God, Spirit, name your noun/verb, is by definition all places and all time and beyond everything.  Nowhere it cannot exist.  It IS existence.)  One of the enjoyable little perks of waking up is seeing how many places spirit had been obvious all along but I never understood what I had been looking at.  Like love, joy, mind and gratitude.  And, especially, healing.

My first job in mental health was working for a Day Treatment Center that served the chronically and severely mentally ill.  What I began to learn without realizing it was the lesson that if you put 2 or more people, of any background, into a situation of emotional safety and continuity, love and healing will happen.  Many of the people who attended this center had spent a good portion of their lives in institutions. But we all benefited from a brief period in the Seventies where community mental health and some of the tenets of Radical Therapy were supported.  Mental illness was still stigmatized, however, so we utilized diagnosis and conceptual categories as little as possible.  Instead, we created a therapeutic community where everyone was accepted as the person they presented themselves to be on any given day.  The moments of healing that resulted were not cures, not big solutions, but still were emotionally powerful enough to make me weep.  Every person in that community, even the silent, was capable of stupendous acts of compassion, humor, altruism and love.  I have seen this same lotus rising-out-of-the-mud phenomenon among juvenile delinquents, incarcerated adults, newly bereaved and regular visitors to my office.

There is something about Unconditional Positive Regard, as Carl Rogers termed it, that allows people to risk a new behavior, a quantum jump -- however temporary -- to a higher level of consciousness.  Attention is a kind of energy, and focused non-judgemental attention is a form of love that facilitates healing.  This is why healing happens among friends and family no less than in the consulting room.  This is part of why AA works (more about AA later -- who knew it was a Mystery School!).  No matter how introverted the individual, as I am, we are all social animals and respond to safe attention.

The capacity for this kind of love is increased at every level of the spiritual journey until the love has no object but itself.  And the self is infinite.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

kundalini and libido

In 1995, I began a spiritual awakening that has involved both body and mind.  The opening incident seemed to be consequent to a string of difficult events -- the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, the onset of my mother's final illness, the death of my best friend, my father's heart attack and an excruciating marital breakup.  I've been asked more than once if spiritual opening requires great pain.  My answer is that it depends on the person.  I certainly required the shaking by all these events in order to loosen my grip of a firmly perceived reality.  The same is true with psychotherapy, which takes courage to enter.  We don't change easily -- we are designed for stability -- and usually need a powerful motivator, like pain.

But I had re-entered psychotherapy myself, for the umpteenth time, not long before the awakening began.  In fact, I was sitting around feeling morose after a therapy session when all of a sudden the disparate facts of my psychological history seemed to coalesce into a marvelous and profoundly meaningful whole.  Every event in my life seemed to have had purpose, not a moment had been wasted.  At the same time, I felt as though streams of information that I could not comprehend were being downloaded into my brain and waves of something like electrical energy were flooding my body.  I was not at all in bliss (that came later, which I'll describe in future posts).  If what I was getting was true, all spiritual growth -- even the little epiphanies of an ant -- fed evolution of the whole.  At the time this seemed like a very cruel way for the universe to use human beings.  It wasn't till a few years later that I saw that we ARE the universe.  In 1995 I still half-believed in the Judaic God.

Freud wrote about psychoanalysis allowing ego to reign where id had been, shining light on the darkness.  Looking back, I'm not sure it was only the dramatic events that precipitated the kundalini awakening, for that was what it turned out to be.  Rather it was the hours and hours of non-judgemental witnessing of both others' and my own psychological movement that may have worn down the command of the ego, like water on rock.  Working as a therapist is not unlike being in meditation all week (remember the old joke about therapists' needing 25 hours of therapy a week?).  The skill to be acquired by both analyst and analysand is to be able to bear, honor and learn from increasing amounts of feeling and sensation without freaking out and/or acting out.  I now believe that the Goddess of Libido sees this kind of work as an invitation to send more life force into the organism.  The life force She sends acts as a kind of psychic roto-rooter sending ever-deeper pieces of emotional grit to the surface to be healed.  Rather than ego supplanting id, the two functions ideally come to balance in a harmonious relationship.