The world is burning, she tells me as she sits down on the couch for the counseling hour. I look out my office window in the middle of August to a strangely blazing orange sun and a gray haze shimmering on the water of the South Sound. I have to agree, the world is burning. Certainly there are fires twenty miles from here, and there are fires swallowing up homes and forests from the southern coast of Oregon all down the California Coast. It is scary.
I open my news feed to volcanoes erupting, earthquakes, bridges falling, shootings, children being ripped from their parents, vitriol being spewed from the mouths of those mandated to protect the polis. My eyes water. In part, they are responding to the particulates in the air, the detritus of burning trees, homes, structures. But to tell the truth, my eyes are watering for the simple reason that my soul is hurting as the world soul burns. With indignation, perhaps, for the rape of the environment, the callous disregard for life itself. Perhaps it is a necessary razing of the land to bring us to our knees or to our collective senses.
I don’t know.
When I was in Bogota attending and participating in the VIII Latin American Conference of Jungian Psychology, aptly titled, Light and Shadows, I had the amazing experience of going to the Museum of Gold with the Mamos (Shamans) of the Sierra Madre, the Kogis. That was followed by a workshop with them in the afternoon. This pre-conference experience was made possible by Ines de la Ossa, one of the three members of the organizing committee. The workshop was facilitated by Alfonso Rodriguez, adoptive father of one of the shamans, and a connector to the Kogis with the Columbian government in an effort to preserve the indigenous land and its practices.
Alfonso is a member of http://www.combainternacional.com/, and of https://www.tejidomanigua.com/ both efforts to bring the wisdom of the indigenous people to create new territories of being, a better way of life attuned to the creative.
I can’t tell you all that happened in that workshop, not because it is a secret but because it is still working in me as well as in the lives of many of the participants who are linked by the threads that were woven, literally as well as in the psychoid realm. What I can tell you is this: The Kogis and the three other indigenous tribes know that they are the heart and the lungs of the universe, they know that their customs, rituals and ways of living in alignment with Nature is what keeps the universe alive. They are attentive to the many worlds and levels of existence and they listen, they hear and they obey the messages from the other world.
What they hear is that they have to go out into the world, to spread the alarm, to bring to consciousness what we have been doing to the waters, the soil, the despoiling of the sacred spaces. They cannot remain silent in the mountains, where the waters are in danger of being dammed up again, they cannot maintain centuries of tradition ensconced in the relative safety of the high Sierra Madre mountain. To do so is to risk the survival of our planet.
They do not close their eyes to the multiple realities which are dependent on one another nor of their personal and collective responsibility to the demands made on them. Neither will I close my eyes to the burning of the world, the fever that is ravaging from the shadow of the collective unconscious. Neither can I nor will I despair. What I will do is to live my life in the most meaningful way possible. I will put my future dreams into thought, I will weave the threads of connection with close friends and far friends, with family of origin and family of humanity. I will write my life into the annals of time by living it fully, loving generously, doing my work with as much humility as I can muster. I will bring my cup of water to the fires.
“Bring me a rose in the winter time, when it’s hard to find.”
“Well, dear Father,” she said, “as you insist upon it, I
beg that you will bring me a rose. I have not seen one
since we came here, and I love them so much.”
Beauty and the Beast: De Villeneuve
It’s snowing in the Pacific Northwest. Just a light dusting actually, enough to evoke the nostalgia of childhood when all seemed well with the world. I would like to be there again, but the post-election reality of a world turned upside down, fear and despair nipping at the heels of holiday preparations won’t let me go down memory lane. At least not in childhood memories. More is needed to nurture a response that is not contaminated by fear, a hope that is not based on clichés. We need to dig deeper into the archetypal world, the world of imagery that can offer us a radical -to the roots- reality of how to transform individually and collectively. So, give me rose in the wintertime.
I love the song by Ernie Sheldon and found myself humming it this weekend as I struggled to stay positive about the future of our country and our world. I participated in a colloquium with colleagues from around the world on Stillpointspaces, an international platform for analysts, therapists and counselors. We spoke of the loss of the container, the loss of certainty and vision that is sweeping the world. Brexit, Italy’s refusal of reforms, the collapsing of the distance between the far left and the far right. Trump. The revelation that the split between the conscious and the unconscious can no longer be ignored. So, yes, I hummed give me hope when it is hard to find, give me peace when it is hard to find, remind me that something can emerge from these dark times. Austria rejects the right-wing candidate, the Dakota pipeline will not go through tribal lands. Yes, give me a rose in the wintertime!
For two years, five women from the Assisi Institute community met to discuss to the foundational fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, based on Marie Louise van Franz’s Interpretation of Fairy Tales. A curse is put on someone. Why? We don’t know. A father loses everything twice and allows his daughter to take his place when he steals a rose from the Beast’s garden. There is no mother. A daughter is willing to enter the lair of the Beast to save her father. Love conquers all in the end, Beauty, finally sees the human behind the cursed Beast and chooses him over the demands of her family. The holy coniuintio is achieved. In Cocteau’s 1947 movie, the resplendent Beauty and the Beast ascend to a heavenly realm - prince and princess live happily ever after.
In our group though, we saw this fairy tale as more than a ‘coming of age’ story more than a template for human development, anima and animus both. We wanted to know who put the thought of asking for a rose into Beauty’s head? What deep knowing and wisdom knew that the asking for the impossible and miraculous, would be the catalyst for the story? While Beauty does not know that her innocent request will take her father to the Beast’s castle in a winter storm, something deep in the Psyche did. We heard the voice of the Feminine whisper to her: hold out for the impossible, see beyond the temporal to the eternal, ask for the rose.
She says: Hold out for the possibility of life emerging when it ‘ought’ not, when the conditions are harsh, the ground cold and unyielding, the sun low and unwarm. She says: ask for the impossible, and then follow the story as you confront your fears, your inner voices, the way good girls ought to be. Be brave, see clearly, hold on to the tension between the opposites, winter – rose. And then choose. Choice is the active expression of an ego who knows the costs of consciousness and is willing to pay the price. It is the one who engages in the fight against the forces that would keep it in thrall to the collective values and give in, give up. She says: Ask for the rose and then go to the castle.
We do not go into the castle as naïve young women, regardless of our ages. We go into the castle to see beyond the surface of things into the reality of this world and our part of it. We will do what is in front of us to do and what is inside of us to transform. We will meet one another at Seeing Red, where the ground may be softened, where we bring warmth, and hold on to the vision of a rose emerging from the snow. As Stephen Mitchell writes in Parables and Portraits about the camel who dove through the eye of the needle: “It is not just that such things are possible,” the camel thinks, smiling. “But that such things are possible for me.” Give me rose in the wintertime. Every time.
posted on Seeing Red
We must love one another or die.
W H Auden from Another Time.
In September 1939, on the eve of a terrible war, WH Auden wrote that when the world is full of despair, we must love one another or die. These words came back to me on a gray and rainy December of 2016. Colleagues from Stillpointspaces met on video to discuss the implications of the results of the US elections. As an international community of analysts, psychologists, therapists, and counselors, we wanted to understand how the elections were affecting our clients/patients and, of course, ourselves. I was prepared to analyze the political, sociological and psychological effects of the election results. What I was not prepared for was the depth of grief expressed and viscerally felt during our call. This grief was beyond the constructs of the many isms that have contributed to a shaking of the foundations of our world.
We discussed the decline of socialism, the rise of discontent, consumerism run amok, the alienation of labor, the poison of envy, the decline of the middle class, the disenfranchisement of the young, and on and on, the litany at the wailing wall of a global phenomenon. For make no mistake, this is not about the US only. One by one, we spoke about the littleness in countries that used to be expansive, the collapsing of the far right and the far left into one another that left out the voices of the center. Brexit, Scandinavia, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria. Egypt. Refugees. The closing of ranks around social, cultural and ancient identities to keep out the ‘other’.
As we spoke, I felt the waves of grief rise and subside. I couldn’t get a hold of the reason, as though if we named the one thing, we could understand it, and in so doing, change it. And finally, for me, the grief I had been feeling crystallized in Edward Edinger’s assertion that we need a new myth, the myth of consciousness rooted in withness, in radical relatedness to others and to Psyche. He says: “the breakdown of a central myth is like the shattering of a vessel containing a precious essence; the fluid is spilled away…Meaning is lost. In its place, primitive and atavistic contents are reactivated, as Yeats said: the things fall apart, the center cannot hold (p. 9-10)
The center did not hold for all those on the edges of despair, those whose cries were not heard, who were left behind, whose dreams and hopes were eclipsed. This is true for both sides of the idealogical divide. We cannot other the other nor can we give in to despair. Like Jung said, we have to hold the tension between the opposites until something new appears. And that is hard to do when faced with the loss of foundational dreams.
As we spoke, I began to feel hope. Because in naming the myths that no longer held true, the American Dream, the vision of a progressive and upwardly mobile consciousness, we were naming a truth that could no longer be denied. What was revealed was the split between conscious and unconscious forces. Yes, the old container was shattered, the illusions gone, we are indeed living in a new world. It is a world not to our liking, but a new world nonetheless and no one was denying its reality nor denying the hard work of what we are being called to continue to do. To become more aware. To increase consciousness. To be related, deeply and radically to one another. To refuse to other someone. To return love. This is not an easy hope. It does, however, remind me that against all odds, something new may emerge from the harsh ground, the unwarm sky. I felt that in our conversation, raw, honest, real, seen, held and yes, I will say it, loved. And I understood better why we need these conversations. We become, as Auden implores at the end of his poem, ironic points of light, that despite the darkness and the despair, show an affirming flame.
posted on Stillpoinspaces.com
For over thirty-six years, we have gathered to celebrate the Passover, a re-telling of the Hebrew peoples’ crossing the desert into the Promised Land of milk and honey. We read the Haggadah, we drink the wine, pass the matzo, flick the plagues off our fingers like an Italian curse gesture. We sing Dayenu, the song that voices the wonder of any small act to be sufficient for knowing God’s abundant love and grace to us, the people who follow the law. The youngest ones present ask the four questions, why is this night different, why do we eat reclining, why do we eat bitter herbs and only matzo, why do we dip twice? And we are off, back in time to the story and the ongoing drama and trauma of freedom from oppression. In our yearly Seders, we have named numerous oppressions, holocausts, genocides, racisms and sexisms. It is part of the tradition to know that the story is not confined to the Biblical account, but an ongoing revelation and experience.
I have often asked myself, why, as a non-practicing Jew, I have been compelled to celebrate the Passover, dare I say it, religiously. I am reminded of Jung’s assertion in Psychology and Religion, that rituals are the containers for the experience of the Numinosum, a safe space where the psyche can be held, like the infant in the mother’s arms, from the perils of direct contact with the Source of Mystery. (Jung, 1938 p 53). It is only when the experience is dead that the ritual loses its meaning and efficacy, and becomes rigid and arid. What have I experienced of that liberation from oppression that continues to have the power and energy to keep me setting the table, cooking the traditional foods, and inviting others into my home to eat, recite and sing?
This year, the question is not difficult to answer. What is driving the ritual remembrance of the Exodus is my involvement with Seeing Red, an inter-disciplinary initiative out of the Assisi Institute: The International Center for the Study of Archetypal Patterns. When Loralee Scott-Conforti, the Executive Director, invited me to be part of exploring the underlying roots of oppression and violence against women, I said yes. What I didn’t know was that my assent would lead me through the desert of sojourn, sometimes on my knees and sometimes resting by Miriam’s well. As Passover neared, I realized that in the past, I had been captured by the suffering of others. This year, I had to traverse the suffering of my soul, entrenched and captured by inner oppression.
It is one thing to blame patriarchy, especially coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and name the many injustices women have suffered, from the original disobedience to stay unconscious, to the sundering of the feminine into the Madonna/whore. It is easy, in fact, to look out into the world and point to the horrors that happen to women, girls and children, because they are the ‘weaker’, the Other, the ones who bear the scars, if they survive at all, of violence.
Actually, I don’t think it is easy, it is horrific, sobering, and traumatizing to see the images posted on Facebook, the New York Times, other social media and news feeds, of violence, rape, torture, and random attacks on the feminine. When the oppression is recognized as “out there’, we can join the chorus exposing and opposing injustice, we can act. It is another thing to recognize and feel the sadness, shed the tears for our own internalized oppression; the myriad ways we cut ourselves, do violence to our dreams, friendships, relationships, our very destiny. It is excruciating to face the demons that seek to eat our very lives, name them, perhaps, for the first time for what they are and fight tooth and bloody nail against them.
The redeeming grace is that we walk through the desert, relying on the mana and the water of our contemporary companion sisters, as well as those who have come before us. They hold us as we keen and grieve and take from Egypt, the narrow place of oppression, that which belongs to us - the land of our soul. No longer sojourners in a strange land, we lay claim to our own fertile knowing. On May 9th, Muriel McMahon, a seasoned traveler on the road, a guide and voice in the wilderness, will present a webinar on Walking with our Grandmothers: Exploring Trans-Generational Complexes at www.seeingredconference.com. Wherever you may be on this journey, I invite you to join us, as we traverse the terrain of liberation together.
I am lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, when the skies are leaden and the mist or rain or downpour occlude the sun, I can go to a Korean Woman’s spa and luxuriate in warmth. There are hot tubs, a cool tub, saunas, steam rooms, dry mud rooms, salt rooms, mugwort tea baths. There are rooms with heated floors where I can recline on couches or cushions and read or snooze or dream. There is a restaurant which serves spicy and comforting soups, tangy kimchee and grassy infused teas. I can, for a few hours and the price of entry, relax in a version of heaven.
There are no men to be seen. Anywhere. All the people who work there, massage therapists, skin care aestheticians, body wrappers and body scrubbers are women. All the people soaking in tubs, sipping tea, all are women. There is no whiff of testosterone anywhere. When I go to the spa, I go to be in a purely feminine world. There are not many places in our culture where it is appropriate and necessary to be in female only space.
This is what it’s like: in the shared public spaces like the restaurant and relaxing rooms, we wear our bathrobes and hair covers, otherwise, we are naked. And it is a glory to behold the many shapes, sizes, ages, colors, wrinkles, tattoos, the gravity defying and the gravity affected, all of us, carriers of the double chromosome, and each one unique. As I said, it is glorious to see and be seen exactly as we are, no hiding or covering up our perfections or imperfections.
I had a vision, while almost sleeping in the salt room on the bamboo floor. I saw the many wells and ponds and lakes and pools where women had gathered from the beginning of time. The Well-maidens, the shepherdesses, the women gaily braiding flowers into their hair by the many waters – all flowed through my imagination. The word seraglio came unbidden. While seraglio originated as a place where women were kept for the sultan, it is actually a container, a protective enclosure that keeps danger at bay. And then, and then, in the lovely moment of feeling myself one with the mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers of all time, I had a sudden surge of terror.
I knew with certainty, that at any moment, the Saracens could come thundering through the seraglio, the container of safety, and in their blood lust, destroy, kill and murder us all. Robert Langs has a word for this, it is secure frame dread. When you finally feel safe, when the head rests on the beloved’s shoulder, when the infant gives in to the paradise of oneness, the terror comes. It is the very fact of feeling vulnerable and safe that elicits the terror. That is the psychological lens of what I experienced.
And it is also something more, as deep and as true as the fact that water will flow to find its level. That is, when women have gathered together to celebrate, relax, mourn, grieve, support one another, we have been raped, killed, enslaved, ripped from the womb of the family, the culture, our homes. Truth be told, we don’t even need to be in groups to be targets. Read the papers and weep.
That is why I am so involved and dedicated to Seeing Red, an initiative which seeks to unearth the roots of feminine oppression and violence and to explore how we see ourselves and how we are seen. So we provide, for the moment, a feminine only space where we can embrace our experiences and find solace, comfort, and the energy to confront the terror and heal our souls. www.seeingredconference.com.
This past November, my beloved Danish mother-in-law passed away at the age of ninety-five. She was a complex and wonderful woman who taught me much about generosity, fidelity and tenacity. When she began to decline, I started a painting entitled: Northern Lights. At the time, I didn’t know it was going to be in her memory, nor that it would give me a way to understand what I have been engaged in for the last months. I just knew I needed to paint this- the mountains, the ocean, the sky, the blue-green light shimmering. Since I am not a trained painter, I allow and welcome the wisdom of the creative to irrupt into consciousness, so when the red appeared, I bowed to the streak here and the pulsing there.
But consciousness must be engaged in the process as well, so I looked up the Northern Lights, curious to see if there really was red and wanting to learn the how of the Aurora Borealis. I was stunned to learn the deep archetypal meaning of that image. The lights begin in the deepest heart of our sun. Temperatures reach unimaginable degrees, in that cauldron of hydrogen atoms, helium forms and must reach out from the depths. It does so in waves of plasma that erupt from the surface. Those waves of magnetic particles hurtle through space, past Mercury, past Venus and come into contact with the magnetic poles of our own Earth. The force field is always there, but when the energy from the sun collides with the magnetic field, a funnel is formed that channels that energy to the poles. The skies, day and night both, light up with magnificent display of dancing waves of light, green, blue, yellow, orange and occasionally and rarely -red.
The archetypal meaning is this: something gets heated, some necessary combustion takes place deep beneath the surface of what we see, far far from our consciousness. At the right moment, the perfect conditions are met and the energy is released in waves that reach out across time and space. When those waves meet resistance, when they meet the invisible and always present protections, the energies collide and what is unseen becomes visibile. It vibrates with light. The light shows us what is always there waiting to be illuminated, but it cannot take form until the conditions are met.
When I saw the red in the painting, what I was seeing was the constellation of something that has been deep in the unconscious realm, moving slowly towards our consciousness. Yes, it is a deep homage to my mother in law, but it is also a confirmation of what I have been involved in helping come to light: Seeing Red – illuminating the unconscious patterns of feminine oppression through the deep integration of the analytic and the creative. (http://www.seeingredconference.com/)
This new intiative, through the vision of Loralee Scott-Conforti, and in collaboration with Muriel McMahon and myself, comes at a ripe time. The need for consciousness and awareness of the energies driving violence and oppression against women everywhere is reaching our defenses; our poles of awareness are ready to receive it and make it be seen and known across the globe.
There is much more to come as we develop the analytical and creative responses to that which has its roots in the deep and dark centers of the human experience over millennia. We are being called to be the energy that transforms potential into the light of awareness, consciousness and action. It has already started, it is already present, alive and thrumming with life. May we be the instruments of that light, channeling the energy in a generative and illuminating way. Join us in Seeing Red, that it may be seen and recognized for what it is and for what it is possible to become.
“Will you catch me when I fall?” Those are the words of a refrain from a Danish song by the group Danser med Drenge (Dancing with Boys). The image helped me recall the old trust games used in group-building back in the day. Someone stood in the center of a group, crossed their arms across their chests and closed their eyes. They were to fall backwards, trusting that they would get caught before they hit the ground by their co-workers. That exercise was used to ‘teach’ trust among people who were supposed to be a team. Reading between the lines, of course, it speaks to the trust that wasn’t there, otherwise, why build it in such a concrete and forced way? I shudder to think of it today.
Now, I see the set up, for both the outer group and the inner person. In an environment where you have to work together, are you really going to show that you don’t have the bully’s back? Are you really going to fall backwards knowing that the others will be forced to catch you or be outed as the missing link in the team? That’s one memory of a throw back to a cultural phenomenon that sought to create safety in unsafe terrain.
I don’t know if that is still used in team building, I have to think it is. What emerges more powerfully for me now, after completing the Trauma and Healing Cerificate from the Assisi Institute, is how essential trust is in our ability to navigate the world and how elusive its provenance. For those whose life experience was that no one was there to hold them, or even worse, that whoever was there was out to destroy the very essence of their being through violence, incest, or neglect, falling is not an option. On the contrary, falling is the worst possible outcome, because you either fall into nothingness and perish in existential dread, or you fall into the unspeakable. And no one comes to help, save or protect, no one to say “don’t go down that street”, no one to say, “don’t you dare touch that child.”
These are the experiences of those who have suffered harm at the hands of those entrusted to their care. We read about it every day, stories of mothers or boyfriends or fathers or nannies or day care workers who harm the very lives they are mandated to protect. The survivors experience the world as unsafe and others as untrustworthy, they walk over and over again into the maw of the beast, because that they can trust. What they cannot trust is that there will be somewhere, someone who will be there to catch them. Those of us in the clinical field, know this and we try to orient them to navigate the world, not asking for trust, but hopefully, over time, earning it.
That’s the clinical aspect of working with survivors of trauma, but there is a far larger field not tied to the personal experience of trauma. We live in a world that is truly unsafe, we cannot trust our leaders to catch us, or that the justice, legal or cultural system will protect us from violence if we are women, or children, or transgender, or black, or Muslim or any other ism that is currently seen as the enemy.
At a dinner party the other night, I mentioned Michael Moore’s “I am a Muslim” challenge to protest Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. He asked people to take a selfie of themselves holding that sign and to post it. I was surprised by some of the responses, "that’s cultural appropriation", "you can’t say you are a Muslim because you are not", "we have to be allies, we need to say, I am not a Muslim but I stand by you".
That argument, while politically correct, missed the most important aspect of what is needed if you are truly going to catch someone falling: the symbolic life. It is not enough to say the words, I am your ally. It is not enough to say, I am a man and stand by my sisters, 'cause man, when I walk out the door as a white woman and even though I stand with my black brothers and sisters, I am still a woman and not a man. I am a target, a magnet with two x chromosomes. And I am still not a black woman or a woman of any color or race, nor am I a Muslim woman, I am still not those who face even more dangers than I in this world.
I appreciate the symbolic life to gain access to mastery over evil, like King Christian X of Denmark, who wore the yellow star on his arm to stop the genocide of Danish Jews. The whole town of Billings, Montana placed menorahs on their windows to combat the incursion of white supremacists and ran them out of town. There is a way to enter into the reality and change the course. But first it must be named.
We cannot afford to be fragmented by being caught in verbal hyperbole while lives are destroyed and demolished. I believe there is something begging to be born, a new awareness and consciousness of what is afoot, like the beast slouching toward Bethelem, that needs to be named. The new year brings the possibility of seeing more deeply into what is driving such violence. May we be part of the catching.
I just spent a few lovely hours with a dear friend, the conversation full of laughter and silences. Little did it matter that we live on opposite coasts and even less that I am almost a decade older. The connection between us has been forged in the cauldron of our experiences as women, as professionals, as colleagues and, ultimately, as friends.
As we said our goodbyes, I was grinning from ear to ear. Our conversation had touched on the perils of menopause, that physiological alien that takes over at a certain time in life. I remember being sold the pablum, ‘it’s not a hot flash, it’s a power surge’ in an attempt to turn that experience into a feminist badge of honor. Not so. When I first started feeling uncomfortable, unable to sleep, suddenly roaring into rage, I was confused, certain that the psychotic somnambulist was waking up. It took one night at the dinner table to set me straight. Something new had come to town!
I had made spaghetti with broccoli and the sight of that family favorite started the sadness. Within minutes I was crying. My family was exchanging ‘those’ knowing glances: Now what? I was overcome by a devastating loneliness and out of my mouth came the wail: “I don’t have any friends!”
I don’t know how they contained themselves. I do remember they were very sweet to me and later, after all had gone to bed, my husband said, “Sweetie, I think you may want to talk to your doctor. Just saying… this is not like you.” Luckily the evil dragon lurking in the corner waiting to flamethrow anyone who tried to get close was not aroused, and I meekly said, Ok. The doctor confirmed it, peri-menopause.
That was the beginning of riding the roller coaster of the second part of life, where the journey is headed not out into the world, but down into the deep underbelly of life. I had to discover what the future version of me would be, I would have to wrestle with the demons of my past- my friend called them “The Committee”. We all are familiar with those voices that shoot down any initiative, criticize, analyze and paralyze.
The journey that Jung called the mid-life individuation process plunges us into the night sea journey, into the depths of so-called depression - being held close to the earth in order to hear what the chthonic depths have to tell us. Be quiet, hibernate, sit on the couch and sink down and deep and paint, dance and sweat it all out. It is to crawl back into the womb of being, contained in ourselves until we are ready to emerge into the world again. It is a slow and painstaking process and we are not alone in it. Not only because we share it with all humans, male or female, but also because Psyche, God, the Numinous is there with us.
I will tell you why I was so happy at the end of our phone call. At the end of our far-ranging and commiserative conversation, she told me of casting for fish for the first time under the blood full moon. She said that somehow, the moment the fish first pulled, she felt in her very bones that this was right, that she had done this before, that she ‘knew’ this. Not as a master, and not as a newly converted fisherperson, but as someone who knew how right it was to cast herself into the unconscious and pull out of it what she needed for sustenance at this time of her life.
I then remembered the time I went kayaking on the South Sound some years ago. I had been coming out of the darkest period of my life and it seemed good to spend some time on the calm water. I kayaked to the middle of the Sound and stopped, my paddles still. Suddenly, a salmon leapt out of the water, flopped on my lap a couple of times and then flopped back into the water. I was in shock. I hadn’t had the wherewithal to grab it!
And then the words came unbidden: If a salmon can jump into my lap in the middle of the Sound, then I can do the next thing that is for me to do.
What I understand now, many years later is that when we submit to the process – when we say yes to the Dark God, when we undergo the suffering, the alienation, we are also held and helped, we are pushed down and in. But go down we must and thank God for those friends who are there to witness the entire journey and honor the passage.
When the waves crest
Sometimes you can see dolphins
Or other fish
Backlit by the sun
Suspended in the clarity of water.
That moment of perfect balance
Before the wave crashes
Leaves scant traces of shells
Which will be brought back into the ocean
This image appeared in a recent session as a client was describing the sense of despair after a wonderful vacation with family. Why, after such a good time, were the memories of beach, tides, and laughter tinged with the dark blue of depression, sadness and melancholy? The feeling was palpable in the room, drawing me into that world where destruction follows any experience that has the potential to be good and stay good.
You have to wonder what can consistently crash our hopes, dreams and desires for a full and good life, especially when we are living it. Those of us working in the field of trauma and healing know the power of the past to shape the experience of the present. And indeed, the stories poured out: every time something good happened in my client’s life, there was a family drama, betrayal of trust, betrayal of safety and security. Life was predictable: don’t believe you can have anything, and if you do, make sure it doesn’t last or better yet, destroy it before it is taken away.
It’s difficult to talk about trauma when the stories don’t involve marks on the body, when there are no police reports of violence or sexual abuse, no neglect of basic needs, but the traces are there nonetheless. We are, after all, always looking for direct casual links, to understand what happened and lay out the consequences. So if there is no ‘evidence’ it can’t have been that bad. I hear this all the time: “other people have it much worse, all you have to do is read the paper and see the real horrors perpetrated on the innocent. Nothing that bad happened to me.”
Without minimizing other people’s suffering, comparisons like this are after one thing only, defending against the assaults to the soul. Covert destruction of one’s sense of worth, security and safety are insidiously damaging exactly because they are not easily named. So much harm is done under the rubric of love, care and protection, so much confusion about what it means to be loved when what you have is taken from you for the good of the family, or the mother or the father or the sibling who has so little. The soul gives itself up, steals the good or gives it away.
So don’t enjoy the dolphins suspended in water like air because the crash will come. And in some ways, that is right. The crash does come, it is inevitable, life is both joy and suffering. What matters, however, is to fully and deeply drink in the beauty of the good moments, the miracle of a good life knowing that disappointment and hurt may follow. Healing is possible when we embrace both possibilities without destroying the one for the sake of the other.
I recently started a new painting, using a canvass big enough to use up some old paint. It was to be a study of yellows, with burnt sienna, vermillion red and other odds and ends I had accumulated over the years. So I mixed the old paint with walnut oil, hoping to reconstitute it enough to have it slide on the canvass. I quickly discovered that is not how it works. I ended up with thick leaden lines that killed any life in their vicinity. So, I left it for a while, thinking I would see it with new eyes next time I could go to the studio. But when I walked into the studio a week later, I was filled with a desire to destroy the canvass, to paint over it, to slash it, to throw it out.
Something held my hand back. Some whisper of inspiration, some angel of knowing, took my hand instead to an old rag and turpentine. I used the soaked towel and tried to take off all the paint, start over with a clean slate. I wiped and wiped, each time removing more and more of the lifelessness until no more would come off. What remained was a patina of deep golden yellows, like a mellow maple floor, walked on for generations. The dead lines were gone, but there were traces, like old scars of old wounds, faint but ever present, that became the roots and branches of new life.
That painting taught me about trauma in a new way. To be human is to suffer the vicissitudes of betrayal, loss and grief. Not everyone suffers horrific trauma, assaults to the self that are unbearable, but many do. But no one is served by trying to gloss over the pain and suffering and lull us into the belief that all things can be overcome, that the trauma will disappear, that all will be well.
We want to deny that some things will never be completely healed and made whole. We want to say that everything that happens has a reason and a purpose under heaven. Even if terrible things happened, there is meaning to be made. But that is not the case, and we see it in the woman pushing a grocery cart with all her belongings down the street. We see it in a child who winces at loud noises in an airport bathroom, as well as in the returning soldier who stands in line at the drugstore, mere days after having been in battle and is startled by a sudden noise..
That we can make a life out of suffering too cruel to name is a miracle. As Dr. Conforti says, resilience is a secular miracle. We can learn to live with the damage but we can never deny that the damage happened. We can accept that for the rest of our lives we will have to be careful, to resist those places which hurt us, to build walls when necessary, and to say, no, I can’t go there. I know this because I have been participating in the Trauma and Healing Certification Program offered at the Assisi Institute. (assisiinstitute.com)
What we are learning from leading scholars and clinicians who specialize in trauma and healing is that the power of the trauma, whatever its description, leaves a sheen on the soul that affects the way we experience the world. The contours of the trauma can be seen by the way the person moves, behaves, believes, by the way so many of us find ourselves taken over, yet again, by the re-enactment of the trauma. Father sold you out, you sell yourself out. Mother kept you close, you never live your life.
So how do we manage not to fall into despair, the repetition of alienation, violence or the theft of a good life? There is no technique, no panacea, but a real moral response to sit with and be present to someone’s suffering without trying to make it better. When we witness the horror without flinching, when we abide with the unspeakable and don’t try to turn into it into a positive ‘learning’ experience, we let the other know that we won’t run away. That it is possible to be human, that there are those who will not betray, abuse or abandon. The healing that is possible takes place in the alchemical container of soul witnessing soul. Like the painting, we carry the many layers of our life without denial, without pretense and make the best life we can.
Dr. Silvia Behrend is a Certified Pattern Analyst, educator and mentor