Trauma, don't paint it pretty
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.
Therapy in the Ether
Therapy through the Ether
I have spent all day alone in my office
The ping of the computer announces that the connection is made
All check out
The image appears, sometimes clear and sharp
Carried by whatever gods rule this realm,
The temenos is activated.
In ancient times,
The supplicant would prepare in a stone room by a water source
Filled with serpents.
First, they wash and fast
Then sleep and wait for the dream to speak with the voice of the gods
The healer or priest, prophetess or seer
Cleansed and clothed in purity of mind, spirit and body
They wait for the god to reveal the dis-ease and the method for healing
It is no less simple today.
Gone are the serpents on the stone floor
Gone as well, the time it took to hear the voice of the gods
Sometimes days would pass before they spoke.
But the slow and careful listening to the other,
The patient waiting for revelation
The ongoing supervision
The awe and trembling before the voice of the gods
Is still here
Captured by the image on a screen
A relationship as old as humanity itself
Cave space or stone room
Consultation office or internet
We long to be seen, heard, and understood,
We wait to be oriented to our own particular destiny.
There have been times when the gods are antsy
The internet connection doesn’t hold
Then we move to another format and then another
Until, sometimes, from continent to continent
What is left is the phone -
Landline or cell-
The last resort in an age of digital technology
Whichever side of the screen we are on,
Whatever gods call us to confess our dreams and suffering,
We are engaged in an ancient ritual
Wearing modern dress.
The ping alerts me
The gods have spoken
I hear and obey.
March 24, 2015
Freud and I
This is a public confession - since my undergraduate days when I first had to read Society and its Discontents, I gave Freud a big pass. What I learned about his theory through a liberal education was enough for me to dismiss him. His theories about everything being about sex, repressed sex, expressed sex, delayed sex, women envying men, all about the phallus, turned me off. I never understood his claims that women, who could become pregnant from one fast sperm, incubate life for nine months, and go through the birth process as heroines, could possibly envy an appendage. If anything, I understood that men had what is now called Venus envy, since they cannot bring forth life from their own bodies, they have to compensate.
Nor did I buy into the Oedipal fantasy that all men want to marry their mothers and kill off the father. Or that all little girls want to marry their daddies, that all dreams are sublimated sexual and libidinal drives. Or that the psyche conspires to conceal rather than reveal. It seemed a dark, driven and desperate world he saw, described and stamped on the Western psychological model. So off to Jung I went, his grasp of the mystery of Psyche, the inner workings of the Self in relationship to a developing ego, the telos of life being to live one’s life consciously and not be lived through the possession of autonomous complexes spoke to me. Jung allowed a more comprehensive lens through which to understand life than mere sex or even death.
So, in other words, I followed the established norm of choosing one of two camps, two psychological stances each of which disavowed one another. To all you Freudians, my apologies. This is what happened: I signed up for a certification program at the Assisi Institute entitled: After the Storm: Psyche’s Response to trauma, Resilience and Healing. The first book on the list for the program was Trauma, Growth and Personality by Phyllis Greenacre, an avowed Freudian. And I was stunned to realize that there was gold in Freud too! She wrote about the process of birth as the infant’s initial traumatic experience from the infant’s point of view.
She describes how pre-natal, natal and post natal experiences predisposes the infant’s organism to respond to trauma in particular ways. The biological process prepares the infant to respond to stimuli in the outer world. How the initial birth trauma goes, how the infant is held, how the environment responds to its stress and distress, in a sense prefigures how the adult will find ways to modulate stress, and respond to trauma.
Those of you well versed in Freudian theory know much more than that, but for me, the depth of attention to the infant’s experience awakened a respect for him that I had not had before. While I am not embarking on becoming a Freudian, I can find resonance in field theory, initial conditions that constrain how an organism responds to life and its vicissitudes. Perhaps it speaks to a more mature attitude to the greats, to do homage and respect for their work without holding them to be a God who must either be worshipped or destroyed. And while I may never speak fluent Freudian, I will study its vocabulary and engage in dialogue with respect and curiosity.
Hope, not Hell: musings on therapy
When I was actively serving in the ministry, I leaned more to the Universalist side of Unitarian Universalism. Theologically, I was more drawn to the idea that Love overruled Thought, that universal salvation, the belief that no one is condemned to hell is better than some going and some not. It seemed a more humane position to take on the human condition. Mistakes could be made, even serious ones, and no one would die unredeemed. Life could be and was serious, painful, and difficult, and holding out hope, buttressing courage was more efficacious than condemning someone to the realm of unrelenting hopelessness.
This vision of the relationship between the human and the divine other is perfectly captured by the following quote, attributed to the 18th century Universalist minister, John Murray. The actual quotation comes from Our Liberal Heritage, written by Alfred S. Cole:
The Time-Spirit said to John Murray, “Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country. . . . You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
Reading the quote brought to mind me Jung’s distinction between the Spirit of the Deep and the Spirit of the Times. There is a spirit, energy, a force that exists outside of our consciousness, which speaks to us in images, dreams and reveries, and seeks to supply what is needed for the specific times we live in. In the 18th century, what was required was a compensation for the hell, fire, and brimstone of Evangelical Christendom. Thus, Universalism, with its tenets of universal salvation, spoke for the voice of the God of Love, compassion and kindness.
I no longer practice as a minister, no longer stand on a pulpit and preach the good word, yet I cannot escape my orientation to the world as that of being in relationship to something grander, more mysterious, unknowable that is now clothed in the language of depth psychology. Psyche, Self, the Unconscious, are all words that illumine that numinous experience. Our life’s purpose, meaning, and direction can be discerned through dreams and images that come from that deep and fundamentally mysterious place. They come, like the spirit of the deep answering the spirit of the times, to help us come into balance.
I was reminded of those words today as I worked with a client who was desperate for hope to help get through moments of despair and grief. Those of us who accompany people through the dream landscape, the archetypal configurations of loss and trauma, are often faced with a tightrope act. How do we translate the messages from dreams that reveal the conscious attitude as one sided and potentially destructive, in a way that maintains the integrity of the ego?
In other words, how do we offer hope and not hell?
Ostensibly, people come to therapy, counseling, or mentoring in order to deal with their demons and, often, their defenses and conscious attitudes will do everything they can to prevent that. Essentially, the ego is caught between the proddings of the Self to individuate and the power of the complexes to stay in the same old patterns that keep the ego in thrall to the complex. Our job is offer hope tempered with wisdom. It is up to us to hold the knowledge that through insight, action and perseverance much can be healed and sometimes the road to wholeness leads straight through hell. We cannot simply offer the light hope of platitudes, feel goods and easy answers. Instead, we extend the steady hand, the sure knowledge that they are not alone in this journey. Sometimes we hold the horror until it can be assimilated. And sometimes, we lead away from that horror to protect the vulnerable and emerging soul. Offering hope is not a denial of hell. It is a recognition that it exists and that it can be traversed. That is hope enough.
Saved by the Bell
Variation On A Theme By Rilke
by Denise Levertov
(The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
For weeks, this poem has been nagging me, tugging at the corners of my memory. There was something about a bell, a sharp awakening, but the poet would not come, nor would the actual words. I stood in front on my poetry collection once or twice, hoping that the right book would beckon, would, like the poem itself says, strike my shoulder and say, here am I.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I worried it, gnawed Google with different versions of the bell and got some interesting sidelines, but no poem. Until today, until the moment the possession was broken and suddenly I remembered, it was Denise Levertov and within seconds, I had it. I had been struck on the shoulder, awakened from the sleep of unconscious possessions, from the voices that clouded my seeing and hearing and being. The demon had been named and the cloud lifted.
I had fallen into a complex, a quanta of energy organized around the particular theme of how I function in the world. Or don’t. We all are susceptible to complexes, unconscious and autonomous thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that take over our conscious mind. We are no longer in control of reality, we see the world and ourselves through the lens of the complex and it usually isn’t pretty.
It is our nature to form complexes; the evolution of human development exists to become aware and related to the unconscious forces that would rule us as the first peoples were ruled by Nature itself. We no longer live in the world populated by tree, thunder and rain spirits, benevolent or malevolent. We inhabit instead, a world that is explainable through physics, chemistry, biology, or so we think.
In reality, there is much we do not know, see or understand that exists without our awareness. The gift of being human is that we can, with hard work and perseverance, come into contact with that source of being and find there the energy that fuels our creativity. There are many words for this work: psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, therapy, counseling, mentoring, and spiritual direction, to name a few. Each one understands that another is required to help us see what we cannot see, simply because we are embedded in the woods of the complex. Awareness comes surely when we have grappled with the demons ourselves of course, but we cannot wrestle with what we do not know.
And that, of course, is the point of all the work, energy and training that those of us who engage in the above professions seek to illuminate. We are called to name the monsters under the bed, the illusions of knights in shining armor, the whispers of failure or inflation that beset all of us. It is a delicate task to name the fears and desires and denials. Yet, when we are able to name what assails a soul, there is an opportunity for hearing that fulsome and authentic ringing of a whole self singing: I can.
Saying Yes to the Unreasonable
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
What a multitude of miracles we may have missed throughout our lives, filled as we are, with good reasons for doing or not doing. There is a certain elegance about those lines, “had Mary been filled with reason” that strike at the core of our human experience. We want to know, to make order and sense, to tidy the world into boxes that will not tumble or fall. In an effort to stay safe in the familiar, we populate our inner life with shoulds, oughts and musts, or, in some cases, must nots.
This is all true. Yet there is a deeper wisdom to be gleaned from these words. Had Mary been filled with reason, that is, filled with the conscious effort to order the world, there would not have been space for Logos, the ordering spirit of the divine. That is a powerful image for those of us who seek to understand the movements of the holy in our lives. And by the holy, I am not speaking of the gods and goddesses we have named that clothe the ineffable, but of the numinous mystery itself.
I am reminded of the statue of Shiva Nataraja, the Hindu Lord of the Dance, dancing on the back of a supine human. All along, we are looking at our human concerns, belly button gazing at the lint of life lived small, when above us, around us, dances the divine magnificent presence. When we fill our minds with the effort to understand what is not explicable, we close off the opportunity to experience the miracle of being awakened to a new state of awareness. The reason is simple: we are terrified of taking up the mandate of what the holy calls us to become.
It wasn’t easy for a young woman to submit her will to that of the unknowable, to risk being transformed from an adolescent into a woman who would bear the burden of birthing a life destined to death. Forget the resurrection, at that moment of saying yes to the irrational, the unreasonable, she was saying yes to the process of being transformed, broken and broken open. Madonna and Mater Dolorosa, Virgin and Weeping Mother, what immeasurable joy and suffering are there contained!
There are a million reasons to deny the call of the holy, of our unique destinies-loss of family, reputation, safety, loss of our familiar and comforting spot in the world. There is no good reason to submit to the mystery that would ask the world of us, take it away and then give it back transformed. Except that, to follow reason only robs us of the unique gift living our lives imbued with the Spirit of our lives. So much more can be said about Mary, about this poem, about the masculine and feminine worlds. But for now, hush, listen and perhaps the lily will bend to your ear and whisper the words meant only for you.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
I have spoken these lines, penned by poet, philosopher, farmer and social activist, Wendell Berry, in Solstice celebrations at the church where I ministered for thirteen years. Every year, the doors would open into the candle lit sanctuary. People would come in from the usually snowy and frozen night, take a seat in a pew next to a friend or a stranger and wait. Some sweet slow music would start, the quiet would deepen, and I would read these words to enter into the darkest time of the year together.
How I loved the rhythm of that night: poetry, prose readings, songs interspersed with meditations that culminated in the sudden lighting of the church, dancing into the social hall where we shared food and drink, more music and dancing to mark the turning of the wheel. We went dark, stayed dark and in that darkness, began to bask in the light of fellowship and community.
Jung reminded us that rituals exist to hold and mediate the direct experience of the numinous. The structure of the evening held the millennial experience of the mystery of light returning in the midst of the darkest night. I no longer minister in a church, instead I sit with people as together we enter into dark spaces, resisting the temptation to bring too much light and consciousness too soon.
There are spaces and places we must go that require deep and dark patience and a hand to hold while we sit and wait. Of course, we all know that the dark night of the soul or the night sea journey is traversed alone. Like Jacob, we struggle with the mighty angel all night, not knowing we are fighting for our true and proper name, our destiny.
But before we get strong enough to face that unknown, we need the simple presence of the Other. The one who will sit as we struggle to name and accept the many hurts and wounds of life, the one who will reflect back to us the strength to stay in the dark long enough to receive its gold. I am always so moved by Jung’s dictum that the shadow holds 80% gold. The dark does hold the scary and unknown aspects of ourselves, but when we can see them, albeit dimly, we find also the luminosity of that which we have rejected.
The kind of work we do, depth and analytical psychologists, archetypal pattern analysts, psychoanalysts and others, can be called a companioning in the dark. Not lost, not disoriented, but rather tethered to the trust that the dark holds its own mysterious beauty and richness. This is especially true this time of year, as the darkness comes earlier and earlier in the day and the nights get longer and longer. The expectations of the holidays, tensions and memories, hope and loss all are enveloped in the dark. When we sit in it long enough, the inner light emerges and we can enter into a new day. And the beauty of this moment is that we are not alone.
TS Eliot on my time
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
In my early twenties, I had the good fortune of finding these words by TS Eliot from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. They became the compass by which I made decisions. I fell in love with the permission to change my mind at a moment’s notice. I realized that whatever decision I made, I could change my mind and nothing terrible would happen. The possibilities were endless.
Go to Texas to nurture a new relationship. Sure! Oh, well, actually no, my friends think it’s a bad idea, I get a refund and he drives home alone from the airport. The next day, I go to the airport anyway, buy a new ticket and spend the summer in Texas.
I always think about that summer romance, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and I almost did. That phrase helped me take a risk, I knew that I could always buy another ticket back East if it didn’t work out between us. That relationship did not last past August but that experience allowed me to make vital decisions about my life which I ‘knew’ were reversible. I have been married for 34 years to someone I said ‘Yes’ to thinking that if it didn’t work out, I could always make another decision. There was always a way out.
But, that’s not the way it works. Endless possibilities belong to youth, to those still trying to find the thread that leads to their destiny. At some point in time, we are no longer able to reverse a decision in a minute, the stakes become higher, the price to be paid becomes exponential, affecting not only our selves but those we love. And so the decisions are no longer external – Paris, Rome or Madrid, but internal. To change our attitude to our life, to change the relationship to our past, to our inner complexes, is a decision which cannot be revised or reversed. We persevere in becoming conscious of what has driven us, we choose to stay the course in awareness, knowing that to consistently give up and try something new will bring us only the same old same old.
That knowledge was hard won. There are no endless possibilities at my stage of life, and in fact, there weren’t any endless possibilities then either. There was just more energy and time available to experiment, experience and express. I live with the knowledge that where I am now is the fruit of all that I have done and been and I get to reap that harvest.
That is the work of archetypal pattern analysis, to recognize the mandates of life, to know what belongs to which season and to determine whether we are stuck or thriving. To live whole and balanced lives, we fully inhabit the spirit of our time, we learn to live with the many deceptions and disillusions of life, in ourselves and in others. It is hard work to live the reality of our lives at any age. That kind of clarity allows us to relax a bit, knowing we are exactly where and who we are supposed to be. The paradox is that when we really get to know, accept and embrace all of our perfect imperfections, we navigate life more easily, knowing what must be done minute by minute. Which is, of course, the only way to live.
Seasons of Our Lives
Archetypal pattern analysts, depth psychologists, Jungians, Freudians, students of human development and consciousness have a lens through which they try to make sense of the world and our place in it. Humanists, behaviorists, reductionists, all sorts of “ists” postulate, theorize and ponder the human condition as well. The fact is, regardless of the theoretical stance, we are all in the same soup. Our task is to find the meaning of our lives, to answer the deepest and most primal questions: Who am I? Why am I here?
And then, the next big question is: How do I live my life? A while ago, I wrote about the power of mentors and of the Wisdom traditions that give voice to human experience and serve as guides. Therapists, counselors, clergy, godparents and others may serve this role and blessed is the one who finds someone they can trust to navigate the world and the myriad changes that occur.
Because the one true thing for all of us is that life changes, we must go through all the phases and stages and allow ourselves to be scathed and transformed. I use the word scathed intentionally. So many of us want to move through life unscathed, as though untouched by grief, loss, or aging. We want to escape what Shakespeare called “the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to. (Hamlet)
Jung once said what we don’t live out consciously, we will live out as fate. We react as though we had no choice in the matter, forces push us and pull us and we end up surprised at the end of our lives that we had not lived our lives at all. I am seeing this expressed more and more in my practice; clients who, in their later years, are looking back and seeing what they missed, having to make peace with the realizations that the choices which they thought were conscious, were driven by unconscious forces.
The most difficult task of life is to see ourselves and our lives with clarity, compassion and dignity so we may live out what is left with more awareness and authenticity. I was at a conference some years ago where the presenter spoke about a woman on her deathbed who had a dream about a lost love returning to get her. At this point, he had long been dead - she had never married him because her father disapproved. Instead, she remained a spinster and cared for her siblings’ many children. As she worked with this therapist, she came to realize that all her life she had followed the rules and regulations of her family and never ventured outside that familial sphere.
At the end of her long life, she at last admitted that she had missed the opportunity to live her own life. It was a spiritual moment for her, to see and accept her life, all of it. She didn’t need to make excuses, minimize or maximize anything. It seemed that the very act of taking full responsibility for what she had not done liberated her to live the last of her days peacefully. It was less a resignation than a new conscious awareness about all that her life had been. She died several days later.
Our work, and the work of those who choose to join us, is to look at our lives, wherever we are and accept responsibility for acts committed or omitted. When we consciously carry the consequences of our choices, we are free to live more fully and authentically, regardless of the number of our days.
Dr. Silvia Behrend is a Certified Pattern Analyst, educator and mentor