Maybe Art IS Magic

Photo by Capri23auto

It seems like a hunger for magic or enchantment has become a part of the Zeitgeist, beginning with the unexpected cultural tidal wave of Harry Potter after the debut of the original books in the late 90s and early 2000s. I suspect some deeper, pre-existing hunger was cracked open and revealed by this phenomenon, and it only seems to be picking up speed. Lord knows, lots of people are feeling all kinds of disenchanted these days. It’s no wonder there is a delicate, vulnerable, poignant and utterly true craving for a sense (somehow, somewhere) of the enchanted, buried deep down inside so many of us. Well, let’s dive right in with an Alan Moore quote, shall we?

I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness. -Alan Moore (The Mindscape of Alan Moore)

Is this a socially, or culturally, dangerous idea to espouse? Perhaps. But consider for a moment Alan’s idea, elaborated after he enunciates the above, that magic, for a long time, was simply known as ‘The Art’. It tempts one to imagine that there may have been a time, somewhere, where there was not a great sense of separation at all between art and ‘The Art’. Maybe not just somewhere. Maybe in several human cultures. This topic deserves lifetimes of study, and I am certainly no expert. But I sense some deep grain of truth in this.

By this definition, dream work, or dream tending, are close to the vein of magic. As are many Jungian, or depth psychological concepts and modalities. The Jungian practitioner, and their client/patient/analysand, are exploring symbols and archetypes as they constellate in dreams and in other area’s of the person’s life, in order to achieve changes in consciousness (one might say, insofar as the individuation process itself constitutes ongoing, subtle, totally organic and healthy changes in consciousness).

The great Jungian analyst Marion Woodman propounded the idea in The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation that art is culturally resonant to the degree that it emanates the numinous, or to the degree that the viewer or participant can sense something archetypal, universal or tremendous standing behind it.

Perhaps lots of art (though maybe not all art) really is doing just that: manipulating symbols in order to achieve changes in consciousness. The change is most certainly viewer/participant-dependent. Art can serve as a kind of Rorschach in that way.

I’ve elaborated in earlier blogs my idea that, for the atheist or the agnostic, the creative process may be the closest she ever gets to the realm of the gods, or to what feels like a truly transpersonal realm. I believe human beings crave contact with the numinous, the ineffable, the tremendous, the rapturous, the transpersonal. They crave communion with it, regularly. It’s one of the unique things about our species. And in modern America, there are very few culturally acceptable outlets for the expression of this bone-deep urge. In addition to that, few of us in America are so blessed as to be in a line of work that allows us regular creative freedom. If there is any truth to this idea, that art and magic are really the same thing, it makes sense that people are feeling disenchanted (for this, and many other reasons), and are secretly hungry for enchantment, in one form or another.

Although Moore’s definition of magic has little to do with learning how to make quill pens float in the air, or learning how to make your enemy’s house burn down (ugh, please don’t do that– please try not to have any enemies, actually), there is a life force underneath the definition — something that rings true. Author of Making Magic, Brianna Saussy, stated in a recent Sounds True interview that magic is bigger, closer, and more powerful than we typically know. Whether or not she is right, it does seem true that what we feel to be magical, and what we crave in our disenchantment, must be right here in ordinary things. It must be as close as breath.

Author of If Women Rose Rooted, Sharon Blackie, stated in a recent CIIS workshop that the Celtic ‘Otherworld’ is simply another way of looking . . . at this world. It reminds me of something that Thich Nhat Hanh said about the Pure Land of the Buddha and the Kingdom of God (which seem blended, in the way he speaks about them). He said the Pure Land of the Buddha is always here now, in the present moment. To enter it, you bring yourself back to the present. Now I am breathing in, now I am breathing out. It helps to look at a tree, and the way the sunlight is dancing through and lighting up its leaves. Trees, he says, are always already there, in the Pure Land, in the Otherworld.

I believe doorways can be found to the realm of the magical everywhere, but especially in the natural world. In modern life, most of us are so alienated from Mama Earth. We don’t often get to see, feel and breathe in the magic of landscape. Of course, in America, there is also so much sadness in the landscape, which must be honored if we wish to make a connection to the land here. You don’t have to create some great, gigantic work of art to make magic. Magic can be made in small everyday creative liberties, choices to be intentional and choices to transform the life of another, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways, like common kindness. It can be made in the kitchen, with one’s favorite herbs and spices, and with the intention to infuse every culinary creation with love.

Is this too “woo woo” for you? Maybe we wouldn’t be well-matched. If this kind of thing does feel like it belongs in your wheel house, somewhere, feel free to give me a call 🙂

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Demystifying Therapy Fees

The intention of this article is to promote transparency and understanding around therapy fees. It seems therapists often don’t openly discuss with clients the reasons for their fee, nor the back-end work involved in providing that one hour (or 50 minutes) of therapy. I’m not sure whether this is considered radical, but it seems healthy (to me) to make this matter more transparent, and to reclaim it from the realm of the taboo. It seems like allowing the therapy fee to remain enshrouded in mystery can become another way to drive an unnecessary and awkward wedge in between therapist and client as human beings. While there are certainly many areas of the therapist’s life outside of session that clients do not need to know about, it seems to me that the parts of the therapist’s life outside of session that are directly related to the service that the therapist is providing do not need to be so secret nor so carefully guarded.

Certain therapeutic modalities, like EMDR for example, require even more time outside of session reviewing notes, completing comprehensive assessments and ensuring that everything is looking really smooth for beginning to do some deeper healing work. I would also like to add (to the foregoing) that many therapists do make use of one-on-one consultation (which they pay for, and which often ain’t cheap) as well as peer consultation in free peer consultation groups. In these instances, identifying information is never used, and as little about the situation is revealed as possible– just enough to elicit helpful insight from colleagues. This is always done with the highest level of respect and care. Add, also, to the foregoing, all the hours of administrative and business management work that goes into being able to offer therapy in a private practice setting. It’s a big job. There is a lot going on behind the scenes.

In addition to this, most therapists are actively paying off student loans that are directly related to the training and education required to be able to provide therapy. Therapists are also sustaining numerous monthly business expenses (such as office rent, private email accounts, practice management systems, and much, much more). Lastly, in order to provide therapy in a private practice setting, the therapist is choosing to take on a lot of personal, ethical and legal risk. There are parts of their job that they cannot get wrong. Someone’s life may depend on it.

All of these considerations reach special dimensions of poignancy in San Francisco, where the cost of living is currently higher than anywhere else in the United States. Most therapists in private practice in San Francisco are simply financially unable to accept most insurances because the reimbursement rates are so low that it is nearly impossible to make a living seeing insurance clients only. I have personally considered looking into legal action against insurance companies in order to force them to change their reimbursement rates, so that more people are able to use their insurance in order to access therapy, and therapists are paid a living wage for services provided to insurance clients. I know it seems grandiose. I haven’t found the time yet. There is more I could say here, but I am wary of waxing too “political”.

I sometimes wonder if the lack of financially tuned in healthcare infrastructure around mental health in particular has to do with the lack of understanding about, and lack of appreciation for the importance of, mental health services. Mental health professionals, and therapists especially, are working in an invisible and abstract realm. Perhaps it is difficult to respect or appreciate this, or even to view this as a real science or art form, in our still heavily Cartesian, Newtonian modern Western culture. However, it is a realm that has very real consequences in the physical world, and in people’s lives. In 2015, suicide was the seventh leading cause of death in identified males, the fourteenth leading cause of death in identified females, the second leading cause of death for people age 15 to 34, and the third leading cause of death for those between 10 and 14. This is only one of several possible physical tragedies and/or misfortunes that mental health professionals and therapists work everyday to help prevent.

Since the healthcare situation (concerning insurance reimbursement rates for therapists in private practice, especially in areas with a relatively very high cost of living) is far from the dreamlike, ideal scenario of clients/patients being able to use their insurance, while therapists are happily reimbursed at a rate that allows them to comfortably maintain their business and their own life, it falls on therapists and clients to work this out together. It has to be worked out in a way that allows therapy to be accessible and reasonably affordable for the client (approximately 8-9% of monthly take-home income for therapy fees is considered pretty typical), and in a way that allows the therapist to maintain their business. This often means having to cap off after a certain number of sliding scale clients (as much as we may really want to continue taking on more), and it sometimes means having money continue to come up as a clinical issue, or as an elephant in the room. I have found that people are still able to move past and around this in the therapeutic relationship, because people are amazing. But I believe they shouldn’t have to. The only aspect of this equation currently within my control is the choice to promote greater transparency around the reasons why therapy fees are what they are. I don’t believe it is clinically inappropriate at all to talk about this openly.

I’d be interested to know what other therapists and mental health consumers think! Send me a private email (via my Contact page) and let me know what you think! (Please be informed, it is totally your decision to reach out and tell me about any therapy experience you may have had. That is your private information, and yours to share or not to share. I offer my private email here as a way to respect your privacy. Therapists, feel free to comment below!)

e. e. cummings on Being Yourself

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” -e. e. cummings

I had posted this on my bathroom mirror once. It seemed like the kind of thing that needed to be remembered daily. Why? Because the assembly line-like forces of American consumer culture are amplified, I believe, by the rapid Pavlovian social reward-and-punishment machine of social media, and, in America, what was once called “the middle class” is not really a thing anymore. Most people feel squeezed, and therefore, the pressures to do what “sells,” or to make yourself really desirable on paper, might be greater than ever. The human heart and soul are in danger. People are soul starved. They don’t know what to call it. They look for rapid relief.

I once imagined, years ago, before my private practice, while I was in the middle of some big writing project, something kind of funny. I thought, Hm, life is kind of like a video game where you get plunked into the game with a soul. And an angel should whisper in your ear right at the outset that this thing, your soul, could get ripped from you at every turn. I mean it, kid. Every. Goddamn. Turn. The object of the game is to see if you’re still holding onto it by the end of the obstacle course. You’ll have to keep it safe, at times secret, but always known and felt. You may feel like you have no choice but to do things that offend it deeply. Have faith that there is always another way and you’ll be able to hold out just long enough. If you keep doing the things that offend or hurt this thing, your soul, it might wander away from you and never come back. Ooh, I see you’ve selected the American level of the game. Whew, good luck!

I am stubborn enough to believe that the human heart and soul are worth saving, and that there is a way forward that honors heart and soul, for each and every person, even here in America where soul starvation seems so rampant. Even though the forces that contribute to soul starvation seem to be ramping up, paradoxically, it also feels like there is less to lose now than ever, especially for anyone on the artist’s path. You might as well go out on that limb and try. You might as well take that big risk. If you fail, then you’ll know where that particular story goes, and then you can pick up a new story thread, very probably with newfound wisdom under your belt.

I have avoided speaking or writing about this so far in my profession, because it still seems so taboo, but mortality awareness can help with this. Even Steve Jobs thought so:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve yet encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything– all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. -Steve Jobs

The taboo around discussing death that still exists in our culture (paralleling, almost, the Victorian taboo around discussing sex) seems to feed into the vast confusion and soul starvation that American people so commonly feel. We are bombarded from all angles by images of others seeming to have it all so very “together,” and we are comparing that with our own pained, fragile, imperfect internal worlds, and there might as well be a vast conspiracy to never discuss some of the most basic facts of life, namely, that it ends. And that, when it does, we will be our own judges. As difficult and scary as it is, I believe it is incredibly useful to contemplate that. Our lives are precious. Why is it so easy to forget? Devotional practices and daily reminders seem incredibly useful, whatever shape or form those take.

(It could take the form of a tattoo.)

I’ll finish with one more (important) e. e. cummings quote:

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Niche Update: Creative Giants

Alright, I know I’ve been messing around with my home page and menu a bit lately, and I’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. I am always assisting my clients on their journeys towards greater integration of all their internal “parts” and greater authenticity. And yet, I’ve been sort of leading a double life. On one side of the week, I make as much time for visual art and writing as possible (sometimes only one hour per day), and on the other side, I am a 100% present, whole-hearted practitioner of the clinical healing arts. The reason why the split feels -at times- as deep as it does is that the modern Western mental health professions are a bit behind the times when it comes to the way that practitioners are trained up and educated. In grad school, during our grad school practicums, and during our pre-licensed, post-grad internships and jobs (and sometimes also, for years before grad school, as in my case, in earlier mental health-related jobs) we have certain principles of the profession drilled into us. We are informed we must not disclose anything about ourselves, not even whether or not we are married, unless we have thought it over and are absolutely certain that the disclosure would be to the client’s benefit.

By the end of all the years of training, being a clinician starts to feel like wearing a wooden mask. There are other practitioners of the healing arts out there, like coaches for example, who do not have to operate under the same ethical and legal strictures, and therefore have more free reign to tell personal stories, and to basically be fully human, both within their online presence and in their work. This is immensely attractive because we live in an age in which people are starving for real, human connection. And trained, licensed psychotherapists get tied up in knots about the degree to which they can or cannot, or should or should not, reveal themselves as humans with stories online and in social media.

I have kept my artist and writer identity totally secret and separate for this, and other reasons. I mean, for Christ’s sake, there are questions on the clinical exam about this. The gist is that therapists and mental health professionals must never reveal themselves as being affiliated with any group online that is in any way political, or affiliated with any non-clinical idea or school of thought that could in any imaginable way ever cause offense or throw a wrench into the therapeutic relationship in the event that a client were to ever find it online. And let’s think about what art is for a second. Art is utter freedom. There are no rules in the realm of art. Art is sometimes offensive, sometimes disruptive to the status quo, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes “dark”. Art is collective medicine in that way because the artist has to be tuned into what is needed on a collective level, and sometimes what is needed on a collective level is shadow work.

So imagine becoming trained as a licensed psychotherapist, and also having a body of art work and writing that has been accumulating over the years, and wanting to share it. It’s enough to cause a person to form an ultra-mysterious, separate artist identity and pseudonym, and I almost did. Until I didn’t. I want to practice what I preach. I want to practice authenticity and integration of all facets of my life and self. In private practice, not everyone is meant to be working with me, and if I can repel those with whom I’m not meant to work, and attract those with whom I am, then that is excellent. That is the goal.

What kind of clientele would generally not be offended by seeing their therapist’s art and writing online or in other media? I thought. Hmm, probably other artists. (Or at least those who also know themselves to be artists, if you’re alright with the term, on some deep stratum of their being.) I think I also have a pretty good picture of what this kind of person’s central life struggles tend to be, and I wrote about it on my Niche(s) page:

“CREATIVE GIANTS. What is a creative giant, I hear you asking. I’ll explain. A creative giant is a highly creative individual who often finds themselves biting off way more than they can chew, and probably needing to set all kinds of boundaries, though they often have a hard time doing that. Because of this tendency, they are often sniffed out as the-person-who-can-do-it-all, and others will actually push even MORE tasks towards them because others somehow intuit that they were born with a dynamic drive that has them always going, going, going, like a fabulous Roman candle that seems to magically, continuously burn at both ends. These folks tend to have a bias towards service, in one way or another, or to be somehow service-driven and caring. This is an important ingredient in this personality because art truly becomes real art when shared— This personality ingredient is the intrinsic drive towards creating something worthy of being shared, because (in one way or another) it is a gift from one heart to many others. These folks often have multiple creative outlets and projects at any one time, and sometimes require assistance with channeling their huge, beautiful energies in all the ways that their soul most deeply, truly desires.”

I understand deeply the soul-struggle of the creative individual, especially in this world that does not seem to offer many options for solvent adulthood that speak to us on a soul level, and especially not on the artist-soul-level. What distinguishes a creative giant is this continuous devotion to creating, regardless of the outcome of all of their work. They are in love with the process and want to marry it, make a lifelong commitment to it. The process itself can be so transpersonal and mysterious– and if the artist is atheist or agnostic, it is the creative process itself that is perhaps the closest they have ever come to the realm of the gods, the realm of transpersonal forces, and the realm of magic. They are not likely to say something like, “I wanted to be an artist but then realized I wouldn’t get into one of the best art schools,” or,”. . .but then realized I wasn’t good enough to make a career at it.” The creative giant will hear none of that. The outcome of their life’s labor and the response to their body of work does not matter, because to stop creating literally feels like death. To stop creating is unimaginable. I believe this is one of the real, secret reasons why we stand agape and admire the massive paintings of artists like Francis Bacon or Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is because the artist themselves is a phenomenon, a happening. Someone with cajones that big, and a passion and an authenticity that big, seems like a miraculous happening in the universe. We want to soak up the energy of it. I believe this is also a secret reason why people love concerts.

I want to help more people find that creative giant-ism within themselves, and find that miraculous happening within themselves. I want to help people name their true work and bring it into the center of their lives, even through one, devoted, small defiant act per day. There is deep self-love, and mortality-awareness in this practice. Look out for further integrations to come.

And schedule a free 20-minute consultation call by clicking the link below if you want to talk to me directly about any of this shtuff.

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Healing the Warrior Archetype

According to a Jungian depth perspective (depth psychological perspectives that draw from the work of the late Carl Jung), archetypal energies or patterns exist within the collective unconsciousness, and will continue to exist, whether they are embraced by the culture or not. When they are not embraced by the culture, or when they are actively repressed by the culture, like the dynamic force within a pressurized steam engine, they will still escape, or be expressed, elsewhere. Only in this case, the ‘Shadow’ version will be expressed.

We are all familiar with the Shadow Warrior as portrayed in films about unbelievable atrocities that occur in war time, and about men and women who are swept up in the situation or who maybe feel forced, in one way or another, to participate in what will almost certainly constitute a “moral injury” (to use a very soft euphemism) for them later. I strongly suspect that, in order to heal this archetype (if you will), it must be brought into the light of awareness, and it must be embraced, in each of us. Then it can be expressed in its healthiest and most helpful form.

According to a depth psychological perspective, like the Lover, or the Magician, for example, the Warrior is a dynamic energy or an archetype that can be brought in and embraced in each of our personalities and lives. This archetype, or a tradition or discipline associated with it, exists in just about every human culture. The healthy, embraced Warrior has a dynamic, forward-moving energy, it has grit, determination, courage, strength, and discipline (ready to take on whatever ‘training’ and whatever commitment may be required). The healthy, embraced Warrior rises up with a fierce, protective energy when and if needed, and is connected to the instinctual energies in this way. And the healthy, embraced Warrior believes enough in its own potency to not feel the need for big, showy displays of power or strength, but rather wields its potency and strength with humility, and out of duty and commitment to a larger cause.

In some ways, the Warrior overlaps with what might be called the Divine Masculine, the Sacred Masculine, the Wild Masculine, or the Healthy Masculine. That does not mean it belongs only to men. Each of us contains each of these energies and expresses them in unique ways. To take gender out of the equation, one might say that the Healthy Warrior archetype overlaps in many ways with Healthy Yang energy. There is much discussion in the culture about the ‘Divine Feminine’ these days, and for the love of all things sacred, yes, let’s please bring Her back up from underground– I believe we are all dying for that. And yet at the same time, the Masculine is also basically on life support in the culture, in those who are socialized as men especially, and I would argue, in everyone. And we miss Him and need Him too, so very much.

I want to give everyone permission to embrace and know this archetype. I would argue that part of the healthy individuation process, and part of overall psychological health, involves bringing each of these universal archetypes, energies or patterns (whatever you prefer) up into consciousness, and fully realizing their energies and potentials in the personality, and in life. There are so many large scale, and unbelievably worthy causes on the planet today that truly require the health of this archetype. If you’re curious about a depth psychological perspective in traditional psychotherapy, what that entails, and how that can be integrated with other, evidence-based therapeutic approaches, feel free to schedule a free, 20-minute consultation call with me by clicking the link below.

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“Treat Yourself Like Someone You Love.” -Adam Roa

Photo by Elle Hughes

The concepts of self-love and self-compassion can bring up all kinds of things for people. Your first reaction to a self-love practice or tool that I might offer to you in therapy could be something like, “Oh crap, I can’t do that. You get in trouble doing that.” In trouble with who? “I don’t know. Someone.”

Or, your reaction could be, “Doesn’t that make me a narcissist?” Or, “Doesn’t that make me selfish?” Your reaction could be an immediate flareup of historical guilt, guilt with unknown origins. Or your reaction could be shame. As in, “So what, are you saying that’s not already what I am, or what I’m doing?” Whatever the immediate reaction may be, it is valuable information for both of us in the therapeutic process.

Self-love and self-compassion are at the center of my therapeutic approach, and I swear to the gods, these practices will change your life. They sound abstract and deceptively simple on the surface. But if you give it about one year of focused practicing, the odds are pretty good that you will be in a totally different place in every area of your life. Unkind colleague or employment situations seem to eventually dissipate, and unkind relationships can’t help but end. Slowly, your external world begins to mirror the kinder and more loving world you are creating on the inside. It’s almost spooky. I swear that if angels were real, they would tell you that peace on earth begins with creating peace on the inside.

This is not about being self-absorbed or “selfish”. It’s about caring enough about yourself to work on getting into the habit of kinder internal dialogue, and enough to show up as the person your heart knows you can be in the world (who I’m sure, is a kind and caring person, contrary to the idea that this will make you more “selfish” or “self-serving”). Sometimes this means coming up with a really solid and reasonable plan for changing courses in some area of your life. Sometimes it means just caring about how you feel as you make your way through an average day. What it always means is the eventual revelation that YOU ARE IN GOOD COMPANY WITH YOURSELF! What a lifelong gift! It feels like shifting your internal GPS to get onto the better feeling path, even if, at first, you are just focusing on slightly better feelings and slightly better feelings. Committing to your most deeply held dreams is deeply self-loving, and being okay with however it all turns out (or at least, committing to making good meaning out of whatever way it all turns out) is deeply self-loving, too. I used to be deeply enamored with the “tortured artist” archetype, but if you are tortured beyond the necessary “torture” of plain old life itself (whatever that means for you), it’s going to rob time and vitality from your craft.

It eventually begins to feel beautifully DEFIANT to completely, deeply love and embrace yourself. American culture tells us we should not. It begins to feel like a big “HA!” that flies in the face of consumer culture — Sort of like, “I WILL live happily ever after- sort of- with myself! Thank you!” This doesn’t mean you don’t need other people in your life. You do. And they need you, too. Knowing that YOU are the one you’ve been waiting for will enhance your relationships, and I am not the only therapist saying this, and no, it is not just the “lunatic fringe,” I promise. Renowned therapists like Richard Schwartz, the creator of Internal Family Systems theory wrote a damn book called You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For. Of course, Western culture, ever since the Romantic era, would have intelligent adults believe that there is one special person out there who will save them and with whom they are going to live happily ever after. I’m here to tell you that if you believe your partner is supposed to make you live happily ever after, your relationship will probably not work out. Your partner needs for you to be able to make this connection to love, peace and beautiful feelings on your own, without need of them. You can’t expect them to help you plug into that feeling channel consistently, on demand. It’s a recipe for resentment, and an ongoing, rankling emptiness in the center of your life. Popular culture, the media and cinema pump this beautiful illusion of partner-as-rescuer up into the shimmering chimera it has become in all of our minds — how tempting to believe it might be true.

Life is already hard enough. You might as well deeply love and completely embrace yourself. This is one of the most powerful things that is always within your control. It makes it easier to authentically be a light for others, too. This, too, is a choice that is always in your hands, and that can never be wrested from you. You are the wonderful person who has kept you alive all the way up to this moment, and you deserve this. You deserve for every moment from this day forward to be spent reveling in the preciousness and mystery of life. You deserve to sing your song, write your play, whatever it is. Do it! Life is already a fierce journey, and you’re braver than you may think 😉

Taking Up Space

Photo by Godisable Jacob

San Francisco is a crowded place, where it seems like everyone is always moving at such a rapid clip, and has such important crap to do. I’ve noticed that sometimes there is an energy of “being in the way,” on the street, on the sidewalk, in the grocery aisle, in the coffee shop . . . Honestly, sometimes it gets to me. As in, “Am I not allowed to take up space here?”

Beyond that, any kind of human group or collective can create this sort of feeling that certain members are not allowed to take up as much space as others. It feels like, as a member of that group or collective, you have to know your place and know your space (i.e., how much you take up), lest you invite another group member to remind you. Tall poppy syndrome, thy name is. I believe we actually limit what we can be in the world for fear of this human tendency. For our species, group belonging essentially is survival, or has been, for the vast, vast, VAST majority of our history as a species. So you can sort of understand why someone would trade their true potential in for the safety of continued belonging. But the world has changed. If you fail out of one group, there is an infinity mirror of other potential groups standing behind it. Still, biology can be hard to override. And once again, it can seem as though we have to fold ourselves into whatever kind of space the group has afforded us.

I strongly suspect that womxn in particular feel this implicit message that they need to get out of the way, that they need to fold up even tighter, that they need to cut down their ambition or charisma or creativity, that no space or place on earth could ever be theirs, in a very special and poignant way. Taking up too much space, as a woman, sometimes actually feels dangerous– like an invitation to be rejected by the group. And there have been times in the not-too-distant past when the form that that rejection took could be pretty horrifying. I strongly suspect that womxn feel this in their very bodies– In the tightness of the rib cage area especially, as if there is an invisible, tight, boned corset zipping up the breath and voice and heart all day, everyday.

I spent an entire month after getting licensed just journaling about my niche and my practice name, and doing some deep dive introspection about all of it, all while driving for Lyft in the mornings and evenings in order to continue to have food and shelter (all while fielding lots of comments and questions about the novelty of having a “woman driver” and how scary, dangerous or weird it must be for me). When ‘Awake’ appeared on the page, it almost jumped out at me with a little life force of its own. I had been thinking about the depth psychological concept of ‘Psychoma,’ or ‘the sleep of the soul,’ and how it related to Eve’s admonition in the The Book of Secrets, “Beware the Deep Sleep.” I had long suspected that American culture (and probably all of modern Western culture) has created a situation in which there are not really a ton of options (for being a solvent adult) that speak to people on a soul level, so then having a soul becomes even more painful than it already needs to be, so people numb or put their soul to sleep in one way or another (by vegging out with bags of Cheetos in front of the TV after getting home from a job they don’t particularly love, or through other addict-like behaviors). You can’t really blame people for doing this. It’s hard to have a soul. But, like Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I really desired, in a way that I can’t stop and I can’t explain, to help save the human heart and soul, which (Dr. CPE says) are the most endangered species on the planet. (Side note: Not all addictions are 100% related to this. Of course not. Addiction is complicated and too much to cover here. I’m speaking more of the everyday addict sort of behaviors, like iPhones, screens, food comas, etc.)

Then I saw that ‘Awake’ has the same root (according to some sources) as the word “witch” : a proto-Germanic word, “weg” which means, “strong, lively”. It immediately made sense to me that all of these concepts would be connected. The history of religion, and of most modern cultures, has not been particularly kind to strong and lively womxn, womxn who took up too much space, womxn who were awake in the sense that they refused to put their souls to sleep. And I strongly suspect that this kind of womxn was often called “witch”. There are other layers to the meaning of ‘Awake’ that you can find in previous blogs.

Now, I was pretty happy with the little life force that I could feel pulsing underneath “Awake.” And “Therapy” just made plain old sense. But it didn’t feel complete. The last week of February rolled around, and I was so ready to drive to the San
Francisco Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector to register my little baby business that people were nearly giving up their seats for me on the bus, as if they could sense my enormous metaphysical pregnancy. I had planned to go there the very first Monday of March, and that was it. So I drove over the bridge from where I was staying in Oakland at the time, and I still didn’t know.

I got to the Hall of Records, and I still didn’t know. I was directed to the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector and sat in front of one of the designated computers to register my business. I filled out the form and entered ‘Awake Therapy Space’. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it at the time, to be perfectly honest. I was just burgeoning with readiness to press “Go” and if I didn’t break the seal soon, there was going to be some kind of implosion.

For a couple of months there, I didn’t love my choice, honestly. The word “space” calls to mind Hubble images of deep space, “spacey-ness” and perhaps worst of all, emptiness. But it has grown on me. I have created a space in my community where anyone is allowed to take up as much space as they want, and where their internal space matters and can be looked at with gentleness and compassion. It is a space where people can allow their souls to catch up, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the week. I suppose the choice of name also nods to the space I was giving myself permission to take up in the world. None of this was entirely conscious at the time, of course. The creative process is like that.

Like anything that I ever create, through my therapy-related offerings or otherwise, what I am ultimately hoping to do is offer a gift from my heart, or the deepest place in me, that speaks to the hearts and souls of those who are meant to partake. That is what art is. It takes some time and some space to interact with life itself as if it were a work of art, and sometimes that space is internal until the day comes when the page turns and now a new chapter or creation has been externalized. I’m offering the space that I’ve created to anyone who wants to spend some time in there doing the same 🙂 “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” -Oscar Wilde (Another entire think piece, or body of work, this quote deserves!)

Taking Responsibility for My Privilege

The desire to be of service is strange, and the more I learn about mental health, humans, and life, the more I believe it is a desire (when stated) that deserves examination. There can be a lot of baggage, internal and external, that goes with the desire to be of service. Often we are unclear about what we really mean, intend, or are after, in our desire to serve. That lack of clarity can come through in the results of our service. Sometimes, we take on a “saint,” caretaker or soother role in our family because we had to for our survival, and we are still unconsciously living out that story in our adult life. Sometimes we make ourselves of service in a very public “communal narcissist” manner because some very vulnerable and unloved part feels that it needs to be publicly and widely seen as “good” and “noble” –typically the ego needs to feel “good” and “right” but this is a goodness and rightness that tips over into a need for a constant narcissistic supply of validated goodness and rightness. Or, we (in the case of privileged, or resourced people) can arrogantly believe that we have the answers or know what is best, and must allocate some percentage of our resources accordingly. I have been guilty, at some point, of at least one of these.

My initial desire to be of service was a little muddled. It was my quarter life crisis. I had a philosophy degree, and one minimum wage job after another, and I spread myself out on the carpet at my parents’ house with my baby boomer dad’s dusty books from the 60s and 70s, and I made weird art. I read Caroline Myss, and my dad’s old Allan Watts, Ram Dass and Suzuki Roshi books, with their crispy, yellowing pages. (There was some Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh wisdom in there as well, to be sure.) I got a scholarship to go to San Francisco Art Institute, based on the weird art I was making, but they wanted me to start at the undergraduate level. I wasn’t sure that I wanted another undergraduate liberal arts degree. I ached and agonized over this decision for what seemed like another year, until I noticed a thread through all these old books. Many of these teachers were saying the same thing, just in different ways. Something like this: The desire to be of service or to alleviate the suffering of others is the truest expression of genuine spiritual realization or attainment. I still had no idea what that really meant, but it sounded correct to me, on some deep level.

So, my initial desire to serve was quite selfish: I was after my own spiritual realization or attainment. (Ha! I’ll let you know how that very possibly misguided endeavor unfolds for yours truly.) I was sort of not quite “sold” on the modern world of American adulting, as it had been presented to me, and I felt like I would prefer a life outside, maybe even way outside (in a monastery, or some kind of dirty art warehouse, if I was lucky enough). A very deep and honest part of me, my soul, decided that there were only two lives I would be willing to accept: a life of service, or the pure life of an artist. Many years later, I have had to own that the “life of service” option represented, at the time, a sort of escape for me, a sort of way to erase myself by erasing my own self-concern, or something. Hmm, healthy.

Fast forward to my first post-grad job in human services. Community-based mental health services involve entering other peoples’ homes, seeing and smelling their homes, witnessing the disarray and the chaos that can sometimes be right at the epicenter of all of our lives. I can only imagine how vulnerable people feel when they have a young mental health professional entering their home as the ‘professional’ or the ‘expert’ in the situation. It must take incredible humility to accept those services with graciousness. Sometimes my clients didn’t want to meet with me. A large percentage, maybe a majority of them, were black. When America looks at me, America sees a very, very white woman. So here I was, Suzy Do-Gooder, entering these people’s homes, as the white woman who had all the answers and resources and was going to help them out. Take a breath (if you’re not vomiting). (Vom comment 100% directed at myself, not at the agency I was working for, which is full of some of the most gorgeous souls I’ve yet encountered in my life, and is doing beautiful and needed work.) We’re going somewhere with this. (It turned out that I had an ancestor from West Africa 6-8 generations ago, and one from India as well, but this is basically untraceable in my phenotype, and too much to cover here. When people see me, they see what is categorized in America as a “white woman,” and that matters for a number of reasons and in a number of ways.)

This is why I say “taking responsibility for my privilege”. If I don’t take responsibility for it, then I will be utterly blind to what I might represent, and what kinds of feelings I might trigger, walking into those homes. Taking responsibility means lovingly acknowledging, “Hey, I was born in America, where having this kind of appearance still means A LOT. It means a lot for me in my own life, and it meant a lot for my parents and grandparents. It still probably means a lot to many of the people around me, because of experiences they’ve had and cultural messages that we’ve all imbibed innocently. It’s not my fault that I was born or have this appearance, and that’s true of everyone, and it’s not my fault that I’ve imbibed these noxious cultural messages, and that’s true of everyone, but we still did. It’s the water we swim in. That does not mean that racism has to be intentional or even conscious. Racism, as Americans, is the water we swim in, and acknowledging that, being willing to look at that and to continue humbly learning and growing will be a lifelong practice.” I even consider it a spiritual practice. Why? Because ego is so invested in being good and right all the time. You have to get to know a bigger part of you that can hold the ego in its discomfort– this part might be called Soul or whatever you want. This stuff ain’t easy but it is worth doing, for love’s sake. I’m thinking of writing a longer version of this called, Being American: A Spiritual Practice.

I even have to own that the publishing world is in many ways a world of whiteness and my privilege got me to a point from which being published was much more possible. I know that because of my white appearance, and that of my family, I’ve been given a leg up, educationally, that allows me to now be in a position to own and run a private practice. I don’t self-flagellate about this. No. I was brought up Catholic, but still. That doesn’t really help anyone. In fact, I think it makes people feel awkward. There’s a way to face the facts courageously, squarely, and with immense gratitude that I have the opportunity to decide (ultimately) how I want to use my time and how I want to be of service. I still don’t think I’m all the way there, but I believe I’ve come closer and closer to the authentic heart of my desire to serve, in more ways than one.

In addition to this, although I consider myself to be pretty sexually fluid (I’m honestly convinced that most people are), I have so far mostly been romantically attracted to men. I also feel pretty copacetic about the gender that was assigned to me at birth. This means that I’ve never had to choose between my authenticity on the one hand, and familial or societal acceptance on the other hand (at least regarding my gender and sexual orientation). I just don’t really have to make that choice in the same kind of way. I don’t have to worry about getting beaten up for holding my partner’s hand in public. If I blithely ignore the fact that that is not everyone’s reality, I am not taking responsibility and I can’t really authentically be of service. Kindness comes from a sort of melancholic acceptance of the fact that you are not the expert on someone else’s experience, that life generally brings great difficulty at some point to everyone, and that there is a great alone-ness that all human beings feel at some point, no matter how outwardly ‘good’ their life is, or seems. Just be an alone-ness meeting another alone-ness with gentleness and curiosity. That’s it.

Although my self-love and self-compassion taglines may seem cheesy, there’s a deeper spiritual impetus just beneath the surface. The old desert fathers used to liken people to spokes on a wheel. The farther within that any individual goes, the more likely they are to actually find their oneness with all the other spokes. The farther out they travel, the more their uniqueness becomes clear. Both are important. But after self-love and self-compassion (or practicing looking inward with compassion and kindness) change your life, at a certain point you realize that your liberation is bound up with everyone else’s. The practices of loving self and loving others become inextricably linked. The one spills over into the other.

I know that I have more responsibility to take, and that I will never be done learning. Perhaps an interesting circle to form here is this: I mentioned earlier that the ego structure is buttressed by ideas of “goodness” and “rightness”. If we are courageous enough to allow Soul to take the lead in our lives, we find that there is a larger, more loving and expansive aspect of Self that is able to hold the troubled ego while it sustains its little blows. I strongly suspect it is the ego that does not enjoy owning or taking responsibility for or looking at privilege because it makes the ego feel somehow not “good” or “right,” but that is not what’s going on here. Paradoxically, one only has to look down the annals of history to see how a fierce, unquestioning attachment to one’s own “goodness” and “rightness” leaves the back door wide open for Shadow to come in and run the show. (The downfall of Daenerys in HBO series Game of Thrones is an example of this perennial pattern.) Although privilege is not necessarily about that, I do want to expand my awareness into my unknown unknowns, and maybe even acknowledge where I am maybe being an ignoramus. I want to because it’s the only way to show up fully as a great soul in this life, which I will continue striving to do. It is all of our birth rights.

A Dionysian Affirmation of Life and Nietzsche’s “Great Health”

If you have ever heard of the Greek god, Dionysus, you probably think of him as the god of wine. You are not wrong. However, there is depth and nuance to this ancient god and archetype beyond the reputation that precedes.

Dionysus was a god of duality, and paradox. He was the god of the highest love, bliss, and ecstasy (think of the first delirious flush of romantic love, layered over by just the right amount of wine-buzzed, and you’re close). Simultaneously, he was the god of frenzy, and even flesh-rending and blood lust. He was even sometimes referred to as the “dying,” or, the “suffering god”. Because of his dual nature, he was sometimes referred to as “the mad god”. Now, through each god, a vision of the world as we know it can be glimpsed.

I don’t know about you, but when I see the world reflected through the image of Dionysus, not much changes. It already appears we live in a mad world, where the most beautiful and exquisite aspects of the mysteries of life and love exist coevally with what seems like totally senseless and unending suffering. Dionysus makes spades, and spades, of sense to me.

German existentialist philosopher Nietzsche thought so, too. He wrote that most people are not constitutionally capable of looking squarely into the inconceivable suffering of the world, and “man’s inhumanity to man,” in a consistent manner. Most people find ways to “anchor” themselves into smaller, more comfortable versions of reality, and this helps them stay happy, healthy and sane. There are, of course, those who are incapable of making this intellectual move, and who seem eternally bothered by “the way things are”. Many great writers, artists and thinkers fall into this latter category. And this point of view is valid, BUT . . .

Nietzsche coined the phrase “the great health” to describe the state of seeing both the unbearable beauty and the unbearable “darkness” of life and summoning a resounding, “YES” to all of it; to life. This is not easy to do. Interestingly, the image at the very end of Ulysses by James Joyce is essentially a gasping “yes” to life, in spite of everything. I am sure many readers can relate to reaching a point of uncertainty about whether or not you even want to keep on keeping on. And whatever surges through when it seems like nothing else is left, your personal mythology, your loved ones, your ancestors– this is the greatest love story of all time. The story of love between a genuine human heart that refuses to put the blinkers on, and life itself, in all its mystery, sorrow, beauty, pain, and music. YES!!!! I want that. I want it all. This is “the great health”.

I find this concept particularly helpful in these extraordinary and distressing times. Whenever I am reminded of the collective human Shadow, I am made more firm in my commitment to be deep as a therapist: “deep” in the Depth Psychology sense of the word, but also in the “not shallow” sense of the word. I do not just want to help people find and perfect their coping mechanisms and their blinkers and blinders, their anchors into a nicer, smaller, and more comfortable world of their making. I want to help them find their YES to life, to all of life– I want to help them find “the great health”. It is what the world needs more than anything now: People who are engaged fully in life, while also looking at all of life squarely. It tends to make people more active and kind.

Matt Kahn: Whatever Arises, Love That

I recently listened to an interview with best-selling author, Matt Kahn, and I feel his message is the perfect follow up to the map I provided in my previous blog post (about the depth perspective on the Sleeping Beauty story, and how it relates to my work and choice of practice name).

In that previous post, I had provided a sort of map for the way I work, as it relates to the old fairy tale, and also as it relates to the mandalas from which Carl Jung drew inspiration in The Red Book, as pictures of psychic wholeness. I drew the imaginary tower of Sleeping Beauty from above, with our very own Briar Rose sleeping in the center of a round tower, complete with all the thorns and bramble surrounding the tower, as detailed in the original tale.

It occurred to me in the aftermath that it was very important to me to include that I do not view these obstructive factors (I suppose you could call them) in a negative light. In my clinical work, I take the “Whatever Arises, Love That” approach. When we come in for therapy, those thorns and bramble are often what we are in the thick of, or some hint of them (to which we’ve developed huge resistance, because we just don’t want to go there). Rather than viewing this as the enemy, or something to “fight,” I take an incredibly gentle, and yes, even loving, approach to what is arising. I approach what is arising as if I am approaching a wounded child because, very often, this is exactly what we, together, are approaching. If you approached a wounded child with the attitude that you need to fix it, or fight it, or make it go away, it’s not going to want to have a conversation with you about what is really going on. If you approach a wounded child incredibly lovingly, and gently, it might feel safe and accepted enough to come into the room to be held (figuratively) for a little while until it can talk about the hurt, or the fear, or both.

Often, people approach their healing believing that some part of them is broken and needs to be fixed. If we view this part as a split off inner child, and try to empathize with that wounded child, how would you feel if I told you we needed to “fix” you? It might sort of hurt your feelings, right? It would probably make you feel more like having a conversation with me if I expressed deep, genuine concern about the hurt and the need for safety, and deep, genuine curiosity about what you have to say. This is how I view whatever seems to be getting in the way of peace, freedom, fulfillment and self-compassion in my clients.

If the very first thing we come up against is resistance, then we love that. Yes, we love the resistance. We listen to what it has to say. This may seem insensitive or difficult to fathom if what is coming up or what is most immediately obvious is deep pain. Why should we love deep pain? We are not loving the fact that there is deep pain, because no one deserves to be in deep pain, but we are loving the part of you that is expressing the deep pain.

This is a skill I hope to continue to develop, as even mentioning self-love or self-compassion when someone is not in a place to really resonate with that or hear it can deepen a shame-split already present in the psyche. It can be received as, “What you should be doing is loving yourself, and that’s clearly not what you’re doing, so let me tell you how you should be.” It requires deep attunement to sense what is needed in the moment, and I hope to continue to get better and better at this throughout my career.

Photo by Fernando Arias