“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

Awake: The Sleeping Beauty Depth Perspective

I feel moved to write in more depth on my choice of practice name, as it feels important for the concept to be clear and accessible. The original intention was to invoke the underlying message of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, if the story is viewed from a depth perspective, wherein each character and element of the story is understood to be an aspect of one individual’s psyche. The deepest intention of my practice has been to help people with waking up, for lack of a better way to put it, their deep self, or their soul, sometimes (when appropriate), viewing their presenting concerns as doorways to get there. Modern mystic Andrew Harvey, in a Sounds True interview, surmised that most of us are “drowning in the comatic soup” of the culture, and feel impelled to turn off or numb the internal signals that something needs to change, or that we’d like to live a life that is more in alignment with who we really are.

I recently attended a workshop with therapist Jane Latimer, wherein she described the essential self (or Buddha nature, Atman, or whatever you want to call it) as a dot in the middle of a piece of paper, with the ego structure and ego defenses as a large circle extending around the dot. Much of our ego structure, and all of our ego defenses, were constructed as adaptations to the world we found ourselves inhabiting as children. Since we relied on others for our survival, we found ways of being in the world that were most conducive to getting our needs met and being pleasing to others in that early environment. This does not just include family of origin (and that is a huge topic, about which I will just say that parents tend to do their best with what they have and know at the time), but it also includes teachers and other, broader societal systems. When the early environment is traumatic, the journey towards finding our inner stability, clarity and calm can feel even more daunting, as the most painful self-concepts and defenses tend to cluster around the middle of this circular map, sort of as the last dragons to be calmed before getting into the inner sanctum, or getting into the tower of the sleeping beauty, if you will 😉

Often, these very unhelpful adaptations, or ego defenses, are the impetus to seek therapy, or to go on other journeys to find a way towards wholeness and peace. In this way, trauma (big trauma, or small trauma) in early life or later life, can be an invitation to go on this journey. I noticed, as Jane was speaking, that what she was describing reminded me of one of the many mandalas that Carl Jung drew in The Red Book, or the older mandalas (from which Jung drew inspiration) that can be found in so many mystical traditions throughout the world. Here is an example, taken from Jung’s Dreams:

And another one, from the same book:

I realized, that if we view Sleeping Beauty’s castle from above, it is a similar image:

Forgive the slipshod rendering! My intention was to emphasize the fact that, in the original fairy tale, the tower is surrounded by thick layers of thorn and bramble, and anyone intending to get inside has to find a way to cross through this challenging terrain. Think of that aspect of yourself, the “prince,” if you will, as the aspect of psyche that intends to commit to health and life; the aspect of psyche that decides if would be a good idea, for example, to seek therapy. It is trying to get to the center, just as the prince, in the fairy tale, is intent on rescuing the princess from her imprisonment in a perpetual sleep. One of my favorite things that Jane said during her talk was that this essential self, at the center of the mandala, or at the top of the tower, however you want to view it, can never be damaged by trauma. It remains, with all of its innate gifts. The vestiges of trauma are what clog the way to this essential self, sometimes producing the illusion that this other, more whole self can never be reclaimed. But it can; it is inviolate.

This is what I have noticed in working with trauma. Often the gifts and charisms remain, in clear view, for others to behold, even with the vestiges of trauma still causing suffering in the carrier of those gifts and charisms. Everything that makes the traumatized person lovable is often still clearly, and obviously, there. It is just not obvious to the trauma survivor. Often, they are too caught up in their pain to be able to see themselves clearly.

We do not have to identify as trauma survivors for this map to be applicable. I believe it applies to all people, which is why its variants can be found in so many world cultures. Often, though, it is particularly applicable in the case of severe, or obvious trauma. All the old fairy tales originally acted as allegories, or maps, for helping us understand processes of psychological transformation. I hope this is a helpful map for any who stumble upon it, and an interesting insight into the name of my practice 🙂

Photo by Pixabay

Authentic Movement

This past Saturday (one of the first hot and sunny San Francisco days of the year), I had the pleasure of attending an Authentic Movement workshop at The Center, SF. First, I must say that The Center is an entirely magical space, dimly lit and semi-subterranean, with low, earth-colored tea tables, beautiful teas, soulful artwork and Holy Water, yes, Holy Water. Additionally, The Center includes a yoga and workshop studio, replete with altars in the corners, and ample space for . . . well, movement. I would like to add at this point that I am receiving no incentive for writing this. I am writing this from pure inspiration, the very best place from which to write.

I had signed myself up for an ‘Authentic Movement’ workshop with Maria Lentzou, MA. I did not know the first thing about Authentic Movement. Whatever it was, it sounded deeply embodied, and therefore, like something that would help me understand deep embodiment a bit better, in order to continue improving upon my lived knowledge and understanding of the somatic and embodiment work that I do with my clients, especially clients who experience any degree of dissociation from their bodies. But really, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Before we dove into the actual Authentic Movement practice, we sat in circle and introduced ourselves, and what brought us to the workshop, and then Maria explained a bit more about what Authentic Movement was, and what it was that we were about to do. As children, Authentic Movement comes naturally to us, Maria explained. As we are acculturated and learn to be good little students, we are told to sit still and pay attention. Don’t disrupt. Stop fidgeting. Eventually, we become (usually) well-behaved adults who sit still in our chair, and, more often than not, have a big crick that’s ready to crack out of our necks or our backs, or a big stretch that’s just begging to be lusciously had in our office chairs. Any time we welcome movement to our adult bodies, there is a huge somatic sensation of, “Oh my God, yes!!!!! We need this! Stretch it out!” It’s more than that, though. As we learn to quell the natural internal impulse towards movement, it’s as though the natural internal impulse itself is squelched, and on some level, we stop trusting our natural, internal, first impulse.

Maria explained that there would be a warmup (“Thank God,” I thought, “I am going to be eased into this by doing something with the group, something I’m supposed to do, something I’m being told to do.”) This seemed like an immense comfort because, well, pretty much all my life I had been told what to do. This is how it is for all of us. In school, the teacher tells you what to do in class. At work, your boss tells you what to do. In the yoga studio, the teacher tells you what to do. In this way, you are assured that you are never out of line, you are doing what you are “supposed to do,” and no one is going to form any impressions of you that you do not want them forming.

Then, Maria explained, after the warm up, well, we were going to close our eyes, and move. We were going to move in exactly the way we wanted to move, and we were going to find the internal impulse towards movement, even if this meant being still for a while until an impulse was found. It may well be the first time in a very long time that any of us would be not told what to do or not behaving in the way we believe we are supposed to behave. At this point, I got a little nervous. What had I gotten myself into? At the same time, I was glad to be there. It felt distinctly like the kind of discomfort, or foray outside of the comfort zone, which was actually going to be good and nourishing for me.

During the warmup, Maria guided us through all manner of movements, of all parts of the body, some of which required for me to depart from my movement and appearance ‘safe zone’ (i.e., my ego was starting to bring in messages like, “We are looking really silly right now,” and, “We don’t do this.”). I moved through the ego discomfort. Then came the Authentic Movement, welcomed in with the chime of a bell.

My eyes closed and I felt into the way that my body wanted to continue moving, no matter how “silly” those movements might look, no matter how anything those movements might look. This went on for a 20-minute interval during which time contorted, and I was lost inside the authenticity of my internal impulse. I began to trust my internal impulse, perhaps more than I ever had since childhood. At times I was dancing or shimmying, at other times, I was rocking on the ground, and at still other times, I moved slowly, like a kelp forest, or a person in congress with some invisible world. The movements lit my whole body up, to each fingertip and toe, so that my whole body participated in the practice, and I was fully alive all the way to every individual extremity.

I felt the urge to ascribe meaning to some of my movements. The other participants described their movements, during the integration conversation, in ways that made me think of specific animals. Had any specific animal come through in any of my movements, I wondered? At one point my arms had naturally gone into Artemis pose, one holding the intentional tautness of an invisible bow, and the other, extended straight out in the direction of an invisible arrow. We were encouraged to move towards a selection of art supplies at the end of the 20 minutes, as a continuation of the exercise, bringing our natural impulse into the way we worked the materials, with no concern for how it “looked”. I drew in the way a child would draw, boldly, with big strokes, and chaotic layers. I can see how this “unlearning” of how to be in the world would be invaluable to any artistic endeavor.

I came away from the workshop in an otherworldly calm, feeling assured that I would not be late for my next client session; I would find parking, I was sure of it. And in session, I went with my intrinsic impulses. It was one of the more intuitive, and confident sessions in a while. I realized that this Authentic Movement practice would not only make me a better therapist, but it would probably also make me a better artist, trusting of the natural impulse and the grander scheme to which the natural impulse is tuned. It would also make me more confident. Don’t we often constrict our natural impulses in conversation because on some level we have integrated the message that our natural impulse will be wrong? We choke ourselves up and silence our natural brilliance in this way. Also, I felt sure, this practice would make me calmer and more intuitive. And, as if this were not enough, it would make me much, much more emanantly embodied and present.

I noticed, during the integration conversation, that the other participants were expressing themselves in much more naturally embodied ways, using their arms and their whole bodies as natural extensions of their verbal communications. It was beautiful to see. I have always believed that this natural, somatic expressiveness that some people retain is beautiful to behold. And here it was, reawakened in the members of the group, each expressing themselves with natural grace and uniqueness. There was also a childlike energy in the room. The natural preciousness of each person seemed emanant.

I believe Authentic Movement deserves to make the same cultural splash that Yoga did when it was first introduced to the West. Whether or not it will, I cannot say. Go and try it for yourself, and let me know in the comments below what your experience has been 🙂

Photo by Elle Hughes

That is How We Know We Are Family: Because We Are All Broken

I will attempt to disclose next to nothing about myself in this blog series, though I feel moved to share the message from a woman in last night’s dream. She stood before her people, electric with the feeling of rallying together after centuries of oppression, and she shouted,
“Each of us is a branch broken from the Mother Tree and resown in the earth. That is how we know we are family: Because we are all broken.”

Pause. There are many ways to interpret this. The first way is reminiscent of a lyric from the Leonard Cohen song, Anthem: There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. We all share the original wound of separation, from our mothers, or from the Tree of Life, from some original state of unity. We all share this. It reminds me of a line from one of the ecstatic poems of the Sufi mystic poet, Rumi: ‘This longing you express is the return message.’ The grief you cry out from draws you toward union. Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.” Or, the other Rumi line, The wound is the place where the light enters you.

Imagine this. Imagine that the part of you that hurts the most is the place where the light enters you; the place where you were broken off from the Tree of Life, the place that remembers unity the most. I do not mean to trivialize the particular kind of pain that any one reader may be in, I only mean to proffer this as a potentially redeeming idea, and as a radical shift in thinking about the parts of ourselves that we deem to be problematic, that we believe need to be fixed, or that we wish would just go away. Often our wounded parts function like splinter personalities, and are not amenable to shifting or healing in any manner until they are viewed, or the perspective is even slightly entertained, that in some way, they may be allies. Or that, in some way, they carry some important message or crucible for us. This may not always be the case, but I want to offer it in case it is a helpful idea.

Another way to interpret this is with reference to displacement, or dissociation from the land, the source of all life and nourishment. Nearly all of us, in modern times, suffer from some form of dissociation from the land. I believe we may not even be aware of how desperately we long to remember a feeling of home on the land, and intimacy with the land, and reverence for the land.

In pre-Christian Ireland, there were many stories that involved the Goddess of Sovereignty, in one form or another. She, in many ways, was one and the same as the land. Chieftains would undergo a ritual marriage to the land, or to the Goddess of Sovereignty, and it was said that there would be peace and prosperity in the land if She was honored, revered and heeded. If the chieftain chose to trump Her wishes and Her wisdom, there would be poverty and war, and the once fertile land would become a wasteland. You take care of the land, and it takes care of you in turn, right?

I believe we are dying for a remembrance of this sort: A remembrance of our heritage as denizens of the land, and also a remembrance of all the ways that we are much more alike, and connected, than we know.

Photo by Pixabay

Social Media Makes You Feel Inadequate? You’re Not Alone.

American novelist Anne Lamott once said, “Never compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.” This is wonderful advice, if only it were always possible. It seems natural to compare our insides to other people’s outsides, because we have intimate knowledge of our insides: our foibles, embarrassments, moments of pain or vulnerability on any given day, and all the ways we are pretty certain we fall short, or are quite simply not enough. On the other hand, we may be certain we are “too” (fill in the blank), or even that we alone are uniquely, wretchedly cursed in one way or another. We may have private moments of being convinced of this. We may have never said it out loud.

Before the advent of social media, the contrast between this private mental theater of anguish and inadequacy on the one hand, and the appearance of other people ostensibly “having it together,” or being happy, or just having things magically happen for them somehow (all the things you hunger after but which seem somehow, magically unobtainable to you alone), was already painful enough. Social media allows these “others,” of whom our true, intimate knowledge might already be limited, to showcase only the highlight reel of their lives: the special accomplishments, the moments of joy, the travel, the touched-up beauty, anything that seems fabulous. So the already apparent external successes of others are now touched up, condensed and showcased, on an LCD screen. The human behind them remains unseen, and so, especially do their “insides,” or their own private, internal experience of themselves, the world, other people, and life in general.

The temptation is strong to view this material and to conclude that what is displayed on this profile really does sum up this other person’s life. It can be all too easy to caricaturize or oversimplify others, rather than to begin to try to fathom the vastness of the entity behind their eyes. If we conclude this (that what is presented here on this profile really encompasses the totality of this person and their life), the invitation to feel blaring pain and inadequacy extends itself to you with hooks and snares. The exact issues upon which we feel particular pain in our private lives will seem to jump out of the page. And we spiral into our “not enough,” “uniquely cursed,” or “just inadequate” story. We do so in a way that feels unique and alone. In fact, the alone-ness is punctuated by the fact that most people are not advertising (on social media, or elsewhere) the fact that they, too, are struggling in exactly the same area, or in some other area.

We come away feeling like there really must be something wrong with us for not having the same highlight reel. Indeed, there must be something wrong with us for feeling this way about not having the same highlight reel. Apparently no one else does (according to their social media profiles), right? Actually I would hazard the guess, with a great deal of confidence, that (blessedly) you would be wrong to think this. You are so much less alone than you imagine yourself to be with whatever it is that hurts, for you, when you look at social media. Also, feelings (about life, small things, or anything in between) that deviate from pure joy are totally normal. There is nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. In fact, I am going to do the therapist thing and tell you that it is valid for you to feel that way, based on the information you are getting, and the perception that that information helps you to construct. Maybe I can help you feel a little better by massaging and deconstructing that information, just a little bit (i.e., what you see on social media profiles are not the whole story of someone else’s life, and whatever it is that is a particular pain point for you, I can pretty much guarantee there are others with a similar pain point—- You’re not alone).

American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chodron, during a series of lectures, said (beautifully) that when you feel your inadequacy, you are touching the inadequacy of all beings. When you breathe into it and make space for it, it is powerful to imagine that this exact, poignant feeling signature is experienced by other beings, and has been experienced by them, since long before you were born. The same is true of other difficult emotions. They can be catalysts for expanding our compassion, because they give us a taste of what it really is to be human: what it is for you, and for me, and for all of us. You are not alone. More on the messiness and imperfection of the human experience to come 🙂

As a post-script to these thoughts: Isn’t it interesting the parts of ourselves and our lives that we select for showcasing on social media or for speaking about in conversation, especially schmoozing conversations or how’s-it-going conversations? It seems like we are all convinced that other people want to hear the highlight reel, or will like us more if we paint ourselves to be completely successful and happy, and hide or forgo the messy, painful or imperfect parts*. It seems to be more the case that people find us charming when we are honest. Why? Because in being honest, (e.g., “I’m actually really struggling with this,” or, “I feel pretty exhausted, to be honest with you. Don’t really want to go to this thing . . .”), we have just extended a tendril of genuine, vulnerable connection. Maybe, we have made the other feel less alone with their “insides”. I am fairly convinced that authenticity, honesty and vulnerability nurture our own mental and emotional health and connected-ness, and that of others. More to come 🙂

*I should add that it does bring me joy to see my family and friends genuinely happy, attaining long-held dreams, surrounded by love, creating beauty in their lives– My heart is right there with them, and it would be unbearable to see them suffering. I suppose the distinction here is subtle: We can want all the best for our loved ones, and still feel isolated or inadequate when and if we scroll through social media for much longer stretches of time than we would have ever planned, time that could have been spent talking to someone on the phone, or otherwise directly, really connecting. There is a sort of photo album or scrap book quality to social media at times, and this is beautiful. The photo albums and scrap books that people make can become like protected reliquaries of life’s most important events, and reminders of why we want to persevere. Eventually, they may be like archives for curious others, descendants or great great nieces and nephews. The internet perhaps does provide a better medium for this kind of archival preservation. I know that any record of the most incandescent moments of our lives will remain as unearthly treasures to those we leave behind at the end of this fierce journey. Please feel free to leave comments or feedback about this, or any other post. I want to ensure that my posts are always helpful to others, or helping to alleviate suffering in some way.

Why is it So Upsetting that Game of Thrones Ended? (A Depth Perspective)

In the wake of the ending of the nearly decade-long HBO phenomenon, Game of Thrones, many people are upset. It seems they are mostly upset for one (or both) of two reasons: 1) The final season could have been better or more believable (they contend); and/or 2) An eagerly anticipated yearly springtime event that spanned almost the last decade has now vanished from our lives.

I want to mostly attend to the second reason. Suffice it to say, with regards to the first reason, that a TV show with dragons in it is already, technically, not very “believable”. Something else seems to be at work here.

In a series of lectures regarding the power of myth, renowned professor of literature, and scholar of comparative mythology and comparative religion, Joseph Campbell, stated that we all need a living, guiding myth to be central in our lives, in one way or another. He conceded that, if you can imagine losing absolutely everything and everyone in your life, whatever it is that might give you the strength to persevere in the face of such meteoric loss, should give you some indication of your own personal, guiding myth.

Furthermore, Carl Jung, in his final work, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, wrote that we need for our myths to be living and evolving, i.e., not stagnant or ossified. The more our guiding myths evolve with the times, the more they seem intimately connected to all of us, maybe even in a way that indicates that we ourselves could have some kind of personal relationship with the mythopoetic realm.

I will tie this all together– just give me a moment. When the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out during my adolescence, I had a hunch that something curious was going on. I felt that the Western world (and all who are a part of it, or who are influenced by it, regardless of ancestry or ethnic identity) was longing for some kind of living, guiding myth. I had the same hunch when I first dipped my toes into hmmm, shall we say, the Narrow Sea. Many of the story threads which tie into the thicker story braid that makes up the TV series are rooted in either mythological tropes from Classical antiquity (or from other regions or epochs), or, more or less, in actual historical events or themes, again, from either Classical antiquity, or from some other era of human history. “All fantasy should have a firm base in reality” (Sir Max Beerbohm) — at least one interpretation of this quote certainly applies here.

From a depth perspective, this makes the series highly resonant, insofar as it makes use of some pretty potent themes within the collective unconscious. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman wrote in, The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, that all artwork that makes use of archetypal symbols or themes is typically more resonant and powerful than artwork that does not do this, and it tends to exude a numinous quality, as powerful, disturbing, or important works of art ought to do. I know that not everyone in the art world would agree with this, and I respect that. I do not claim to know what art is. But for the sake of the task at hand, let’s consider that the TV series, Game of Thrones’ manipulation of powerful symbols contained within the collective unconscious made it a much more resonant story. Let’s just allow that (for the purposes of this thought experiment), or consider that it may be true.

One of the key features of living, guiding myths, is that they make use of these kinds of powerful symbols, tropes, or archetypes. In this way, they grab people at a deep level– a very deep level, if we are talking about a guiding myth, so deep, that it can even become the cornerstone of our ongoing survival in a time of devastating loss. For many people in the West, that guiding myth is Christianity. (I use the word “myth” here, not to offend Christians or their religion, or to make any ontological or historical claims about the stories contained within the tradition. Consider “guiding myth” here to mean the tradition, story, higher entity, practice, or combination of some or all of these.) Also, for many people in the West, that guiding myth is not Christianity. In many ways, for the last 2000 years in the West, with the exception of some mystics, or some who have been considered heretics, there has not been a living tradition or lineage wherein it was considered acceptable for an individual (God forbid, a woman) to have a personal, living relationship with the Christian lineage, in a way that possibly caused it to evolve, or that possibly shortened the communication lines between the individual and the transcendent. And yet, people long for this. I would argue that every single human being longs for some kind of personal relationship with some lineage, with the transcendent, or, at the very least, some acceptable channel or road to the ecstatic or to rapture. The modern West does not offer many acceptable, legal outlets for this deeply human impulse, except church (mostly). Church is deeply resonant, powerful, healing and beautiful for some people. For others, it feels like they are looking for something else, and they really, for the life of them, cannot figure out what.

Enter Game of Thrones (among other things, about which I’ll write later). An opportunity to engage, weekly (only around the time of the Spring Equinox) with characters, heroes, heroines and stories that grab us at a deep, mythopoetic level. Often, a feature of a guiding myth is not only that it grabs us at a mythopoetic level, but it also provides us with characters or archetypes to whom we might be able to relate (in some way), be deeply concerned about, or maybe even want to aspire to be like. These are key features of religious stories as well, and also of any effective epic, chronicle, or saga. Placing each new episode on a Sunday evening is also an interesting choice. People often engage with their guiding myth on a weekly basis, often in a rejuvenating way, that sets them up for the difficulties of the week ahead– Sunday, or the Sabbath, would be an effective time for that.

This is all pure conjecture, but I do wonder if people got upset about Game of Thrones ending because they lost a guiding myth, one that felt alive while the show was still unfolding and slowly revealing itself. Also, it’s sort of the end of an era, isn’t it? What will the 20s bring? And what will be the guiding myth that get us through them? What is your guiding myth?