Tag Archives: presence

The Self-Help Trap: The Illusion of Choice

I’m guessing many of you have been around the block in the self-help world. We self-help junkies can be easily identified. We are the “sensitive” ones, the hippies, healers, light-workers, and spiritual seekers (or any combination therein) with years of personal growth work under our belt. We’re into inner reflection, meditation, spiritual awakenings, and have extensive knowledge about the micro-nutrients of kale (organic, of course!), goji berries, maca, cacao (otherwise known as chocolate to the unsophisticated), and, of course, red wine. We know all about taking responsibility for our own feelings and may have embraced the notion that we create our own reality. Maybe we’ve even “manifested” something we thought we wanted — oh joy! We know all about our destructive patterns and limiting beliefs. We definitely do yoga, maybe even with goats. (Well, most of us do yoga. I’m a yoga rebel. Although I do enjoy a good corpse pose now and again.) We’ve read all the books, been to all the seminars, know all the theories, cleared our chakras and meridians, received gong baths, aromatherapy, reiki, and other energy therapies we can’t pronounce or remember, let alone understand. We may even pretend to be therapists ourselves. And, most of us are profoundly bored with our own story and our own suffering.

As I’ve journeyed on the self-help path, I’ve found along the way a lot of potential for confusion. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds due to the many contradictions, lack of clarity, and incomplete information prevalent in the personal growth and new-age spiritual arena. As our (*cough*) beloved President would say, “There’s fake news everywhere!” It’s also very easy to fall into what I lovingly refer to as “the self-help trap.”

The self-help trap has many layers. I’m going to discuss just one aspect here, but in general and as an overview, the self-help trap is a trap of self blame and lack of self acceptance. This shame and lack of self acceptance is already present in us, but it is amplified by some of the confusing aspects of self-help teachings. It is a blaming of ourselves for our own suffering and results from a confusion between the notion of responsibility and choice. It arises when we mistakenly believe we have choice when we do not. The self-help trap is subtle because this particular flavor of self blame often feels justifiable and necessary for any sort of growth or change for the better to occur in our lives.

Last week I wrote about a time recently when I went extra crazy. I described how rage had consumed me, that I had expressed it in a hurtful way, and how that rage had then turned inward, transmuted into extreme shame and self-hate. Part of the shame (self blame) came from a belief that “good people” don’t feel such rage, let alone express it, and the fact that I felt and expressed it meant I was an all around bad person. After all, shouldn’t these destructive patterns and feelings be gone by now after all this personal and spiritual growth work?

Anyone who has been in the personal growth world long enough has been inundated with the idea that the only place we have true choice is in how we respond to what is happening in our lives. We come to learn that our reactions are our responsibility and that outer circumstances are not the cause of our inner experiences. We can see this truth easily enough when we notice that two different people often react and respond to the same circumstances in drastically different ways. This realization of responsibility is critical in moving from a place of victim consciousness to a place of empowerment.

The problem is not that this principle of responsibility is wrong or bad. The problem is where we take it next:

    1. We conclude that the next step toward being a happier, more fulfilled human being must be to create shiny, new, loving belief systems so that over time our destructive patterns will no longer arise. Indeed, this is what countless self-help programs are all about.
    2. We confuse responsibility with both blame and choice.

When a pattern that we are very well aware of gets triggered, and none of the personal growth work we’ve done related to #1 above has changed the fact that it is arising (yet again), this is the moment when it is very easy to fall into the self-help trap. Oftentimes these patterns are made up of old belief systems and autonomic survival reactions which we know at a logical level are not relevant or helpful in the current situation. So, part of what can happen is that since we are now consciously aware of the pattern, know logically that it doesn’t “make sense” in the current situation, and know we are solely responsible for it, we conclude (often unconsciously) that we are therefore to blame for its arising. After all, if we are responsible for our reactions, then why wouldn’t we blame ourselves? There’s no one else to blame!

In addition, we can also believe that because we are responsible, this means we suddenly have conscious choice as to whether or not these patterns arise. More specifically, we believe after a pattern has arisen that we should have been able to stop it, or that it shouldn’t have arisen in the first place because we “know better by now” or because we’ve done affirmation or other work to create new belief systems. After all, we are consciously aware of the pattern, and with awareness comes choice, right? Indeed, this is exactly what we are told over and over again. It is repeatedly pounded into us that the only place where we have true choice is in how we respond to what is happening in our lives, and that that choice somehow magically appears due to conscious awareness of our responses and patterns.

Can you see the walls of the self-help trap now? The truth is that we do not have a conscious choice as to whether or not an automatic pattern will be triggered (although we can certainly do our best to control our outer circumstances in ways that allow us to avoid situations we know trigger us in order to give ourselves the illusion of control). In the end, the triggering process is automatic, which means by definition it is not under our conscious control. And certainly once a pattern is triggered, we no longer have a choice in the matter. It is done. The beliefs, thoughts, sensations, and feelings associated with that pattern will inevitably arise. But what happens for many of us is that, due to a misunderstanding of what responsibility actually means, we believe we had choice in these situations when we did not. The inevitable result is self blame, frustration, and shame. We blame ourselves for allowing the pattern to be triggered, or for not being good enough at this self-help stuff to be able to make it so the pattern doesn’t arise at all. This self blame increases our suffering tenfold by adding an additional helping self loathing to the mix.

It gets worse when the pattern then propels us into some kind of action that is destructive or hurtful to others. If, for whatever reason, we are taken over by the intensity of the experience in such as way that we experience what is arising as all that we are — as our very identity — then we do not really have much of a choice in how we behave either. This was my experience when I went extra crazy recently. In order to have choice in our behavior, some sort of witnessing consciousness — that is, the ability to differentiate our thoughts and feelings from who we think we are — has to be online and engaged as a mediating factor. Sometimes we simply do not have this capacity because our system is overwhelmed, and therefore we run on automatic pilot, acting out unconsciously what we’ve learned to do in similar situations in the past. Then, later, when things have settled and we are no longer triggered, we often look back at how we behaved and think we could have and should have done something differently when, in fact, given our state at the time, we did not have a choice in how we behaved. The shame and self-hate that can arise here is devastating. Not only is it prevalent in the self-help world to think we should always be able to control our behavior, it is also prevalent outside the self-help world. This is not to say we aren’t responsible for our behavior. We are. But there is a difference between responsibility and choice, which is my entire point here.

Perhaps you can see by now the main confusion is that, on a very subtle level, we think we have choice when we actually do not. We end up berating ourselves because we believe that since we have realized we are responsible for our reactions and behavior, this means we suddenly have the capacity and ability to consciously choose our reactions and behaviors from that point forward. And that is utter nonsense. We have to get out of the cycle of shaming ourselves for something that was never in our control in the first place. This is the only way out of the self-help trap and into true healing.

The good news is that we do have choice, just not in the way we may have thought or been told. In general, the patterns programmed into our nervous system are complex survival strategies which worked in the past to get us through situations that our system interpreted as life threatening. When our strategies work (i.e, we survive), our system remembers (programs) these strategies into our nervous system and will automatically (without conscious thought) respond similarly when it perceives threat again in the future. It also changes what we perceive as threatening, as our system now becomes biased to perceive more situations as threatening as a protective mechanism. As a child, we rely heavily on our caregivers for our survival and to help us regulate our distress. Situations that feel life threatening can be not only the obvious traumas such as abuse and neglect, but we can even perceive life threat if a caregiver is not there to help us regulate when we are in extreme emotional distress.

The strategies that are programmed into our nervous system include belief systems, but they also include powerful physiological, emotional, and behavioral responses. The self-help world tends to focus solely on belief systems, giving us a false sense that we can consciously choose and control our responses by simply changing what we believe cognitively. Another approach is to help us create new belief systems, through processes such as affirmations, which are meant to gradually replace the old “outdated” belief systems. (By the way, these new belief systems often include spiritual beliefs, which is where the new age spiritual world integrates with the self-help world.) Even when these methods include bringing in emotional feeling and physiological conviction to better integrate the new belief system at an autonomic level, this does nothing at all to change what our system perceives as threatening! If we have experienced trauma, very small triggers can be perceived by our system as survival threats, even when we can see and understand cognitively that we are safe. We will therefore still be triggered into our automatic survival reactions when our system perceives threat, and this is beyond our conscious control. And remember, many seemingly innocuous social situations can be perceived as life threatening due to our experiences as a child or due to other traumatic experiences as an adult.

So how do we work with this? Where do we actually have choice? The only way to shift our autonomic survival reactions is to change what we perceive — at an autonomic level — as a threat to our survival. When we are triggered, our system is “remembering” a past threat as if it is happening now (which is the same as saying our system is biased toward seeing threat). Often this is the case because the past experience was so overwhelming that it was never fully integrated and processed. The way to integrate these past experiences and rewire the nervous system is to work to build our capacity to be fully present in the here and now when we are triggered.

Being present means having witness consciousness online and being able to differentiate what is arising (thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions) from “us,” from who we think we are. This allows us to recognize and realize on a deeply physiological level — in our bodies — that we are actually safe right now. When we are able to do this, our innate healing capacity kicks in and our nervous system integrates the past experience and actually rewires our nervous system.

The capacity to be present and inhabit witness consciousness — to differentiate the intensity of what we are experiencing from “us” — can actually be quite challenging due to the overwhelming nature of what arises when we are triggered. We need support, and we need to build internal resources to be able to do this. It takes time and practice to learn to be with our experiences in the way I’m describing, but it is possible. There is no quick fix. This is where we have choice.

If we can let go of continually shaming and blaming ourselves for not being able to control our automatic patterns and responses, then we are freed to be with them and meet them in a new way, with acceptance and curiosity. Compassionate presence with ourselves is what allows for true healing, and the ability to differentiate our experiences from “us” is what gives us the ability to choose our behavior when triggered. In the process, we also build our capacity to shift our attention to the aspect of us that is not suffering, the part that is never affected by our conditioned responses and patterns, the part of us that is more who we truly are on an essential level. As we gain access to our true nature, it becomes our strongest and most powerful resource. We begin to embody more and more fully the creative, joyful, loving, vibrant part of ourselves that we all know is at the heart of who we are.

In the end, this is where the self-help and new age spiritual world is trying to bring us. Despite its confusions and inconsistencies, I am endlessly grateful to be on the path. I’ll be forever proud to proclaim myself a self-help junkie. ❤

Extra Crazy

A few weeks ago, I completely lost it. As one of my favorite integral psychologists (Dr. Keith Witt) would say: I went “extra crazy.” I take some comfort in the fact that we all go extra crazy from time to time, and that I’ve grown enormously as a result of the experience. Plus, my version of extra crazy (at least in terms of outward behavior) was pretty mild and short in duration compared to some other expressions. But still, there’s no escaping it. I went extra crazy, and it wasn’t pretty.

It was rage that consumed me, first directed at someone I respect and love dearly, then later that night turned against myself. It started out as simple irritation. Then I let it fester, and we all know what happens when we let irritation fester. It grew slowly into anger and finally into all-consuming, self-righteous rage. And unfortunately, I unloaded and expressed that rage in a hurtful way.

The grace of the situation was that the woman I unloaded on has enormous capacity to be grounded and present when extra crazy shows up, and even though it was hurtful for her, when I apologized the next day, all was forgiven and repaired between us. She could see I had gone extra crazy and that it wasn’t really about her, because she knows and has integrated that extra crazy part of herself — a part that we all carry.

The truth is the real violence happened within myself that evening as the rage turned inward. The outward expression of the rage was nothing compared to its ferocity when turned against myself. It morphed and transfigured into intense shame and self hate. The violence of my thoughts astounded me even as I was in the midst of experiencing their barrage.

I’m not sure how I made it through that night and showed up the next day to apologize and make repair with the woman who was the original target of my rage. I truly believe part of it was grace answering my prayer for help, as I knew I was out of control. But part of it also was all the work I have done over the years to learn to be present with the intensity of my experience when I am triggered. Even at the most intense moments, I was still in touch with another — and somehow truer — aspect of myself that was not suffering. This aspect was witnessing the whole thing, quietly but insistently whispering in my ear that maybe — just maybe — it wasn’t quite so black and white as I was thinking and feeling, that maybe there was more to me than rage and one hurtful act, that maybe I would learn something through this experience and have more capacity to love as a result. It was the “essential me” whispering truth in my ear. And the miracle was that I had the capacity to hear it and feel it at the core of my being.

In the days that followed, I came to fully accept for the first time that this extra crazy part of myself exists. I saw that I had been living in denial, believing until this experience that I was a purely “good person.” I saw that my concept of what makes a person “good” was completely made up and unattainable by any human being. And when I was finally able to turn toward this part of myself and meet it, I realized why it exists and what it’s trying to do.

This aspect is not often extra crazy, but it has the capacity to go there when triggered. It’s the part of me that has done everything it possibly can to help me survive and be as comfortable as possible in difficult situations. When not extra crazy, it’s the logical aspect, the part that analyzes challenging situations and comes up with solutions based on past experience. It’s the part of me that has figured out brilliant ways to make it through. It’s also my protector. It protects another part of me that finds this journey of life to be unspeakably hard and often doesn’t know what to do, and would simply give up if it weren’t for its protector. And it worked. I’m still here, even if a bit battered for the journey. With these realizations, I was finally able to embrace this part of myself with compassion and love.

Of course, this aspect of myself is also the part that can go extra crazy. It is all about me. It can seem like it’s concerned with others, but it’s really not. It’s manipulative, and it lacks compassion. It can only be in relationship on a superficial level. Connection, compassion, and empathy are not in its job description… although I realize now that before this experience, I expected it to be and do everything.

What has changed now is that I am no longer shunning this aspect of myself. I see where it fits, that it is an important part of me, and I also see where its role ends. I see that I had unintentionally abandoned this part of myself, simultaneously shunning it while expecting it to figure everything out. And at the same time, as I came to these realizations, I also more fully embodied what I might call my essential nature, the deeper aspect that is about love, and compassion, and empathy, and heartfelt connection. This deeper aspect finally showed up to embrace and support the other part that had been abandoned. And somehow through all of that there has been an integration into a greater whole, like there are no longer separate parts inside of me, but rather different aspects working together as a whole being.

So in the end, I suppose I am grateful I went extra crazy that day. It’s that exquisite paradox of both beauty and horror all wrapped up in one experience. I came out of it feeling more whole, more integrated, and more real. And yes, I came out of it with more capacity to love.

Healing the Brokenness

Tuesday of last week was one of my favorite days of the year: Global Oneness Day. Every year, October 24th is a day dedicated to celebrating the underlying reality of Oneness. Humanity’s Team, the non-profit that started Global Oneness Day, hosts an all-day online summit where they gather thought leaders in various panels to talk about not only waking up to our interconnectedness, but also ways to more fully live and embody this truth. As we embody Oneness, we can more effectively come together to implement the solutions needed to avoid global calamity and create a world of health, well-being, and flourishing for all.

This year’s panels were all fabulous, but one stood out to me because it connected so many dots between the healing work I do with individuals and the healing work of societies and the world. One woman in particular impacted me the most, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, who was on the “Restoring Real Community” panel. She is from South Africa, and the panel was discussing the concept of uBuntu, which can best be defined with this statement: “I Am Because You Are.” The concept became globally recognized after Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explained in 2008 that uBuntu means that a person cannot not exist in isolation, and that this is the essence of being human.

This is a beautiful concept. Unfortunately, uBuntu often remains just a concept and not fully lived or embodied for people who have been traumatized. Dr. Ramphele spoke of this in relation to transgenerational trauma, but what she shares here applies to any kind of trauma:

When people have been traumatized in a transgenerational sense, their brain function alters, and it requires healing. That healing is not [only] about psychiatry or taking drugs. It’s about reconnecting the brokenness. Without that reconnection, human beings find it extremely difficult to have empathy, which is at the heart of uBuntu: “I Am Because You Are.” You don’t only know uBuntu — you feel it. And if there is brokenness, you lose your capacity to feel itHumiliation is the most traumatic bearer of pain. If we don’t heal that humiliation, then we have people in society who may speak the language of uBuntu, but they don’t feel. So there is a big gap between what people say they are and what they actually demonstrate.

uBuntu compels us to forgive — not because we feel sorry for the wrong-doer, but because without forgiveness, the brokenness will remain. To the extent that the person who humiliated me continues in that practice, that person is further damaged. I need to sit down with the person and hold hands — physically or spiritually — and say, “I forgive you, because you and I need to reconnect.”

That is why we do the work of healing trauma. She says it so beautifully and so poignantly that there is almost nothing more to say. Trauma, whether transgenerational or not, dramatically affects our capacity to be in healthy relationship. It affects our ability to feel connected both to ourselves and to others. To say we are interconnected is all well and good, but if we cannot feel it at an embodied level, the concept alone is almost completely useless. Needless to say, societies are built upon relationships. The health of a society is built upon the health of the relationships between the members of that society. Trauma happens in relationship, and it must be healed in relationship.

Dr. Ramphele speaks of forgiveness as the means of healing trauma. I have found in my own journey that forgiveness is key, but it is not all that is required. Healing the brokenness also requires a certain kind of grounded, compassionate support from others, a willingness on our part to trust and accept that support, and the slow work of building our capacity to be fully present with our experiences in the here and now. Compassionate presence is what allows for integration and healing of the brokenness caused by trauma.

I am grateful for people like Dr. Ramphele who are so eloquently and beautifully sharing the message of what it takes to embody Oneness rather than simply know it as an intellectual concept. We must heal the brokenness inside and in our relationships to truly live uBuntu.

My prayer is that we all have the courage to turn toward the parts of ourselves that have been hurt and embrace them with loving presence, so that we may know, embody, and feel the truth of our deep and unbreakable connection. We can do it if we do it together.

The Ultimate Resource

Last week I had the honor of assisting the first module of a biodynamic craniosacral training here in Colorado. I love the first module. Every time I come out of it, I have the profound conviction that what is taught and shared in just those five days is almost all that needs to be shared. As we learn to cultivate and embody the biodynamic principles, our lives and the lives of those we touch transform in ways we cannot even imagine.

One of the most important breakthroughs of the inside-out approach to healthcare has been the realization that the more we are able to “be with” our experiences in the here and now — particularly our challenges — the greater the potential for healing. I like to say it this way: Healing happens in the arms of compassionate presence. In some very real sense, building the capacity to be present is itself the healing process.

Needless to say, being fully present with overwhelming sensations, thoughts, and feelings can be extremely challenging. In fact, if we experienced trauma as a young child that was never fully integrated, likely our ingrained response to challenge will be to automatically dissociate from stressful sensations rather than be present with them. In addition, many of us were simply not taught how to cultivate presence and mindfulness. If this is the case, then how do we build our capacity to be present when experiencing extreme dis-ease, pain, or suffering?

One of the keys to cultivating the capacity to be with challenge begins with learning to orient to something else, to those aspects of us that are not in pain or distress. With extreme suffering, we can easily believe that our suffering is all there is to us. We literally identify ourselves as our suffering. But the truth is there is always more to us than our suffering… much more. Orienting to something else — often referred to as a resource — can be as simple as bringing our full awareness to a part of our body that does not hurt, or bringing to mind a person, place, or animal that brings us joy and mindfully noticing the sensations that arise in the body. As we practice being present with a resource, we can then learn to briefly bring our attention to more challenging sensations while simultaneously feeling the support of the resource. In this way, we gradually build our capacity to be present with our more challenging conditions.

Biodynamics takes this idea of working with resources one step further. The most fundamental principle in biodynamics is its orientation to the ‘Health’ that is always present. In the first module of the biodynamic craniosacral training, we learn to feel, in our bodies, the support of something greater, something whole and alive and dynamic at the core of our being. We practice simple exercises to feel into the dynamic Stillness at our core, as well as the the forces of Health and Creation that arise from that Stillness. We actually train ourselves to reliably and consistently experience, in an embodied way, various aspects of our essential nature. In my mind, this is the ultimate resource, the ultimate “something else.”

As we learn orient to this ultimate resource, we cultivate the ability to be present with even the most extreme challenges, and in so doing, create the conditions needed for truly transformational healing.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Lately, I’ve taken a tumble down the rabbit hole of trauma and trauma therapy. To say I’ve been humbled is a bit of an understatement. It has been an eye-opening process to see myself in the words and the stories I’ve been reading. I mostly don’t remember my childhood. The impact of trauma in my life has been pervasive and far reaching. Honestly, though, I would have denied it only a few years ago. I would have said I’ve never experienced trauma. I would have said that the amnesia, and the depression, and the rage, and the way my body shuts down have nothing to do with trauma. I would have said, “I’m lucky,” and I am, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never experienced trauma. In fact, now I would venture to say almost all of us have.

Just yesterday a new meme started going around Facebook: “Me too.” People were putting it on their walls to signify they have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. If we asked the same question about trauma, I’m guessing pretty much anyone who is honest would say, “Me too.”

I’m going to write a lot more about trauma in the coming months. But for now, I will say this: We can heal. I’ve been healing even being in some level of denial and ignorance about how trauma has impacted me. Our bodies, hearts, and minds want to heal. Our whole being wants to come back into harmony and equilibrium. As I practice presence — whether through meditation, heart-centered practices, feeling energy and creative forces, or tracking my body sensations — the energy held in my system around trauma inevitably arises. I don’t have to make it happen. I don’t have to dredge up painful memories. That energy is patiently waiting for the right opportunity — the right conditions — to begin the process of healing. It wants to be met in a new way. It wants to be digested, to resolve, and to let go.

I’ve come to trust this process. I’ve come to see that trauma begins to digest in the arms of compassionate presence. With trauma, our bodies and minds live in the past, though we don’t often realize it. But we can learn to trust the present moment. We can learn to trust our bodies, even when we feel like they have betrayed us in the most horrific ways. We can even learn to trust other people. We can heal together.

Me too.

AFOG — Another F*&%ing Opportunity for Growth

One day, a little over ten years ago when I was feeling suicidal, I was explaining to my sister and her husband my rationalization for it being perfectly okay for me to commit suicide. I was sharing how I had realized that if I killed myself, everyone would move on and be fine. People die every day, I said. People move past these things all the time, I explained. I was so deep in my own misery that I then went on to say one of the most cruel and hurtful things I ever remember speaking out loud. You see, my brother-in-law’s little brother had recently died in a car accident. He was a teenager or at the most in his early 20s when he died. In my utter narcissistic despair and obliviousness, I proceeded to point out to my brother-in-law that obviously he had moved on from the death of his brother, and that that was the proof of my undeniable logic. A deafening silence followed. My sister glanced at her husband. Then she locked her eyes on mine, and I’ll never forgot what she said to me: “Yes, people move on. But nothing is ever the same again. Their lives are changed forever.”

Those words and the energy behind them pierced through the veil of my despair to shake me awake. Needless to say, I didn’t commit suicide. But more than that, never again did I trivialize the depth and breadth of what we experience as human beings in this life, including the deepest grief, despair, and pain. The experience of loss, for instance, is not trivial simply because all of us must endure and move through it at some point in our lives. In fact, the experience can be utterly transformational in the most horrendous and most beautiful ways. Indeed, we will never be the same again.

Recently I ran across an article written by Mark Sandlin called, 10 Clichés Christians Should Stop Saying. Some of these clichés are said by more than just Christians and are generally used in an attempt to comfort ourselves or others going through a challenging experience:

Everything happens for a reason.

God (the Universe) never gives us any more than we can handle.

We could debate (endlessly) whether or not these statements are even true. But more important is how these statements are often used as a subtle way of trivializing our own or another’s experience. I cannot tell you how often people start to share with me the depth of their pain only to stop themselves with a “but” followed by a version of one of these statements. Another common sentence to follow the “but” is, “I’m seeing this as an opportunity for growth.”

It is fantastic to see that everything happens for a reason, or that we can handle whatever is in front of us, or that every situation is an opportunity for growth and evolution. But when we start to use these ideas as subtle ways of avoiding and trivializing our own pain, then we are bypassing the very path we must travel to grow, transform, and heal in the most profound ways.

What is needed for true transformation and healing is the capacity to hold and feel fully both sides of this coin — both the horrendousness and beauty, the pain and the transformative power, the grief and the love. A friend of mine once shared that she calls these situations AFOGs — another f*%&ing opportunity for growth. I love this because the f-bomb acknowledges the pain of the situation, and “opportunity for growth” speaks to the transformative potential. I find that all too often, we want to leave out the f-bomb. We want to avoid the pain at all costs. But when we do this, we are denying an aspect of life itself. As Vera de Chalambert says:

“We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact. We can’t cut off the stream of life and expect to heal.” ~From Kali Takes America: I’m with Her

The capacity to be fully present with both the pain and the inherent transformative power in these situations is often not easy. It takes an ability to differentiate and dis-identify from powerful energies which can be so overwhelming and all-consuming that we literally think they are us. For me, this is a journey. It is a continual discovery that pain and transformative power are often inseparable. It is a journey I embrace because, in that moment when my sister looked me in the eyes, I decided to live.
Signature-with-transparent-background

Turning Towards

A healthy human being is characterized by a wider and wider capacity to experience [with presence] emotion and blends of emotion.” ~Dr. Keith Witt, Integral Psychologist

This assertion from Dr. Witt may sound simple, but I believe it to be extremely profound in its implications. In fact, I think it is key to understanding truly transformational healing and how it occurs. Dr. Witt and Jeff Salzman discuss this topic in Jeff’s Daily Evolver podcast episode entitled, “Transforming Trauma Into Power.” (I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety.)

What does it mean to have a wider and wider capacity to experience and be present with emotion? What is so challenging about it? And why is this capacity so essential for transformational healing?

Having the capacity to be present with our emotions means we have cultivated the ability to turn towards our unwanted feelings, pain, and other undesired material, as opposed to turning away through denial, distraction, or dissociation. One of the reasons this is so difficult is it goes against our most basic survival and instinctual drives, such as our ability to dissociate when experiencing a traumatic event. If we have used a response such as dissociation in the past and it worked to get us through a traumatic situation, our system will remember this success and use dissociation over and over again whenever it perceives danger (real or not). And this response will happen automatically and often unconsciously. That is, most of us are not even aware when we are dissociating.

Another reason it is difficult for us to turn towards our pain is we are often taught that certain emotions are bad and others are good. When we judge our emotions (and therefore ourselves) in this way, we tend to suppress those emotions which we have labeled as wrong. We do this in a variety of ways. We might dissociate (as already discussed above), go into denial, or use distraction (food, TV, drugs, alcohol, shopping, etc.). We might also shame ourselves in an attempt to control our feelings.

Why is it important to build the capacity to turn towards our pain? When we suppress our emotions or are otherwise unable to be present with our painful experiences, symptoms will eventually arise such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, psychosis, physical & immune system ailments, and in cases of extreme trauma, PTSD symptoms. The way to truly heal is to turn toward our pain and be present with the associated emotions and sensations. If we are able to meet our pain with compassionate understanding and radical acceptance, the energy of the held trauma naturally begins to metabolize, integrate, and heal.

One way to be present with our painful experiences is through what is called resourcing. This is a way of holding a resourced or healthy, powerful feeling in the body simultaneously with a challenging feeling in the body. Holding the two together in this way allows for integration and healing. Dr. Witt describes a simple practice in the podcast (at around the 36-minute mark) which you can try today that utilizes this principle.

I love what Jeff Salzman said when he describes this process for himself: “Whenever I find myself in a depression or anxiety or an anger vortex, I say, ‘This is good news! Here I have this ball of energy, and I have the opportunity to actually turn towards it and move into it.'” It is that willingness and that capacity to “turn towards” that results in growth and healing. It’s not just that you metabolize the experience and now it’s no longer a “block” or no longer causing symptoms. It’s that you actually heal with a big “H,” meaning you grow and you evolve. And that, I believe, is an important part of what life is all about.

Blessings,
Signature-with-transparent-background