LISTENING AND THE NOW

They are intimately connected. What is their relationship, and how can we live in the dynamic reality that emerges from their unquiet union?

We hear so much about it these days, Living in the Now, as if it is the holy grail of spiritual freedom. Schools of psychotherapy, yoga, and Buddhism have done a tremendous job in bringing the focus of our collective consciousness into the Now. And yet, I often wonder if Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory, is weeping? If so, perhaps what she needs from us is not wallowing in the misery of the past, but a careful threading of images and symbols into the Now that doesn’t leave our identity out in the cold of spiritual zeal.

What if a path to experiencing the Now lies in a very simple, but often elusive tool: the ability to listen to ourselves, and to others. Some of us listen for a living. We cultivate these skills over decades. Nonetheless, I find it is a capacity we can never take for granted. Like meditation, it requires a commitment to consciousness that is born anew each moment.

Listening can be the gentle floating bridge that allows the simple magic of life to emerge. After Alan Rickman died I found an interview with him on You Tube, on acting and listening. He makes the elegant case that the whole game for an actor is to surrender to active listening on stage. This is where the character comes to life, not in the reciting of one’s own dialog, but in the deep listening to the other characters, being sensitive to the energy of the space on stage, making every moment a discovery.

How would this change the experience of every day life, if we could listen deeply, valuing the beauty of the Now.

In Shakespeare’s last play,  The Tempest,  Prospero, disturbed by the discovery of the treachery of his fellows, tells his daughter, “A turn or two I’ll walk, to still my beating mind.” I have often wondered if Shakespeare was referring to his own mind in late middle age, “beating” with all the images and memories of the past and present, as he looked down the road to the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (Hamlet, from the “to be or not to be” speech)

Shakespeare probably knew well another great treasure of the Now: the wellspring of creativity. Imagine the difference: Will Shakespeare walking through the streets of London, worrying about the receipts from his last play, gnashing through an argument with an actor the night before, chiding himself because he has no idea what he’s going to write for his next play….Contrast Will Shakespeare walking through the streets of London, listening to the voices all around him – a street vendor selling strawberries, a woman talking to her baby, a riff of music in the distance, a lark heralding the dawn—and, as he listens, his eyes take in the faces of those around him, the texture of the stones on the path, the tiny bud of a rose appearing in a garden.

I like to think Will Shakespeare brought himself back to the Now, time and time again. That he knew better than anyone that a worried, distracted mind is not a creative mind. The mind needs rest, and presence, to spring forth words that evoke the tragedy, the comedy, the beauty of our precious life on earth.

Just now, on this frosty January morning as my freezing fingers tap on the keyboard – a dog barks – a crow lands on the roof – I can see the dense fog settling on the Lake through the bare branches of the coral bark.

Where are you at this moment? What sounds, sights, memory, or dreams are emerging? I wish you a life of listening deeply, and finding a place from which creativity, love for self and others, and emotional freedom can flourish.

The Effortless Motility of Being

motility: Of mental imagery that arises primarily from sensations of body movement or position. Having the power to move spontaneously. —The American College Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin. New York. 2000

It was a phase used often by my beloved analyst, Dr. Lee Roloff: The Effortless Motility of Being.  I think he told me once where it came from, but the source has faded from memory. Not a quote from Jung, but from a philosopher or artist. Perhaps Lee made it up himself. Its meaning was clear: the fluid, awake state of existence free of irrational fears or anxieties, self doubt, complexes, blame, aggression, or self-denigration.

I realize now this is an apt description for our relationship, as it evolved over the course of ten years of analysis. There was humor from the beginning, and excited gasps as we discovered that we knew the same quotes from Shakespeare, or loved the same Dylan Thomas poem, or hummed together a phrase from Finzi’s Ecologue for Piano and Strings.

Especially in the last two years, as I entered my mid sixties, and Lee his late eighties, the play of emotion, the ease of connection, anticipating each others sentences took on an art form of its own. Our laughter was more gentle, our movements less boisterous. The way we looked at each other held all that was unsaid between us: every single moment delightful, sometimes contentious, sheathed in the illusion that it would never end.

When I picked up a voice mail telling me that he had died, I was not shocked. The undercurrent between us had known this for awhile. Two days before, I had dreamed of my father’s death, and was eager to share this with Lee. Turns out, it was a precognitive dream of the passing of a man who was father to my creativity and my soul.

The morning after Lee died, I woke from this dream:

I open the door to my office and in the garden, two enormous columns of pale lavender flowers have grown up overnight. They resemble no flowers in waking life. One is a tall, strong, reaching to the sky. The other is bowing toward me, trembling, in that moment right before all the petals drop…..Then I am a little girl. My family is in the Witness Protection Program. We live in a cathedral. My mother comes to me and says, “Your cousin is here. He is so excited to see you.” I run down the stairs and open a door. There on the top bunk of a bunk bed is a boy, a few years older, wild yellow hair. He jumps down and we greet each other, so happy to be together.

I have come to see the tall, strong lavender column of flowers as Lee’s Eternal spirit, the one bowing toward me, the mortal Lee. Both are this luminous shade of pale lavender, of a texture so delicate, so beautiful. The color of his soul.

The Witness Protection Program? I was protected for so many years by his careful, gentle witnessing of my every feeling and fear. And our work was in a sacred place, where we found a space of our own, to play.

Not long after this I had another dream:

I have parked my car, which has a dream catcher hanging from the rear view mirror. I return to the car, and the dream catcher has been taken away. I am very upset. I notice a small note tucked beneath the windshield wiper.

When I woke up, I asked Psyche to tell me what was in that note. This is the response I received: “Dear Elizabeth, this is a great loss for you. I am so sorry. His desire to be close to me was very great, and I welcomed him with open arms, in the effortless motility of being.”

Whoever you are, wherever you are, may you come to know this place where you are held in a sacred space by a mortal being who brings you Eternal love.

FLY FISHING AND THE ART OF GRATITUDE

Improbable. Delightful. An unfolding gift of community, magic, and the natural world. I saw the flyer in the waiting room of the North West Hospital Cancer Care Alliance. “Casting Call” for all breast cancer survivors who have been treated at NW during the past year to join the women of the medical team on a fly-fishing expedition!

“I don’t have time for that!” I muttered. “I went fly-fishing years ago when the kids were little. I never was any good at it!–What does that have to do with getting through radiation??”

My husband saw it differently. “Do it. You never do things like this. It will be good for you.”

I still resisted, but once the reality of radiation got a hold of me, I began to reconsider. Perhaps I did need something out of the ordinary to look forward to, beyond my “Hiroshima bosom”… Dr. Allison Perrin, my surgeon, encouraged me. “It’s great fun. We all take a bus over the Yakima River – spend the whole day in the fall colors, on the river—and you might get a fish!”

That got me. I realized how long it had been since I had had the chance to get  out in nature, much less float down a river. Summer 2015 had been spent at work (thank God! My practice kept me going through every stage in the ordeal) –and in the corridors of the hospital, in doctor’s offices, and curled up on the couch with ice packs healing from a partial mastectomy. Nature and its wonders seemed a distant dream.

A dozen of us – “survivors” (I have to get used to this new identity) met early one Saturday morning in early October. The trees had already turned from lazy summer green to the crisp, burnt colors of autumn. We had been through training a few days before, where we learned the entomology of flies, and how to propel the rod out into space in an elegant, arch. Very artistic, this fly fishing, I thought. It seemed to have a particular appeal to all of the women.

And what women! Age range from 50 to 88! Everyone with a different story, in a different stage of recovery, reconstruction, radiation, chemo, or drug therapy. I was humbled and awash in gratitude that my cancer was caught early, and my recurrence score so low I was not a candidate for chemo.

Gratitude quickly became a theme woven throughout the day, like a golden thread in a fine garment. I felt it in every moment: the laughter, among women who shared a journey no one signs up for, but 1 in 8 will take. The rambunctiousness: on the all-female bus, we shared stories, reconstructions, tattoos, with joy and pride. The beauty of the sunny, seventy-degree day on the Yakima River.

We were two to a boat, with a guide. I ended up, delightfully, in a boat with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Wang. She was as naïve to fly-fishing as I was, confessing that in her few times in a boat, she had always capsized, “at least once”. Our experienced guide, Tim, chortled and took this in stride. “Nobody’s going over today!” he said, “Not on my watch!”

Veterans of the trip had described it as a peaceful, renewing, communion with nature. This may indeed be the experience of some women. For us it was MOBY DICK! Tim was hell-bent that we first-timers would get a fish, constantly directing us to cast, cast again, and pull the rod out of the water at the slightest hint of a nibble.

In the end I caught one tiny little “pickle fish”. Dr. Wang got a picture of it, with a smiling me. Had it been a great white shark, I would not have been more stunned, or overjoyed, or proud!

I felt gratitude for the sheer life force pulsing through every moment of the day, even as the sunlight danced across the surface of the river.

I learned how deeply I am not alone. Cancer ignites the soul, the spirit, the gamut of emotions like nothing else. With each cast, we all seemed to cry, “I am here.

This Thanksgiving, for me, is not about turkey or what kind of pie to make, or Black Friday. It is about a cornucopia of love and gratitude for my family, my beloved friends, and, –who could ever have predicted this a year ago?–for the women on the bus, and that tiny little fish, released back to the river, free, and alive.

THIRST OF THE SOUL

This month I am hosting an on-line book club for The Depth Psychology Alliance, of my play ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE CASTLE, published by Fisher King Press. This is a marvelous venue for an author to interact with readers and promote lively discussion of all the spiritual, political and psychological aspects of the drama.

In my first posting,  I referred to the opening speech by the character, Alma de Leon, a young Jewish woman seeking sanctuary with Sister Teresa of Avila. The latter is igniting the imagination of 16th century Spain with stories of her intimate colloquy with God. Alma petitions to join Teresa’s order, longing for her own rapture, explaining that she suffers from an “aridity of soul.” She later speaks of Spain, as “our wild, arid country.” I asked book club participants to reflect on the relationship between being arid of soul on the inside, and living in an arid land.

I received a response from Bonnie Bright, director and creator of the Depth Psychology Alliance. She wrote of a conference she recently attended where they discussed the “drying” of the planet corresponding to the “drying” of the soul. Surely there is a reciprocal relationship, We live in a time that is replete with the violence we have done to the planet, amid daily reminders of the violence we do to each other, It is very difficult not to feel depressed, and pessimistic about the future.

And yet, here were these women, Teresa and Alma, living in wildly oppressive times. They could either get married with no birth control and no political power as women, or join the church and be subjected to whipping themselves and chanting hymns at all hours. A husband, or the Inquisition.  Not a lot of choice there. But within the confines of this arid world, they created something uniquely their own. Teresa was a wild rebel from the start. She could not “hear” God in large groups of nuns chanting prescribed Latin verses. She discovered a book, The Third Spiritual Alphabet, which taught, in essence, modern meditation. You, alone in a room, counting letters of the alphabet until your mind clears and you can know the voice of God. Teresa’s copy of this heretical text was impounded by the Inquisition, but then she discovers that Alma has a copy hidden in her robes. They forge a bond in their secret desire for a private, active relationship with God.

Beyond this, they look at the arid world around them. People in great need, many fleeing the Inquisition, many simply living in abject poverty. They respond to the reality of their environment, taking their own sumptuous dinners to those in need, creating a democracy of resources on the belief that all people are One. This begins a long struggle to create a new order of the Barefoot Carmelites, modeled on the legacy of Francis of Asissi. At first the church fathers are horrified at the notion of women traipsing about Spain barefoot, serving the poor. Teresa realizes she must use old family connections. She sends Alma to appeal to King Philip, who uses his own delicate strategy with the church, and at last the Order of the Discalced Carmelites is born.

Teresa and Alma addressed the aridity of their inner life, and used their well-nourished souls  to penetrate the darkness around them. Jung used the term Individuation to describe the evolution of the soul to wholeness. He stressed that it is not enough to have insight, to know the source of our pain and longing. We must step out into the world and manifest our visions, dreams, and by living creatively in the now, let go of the many things in our environment that are beyond our control.

We are living in times that will become more and more complex, and more challenging. “What then must we do?” Tolstoy asked, as he looked out at the poverty in the streets of Moscow. My vote is to continue to nourish our inner lives, manifest our creative essence, and respond with compassion and intelligence, to the changing landscape of our world.

CANCER AND CONSCIOUSNESS

I dream I am in a house of rough men dressed in black. I am naked from the waist up, jewels of gold, red, and blue embedded in my breast. The King comes in and I tell him the thieves have stolen my clothes. He doesn’t believe me. Later, I am walking on the road with the King. We see the thieves with the clothing. “Now do you believe me,” I say. “I am so sorry I doubted you,” says the King. I walk away from him. He wants to go with me. “No,” I say, “This path is for me to walk alone.”  He is sad, but does not follow. I walk out onto the top of a high, ancient stone wall, without fear or anxiety, one step at a time, the jewels in my breasts luminous in the rising sun.

          I had this dream the night before I met with my breast cancer surgeon. It gave me an ebullient image, filled with meaning, as I entered a path so many women have walked. All the “clothing”, –the façade of a no-cancer body has been stolen. The King, the animus or ego, has been robbed of the self he showed to the outer world.  What remains is the divine essence of the feminine, the jewels, atop an ancient wall that straddles the membrane of life and death.

I have experienced all the terrors, high anxiety, and roiling emotions of a woman facing cancer.  Partial mastectomy left me with radiation to follow, and years of medication to inhibit the return of the disease. Excellent prognosis. A low grade breast cancer so many women have endured and recovered from. And yet, when my surgeon said, “Looks like it is cancer,” I knew my life would never be the same. I felt I had a choice: to go through each ordeal, trembling, searching the Internet, focused on what could go wrong, or I could take a step back, and see this as a profound journey of self discovery.

I chose the latter, and it has brought me into a new world. I feel my own vulnerability as never before. I feel the reality of the suffering of others as never before: the faces of the people in the waiting room, each one with eyes that know cancer, women with head scarves, men who make jokes to cover their fear.

Everything that was ordinary is now extraordinary. I feel a depth of joy, relishing every moment with family and friends, delighting in the warmth and caring of the angels at Settle’s Northwest Hospital, splashing my granddaughter in the swimming pool even as I fight back tears.

Each day brings new revelations. Carrying “jewels” in my breasts, I remember my pregnancies. When I carried my children, my breasts grew hard, enormous, so sensitive to the cold. I watched in awe as the dome of my uterus grew, even as now I notice the long lateral scar across the moonscape of one breast. In my dream, I walk across an ancient stone wall, the jewels in my breasts radiating in the rising sun.  Now I receive the rays of a large mechanical eye that moves in its orbit across my body, shooting its greys as an act of healing, even as healthy cells are also being destroyed. A part of me is being sacrificed so that a more healthy, and a more conscious me can be born.

As with pregnancy, I pay close attention to everything I eat and drink. No alcohol, no caffeine, 85 grams of protein a day, veggies and fruits in abundance. Pregnancy brought a shift in my identity as I prepared to become a mother. Now, far beyond child-bearing age, I feel pregnant with a new wholeness, a new creative identity, held and cherished by the divine. As I walk along the ancient wall between life and death, the light of consciousness shines into the jewels of the archetypal Feminine, the giver and nurturer of life, embedded my body, in all of us, regardless of gender.

Halfway through radiation, I had the following dream:

            I see a beautiful green plant, like no plant I recognize in waking life, full foliage, rounded leaves. Out of the center of the plant comes a  gentle fountain of water, from a source deep within. The water bubbles up and over the plant. This image is bathed in light, a light that brightens and brightens until all I see is the blinding white light.

            I woke and thought, “Was that the white light? Am I dead?” I realize, no, I am vibrantly alive, and the self-watering plant is the life force. It lives within me. And when I die, I will live in IT.

Does this mean the cancer is a “gift”? Certainly no rational person wants such a diagnosis, but at some point, we all face the reality of our “mortal coil”, as Hamlet would say. But if we can listen to our dreams and search our inner and outer lives for meaning, the frightening things can be not only endured, but transformed, and echo into eternity.

SUMMER KNOWS THE SECRETS OF THE SOUL

“Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us?…What, if not transformation, is your urgent command? Earth, my dearest, I will… Unspeakably, I have belonged to you, from the first….Look, I am living…Superabundant being wells up in my heart.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, #9. translated by Stephen Mitchell

She approaches: Summer. Revealing herself to us as a goddess slides her nightgown from her shoulders. All corners of our heart and soul that lay buried under the leaf litter of winter, are now exposed, throbbing to be seen and known. Even the lacey blooms of spring have fallen, giving way to the stark beauty of dark red flutes, their female parts languid, sticky with desire, anticipating the erotic tongue of a hummingbird, the tickle of a warm wind.

Summer’s proud burlesque throws us into a vulnerable landscape of the soul, thawing the protective parts of us that thrived in winter.  We claim to adore the harsh light of the sun, yet tremble to imagine what are we being asked to reveal, to learn, to conquer in this most sensuous season.  Some all-too-human part of us longs for the frigid certainty of winter, where we could forget that we are made of the fluid substance of the stars. Where we can stand in our snow boots and cry, “I am a person. I have ideals. I deserve to endure!”

Summer strips all the ice away, crying, “You are here! In youth, in age, in pain, in love, in grieving, in wild joy, you are here.

It sounds so simple. And yet, in the winter of our souls, we put our noses to the grindstone, not within the petals of a gardenia.  We stay frozen in our longing to keep our bodies and beloveds secure, untainted by time and mortal shore.

Summer watches us, shaking her silken hair, the pale grasses of summer.

“Come,” She whispers, “be with me in Eternity. Walk through the garden and peer into the gently swaying leaves of the birch.  Be still. You will see the mother wren wrangling an earthworm, hear the piping of her babies: know that you are not separate.”

Can we let Her teach us? Can we allow a thaw?

If we can bear to love the bones of our true nature, laid bare in summer’s beckoning light, being mortal is not so terrible. We run, we leap, we love, fearless, in the bounty of the now.

FEAR OF FEAR ITSELF: Finding Emotional Courage

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech in the 1930’s on conquering the Great Depression

One of the major blocks many people face in healing from emotional depression is fear. This comes in many forms. Fear of intimacy is often a fear of rejection and shame. Fear of the future is a fear that if we embrace optimism, something awful will happen. Many people fear taking risks in relationships, or in their careers. Someone once said “I fell in love once and it didn’t last. How can I ever love again?” Another sentiment, often expressed: “I felt the presence of something deeply peaceful and beautiful in myself. I called it God, or the feeling of divine love. It didn’t last, so why should I believe in something that goes away?”

There is an intimate relationship in the psyche between traumatic loss and fear, often resulting in a life lived on the surface of things, unable to commit to others . Even if we pretend otherwise, many people secretly believe that everyone will either hurt them, or at best be a huge disappointment. This fear protects us from the anxiety that comes with reaching out, or daring to hope for more depth in our relationships or our work.

This  also shows up in our relationship to ourselves: a fear of trusting or valuing who we are, in all our imperfection and vulnerability. We think we have to make ourselves perfect, or no one will love us. This is a hopeless enterprise at best. So when we make a mistake, we beat ourselves up, mistrusting our own misunderstood human capacity.

All of this can translate into a dysfunctional relationship with fear itself, as if fear is the guard dog that keeps the us “safe” from the misadventure of trusting or loving ourselves or others. We come to respect our fear as we would an old friend, knowing it, obeying it. Herein lies the trap. Giving fear so much power, keeps us forever trapped in depression, anxiety, low self worth, and loneliness.

In the classic Broadway musical THE FANTASTIKS, the Narrator says,

There is a curious paradox that no one can explain

            Who understands the secret of the beating of the rain

            Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain

            Or why we must all die a bit, before we grow again?

This beautiful lyric has meaning on so many levels. We all suffer. We all “die a bit” when we lose someone, are hurt by them, or experience disappointment or loss. And yet, this allows us to grow, to open to new parts of ourselves, to find the courage to confront our fear and to experience the real feelings lurking in shadows.

What can this be? What is behind the fear?  Courage is the ability to face the unknown. To say to this tyrannical fear, “You are hiding something from me. Whatever it is, I can face it.”

This can be so many things. People often idealize a parent who has been abusive, out of a deep need to believe in an all-nurturing father or mother. Pulling aside the veil of fear can expose them for the flawed, damaged people they really are. To see, and feel the truth behind the fear means experiencing grief, anger, sadness, the rage of the betrayed.

“So why should I do that?” you may ask. “Why would anybody want to go through all those bad feelings?”

The truth of it is that if we give fear the power to alienate us from our true feelings, we suffer far more in the long run, by leading an “as if” life locked in depression and emotional distance. Carl Jung called tears, “the royal road to the soul.”  And yet, it is not so easy to open up all those buried feelings. Tears often need a nurturing other – a dear friend, counselor, or group of like-suffering souls, to extend compassion while the wounded person grieves.

There is another paradox, at first as invisible as the secret of the beating of the rain. As we learn to feel the depths of loss, betrayal, and rage, we can awaken to the universal human condition. We are not alone in our suffering. Even if we had an idyllic childhood, as was apparently the case for the famous Asian prince, Siddhartha, eventually, the reality of death, loss, illness, pain, comes to us all.

At age 30 he stepped outside the walls of his palace and saw a dead body, people going hungry, people in pain. He left all of his worldly goods behind and set out to find a way out of the cycle of death/birth/loss.

After many years of wandering and struggle, Siddhartha found his answer in Enlightenment. He experienced the oneness of our humanity in all our suffering, and joy. The way out of individual pain is to acknowledge this reality, step through our fears and reach out to each other.

Healing from depression calls each of us to step beyond the castle walls of our own fear and feel our way to our own Enlightenment.  We can learn to carry the reality of loss with us every day, without succumbing to depression. We can choose joy and beauty and meaning because life is temporary. This flower will never again be so beautiful, my little girl is a woman now and I will never again lift her high in my arms, I will never hear the voice of someone who meant the world to me because he died, but my love for him is eternal.

Joy, even as spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain.

HEALING FROM THE CURSE OF OVER-RESPONSIBILITY

I remember her so well, my maternal grandmother: eyes searching our faces, her hands brushing each other as if smoothing a silken cloth into bare threads. She was always worried about something. Was the ice water cold enough? Was the bath water warm enough? Did we get enough tomatoes for our pimento cheese sandwiches?

My mother echoed the same pattern, adding into it an expression of self-blame. Somehow when things went wrong, especially with her children, the fault lay squarely on her shoulders like the harness of an ox. Somehow she could never get free of it.

I write of an archetype, not confined to gender. Many men feel this sense of over-responsibility as well, whether it is to their children or to their corporation. I am searching to articulate an energy embedded in the dark side of the Feminine. Believing that you are responsible for the happiness of others is a distortion of Eros, the principle of love, which, in its pure state (and when is human love ever in a pure state?) it is free of these leaden convictions that erode the self.

At its heart the culprit seems to be what modern psychologists call “Enmeshment”, the melding together of two or more people in a family or a close relationship where it is difficult to tell where the identity of one person ends, and the other begins. This happens in marriages, lover to lover, parent to child, child to parent. Unraveling the coils of enmeshment is slow, often painful work, complicated by the fact that it almost always comes alongside real feeling, secure attachment, and the fact that people simply enjoy each others’ company.

Another complication is the fact that the mistakes of a parent, their reactions, decisions, and behaviors do have a profound impact on the psyche of the child.  I was deeply impacted by the anxiety and over-responsibility of my mother and grandmother. When I had my own children, I wasn’t even aware of how deeply I held the conviction that it is my job to create a secure and happy life for them, indefinitely. I have come to realize that I am in the grips of this over-responsibility complex, handed down, generation to generation. It goes further back that that. Greek myths are replete with the dramatic over-reaction of mothers when something goes wrong with their kids. To the extent that women have been oppressed –and still are, especially in some parts of the world –a core aspect of this oppression is this belief that females (or the feminine principle in a male) are responsible for the health, nurturance and happiness of the family, and, by implication, of society as a whole.

Like feminists before me, and so many women today, I want to be free of this. I am weary of carrying a stone in my heart that turns to the branding iron of self hatred when something goes wrong. It is not rational. Often the choices of adult family members is far removed from my influence or even my values. Yet, when there is suffering in others, I cannot abide it. I have made a profession of helping people take responsibility for their emotions, actions, and inner life. Yet, I believe in large part because my over-responsibility conviction runs so deep, I exempt myself from this aspect of wholeness which I nourish in others.

A paradox, you say? Indeed.

So, how are we to free ourselves from this menace? If I were a person coming to my office, what would I tell him/her?

Awareness. Begin there. See this over-responsibility complex for what it is. Imagine the face of the grandmother and mother who inspired such a torture. Did they deserve it? Didn’t you grow terribly weary of watching them writhe and beat themselves up? Aren’t you sick of it in yourself?

Can you pronounce yourself “Guilty” for choices you made years ago, when you were young, unaware, reactive, unenlightened? Do you judge others that way?

Can you see the grandiosity in this? Believing you have so much power over others, even your children? Especially your adult children.

If you embrace humility, and a grounded perspective on your whole, flawed humanity, it suddenly seems ludicrous to believe that a choice you made years ago, or yesterday, has that much influence on anybody, Even those close to you, or those who admire you.

Awareness. Humility.

What about respect for yourself. In most cases, you did the best you could. It is delusion to think you could have done more. Why is it so hard for so many of us to like ourselves, much less love ourselves? Yet that is what is required for psychological wholeness, health, and freedom from the over-responsibility curse, and her cousins worry, guilt, anxiety, and depression.

I tell my people self love requires a three-pronged approach: love your qualities, what shows in the world and in your relationship with others; love your essence, the very core of the goodness-seeker within; receive love from the divine within you, making a place in your busy life to listen, reflect on, and remember the sacred.

The first one is at least somewhat empirically verifiable.  The second, sensing your personal essence, is more subtle, a movement beyond ego to record and remember, and value your character. What are the values you hold, the principles you believe in? What do you respect, in yourself and others? It is no small thing to bear an allegiance to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

And the sacred? It comes in so many forms. Speaking of grandmothers, I recently heard a story of a woman in her 90’s who spends most of her time either singing or praying.  One of her children witnessed her saying the Lord’s prayer, then, when she came to the word “heaven”, she burst out in song, “Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak!” – When she finished a stirring rendition of Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek”, she returned to the Lord’s prayer, right where she left off.

She found beauty, joy, and a sense of “Heaven” in both.

Awareness. Humility. Learning to love yourself, for what you do, who you are, and for your relationship to Universal Love.

This is the approach I would lay out for a person coming to my office to heal themselves from the curse of over-responsibility. Can I apply this prescription to myself? Time to embrace my own humility and embrace the confidence that I can do this, not just for others, but for myself.

LOVE AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF GRIEF

What happens to us when we lose a loved one?

They say, “time heals all wounds”, but is this true? Is the repression of painful events and feelings what helps us “get over” a profound loss? Or is it an opportunity to open the heart, the mind, the senses to a process of releasing our mortality-bound concept of the person we have lost. Surrendering to the loss of his or her “personhood” only to glimpse, beyond the heavy boulders of grief, a new intimacy?

I think of my mother, a woman of many dimensions in her mortal life: a Southern Belle beauty with a sharp wit, and often, an acid tongue, certainly a depression dating back to her early adolescence; a courage to fight this depression, a fierce love of her children, yet a sense of being lost in a world that never met her expectations. In mortal life, there was a great love, and  a persistent tension between us. She died some years ago quite suddenly. I was there in the hospital in her final days, but by the time I arrived after a long plane flight, she was closed off from the world. I talked to her, held her as she died, but though some would say otherwise, I doubt she had any idea I was there.

A few days after her death, I dreamed I entered her room in the small apartment she had called home for many years. It was empty but for a white palate on the floor. Mom was dressed in a white coat and pants – yoga pants, I thought, though she never did yoga in mortal life.  She was relaxed, her body moving with an ease and grace and freedom that was all new. She saw me and said, “I can’t believe it is almost time for you to go—“ Apparently I was on my way to the airport, to leave her again, as I had done so many times. She said, “Just let me hold you one last time—“ We reached for each other and I melted into her arms, as I surely did as a baby.

I woke in tears. This mother in my dreams was a new being. Someone I may have known pre-verbal, or in isolated moments, but I had never seen her whole, free, open, loving.

When I think of my mother now, I do not whitewash the history of trauma she suffered, or how that played out in her life. What I focus on is the new relationship that began after her death. A relationship, arguably, with the “her” in me. I felt a warmth, an intimacy, a closeness with this new mother. Not a fantasy, not a delusion. A sense that, with her death, we could be close to each other, essence-to-essence, in a way that all the layers of protection, blame, judgment and our false selves had blocked in mortal life.

It is a relationship I cherish more and more as I age. Not long ago, I dreamed of walking in the kitchen door at my house, to be greeted by my mother. She was happy and surprised to see me as a woman in my 60’s – the same age she was in this same dream. We laughed and hugged each other, again, with that easy intimacy that stripped away all the fears and resentments that drove a wedge between us when she lived on earth.

Often it takes a full year for us to really admit that someone we loved is really dead.  The shock is so powerful when the love is so deep. We keep waiting for the phone to ring, the door to open, that voice on the pillow beside us in the dark. It is simply unbelievable that this person is never, never coming back in the “mortal coil” as Shakespeare said.  The shock keeps our grieving frozen, and, quite often, out of sheer self defense, we push the love away as well. It is just too painful to feel the depth of love when the next thought is, “And I will never see him again!”

Sometimes, usually into the second year, another wave of grieving comes. This can be nightmares that re-play the final stages of life, the last moments with the beloved, the last time we heard that soft, weak voice whisper, “I love you too.”…

It could be that, into the second year, our psyche is delivering a tough-love punch to the self: “See: It happened. He is GONE. —Wake up!”

What are we being called to Wake Up to?  Nightmares can often have a healing effect if we look beyond the horror of the images and the renewed shock of the loss. If our loved one is dead to us in mortal form, what is left? Did the love go away? They say a loved one lives on within the living, but how is this love experienced. There is a difference between a memory (good or bad) and a re-conceptualizing of the relationship. In the case of my mother, it has meant a release into a love that eluded us in mortal life. In the case of someone I recently lost, it means I must let go of the form of him: his lanky walk, the sly way he looked out of the corner of his eyes, the way he nursed a latte all day long and there it would be in the frig the next morning….That reality is held in memory, and is dear. Now, he is elsewhere. Does this mean I can’t feel close to him? Talk to him on my morning walks? Imagine him sitting on the porch in the summertime, listening to me, answering me…?

A new intimacy is possible if we can let go of the attachment to form. In the second year of grieving my recent loss, I have come to realize that if I let the shock give way to horror, and the horror give way to deep grieving and acceptance of the end of his mortal form, I can actually feel close to “him” – the pure essence of him that I can feel and taste and hear, with much the same reality that I felt when he sat across the table from me, offering me a slice of triple berry pie.

Much of this awareness came to me a few weeks ago. In typical first year fashion, I had pushed him out of my thoughts for awhile. On Christmas Eve, I felt a great heaviness flow over me. This didn’t make sense. We never spent Christmas together…well, a talk on the phone, as we had every week for 30 years…but why now this heaviness, this awareness, as if I wanted to open a door and find him standing there. But knowing he wouldn’t be there.

I heard a voice inside me whisper, “There are no words”…

I wrote this poem, and sobbed, for some time. A letting go, only to let a new level of intimacy come into being:

 

                                    Everywhere

How do you write a poem with no words?

There are no words,

only the light on the olive tree,

the hummingbird thrumming

                             then, no sound.

The wind rustles the palo verde,

                            then, stillness.

Your eyes,

         then, the light is your sight,

             the wind, your breath,

                        your laughter, the hummingbird,

                                            thrumming

 

I invite all of you to explore the intimate relationship that is possible, after letting go of the moral form of your beloved.

AGING IS SEEING

“No woman is old”—Vincent Van Gough

We appear to live our lives in linear time, watching the inevitable biological changes that accompany the aging human form.  Much attention is given to preserving physical health, curing diseases, holding on to our connection to what poet Mary Oliver calls, “your one wild and precious life.”

What if we peer behind the illusion of linear time, beyond the wrinkles and stiff joints, the deep fear of losing what we look like, how we function, indeed our very identity?  The aging process of the body is an event on the surface. What of the aging of the soul?  If we are much more than the person on the surface, what phases of our being accompany us on this journey?

What if our physical body is cradled in a timeless sheath that contains all the identities we have passed through, and the aspects of our development that have lived often a secret existence,  in our unconscious? As we age, our memory for details begins to fade, but, if we look deeply and listen to the voices of our inner world, we can become initiated into the unconscious reality present in our life lived as a child, an adolescent, a young adult…

For example, I have a memory of my 7 year old self, lying in front of an open window on a hot summer day. I had come in from playing in the hot East Texas sun. My fox terrier, Foxy, lay up against me. We were both sweating. A sheer white summer curtain hung in the window. The breeze was blessedly cooler than our toasty bodies.  I remember a feeling of deep contentment, just being there: the movement of the curtain above us, our sweat, our breath, the gentle breeze flowing over us. I had no words for this at the time, but I believe that early experience was my first clue that there was a part of me, watching the rest of me move through my days. Another part of me that lived, quite literally, in a different world.

What if our human life is like the moon? Certain phases of it are illuminated at any given time, but the whole moon is always there. The dark side of the moon supports and observes, tends and records the life lived in the brilliance of the outer world. Without an awareness of the part of our consciousness that lives in shadow, we can go through our days waiting only for the next brilliant phase.  This can lead to a life style that is ultimately incomplete,  reactive, grasping, believing in the illusion of the temporary.

If, like the moon,  we are all there from the beginning,  this means that as we age, our younger selves are still with us. If we are fortunate, they come to us in dreams or waking images, unfolding stories from the secret wisdom.

Do you ever dream of yourself as a person younger than your current age? Or dream of “a girl” or “a boy” who is also “you?” Why has your younger self come forward? What is he or she teaching you?  An ambassador from your unconscious mind, she or he has been living in a world of archetypes, eternal knowings,  poetic and symbolic languages for years, while you were earning a living, raising a family, paying your taxes…

There are many paths to communicating your younger selves. You can use reflective meditation. Close your eyes, get in touch with your breath. Slow down your breath. Ask for a wise younger self to come forth. You could imaginatively place yourself in a setting. For example, I could put myself on the floor beneath the open window – feel the soft fur of my fox terrier, the hot sweat cooling on my small, sticky legs… ask my 7 year old self to describe what she is thinking and feeling. She will tell me.

Another possibility is to watch the cycles of the moon. Some nights ago, I was awakened by the brilliance of the moon coming through the closed blinds of my bedroom. A moon so bright I had to go out into the back yard for a full look. Not quite a half moon, but fuller than a crescent. Just beyond adolescence, the time in my early twenties when on the surface I felt very lost. Rather than fall into the temporal story that so often comes with self recrimination, regret, shame, anxiety, it seemed much more interesting to look at the rest of the moon – the 3/4ths of it in darkness, and wonder what was happening in that part of me while the rest of me was “lost”….What part of me was dormant, but alive, and what can that part of me reveal to me now?

I will conclude with a dream of someone in her 60’s, and a dialog she wrote with a younger version of herself that appeared in the dream. Jung called this Active Imagination.

            I dream I am in a canyon with a rugged, outdoors-type man who is no one I know from waking life. There is also a plump young woman in her 20’s who has long dark hair and dark clothing covering her whole body. It seems odd she would wear such clothing in the desert.  She is accompanied by a man who is slender and also well clothed. She goes with him down a steep path and disappears. I join the rugged outdoors-type man and we proceed to crawl onto the ledge of craggy rocks. I follow his lead, not questioning the danger or why we need to keep climbing. We only come down to seek out another stony outcrop. At one point he speaks very analytically: how is it that our bodies seem to know how to find a stable position in each of these rock formations, all of them on the precipice? He continues all this intellectual talk. I can see the blue sky and the river far below, but they seem very far away….Then I am at a way station with another group of rough men, and the plump young woman appears. She is the same age, early 20’s, with long black hair and black clothing covering her whole body. We are so very happy to see each other. We embrace.

 

Dialog with the Young Woman in Black, and the dreamer, who I will call the Crone:

 

Crone: It is so good to see you.

YWB: You as well. The years have been good to you.

(they smile)

Crone: I have the feeling it has been a long time since we saw each other.

YWB: Oh yes, over 40 years.

Crone: (silence, she reflects) Why did you wear so many cloths in the desert?

YWB: You were so ashamed of me. I was very hungry in those days, and I did not want you to see me so fat.

Crone: I’m sorry. I hated you.

YWB: I knew I could not be close to you, to feel so much hatred. I knew to survive, I had to find another place to live.

Crone: Who was the young man who went with you?

YWB: My soulmate. He never hated me. Not for one second.

Crone: I know someone he reminds me of now, but when we were together 40 years ago, I had no idea such a man existed. (silence) I am so glad you knew it, and that he was with you.

YWB: I would have been lost without him.

Crone: Why have you returned to me now?

YWB: I can feel that you don’t hate me any longer.

(Crone weeps)

Crone: I don’t. I think you have much to teach me.  Please, I am listening now.

YWB: (sighs) I do have much to tell you. (reaches out her hand) I cannot put into words what it feels like, to be with you.

(weeping with love and gratitude, the Crone takes Young Woman’s hand)

 

I invite you to explore the parts of yourself that live in this timeless reality.