One of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts is that of forgiveness.
The practice of forgiveness is an internal emotional and psychological journey that is fundamental to any sort of healing (whether spiritual or secular). It is something that you do for yourself, within yourself. In your own heart, so to speak. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person, and it does not mean reconciling, or “getting back together,” or having any sort of relationship with the other person.
People often hold on to their anger and pain saying “no, I will never forgive this. What he did is unforgiveable.” This mindset, although very common, is both faulty thinking and it stands in the way of the victim’s own peace and inner tranquility. In reality, the painful thing has already happened; it’s done and gone. But by holding on to the anger and the pain in this way, we re-hurt and re-traumatize ourselves every time we remember it.
This becomes somewhat self-harmful and self-abusive. The anger and pain eat at us from within, each time we think of that person or the experience. And we use that pain and anger to punish the other person in our minds and sometimes in reality. (There is a vague sort of feeling of “I need this anger to keep me safe, otherwise he will hurt me again;” which is a false belief masking fear and a lack of assertiveness). This is why the practice of forgiveness is so important. It untangles all of these false beliefs and fear-based mechanisms that keep us from love, compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships.
I’ve also often heard forgiveness being conflated with weakness; which is also inaccurate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or condoning any sort of hurtful behavior. Actually going through the process gives you incredible inner strength and courage to confront injustice in the right way, and hold people accountable.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean just turning the other cheek or just ignoring our feelings. Forgiveness means I love myself too much to continue carrying this awful painful burden. I will do the inner work to release myself, to release them, and I make a decision that is going to create more peace and less emotional pain in my life.
The process of forgiveness is about sorting out our own truth from the painful interpretations we make by default in our minds. It is an undoing of the self-judgments that lie at the root of most emotional pain. It is an investigation into the self-blame that the experience generated, and a transformation of that pain with love and compassion. It is then a turning to look at the other with the eyes of truth and compassion. Listening completely to our own anger and then transforming that anger with wisdom and understanding. It means making inquiries into the false motivations we have automatically assigned to them. And creating space for new loving interpretations.
By working on forgiveness we are releasing ourselves from the pain and suffering in our own mind, and coming to internal peace, as it relates to that person or experience. Also, in my view, learning how to forgive properly is the only way to build healthy relationships. Without a solid framework for forgiveness within, there can be no real repair after a conflict, and the relationship becomes a minefield of resentment.
There is an ocean of difference however between forgiving someone (inside our hearts), and allowing that person to remain a part of our lives. The former is healing and necessary, the latter is not.
Whether we allow someone to remain in our lives and hearts after a hurt has occurred, is a delicate consideration. It often will depend on the subjective magnitude of the pain we experienced and whether trust has been broken. Probably the most important factor is whether the other person has the capacity to genuinely apologize in a heartfelt way, giving some assurance that the hurt will not happen again. But this decision, whether to continue a relationship or not, has nothing to do with forgiveness. This is a question of boundary setting and self-respect.
The internal process of forgiveness comes first, and is independent of this second aspect.
Boundaries are incredibly important; and setting them is an area people struggle with a lot. Sometimes boundaries are simple “this hurt me. please don’t do this again.” And other times much more complex: “Out of self-love and self-respect, I cannot allow you to continue this sort of behavior as it relates to me. You are free to do what you please, but I don’t wish to continue interacting with you.” It takes an incredible amount of inter-personal courage and self-love to carry these out properly. It sounds really obvious and simple, and yet I have met very very few people who really possess these skills.
We all have different levels of tolerance for pain and different capacities for forgiveness. I’ve seen lots of situations where people (me included) continuously ignore hurtful words and actions of others, under the guise of forgiveness. The deeper truth is that they (we) are really just too afraid to stand up for ourselves. (It has taken me a lot of work and courage to really begin standing up for my vulnerable feelings… It gets easier with practice.)
But forgiveness cannot be used to justify silence in the face of a transgression. If the hurts continue to be inflicted, at some point forgiveness no longer works. One cannot withstand constant hurtful words or actions, without the dynamic becoming self-abusive. Forgiveness cannot be used (or misused rather) as an avoidance technique when confrontation is too scary.
Setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, and voicing hurt feelings honestly are all required acts of self-love. The complicated part is that they are to be done without anger or resentment. (If they are being done with anger, from a negative emotional state, it’s not boundary setting but rather a form of punishment. The distinction is very important).
We must first do the work to reach a state of peace (internally) and compassion for the other person, and then we set the boundary peacefully and with kindness. (This doesn’t apply of course in emergency situations when harm is imminent. I feel this is so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I suppose I do).
Setting boundaries also has nothing to do with the other person. You cannot change who they are, or what they do. But we must find the courage to see them with honest eyes. We must be willing to acknowledge how they make us feel, really and deeply. And if we don’t want to be treated a certain way, we are in control of your own lives, actions, and behavior. There is nothing wrong with removing ourselves from dynamics (whether temporarily or permanently) that we find hurtful.
Putting our own vulnerable feelings first is not selfishness; it is the ultimate self-love.
I read an account recently of a man diagnosed with schizophrenia. He described a sort of break with “reality,” that allowed him to see deeper truths. Sitting on a bus with a friend, he described it like a veil suddenly being pulled back to reveal his friend as evil. He described paranoid persecutory delusions and altered states of consciousness. He described seemingly terrifying physical sensations, and overwhelming emotional swings. He described being overtaken by an outside force (not voices, but the sensation that something else was in control). And while he was grateful for finally getting a diagnosis and medication, he said that it’s a daily struggle for him. He senses a constant presence of this other reality which he is working hard to fight against, so that he could be “normal.” It was heartbreaking to read. Not because of what’s happening to him, but because there is no one to guide, explain, or help him through it. What’s happening to him is not a mental illness, it’s a spiritual emergence. It is a sacred awakening. But rather than having someone to honor the experience and show him the proper way to manage it, he is being pathologized. The mental health professionals that are providing his care are trying to make him “normal.” They are trying to stop the symptoms, using all sorts of medications and therapies, to fight something they don’t understand. And the reason they don’t understand it is because they are unwilling to listen, unwilling to allow for the possibility that there is something western medical science cannot yet explain.
Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying this famous line: “The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”
This statement is more profound than most people realize. The answer to many (not all, but many) schizophrenic cases is spiritual education. That is to say, self-awareness and the spiritual healing processes. This is what the mystic understands that the schizophrenic doesn’t.
The experiences of mystical openings and schizophrenia are really really similar. The difference between the mystic and the schizophrenic is context; spiritual context. The mystic understands that the mental/psychological disintegration is part of the healing process. He leans into it, and through spiritual work, moves through it. Or more accurately, allows it to move through him. He can observe it within him and work with it, without descending into terror. The mystic observes his thoughts and feelings, without acting on them, and curiously investigates them. He brings awareness, love, wisdom, and compassion into the depths of his being. He is delighted in the emotional upswells, because he knows that each one of them is an opportunity for further healing and discovery. It’s not always delightful (it is in fact extremely painful at times), but there is a logic to it. A divine pattern, if you will.
The schizophrenic on the other hand, without a sense of what’s happening to him, without love, support, and proper education or guidance, sinks. He doesn’t see the logic. He feels completely out of control. He believes his thoughts. He acts on his seemingly irrational feelings (which are completely rational in a spiritual perspective). He is told that he’s sick, and broken; he is medicated, and given up on; because our society doesn’t know where to begin to help him. Our mental health models don’t allow for the spiritual context.
But with spiritual context comes understanding, growth, acceptance, and healing. There is a way through it. There is a way to “heal” these symptoms. But it takes a different sort of therapy. It takes a radical shift away from what it currently being practiced.
The “evil” this man observed in his friend is in fact there; but it’s a mis-perception to call it evil. What this man saw in his friend on the bus is the friend’s egoic nature; which, to the lay-person, would certainly appear as evil. A mystic has this same capacity to see into people, and to observe their intense selfishness, their ego-driven words and actions masquerading as love, friendship, and normal relating. The mystic understands this; he understands why this is so, and accepts the reality of it. The schizophrenic is horrified by it. (It is rather horrifying to have this capacity to see inside of people… I’m still learning how to interact in a quasi-normal fashion despite what I can see).
Paranoid delusions, or persecutory delusions, the fear that “they are out to get you” is nothing more than a present day reflection of childhood fear. Sometimes it’s even past life issues that are being digested out. These episodes need to be properly attended to, not labelled and discounted. The person needs to be spiritually guided back to the source of these feelings, so that with awareness and wisdom and compassion these emotions can be properly released. If this is done properly the fear and paranoia subsides.
The experience of being overtaken by an invisible force from within would likely send anyone over the edge. But the mystic understands that this is the divine will moving through him. He becomes a channel for it, and feels relatively safe in surrendering to it. Those with awakened kundalini often report wondering if they’ve been possessed by something demonic. It can feel that way at times. Whether it’s kundalini, or spirit, or the emergence of the higher self (temporarily or permanently), it’s not a pleasant experience exactly. But spiritual forces never ever intend to harm. They are supremely loving (even if rather stoic or ruthlessly honest). (This is not the experience of hearing angry or hostile voices, or being instructed to carry out harmful acts – which also have a spiritual explanation and can be reckoned with and worked through.)
Similarly, altered states of consciousness can be terrifying. The mystic understands that what he sees in these states is a reflection of his own subconscious – his own wounding is being reflected for him to see and attend to. He knows how to navigate through these states because he gets the bigger picture. The schizophrenic is just terrified by it, and without proper names or descriptions or language to explain it, he becomes isolated in that terror. There aren’t words in existence that can describe the experience of higher states of consciousness. Lots of poets and ancient mystics have tried to use metaphors for what it feels like, but as far as I have read, none of them can convey the feeling of it to a person that’s never felt it. To the mystic it is a wondrous state. To the schizophrenic, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office trying to rationally explain what he feels, it’s devastating. To him, these states are an ever-present, uncontrollable, and very scary symptom of his illness.
There are countless examples here of the mistaken conceptualization and mistreatment of “schizophrenic” symptoms. I want to be clear – I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I don’t discount that mental illness exists; it certainly does. I also don’t discount psychiatric treatments or the need for pharmaceutical intervention; sometimes it is necessary and helpful. But the current state of western mental health care categorically lumps everything together as disease and dysfunction. It doesn’t allow for the spiritual context (as the new DSM-V leaves out the spiritual emergence classification entirely). And as a result these people are not receiving the kind of care they desperately need.
There is a lot of wonderfully courageous work being done in the mental health arena to shed light and understanding into the darkness. Revolutionary psychiatrists, therapists, and spiritual teachers, as well as those with lived experience, are coming together to make the shift to more integrative and compassionate understanding. But there is still a lot to be done. I don’t know how to bridge the gap between the needs for large scale systematic care and the truths of what I see. I am one person, with an idiosyncratic perspective, without any formal credentialing in this area – no one is going to take me seriously. And yet, I am hopeful that over time, the more that people like me write, and speak, and share their experiences and understanding, the more our larger systems can take heed and evolve.
They say that in order to become enlightened you have to be willing to lose your mind.
This is usually understood as a humorous double entendre. Firstly, the mind can’t grasp or rationally intellectually comprehend enlightenment experiences. And in order to get there you have to let go of the mind (or ego) – loosening the mental landscape in your head. Secondly, enlightened or realized mystics are kind of loopy unusual people, mostly on account of their unfiltered authenticity, but their experiences and behaviors are generally outside “normal” mental function. So by definition, they are considered crazy. Get it?
It’s not that funny…
Walking this path is very complicated and destabilizing. And talking about spiritual experiences is scary. Really really scary. Even today, in our seemingly progressive era, many who have profound experiences often keep them a secret. They don’t tell their friends or family. They don’t tell their boyfriends or girlfriends. They create fake profiles on facebook, and anonymously join support groups online, so no one in their real life finds out.
It can be extremely isolating, lonely, and stressful to live this way. These experiences become so fundamental to who you are as a person, that hiding them feels like hiding huge essential aspects of yourself.
The reason for all the secrecy is almost always the same – “They will think I’m crazy. They won’t believe me. They will leave me. They will divorce me. I’ll lose my job. They will lock me up in a mental hospital.” This sounds alarmist, but until you’ve actually experienced supernatural things, and tried to talk about them with those that haven’t, you don’t really understand the depth of this fear. It’s very real and quite paralyzing. It is not yet socially acceptable to talk about mystical experiences without being considered crazy. And that label, to most people, still carries tremendous stigma.
Yes. They will think you are crazy (until these experiences become more normalized). But so what?
What’s really being revealed deep inside the fear is something different. It sounds like this: “I’m afraid that if I tell them the truth I won’t be loved or accepted. I’m afraid that being crazy makes me unacceptable.” The root fear is rejection and abandonment. The root fear is “the people in my life only love me conditionally. They will only stick around if I fit their definition of what’s normal and acceptable. They will judge me, shame me, and leave me if I’m not normal; if I don’t fit the image of what they want me to be. I have to be what they all expect me to be, otherwise I’ll end up alone.”
This belief, this fear (which may bear out in reality; the people in your life may, in fact, only love you conditionally) forces genuine spiritual experiences underground. It forces people who have them to live a lie. To create a socially acceptable false mask, pretending to be “normal.” And to keep their experiences buried in secrecy.
With all the stuff available online, all the television shows. and all the mainstream spirituality, still, in their private lives, in their interpersonal relationships, these people are terrified. I know I was as well. It took me a long time to work through all of my fears, and to begin talking about what’s happening to me.
When I tell others that they have to be more honest, more forthright about what’s happening to them, they panic. They tell me that they aren’t strong enough. They don’t want to upset the apple cart. They don’t want to disturb the (illusion of) peace in their lives. “He’ll never accept this” or “she’ll never believe me.” Instead of taking a risk with the truth, they hide the truth. They don’t take ownership of what’s happening to them. They relegate it to some weird shameful thing that no one really needs to know about. They are embarrassed by it. They are afraid of being found out and labeled.
In my view, this runs counter to all spiritual mandates. Spirit doesn’t support hiding your truth. You came into this life to be exactly what you are (with all your weirdness). Pretending to be something else, to be normal, to be acceptable isn’t in alignment. You can’t claim to be evolved or spiritual when you are afraid to live your truth; when you don’t act in your integrity. When you are afraid that the truth will hurt others. Or that you won’t be accepted for it. You can’t be in service if you are living a lie. You can’t be the full expression of your beautiful talents and gifts, if fear and self-judgment keep you from being authentic.
I advise people that they ought to try telling the truth, and let the chips fall where they may. (This doesn’t mean you need to come out guns blazing; you can find a careful gentle way to deliver the truth). But relationships built on conditional love have to be challenged with the truth. That’s the point. The truth comes to burn things away; to reveal that which is not sustainable or in the highest alignment. By keeping the truth a secret, you interfere with the spiritual lessons you are being asked to learn. Safety, security, and peace cannot exist when there is deep seated fear.
Take a risk, tell the truth, and then see what stays and what goes.
I spoke to a woman not too long ago who has been experiencing various kundalini symptoms for over a year.* Her awakening so far has been relatively mild, and not specifically destructive to her way of life. She is able to continue working and socializing without much interruption.
She told me about her boyfriend, whom she’s been seeing for several years. They were thinking about moving in together, and she wasn’t sure if she should tell him about what’s been happening to her, or her growing spiritual life. When I asked her why she hadn’t told him right away, she said that he is an atheist, deeply skeptical and very committed to his beliefs. He’d never accept what was happening to her. She was afraid to lose him, by telling him the truth. “We’re so great together. We’re such good friends, and our relationship is so full of love. I don’t want to lose that.”
Then she mentioned that she tried once to bring it up, to tell him what’s happening to her, but “we were having such a lovely relaxing time together, I didn’t want to ruin it.”
But the appearance of a relaxing time, in reality, was not relaxing at all. She wasn’t relaxed. She was internally in discomfort – going back and forth in her mind over all the various scary consequences. Thinking about what would happen to their relationship in the future when she wouldn’t be able to hide her symptoms anymore. It only appears to be relaxing on the surface, but when your mind is not at rest you can’t feel relaxed.
What I’m going to say next may sound callous, but it’s the essential truth.
If someone doesn’t know the real you; they can’t possibly love you. If they don’t know the truth, then what they love is the person you are pretending to be. If the truth of what’s going on in your life is kept a secret, then the person you’re with never has a chance to love you. They don’t know you. And you aren’t giving them an opportunity to decide whether they really accept you or not. If you tell them the truth and they don’t accept it, then they don’t love you. Without acceptance there is no love, there are only attachments and transactions. In a relationship without acceptance there is only conflict and warfare, anxieties and power-plays for control.
In reality, if the people in your life don’t support you, don’t believe in you, don’t accept you as you really are, then do they deserve to be in your life at all?
You have to ask yourself “what am I really holding on to here?”
Do you have to pretend to be someone you’re not, in order to continue receiving love and approval? Or are you free to be your full and complete self, with all the weird stuff, knowing that the people in your life adore you just as you are? Wouldn’t you rather live your life around people that respect and admire the very things that you fear might be weird and shameful?
It begins with you. If you don’t take a risk to accept yourself fully and live your own truth, you’ll never know. Find the courage to let what is built on ego and conditions fall away. And let those that love and accept you unconditionally demonstrate that to you.
Keeping secrets create disconnection and separation from those you love. Allow the truth to bring you closer together. It may be scary in the moment, but there is so much love available on the other side. Allow those that really love you to be there for you. If you neutralize your own fears (by working thru them), it will not be such a terrifying situation. Then you can talk to the people in your life in a peaceful and confident way.
It is ignorance that creates fear, so use this opportunity to educate the people in your life. Show them that there is nothing crazy about spiritual experiences. Part of the reason that it’s viewed as crazy is that the people that came before were also too afraid to talk about it. They kept their experiences a secret. They stayed in the shadows because they too were afraid.
If you really want to be of service to humanity, start within your own life. Find the courage to live your own truths. Life has a way of surprising you. And when you approach something with the right energy within, people you thought would never accept it, somehow manage to surprise you as well. It won’t be as bad as you think.
I leave you with this quote from John Irving “If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”
A couple of months ago a new energetic force arrived in my life.
On top of all the different energies surrounding my strange existence, this was something different. Uninvited and unannounced, it came into my life and took me on an extremely difficult and painful journey into the depths of darkness. It is both a sacred journey, and one I wouldn’t wish upon another living being. Ever.
You can call it an “ego trip,” but not in the usual sense. Slowly and methodically, following some invisible plan, this energy of darkness took me on a regressive ride back to childhood. Part healing, part training, it felt like my consciousness was aggressively yanked backwards, against my will, to revisit the entire formation of my ego.
A little bit of background first: There are a lot of misconceptions about what the “ego” is. In spiritual circles, it’s something bad that needs to be avoided, rejected, killed or transcended (depending on which tradition you follow). Lots of people mistakenly conflate the ego, with the entire personality or self, which creates a lot of confusion. And the entheogenic folks use the term “ego death” as a threshold marker for the mystical realms; also somewhat inaccurate.
In my view, it’s relatively straightforward.
The ego is the false self. It is a solidified network of beliefs in the subconscious mind, which generates thoughts, feelings, reactions, and patterns of behavior into the conscious mind and personality. It’s not bad, per se. But left unattended it leads to a lot of suffering in life. In essence, it is a program (like in a computer) of coping mechanisms that we develop, for living in a world where being yourself is not acceptable. Ego is the mask we learn to wear, because we’re too afraid to be real and vulnerable. Ego is the person you believe you should be (or must be in order to be loved and accepted), rather than the person you actually are.
Ego takes shape in response to experiences during the formative childhood years, and hardens and reinforces itself over time. The more rejection you encounter, the more fear, judgement, criticism, shame, and trauma that is inflicted upon you, the bigger or stronger the ego becomes. Like an armor or a shield, it is meant to protect you against an emotionally dangerous world. It is made up of lots of defense mechanisms.
The real self, the personality you were born with, gets buried deeper and deeper until it’s completely repressed. Without awareness, most people have no inkling of their real self. They identify with the program running in their subconscious mind, believing that that’s just who they are. They wear a kind of false mask to face the world, and live out the dictates of this subconscious program. Most people live without conscious awareness of this program their entire lives.
(There is some philosophical debate about whether there is even a real authentic self at the core or not. The argument is that even the very process of birth effects the personality and conditions it in some way, so there is no absolute personality at all. My view of this is that there is very much a real self (small s); but it’s not consistent or definable. It’s a mutable feeling sense. It’s not something that can be conceptualized or described. It’s something you feel, not exactly something the mind understands. There is an authentic self, but there is no self concept attached to it. You can’t reduce the truth of the authentic self into words, because it’s too fluid in its expression. It doesn’t conform to anything consistent. The fact that it’s amorphous doesn’t make it non-existent, it only makes it indescribable.)
[There is a deeper aspect of ego, a set of drives, that aren’t inherently part of the false self. It has to do with how love is sourced – internally vs externally. That’s the top-level organizing logic of all the various inclinations. But that is a much more complicated area, and one I will write about at some point later because I haven’t thought it through well enough to articulate].
Anyway, for most people, all the real spiritual work is an undoing of this false ego self. Not because it’s bad, but because it stands in the way of authentic expression, joy, happiness, and satisfaction in life. Ego causes lots and lots of emotional suffering. With love and awareness (and the proper tools) the initial dismantling of the false self is not that difficult. Different spiritual traditions approach the dismantling differently, but at the core that’s what spirituality is really about – the shedding of the false self, so that the real self can be fully expressed and liberated. The entire methodology of the chakra energy system is built around this goal – getting a person into authentic alignment and expression. When he is in alignment with his real self, all the chakras are in proper balance. (It’s also the central goal of the kundalini process – shedding the false self so the authentic self can emerge and live freely. This is what true liberation is all about).
As I see it, if a person isn’t doing the inner discovery work to shed this false mask (by healing the wounds that created it), if he isn’t striving to live more authentically every day, with more self-love and acceptance, more in alignment with his true nature, then he isn’t spiritual at all. He doesn’t actually understand what spirituality is all about.
Despite what passes for spirituality in the mainstream these days, in my opinion, there are few people who understand this fully. Meditation is not enough. Mindfulness is not enough. Yoga is not enough. Talking about esoteric mysteries, and love and light are not enough. Ayahuasca ceremonies are not enough. And even having a fully active kundalini is not enough. It takes conscious effort and disciplined awareness practice (deep deep self discovery work) to really make a difference with actual results; actual transformations in consciousness that work from the inside out. Everything else, to me, is just pomp and circumstance. Pretty forms without any substance.
I’ve gone off on a tangent again. Sorry. I’ll save the preaching for another post. Let me get back to my story…
So I’ve been practicing this form of contemplative inquiry for several years, which aims at discovery and shedding the false self, while building courage to express the authentic self properly. I’ve done a lot of discovery work, a lot of childhood stuff, and tons of healing over the last few years. And having reached particular milestones, (ego death, higher self, etc.) I felt confident in my own process, in my own healing work, and in my work with others.
And then in November, without much warning, amidst a bunch of other strange experiences, this really dark energy took me over. It literally felt like darkness descended upon me. I couldn’t shake it. It was heavy and thick, and debilitating. It plunged me down into a special sort of hell; simultaneously torturous and sacred. I’ve dealt with tremendous pain before, but this… this was totally different.
This energy asked me to apply all of the tools, discipline, and strength I had, until there was nothing left. Day after day, in indescribable psychic pain, I was shown how my ego, my false self, was formed. I got to visit every single one of the places I was hurt, shamed, criticized, rejected, abandoned and unloved. All of the relevant crucial moments where my childhood self internalized the words and actions of others, believing herself to be deeply unacceptable as she was, and forming a more acceptable version of herself (my false self), in order to be loved, accepted, and safe; all of it came alive again before my eyes.
Most people, everyone who has even a modicum of self-awareness, will tell you that their childhood was painful and difficult. Subjectively, mine was as well. It’s a socially conditioned illusion that childhood is some idyllic wonderful carefree time. It’s not; not for anyone, regardless of circumstance. Even the children of the most loving and evolved parents will collect wounding, ego conditioning, and (subjectively) traumatic experiences of rejection. It’s unavoidable. It’s the very purpose of incarnating into human form – to accumulate pain, and then learn from that pain.
And so for the last two months, I have had a front row seat in my own life review. Every day, multiple times a day, I would receive the internal energetic signal that there was work to do. I’d sit down to investigate the arising thoughts and emotions (intense feelings of shame, fear, guilt, anger, despair, anxiety, depression), and each time I’d trace them all the way back to the moment of their creation. I would then fully re-live and emotionally re-feel the ancient experience, in its entirety. It felt as if I was holding my inner child in my arms, as she took me through everything she’d ever felt; every place that she learned she was unacceptable. There are no words to describe the pain of this. There are just no words…
Sometimes I’d have to revisit the same memories multiple times, each time with a slightly different vantage point and perspective. This is what’s known as the spiral effect in healing. You go over the same thing again and again, each time at a deeper level of awareness and understanding. Kind of like a downward spiral. This was all happening to me; as if according to some divine schedule. It wasn’t something I was orchestrating or directing. Even after all of the magical things I’ve experienced so far, most days I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.
And as I’ve been shown over the last few years, resisting this work and these lessons only causes more pain. If ignored or resisted, Kundalini will ratchet up the pain with all kinds of physical symptoms until one comes into compliance. There is no way out of the pain, but through it. In this arena, the concept free will becomes something of a joke. Seeing all of this, and feeling all of it, you come to understand that you were never in control to begin with…
During these months, it became physically painful to talk to other people (not that there are many people who could understand and accept what was happening to me). I became energetically sensitive in a devastating new way. I felt completely raw and exposed, like all my insides were now on the outside. I’ve had phases of this experience before, (being turned inside out) but never quite like this. If I wasn’t actively crying, then I was on the brink of tears all the time. In that kind of extreme vulnerability (with all the spiritual components) there is almost no one who has the capacity to offer the right kind of presence, compassion, or support. Other people’s well-meaning attempts to cheer me up, or offer me advice or opinions, felt like nails on a chalkboard; only making me withdraw further inward. And so I spent these months in almost complete isolation and seclusion. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t interact with anyone. I could barely make it off the couch to walk the dog.
Led by nothing but intuitive guidance and synchronistic signs, there were moments when I really didn’t know if I’d make it through this alive. My faith was severely tested. My sanity barely hanging by a thread. The psychological crisis points were so acute that words don’t convey the magnitude of it. It is an other-worldly sort of pain that I can’t explain. The only real solace was an inner knowing that this is okay and necessary. It’s part of the healing process. It was as if living through it, I was also observing it happen. There was an internal separation between the one experiencing this, and another awareness watching and learning.
Through this process I was offered a map of the darkness; like a guidebook (built on the foundation of all the prior spiritual processes I’ve developed). I was shown how absolutely every single thing we think and feel is childhood itself; being reflected for us like a mirror image, for our spiritual growth. It’s so divinely intelligent and intricately beautiful in its design, that it would leave you awed and speechless if you could see it in all its glory (without the pain, of course).
The healing protocol works like this: If you can stay with the emotional reaction long enough, investigate it fully with spiritual awareness, find the roots of what’s being reflected, apply love, compassion, and wisdom to that pain, and allow those old emotions to move through you – the wound heals itself. That’s it. It’s really rather simple. It’s also really really unpleasant. But there is a magical component to the healing that makes it all worth it. (Not that I have much of a say in the matter).
If this is done correctly, when you think back to that memory again there should be no emotional charge. You see the scars, but there is no internal movement in the emotional body. Sure enough, at some later point something in the external reality will come along to retrigger that wound (something that would have sent you into a strong reaction before), and internally nothing happens. That’s how you know the wound is healed.
Over time, with practice, you can heal all of the wounding in this way.
Over the last few days, it appears that my journey of this darkness is finally coming to an end. There have been significant shifts in consciousness that feel “back to normal.” (I use the word “normal” very loosely…). I’m not sure that I’m totally out of the dark just yet, but this phase appears to be coming to an end. The blissful mystical and transcendent experiences have returned. It feels very much like this darkness has been lifting, and I feel more and more stable and grounded again. Yesterday I could envision talking to other humans without a feeling of aversion. A good sign, I dare say.
Despite the pain, there is an incredible sense of reverence and gratitude for the experience. And there is a new really profound level of peace accompanying this re-emergence. The deeply buried fears and anxieties that I carried my entire life are gone. All the future planning, worrying, needing-to-know-and-control-things thoughts are gone. There are virtually no attachments to anything, even less than there were before. There are still some remnants of old stuff arising, but nowhere near the intensity of the last few months.
Mostly there is now a kind of surrendered repose in the present moment, and finally (finally!) a growing sense of excitement about what’s ahead. I am cautiously glad to be coming back to normal.
I wish I had some kind of graceful way to end this post, but I don’t. So be it.
The primitive magician, the medicine man or shaman is not only a sick man, he is above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself.
One of the more advanced teachings on the road to becoming a shamanic healer is that you don’t begin working with people until you’ve attained a specific level of spiritual development or mastery. This is marked by a kind of emotional neutrality – you are emotionally unaffected by whatever situation your client/patient might bring you. This is not a cold callous detachment, but rather an emotional neutrality with total compassion.
This can’t be done by sheer force of will. It takes significant personal inner work and training on the part of the shaman to get to this place. If he gets tripped up and has emotional reactions to his clients’ circumstances, he is to go inward and continue doing your own healing work until that doesn’t happen anymore. The shaman-in-training is required to have healed all of his own wounding, so that he does not project any of his own psychological material onto his client/patient.
The process involves a rooting out of all of his own pain, judgment, shame, wounding, and fear, piece by piece, through lots and lots of awareness work. He takes himself apart, down to his core essential truths, through every avenue of his childhood wounding, into all the conditioning, belief systems, and through all of the subconscious karmic material. He then goes through an ego death and spiritual rebirth into authentic being. Only then is he ready to begin helping others and serving his community.
The emotional neutrality he attains is not uncaring or unfeeling, quite the opposite, it is full of love and compassion. It’s not cold or distant, but rather totally warm and allowing. The healing practitioner is not entangled emotionally with the client, he is not attached in any sense to the client or the outcome of the work, and doesn’t overlay his own story or pain onto the client. He can then offer real presence and space for healing and for Spirit.
Many people confuse emotional neutrality with a denying or repressing of emotions. This is a mistake. It’s not a mental state that pushes anything way or stays distant from it. It is a fully embodied compassionate presence, but there is no emotional reactivity within the healer. He is not crying with his client, he is not distant from the client, and he is not rushing to fix the client either. He is able to offer whatever is needed, in the moment, without being taken over by his own emotional reactions (or unconscious egoic drivers).
He is in tune with what Spirit offers him in the moment (for the client), by being extremely sensitive to his own sensations and feelings. It can be said that the healer moves as an instrument of Spirit, because his own personal will (along with the emotional body) is quiet, peaceful, and surrendered to the divine will.
This is the only way spiritual work can be properly done. If the healer is empathic, and takes on the emotions and negative energies of the client, the healer himself will become quickly depleted and may fall ill. This can be very dangerous, energetically, both to the healer and to the client. That’s why traditionally there is so much training, care, and protections in place. They are meant to keep the healer, and the community at large, spiritually and energetically safe.
And so part of the training for becoming a shamanic healer is the attainment of emotional equanimity or neutrality. Having been with all of his own pain, he knows (from experience not projection) what the client feels, and he is able to honor those feelings in order to help her move through them; all the while not becoming fatigued or depleted. That’s the mark of a true healer. His work energizes him, not the reverse.
It appears that we are now learning these very same lessons the hard way in our corner of the secular modern world. Lots of people, especially in the spiritual communities, rush to become healers, or therapists, or coaches, without having done their own inner work. If you work in the caring, healing, or support areas, (spiritual or secular) this is of paramount importance.
This is a quote from Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project:
Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of chronic stress resulting from the care giving work we choose to do. Leading traumatologist Eric Gentry suggests that people who are attracted to care giving often enter the field already compassion fatigued. A strong identification with helpless, suffering, or traumatized people or animals is possibly the motive. It is common for such people to hail from a tradition of what Gentry labels: other-directed care giving. Simply put, these are people who were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. Authentic, ongoing self-care practices are absent from their lives.
Not surprisingly, the solution for compassion fatigue is awareness and healing for the care-giver.
Your path to wellness begins with one small step: awareness. A heightened awareness can lead to insights regarding past traumas and painful situations that are being relived over and over within the confines of your symptoms and behaviors. With the appropriate information and support, you can embark on a journey of discovery, healing past traumas and pain that currently serve as obstacles to a healthy, happier lifestyle.
Even less surprising of course is that indigenous cultures with shamanic healers have know this for centuries. You cannot give that which you don’t have. If you don’t have self-love, self-care, and self-compassion (all of which grows within over time), you don’t have it to give to another. You deplete yourself, and you’re not really offering much good to the people you serve.
I want to make one final note here; this is just a word of caution:
If you are in the market for spiritual healing services, I implore you to be very cautious in selecting your coach/teacher/shaman/reiki-master etc. Ask lots of questions about the healer’s own healing work and training – he should be more than happy to tell you about it. Interview the person before beginning any healing treatments. There aren’t any external regulations in place yet in the spiritual healing industry, so go with your gut feelings. And if something feels off to you, trust that feeling; it’s probably right.
I shared this video a while ago on Facebook. It’s a talk given by Caroline Myss some years ago called “Why People Don’t Heal.” In case you didn’t get a chance to watch it then, or aren’t into watching it now, here it is in print format.
I think it takes a lot of courage on Caroline’s part, to talk so directly about this somewhat sensitive issue. I wanted to bring some more attention to this, as I’ve seen this dynamic in my work as well.
Simply put, one important reason that some people don’t heal from trauma, illness, or emotional suffering, is because they get stuck in their own victim-hood; their story of pain becomes deeply enmeshed with their sense of identity, and they cannot let go of their stories or move through to healing. Often this is accompanied by lots of self-pity, and martyrdom patterns. To them, letting go of their victim story feels like annihilation, that’s how serious this issue is.
We all know that avoiding dealing with your pain can cause more pain. This is the other side of the spectrum; these are the professional victims. (There is a pejorative quality to that term, intentionally.). The people who are prone to doing this learn how to hold on tightly to their wounds and use them, in a rather manipulative way, even if they don’t consciously intend to do so. This has the effect of draining vital spiritual and emotional energy from themselves, and from those around them.
Any attempt to move people like this out of their pain and victim stories is received as callous and lacking in compassion. You can offer lots of alternatives, and compassionate patient loving kind help, but they will find ways to sabotage that help and then blame you for being insensitive. It can be very frustrating and painful to watch someone you care about become entrenched in their own misery.
This is a telling, somewhat extreme, example from the article:
I met one woman, for instance, who stated upon our introduction that the “rules” of being a friend to her began with agreeing to “honor her wounds.” When I asked her to tell me what that meant in practical terms, she said that she was only now beginning to process all of the violations that had happened to her as a child and that in the course of healing these wounds, she would frequently have mood swings and bouts of depression. “Honoring her wounds” meant respecting these moods, not challenging them. She claimed the right to set the tone of any social event of which she was a part. If she was in a “low space,” she expected her support system not to introduce humor into the atmosphere but to adjust their mood and conversation to hers. I asked her how long she anticipated needing this intense level of support. “It may take years,” she replied, “and if it does, I expect my support system to give me that amount of time.“
The reality is that wounds need to be attended to. The victim stories need to be honored; consciously, subconsciously, and all the way down to their source in childhood. But then those wounds need to be processed and healed. Forgiveness needs to be found. And the person has to let go of the victim story. Otherwise, he becomes something of an energetic vampire, constantly (even if unintentionally) pulling on the sympathy, pity, and attention from others.
Spirit does not support this kind of victim mentality, that’s why healing can’t happen for a person in this state of mind.
People don’t heal, because subconsciously they don’t intend to heal. They are often unaware of their own attachment to suffering, and the psychological payoff that suffering brings them. (It’s a way they get love, a way they feel safe, a way they dominate interactions and generate a sense of importance. It’s all designed to feed the ego.)
And when you point it out to them, as Caroline describes in the article, they become extremely defensive. I’ve encountered lots and lots of people in the last few years who love their suffering. They glorify it endlessly and with great fanfare, and they glorify the suffering of others as well. Any attempt to reduce suffering or offer alternatives in a compassionate (but direct) way is met with hostility. Not just from the sufferer, but from the enablers as well.
I was in an online support group a few months ago, having a conversation about healing trauma. We were talking about the merits of different therapeutic approaches, and whether a person could administer the therapy himself, or whether he would need a facilitator. Out of nowhere, a woman interjected aggressively, saying that she knows trauma better than anyone, and no one can begin to know trauma like hers. (They always seem to have this kind of monopoly on suffering). And since her trauma makes her the ultimate expert and authority on this topic, she let us all know that we were wrong, and that none of what we were talking about could ever work. (It does work, and has worked for lots of people.) But the aggressive nature of her interjection quickly shut down the entire conversation. And yet, unsurprisingly, the very next day, this same woman, shared in the group that she’s experiencing suicidal depression, and she’s been in tremendous suffering for 20+ years, and no one can ever seem to help her out of her pain…
I want to say here that I’m not indifferent to suffering; as I’ve written about lots and lots of it here. Without recounting a litany of stories that will solidify my status as someone who knows about trauma, I’ll just say that I have had my fair share of pain. Catastrophic levels of pain which, thanks to my spiritual work, I’ve been acutely re-living and re-feeling and healing, step by step, for the last few years. Pain and trauma happen to be subjective – what was painful and traumatic for one person, is not necessarily so for another. That’s why comparisons of “who had it worse” are rather silly.
But the one thing I’m shown over and over again is that you have to want to heal, and take complete responsibility for that healing, and you have to be your own advocate in that healing. You have to make every possible self-reliant effort to heal.
Healing isn’t something we actually have control over the way we assume. Healing comes from Grace. Healing is a gift given to us by Spirit. There is a sacred element to how it happens and when. It works in cooperation with the person – we do our part, and Spirit does its part. But within the sphere of what we can control, we have to do everything we can and focus our intentions as directly as possible towards that end. Emotional wounds don’t heal on their own. It takes time and effort to move towards healing.
The people described in Caroline’s article, and those I’ve met along my path, don’t have the determination or commitment to marshal their inner resources, and to pull themselves up and out of their pain. They are deeply deeply attached to their victim stories. Sometimes you can hear a sort of helplessness that accompanies their mental state “I can’t do it on my own. I want someone to do it for me.” They sit around and wait for someone else to initiate the process, while they take the time to wallow in misery. (But then when someone does come along and says “come on, I’ll walk with you through this. I know the way,” that too is rejected.)
The truth is: if you don’t do it for yourself, no one can ever do it for you. No doctor, no pill, no famous shaman, no magic spell.
This is, of course, not to say that you shouldn’t seek help and support when you need it. You should. Traditional therapies or spiritual or holistic approaches, it doesn’t matter. There are lots of resources (free resources) available for healing these days. But you have to really really want to heal, and to let go of all the egoic benefits that are attached to victimhood. The process isn’t easy. You have to be willing to confront the pain and the darkness, and take responsibility for a lot of unpleasant stuff. It requires that you be the one who is most committed to your own freedom from suffering. You have to want it for yourself, and you have to want it more than wanting someone else to come and rescue you out of your pain.
Acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, a subtle energy vibration, is consciousness.
I introduced the basic approach to acceptance (and a short example of how to do it) in my previous post. I want to stress here that this practice isn’t easy. You’re attempting to retrain your mind out of default patterns of thinking, which it’s been carrying out automatically for years. Think of it as well-trodden roads or pathways in the mind. Acceptance practice is actually creating new roads, new mental pathways, and it takes a little time to adjust.
This practice can be applied in every day modern life to enhance peacefulness and calm, and cultivate emotional intelligence and maturity. And it’s also part of a rigorous spiritual discipline designed to bring your entire ego into conscious awareness. (In the latter case, it’s seen more as a temporary tool that gets you to a particular level of spiritual development rather than as a permanent mode of being.). It’s only a question of how far you take it.
And so one of the major critiques of acceptance (as it’s come into the West via the mindfulness movement) is that it will turn all of us into sheep. I heard this critique a lot in the corporate arena when mindfulness programs were suggested as part of employee enrichment. The crux of the argument is that if you teach people about acceptance, you are encouraging passivity and conformity, thereby potentially condoning and perpetuating abusive dynamics.
We are a culture of doers, fighters, changers, and carried out to its logical end, this practice would mean that you just accept everything, allow everything, never complain, never set limits, never hold people accountable, and never take any corrective action. If you just accept everything, you would basically become totally apathetic to the world around you. You would allow all kinds of bad things to happen, and you wouldn’t do anything about them. Something that doesn’t really jive with our “I’m gonna change the world. I’m gonna make a difference” mentality.
This is a valid concern. I worried about this too in the beginning.
It would seem this way – if you just allow everything, then you’d never do anything about anything. You’d lose all motivation to change anything or work towards anything. If you just allowed everything to be what it is, worked internally to come to peace and contentment, then nothing would ever get done. You would be complacent and unmoved. You would allow evil and injustice to reign. You would end up homeless, penniless, on the street with a shopping cart. Your life, and the world at large, would go quickly down the drain…
But, in practice, the result is actually quite shockingly different. (The critique comes from the outside, from people who aren’t regular practitioners, and so they don’t understand the nuance of what actually happens internally over time.)
I’ve taken this practice to the extreme over the last few years as part of my spiritual discipline. And what happens over time is that you come to a place of emotional equanimity about everything. You don’t have many emotional responses to things the way you did before. You are, in essence, undoing the source of your emotional triggers. And what you reach is a sort of peaceful, consistent state of contentment, without needing to apply any further effort. (You’re not repressing or denying any emotional responses – you actually cease having them.). What grows within you at the same time though is courage, emotional fortitude, and a sense of your own integrity and self-respect. The practice challenges and dissolves the egoic overlays, while strengthening the authentic self within. What results is a calmer emotional body, resting on strength of character.
Emotional reactivity, whether it’s expressed or suppressed, wastes both physical and spiritual energy. It’s the reason that all spiritual traditions ask you to work on maintaining emotional equilibrium and stability.
While different traditions go about this in different ways, in my view, you can’t maintain emotional stability by force or control. You can’t dominate yourself into calm. You have to go to the roots of where the reaction comes from – the subconscious belief system – and do the work there. In effect, undoing the source of the trigger, addressing/healing that particular piece of your psyche, means that the next time you are confronted with that particular stimulus, you won’t have a reaction. (Or if it’s a large wound, then the reactions will lessen and lessen over time as you continue doing the healing work.).
You’ll observe what’s happening, but you won’t feel an emotional response in the body. (This is huge when it first happens for people – they can’t believe the difference!). And as you have less and less reactions, you are actually conserving physical and spiritual energy. You are becoming stronger and more fortified.
Someone might say something disrespectful, and you may not like it or appreciate being spoken to that way, but your emotional body doesn’t respond. There is no racing heart, no fight or flight, no boiling blood, just a calm clarity that allows you to say “hey, I don’t like being spoken to that way, please stop it.” Which is an interpersonal skill most people are too uncomfortable to cultivate these days.
Acceptance doesn’t turn you into a sheep; quite the opposite. It actually helps strengthen you sense of self, while your emotional body remains at rest most of the time. You will still like and dislike things. You will set boundaries with people (lots of them, more so than ever perhaps). You will still go to work, and pay your bills, and shop for groceries, you’ll just do all of it calmly and peacefully, without the emotional roller-coasters all the time.
The difference here is that when you do set limits or hold people accountable for stuff, you don’t do it in a frenzy of emotional reactivity. As Rudolf Steiner explains you do it with the same emotional tone as if you were advocating for someone else who has been hurt or offended, rationally and dispassionately.
You discuss your feelings with complete calm and clarity. It’s not a passionate dramatic fight, where you say all kinds of things that you later regret. You aren’t abusive or hurtful to the other person. You don’t escalate the conflict. You don’t lash out. There is no angry retort or sense of vengeance – you don’t want to “get him back” for what he said. Because you aren’t really affected by what this person has said.
You know that whatever they’re doing is their own stuff. You don’t take it personally – meaning you don’t interpret the words or actions of others as a reflection of your self-worth. You accept that this is what is being said to you in this moment, over which you have no control (try as you might, you really can’t control other people), and you have a peaceful, firm, yet compassionate response to the offending person. You can choose to respond, how to respond, or not to respond at all. This is emotional intelligence at work, in practice.
With emotional equanimity comes actual freedom of choice, and self-control.
But what about the passionate action for change? What about making the world a better place? What about standing up to injustice?
Well, what I’ve been shown over the last few months is that those things don’t go away. You don’t become apathetic to the world. This kind of emotional equanimity allows you to move through life, and do lots and lots of things, without being depleted by the toxic nature of other people or the situations around you. It allows you to retain an internal stillness, that keeps you from wasting physical and spiritual energy in emotional reactivity. It allows you to take lots and lots of inspired action (for good), time and time again, without fear of risk or failure. It allows you to make peace, the right way. And it allows you to stand up to people (who are behaving badly) without fear. It gives you to courage to do whatever is in your integrity to do.
(Another important inquiry to do first though, is to look at what within you is motivating you to change the world. An honest look inward will surprise you. You will find that a lot of that is your own unhealed material projected outward. My facebook friend Lila Haris explains this beautifully here).
This doesn’t mean you never get angry or upset. There are certainly situations where you have an appropriate response, but it’s a lot less often, a lot less dramatic, and it lasts for a much shorter time. You may feel sad, or hurt, or upset if a situation calls for it, but with acceptance you’ve cut short a lot of the unnecessary suffering. And you’re one step closer to forgiveness. If you choose to use anger – it isn’t abusive. It’s not meant to hurt the other person. And you are not swept up in the emotions; you use it carefully, with control, like you would a fine instrument. The anger doesn’t control you, you control it.
It is true that anger and passion have fueled lots of beneficial social movements. It is undeniable that lots of rights and liberties have been fought for, and secured, through the emotional force of people who have been wronged. And their anger, and pain, and rage is then catalyzed into social action. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need all of that unruly passion to make a difference. (I would argue that that’s a dangerous way to go about seeking social justice – in actually, it means keeping people in anger, fear, and rage, in order to accomplish the goal, which feels very manipulative in my heart.).
Emotional energy that is rooted in ego – the one that burns hot and seeks vengeance, or seeks to stop injustice immediately and at all costs, isn’t just irrational; it’s also unjust, imprudent, and untrustworthy. It can lose control quickly, and cause even greater harm and injustice in its response. It is hypocritically, the very same evil it purports to combat. Once it’s triggered, it is impossible to satisfy that drive, and it leads to extremely unjust results. (This is why angry violent mobs are dangerous and scary – their egoic emotions are riled up and there is no satisfaction or de-escalation possible).
And as any activist knows, justice and sustainable change both take a lot of time and come slowly. They require calm, deliberate, patient and steadfast effort over time. Emotional energy is the wrong fuel to use for that effort. It burns out quickly, and when the results aren’t immediately forthcoming, despair sets in and demotivates the entire operation. Instead, using the practice of acceptance, coming to terms emotionally with what is, coming to peace in the emotional body, and then working long-term towards the goals is the much saner, healthier, and more effective approach.
All of our greatest leaders taught us that, and you can see it now, in action, with the wise leadership at Standing Rock. To sustain the fight against injustice you need emotional resilience. You need calm cool resolve that doesn’t deplete you, physically or spiritually. Far from turning you into a sheep or a doormat, acceptance gives you the emotional resilience of a marathoner, rather than a sprinter, to fight the good fight (whatever that means for you).
Acceptance doesn’t lead to apathy, as the criticism suggests. You are still motivated to do things (often very motivated), but you do them with a different kind of energy – an energy that doesn’t burn out, and doesn’t burn you out. You stand up for what’s right, and you take action against injustice, but you do it with internal peace. A peace that doesn’t deplete you, so you have more energy to continue standing up and to continue taking action.
One of the basic universal teachings in almost all spiritual and esoteric traditions is learning the practice of acceptance. Acceptance is the allowing (and even celebrating) a person or situation precisely as it is, without trying to change them/it in any way. It’s quite a challenging practice when you actually begin applying it to people and situations that you find unacceptable.
But that’s precisely the point. It’s easy to accept good things. It’s not so easy to accept the stuff we don’t like.
Through the practice of acceptance, you are able to see all the places that you are not in acceptance. You try to be in acceptance, and you begin to notice that in lots and lots of situations, you’re not. You just can’t. (This is where the gold is!) In the contrast, in those places you cannot accept, you are able to see just how much you try to control or affect your surroundings and why. (Hint: it’s always fear).
It goes something like this. Imagine that you’ve run into someone you know, and don’t like. You notice yourself tense up within. You notice how you’re anticipating something unpleasant and bracing yourself for what’s about to happen. There’s dislike, but underneath the dislike is a vague sort of anxiety. And so this is the perfect opportunity to engage this practice. You acknowledge your feelings and then you go inward:
I don’t like this xyz quality about this person. (Do one quality at a time).
Why does it bother me so much?
Is this a quality that I have?
Can I think of at least one scenario where I’ve displayed this quality? At least once? (I promise you, it’s in there. If you’re honest, you’ll find it.)
Is this a quality that I’d never allow myself to have? Why not?
What is my relationship to this quality? Why?
Where did I develop this relationship to this quality?
Who else do I know that has this quality?
And you can go further and further inward with this line of inquiry… If you stay with this long enough, and are both curious enough and honest enough, you will unearth some really interesting things. What you find will lead to many many ah-ha moments.
The internal intention is to allow your existing beliefs and feelings space to grow and change in the discovery process. If we stubbornly stick to our existing beliefs, and make arguments that support our position in response to these questions, nothing will happen. We have to actually soften up a little bit and allow this discovery to show of different kinds of truths, different perspectives, and different parts of ourselves which we may not previously have seen.
So in general, when you find yourself not in acceptance, you ask:
What is it, in this person, in this situation, in this moment that isn’t acceptable and why. And you go as far inward as you wish.
And then, after you’ve had about ten ah-ha moments with this, the next steps are learning how to allow the person, the situation, the moment to be exactly what it is, and to find why it’s good that it is so.
Why is this objectively bad thing, actually a good thing? Don’t silver line it, it’s not about finding a speck of good in something bad. It’s actually turning the whole thing into a good.
The mind really really hates this part of the practice. Every time I ask people to do this second part they tell me immediately that there is absolutely positively nothing good about this person/situation/moment.
I hear you (all of you!) but that’s the point.
This practice of acceptance is one of the tools of self-discovery and transformation of consciousness. Using this practice you come to find all the hidden judgments and beliefs that you’re carrying around in your subconscious. You can find a bunch of ego structures and a bunch of shadow elements. It’s really a very powerful tool. But you have to be willing to soften your position, and allow this process, in order to find those hidden things and to create more space within you.
And as you bring those things up to awareness, you have the power to change how you feel about them, if you wish. If you choose to change and let them go, you become more and more loving and accepting in a way that you never imagined. By accepting things you thought were unacceptable, you become happier, more loving, more kind, and then more able to go about doing whatever needs to be done. (Note – acceptance does not mean passivity, but more on that later).
The practice of acceptance is also a great tool for retraining the mind to a more allowing and less controlling pattern of thinking.
There is actually very little that is within our functional control in life. Wanting to control everything comes from fear – it’s a lack of trust and faith in the universe, rooted in trauma. It’s often a lot of bad experiences which form a mistrust of life. Then we begin clinging and controlling, trying to manage the unmanageable.
It is also a misunderstanding of cosmic paradigms to believe that only good things should happen. If you believe this, then you put all your effort and energy into trying to control outcomes, and keeping the bad scary future things at bay. But life doesn’t actually work that way, on our terms, and so the whole endeavor is a waste of energy. If you live life trying to control everything, you suffer. (It’s actually resistance to what’s happening that is causing the most suffering). If instead you can learn to live in a more allowing and accepting state of mind, you suffer a lot less.
I will leave you here with a tiny bit of Jung on this subject.
There are so many brilliant moments in Jung’s work. It’s hard to highlight one without mentioning at least ten others. But I came across this specific quote yesterday, which encapsulates so many important ideas.
We can get in touch with another person only by an attitude of unprejudiced objectivity. This may sound like a scientific precept, and may be confused with a purely intellectual and detached attitude of mind. But what I mean to convey is something quite different. It is a human quality – a kind of deep respect for facts and events and for the person who suffers from them – a respect for the secret of such a human life. The truly religious person has this attitude. He knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass, and seeks in the most curious way to enter a man’s heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by “unprejudiced objectivity.” It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor, who ought not to let himself be repelled by illness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow-sufferer. I do not in the least mean to say that we must never pass judgment in the case of persons whom we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.
The quote is from a talk he gave, which was later published as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (Or vice versa, I can’t be sure which came first).
The work of acceptance (first of self, and then of the other) is the only path. It’s not a matter of preference. Acceptance is the very heart of love. It is the highest of mystical truths. It is the pillar upon which peace, freedom, empathy, compassion, dignity, respect, and humility rest.
In recent years, narcissism has become a super hot topic of public conversation, especially where millennials and social media are concerned. From innocuous vanity and self-promotion, all the way to the pathological personality disorder, narcissism can take many different forms, along a wide spectrum. But somehow it feels like the more pathological aspects are suddenly everywhere; like some kind of social epidemic.
In spiritual circles, a traumatic story involving at least one vicious malignant narcissist is part of nearly everyone’s history of pain and awakening. There are tons and tons of articles, books, podcasts, and abuse recovery programs popping up all over the place. (In the event you’re not up on all the details, this is a great article on all the different aspects of the personality disorder. And this is a painfully accurate description of what happens to children who grow up with narcissistic parents/caretakers.).
I’ve been around narcissists my entire life. There was no name for it when I was growing up, so in my childhood mind these were just very dangerous people, people who would hurt me, destabilize me, ridicule me, etc. Some of the people I’ve know are severely pathological, so much so that it’s quite shocking what I consider to be normal. I know them as family members, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, and even clients. I know them so well, so strong is my visceral reaction to them, that I can pretty much pick them out across a room. If there is a malignant narcissist in a 5 mile radius, I am sure to find them. (It’s my special gift.). It appears that my lot in this life is learning how to love and forgive them (always at a safe distance), while learning how to love myself more. It’s really hard and not fun.
I always knew something was wrong, intuitively, but it took a long time for me to find the right resources and information. Once I did, I immediately recognized that I was a victim of their classic form of abuse. It’s like a lightbulb went off in my head, and suddenly everything made perfect sense. Unbeknownst to me, for years and years living in close relational proximity to really cruel and sadistic people, I became the perfect sort of co-dependent puzzle piece matching their horrendous behaviors. If you are powerless, there is no way to survive, other than to mold and contort oneself around them; it’s usually a matter of life and death, even if you are an adult. Those patterns then carry forward and make up the bulk of what’s known as co-dependent traits.
It takes a lot of courage and painful introspection to recognize what’s really happening when you are in a relationship with a narcissist. Their psychological patterning, and the insidious way they operate, can make anyone begin to question his/her own sanity.
Slowly and very slyly (such that you don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late) they manage to rob you of every shred of self-worth you may have ever had. They destroy everything – your sense of self, your sense of reality, your life, your work, your relationships, your finances, your basic human dignity. They are like a whirlwind tornado that blows into your life and wreaks absolute havoc, decimating everything in its wake.
What’s even worse is if it’s a family member who participated in your upbringing; their warped values and consistent gaslighting can really screw up your sense of what’s real and true at a fundamental level. They get you to mistrust your own perceptions and authentic feelings so completely, that you end up putting all of yourself in their very sick hands. They whole-heartedly convince you that you only exist to serve them, to cater to their needs, and you are not allowed to have any needs or wants of your own. They make it so that there is no space for you to exist psychologically as a separate person, only as an extension of them, which severely damages the very fragile psyche of a child in unimaginable ways. It can takes years and years of difficult healing work to untangle that mess, even once you become aware of what’s happened.
So once you’ve figured out that you are in such a relationship, you are instructed to leave immediately and cut all ties with the abuser. (This categorical advice has softened somewhat over the years, to “get a safety plan, then leave immediately,” but still get out and away as quickly as possible). The standard instruction for victims of narcissistic abuse is “no contact,” no matter what you feel, no matter what they do or say, cut off all contact and do not engage ever again. They are toxic and evil, and you must extricate yourself completely.
In reality, it’s never that simple. More often than not, this person is a family member or a spouse, from whom you can’t just walk away. There may be children involved. There may be a business, or property, or a career at stake. And on an emotional level, the very thing that brought you into the dynamic with this person, can keep you deeply and inextricably connected to them. Intense feelings of fear, shame, guilt, and worthlessness can feel suffocating. Thinking about separation from them can feel excruciating, threatening your very sense of existence. Most victims are not empowered or strong enough to just up and leave, physically or emotionally. (Spiritually, these relationships operate on a much deeper and more significant level – particular energies bringing and holding these relationships in place, for the larger soul lessons they convey. Often times leaving and cutting ties doesn’t solve the problem, because there is another abuser just around the corner that ensnares you again.).
“So then what?” you think to yourself. “Let’s try taking them to therapy.” The problem is there doesn’t seem to be any treatment for the more severe forms of narcissism; not that you could ever convince a narcissist that s/he needs treatment anyway. If they agree to go with you to therapy, it will only be for the purpose of manipulating the therapist and causing you (potentially both you and the therapist) further harm. This is why many therapists refuse to work with narcissists, believing that the narcissist has no genuine intention to change or heal.
This picture looks really bleak. The truth is, it is. I don’t have any good news here. These situations are always very difficult, unique, and delicate. I think telling a victim to just up and leave, when they feel stuck and powerless, can be insensitive and ineffective. It takes a lot of self-love and therapeutic support to break that kind of relationship, and endure the pain of the separation process. There are tools and therapies that can help alleviate some of the damage in the interim (I especially like the work of Ross Rosenberg who has some great videos on youtube), but it’s a long and difficult road for victims no matter what.
In an ideal world, what narcissists really need is unconditional love. They need someone with tons and tons of fierce unconditional love, and super strong boundaries, to essentially re-parent them. Their armoring and weapons need to be made ineffective, and the inner child within them (the true self) needs to be healed and recalibrated back into the body. It’s a gruesome and very painful process for all involved, made more difficult by the fact that most of them don’t want to heal. They have no intrinsic desire to stop being as they are. (Frankly, why would they? They get away with nearly everything they do, everyone fears them and fears standing up to them, so what would be the incentive to change? They get to live life mostly on their terms, terrorizing and dominating nearly everyone they meet.)
So aside from the fact that they won’t ever seek help, and don’t really want to change, the next problem is that they can be so abusive, exploitative, and hurtful at times, that nearly everyone in their lives leaves them at some point. This doesn’t bother them very much. In truth, no self-loving person (those capable of the kind of unconditional love needed here) would ever stick around for any of their abusive behaviors. And trying to change or help someone who doesn’t recognize that they need help is a recipe for disaster. (The foolish martyrs among us try and try, only to get nowhere.).
It takes an almost impossible sort of inner courage, strength, and stamina to confront a narcissist, call out his/her behavior, and then withstand the barrage of denials, insults, and targeted destructive character attacks in response (sometimes it can escalate to serious retaliatory harm). Most people/therapists are not equipped to deal with that, or the liability or implications of that. And usually no benefit comes from confronting the narcissist anyway, as they don’t internalize nor learn anything from the experience.
What I’d like to add to this discussion however, is something that isn’t often advocated – that is compassion. First, of course, for the victims of narcissistic abuse who may not be able to leave (especially for the children of narcissistic parents), but then also for the narcissists themselves.
Part of what I was intuitively given in my training, is a deep understanding of how narcissism operates. I was shown where it comes from and why. I was shown the structure of the ego that manifests as narcissistic personality disorder. But most importantly, for a few minutes, through an energetic connection, I was given the unbelievable somatic experience of the intense shame that narcissists feel inside when triggered.
It is the worst (the worst!) feeling in the world. Believe me, I’ve felt some pretty awful things, and this caliber of shame is unbearable. I felt it in every bone, in every limb, in every cell of my body. In those few minutes, it hurt so much that I wanted only to die.
This experience was given to me as part of my own healing work; so that I could really have compassion for their lot in life. The truth is, if I carried this kind of shame, and if I believed (like they often do) that other people are to blame for triggering it, I would be just as abusive, just as violent, just as dominating and exploitative. I would do anything possible to avoid feeling that horrendous emotional pain ever again. I think anyone would.
It is easy these days to label someone a narcissist, blame them for everything, and push them away. It’s much harder to reckon with our own pain, find the aspects of ourselves that allowed this person into our lives, learn how to set strong boundaries, do our own healing work, and then look upon them with compassion.
While on the outside they appear terribly selfish, haughty, arrogant, and unfeeling. Inside, they are like terrified little children, trapped in tremendous inescapable suffering. Labeling them as bad or evil, and leaving it there, only exacerbates the problem. Discernment is very very important, but we have to use it as part of our work, not use it as a tool of division, and then vengeance. That gets us nowhere.
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that we keep abusive people in our lives. Nor am I suggesting that we allow ourselves to be mistreated, excuse horrific trauma, or that we fail to hold others accountable for their actions. I’m only inviting you to include compassion and understanding of their suffering, as part of your own healing, forgiveness, and self-love practice. These are things we must do for ourselves, not for them.
From a spiritual perspective, narcissists come into our lives for a reason. They aren’t an accident. They aren’t a random evil misfortune; or a bad judgment call on our part. They come to awaken us. They are the shadow, the contrast, the catalysts for transformation, the bearers of darkness, and the greatest teachers life can possibly offer.
Holding them merely as bad, evil, or scary in our minds creates internal fear and negative energies. We end up falsely holding ourselves as good and totally innocent victims, and them as the wholly bad “other” over there. They become a threat that you need protection from; an enemy that you need to be vigilant about. This is not a healthy mindset; it doesn’t promote healing, it promotes grudge-holding and stewing in the past, feeding our own victim stories.
Instead, moving through the pain they caused, using it for healing and growth, then holding them in compassion, and arriving at forgiveness, understanding that despite their external appearance they are in fact suffering, allows us come to a place of peace within. This isn’t easy. It’s not about bypassing our pain or jumping prematurely to forgiveness. It is a slow and difficult practice.
But then, when we have done our own healing work, from a place of peace, we can make whatever decisions, or carry out whatever actions, are necessary in a given situation. We can hold them accountable in a way that is just and fair, and rooted in wisdom, rather than driven by our own hatred and vengeance. This is of course important for ourselves, for our own souls, regardless of whether they experience remorse or not.
A portion of this quote was making its way around the internet for a while. It seems appropriate to close this post with it here. It’s from Common Prayers: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.
Peace is not just about the absence of conflict; it’s also about the presence of justice. … A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
Your soul communicates with you through your feelings. It’s not the emotions you create with your mind (consciously or subconsciously). It’s not something that comes from your thinking, your rational calculations, or your critical reasoning. It’s not who you “should be,” and it’s not what you “should feel.”
It’s something much deeper than that. It’s a call from within. It’s something you already know to be true, because it plays in the background of your thoughts. It’s something we are taught to push past; something we are taught to ignore. It’s not something we’ve ever been taught to pay attention to, but rather a thing to overcome in our endless pursuits of more.
But it’s there. It always has been. That little voice in your head. The thing in the pit of your stomach. That sudden wave of anxiety… In fact, it’s usually those very feelings that get in the way of doing the things you think you “should” do. You can push these nagging feelings away (with all sorts of avoidance strategies), believe me, I’ve tried. But your soul will just get louder and louder. The feelings will get more and more intense.
Those people who consistently avoid their feelings end up deeply unhappy, with chronic anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and a whole bunch of other related illnesses. None of it is random. The body is not just a mechanical device. It’s not an object. It’s actually highly intelligent (something medical science is only now beginning to understand). Your body communicates with you through your symptoms. It begs for your love and attention.
If you want to heal, if you want to live fully (with passion, and purpose, and real joy), you have to listen to your feelings, and fulfill the things your soul is asking of you. It’s not easy. It will likely go against everything you believe about yourself. At times, it can be terrifying. But that’s exactly the point.
For decades Freudian theories have led us to believe that we are all awful people, driven by incestuous homicidal urges. But deep down we are not that at all. Following your feelings will not make you a terrible selfish person. At the very core, we are all pure love. It is our essential truth. And if we followed our feelings more, we’d have more and more access to that love to give others. It seems counter-intuitive, but that’s how it works: The more you love yourself, the more love you have to give others.
Living in accordance with your feelings is what makes life actually worth living.