Priestessing the Priestesses

Last week, I had the incredible privilege of sitting vigil with a friend in hospice in her final hours on this earth. She slept for most of the time I was there, but her waking moments were lucid, if brief. She whispered how good the fresh juice tasted (it had been made for her by a friend), and she seemed to prefer having my hands on her back to pain medication. In the last hour I was with her before leaving, a mutual friend joined us and played gentle, lullaby-style music for her on the kalimba and guitar. As he sang softly to her, I could barely make out his words; the intention was pure, the moment was intimate, and I felt honored to be present for such a profoundly sacred moment.

Speaking with another mutual friend who had held space for Maria in her final days, I mentioned that as I was at hospice I had felt an awareness of priestessing the priestess. Our friend agreed, and said she’d had a similar sensation. “That’s who Maria has been for many of us, whether she claimed that title or not.”

Maria and I were not part of a shared formal congregation or spiritual community in the traditional sense. We were both part of an informal network of friends in a variety of communities whose membership and interests overlap – sacred movement, ecstatic dance, ancestral healing, sound healing, and alternative spiritualities. It’s a network that is both leaderless and full of leaders, as its inherent diversity of beliefs and practices lends itself to members who are specialists in one tradition, students in another, and generalists in deep compassion, holy presence, and unconditional love.

Read more at Feminism and Religion

Holding Two Truths

img_1730Last month, I attended a series of workshops on self-care, family dynamics, and recovery from complex trauma. In one session, someone asked the facilitator, a counselor with over 30 years of experience in mental health fields, how to balance faith, confidence, and belief in recovery with the reality that sometimes healing can be a rocky road, with missteps, false starts, and restarts. The counselor noted that one of the key concepts he’s reinforced in working with people on their recoveries is that to keep moving forward – to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, to not give up on ourselves when old patterns resurface, to sustain the energy needed to continue The Work in the face of obstacles, doubt, and fear – we need to be able to hold two truths at once. We need to expand ourselves such that we can hold two realities – that our hope in ourselves is not misplaced, that we are strong and can overcome adversity, and that we can move through our lives with grace and skill; and also that we may slip up and fall short of our ideals, that we sometimes may feel fragile and overwhelmed, and that recovery (from trauma, grief, substance abuse, or illness) may include steps backward intermixed with the forward movement.

This concept was especially powerful for me. As someone who spent my childhood and young adult years mired in black-or-white thinking, my personal healing and much of my spiritual practice has been built around reconciling seeming opposites, not by blurring difference such that the unlike becomes like, but by digging into the ways in which the tension between opposites is itself fertile soil for the activity of creation and growth, art and brilliance. Since creation is, for me, the sacred in action, and understanding of self in the context of the cosmos is sacred practice, this gives the tension of two truths a spiritual meaning and the fluid give-and-take that holds them in balance a spiritual wisdom…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

What I Believe: Panentheism

I’ve always felt that our personal narratives shape how we come to know and understand the Divine, and that our theologies cannot be examined apart from the stories and experiences that lead us there. I’ve recently explored Carol Christ’s work on embodied theology, and have found a model therein for weaving personal narrative with theology. I’m by no means an expert at this model.

Although I’ve blogged about spirituality for years and am comfortable talking about my beliefs and practices even from a stage, the only people I really talk about my beliefs with one-on-one are people I already know think similarly to me, and they’re usually people who already know the basic outlines of my story. Recently, someone reached out in friendship and dialogue, and I realized a few things about myself. First, I can’t begin to explain my beliefs apart from the experiences that gave them life – a heart crudely removed from the body to explore it closer stops beating, stops giving. Secondly, speaking of beliefs with someone new – someone for whom the story, the me, is reasonably new as well – is a radical act of willing vulnerability. It gets me out of my comfort zone and zaps me at my core with both the fear of rejection and promise of potential. And finally, I don’t even know where to begin. Usually the story and its accompanying beliefs sneak through organically in blips over the course of friendship; when I found myself trying to express what I believe – something, anything – it all ran together in a jumble of thoughts and ideas. This post is an attempt to begin to clarify and put words to what I’ve come to believe, in an orderly fashion. It is not a complete work or a perfect expression of my ideals, and I can assure you that over the coming years it will continue to evolve, shift, and change. This is a snapshot of this particular moment in my spiritual development, and a partial and somewhat blurry snapshot at that.

…..

I grew up in a mostly non-religious family. While my grandparents scrambled to sign me up for Vacation Bible School and took me to church with them during visits (Presbyterian with my mom’s parents, Southern Baptist at my dad’s), my mom and stepdad weren’t religious, didn’t attend church, and regularly expressed private scorn for anyone who was passionate about their beliefs. They mocked “holy rollers” and “Bible thumpers” for their backwardness and “New Agers” for their blissful ignorance of reality. I didn’t live with my dad, but when I’d visit with him he’d take me to his church – which usually meant a charismatic, evangelical, conservative Christian church with a rock band for music and people passing out in the Spirit.

Neither of these approaches fit for me, even when I tried to make them my own.

From the time I was little, I struggled in my dream life with sorting out issues of meaning and spiritual direction. As a small child, I was awakened when I fell out of bed during a dream in which Jesus and other holy men were meeting to discuss whether or not I was ready to be one of them. “Not yet” seemed to be the consensus; I was more hung up on the “at all,” having never thought of myself as either religious or a leader. Throughout my childhood, teenage, and young adult years, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was on a tour bus through time travelling through Memphis in 1968. In the dream, I see Martin Luther King, Jr. get assassinated, and watch in horror as nobody is able to save him. I know I can jump out of the bus and possibly help, but that then I’d never be able to get back to my own time, my own place. I would always wake up at the point where the decision must be made, sweaty and trembling with questions of courage and calling.

This tension – between the holy drive toward service and the fearful insecurity that paralyzes and disrupts – played a significant role in my spiritual formation. Moments of absolute bliss and connection were offset by fears of inadequacy beaten into me by dysfunction and abuse. I read John Bradshaw and learned mindfulness and relaxation techniques at the suggestion of a compassionate high school teacher, and dabbled in Paganism when I wasn’t hanging out with the evangelical Christian youth group on visits to see my dad.

Seeking progressive religious community when I was 19, I discovered the Episcopal Church, and a few months later I struggled free of the immediate grip of depression and anxiety with the support of the Order of St. Helena, who became my chosen family and spiritual home. Their approach to God was full of compassion, with room for the masculine divine, the feminine divine, and the gender-fluid beauty of mystical union. Their God was clearly transcendent – above all and beyond all – but very much present in quiet moments of heartfelt confession and gentle prayer. It was there that meditation, walks through nature, ritual and routine, and allowing the space for mystical dissolution of self all became part of my practice.

In the late 1990s, as the Episcopal church headed toward crisis over the ordination of women and gays and more churches began to call themselves “Anglican” in protest, my home church brought in a theologically and socially conservative priest whose teachings directly countered all I’d come to expect from and love about Christianity. It was during that time that I discovered the Unity church, whose “practical Christianity” offered direct tools for mindfulness, mental health, exploring the power of optimism and language, new understandings of “highest good,” and the very presence of God within and around me at all times. Throughout this time, as I explored Unity in depth, I sensed the Divine as both transcendent and immanent, but had no philosophical framework within which to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory views. It was a knowing brought about through personal experience, but not a particularly well-articulated one.

Eventually, I took on full-time work in religious leadership and enrolled in a small, private New Thought seminary. While in seminary, I had the incredible good fortune to study under and learn from Deb Whitehouse and Alan Anderson. Deb taught me the fundamentals of counseling with choice theory, a way of relating to others that, while imperfect, still informs my interpersonal communication. Together, they introduced me to process theology and panentheism, although at the time I did not dig deeply into their theology, as I was so enamored of the monistic idealism of the traditional Unity teachings – that mind is the fundamental and only ground of being, with the physical world remaining subservient to the will of the mind.

When circumstances forced a break from the Unity church a few credits shy of completion of seminary and ordination, we moved into a small town in which “alternative spirituality” meant you left your Baptist family to attend a Pentecostal church. During that time, we church-hopped, never fully committing to one church – attending nondenominational, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Anglican churches, each offering something needed and ideal submerged in a mix of otherwise problematic teachings and beliefs.

In 2009, after we moved to a small, progressive enclave in my natal North Carolina, I abandoned organized religion in favor of embracing a private, solitary, nature-based practice that drew upon some of the Pagan influences that had remained a thread in the weave of my spiritual self-understanding since my teenage years. In this practice, I have come to believe that the Divine is present in the material world – not as a spark or impetus, but bodily and in manifestation. When I encounter the Divine in nature, it isn’t a feeling I’m experiencing (although it can certainly be affective in impact) – it’s a presence, a fullness of wisdom so expansive and powerful that it flows through my very bones and flesh, which also carry and embody the Divine.

When I think of what is me, what is self, I’m aware that I have a body, and that it is me. The flesh, the skin, the cells and eyes and brain – these are all undeniably part of the manifest me. But there’s more. There’s also an animated energy and spirit and mind of me – a nonphysical, conscious self that could never be explained away by the mere firing of neurons, complex though they may be. Correlation does not equal causation, and the firing of neurons that accompanies the activity of memory and emotion might more rightly be relegated to the realm of the mechanism of manifestation rather than its source.

When I think of what is God, a similar model emerges. The cosmos, stars, and nebulae; our atmosphere, waters, and land; rich earth and dry sand, river-flow and ocean tide, cloud and wind and breath – these are all Spirit manifest into the material, but of the same substance. God manifest into the physical through nature is of the same basic substance as God yet unmanifest into the physical. God manifest into the physical through our bodies, our hands, and our lips is of the same basic substance as the God who exists non-physically in reality through our spirits, our love, and our ideas.

This changes how I view traditional mind-body dualisms, as neither of these is privileged over the other in my understanding – our minds don’t universally control all aspects of our realities, and events in our everyday realities don’t universally and uniformly control all aspects of our mental, emotional, and spiritual responses from person to person and culture to culture. They’re the same substance in different form, working in partnership, and my goal isn’t to strengthen one so it can dominate the other – a metaphysical model which emerged out of patriarchal histories in which the mind was said to have dominance over the body just as men dominate women.

My goal is to explore the points at which the nonphysical enters the physical and where the firm boundaries of the physical dissolve, even temporarily, so that I might have greater understanding of the relationship between the manifest and the unmanifest, and to allow myself to connect with the all that is me, contained within and expressing the all that is God. In my model, spirit is sacred and so is the manifest universe in all its parts, and the liminal spaces where the boundaries between physical and nonmaterial blur and blend are holy spaces, providing opportunities for greater understanding of ourselves and of God.

iStock_000002083840SmallWhat this means practically is that my God is immanent and transcendent. My God physically enfolds me when I dive into the river and gently holds me when I lie weary and seeking on a soft bed of leaves under a canopy woven of trees and stars. My God comforts me through the voice of a friend when my heart is breaking, and celebrates with me in dance and play when I’m bursting at the seams with new joy and vibrance. My God is present with me in my journey and speaks to me through birdsong and laughter, but also has an aspect that is fully removed from the short-sighted realities that come from limited human understanding and the boundaries of physics. This, for me, is the beauty of panentheism: in God’s immanence I find ever-present friendship, solace, comfort, and joy; in God’s transcendence I find reassurance, wisdom, and the optimism that pours forth from potentiality.

This view of Divinity has direct impacts on my ritual life and prayer practices, but more importantly, it shapes how I move through and exist in the world. With a worldview that sees all of manifest reality as an expression of the Divine, curiosity becomes a spiritual practice and education an act of ritual devotion. Seeing God in nature leads to the kind of ecological mindset that refuses to separate the human from her context, and makes holy the acts of growing, gardening, hiking, and tending. Seeing God in myself leads to greater self-acceptance, the ability to love quirks and “flaws,” and a dedication to self-care (by which I mean mindfulness, health, and forgiveness) as an act of sacred reverence.

Seeing God in every person I meet leads to explorations of intimacy as sacred art and radical compassion as mystic devotion. It also leads logically to the practice of authenticity as a rule of life, and to acts of social service, activism, and advocacy as heartfelt ministry. Seeing God in bliss becomes ecstatic communion; invoking God in the crushing darkness of depression, trauma, and fear provides the unseen light – transcendent and otherworldly – that lights our way until we once again set foot on the solid ground of brilliance, love, and hope. In the manifest, there is One who is lover and friend and playmate and teacher and water and food and life; beyond the manifest, that One supports and sustains and heals and cleanses me when my personal physical experience reeks of brokenness and shame in spite of whatever material balms I’ve used to bathe my wounds.

I read all that I’ve written above, and feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Perhaps in future posts I’ll continue to unpack my beliefs, practices, and things I’ve learned in the humble hope that it might speak to someone in perfect timing and perfect trust, that they might be inspired to seek out the God of their own being in a way that is authentic for them.

…..

Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient, fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life-giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

– Hafiz, “In a Tree House,” translated/interpreted by D. Ladinsky

The Tension of Opposites: Love, Chaos, & the Wild Vortex

“Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a high tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and a tendency to think in opposites are characteristics researchers have found common among creative people in many different fields. But professional creators… come to understand that in order to be creative, they need to give themselves to sensations of ‘knowing but not knowing,’ inadequacy, uncertainty, awkwardness, awe, joy, horror, being out of control, and appreciating the nonlinear, metamorphosing features of reality and their own thought processes — the many faces of creative chaos.”

– John Briggs and F. David Peat, Seven Life Lessons of ChaosNYIntensive201404

As someone whose interfaith, nature-based spirituality regularly draws inspiration from science, I experienced my recent read ofthe book Seven Life Lessons of Chaos as both an affirmation and a challenge.Throughout the book, one theme emerged over and over, each time in a different context: the creative impulse – that which generates nature and space, planets and stars, love and rage – emerges from within the tension of opposites….

Read more at the Feminism and Religion blog.

Conversion experiences, long-term love, and spiritual community

Although I’d been a student of metaphysics and the mind-body connection off and on since the early nineties, I didn’t discover New Thought as an organizational or historical movement until 1998. In that year, I returned to university studies two and a half years after my first attempt at college found me booted from the Honors College, losing all my scholarship funding, deep in the grips of major depression, reeling from attempts to self-medicate, and ultimately, pregnant by a much-older man who benefited greatly from my lack of self-esteem and boundaries. Those 28 months since dropping out of college had been some of the most transformative of my life — I gave up the guy, gave up the drugs and heavy drinking, read self-help and positive thinking manuals, and got counseling and treatment for my depression (and other issues stemming from a consistently traumatic childhood). I got involved in a progressive Episcopal church, feeling too uncomfortable with the idea of getting formally involved with non-Christian spiritual groups given my father’s conservative Christianity. Over time, though, I found my feminist mysticism (and sense of self-worth) deepening through my close connections with the Order of Saint Helena. I moved two states away with my infant son in 1997 to help start a non-profit organization, and just over a year later felt ready to give college another chance.

At the time, I was working in behavioral programs for children with autism, and planned to finish a degree in psychology. I was nervous about getting back into school, though, and chose two classes for my first semester that I knew would be interesting. I dropped out of one after the first meeting proved painfully boring. The other class — a religious studies class — was amazing, and the teacher was one of the most vibrant, brilliant, funny, and kind people I’d ever encountered. Within a year, I’d changed my major to religious studies, and continued to take classes from that instructor as often as possible. He was clearly ON FIRE, and I wanted to know more about what gave him that fire. He never talked about his personal beliefs in class, so I searched for him online, and found his name associated peripherally with the Unity movement and with an academic society that studied New Thought and other metaphysical movements. I read up on Unity, and had an “aha moment,” seeing in it a system of spiritual thought that embodied many of the beliefs I already held. To say that I had a “conversion experience” might even be understatement; I was now ON FIRE, read everything I could get my hands on, and attended every meeting, service, and healing circle that was offered, all the while ignoring the cognitive dissonance I was seeing and experiencing. After all, I was still bubbling forth with the energy of the conversion experience, and the benefits were far outweighing my need for logical consistency.

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Kind of like being in love.

Because that’s ultimately what conversion experiences are, when you get down to it. It’s like falling for a new partner, when life just feels different, and you can’t imagine what it was like before them, and you don’t want it to end, and you see their flaws as quirks, and life is just completely wrapped up in them, day and night. And truthfully, there’s a chance you may have found The One — the tradition in which you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, even after the buzz wears off and you see it with realistic eyes. There’s also a chance, depending on how comfortable you feel stepping outside your familial and cultural norms, that you’ll stay “married” to your tradition long after the buzz wears off, continuing to practice “for the children” (or your parents) even when you know you don’t believe much of what is being taught. And then there are others who give it a fair shot even after the rose-colored glasses begin to fade, looking to see if making it work is really going to be mutually beneficial but ultimately deciding it’s time to move on. All of these are valid responses to complex realities, and people don’t need to regret or feel shame about their choices of where, how, and with whom to practice your spirituality.

This discussion is further muddied by the way we talk about religious participation. When someone asks, “What is your religion?” we frequently respond with “I am” statements. Not “I attend a Catholic church,” but “I’m Catholic.” Not “I attend the local Friends meeting,” but “I’m a Quaker.” Not “I attend the local Reclaiming group,” but “I’m Pagan” or “I’m a Witch.” This conflation of religious affiliation with identity, of belief systems with self, may not be a bad thing; it does, however, create a dynamic of religious identity in which movement between spiritual traditions may necessarily need to be accompanied by some degree of identity crisis. After all, when one tradition has served as our identity for so long, we can’t help but question if we’re the same person when we move from one tradition to the next. Am I disloyal for wanting a change? Will my change seem like a betrayal to those who have mentored, ministered to, and walked alongside me? Was I wrong or confused when I expressed my loyalty to this tradition or community, even though it felt so real at the time? 

These are the kinds of questions that can keep people hanging onto a spiritual community months, or even years, beyond its period of practical usefulness and positive influence in their lives.

On top of that, humans tend to like community. We like regular opportunities to meet and make friends, and to feel supported in our spiritual journeys by a circle of like-minded people. We like when our children come home from Sunday School and tell us how they’re learning to be kinder, more compassionate, and connected. We like potlucks and study groups, prayer circles and the sense of camaraderie that comes from shared intentions. We worry that leaving an organized spiritual tradition or community means we’ll miss out on that, but it doesn’t have to — not exactly! Even atheists are starting to organize their own opportunities for inspirational community gathering. You can find mindfulness-based stress reduction groups, social circles for intentional living, and organized activities for your kids to learn and grow. You can even take the DIY approach: from 2009-2011, I hosted a monthly circle in my home for a small group of like-minded friends. Among the regular attendees: an art therapist, a Reiki healer, a PhD student studying ancient Celtic religion, 2 yoga instructors (one who has since become a licensed mental health counselor, and one who is now a licensed social worker), and a life-coach-in-training who now has a successful practice as a coach and group facilitator. I hosted each week, providing space, decaf, hot tea, fresh-baked bread, and other treats. Each person brought a potluck snack, and we rotated through who planned and led the activities each week. We were, in essence, ministering to each other, without the need for an organized spiritual tradition or church-based community.

Spiritual community is present and available when we set out to find or create it, and can take many forms.

Only you can decide where you need to be at this moment in time, and at this point in your journey. If where you are is working for you, stay there without apology or regret, and know that you are walking the path that is right for you. If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t feel obligated to stay where you feel stuck, ignored, dismissed, or simply like an outsider. Go where you can let your light shine fully, and where you will be fed spiritually, even if it means striking out on your own for a bit. Almost all spiritual traditions have many truths in them, but none hold the entire truth, and you don’t have to feel guilt for seeking out a new realm of truths. If you can, leave while things are still reasonably healthy and you can make a positive transition; often the universe senses our desire to leave long before we feel strong enough to act on it, and might provide catalysts for change that may or may not be peaceful.

A few years before meeting my now-spouse, I was engaged to an amazing man who had been my closest friend for years. We were madly in love with each other, and also loved each other very deeply. For reasons that were out of our control, it didn’t work out, and the breakup of our engagement was one of the worst heartbreaks I’d experienced. For a while, it hurt to see him even though I missed our friendship (which had preceded our dating by a good four years). I didn’t want to dwell on thoughts of him too much, and preferred to move on with my life. It took a few years, during which I met and married my husband, to feel like I could talk to my old friend again. There were a few awkward meetings at first, but in no time our old friendship had been reestablished. I’ve now been with my husband for almost 15 years, and I have no doubt that he’s the right partner for me. But I am still thankful for the presence of my old friend in my life, and for the way in which his friendship provides a healthy connection to many parts of my past that would otherwise be lost or dismissed.

I’m no longer involved in any formal way with the Unity movement, or with any other organized tradition within New Thought. I have, however, come to a place where they are like old friends — not my life partner, but still holding a tenderness of memory that is precious to me as well as a host of teachings that I still find powerful and transformative (even if it took me a few years to get to a place where I can be friends again)I tell this story to say, in closing, that if for some reason you end up stepping away from a spiritual tradition or community in way that is painful, uncomfortable, or triggering, perhaps because you stayed well beyond when you knew you were Done, give yourself the space you need to heal, lick your wounds, and grow:

Premature or willed forgiveness can be damaging in itself. Here is an alternate method: Healing. To give a crude, literal example: if you stab me, I don’t have to say (through clenched teeth) “I forgive you” as I stand there bleeding. I must turn my attention to myself: tend the wound, wash it, bandage it, keep it free of infection till the wound heals. When the literal (or figurative) wound heals, the harm is undone, and I am free to hold you harmless. That is what I think of as an unforced, organic form of forgiveness. – Elizabeth Cunningham

Don’t feel obligated to forgive before you are ready, or to jump back in and welcome old teachings (or people, or communities) with open arms when you’ve been hurt. Take your time, give yourself the space you need, and when the time is right and you are more fully healed, you may be surprised by your ability to be gracious to those who (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt you, to find meaning in teachings from your past that are no longer your primary source of inspiration, and to forge a new path for yourself, using bits and pieces of what you’ve found meaningful to create a new beginning, and maybe even a new you.

 

Past, present, future

Much of the advice I’ve found in my 20 years exploring the metaphysical movement and its positive thinking branches has been focused on the future. After all, a movement that claims to offer a practical method for improving one’s circumstances will naturally attract people who want their circumstances to improve, and teachers are responding to real human need and desire. For some seekers, it might be simply the result of being naturally forward-thinking and optimistic. For others, it might be because their current circumstances have become unbearable, perhaps affected by financial, spiritual, relationship, health, or psychological problems. For the former group, forward thinking brings the thrill of new successes; for the latter, it brings the hope of a better tomorrow (worldly or heavenly), and the promise of hearts healed, illnesses overcome, and bills paid. This isn’t a bad thing. Hope keeps us going through rough times and frequently brings about our commitment to lifestyle changes that can transform our realities.

Sometimes, though, this can leave many of who consider ourselves to be positive thinkers, optimists, and spiritual seekers unsure of what to do with the past and present. Does our hope for a better tomorrow impede our ability to enjoy a better today? And what about the past? While I’ve seen many self-help authors explore past issues with intent to heal and resolve them, I’ve also seen many teachers of a strict thoughts-become-realities worldview discourage exploration of the past, cautioning that significant exploration of past wounds and hurts will bring more of the same in your life, keep you stuck, or bind you to past patterns.

I would never dream of telling anyone to change something that is working for them, so if you’ve been exclusively focusing on the future in your personal growth program and find that it’s working for you, keep doing it! Do what works for you. I’m comfortable with a reality big enough to allow for different things to work for different people, and have no need to believe that approaches that work for me will necessarily work for you. This is the beauty and complexity of the human experience.

If, however, you are seeking models for positive thinking that incorporates past, present, and future, know that they exist!

For me, it looks a little like this:

Honor and heal the past
Respect and appreciate the present
Prepare for and welcome the future

I honor the past for having helped me become the person that I am. I work to heal my past wounds without becoming bound to them. I don’t have to love every thing I’ve ever experienced to honor the past, and I don’t have to “fix” or make right the wrongs that I’ve done or experienced to heal my past. By “honor and heal,” I simply mean that I learn from it, and give thanks for the growth that it brought me (even if I could never give thanks for the pains that led to that growth).

I respect and appreciate my present, even as I expect a better future. I am learning to see and appreciate the areas of my life that bring me joy and in which I feel successful. At my day job, I bring joy to others and help create a pleasant space for them to enjoy. In my family, I nurture and play with my children, and try to foster a sense of wonder and exploration. With my partner, I am encouraging and tender, devoted and loyal. In all these areas, I also receive joy, admiration, a playful spirit, and love.

Are there elements of my present life that I’d like to change? Sure! But even in those aspects of my life I find to be challenging, I can find hidden blessings. During times when money has been tight, we’ve become masterful meal planners, making magic out of limited resources to create delicious, home-cooked, healthy meals on a tight budget! When someone in our family loses their temper, we end up opening up about, bonding over, and healing from things we hadn’t felt led to share before. When a friendship that had been rewarding goes south or ceases to be healthy, it opens up the opportunity to grow and further develop my understanding of human relationships and how to help them stay healthy. Would I love to have plenty of money, a family that’s always peaceful and kind, and friendships that never falter or hurt? Sure would! I’m just not going to postpone finding joy in my life until it fits some definition of perfect. Positive thinking, to me, doesn’t just mean thinking your way to a better life in the future; it means finding joy and thinking positively in the now as well. Sometimes that means blowing away the dark clouds; other times it means finding the silver lining.

And as for the future? I’m optimistic! I’m hopeful! I have every belief that the universe is good, that blessings are flowing my way, and that all my dreams will continue to manifest, in perfect timing and perfect order. I also believe that my future will be even better than it would be otherwise because I continually work on honoring and healing my past, and respecting and appreciating my present. To me, all of the cycle is connected and the threads of the tapestry woven by my life extend far behind and beyond my now. Work done on healing my past extends into my future; work done fully experiencing and respecting my present reaches back and adds meaning and depth to my past. It all is connected and layered in the flow of time — no one part truly separate from another, none greater than the others.

 

My intention matters, but it isn’t everything

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Mitch Horowitz while he was researching and writing his book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life when he contacted me about a paper from which I’d had an excerpt published over a decade ago. I was able to get him a full copy of my paper (although I’m not quite sure how helpful it was), but then in a series of emails and a meeting when he was visiting near my hometown, solid, good, real discussion happened. I shared some of my thoughts about trauma, disability, and how I worried that the shortcomings of the Law of Attraction, universally applied, could compound trauma. It isn’t that I don’t believe that we attract what we expect and believe in; it’s that I have a hard time understanding how that belief can be presented as universally helpful, true, or transformative when applied as an after-the-fact diagnostic for someone who has experienced a trauma or illness such as rape or disability. Mitch shared with me an idea so simple and helpful, I was surprised that I hadn’t read it, explicitly stated, in any of the LOA-based positive thinking books I’d been reading. Simply put: he believes that the LOA is one out of many laws that shape our experiences.

The idea that the LOA is only one influence out of many, the more I thought about it, began to heal the years-long inner conflict I’d experienced with the ideals of positive thinking. These conflicts began when I was working toward ministry in a New Thought church, and had been teased apart and highlighted by my work in rape crisis, where I was a hotline volunteer and support group facilitator for a few years. In my crisis support and intervention role, I had seen survivors successfully use positive thinking as a way to heal their traumas, had used Belleruth Naparstek’s Healing Trauma visualization in a group setting, and had even written and presented a healing, affirming visualization for one of my groups. I had also seen survivors bury themselves under feelings of responsibility for their assaults, worrying what they could have done differently — feelings and worries that are already compounded by a culture of victim-blaming in the media, in our court systems, and in our everyday lives. Even if LOA proponents never say anything other than supportive sentiments directly to survivors of sexual assault and other crimes, promoting thought-creates-reality as an individualistic, uncompromising, and unswayable law of reality sets up a view of reality in which sexual assault victims must have attracted their assault into their lives. This, to me, is unacceptable on a moral and ethical level, as well as on a factual and theoretical level.

If sexual assault is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the rapist. If child abuse is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the abuser. If murder is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the murderer. That isn’t to say that the collective attitudes and beliefs of our culture aren’t a part of the problem; it’s simply to say that for a single survivor of any kind of assault to believe they caused their assault through their expectations and thoughts misses the mark, and misunderstands both reality and trauma. But in order to allow for this complexity of reality, we have to accept (as Mitch suggested) that our thoughts and beliefs, while they are powerful carriers of our desires and intentions, can have their effects changed and moderated by outside forces — by other laws that also act upon our lives, our physical environments, and our spiritual realities.

While I have a full-time job in a non-spirituality environment, I’m blessed to work on a regular basis with some of the most interesting, thoughtful, kind, and insightful people I’ve ever met. Frequently, you’ll find us hard at work, but still discussing spirituality, social justice, and how to make the world kinder. Earlier this week, while discussing these thoughts with a coworker, I found myself using the following illustration.

I believe, fully and wholeheartedly in the law of gravity. If I want to drop a ball and have it land in a certain spot, I know I can lean out of the second-floor window of a building, reach my hand out, and drop the ball. Knowing about gravity and it’s associated formulas, I can tell where the ball will land, and I can even calculate about how long it will take to land. This might lead me to feel successful, as if I have a pretty good grasp of gravity and how it influences my ball-dropping. If, however, I go to a window above a ledge, when I drop my ball at the same angle, with the same distance from the window, and with the same method, it will bounce off the ledge and out from the wall, landing at a different distance and angle from the wall than I expected. This isn’t because gravity failed; it’s because other laws, theories, and formulas explain the bounce, the new trajectory of the ball, and where it will land. If it’s a windy day, the ball might land somewhere other than where I intended. In neither case would the result be because I don’t understand gravity or its proper application.

If I go to another clear window without a ledge and drop my ball again, I’d expect it to land in the designated spot, directly below where I dropped it. But what happens if as I drop the ball, someone runs up below me and uses a baseball bat to knock the ball out of the park, so to speak? Does that mean gravity failed? Does it mean I didn’t use the law right, or that I brought the situation on myself? Does it mean I need to rethink my ball-dropping technique, hold my hand differently, or believe more in gravity while dropping it the next time?

This illustrates the challenge I’ve had with a universal and unchangeable application of the Law of Attraction in all situations and at all times. I simply cannot believe that a child who develops a rare form of brain cancer, as a friend’s daughter did a few years back, is experiencing the results of her own or a parent’s thoughts sent into the universe, returned in kind. I don’t believe that survivors of rape or other assaults and crime attracted the experiences to themselves because of faulty beliefs, not being positive enough, or simply because they were attracting “exactly what they needed” to learn and grow. I don’t believe a stroke survivor who doesn’t regain full use of his body failed in any way, or is any less powerful or positive than someone who did recover, or who never had a stroke in the first place. In all of these cases, the human spirit is awe-inspiring in how it overcomes challenges. The child can be in that 12% who recover. The survivor, even as she acknowledges the pain, unfairness, randomness, and trauma of the assault, can make meaning out of it, chart her own healing, and grow through the experience of recovery and self-exploration. The stroke survivor may be challenged to explore formerly held ideals and (as a result) experience a profound emotional healing that may never have been triggered without the stroke. Does that make the stroke, the assault, the cancer a GOOD thing? It doesn’t have to. Humans are amazing. We can rebuild in beauty after the most tragic experiences of destruction and heartache.

So, to the extent that Law of Attraction can help you put your life back together, feel strong, be empowered, and grow in compassion after a trauma, use it! Focus on your strengths and successes, and on the ways you can use your gifts to make our shared world beautiful. Do things that nurture your soul and heal your spirit. Just remember that LOA is far more effective as a method of rebuilding than it is as a diagnostic tool. Responsibility for what is truly yours to own is a healthy thing; self-blame, self-doubt, and self-abuse are not. Be gentle with yourself; you deserve good things and kind treatment.

Complex ideas, catchphrases, and simplicity

 

trustbirth

If you’ve spent any time reading up on natural childbirth, you have probably encountered the phrase, “Trust Birth.” It’s a catchphrase that encompasses the idea that birth is safe, natural, and healthy — a natural process of a woman’s body, rather than a medical emergency that requires intervention. We live in a culture of birth in which women’s bodies are treated like machines, birth like a crisis, and dehumanizing as the inevitable consequence of failing to honor the mother’s natural instincts and body wisdom. “Trust Birth,” then, reinforces the idea if you just leave birth alone, allow it to progress normally, and only intervene when it is medically necessary for the safety of the mother or baby, that things will go well.

And when birth is trusted to progress naturally without interference, things DO go well… most of the time. There will, however, be a small number of cases in which intervention is necessary, even when birth is trusted fully and allowed to progress normally. While this comes nowhere close to accounting for the cesarean rates we are now seeing (over 30% in the US), there will be rare cases in which interventions, even cesareans, are necessary, beneficial, and life-saving. Even at The Farm, an intentional community and midwifery haven led by the godmother of the modern midwifery movement, Ina May Gaskin, there is a 1.7% cesarean rate and 5.2% of their births transfer to the hospital. This suggests to me that even in the most birth-trusting of environments, things occasionally can come up.

I have to admit that a 98.3% success rate of “Trust Birth” is impressive and powerful. Surely, in most cases, birth can be trusted! We cannot, however, continue to promote “Trust Birth” as the universal law of childbirth without considering its effect on the 1.7% of women who trusted birth fully, and were still unable to have their ideal birth, especially considering that outside of the idyllic (and well-screened) reality of The Farm, that percentage is likely to be considerably higher. If a mother trusted birth fully, gave herself over to the process, chose providers she thought would be supportive of her natural birth wishes, attended childbirth education and prepared herself fully, all the while reciting “Trust Birth” as her mantra, will her “failure” to achieve a natural birth be seen as a failure on her part? Will others think she didn’t trust birth enough? Did she not trust birth enough? Will she now worry about the judgment and disappointment her midwife, doctor, doula, or natural childbirth friends might feel for her? It’s definitely helpful, and a part of any healthy grieving process, to consider what we might do differently in the future; it’s not helpful to consider these questions from within the confines of a self-imposed shame that is reinforced by a culture that promotes blind faith in the “Trust Birth” as a standalone paradigm. Trusting birth fully without the chance to work through, in advance, the idea that sometimes things can just happen that are out of our control, can lead to greater feelings of victimization and trauma after a disappointing outcome.

I was talking recently with another birth advocate who had, like myself, had a planned homebirth that ended in a cesarean about how we felt about “Trust Birth” as a slogan. We both admitted that we kind of liked it — that it felt pretty revolutionary to trust birth in the face of a medical machine trying to take over and pathologize natural functions of women’s bodies. We also, however, agreed that as a method to achieve a natural childbirth, trusting birth is not, and never could be, 100% effective. It has gained traction because it is catchy and simple — a mantra many can get behind. It’s a lot more marketable than Trust Birth Most of the Time or Trust Birth Unless Medical Intervention is Required or Trust Birth Unless You Go Into Labor at 25 Weeks. There is simply a lot more complexity to the birth experience than any one catchphrase could ever express or contain, and while the percentage of women who truly need medical assistance or intervention to bring their babies safely into the world is small, the impact on their lives when that intervention is needed is tremendous. Women who birthed many years ago under traumatic or frightening conditions remember the anxiety and terror as if it had just happened, and we can’t simply assume that intervention was necessary because mothers didn’t trust enough; this isn’t consistently factually accurate, and the degree to which this belief compounds trauma is unacceptable in a compassionate community.

This is similar to a dynamic I’ve seen in Law of Attraction and Positive Thinking communities. We know that thoughts can shape our reality, and that we attract more of what we focus on. Does this necessarily mean that anyone who experiences trauma, pain, or poverty created it themselves? Can we just assume that the survivor of the crime, of the rape or near-fatal hit-and-run, attracted that experience through their own faulty thinking? Or can we get comfortable with the idea that the rape was the result of the rapist’s faulty beliefs, or the accident the responsibility of the alcohol abuser who drives drunk? Can we accept that while our thoughts shape our realities, that there are other forces at work that likewise shape our realities, and that many of them are out of our control?

Truly, it takes a HUGE investment of emotional commitment, dedication, and passion to walk a path that is not mainstream, and I’d say that neither natural childbirth nor positive thinking are yet mainstream movements, although they both have their followings and seem to be growing in influence. You have to genuinely believe in it to seek out a provider for an unhindered birth, especially in a country where midwifery is not even legal in many states. You have to stay focused to keep your thinking positive in a society that tells you how impotent you are to effect change for yourself or others. It requires a level of passion that isn’t always friendly to complexity, but I’d argue that in order to be truly compassionate movements, we have to embrace at least a little complexity, even if only for the benefit of that small percentage whose trust in birth, or the universe, has not prevented them from experiencing unwanted outcomes.

Let’s use our catchphrases. Let’s trust birth! Let’s accentuate the positive! Let’s know that birth is healthy, normal, and safe! Let’s affirm that what you believe, you receive! But let’s make sure that any time we move our conversations beyond the catchphrases and into real discussion, teaching, and counseling, that we address those other forces at work preemptively, so that people will know that if they fall short of their ideal, it isn’t necessarily their own fault for not trying hard enough. Let’s control everything that we can control, sure, but let’s do it so that we can then let go of those things that are out of our control, which are more than we sometimes realize. This, to me, is the true power of holistic thinking — not only are we freed from limiting thinking that reinforces our helplessness and dependence, but we are also freed from limiting thinking that doesn’t take into account the myriad influences, forces, expressions, and outcomes that are all intermingling in our universe, shaping our lives along with us. That’s true freedom, right there!