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.

The blessings of cycle — managing the depths

Early in 2012, I had the good fortune to go to a weekend workshop led by Matthew Fox, focusing on ecospirituality, social justice, and environmental awareness as a catalyst for spiritual growth. It was an amazing weekend, and I was impressed not only by Matthew’s vibrance, sense of humor, and energy, but also by the depth of his spiritual wisdom. He was not only clearly inspired by and well-versed in a variety of religious traditions other than his own Christian mysticism, but woven throughout his interfaith spirituality were inspiration and spiritual truths drawn from observation of nature.

This is a fundamental premise underlying my own approach to spirituality: whatever the basic physics principles of the universe, whatever biological principles underlie the ecological realities around us, and whatever chemical reactions create destruction, transformation, or buildup — I am a part of that great ecosystem, subject to its laws and consequences, and with the ability to learn more about myself through learning more about my universe. When I read about the mysteries of the pooping habits of sloths, I am fascinated by the sloths themselves, but also wonder which of my otherwise unexplainable behaviors might be influenced by my interdependence with others. When I read about the proposition of the Higgs field and the discovery decades later of its constituent particle, I’m inspired by the imagination and tenacity of some of our world’s greatest scientists and a bit mind-blown at scientific evidence for a field connecting everything, filling all space. I’m also led to wonder what that field might mean to how I interact with others and shape my life, and (metaphorically) what other invisible forces may be changing the trajectory of my life and how I can uncover and explore them. When I think about seasons, I think about how my life cycles through parallel seasons based on the lunar, solar, and human life cycles, and how business, politics, and cultural trends reflect similar overlapping cycles in their expressions.

For Fox’s Creation Spirituality, the cycle follows these four basic elements of our journey: the Via Positiva (“awe, delight, and amazement”), the Via Negativa (“uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go”), the Via Creativa (“birthing, creativity, and passion”), and the Via Transformativa (“justice, healing, celebration”). Many parallels to everyday life, as well as to nature, can be found in this cyclical understanding of spirituality, and all four elements are given space and expression in Fox’s “Cosmic Mass.” Even in more traditional liturgical settings, these four elements can combine to foster self-exploration and healing.

Well before I was familiar with Matthew Fox’s fourfold spiritual journey, I was already following a similar cycle of spiritual development. While cyclical models of spiritual growth, inspired by the earth’s seasons, are a common element of many nature-inspired traditions, the model that spoke to me personally (and has brought about tremendous change and growth in my life) is laid out by Jhenah Telyndru in her book Avalon Within. The cycle begins with the Station of Descent, corresponding to the transition from fall to winter, from evening to night, from third quarter to new moon. This is a time of discerning what shadow issues are in greatest need of attention, and choosing a focus for the coming cycle. Descent is followed by the Station of Confrontation, corresponding to the transition from winter to spring, from midnight to dawn, from new moon to first quarter. This is a time in which the key shadow issues are addressed through meditation, art, prayer, activities, and journaling, to achieve a greater understanding of how they subtly influence your life with the goal of reducing unconscious influences on our thoughts, words, and behavior.

Confrontation is followed by the Station of Emergence, which corresponds to the transition from spring to summer, from dawn to day, and from first quarter to full moon. This is the time when you take what you’ve learned about cycle, life, and yourself during the preceding two stations and begin to put reclaimed energy — energy that had previously been tied up in preserving the status quo and hiding the shadow — to new use manifesting your good and your goals. Emergence is followed by the Station of Resolution, which corresponds to the transition from summer to fall, from day to evening, and from full moon to third quarter. It’s a time to rest in the bountiful harvest of your spiritual work, enjoying the benefits you’ve reaped and joys you’ve manifested even as you begin to look ahead to the return of Descent. Throughout the cycle, and specifically at the transitional times between Stations you enter the Station of Integration, during which you integrate each aspect of the cycle into how you’re living and understanding your spiritual life. (This explanation of cycle is my retelling of how I’m using Telyndru’s model in my own life, not official teaching; for more information on her specific teachings, check out this helpful article, or learn more about the Sisterhood of Avalon.)

So, if we take these two models of cycle spirituality and match them up, we find some similarities:

viasstations

 

Part of the beauty of this kind of intentional cycle is that you can choose to practice it in whatever way works for you. Some people follow an annual cycle that parallels the seasons; others base their cycle spirituality on the transits of the moon, completing one cycle per month. Some follow both — for example working the cycle on a personal growth level on a monthly basis, but on a career or outward goal level on a yearly basis, or vice versa. Some incorporate all elements of cycle into one ritual or liturgy. There’s not a right or wrong way to work the cycle; it’s simply important to realize that it can be worked intentionally.

This is the point in this post where I remind you that if what you’re doing is working perfectly, keep doing it. If you’re focusing only on the ups of cycle — the Via Positiva — and are finding that to be fulfilling and effective, stick with it! For me, however, I found that the aspects of me that would be worked on during an intentional cycle came up over and over again whether I made space for them or not. Each winter, I dealt with what felt like seasonal affective disorder, feeling somewhat powerless over the feelings and past traumas that were working their way into my consciousness. I used affirmations, positive visualization, and meditation, and while I found that they helped, they ultimately provided more diversion than healing. While spring and summer brought relief from intrusive thoughts and depression, I was more aware of their absence than their resolution, and never enjoyed a full sense of peace. And each time that the negative feelings and memories of past trauma would return, it was frequently the same issues that had not been dealt with or resolved in the past (not new issues, or a sense of forward movement). Counseling helped me to explore some of those darker parts of my deep self, but counseling alone did not bridge the space between psychological trauma and spiritual despondency.

Carl Jung, in Psychology and Religion, says:

[M]an is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts. (Emphasis added. Read more by Jung on the shadow.)

There have been times in my journey when I have avoided intentionally exploring and encountering my shadow self. First of all, there’s a huge amount of shame, guilt, trauma, and fright trapped in there, and it’s a normal human fear that opening those gates will let it all out, and it might be more than you can manage.* Secondly, when I’d had enough of this shadow popping up unexpectedly and uninvited, I dove head-on into positive thinking spirituality, only allowing myself to explore and focus on thoughts I felt produced happiness, peace, wellness, and plenty. I loved it when one of my mentors at the time would say, “When you turn on the light, you don’t have to go chase the darkness out with a broom!” What I didn’t realize at the time was how much furniture and clutter had been building up in my soul over the course of my life. Yes, I could turn on the lights, but there were still going to be parts of the room that I couldn’t fully illuminate until I removed the junk that was cluttering up the flow of the light. The darkness might be gone, in general, but the shadows were still there, underneath all my crap.

Did this mean I abandoned positive thinking altogether and decided it was nonsense? For a time, I kind of did. I knew there were great healings I’d experienced and insights I’d gained in building up my positive thinking knowledge, skill, and muscle. At the time, though, the shadow became a more pressing issue for me, demanding my attention and acting out when it wasn’t addressed. Furthermore, some of the hardline positive thinking methodologies seem to explicitly discourage shadow exploration, and I felt like I was stuck in an either-or situation. It took a few more years of fumbling through shadow explorations (occasionally bouncing back around through a positive thinking phase) to find cycle spirituality so clearly expressed in Avalon Within and realize that it provided a solution for finding balance between shadow work and light work. What it boils down to for me is this: I am drawn to light work by natural inclination. desire, and gifts; shadow work is what clears up the energy I need to sustain a solid light work and positive thinking practice.

The beauty of intentional cycle spirituality is that the shadow is not approached as a wild beast to fear, whose presence you may never be able to manage, but as another part of yourself, in need of love, attention, and focus. It’s not a powerful negative spirit or bully; it’s a sad and angry toddler, saying “NO!” and holding your energy hostage until you at least listen to it’s pains and hurts, and agree to “kiss the boo-boos.” You can ignore it while it screams; you can even wait it out, refusing to listen until it becomes a wounded old part of you that no longer cooperates with your intentions or believes in your dreams. Or you can pick it up, start to listen bit by bit as you’re able, and see what you can do to comfort and heal that angry little one. When you enter the cycle, planning to identify a shadow area to work on during this go-round, you aren’t handing control of your life over to the shadow. You are engaging it in dialogue, intentionally and in a structured way that keeps you focused on your spiritual growth. You are exploring this element of your shadow self with the specific intent of removing its secret influence on your attempts at success. You are giving it a finite, contained time period to air its grievances, with the understanding that when the next stage in the cycle arrives, you will be moving on to the next process. You are not drowning in the depths of your shadow self; you’re learning to manage them.

This is where mind-power philosophies come in: You aren’t focusing on the shadow to manifest more of it. You’re setting the intention to explore the shadow for a limited period of time per cycle with the goal to integrate that aspect of cycle into your healthy, whole self — the self that will manifest success, happiness, health, and plenty, and is (personal) self-aware and (Divine) Self-directing.  When you leave the “winter” aspect of cycle, in which you’ve been working with and confronting shadow aspects of yourself, the shadow no longer needs to scream, kick, and holler throughout the year, interrupting your joy and interfering with your success. It knows that after a time, when the season rolls back around, it’ll have another chance to show you what work remains. And with each cycle, your spiral grows wider, with more lessons learned, more challenges overcome, and more clutter removed, allowing even more light to flood into your being.

*Regarding fears that entering into the shadow will release too much of it, visualization can often help allay this fear. For example, imagine that an atmospheric bubble layer of protection surrounds you and is between your conscious self and your shadow elements, and that this special protective substance will only allow things through one at a time, only bringing up those elements that are most essential to your current needs. Of course, if your wounds are profound or you have a mental health diagnosis, you may want to get the help of a professional counselor or minister to help you work through them. Be gentle with yourself, and only do what you are ready to do.

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.

 

Welcoming the new year — an intention tradition!

It’s a new year, and while I don’t tend to get swept up in the cultural to-do list that often surrounds a new year (resolutions, anyone?), I do like to mark the passing of one year into another.

It started in 2009. We had just moved to a new town with a much more spiritually open-minded culture, and I saw a set of prayer flags in a local bookstore while out doing my Yule/Christmas shopping. I picked them up, thinking of all the times I’d admired them in the past but stopped short of buying them. Now, living in a free-spirited, interfaith community, I felt a deep freedom in scooping up this little gift to hang over our front door!

They were opened on Christmas morning, but somehow got left behind in the shuffle of the next few days as we played with new toys, watched new movies, and returned to the flow of work and chores. Then, realizing I’d already waited until the 28th to unwrap them, we made the choice to wait until New Year’s Day to hang them.

2009 had been a big year for my family in many ways. It was a year in which we made a conscious decision to move out of a town that held the security and safety of family nearby (but lacked religious, political, and ideological diversity) and into a small, progressive haven of the southeast. We’d made a choice to move to an area where the prevailing culture would support our intentions to raise our children to be compassionate, aware of social justice issues, attentive to the environment, and encouraged to explore within their hearts and souls for guidance and wisdom. It wasn’t easy to make that move, but it freed our hearts in so many ways!

And so on January 1, 2010, we gathered our children (then ages three through fourteen) into the living room. We sipped some hot cocoa while talking about the past year — its triumphs and heartaches, what worked and what didn’t. Then we passed the prayer flags around the room. Each person took their turn sharing their hopes and dreams for the coming year while holding the prayer flags in their hands. I hoped for more patience as a mother, and to make more time for family; one of my three-year-olds hoped for puppies and rainbows. We each took at least one turn, and after we’d all poured our intentions into the family as well as the flags, we hung them over our main entrance, where they’d fly every day, carrying our hopes out on the wind and serving as a daily reminder of our intentions.

When New Year’s Eve rolled around almost a year later, we had the new set of flags ready to hang the next day! One thing… What to do with the prior year’s flags? It didn’t seem right to leave them hanging, but it also felt odd to just put them in the trash. So, that evening, we passed the old flags around while talking about the prior year. We laughed at funny memories. We shared sentimental feelings about memories from the prior year that had tugged at our hearts. We talked about what we liked, and what we didn’t. And then we started a fire, and burned the old, faded, worn flags. The next morning, we again focused on the coming year as we passed around the new flags before hanging them.

This is a tradition that has stuck with our family over the past several years, and this year we even made our own flags, with most of them hand-dyed.

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Dyed fabric drying

After making a string of flags to hang over our door, we had a TON of extra dyed fabric, so we even made a string of “Joy Flags” to hang out in the yard. We don’t expect to replace those annually with the same intention as our prayer flags, and we filled them with all sorts of things that we like, each member of the family contributing a dozen or so flags to the cause. Our little ones drew pictures of our pets, stick-figure drawings of our family, hearts, and “I Love You.” Our big kids drew symbols and art they find inspiring along with fandom references and funny quotes. Mom and Dad wrote affirmations, drew symbols, and single-word reminders. As they fly in our yard in the years to come (until they become too tattered to leave up), may they remind us of the joy we find in each other, in our family, and in our home and surrounding area.

You don’t have to ring in the new year with “resolutions,” promises, and new pressures on yourself to ring it in with tradition and intention. Heartfelt expressions of joy and gratitude; focusing on a new year filled with love, light, and laughter; and sacred time with simple family rituals — these have the power to change our lives for the better, from our attitudes to our realities, from our families out into the world. May 2014 be a beautiful and blessed year for you and yours.

2014 prayer flags hanging over our door!

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2014 Prayer Flags!

 

 

 

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.