Family, Interdependence, and Mutual Support

Photo by Flickr user Rainier Martin Ampongan
Photo by Flickr user Rainier Martin Ampongan

Over the past few months, a precious person has come closer into my family’s life in such a way that their presence in my home, among my loved ones, has come to feel natural and easy. This is someone I love, someone who adores my children and appreciates my partner of 18 years and whose sweet spirit and vibrant laughter have added joy and mirth to our family home.

Yesterday, they rode with me to drop my freshly-mohawked teenager off at a farm to help with preparations for an upcoming arts camp. I introduced them by name to the camp assistant and walked over to chat with the camp director for a bit. Later, as we got back into the car to head to lunch, I asked what they thought of the farm.

“It was nice,” they said. “I’m glad your children have a place like that. Also, while I was chatting with the camp assistant, she asked if I was family.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes.”

They weren’t wrong.

The meaning the word “family” holds for me is something I’ve given much consideration over the years.

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.

On Being an Occasion of Joy

Decorating the tree in the convent guest house When I was 19, I fell hard into the kind of deep depression that hits college kids whose unstable upbringings, rife with inconsistency and trauma, left them ill-prepared to face the self-direction and responsibility of independence. I didn’t grow up religious despite my father’s attempts to turn visitation weeks into conversions, but had started attending the local Episcopal cathedral months earlier after seeing its stunningly beautiful windows on a historic tour. Having taken basic stained glass courses when I was 18, I’d been mesmerized by the artistry and would sit in a different pew each week, drifting into and out of awareness of the service, eyes trained on the nearest window, lost in contemplation, love pouring in.

When the darkness became too much and I sought more of that love through spiritual care and reflection, I walked into the church library and thumbed through the directory looking for resources, and was hopeful to discover that the Episcopal Church had convents. That afternoon, I dialed the number for the nearest convent, and in that especially dramatic way of depressed 19-year-old artist types with backgrounds in theater, I declared that I couldn’t handle life in the world anymore and that I might want to become a nun. Sister Ann told me that their order was less an escape from the world than a new way of being fully present in it, but invited me to spend Christmas at the convent.

What started out as a holiday visit became several months of me spending every day that I wasn’t in class or at work at the convent, living in the guest house, attending five services a day, helping with maintaining the grounds, and spending as many waking hours as I could in the library, face buried in the works of medieval women mystics….

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Present in Our Bodies: Sensuality, Movement, Feelings, and Joy

people dancing ecstatically, arms in the air

Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.

This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.

people dancing ecstatically, arms in the air
Photo by Flickr user dannysoar

On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.

Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Flow Arts as Spiritual Community

Several years ago, my disillusionment with the spiritual communities available locally bubbled over. Nothing felt like a good fit for me theologically or culturally, and yet I yearned for intentional connection with similarly seeking and passionate people. I needed a community.

My embodied understanding of divinity and search for a non-theological, non-hierarchical, quasi-spiritual community eventually led me to the discovery of flow arts after seeing Beth Lavinder hooping at a public event, recognizing that there was something powerfully transformative happening in her in her hoop practice, and talking to her about how she learned to hoop and what it meant to her. That year, in 2009, I began to take hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, now of Line and Circle. Over time, I worked in a few classes with Baxter from Hoop Path. I became friends with people who spun poi and did aerial silks and worked with fire and felt out the boundaries of the body —  how it moves through its connections with other objects and through space.

What I found in the flow arts community was a shared sense of meaning. The meaning itself wasn’t shared, exactly; just the shared and passionate realization that each of our lives had meaning beyond the minutiae of everyday living, and that this meaning could be explored through the metaphors of how we move through and interact with our tools, how we discipline our bodies to respond to our tools, and how they become extensions of our body once we reach a state called “flow.” In the act of community-based hooping, I found acceptance (of each of us with all our varying levels, ages, and bodies) and cheering of our current skills and encouragement as we learned new, more difficult skills. In the hooping itself, I found new ways of understanding my body, greater patience for myself as I made mistakes on the path of learning, and those cherished moments of bliss in which my body disappeared into the hoop and it into me.

In the hooping community, I found a model for seeking out and creating heart-based community in which people are invited to bring their authentic, whole selves to their work as well as their play. There were hoop classes and hoop jams, but there were also fire festivals and potlucks and social events at which people were able to share who they were, how they were facing challenges, and what they were learning about themselves and their lives. The social was spiritual, in the sense of acknowledging a deep sense of purpose and offering fertile soil for meaning to be sowed and co-nurtured among similarly-impassioned (if not like-minded) people.

While my schedule left me in the periphery of the hooping world for a few years, I returned to a similar community in early 2016 when I finally started attending ecstatic dance. What initially drew me to it was feeling tired of being out of community and anxious socially, and wanting a place in my life in which I could explore interpersonal relationships and communication in a safe space, with safe people. Ecstatic dance, at least in our community, is a 90 minute “dance wave” of music that starts with slow, meditative sounds, works its way up to a high-energy, upbeat middle, and then gradually expands back into a mellow close. Some people come and dance alone for the entire dance each week; others prefer partner dancing. Many make plenty of time for both solo and partner dance. There is no talking on the dance floor; consent is essential, emphasized, and negotiated nonverbally, though just like in everyday friendships, a comfort level emerges with those who dance together regularly and consent becomes less mechanical. Anyone can decline any offer to partner dance gracefully, with no hurt feelings. Gender becomes part of the play, and many who attend consciously break up gender norms in their dress, behavior, and approach – men dance with men, women with women, women with men, and a host of gender-nonconforming folks with everyone, with no expectation that one will lead and the other will follow. Instead, the focus is on paying close attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication and allowing your bodies to match movements, falling into a dance that is comfortable and fun for both of you.

Sometimes this means partner dances are quite intimate – I’ve danced with my body entwined with another, have been part of the swirling 20-person multi-partner dances that sometimes spontaneously occur (I call this phenomenon “the amoeba”), and have ended more than one ecstatic dance wave lying on the floor in the pile of people we like to call the “cuddle puddle,” eyes closed, absorbed in shared bliss, unsure who was holding my hand or whose limb was thrown over my shoulder (or whether it was an arm or a leg). I once spent an entire song with a partner/friend and I holding each other, barely moving except to match the rhythm of our breaths. (The number of people with whom I share this level of intimacy on the dance floor, remains small and controlled – all within my comfort zone.)

Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo
Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo

Other times, partner dances are silly and fun, interspersed with childlike humor, games of peek-a-boo, laughter, and make believe. Sometimes, someone does something playful – starts marching around, or honks like a goose, or takes a friend’s hand and begins a chain of people that weaves in on itself – and others join in, welcoming the chance to play. In our ecstatic dance community, there are performers, singers, voice teachers, artists, and dancers. There are counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and yoga teachers. There are accountants, architects, teachers, developers, researchers, and web designers. There are people in their early twenties, “senior citizens,” and people of all sizes and body types. Each dance flow feels like a lesson — a classroom in which social anxiety, interpersonal skills, jealousy, fear, friendship, and love can all be examined through the lens of dance metaphor.

In this community and the open, safe space it has provided, I have found much of what I had been missing in terms of spiritual community, even as much of my personal theology expresses as solitary activity and I’ve only in recent weeks even attempted to begin to articulate some of my personal beliefs to others. There are no dogmatic rules in ecstatic dance, although non-judgment, freedom of expression, and consent are key ideals. We don’t discuss theology or religious worldviews at dance as a routine, though a sense of gratitude and wonder about the universe, the shared ecstatic bliss of the dance space, and universal and personal growth patterns are regularly discussed as part of our closing circle. In social events outside of official dance spaces, we take opportunities to discuss how we are working these ideals into our larger communities and how they affect our lives. For those who aren’t huggers, none are expected. For those who enjoy touch, long hugs and leaning on friends are the norm.

There’s a lot of crossover between the hooping, ecstatic dance, and other flow arts communities, and many of the friends I’ve made in one of those circles are also involved in others. Talking to them, I know that they also see the connection between flow arts, dance, and the embodied spiritual traditions. If Spirit expresses into the world through us, our words, and our bodies, then conscious exploration of movement and sound, of mindful focus and unthinking ecstasy, and of where self and other meet in communion become ritual acts of growth and devotion to a manifest Love and embodied Divine. Shared in a community without dogma or hierarchy? Just what I needed.

I See You: Can You Feel how Loved You Are?

Source
Source

(Published at Rebelle Society)

I see you.

You may not realize it, but I do.

I see you with eyes shaped by tides and waves, hills and trenches. When your joy explodes into the ether, and when the implosion of sorrow damn near pulls my heart out of my chest and straight into yours, I see you.

I notice you.

The way you reach for words when answers born from old fears rise up against a tentatively opening heart, or when you spin the rings on your fingers as you pretend the surge of decision isn’t rolling heavily across your face and shoulders. You carry all that is life so well, with such grace; do you even know?

Do you realize how beautiful you are when you meet fear with tender strength, or uncertainty with the next step, no matter how tentative? Do you know how you inspire me? Even while fumbling, you’re exquisite. When bliss bursts through your every pore, you are breathtaking…

Read the full post at Rebelle Society

Activism, compassion, and healing — finding balance

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” -Alice Walker

This is a concept that has guided my life for many years now. I’ve volunteered with church groups, youth initiatives, hurricane relief efforts, LGBTQ advocacy groups, and programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. I’ve also answered suicide hotlines, rape crisis hotlines, and facilitated support groups for survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. Wherever someone is, that’s where I’m willing to meet them, and I feel that my own life (and own understanding of the world) are enriched by connecting authentically with people in the darkness as well as the light.

Everyone has their limits, though, and my ability to dive into the depths with those who reach out to me does not mean I am without limits. In order to willingly go there with others, I need to make sure I’m doing the emotional and spiritual work on myself to keep myself healthy so I don’t absorb the problems of others. In order to recover from vicarious exposure to traumatic experiences, I need to carve out time for self-care, which for me includes reading, bubble baths, meditation, exercise, and leisure time with my family. In order to maintain the motivation and passion to continue with activist and advocacy work, I need to limit unnecessary exposure to upsetting or painful stories. It’s one thing — an ideal for me, even — to be able to walk through the darkness with another person in pain with the purpose of being a catalyst for or companion along their healing. It’s something altogether different to turn resistance to trauma into an art form without reason, or make suffering (vicarious or personal) into an ideal. I was first introduced to this concept in my early twenties by a neighbor who was a lightworker and Reiki master. When she told me she never watched television or read the newspaper “to keep from bringing negativity into [her] home,” I was surprised. How do you know what’s going on in the world if you don’t read the news? What if there are things going on that you won’t know about? What if there are things you just won’t know? For someone as addicted to information and knowledge as I’ve always been, it was hard for me to understand why someone would intentionally choose not to know what is happening in the world. How can you do something to help change the world if you do not first learn what issues need attention?

Here’s the thing, though. If I am traveling on a long journey in my car, I can’t just jump in and go. I’m going to have to stop every now and then to refuel, to change the oil, for a tune-up or tire rotation. I’m going to have to give myself time to rest now and then so I’ll be an alert and responsive driver, and I’m probably going to have to occasionally tag-team and let another driver take the wheel for shifts so that I can regroup, refocus, and rest. Long journeys like those toward social change and cultural healing take time, and long-term dedication requires long-term planning. Most of us don’t have the stamina and focus to stick with a passionate issue for years on end without breaks, and the few that do have likely worked significant elements of self-care and self-healing into their daily lives.

In her 2011 TED talk, Joan Halifax mentioned moral outrage as an enemy of compassion. And truly, there are situations that are morally reprehensible, that harm children and innocents, that corrupt the meaning of love, that impede healing, and that cause deep wounds and scars upon the souls of individuals and peoples. For me, the truth of Halifax’s assertion is in the word outrage. When I acknowledge the deep suffering and violence in the world, I accept its existence in a way that allows me to choose how I will direct my healing energy. When I am outraged by suffering and violence, I have already spent energy in my emotional reaction to an event even before I have considered any role I may have in healing and effecting change.

Having come across this TED talk during a time when I was already pondering the balance between activism and inner peace, I was grateful when a friend suggested I also listen to Halifax’s recent interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being radio show. In this interview, Halifax discusses moral distress as experiencing deep empathy for those things we can’t do anything about. Interestingly, Halifax referred to studies in which Tibetan meditators were able to feel empathy for others much more deeply and sorrowfully than the average individual but were also able to let go of it more easily. She attributes this to an enhanced ability to distinguish self from other — those with the grounding of meditation and enhanced feeling of deep compassion still feel the resonance of vicarious suffering, but have a keen awareness that they are not a part of the other person’s suffering.

All of these reflections bring up two insights for me:

1) Activism, though essential to effecting social and cultural change, is only one form of paying your “rent” on the planet. Healing practice and prayer work (provided you aren’t using them as excuses to avoid the realities of the world) can be contributions to the greater good. Working on yourself and maintaining a personal growth program can contribute to the greater good, and are particularly essential when you need to rebuild yourself for another round of activism or healing. Everyday steps to change how you live — recycling, for example, or gardening, cycling to work, or speaking out one-on-one against bullying or bigotry — can be important factors in cultural shifts, both practically and symbolically.

The truth about how we as individuals effect environmental, cultural, and social change may be best illustrated with the concept of cycle. Each of us has different gifts, strengths, and challenges at different times in our lives. Someone who has worked directly with survivors of sexual assault might need to shift to a more theoretical area of advocacy for a time after a personal, triggering experience. Someone who has had a public role in activism and advocacy may choose to take a more private role after going through a rough personal challenge. Sometimes we may burn out on one area of activism and advocacy, but find new energy to give in a different area. Sometimes our work is focused more on the outer, and other times more on the inner. Shifting from a more outer role to focus on inner healing doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle. Shifting from a more political approach to social activism to a more prayer and healing based approach doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, and using the gifts you find in abundance at any one point in time. Likewise, shifting from a more prayer and healing based approach to a more political approach doesn’t make you less spiritual as a person; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, working with the gifts you now find in abundance in your life.

2) Discomfort experienced with purpose (or finding meaning in past traumas) can be a part of compassionate change; we don’t need to intentionally expose ourselves to meaningless negativity, pain, and heartache to be compassionate. Sometimes we will experience sadness and pain that is out of our control, and when that happens we need to allow ourselves space to feel what we feel, to grieve, to rage, and to be real. When it comes to intentional exposure to pain, we must evaluate our choices against a few simple principles. First of all, do we currently have the capacity to work through this pain? No matter how well-intentioned we may be, we do ourselves and others no favors when we willingly walk into pain we cannot currently handle. If we’re feeling sickly or temporarily run down, emotionally overwhelmed, distracted by personal problems, or otherwise not emotionally balanced, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and giving bad advice or establishing unhealthy dependencies with others when we dive into their pain. There’s no shame in acknowledging that now is not the time for us to advocate in the darkness, or in waiting until we’re in a better headspace to do our activism and healing. This isn’t a sign of inadequacy or failure as a healer; it’s a sign of maturity and strength.

Second, is our experiencing this pain going to help us someone else avoid trauma or heal from pain? If we know that reading a tragic news article will do nothing to effect change, but will certainly leave us weepy and troubled for a period of time, we can choose not to read it. If we know that someone is only telling us their traumas to create drama or get a shocked reaction, we can politely bow out of the conversation. If, however, we have an opportunity to grow our awareness of an issue, learn so that we can better advocate, or help another process trauma and heal from it, then we can choose to enter into that relationship knowingly, and with the specified intent of helping to make the world (and the lives of those in it) better. In choosing to stop giving our emotional energy to those situations that would sap our reserves, we build a better supply of healthy emotional energy that we can later use for our chosen purposes, whether they are personal growth and self help, lightwork for the healing of the earth and her people, or political activism for social and cultural change.

Ultimately, how we choose to direct our energies is a personal decision. If you find that you derive some benefit from reading tragic news stories, listening to sorrowful people, or feeling angry about injustice, carry on. If what you’re currently doing is working for you, keep doing it! But if you have found your efforts at healing and activism sabotaged by burnout, moral distress, or “compassion fatigue,” it might be time to start exploring the role of balance in spiritual, personal, and advocacy practice. For me, I choose balance. I welcome the different phases in the cycle of my journey with life.

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.

 

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!