Is it a common occurrence for you to pay attention? How much of your day is spent in the here and now? When you add up the countless hours of television, mindless tasks, ruminating thoughts, and mind-filled wonderings, it can illuminate just how removed from reality our existences can be. We have replaced ritual and meaning with efficiency and tension (the primary factor in attraction and growth) with convenience. In 2015 Microsoft published a study on the attention span of the average American. It might surprise you to learn, says this study anyway, that the average attention span is only 3 seconds. What does this mean? It means that on average, every 3 seconds the human mind is bombarded with a distractor. Could this in part be due to this information age and the replacement of the sensory world?
The Harsh Reality of Our Psychological Desert
Our attention span is shrinking and our chronic distraction behavior ever increases. Distraction has become our oasis and the sensory world the harsh reality of our psychological desert. What can be done? For week 2 of Suicide and the Soul, I want to offer us a way into experience. Namely, the experience of the soul. We use this word often at Barn Life and it gets thrown around in religions, too. But what is the soul? In short, the soul is that which experiences. Soul can be defined as the convergence of the spirit and the material world. This can exist in the body, in the imagination, in the emotional terrain and in our stories. Why do we consider work with the soul to be the primary task in mental health? Soul, when sought after, produces movement into awareness where our truest most meaningful journey can take place.
Listening to the Still, Small Voice
Suicide and suicidal thinking can be understood as an act of the soul. This writing exercise will ask of you a bit more than 3 seconds, and distractions are sure to pry there way in. I want to encourage you to set aside some time for this practice. Stay open and return to the moment. Listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise and remain open to what it has to say. You may find what wants to be said strange or unclear. The secret to the exercise is flow and trust. Be vulnerable enough to go where the pen takes you as if a force beyond your mind’s eye wants to lead the way. Let go and stay with it.
Writing Down the Soul
The exercise is simple. Writing down the soul consists of setting aside a time to observe. To sit or walk or stand without distraction to notice, we allow the experience to enter in. This doesn’t have to take very long. Soon a sensation, physical object, a color, or memory can come to us. Giving attention and naming our experience is a movement from self-rejection to embracing the self as you are. This writing exercise is a way to get past the feeling that you have to fix it. Instead, writing what is as it occurs to you acknowledges the relationship with what comes in and what goes out. Here, with a free hand, we become present to the inner world through the outer world.
Writing to Regain Perspective
Naming our experiences helps to shape our perspective. I offer you a resounding assurance that the unconscious is patiently waiting for you. Through a playful opening to what reveals itself, no matter how trivial, the part that is curious in each of us that wants to live begins again. Writing in this way can help us to regain a perspective. Furthermore, should your pen take you to the worst in you and the harsh or despairing voice find its way to the paper, understand that this, too, connects us to healing and turns us toward the light. Another Stanford study showed that it is better to feel sadness than to feel nothing because to feel is to carry us forward. When feelings take form, it offers us a way forward – an expression that so desperately needs to get out.
Enter Into the Experience
In suicidal thinking often it is the big fantasy that dies. What we need is the experience and story of something smaller and more human. The soul is not gone, lost, or beyond our reach. What we must do is enter into the experience without grand expectations. Pick a place and put the phone down. Turn off the television and the easy consumption. Breathe and look around. What grabs your attention in this moment? Begin to write and relate. Whether the words make sense to you or not, the sharing of an honest moment holds great power. The soul gets to speak, and the experience gets to find meaning. I leave you this week with a poem by David Whyte that I feel captures how we can find meaning in the space around us as we open to the here and now.
Everything Is Waiting for You
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you. –David Whyte
Early in my depth-psychological studies, I was drawn to the artwork of John William Waterhouse. His paintings capture the great drama of many mythic and fairytale images. I’d sit in a sort of meditation looking at the orchestra of expression. This amplification practice helped me experience vivid psychological structures both universal and personal. These were the archetypes personified after all. During this time, I started to collect reprints of some of his more popular paintings. My home and office displayed radical instincts and narratives of psychological life that felt quite charged. My home and office had become an external display of the process of individuation where unconscious contents could be contained and expressed through these images. Well, let’s just say that this got out of hand. in fact, with time my own restless existential occurrence paralleled and was exacerbated by my home and work environments. Spaces became psychoactive!
The Externalized Object and the Psychoactive Image
I start our theme this week on the subject of the externalized object and psychoactive image because, as we look to the myth of Narcissus, I think it an interesting consideration how we decorate our worlds around us with the familiar, the provocative and the taboo. What world do we create around us through others, art, and more? If you take a look at the clothing we wear, the symbols we gather, we begin to see where we find our reflection. Does this not say significant things about ourselves? Our fantasies? And our desires? When, for me, the desire for individuation and reconciliation of scattered parts dominated my life, Waterhouse brought some formations to light.
Synchronistic Trickster Experiences
The unconscious often comes through as synchronistic and as trickster experiences we can find frustrating or even humorous. The last reprint I ordered of Waterhouse’s work was Echo and Narcissus. I intended to order a small reprint, roughly 2 feet by 1 foot. When the painting arrived, to my utmost surprise, it was huge! Here I wanted a small example of the narcissistic drive and I end up with the largest canvas of them all! I laughed hysterically as I hung giant Narcissus himself above my mantle. A fun topic between friends and my partner! He stayed with me for over a year!
Echo and Narcissus
Waterhouse illustrates the Greek story of a young male possessed by his fascination with his own reflection. On the other end of the painting, his counterpart (often the other aspect of the archetypical whole figure) gazes in longing toward him. She is desperate, her breast exposed. It’s an available and nurturing compassion paired with great longing and despair. Our arrested obsession with our image can introduce great insight, understanding, appreciation, and even love of our own features. However, in compensation, relationships feel estranged, emotional life, comfort, and nourishment often unattended. Who is this other figure? She is the nymph Echo, heartbroken that all Narcissus can hear and see is himself. Rumor has it she dies of heartbreak and loneliness in nearby caves. Today we hear our own Echo and remember her ghost.
The Experience of the Narcissistic Psyche
This divide captures the experience of the narcissistic psyche. On one hand, healthy narcissism lets us see ourselves. For example, attempts at finding the positive and studying our personhood can bring us insight and confidence. In contrast, when in excess or possession we lose intimacy. Indeed, like the sun at the center of the universe, our own subjective perspective dominates all. Things, others, and ideas are no longer real to the narcissistic. Instead, all falls to personal preservation and must be controlled. In narcissism, the fragile parts cannot be soothed therefore must be rejected. In fact, to feel vulnerable is to bounce the ideal image back into view as compensation. To be ordinary, unknowing and a part of the human experience, in exchange with the existential crisis of life proves overwhelming. Echoes are safe, predictable, and controllable. In a full-blown diagnosis, one cannot live outside this terror.
The Inflated Presentation of Rightness
I think it important to look at narcissism from the perspective of disorder. We can benefit greatly both for ourselves and our work with clients when we consider the severe fragility of the ego that lies behind the inflated presentation of rightness. Like all personality disorders, the defenses are inherently necessary to maintain any sense of self at all. Just like emotional deregulation and the Medusa-defenses of borderline personality disorder, we cannot confront, bring this down, and expect a catharsis. One must confront the narrative entrapment and recognize there is need for dissolution and reformation of ego identity. In many ways, that giant painting on display personifies the need to hold the image close and in eyeshot of our daily life.
The Vulnerable Behind the Inflated
In short, narcissism hides the vulnerable behind the inflated. Narcissism looks like strength but masks a Gollum-like soul, often starved, mistrusting, and neurotic. Cliché as this may sound, love is our best medicine. The reformation of ego identity comes only through the dissolution of the illusion. In therapy, we have to tread softly while strengthening our own sense of boundary. Agree where we can and come to the narrow bridge, walk the tight rope. The way through is by the subtle confessions that presenting veneers are not the whole expression of a person.
This week, let’s work with the following questions:
1. Who do I present myself to be?
2. Who do I want to convince myself I am? (My best)
3. Who am I afraid to admit that I am?
4. What does the voice of the inferior in me want to say to me?
You may never see it coming. The defenses can be aggressive, frigid, fiery, slithering, and destabilizing. Not too long ago I entered a women’s mental health inpatient to run a weekly group. Client rotation is common so meeting new faces is part of the job. I wore a t-shirt under my blazer with the image of the Greek Medusa displayed on my chest and introduced myself. A new client asked what I meant to say by wearing the shirt. I said that I guess it’s a reminder that sometimes our defenses come from deeper wounding. That attacks like these can make us feel like stone and that for any of us that have gone through traumatic mistreatment we can benefit a great deal from getting to know the slithering serpents in our hair.
A Twisting and Passion Filled Assault
I did not expect the response I received. Her face was bright red. She accused me of being insensitive and an “asshole.” I tried to listen, apologies and clarify but it was too late.There was no room for repair. I felt frozen. Turned to stone. My words fell on deaf ears. She rejected outright my strong care for her emotions and I met a twisting and passion-filled assault. How incredible that 10,000 years later and the mere image of Medusa invokes a psychoactive response! Her story is the story of the overactive defenses of the wounded. I start this week’s theme with my story because it illustrates what working with some trauma survivors can feel like. While a diagnosis can offer us the nuts and bolts of a disorder, I want to focus instead on the idea of disorder itself.
The Personification of Borderline Personality Disorder
We might say that Medusa personifies a borderline personality disorder. Of the 9 criteria for the diagnosis, she demonstrates in her story at least 7 of them. But what I’m interested in this week is not the criteria of borderline personality disorder, but the pathology. Pathology refers to the sequence, the phenomenon, the experience rather than the behavioral criteria. A disorder is a more appropriate word in my view than diagnosis. Because to be “dis-ordered” is to have all the right pieces, only out of reasonable or functional order. Disorder implies not that someone is broken or missing pieces but instead has a tangling of parts. All the parts are there, and somewhere in-tact. What is lacking is the tact itself.
Our Delicate and Sensitive Work
In personality disorder, our delicate and sensitive work revolves around the recognition that the decision to overprotect oneself has turned pathological. That is, gone to such extremes that we are not experiencing relationship with self and others in healthy intimacy. Instead, defenses distort and prevent secure attachments. Stability comes in the form of defenses and prevents us from thriving in constructive relationships. Can we heal borderline traits? Studies on intensive DBT treatments tell us yes. With proper trust and safety, telling someone they meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder is ultimately constructive. To be clear: untangling the connection between empowerment and defensiveness is tricky work and belongs to the slow ego re-formation that comes through empathic understanding.
Medusa and Perseus
Let’s look in brief at the arc of Medusa and Perseus. Perseus is charged with the heroic task of obtaining the head of Medusa. To put it another way, by mastering the monstrous defenses of emotional trauma the hero then has access to her power. We can see Perseus, too, as an inner figure. The one who confronts and strives to overcome our disorders must square off with Medusa. I think it is important to note that this is not about conquering her, though that is the popular seasoning. Instead, Perseus shows Medusa herself- offering no interpretation, no aggressive attack, no attempts to overpower. A silver mirror presents a simple, voiceless reflection of her own image.
The Skill of Medusa
Perseus gains the skill of Medusa and shows her face to the monster of Poseidon – the Kraken. The sea of our emotions has many monsters and to win the gift of Medusa’s stare is to know when and how to freeze lethal enemies. She is a gift. Our wounding and our defenses have worth and will support us in the right ways once dislodged from the body of terror. The trick is in knowing the difference between a lethal enemy and an imposing reality. In other words, when Medusa runs the show, all are threatening. When the inner ego (hero) gains her strengths and can be shielded from her wrath there is great power and healing that can take place.
The Silver Mirror of Perseus’ Shield
Today, we know Perseus by many names. He goes by cognitive restructuring, emotional regulation, the spectral chart, emotional transference therapy, and many more. Any practice in mindfulness is a look into the silver mirror of Perseus’ shield. Learning to observe and self reflect IS THE SKILL. As staff, I am encouraging us to work with the emotional deregulation of clients with a softer eye. Rather than attempting to interpret, learning to be grounding and curious. To join with activated dysregulation may sometimes not be an option. In defensiveness, all we can offer is our own boundaries. This week I will be teaching on maintaining healthy relationships with borderline tendencies as partners, therapists and family members. I encourage you all to make some extra room in your relationships with clients (for staff members) and with staff members (for clients). The only way through disorder is untangling the story and the only way to untangle the story is to give it our undivided attention. May we all find the solutions in our symptoms and the passions in our wounding.
What makes up a marriage? Is it an outdated construct that reflects religious themes and rejects the instinctual nature of our existence? Some may say yes, others no. Today, we enter the idea of marriage to others with a mixed bag of unconscious factors. These often include moral ideas loosening from the gods they once belonged to. I don’t begin this weekly theme painting a bleaker picture of marriage to take a position on the institution. Rather, I want to provide some context for what modern marriage is up against.
The Organizing Principle
Our ancestors belonged to communities well established in the name of religious doctrine. Only one hundred years ago a new town would establish itself around a church steeple at its center. In the image of the mandala, this represented the focal point of the constellating community life. In other words, the organizing principle that the community belonged to. When we look at the building of towns and cities today, what do we find at the center? Banking. The god of economy tells us our place of belonging. Is it any wonder divorce, addiction, and suicide are at an all-time high? How loving and virtuous is your bank?
An Uncanny Reflection
The heart of the sacred communion of marriage has lost circulation through the body of our communities. What was once upheld by belief and support now wobbles down market street with empty pockets and a mental disorder. Our own relationships reflect, to this end, a deep need for a spiritual ground. They are a making conscious of our biases and a perspective of the soul in the institution of our partnerships.
Making Conscious the Unconscious
This week I want us to consider partnerly relationships of all sorts to be a kind of marriage. As of the three marriages we have been discussing these past weeks, the marriage to others I believe to be the most accessible and workable in mental health treatment. Now, for the most part, our work at Barn Life does not deal directly with a partnership, but we do, maybe without realizing it, work indirectly as we help to make conscious the unconscious structures, beliefs, and patterns that underlie our deepest bonds. Partners no longer need to be our client’s mothers, fathers, abusers, saviors, martyrs when they begin to manage the projection onto them. As we experience these projections as our own, we also find the room to heal.
Back to the Beginning
In The Three Marriages, David Whyte suggests that our marriages to life partners are often confused with our answers to life responsibilities. If I get the milk than that makes up for my existential angst. If we fight it out that’s my way of working through my own insecurities and so on. This kind of allegiance, in part, will always exist in our very human unfolding together. A true relationship can only thrive when the responsibility falls to the individual for the individual’s fulfillment. Scary as this may sound, there is NO SUBSTITUTE for the first marriage – the marriage to one’s own self. Let’s think upon our beliefs about relationships, the origins of those beliefs, and the consequences of those beliefs both good and bad. How in the presenting situation are we learning to see more consciously our fantasies and beliefs about our relationships?
I wish I knew the beauty
Of leaves Falling
To whom are we beautiful
As we go?
There once lives a king, long before our histories. He sat at the center of a thriving united kingdom. His subjects were joyful. His lands were ripe, green and beautiful. One day the king was walking in the gardens to the west when, like a fish hook, his gaze was reeled to the sight of a single, brown spot on the leaf of a rose bush. He pondered at the deadening spot for day and night as if possessed. The king could not help but stare with all earnest as he watched the gradual decay spread from leaf to stem to branch to roots. Flowers began to die by the thousands. The rains did not seem to come, and, in time the entire kingdom was in grave despair.
Marriage to the Self
In, week 2 of the Three Marriages we take a look at the marriage to the self. Who is the self? And what does it mean to invest our time, energy and effort into it. We may, on the surface be thinking the self is simply how we feel or making ourselves into who we want to be. We may stand up for and defend a sense that we have the right to be happy or treated fairly, loved unconditionally, supported, saved, received, and ok with things. Should we consider the self In terms of our expectations will surely come to some horrible let down. Our realizations that no one will live our lives for us, no one will offer the perfect medicine or promise the world, leaves will indeed die and the bliss of innocent perfectionism will painfully disappoint.
Talk of the self in such broad strokes can leave us wondering and wandering. The reality is that the self, that inner me and inner you, belongs not to our best or our worst, but instead to the world. It is not the self that creates our lives, nor is it our lives that create the self. By definition to be connected with the self is simply that. A connection.
Confronting Great Mystery and Adversity
To look within is not for the faint of heart. In our inner being, we confront great mystery, great adversity, fear, doubt, even badness. The self is not purified, not always kind, not even realized completely. From the self we experience all the instincts to love and take chances, to hope and dream, to step through the window and risk for our greatest longings. But also, the self may completely destroy what we think we are, at least on the surface. The ego and the self are not always the best of friends. Our versions of the story we like best, the hard-knock truths we demand to live by and expect of others are of no consequence to the self. Our truest being is always there, beneath the layers of how we think things should be.
A Reminder From David Whyte
David Whyte tells us a few things to remember when braving the inner world and searching out the experience of being one with what is within us. Firstly, Whyte wants us to know that life is where we leap. When we think about our passions, there requires a renewed innocent hope in order for our efforts to really come from the soul. In whatever experiences present themselves to you and me today, it is important to attend to the innocent hopes. Some of us may feel worn, beaten and even betrayed by life, and yet, the willingness to dream carries the soul onward. In part, this week I want to emphasize the role of hope.
Making Room for the Stirring of the Soul
If we are to commit to a marriage with the self we have to make room in the mundane, broken and hopeless for the stirring of the soul. Rather than forcing our energy into what we cannot change, what if we could come to an awareness of where the energy imagines itself toward? Can we help ourselves and our clients by making room for these surfacing hopes? Of course, our perfect images do not come to pass, in fact, they may not come at all, but the drive is inextricably linked to our hope. For the first glimpse of the self, everything must be possible. We have to step toward that light of possibility that expands the reaches of the self into a deeper and more profound experience.
An Unavoidable Truth
Secondly, Whyte offers that the pursuit of the self begins when we accept that human anxiety is endless and constant. There will always be waves of existential anxiety that knock over the surface self. The true self is that which remains. In each death and rebirth, every loss or inconceivable hijinks, the remainder is what always was and ever will be. A presence, an experience that we do not control nor manage, a truth that cannot be claimed only experienced. This is difficult to imagine primarily because we fixate ourselves in the throes of winning and losing.
An Active Relationship
Whyte says, “In the pursuit of the self we cannot get there from here. We get there to begin with by stopping” (p. 185). Stopping is not a passive surrender, but an active relationship. In all true connections, stopping allows us to look at the world as if we have seen it for the first time. Stopping reminds us that everything we strive to keep alive, keep permanent, keep secure, is simply a pit stop along the way. We ourselves are impermanent beings. To act in fear is to act as if we and our surface selves are immortal.
Tearing Down the Scaffolding
Why do we avoid intimacy with our relationship with the self? Because it means facing all the lies that scaffold who we think we are. Everything we work so hard to be in the relationship with the self must undergo the natural decay that accompanies our mortality. We look to the youthful hope that can ever drive us onward as we simultaneously learn the beauty in the surrender of the versions of life we claim as right.
Welcoming Loss As Growth
I remind clients often, and as I write this I remind myself that our work is not to gain but to lose. Our work is to strive and to welcome loss as growth. This week we come to the threshold between taking action and stopping to notice the withering leaves. What is dying must be embraced and what grows must first be planted. How can we support each other this week sorting the seeds of this surface self and the truest constancy of being?
I close with my favorite verse of the Tao Te Ching:
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.
When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.
Dr. James Hillman once said that our modern culture worships two gods above the rest: economy and psychology. Today, individuals revolve like constellating planets around these two universal structures. Less common are the words love, soul and destiny. Both the individual and the collective interact with these energies mythically. In such significant times as these, as we face the existential angst brought on the pandemic, we can readily see how these two vessels host our emotional, intellectual and imaginal lives. Many of us turn to the practical steps for answers, paying our respects to the god of economy. Others, turn more so to the psychological fantasy of growth. “I am working on myself… managing my anxiety… trying to stay positive.” And who can blame us? These altars bare all our best intentions and hopes, our efforts and activities.
David Whyte and The Three Marriages
In The Three Marriages, David Whyte argues that the soul must learn to find the common threads within 3 major areas of life. Says Whyte, “we are collectively exhausted because of inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way” (Whyte p. 9). Just as economy and psychology occupy our devotional lives, so our distinctive parts must be teased out from dogmatic practices and brought together again with new depths and understandings which lead to new behaviors and attitudes. We undergo tremendous exile from the norms as our rituals to the gods of finances and self-care fall to disruption. What once went to routines now beckons deeper questions and cooks with the heat of transformation. What once was occupied by work now paints, screams, dances, journals, and condensates on the exterior of the glass vessel.
Emotional Expression and Emergent Life
Whyte says, “the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble” (p.13). Our “marriages” must undergo some painful realizations. Clients no doubt are asking big questions about what it is that truly holds them together. To be ok with not being ok is no small feat. As we sift through the areas of necessity for survival and well being, perhaps this is a good time to find the common threads between our values. Over the coming weeks, we are going to take a look at Whyte’s model for the three marriages Spending time in what hosts meaning will support our staff and our clients in the re-visioning work at hand. Fire dries up the moisture and new life emerges from the completed cooking of emotional expression. Let’s get it out!