October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates.” ~Steven Kotler
“When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction—whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music—she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. “ ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is that feeling of being in “the zone,” when every choice you make lands perfectly, gaining momentum & feeding itself. The musician in the groove, the surfer united with the wave. The great conversation in which you lose track of time.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who first pioneered the concept of “flow” as a study—has observed the commonality between all these states of optimal performance. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” summarizes flow as a state of “near-perfect decision-making.”
Csikszentmihalyi performed the largest global happiness survey to date. “He talked to everybody that he could possibly imagine,” relays Kotler.
“From Detroit assembly line workers to Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Navajo sheep herders, expert dancers, expert neurosurgeons. Everybody agreed that when they felt their best and were at their best, they felt flowy. Every decision, every action led perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly to the next. That’s where the term comes from.”
Neurobiolgically, it is possible to pinpoint exactly what is happening during flow states: the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates. This is the area responsible for executive functioning or self-monitering. Management of cognitive processes like the judgement of good & bad/better & best, as well a social control—like the ability to regulate urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. We become less self-critical & more courageous.
The brain—taking up just 2% of our body weight & using 20% of our energy—is required to be extremely energy efficient. When resources are needed for concentration & attention, it performs an efficiency exchange & switches to subconscious processes, which bypass the inner critic & draws on a larger reservoir of knowledge.
During flow the brain releases a cascade of pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide & serotonin flood our system. These chemicals—the most addictive cocktail the brain can produce—have considerable impact on creativity.
“Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information,” details Kotler. “They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”
When the brain encounters the overwhelming complexity of a starry sky or a grand canyon, “reality seems to pause, if only for a second,” relates Kotler. “The conscious mind—what’s technically called the ‘explicit system’—can only hold about seven bits of information at once. This is why phone numbers are only seven digits long.
“But the subconscious mind—the ‘implicit system’—has no such limit. Thus, when we encounter overwhelming complexity, we trade conscious processing for subconscious processing.” (“The Rise of Superman.”)
Flow state can be broken down into a four stage cycle.
The first is struggle. Though it feels like the opposite of flow, this is the brainstorming stage, the period of pushing, reaching, training. Overloading the brain with information or taxing the body with new challenges.
“Most people never push this first stage far enough,” notes Kotler, “which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow experience.”
Relaxation is the second stage.
“This is when you take your mind off the problem entirely, taking a break, going for a walk or doing something physical,” remarks Kotler. He notes that it’s not the same as watching television or some other distraction that keeps your brain busy. “It’s about relaxing the brain so the conscious mind lets the subconscious mind take over. Many people miss this break and as a result are constantly in overload and burnout, missing flow altogether.”
The third stage is Flow—that blissful, much-sought state of being. This is the experience of optimal performance. Self & time disappear. The inner critic takes a break. Action & awareness become one. Preparation meets relaxation & expresses itself almost magically. Inspiration takes over.
Consolidation concludes the cycle. Learning & memory are amplified, synthesizing the experience of flow & folding it back into your subconscious in preparation for returning to stage one. As the feel-good neurochemicals of flow recede, it can be easy to “go on a down,” Kotler notes, which leads to an emotional reaction—& often self-sabatoge—in an attempt to regain the flow state.
“The key here is not to let this stress block the learning or reverse the results of being in flow, but to move smoothly back to the next phase of struggle and repeat the cycle.”
Part Two Coming Soon!
May 10, 2014 § 15 Comments
“Whenever there is a strong lock used there is something extremely precious hidden. The thicker the Veil, the more valuable the jewel. A hoard of treasure is guarded by a large snake; do not dwell on the hideousness of the snake, contemplate the dazzling and the priceless things you’ll discover in the treasure.” ~ Rumi
“Men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.” ~Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:2
Just like a snake, we must periodically shed our outgrown psychic skins.
During a time when this need is pressing, the snake becomes uncomfortable. From the outside he may appear sick—his skin dull & ragged. He feels— he knows!—something is wrong & has to change. Something must be done! Intuitively, he begins the shedding process by rubbing his deadened dermis against rough surfaces. It is painful, but he feels compelled. When he is finally free of the outdated layer, he is more luminous & vital than ever!
This natural process reflects our own need to periodically embark upon an inner journey of self-renewal.
When it’s time for a sloughing off of psychic weight—outmoded belief systems, behaviors, situations—we are alerted by a sense of palpable emotional discomfort.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of distraction, where the numbing of emotional pain is par for the course.
Television, comfort food & alcohol are some popular forms of socially acceptable self-numbing. However, those modalities are at least straightforward, in that they are acknowledged as being distractions.
More insidious, because it is rewarded & ennobled, is the “busyness” phenomenon. Because productivity has tangible positive results in one’s life, it’s also an extremely good cover story for not doing much needed inner work.
If we feel emotionally uncomfortable within ourselves & dive headlong into (outer) work, we may feel temporarily better because we are not engaging with the difficult emotions pressing at our awareness. When we come home, we’ve worked hard & are, understandably, tired. The last thing we want to do is engage with challenging questions & uncomfortable emotions. So the “I-worked-hard-I-deserve-it” syndrome sets in—we flip on the TV or the computer, grab a beer—& maintain a vicious cycle of almost unrecognizable escapism that can go on for years.
“For many years,” relates blogger Gabby, in her post “Escapism As A Lifestyle.” “I worked two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet. A few weeks ago, I quit my regular weekend job. It was such a relief to know I wouldn’t be working weekends anymore. I did not expect the panic that would invite itself to my table and have coffee with me in the morning. For me [it had been] a means of escaping. Being so busy I didn’t have the time to look at myself and think about what I really want out of this ‘one wild precious life’.
“I panicked and started filling up my life with other things, just to keep me busy. It took only about two weekends of this before I realized what I was doing. Which is good, because not all that long ago, it may have taken me years to figure out what I was doing.”
Unshed psychic skins begin to take their toll. We feel a vague sense of discomfort that may be hard to name. Perhaps we feel anxious or disconnected from a certain aliveness we recall having once felt, but we’re not sure how to get it back.
“Numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating,” notes Brene Brown, “because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” (“Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live.”)
Everything living requires renewal. Our cells shed automatically, but our emotional life requires more intentionality. If we don’t consciously process our feelings—heal our old emotional wounds, address our pain & pressing questions—we begin to suffocate under their weight.
Unfortunately, the signs of needing self-renewal mimic the symptoms of depression & anxiety—human experiences which modern psychiatry is all too eager to label a condition, prescribe pills & call it a day.
The blogger of “Spiritual Emergency” writes about her experience of what a traditional western worldview would categorize as schizophrenia, which she processed through a mystical-transformative-shamanic lens. Noting that this approach empowered her to find her true self & center, she observes:
“Mainstream reductionist psychiatrists […] by and large presume that if an experience (such as chronic depression) is unpleasant, it must be stopped or band-aided, but because an experience is painful or difficult, it doesn’t necessarily follow that’s it’s not valuable, or therapeutically worthwhile as a ‘wound which heals’.”
There are many times in my own journey when, if I had regarded my feelings of emotional discomfort—or “anxiety & depression” as we commonly define them—as simply a chemical imbalance & not the voice of a buried aspect of myself trying to come through & tell me what was untended in my life, I would never have found that next “trapdoor” into a deepened, expanded level of being.
In our lives, we periodically come across what appear to be ceilings in our personal-growth & sense of wellbeing. They always, however, contain trapdoors. You just have to keep feeling around for where the door to the next level is hidden…
Releasing old pain is an essential aspect of the art of self-renewal.
For me, finding that trap door has involved radically honest self-reflection & the willingness to face & experience my unresolved emotional pain head-on. We have to keep in mind that having emotional pain does not make us defective, it makes us human (at least, humans of this current un-enlightened age of Earth).
“Grieving is an intrinsic part of the healing process,” notes psychotherapist Daniel Mackler in “Grieving The Ultimate Loss: Your Imperfect Parents.” “Everybody suffers loss, right from the beginning. The primary loss is the fact that no parent, at least no parent who is not fully enlightened, is perfect. Grieving is long, painful, and confusing, but richly rewarding. Life is not complete unless all traumas are unearthed, grieved, and thus resolved. Those who fail to complete this process live forever in a limbo of partial misery, stuck unconsciously in the past and unable to escape […]
“Most believe that a healthy life feels no pain. This is why the majority are insane. Avoiding all pain is not healthy. Grieving is horribly painful, and totally necessary. Grieving is beautiful.”
A heart-healing excercise I’ve found helpful is to, in a manner of speaking, go to my heart & “knock there” to see what needs processing. This involves first finding/creating a peaceful, meditative & relaxed state, then putting one’s attention on the area of the heart.
How does it feel? Often, our first response is that we feel nothing. Don’t let this deter you. We live mostly with protectively blocked heart chakras, because our world is harsh & our culture does not encourage inner excavation as the essential part of life’s journey that it is. Keep inquiring. Meditate on the heart & eventually you will begin to receive impressions. What psychic swords are still stuck there?
Using symbolic imagery like this is useful. Just as our subconscious communicates with our conscious mind in symbols, so, too, the heart speaks.
Try mentally pulling a psychic sword out of your energetic heart. Who, or what experience, put it there? Asking yourself these kinds of questions can be very useful in identifying the areas of one’s emotional life which need attention. By attention, I mean simply confrontation (identifying & feeling the emotion). This alone will start the process of release & consequently, healing.
The idea of the heart as the locus of man’s emotional life is not accidental. Mystical traditions of both East & West have long embraced the idea of a heart chakra. In today’s climate of materialist cynicism, it’s all too easy to see the heart as simply an organ whose function is to pump blood to the rest of the body.
As with everything, there is an exoteric function to the heart & an esoteric one. The invisible life of the heart is a very real thing. It is truly the compass for our life’s direction. And too often unhealed emotional pain—like a snake’s unshed skin—blocks our connection to our greatest resource.
Clearing the emotional cobwebs, which block connection with our internal compass, is a key step in self-renewal.
I am also a strong advocate of art therapy & the cathartic value of creativity. It’s a myth that some people are creative, while others are not. Creativity is inherent in human nature. Some people may have nurtured specific modalities & refined their skills for particular crafts, but everyone can self-express if they simply allow themselves the space to play.
Creating a painting, song, collage, poem, short personal essay, etc. expressing the feelings you’ve unearthed in your heart work is richly rewarding. It’s as though one has coughed up one’s pain & caught it in the butterfly net of art, wherein it is transmuted into something positive. Transmutation is a powerful act.
It can be particularly rewarding if you continue to craft a piece from a rough, private catharsis to a polished, artistic offering. My book of poems, “Pollen,” is largely a result of processing my father’s untimely death & the consequent existential crisis that ensued. When readers write to tell me that the work has moved them & helped them with their own process it is doubly rewarding. Like oysters, we can transform our painful sand grains into luminous pearls. Thus is the redemption of art.
Once the initial malaise has begun to clear through processing, intentional visioning—identifying meaningful goals—is a helpful step to continue momentum.
Vision boards are popular these days for a reason…They’re fun! Compiling representative images of your goals in an inspirational collage is a greatly constructive form of play. More tangible & exciting than a list.
Another method is to work “backwards” by writing down the ways you wish to feel, and then making note of what actions & activities promote this feeling.
So if you’re feeling stuck, don’t worry! It’s simply time for an internal house cleaning. And Spring is a natural season for it.
If you’re feeling lost, do not lose heart. While it’s true life does not, as is commonly bemoaned, come with instructions, you come with a compass—your own inner guidance system, the heart. The connection has just likely been muted & clogged with unprocessed emotion. A little catharsis & honest self-reflection, followed by constructive action, will do wonders.
If you’re feeling depressed, don’t buy the hype; our society is so afraid of unpleasant feelings, it has instilled in us an unhealthy fear of challenging emotions. Depression, like physical pain, is just our system alerting us that something requires attention. Modern culture is pathologically fixated on happiness, with an equally pathological rejection of unhappy feelings. This is a recipe for disaster! Ironically, the only way to reach true inner peace & wellbeing is to traverse the psychological labyrinth surrounding the proverbial treasure.
These are all simply symptoms of the need for self-renewal, rejoice! And enjoy the journey.
March 31, 2014 § 29 Comments
“Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent & incomplete.” ~ Leonard Koren
“Wabi is the beauty that springs from the creative energy that flows in all things, animate or not. It’s a beauty that, like nature itself, can appear with dark and light, sad and joyful, rough and gentle.” ~ Makoto Ueda
“Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed.” ~ Joe Hefferon
The term Wabi-Sabi represents a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that embraces authenticity over perfection.
Characterized by asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity—modesty & intimacy—wabi-sabi values natural objects & processes as emblems of our transitory existence. Rust, woodgrain, freckles—the texture of life.
Developed in the 15th century in reaction to the lavish, ostentatious ornamentation of the aristocracy, wabi-sabi centers around three principals: “nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished.”
“The initial inspiration for wabi-sabi’s metaphysical, spiritual, and moral principles come from ideas about simplicity, naturalness, and acceptance of reality found in Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism,” notes Leonard Koren (“Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers.“)
Though the concept of wabi-sabi is vast & elusive, most agree the closest Western translation is “rustic.”
“Wabi” refers to stark, transient beauty, while “sabi” denotes the poetry of natural patina & aging, with undertones of yūgen—profound grace and subtlety. Age, damage & natural processes are not seen as flaws, but as deepening & enriching an object’s beauty & profundity.
It is not only natural process that wabi-sabi celebrates, but subtlety & suggestion.
“Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest,” details Robyn Griggs Lawrence, “the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree …. the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time…”
Intentionality is key.
“Wabi-sabi is never messy or slovenly,” adds Lawrence. “Worn things take on their magic only in settings where it’s clear they don’t harbor bugs or grime. One senses that they’ve survived to bear the marks of time precisely because they’ve been so well cared for throughout the years.”
To find beauty in imperfection is not intuitive to the Western mind.
Not only have we been raised in a consumeristic culture that values the new & the flawless over the old & the damaged—from objects to people, an obsession fed by airbrush-heavy advertisers—but our entire Western worldview is based on the ancient Greek philosophies of symmetry, proportion & idealized beauty. Not acceptance of what is, but glorification of what could be.
Wabi-sabi finds beauty & value in what is.
It is, Lawrence notes, “everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed.
“Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.” (“Wabi-Sabi: The Art of Imperfection.”)
In this modern age we find ourselves increasingly alienated from the real.
The texture of life is more & more digitized. We are programmed to seek newer, sleeker, faster technologies—bombarded with images of younger, smoother, more mannequin-like faces as the height of beauty.
It is a ripe time to recall & explore the ancient wisdom of wabi-sabi.
As Billie Mobayed famously noted: “When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.”
In an age when broken things are sooner thrown away than honored for their history we can apply this beautiful concept to ourselves.
Though our hearts may bare metaphorical fractures, in the light of our acceptance & reverence, we fill its fissures with gold. For what is more valuable than experience?
Through the wisdom of wabi-sabi we can again begin to appreciate the texture of life—as expressed through human authenticity & natural process.
Perfection has a hallow ring next to the real.
*If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: “Authenticity & The False Self”
January 23, 2014 § 4 Comments
“All human beings are also dream beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.” ~ Jack Kerouac
“Yet it is in our idelness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” ~ Virginia Woolf
“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” ~ Sigmund Freud
Bewildering, inspiring, sometimes horrifying, embarrassing, or just plain surreal—dreams have the power to recreate the rules of reality & transport us to places where we can fly, shift from one place to another instantaneously, converse with loved ones, long dead; or people we have never met. In a dream, a person can be simultaneously themselves & someone else.
These ever-shifting, quicksilver landscapes of the subconscious have fascinated humankind for time immemorial.
Dreams have been given mystical & personal significance throughout the world’s spiritual traditions for centuries—from the Bible to the Quran. A revered part of almost all indigenous cultures—from traditional African to Native American beliefs— the concept of dreams & “dreamtime” is particularly central to traditional Australian Aboriginal cosmology.
While initially considered divine messages from God or the spirits, the Greeks were the first to propose that dreams came from within—many a mystic would not see the difference.
Jung felt his contemporary’s focus was too narrow & contributed the idea of the collective unconscious—a universal pooling of archetypal figures or personified ideas, such as The Wise Old Man (which, incidentally, according to Jung, is the archetype that represents the collective unconscious.)
Most modern students of dream interpretation agree that, while certain symbols & their accompanying implication are universal—such as stormy seas indicating a sense of emotional turmoil in the dreamer’s waking life—the most important aspect of decoding a dream’s meaning lies in the personal significance of the symbol to the dreamer.
For instance, a serpent appearing in the dream of someone who likes snakes, or owns a snake, or considers snakes symbols of life force & personal power, (as is propagated by Hindu mythology, among others) will necessarily interpret a snake dream differently than a person who fears snakes or has a strong Judeo-Christian background, in which the snake is a classic symbol of evil.
(To extend this metaphor further, a snake owner with a strong Judeo-Christian background can determine the snake’s significance in their dream by assessing how the snake made them feel.)
The idea that the dreamer’s relationship to the symbols in question is the most important aspect of dream analysis was first proposed (in our known cannon of history) by diviner Artenidorus two thousand years ago, who wrote the first known book on dream interpretation.
In order to understand what dreams are, we must first dig a little into the idea of human awareness & its compartmentalization.
While the psyche is obviously made up of many layers, it can arguably be reduced to two basic components: the conscious & the unconscious mind—an intuitive, even self-evident idea. Though popularly connected with pioneering Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the term “unconscious” was actually coined by 18th-century German romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling—later introduced into English by the poet & essayist Samual Taylor Coleridge. Developed by Freud, expanded upon by the trailblazing Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the conscious/subconscious split is the basis for all modern psychology.
The conscious mind, as the name implies, contains all the memories, feelings & beliefs—preferences, desires & fantasies— that we can easily draw into our awareness; essentially, what we “know” (or, if you prefer, “what we know we know.”)
The unconscious mind, by contrast, is composed of the remaining psychic terrain, of which we’re not consciously aware—all the feelings, desires & experiences we did not know how to process or reconcile with our lives, buried & hidden from ourselves until we are equipped to deal with them.
(The idea that we can hide knowledge from ourselves—like alcoholics hiding bottles throughout the house & then forgetting where they are—is one of the most fascinating aspects of psychology & the conscious/subconscious split.)
Not everything in the subconscious is emotionally charged. It also contains simple data deemed meaningless by the conscious mind, but non the less retained.
You could call these exiled & forgotten fragments “what we don’t know we know” (in some cases, too, “what we don’t want to know”). There is wisdom here, like buried treasure, along with the ghosts.
For instance, a person in a relationship with someone who is overly controlling might dream they are being suffocated. Later, after the relationship has ended & the dreamer has admitted the truth of the unhealthy dynamic to themselves, they can deduce the dream’s meaning. But if this reality was not acknowledged consciously at the time of the dream, then it will appear a meaningless night terror.
Freud famously likened the conscious mind to the tip of an iceberg & the unconscious to the vast hidden depth beneath the visible top.
For, like the hidden yet far vaster depth of the submerged half of an iceberg, the subconscious still exerts power over the conscious mind’s choices—no less powerful for its lack of “conscious” awareness, in fact, more so. The brain’s influential but hidden “shadow government,” if you will
This is one of the reasons why dream analysis can be an important part of personal development; dreams reveal the raw nature of the rejected, unprocessed aspects of our psyches & their accompanying life experiences. They also reveal the buried gems, creative talents & powers—like treasure at the bottom of the sea.
Dreaming is commonly described as the way the subconscious communicates with the conscious mind. Through dreamwork we can become more conscious of the lenses through which we view the world & better see which are serving us & which may need some polishing.
Why do we say that dreams are symbolic?
A symbol represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or person. Since we are not “really” doing the things in our dreams, but experiencing images & sounds as if they were real, the visual & audio cues “stand for” their real-life counterparts. This is one level.
The deeper level is that the subconscious mind is not a logical, tame beast that communicates neatly in language. It is a primal aspect, emotionally charged, which speaks in the symbolic universal tongue of images. It is the wild jungle-forest aspect of our psychic terrain which has not been colonized & farmed by the socially conditioned conscious mind.
So the unconscious uses symbolic language to express itself—presenting images & scenarios that may represents or suggest things or ideas beyond the thing itself. For example, a red rose symbolizing romantic love.
Jung popularized the now mainstream wisdom, “Everyone in the dream is you.” But many dream scholars, including myself, believe that there are many different types of dreams.
Different characters in the dream may in fact represent different aspects of the dreamer’s self. But it is equally possible that they represent actual people or circumstances in the person’s life.
September 26, 2013 § 21 Comments
“Why do we describe a distraught person as being ‘beside himself’? Because the ancients believed that soul and body could part, and that under great emotional stress the soul would actually leave the body. When this happened a person was ‘beside himself.'” ~ Dictionary of Word Origins
Our language is rife with references to what has traditionally been described by shamanic cultures as ‘soul loss’ — “Nobody’s home,” we might say of an empty-eyed co-worker. Or, in a funk ourselves: “I feel like a part of me is missing.” Popular songs site it casually — I don’t know where my soul is / I don’t know where my home is (Nelly Furtado, “I’m Like A Bird”).
Yet, these expressions are so common, we often use them as descriptors without fully investigating their implication.
“Few of us live as fully as we could. When we become aware of this, we want to recover the intensity of life, and the intimacy, that we once enjoyed…We want to come home more fully to ourselves and to the people we love.”
Many turn to the shamanic arts for language and methodology which address our collective angst with a soulfulness lacking in modern lexicon.
“The re-emergence in the late twentieth century of shamanism — with its lively and concrete notion of soul — seems to be a response to a very depressing cultural reality,” notes Jungian analyst John Ryan Haule. “In the past six or seven hundred years we have undergone a consciousness-shift of 180 degrees. Formerly soul was our primary reality. Now we have only a body and a rational ego.
“The material conditions of our lives have improved immeasurably, but we’ve lost the imaginal and transcendent scope that belongs to the reality of soul. In a situation like this, it is often the depressives among us who are the most realistic regarding the impoverishment of our human existence.” (“Depression & Soul-Loss.”)
According to modern writers on the ancient subject, soul loss accounts for depression, anxiety, a sense of alienation, incompleteness and disconnection, a feeling of being “spaced out,” or “sleepwalking” through life. Extreme cases include coma, psychosis, fugue states and dissociative identity disorders.
Interestingly, the concept that a vital aspect of the self flees or retreats during experiences of extreme pain or disturbance is an idea shared by shamanism and psychotherapy alike. Psychotherapy calls it “disassociation,” shamanism calls it “soul loss.” The purpose in both cases is self-protection.
Modern shamanic healers explain that we all lose bits and pieces of our soul, or vital essence, as we go through life.
The cause doesn’t have to be something as monumental as an accident or as extreme as abuse. It can be as simple as a small child’s sensitivity to their parents’ psychic tension or continued arguing. Little by little, parts of ourselves withdraw and become seemingly lost to us.
Rejected elements of the personality are banished from conscious awareness — Jung’s concept of the psyche’s “Shadow” aspect. This is done unconsciously, to ease the cognitive dissonance of harboring seemingly conflicting or ambiguous feelings; what modern psychology calls “compartmentalization” and repression.
Denied aspects — such as repressed sadness, anger, inner child or libidinous impulses — are effectively exiled. But they do not disappear. They continue to exist “underground,” as it were, in the subterranean caves of the psyche, causing emotional alienation, discomfort and disconnection from self.
The good news is that excavation of these buried aspects — and a renewal of their accompanying vital forces — is always possible, and the focus of psychotherapy and shamanic healing alike.
“An aspect of the infinite soul fleeing under duress is a state everyone has at some point experienced, regardless of terminology or ideology applied,” comments Kelley Harrell in her Huffington Post article, “The New Treatise on Soul Retrieval.”
The most common approach of neo-shamans is to echo the ancient model of shaman-as-guide in the netherworlds of psyche/non-ordinary reality. As pioneering anthropologist Mircea Eliade wrote in his now classic text “Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”:
“Only the shaman can undertake a cure of this kind. For only he ‘sees’ the spirits and knows how to exorcise them; only he recognizes that the soul has fled, and is able to overtake it, in ecstasy, and return it to its body….Everything that concerns the soul and its adventure, here on earth and in the beyond, is the exclusive province of the shaman.”
However! A fascinating synthesis between psychotherapy and shamanic soul retrieval has been in the works over the past several decades. A growing number of healers are shifting the agency from themselves to their patients.
Practicing psychotherapist & shamanic healer Selena Whittle attributes the modernized soul retrieval method to her mentor Ross Bishop. Upon his return from studying with teachers in India, Australia, and South America, Bishop transformed the Soul Retrieval process into a method that could be embraced by the Western mind and heart by making a simple shift in the roles of Shaman and the healing recipient.
“In this contemporary method of Soul Retrieval,” relates Whittle, “the essential elements of the process are the same. There is a shamanic journey into the inner world where the wounded part of the self is identified, healed and brought back; however, the client does the work and is guided by the Shaman. The client takes the shamanic journey. The client identifies the part of the self that is wounded. The client builds a relationship with that part of the self, heals it, then brings it back for integration.
“The Shaman guides the client every step of the way, helping the client navigate the internal world of the psyche, guiding the client in the potent words or actions that are needed to build the relationship with the fragmented aspect of the self, to heal it and to bring it back. The shamanic journey becomes a shared experience, the Soul Retrieval a shared healing intervention.”
But let me initiate you right here and now into a simple yet profound method, which you can practice in the comfort of your home.
1. Create your inner sanctum.
Visualize anything from an ornate temple to a simple spot by a running brook. The important part is that the setting has identifiable features, which can be recreated, and that the space makes you feel empowered, centered, safe and calm. Mentally construct as many details — sights, sounds and smells — as possible. Lie back, get comfortable and spend some time really making your inner sanctuary come to life behind closed eyes. (*The bath, with some low light, candles, calming scents and salts, is an excellent place to do soul work.)
2. Call in the missing soul part.
Decide which aspect you are going to reach out to before settling in by first looking at the problem areas in your life. For example, if you are having issues with anxiety, call in “the one who feels anxious.” If you are dealing with addiction, call in “the one who is addicted.”
If you are a visual person, the rejected aspect will likely take form in your mind’s eye. If you are not, you may simply get a feeling or “thought package” of insight — though visualization is encouraged with this particular method.
3. Reach out, reassure, & connect.
Remember, these inner aspects are in hiding because they have been wounded, ridiculed, banished, frightened. They are like scared children — who have not developed beyond the age at which they fled — and must be reached out to accordingly. So it’s important to access & project a sense of deep compassion towards them if you’re to inspire their trust.
Tell them you wish to discuss their unmet needs.
These rejected aspects, which you may have deemed bad, difficult, or unacceptable, actually have legitimate needs, which — as they are not being met by you, their guardian — are being substituted with unhealthy behavior. The coping mechanism employed by the exiled aspect, however far from your ideal, is truly its best effort with the tools at hand.
Explain mentally to your exiled aspect that you are here to increase communication between their awareness and your conscious personality. Remind them you both have the same goal of wellbeing and wholeness, because ultimately, you are one being. Any sense of isolation and disconnection has been a fear-driven illusion based on pain and misunderstanding. Now you are calling home your missing parts. If they have felt unloved, give them the love they crave. You have all the power. Use it.
These injured aspects have a long history of feeling unsafe in the presence of the too often accusatory and judgmental conscious mind. As a result, they will often cloak themselves in guarded energy, which can have a menacing impression. This is not the true aspect, but a self-protective mask.
Like any vulnerable creature attempting to seem stronger than it feels, this protective presentation may take the form of something frightening. Practitioners refer to this as “entity” presence, which denotes fear-based energy that isn’t yours but is being used by the wounded inner aspect like armor.
This same goal can be achieved by the inner aspect through opposite means, by presenting an overly “goody-two-shoes” image (“See? I’m perfectly fine. Not hurt at all.”)
So it is necessary to gently test and question the initial appearance of the invited aspect by asking if it is an entity. In your sacred space the aspect can not lie. Even if it says “No” with its mouth, it’s shape may shift or the eyes may flicker, telling a different story and betraying its true nature.
It should be noted that simply because an image is disturbing does not automatically make it false “entity” energy. It can just as easily be the symbolic representation of the feeling-state of the soul part—it may feel, and thus present as, bruised, starved, beaten-up or neglected.
Keep probing its authenticity gently until you feel it has lain down its defenses and actually offered its true, vulnerable self at which point reach out and initiate a compassionate dialogue. A good place to start is by asking how you can help.
If the answer is simple and true, you know it’s the soul part speaking. If the reply is too convoluted or complex, it’s an entity-energy defense, or your cerebral analysis kicking in; start over and await the answer without assumption, projecting compassion.
5. Identify Source of Disconnection, Correct Misunderstanding
Once assured of the fragmented aspect’s authenticity, ask it to show you at what age it became separated. It may show you a particular scene or instance. Ask how this situation made the soul part feel. What was the message it received? Usually, something in the “Not good enough” category will surface. As with small children who blame themselves for their parents’ divorce or general unhappiness, the impression of unworthiness will invariably be based on a misinterpretation of events. With compassion, correct this misunderstanding. The fragmented aspect needs to hear it is worthy of love. Bring it home by embracing this exiled aspect of yourself; give it the love and acceptance it has been hereto denied.
6. Stay connected afterwards.
The goal is to continue the newly forged relationship beyond your inner journey into your everyday life, eventually forming a full integration between the formerly exiled piece and your conscious awareness. Check in with the newly rediscovered aspect throughout the days following your journey. How does he or she feel? Are you meeting the needs discussed with more awareness?
What makes this method different from, and often more effective than, regular “talk therapy” is the willingness to surrender conscious mind constructs to the wild and telling symbolism of the subconscious. In this way cerebral analysis is transcended and the beating heart of true experience touched.
What may read as hokey can be extremely powerful in a real-time, step by step process. After all, these are the parts of self from which we are always running, from whose pain we so often seek distraction. Giving them back their voice, and gracing their needs with our attention, can be a life-changing integration.
Ultimately, whether you regard this excercise as symbolic or literal doesn’t matter. As French poet Baudelaire said, this world is a “forest of symbols.”
The inner fragmentation experienced by so many in this modern time mirrors the compartmentalization tendencies of society itself.
“The natural environment is treated as if it consisted of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups. The fragmented view is further extended to society which is split into different nations, races, religious and political groups. The belief that all these fragments — in ourselves, in our environment and in our society — are really separate can be seen as the essential reason for the present series of social, ecological and cultural crisis.” ~ Fritjof Capra, (The Tao of Physics)
In a so-called civilized world, which so often dismisses the idea of soul and then complains of feeling empty, soul retrieval — reclaiming personal wholeness — is a heroic act.
April 2, 2013 § 37 Comments
“No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
“To be nobody but myself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else—means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting. ~ e.e. cummings
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – C.G. Jung
In 1944 Helen Deutsch—notably, the first psychoanalyst to specialize in women’s psychology—coined the term the “as if” self.
This concept was expanded upon and called the “false self” by D. W. Wincott in 1960. “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance,” Wincott noted, “overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being.” (“Our Need for Others.”)
The idea of a false personality construct being distinct from one’s essential, authentic nature dates back over 3000 years: in the Bahgavad Gita, Ego (or Ahamkara) is described as the body-identified sense of self which is disconnected from the true soul.
“According to the Gita,” notes Ramnath Subramanian “there is a fundamental difference between ‘real’ ego and what it defines as the ‘false’ ego. Real ego is our very essence, the consciousness that makes us aware and awake to reality. The false ego is a false identity crafted to preserve the sense of being the most significant and the most important all the time. In short, it is a narcissistic search for being loved, validated and appreciated.(“The Bhagavad Gita and the Problem of the Ego,” Huffington Post.)”
“We all need an ability to mask or control our baser emotions so that we don’t blurt them out inappropriately where they can get us into trouble,” explains Dr. Tain Dayton in “Creating a False Self: Learning to Live a Lie.” “The real danger lies not in creating a mask or false self, we all do that somewhat. The danger lies in mistaking the false or idealized self for the true self.
“A false self because it is an unconscious defense, can stifle the growth of a conscious, authentic self. It’s the false self that strategizes and develops strength, confidence and acceptance. And the true, conscious self gets suffocated and sent into hiding.”
One surefire way to distinguish one’s core center from the egoic personality structure or false self is meditation, in which we cultivate what has been called “the witnessing self.” Meditation asks the practitioner to become conscious of when one is thinking, which really just means becoming aware of when one is talking to oneself internally.
In our everyday Western life, a constant inner monologue for us has become like breathing. We identify with our thoughts to the point where the statement “I am not my thoughts,” however factually correct, feels somewhat radical when taken to heart.
Yet the meditation practitioner soon finds moments, however fleeting, when the inner dialogue is stilled and mental silence is achieved. Anyone who has ever experienced this will tell you that this moment feels very much like making contact with one’s true being—which, according to mystical traditions the world over, it is.
“Based on the philosophy of [the ancient Hindu texts] the Upanishads,” details Neera Kashyap in “Personal Growth & The Witnessing Mind,” [we are taught] that if we could witness our thoughts and emotions, we would discover that what is witnessed is not our essential nature, but an ever-changing flux of our mind’s desires and tendencies.
“By practicing witness consciousness, we can distance ourselves from our chameleon-like mental tendencies. [This way] we observe our world, but simultaneously also absorb the detachment, power and impartiality of our anchor, the witnessing mind.
“Anchored, we observe,” continues Neera. “Anchored, we inquire into the origins of our thoughts and emotions, and the problems that arise from them. Anchored, we see them rise, take form, and ultimately merge into the witness. The thoughts, emotions, and problems are transformed, by their mergence in the silence and peace of the witness.”
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
“This verse from the Upanishad,” notes Neera Kashyap, “sums up the secret of abiding happiness, in our lives. We enjoy the fullness of life, yet simultaneously witness this participation silently. This seems essential, when we consider the next verse of this Upanishad, in which the imagery is further developed.
“The active bird is overcome by sadness at her unceasing and unwise partaking of life. However, when she beholds on the same tree the eternal power and glory of the other bird, the witnessing spirit, she is freed from sorrow. For she sees that between herself and the other bird, there is a fundamental identity.”
Wincott prescribed what he called “play”—anything that brings out spontaneous aliveness, from art to sports to meaningful conversation—as a way to revive contact with the authentic self.
“When we’re self-accepting,” elaborates Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. in “Evolution of the Self, “we’re able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more ‘esteem-able’ parts. As such, self-acceptance is unconditional, free of any qualification.
“We can recognize our weaknesses, limitations, and foibles, but this awareness in no way interferes with our ability to fully accept ourselves…Perhaps more than anything else, cultivating self-acceptance requires that we develop more self-compassion.”
It can be hard in a world that values success, perfection and positivity to accept our failures, flaws and darkness, but ultimately, in order to touch the authenticity within ourselves we seek—ironically!—-accepting the aspects of ourselves which we like least is the first step to unleashing that part we like best.
What are your thoughts on authenticity, identity and the false self?