Monthly Archives: February 2013

What does it all mean?

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Monday evening, returning from one of my partner’s performances and setting my alarm for shortly after 5am the next morning, I sighed heavily at the prospect of so few hours of sleep only to have to fight traffic to get downtown for a  University of Arizona public lecture on Healing Ceremonies.  In business for myself, I do my best to avoid traffic as well as appointments before 9:30 am.  Had I not just seen a FB post touting “Most people miss out on opportunity because it shows up wearing overalls and looks like work”, I may have just skipped over the invitation that landed in my inbox.  The loss of sleep would be worth my while in this instance, though, I was sure.  An MD giving a talk about the healing power of ceremony and the blend of science and mysticism it would likely cover is my favorite place.

It was well worth the short night and the long drive.

Japanese Woman Performing Tea Ceremony

There are many things that Howard Silverman, MD  covered in the lecture that were affirmations of the experiences I’d had with the power of ceremony and ritual.  One of the comments that he made that was particularly insightful was in his discussion of the material component of a ceremony– specifically the sacraments.  He defined sacraments as those things that affect the senses: incense, candles, scents would all be examples.  Due to the heightened awareness and imbued meaning created within the context of the ceremony, he explained, very little is needed to achieve the desired effect.  Ceremonial tobacco or even peyote used in a ceremony is minimal.  “When we lose touch with meaning, we need more and more of the material to achieve the same effect.” he explained, and went on to reflect on the impact this has on social issues and addiction rates.

Imbuing meaning is one of the primary functions of healers, he shared.  I couldn’t help but reflect on how many of our ills–emotional, physical, and societal–can be traced to a lack of meaning in our lives, or even worse- a connection to a meaning that is degrading and demeaning and erodes our dignity and honor as human beings.

Stories are the oldest tool I know of to imbue meaning- which is why they are the center point of both religion and (popular) culture.  Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t know how stories work anymore.  We teach them to our children when they’re in concrete operations- the stage where they are interested in learning character names and plot lines.  Yet when they reach the age where their thinking begins to develop, when they have the capacity to truly start working with stories and turning around the characters, asking questions, delving deeper into emotional drives and the symbolism of the story’s elements, we call them “fairy tales” and shelve them.  Instead of teaching our children how to use the stories to help them navigate the difficult places in their lives–as they were intended–we call them fantasies (or buy into Disney-ized or overly simplistic versions/interpretations) and refuse to engage with them on any real level.

storybookProblem? The meaning we took at the time isn’t erased from us.  Stories are powerful and are the key programming agents of our subconscious.  They’re baked in to us on a very deep level and that meaning continues to drive the patterns we repeatedly find ourselves in.  Ever moved/divorced/changed jobs just to find yourself in the precise situation you worked so hard to leave behind?  That’s those unconscious patterns at work.

I’ve seen that if the stories we tell ourselves increase our shame, reduce our sense of self-worth, disconnect us from the world and those around us, they feed addiction.  Shame is the fuel of addiction’s engine.

How does that fit in with Dr. Silverman’s insight about how little of a substance is needed within ceremony, and how we want more and more outside of that space?  How does our sense of meaning in our lives interact with our levels of shame? How does connection with our community affect meaning in our lives?  What in our lives, in our society erode that connection?

One of the first things that comes to mind for me is how we as a culture eat: alone. Disconnected from the preparation of our food. Eating while watching TV (both mindlessly). How much farther away can we get from the elements of healing ceremony where there is a shared/meaningful purpose, shared/meaningful preparation, and community? Is there any wonder that our portions are getting bigger and bigger? Our sense of satisfaction less and less?

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After betrayal, where?

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hanging bulb I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison in high school.  The story of a wide-eyed and idealistic young black man heading to New York to make his way in the world and the disillusionments he met along the way scared me, broke my heart, and shook me in numerous other ways.

On a recent trip to New England, I went to go see the Huntington Theatre production of Invisible Man in Boston.  The performance was riveting, and the story again stirred me on a very deep level.  I’d spent the train ride from D.C. to NYC working on the curriculum for my upcoming class using the Baba Yaga folk tale of Vasilissa.  The unreasonable expectations put on Vasilissa by her step-family resonated with the inner adolescent and young adult in me.  They weren’t giving her tasks and chores to encourage her development or even help the family: they were doing it to get her killed. To destroy her.

This is a betrayal that claws at the soul.  Those that are charged with building up and fostering development instead tear down and sabotage, even seek to annihilate.  It can push us into an identity crisis, questioning our value and place in the world.  The tale of Vasilissa triggered this in me, so I wove inner adolescent work and its occupation with identity into the course.  Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes uses the tale of “Wasilissa the Wise” in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves as a means to reconnect with our intuition.  That intuition will be deeply damaged if we’re cut off from ourselves because we haven’t forgiven ourselves for being betrayed in the first place.Vasilissa guided back home with new insight

And that’s often what happens.  We think we ought to have known better.  We replay the scenario over and over again in our minds, highlighting the details that hindsight spots so easily.  We beat ourselves up.  We blame others.  We swear never to let it happen again.

Riding home on the green-line, the performance of Invisible Man and my work with Vasilissa danced in my head while I pondered betrayal.  How do we recover from these soul wounds?  How do we emerge with a heart that is stronger–expansive and supple–instead of thickening the walls and pulling away from the connections we long for and need like water?

The next day, we traveled to Salem.  Being the site of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, my musings on betrayal–and how to move on afterwards–continued.  When we returned to Boston in the evening, I sent my partner on to the symphony without me so that I could meditate and journal on the subject.  He willingly went solo once he realized that me not attending meant no appeasing my Southern sensibilities about appropriate attire for cultural events and he could just go on in his jeans and sneakers.

I returned to the flat we’d rented for the week, and settled in, ready, as Rumi would say, to welcome whatever knocked.  Betrayal drudges up all manner of emotions:  anger, resentment, hurt, acute vulnerability, blame, shame, fear, suspicion, and more.  I let the feelings rush through me, observing the images and memories they brought to mind, and the stories that had been attached to what it all meant.  I noticed how my impulse was protective.  How the narrative that strung the memories together urged security, called for an oath of “never again” and sought to make good via extra fortification, heightened cynicism and lessening trust of others.

So natural, so human, when faced with betrayal to heighten security.  Yet I thought about what that means in the outside world when we choose to foster security over community.  When we embolden defenses instead of connection.  It leads very quickly to loss of freedom, oppression, and even tyranny.  If I don’t want those things dictating the society around me, I need to make sure they don’t reign within me.

How?

How do we move past betrayal and not allow it to close us up?  To add thickness to the walls around our hearts?  I asked these questions as I embraced the parts of me that longed for revenge.  The parts that were bruised and bled.  The parts that howled in pain.

What did you learn from this betrayal that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise? 

“That people suck” a part of me answered, adding, “Don’t trust anyone!”.  I almost had to laugh. That couldn’t be the answer: I know where that narrative leads, and its not a place I enjoy visiting, let alone living.  It is a place where Fear rules instead of Love.

So natural, so human, when faced with betrayal to heighten security, to close off, to quit trusting (myself as well as others).  Yet I thought about what that means in the outside world when we choose to foster security over community,  when we embolden defenses instead of connection.  It leads very quickly to loss of freedom, oppression, and even tyranny.  If I don’t want those things dictating the society around me, I need to make sure they don’t reign within me.

Again, the question surfaced: What did you learn from this betrayal that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

I stuck my foot in my heart’s door and wedged it open.  Listening now with open heart:

How did it make you more aware? What did it teach you about yourself that’s brought you further? How did it help you recognize and appreciate the good people in your life?  What did it teach you about operating in illusion? 

Finally, I pulled out my journal and began to answer the question.  A good question it is, for it holds many keys…