connecting psychotherapy and spiritual growth for human awakening
I was thinking back in a session with someone the other day to the time when I came across the strange beings with whom I finally found a sense of belonging, a sense of homecoming. It was in the 1970s, last century, and I had stumbled into a milieu of what was then known euphemistically as the new therapies—body-orientated, holistic, non-intellectual, cathartic, expressive therapy approaches—that had both immediate and long-term results and which for some were the way forward to a sane world, or even the liberation and saving of the world itself.
So I ran into this “movement”, as it became known, and immediately what attracted me was fear. Fear was attractive to me; it wasn’t so much masochistic as challenging, exciting, real. I had appeared out of a dead environment. Anyone my age growing up in the kind of post-war, 1950s atmosphere could smell the cheapening of life. We had organic vegetables and homemade everything. But we were excited about ice-cream, confectionery and shop-bought cakes. We were bewitched and hypnotized by motor cars, which were just becoming available to the common man, by the possibility of vacationing and, the devil itself, black and white TV!
Whether we still would have been absent without the memories of war experience, war dead, war trauma, and the irresistible opportunities of upward class mobility (bettering ourselves!), I don’t know. Perhaps there have always been reasons why human beings don’t relate to each other. But we were distinctly absent, un-relating and unresponsive. Absence appeared at the dining-table where we all supposedly gathered as a family, in the living room (TV), and on day trips (newspaper, pub and sleeping for the adults—lone play for the kids). Lack of responsiveness and vibrant relationship was ubiquitous. We didn’t look speak, feel, interact in any real way. I think we were being indoctrinated into a kind of Stepford Wives lifestyle. Were people guilty about two world wars, ashamed of their complicity in the events of tremendous violence, or did they feel that they deserved some kind of la-la existence after the horrors of conflict and the barbarity of human beings had been thrust so brutally in their faces, insinuated so deeply into their lives?
Lack of relationship was so much the norm, the prevailing ethos of family life (mine and everyone else’s) that it wasn’t until I read in Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book the words, “A child who is not cared for or cared about is abandoned” (see review of The Ring of Power on this site) that it finally occurred to me that I had been abandoned. The smiling photos at the beach, the family group snapshots, the forced jamming together at the Christmas table told a lie; this wasn’t how it was or how it had been. Most of the time—really all of the time—everyone was turned off. But I wasn’t.
I remember suffering a nameless pain, a restless churning disease of the soul that I had no name for, an inner sense of such utter neglect that sometimes I thought it preferable to be anywhere but here, in this life. Later I discovered that this, like so much childhood experience, is not exclusive, not even personal in the strict sense of the word. It was shared experience, participated in by so many others.
By the time I was seven I was terrified… of what I might do… of what was inside me and unacknowledged, unrecognized by me and everyone else… and for me the only escape seemed to be death. But in a vivid experience of invisible and pervasive indoctrination the Christian concept of hell filled with me with more terror than the prospect of remaining alive. I reached out to relatives, to the church, to no avail, without getting what I needed. My need of course was unknown. I wanted a response, but I didn’t know what response I wanted and what I wanted responding to. It was a Kafka-esque, impossible, tragic, futile endeavor, without a name, without a purpose, but filled with purposefulness and redolent of the name of all things.
I paled. I grayed. I turned into colorlessness. I conformed. Or at least I tried very hard. Part of my conformity was conforming to being a rebel. The shadow of the conformist is a conformist nonetheless. And my identification with the rebel self became my sense of belonging. I was naturally outside, cast out, scapegoated, wild, abandoned, untouchable, marginal, irrelevant and within the pale invisibility of this world, I could function as I pleased. This is the wonderful resourcefulness of the person who feels that he or she does not belong: to create an invisible milieu to live in, to create in and, if you’re lucky, to flourish in quietly, resisting detection.
I was in my early twenties when I stumbled into the new therapy milieu so unexpectedly. The deep, hidden, now almost entirely forgotten and most certainly suppressed desire of my earlier life surfaced, rallied, took courage and came pouring out of me like a stream meeting a river, like the river teeming into the ocean. That rare milieu of transparency, honesty, openness, empathy, understanding, insight, inner power, centeredness, innate wisdom, profound relaxation, acceptance and ultimately love was the tangible proof that I had arrived in the place where I had left my dreams so many years before. My dreams now took root in the fertile soil of positive, life-filled existence, in that place where hell and heaven meet, where I set foot with you on this earth.
Thank you for being in this place, thank you for joining me here, let us know more, learn more, grow more and be here together. Let us learn to share and be together in the great heart, the great soul and ultimately in the divine person.
This word responsible poses problems for some. It implies duty and burden, and by extension, guilt and expectation, so there doesn’t seem to be much to recommend it. But in those early “movement” days (see above), we talked about the ability to respond freely, humanly, genuinely, to not merely react. If you were free of emotional-behavioral patterns, the “script”, the restrictive loop-tapes of your life, you could open and respond in freedom.
Somebody has said to me that I cannot justify the claim that you cannot follow an individual path to enlightenment. Another person has said that is what people do anyway and it is about levels of evolving consciousness. But consciousness is not evolving; consciousness is. We cannot conceive of living as consciousness. We cannot even conceive of living in consciousness. And they are different. If we are serious about spirituality, we must become open, available and responsive to the spiritual. You cannot do that if you are contracted within the ego-processes; neither can you do it if you are “evolving in consciousness”, because evolving is just another word for seeking, for journeying, for never arriving. It gives you the ultimate excuse.
In my early days as a group leader I met a man much older than me in one of my workshops. In the initial sharing he said, “I’m Alex and I have been meditating for sixteen years, but I have never had an enlightenment experience.” I remember now the profound sadness that filled the space between us, the deep futility, the pointlessness and his restless, inevitable loyalty to the endeavor that seemed to say, “If I just meditate a bit harder, a little but harder… If I miss the next meditation course, I may miss the great event, the one I have been striving for and working toward for so long.”
I was young then. It hadn’t occurred to me that seeking was itself the problem, the last play of the ego when confronted with futility and vain pointlessness. I knew something was wrong. I just didn’t know how to express it and this man was much older than me, a western sadhu looking back at his wasted life and unable to let go, while I was looking forward to a life of fruitfulness and glory, of ecstasy and healing. Of this I had no doubt whatsoever. What was it that this man lacked?
He could not respond. He knew only effort. He knew loyalty, attachment, hard work, striving and progress. He knew how to be industrious and engage in personal endeavor and enterprise with resourcefulness and persistence. He had taken all these righteous human qualities and applied them to spiritual practice. But it would never work. It was merely the last bastion of resistance to transformation and awakening, the conventional small self’s final excuse, the ego’s last desperate attempt at providing an alibi.
So, response: let’s start with the basics. Can you come into a room with awareness? See what you have felt and feel what is happening in the room? Can you sit at a table, eating, drinking, talking, laughing and remain in full consciousness? Can you look into another’s eyes without flinching, without defensiveness, without any other feeling other than full acceptance? Can you remain awake throughout your day? Always present, always participating, always here and now? Many of these are psychological exercises, not even spiritual, mainly exercises to focus fully and correct our limited attention span and human distractedness.
Only when you have deepened in your human experience of life by responding to everything, are you ready to begin the spiritual practice of responding to the divine.
Years ago I sat with a visiting relative. I looked at her, excited, present, curious. She looked back at me briefly and cried, “Why are you looking at me like that?” offended that I was paying her such close attention. I had to remember that I had not been around my family for a long while. I had been with people who were open, strong and vulnerable, who responded to life and to each other.
Attention, openness, responsiveness—we crave it so much that it offends us when our awareness is drawn to such a deep need.
Rather than having a debate about the “evolution” of human consciousness or the “meeting” of individuality and divinity, why not start a practice today, now. Breathe; close your eyes and breathe, deeply accept everything inside, outside, all around, in and out and through your conscious awareness. You will feel immediate relief if you are able to do this. Breathe into that relief; feel the expansiveness and the inner space that creates. Now from the moment you move from here, from this present experience, keep to your center, even withdraw sometimes to your center. When an outward or an inward event occurs in time, during the course of your day, notice, but do not obstruct it. You will find it—feelings, reactions, hurt, anger, interpersonal dynamics, the dirty floor, the car that needs washing, the child pulling at you—goes right by you if you don’t obstruct it, because you respond, rather than react.
Allow yourself the freedom which is your natural, divine state of being and flow through your day, however hard, however easy it is, whatever way it turns out to be. And it is changing and you are changing the whole time. But your center is not. That self-abiding, stable, real, fluid, expansive, all-accepting, non-judgmental, peaceful center is where you discover, if you are responsive and responsible, you true self.
From the time I felt the first resistance to the force of forward motion in the birth canal, events invited response and continue to invite response. For me though, the misery of the long hours of frustration and silence, asking, begging, demanding attention, to be held, fed, caressed, nurtured and loved were met with an all-pervasive lack of response. Later the interference with the natural processes of biology: evacuation, eating, drinking were forced, pressured, as I tried to breathe in the smog of tobacco smoke in the house, in the car, in the backyard, everywhere. Crying, screaming, finally giving up and remaining silent—what was the point in shouting or screaming when no one came? Becoming quieter and then quiet and fully in-turned, then being praised—he’s a “good” baby (he does not respond).
In time becoming sullen, morose, unresponsive and criticized at home, in school, at relative’s visits for not responding, criticized for words I had learned and used, not knowing in my innocence what they meant. Crying still, but inside now, and outwardly moody, glum, depressed, unavailable and unresponsive. For years and years, all the excitement, all the life and passion, enthusiasm and intensity buried. Like a lion in a cage, pacing inside like the strong pulse of my heart, of the blood, until through anxiety, failed relationships, confusion, perplexity and bafflement, followed by discovery, remembrance, faith, hope and breakthrough, the emotions came tumbling out.
Even then a few years more before I became genuinely responsive, responding, responsible for myself and sometimes to others. It all began one day with a gold fish I saved from a movie set, took home and thought: if I can look after this fish I might begin to make some progress in relationships. It was a start in learning to love.