Taking Stock

Last week we crossed the threshold. That post discussed the out of body experience as one that is associated with early childhood trauma. In these cases the emotional reactions within the physiology of the victim are so extreme that the evolutionary survival imperative takes over. The result is that the conscious point of view is taken to a safer place, an altered state, where some form of ego continuity can occur. Once the “spirit” leaves the “body” there is nothing more. That’s it. That is as far as we can go, there is nothing further in this direction that human beings can know with certainty.

This does not stop authoritarian true believers from insisting that their particular brand of fanaticism has pierced the veil, mastered the threshold and now offer their followers immortality. There is no end to the cults willing to anchor phobias in people’s bodies to enslave the hearts and minds of the gullible. Though it is hard to even comprehend for many people, the truth of the matter seems to be that these institutional “spirits” just do not care about the individual. What they need is another number to grow their ranks, another replaceable cog to provide them a little more profit be it through tithing, taxes or consumer purchases. Indeed, as so many of our social critics have pointed out, in the age of mass man the most endangered species is the honest, compassionate individual. There is just no edge in that. There is no way to twist that into something that will always put you out on top.

Compassion understands it is not all about me; that I do not always need to be first and come out on top. It has eyes large enough to notice that what is seen out there, beyond my skin, is also real. Further, in looking beyond one’s own needs and desires, we encounter a whole world full of hurt.

There are any number of ways a person might organize their thinking about the hurt that they encounter. I have been suggesting, for a little over two and half years now, that ecology will prove to be the umbrella under which all the lesser abuses can be gathered. And now we have crossed the threshold. The next post is going to talk about things that many readers may not be psychologically prepared for. It is going to talk about nuclear war and what it means when one dares to bring feeling and subjectivity to the subject.

Before going there though, I thought it best to take a moment to take stock of where we are, where we have come from, and a bit about where we are going with this whole mindful ecology project. Since its inception I have had a broad outline of what it was I hoped to share. For a number of my readers who have been with me since the early days it probably did not escape notice that this project was being structured along the lines of a three act play, or an initiation if you prefer. Initiation; now there is a word with all kinds of associations and no clear definition. I use it to refer to any structured teaching modality designed to cause lifestyle changes in those who undertake it. Which is, of course, exactly what mindful ecology is all about. First let’s get right in our hearts, then what we should do as individuals in our own lives about the insanity of our un-sustainability will take care of itself.

The first act, or first degree if you will, was the preparatory material covered in the first year of posts. They covered the basics of the ecological view which is summarized in the concepts of Homo Colossus and die off. The basics of a Buddhist point of view, reasoning, compassion and a contemplative practice were shared as a means for integrating what the mind knows about our ecological predicament into our hearts. In this way we become aware of how our bodies and emotions are also involved. Just as in any good story the main characters were introduced in the first act and the conflict introduced. We had a graduation on the one year anniversary.

Without conflict there can be no good story. The second year took us into an exploration of the forces in play in our society, and in our individual psychologies, which have allowed the manufacture of Homo Colossus to proceed. This was a year of posts dealing with some of the darker aspects of our lives in the over-developed nations. If the first year could be characterized as intellectually information rich, the second was about the emotional richness of our biological being. Understanding the evolutionary role of emotions became the foundation for wide ranging discussions of violence. It started with physical violence as it is studied in killology. It used the news, particularly of school shootings and attacks, to try and remain real to the effect these things are having on people’s lives; particularly on the lives of our children. The discussion of violence then expanded to include not just physical abuse but also mental, emotional, psychological and “spiritual” abuse as well. This of necessity included a whistle stop tour of some of the myths and motifs of western religion, again, with an emphasis on the role the child plays in all this.

Part of that year’s discussion included an introduction to Jungian analysis of symbolism. His conception of the archetypes give us a way to talk about items found in the basement of the mind. It proves useful for individuals but also for a type of psycho-historical analysis. What haunts the modern mind? The apocalyptic end of the world we seem powerless to prevent. Melting ice caps and mushroom clouds haunt our dreams. I suggested we in the over-developed world were writing ourselves into the apocalyptic script as the villain of the story. The idea of Babylonian Capitalism was meant to capture that idea. I wrote:

“Ecologically oriented as I am I cannot help but point out a few details I think are telling. It is my opinion that in general we human beings are not nearly as unconscious as we let on. We understand a lot more about our existential situation than we dare to admit within the very limited confines of our everyday waking consciousness. One of the ways I see this manifesting is in the care with which we have crafted the neoliberal globalization message to fit so well with the apocalyptic symbolism. Here in the basement of the mind… We have turned to the dark side to receive our revelation.”

The image of Babylon trading with all the nations captures the economics of hyper-globalization in our time rather well, don’t you think? Babylon falls in the story. If we learn from our myths we can avoid meeting on the fields of Armageddon, the western cremation ground:

“Here is my two cents about what the story in the Book of Revelation means; it’s like an inside view of the resurrected life, life beyond robots. It is a rather simple message really, involving the mystery of ever-present time: The war is over – the good guys won. The Apocalypse has been cancelled.”

That was not quite the whole truth as I perceive it. There is an element of postponing that day of reckoning by whole heartedly devoting oneself to the cause of life in the fight against all that would enslave it and destroy it. We will be getting to that soon now.

That second year ended with an examination of that which we moderns fear more than anything else in the world; the vulnerability involved in human kindness. Instead of a graduation, its end was marked by the only Wednesday post to go missing. I played hooky but asked my readers to consider the David Bowie song Five Years.

The third year introduced the idea that as a society we have known we were on an un-sustainable trajectory since, at least, the release of MIT’s Limit’s to Growth study in the 1970s. Proceeding then on this assumption, the posts of the last six months or so have been exploring the ramifications. Each essay was written both to process the times through my own body-mind, and to hopefully share some insight into what is happening to us politically and socially so that others might act with a bit more understanding when their own times get tough.

In Vajriana Buddhism there are said to be mother tantras and father tantras. In Western psychotherapy early childhood relationships with one’s parents are said to be the source of our neurosis and psychosis. The role of parents, and specifically parental unkindness, provided our entry way into this third year’s discussions. Child abuse was teased out of the cob-web filled shadowy corner it normally hides in within our cultural conversations. A number of posts have discussed how such abuse affects human beings, and how those human beings in turn carry that abuse forward. By my way of thinking, the most important development in the psychological sciences is the new appreciation of the role trauma plays in our lives. Freud could not believe it when most all the patients coming to him were talking about their sex abuse as children. In his Victorian mindset that just was unthinkable and so his brave explorations of the unconscious were soon couched in terms of Oedipus complexes and a whole host of alternative explanations for what was going on in his patients. Jung, Alder, Fromm, Maslow, and many others, while providing important insights into the psyche, all failed to place the act of traumatizing abuse front and center in their theorizing. It is only in the last decade or two that those who seek to heal the mind have called a spade a spade.

But now, with last week’s post, that avenue of mindful ecological contemplations came to its final point. As mentioned, what more is there to rationally say once someone has been so terrified and hurt that their own “spirit” leaves their “body”? Now we are going to turn our attention to the needs outside of our own. We are going to begin a whole new level of engagement with our times. Not all people should go with us there right now. If you are very new to this site and this work you might want to consider going through the whole process first. All along I have spoke about how we should be training to become skilled at triage. This image is meant to viscerally convey the steely-will coupled with courage lead by the heart which I think we need to deal with the darkness of our times. The image is one of a bloody battlefield in which emergency medical procedures, of both body and mind, are being offered to the wounded. It is triage because not all the wounded are going to be people, or animals, we can save. Hard as that is.

If you are new to this site and this work, now that you see its structure, consider giving yourself a few months, if not years, to just live with your ecological knowledge. Remaining mindful of ecology is the path; it is meant to be the gentle touch of compassion for our frightened hearts. Once that pathway of deep self-acceptance and self-comfort has been established, a person becomes more capable of handling larger fears and terrors; living with ambiguity and the unknown become much more life supporting than life threatening. This gives us the courage to admit to ourselves what we do know clearly, what is not unknown to us. All along we are to be strengthening ourselves by the application of wise compassion. When it comes to this kind of work, going too slow is just right. On the other hand, going is necessary. Going is key. Going On is what we each need to do. We should not be satisfied with anything less than taking our seat, becoming unshakably grounded in our own truth, our own understanding of what is real.

That means we do not permanently run from any irrational fear which our psychological or biological inheritances have left us prone to suffer from. Life should be lived with gusto, with a joy at the preciousness of the opportunity. It does not last forever you know. Never forget that the business of living is living. If self-destructive elements are getting the upper hand in your life STOP. Stop the additional work or self-therapy, stop the ecological studies, stop meditating and contemplating, stop until your feet are on the ground and you are again as clear as you can be that your first and foremost obligation is to your own long term well-being. Care for your most intimate connection with the earth – your own being. So much of this work is doing by not doing. That is, in fact, the hardest lesson of all. It is where the ego meets the Self.

Maturity recognizes that there is nothing I can do today that will solve all my problems or the world’s. What we are dealing with individually are issues which nothing short of a whole lifetime will ever fully address. We need to give ourselves a break about being just exactly where we are today, with our limited ability to do just a little better than yesterday. The path to happiness might seem long but placing ourselves firmly on it requires no more than that today, we are just a touch less ignorant and cruel than we were yesterday. With each choice we learn to build our characters with actions taken in which we can respect ourselves.

We need to learn to welcome tomorrow. It brings us another opportunity to both work and celebrate. Tomorrow, of course, is just what all people alive on earth right now are not sure of. The bomb has been in the basement of our mind for a long time now. The ecological crisis spelling the end of our un-sustainable ways has been there too, not as long perhaps, but all the more devastating when we consider one detail. When Robert Lifton interviewed survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a common thread was how much it hurt knowing that the suffering that had been inflicted on them was man made. They were not suffering an ‘act of god’ as we say, but the deliberate, planned cruelty of other human beings. Today our ecological science has collected sufficient evidence that victims of horrifying circumstances are no longer able to make this ancient distinction. For us, already the ‘act of nature’ and the acts of Exxon are not so clearly distinguishable. What happens to our species when the violent acts of nature might also be violent acts of man against man?

For those who are ready to proceed with the rest of this third year of mindful ecology I have another contemplative exercise to suggest in preparation. Not that it bears directly on the subject of nuclear war, but it bears directly on some of the context I think we need if we are to understand our times and our peers without losing our sense of compassion.

I would like to suggest you watch, or re-watch, a movie from the 1970s; that decade which has proven to be so pivotal in retrospect. I am not saying I approve of everything in this movie. Indeed some part of it should offend the sensibilities of just about anyone watching. Yet adults are meant to visit Disneyland, not to try to live there. We live in an R rated world. Some of the people who want power over us seek to keep us infantilized, insisting we only consume G rated fare. Others seek to become powerful at our expense, and make a buck, by sewing addictions to the X rated, as if that made someone a real adult. I suggest here, as in so many other areas, the wisest course is to seek the middle way. Adult life is R rated.

The movie Network was the winner of four Academy Awards in 1976. It’s a movie about a prophet and a prophetic movie. It has a couple of speeches I think all people should listen to, particularly Americans just now.

The Threshold

“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

David Bowie, Blackstar

 

This week, in a rather longer post, I would like to touch on a piece of information that might be relevant for some readers at some point and, I hope, interesting to all. It deals with one of the ways the human mind has evolved to deal with trauma. The reason it is a necessary subject to deal with in this set of posts about subjectivity is that it gets to the heart of what it means to be an embodied awareness. It does so by showing us how that awareness behaves under extreme duress.

One of the more interesting things about our understanding of ourselves as human beings is how the so-called occult, or discarded knowledge of our culture often forms a mirror-like impression of what the mainstream knowledge contains. If the mainstream is convex, the occult underground is concave. Among the many tales of ghosts and angels, spirits and demons, magical and psychic powers found in the occult literature, there are traces of actual events people have experienced. Many of the events are encountered in what we call altered states of consciousness, states that range from the slightly unusual to full twilight consciousness in which we seem to be transported bodily to other realms or places.

Some altered states seem to teach us more about our body and mind in the place we actually are. These are what we seek in our contemplations of ecology. Other altered states seem to go the other direction, providing us an escape from the material world, leaving the limitations of the body and earth far behind. Anyone who engages in any spiritual discipline needs to know about these very different currents. If I may indulge in a too simple metaphor for a moment I would suggest this is why Buddhists meditate with their eyes open and seek the middle way. Others teach meditating with the eyes closed and seek cosmic consciousness. There are two currents. This makes things sound black and white which in practice are anything but, yet there is an important distinction here that this simple metaphor captures.

One staple of the occult literature is the out of body experience, or OOBE. This is said to be a separation of the soul or mindstream from the body it is currently occupying. The soul is then free to wander the so-called astral planes. Much of the literature describes visits to other planets or realms populated with a menagerie of alien beings. Magicians and mystics of every stripe have added their stories to this semi-underground cultural inheritance. It is quite a mixed bag. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. And a few, we can assume, know the score.

One of the things that quickly becomes obvious as one stays with ecological studies (remaining mindful of ecology) is that there are any number of loud, self proclaimed experts who are absolutely clueless. This is a very, very important lesson to take to heart. These are all those people who are misrepresenting the facts, as we best understand them, concerning global warming, ocean dead zones and acidification, the sixth extinction, the poisoning of land and water in fracking operations and so on, right through the rest of the list of horrors we who do study ecology know so well. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. None, evidently, really know the score.

The same lesson should be applied to sources that speak to the human condition as well. Our inheritance includes any number of works by people equally clueless about what they are really discussing, just as clueless as the ecologically ignorant of our day are. The OOBE books are, I suggest, propaganda for the Descartes Error we have been exploring: that the mind is more real than the body, which is presented as little more than an optional appendage. Some of this occult tradition, including OOBE material, is the production of liars and con men flat out, nothing more. It is hard for some people to imaging using spirituality this way, just to make a buck and get laid, but history shows there is no shortage of such people. I’ve always thought this might be a really bad way to go about messing around with people if there ever turns out to be a real god or a real day of reckoning in any form. Anyway, this group is not the most dominate. Among the authors of reported OOBEs the majority are true believers. They have experienced something unusual and have done the best they can, given the contextual intellectual tools they have, to integrate that unusual experience with the rest of what they know.

There is no question that it is possible for the human mind to experience itself disembodied. There are reports by the bushel full of people seemingly leaving their body and looking back on it still lying on the bed, or the operating room table, or the floor of their torture cell. Something like this can happen. The data is there. The question is, what does it mean? Are these actual experiences of crossing the threshold of death? Epistemologically, are these experiences of the mind dying or of dying itself?

There is another set of literature in our cultural inheritance that also deals with OOBEs. This is not the occult traditions but the psychiatric ones. Here is a typical case report:
“During the raped I found myself looking down on the act from on high, from a point in the corner of the ceiling. I was looking down on my body but it wasn’t me, it was like a doll, a puppet …”

The point to see here is what has happened to the victim’s subjectivity. The body of the victim has been used as an object. When the victim reports seeing their body from a third person perspective, they too have taken the view of the perpetrator. They too are now seeing themselves as nothing more than an object to be used. There is a body over there, just a body, not my body. I – all my inner feelings and memories, cognitions and images – am up here floating; as insubstantial and invulnerably untouchable as a ghost.

The abuser has forced themselves into the mindstreams of their victims and displaced them. How? In a mistaken attempt to feel some power over what is happening to them, a part of the victim takes on the role of the perpetrator. If your only choices are between being the abuser or the victim, the urge to survive insists we take on the power the abuser seems to have. This is perhaps most familiar in the Stockholm Syndrome in which victims of kidnapping come to identify with their kidnappers, explaining to all who will listen that they really are not such bad people after all. Patty Hearst was the poster child for my generation of this frightening feature of the abused mind’s potential.

What power is that which the perpetrator wields that causes such pervasive disruptions to a person’s identity? The power to blind oneself to the value of another sentient being’s subjectivity. That is it. That is the great magical power – but it only enchants those who use it. It does not change the reality of the victim’s subjectivity. It is kind of like the two year old making the world disappear by covering their own eyes. The perpetrator pretends not to see the relationship with their victim as one consisting of I and Thou, but this is to deny what is obvious to the senses. The perpetrator knows that what they see in their victim’s eyes is equivalent to their own subjectivity. In a confused attempt to make the “I” real, to assert their own abused subjective value, they try to make the “Thou” unreal by pretending it is an object and not a fully sentient being. Then the rules governing a relationship between I and It take over, instead of the rules that are to govern relationships between I and Thou. In the narcissistic delusion the mind believes that by doing so it will become master of the world, no longer vulnerable to the shame and humiliation only another Thou can deliver.

This, then, becomes the ideal adult. It is the one we in the over-developed world have come to worship: the asshole, the action hero quick to kill a few hundred in every picture show, the gangster warlord who is a tough son of a bitch and seems to have the whole world just eating out of his or her hand. We are trying to decide right now which is the coolest – the soldier who drops cluster bombs and wipes out a few bad guys along with truck loads of children and brags about patriotism, or the CEO who lays off ten thousand hardworking household providers, then eats a feast that would have cost his workers a month’s salary and sleeps well that night. You know the types; they are on every channel, every day with the same old tiered script: “Look how awesome I can be because I do not care what you feel at all, I can torture you and eat a sandwich, doesn’t phase me a bit!” In our pain we come to believe hard-heartedness is humanity’s peak achievement.

Torture was supposed to be condemned, not worshipped.

The perpetrator has tortured their victim using sex, violence and emotional-cognitive manipulations. As the victim tries to process what has happened to them, particularly as children with no means of escaping the environments in which such tortures take place, a type of amnesia is created. Imagine, if you will, what it is like to wake up each morning in a home where you never know if you will be beaten again today, or worse. Additionally, if this is a child’s mind we are trying to empathize with, we need to add the fact that they have yet to know if they will ever be able to live a life outside the influence of their abusers. Children have yet to prove to themselves they can make it on their own. They know, in fact, that they cannot yet. They are not stupid.

The psychological solution that aids their survival is disassociation. One part of the self comes to know things about the truth of one’s own story that other parts of the self do not normally have access to. Sadly, a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The shunned part, like a thief in the night, will break into the daylight consciousness whenever the strength of repression grows weak. When that happens the human being will respond in less than skillful ways. The part that identified with the abuser will come clothed in anger at the vulnerability of the victim part that was sensitive enough to suffer so. Therapy consists of making some kind of peace between these warring parts. Healing comes when the person recognizes that the introjected abuser that is within them is not the same as the external person who caused the actual abuse. That, in fact, it is sharing the same body with all the rest of the parts of the mind’s psychological makeup.

The self is normally grounded through a set of nerve pathways connected to the major energy processing centers and senses of our physiology. When the therapist asks their client where they feel their pain they will typically point to one of the chakras. We can think of these nerve pathways as cords tying the mind to the gauges and instruments it uses to maintain homeostasis and orient itself within its environment. In the OOBE those cords are cut. To protect the ego from shattering in madness, the self is taken to a safe place concocted by the imagination. Another part of the person comes to take the place of the absent self and takes on the burden of the trauma. This part is then so disowned, repressed and denied that they come to feel like they are in another body entirely.

This becomes the source of the disassociative pain that accompanies most people who were abused as children throughout their lives. The part forced to play the role of the self remains a source of confusion as it continues its semi-conscious existence. It seems to get stuck in time and remains always on the lookout for the next attack. Abusive events in the external world of the adult can continue to trigger this part, which then takes over and deals with things as best it can. It has its say, speaks its truth to power, as it were, in binge drinking, violence, cutting or whatever and can then settle down again for awhile. When these things happen we say we were ‘not ourselves’ or ‘I don’t know what got into me.”

All people deal with this phenomenon to one degree or another. Consciousness itself seems to depend on opposites which creates a continuum of disassociation. Psychological maturity consists of re-associating these disparate parts so that we come to recognize, for example, that our early caregivers had elements of both good and evil in their hearts. Psychological maturity in general consists of the ability to tolerate complexity instead of insisting on the black and white thinking of childhood which would separate everyone into the overly simplistic categories of sinners and saints, angels and devils: Us and Them.

The painful dissociative confusion will remain a driving factor in the victim’s life to whatever degree the traumatized part remains un-integrated with the rest of a person’s life story. The direction is not further out into space on the wings of the ghost, out there with Major Tom that Bowie warned us about. We are not seeking the great Gnostic revelation of what the universe is all about. We are seeking to know that part of the universe given to us to know intimately. The direction is down and in. The work is to get to the place where the monster dwells and to unmask it by seeing the truth of our own past. Then we are succored by our own individual pain and our own individual joy. It puts an end to provisional living. We recognize we are living in a sacred world.

This is where this whole thing about working with dissociative persons gets rather fascinating. It is reported by councilors who work with the severely abused that often when they are dealing with a part like this, that part does not believe they are in the same body as the client. These clients suffer under the false idea that each part has its own body. The acting out associated with emotional pain often bears this mark. Those who cut themselves or who have eating disorders, to site two common examples, can be modeled as consisting of dynamic psychological parts that are using the body to make themselves heard or to satisfy their unmet needs – as if that body belonged to someone else. They use the body as if it were an object, instead of who and what they are. They treat themselves the way their abusers taught them to treat themselves.

This is where Descartes Error leads. Or, perhaps, this is where Descartes Error comes from.

The body, mind and imagination are all working together in this OOBE move to protect the survival of the victim. There is something within this body, mind and imagination complex that understands just what has happened in the psyche. It remains unconfused about what is real. The same physical continuity remains throughout all altered states of consciousness. The body does not lie, it knows the score.

There is a whole collection of psychological techniques designed to bring this truth to the alienated part, to orient the part again to the person. It is a milestone in treatment when someone is able to realize all the parts share the same body. Typically this insight requires a confrontational approach. One technique, for example, uses two chairs side by side. The councilor asks, say, the angry part to stay in the current chair while the client moves to the one next to it. Once the client is in that second chair the councilor , making eye contact, asks puzzled, ‘Hi angry part, why did you not stay in that chair?”

This might sound just too strange and of no use to us trying to get by in a time of ecological ignorance. What does it mean for a traumatized individual to recognize that all their psychological parts share the same body? Of course they do.

Yet, here we are – building weapons of mass destruction and mass deception as if we could poison one part of the earth’s skin with radiation and not poison ourselves in the process, or poison the public marketplace of ideas and not become fools ourselves. It is not a good thing that the war hawks are talking again about winning nuclear wars. It is not a good thing when we insist we can treat other human beings without concern for their individual differences, lumping the ones we do not like into object categories based on religion, race or politics and then treating them all like dirt: the ultimate It. We even treat dirt like dirt when we saturate our soils with chemicals and force it to produce the yield we desire. This too is not a good thing. All this is not much different than those occult treatises describing all manner of colorfully imaginative alternate realities the soul visits once it is freed from the shackles of the gross body. Somehow, long after the oil is gone and food harvests have become unreliable, we won’t mind because we will still be able to go shopping: our reward for keeping the faith and prioritizing economic growth above all else. We are acting as if we really believed this.

In our cultural confusion we honestly act as though a new, purified earth awaits us on the other side of our social and ecological collapse. To those who would abuse us so, to those who would hurt the earth this way, we should raise our voice and say the word that undoes the bewitchments: No. Not on my watch, not as long as I draw breath. The only tool I have in my arsenal is rational discussion. It might seem pale next to slo-mo close-ups of monsters and gore, but it has a power all its own. We cannot stop the abuse handed down the long generations. We are not personally responsible for the weapons of the mind or the weapons of the nucleus. We are asked to live our story, to contribute our thread to the tapestry of life this precious earth uses to cloak her nakedness from the cold of space. We should live them well, mindfully.

We do not need to remain in the liar’s double bind: “I am both responsible and helpless.” We can learn to train in both / and after we have graduated from the school of either / or. We do not need to remain Or Men, those who would cut everything Right In Two. It is not the case that our only choice is a bad one between becoming victims or perpetrators ourselves. We can choose to be compassionate adults, wise in the ways of the world. We can face our monsters and recognize when our gods are scarecrows of our own invention. We can learn to nurture the child within and protect the child without, the hope of our species. We can wake up. That is, we can learn to recognize when we are dreaming, dealing with psychological projections and emotion laden-images even when our eyes are open, and when we are not dreaming, when we are dealing with real things in our real molecular world.

“In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen,
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all,
Your Eyes…”
David Bowie, Blackstar

The Assault Upon Identity

“From the beginning Dr. Vincent was told he was not really a doctor, that all of what he considered himself to be was merely a cloak under which he hid what he really was. And Father Luca was told the same thing… Backing up this assertion were all of the physical and emotional assaults of early imprisonment: the confusing but incriminating interrogations, the humiliating ‘struggles,’ the painful and constricting chains, and the more direct physical brutality. Dr. Vincent and Father Luca each began to lose his bearings on who and what he was, and where he stood in relationship to his fellows. Each felt his sense of self becoming amorphous and impotent and fall more and more under the control of its would-be remolders. Each was at one point willing to say (and to be) whatever his captors demanded.
Each was reduced to something not fully human and yet not quite animal, no longer an adult and yet not quite the child; instead, an adult human was placed in the position of an infant and stronger ‘adults’ or ‘trainers.’ Placed in this regressive stance, each felt himself deprived of the power, mastery, and selfhood of adult existence.
In both an intense struggle began between the adult man and the child-animal which had been created, a struggle against regression and dehumanization. But each attempt on the part of the prisoner to reassert his adult human identity and to express his own will (‘I am not a spy. I am a doctor’…) was considered a show of resistance and of ‘insincerity’ and called forth new assaults.
Not every prisoner was treated as severely as were Dr. Vincent and Father Luca, but each experienced similar external assaults leading to some form of inner surrender – a surrender of personal autonomy. This assault upon autonomy and identity even extended to the level of consciousness, so that men began to exist on a level which was neither sleep not wakefulness, but rather an in-between hypnogogic state. In this state they were not only more readily influenced, but they were also susceptible to destructive and aggressive impulses arising from within themselves.
This undermining of identity is the stroke through which the prisoner ‘dies to the world,’ the prerequisite for all that follows.”
Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, A Study of “Brainwashing” in China.

 

There is much in this quote of interest for many of mindful ecology’s concerns. Abused children are prisoners of their circumstances every bit as much as the unfortunates who find themselves behind bars during a political revolution, for example. The mass media, and the consumer culture generally, make it all too easy to remain little more than an adult-child hybrid monstrosity our whole lives. Waking up in the age of limits, mindful ecology’s little tag line, suggests we are suffering from a hypnogogic, trance-like condition; one whose spell is broken when we being to consciously wrestle with the reality of our ecological situation. It is, however, the point about how autonomy and identity are related that will concern us as our discussion of subjectivity continues.

“Our existence is not a crime,” read a headline in my Sunday paper. It was for a story about immigrants and captured a foreigner’s simple insistence on the equal value of their subjectivity. (Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard the whales and worms, Redwoods and Mayflies, echoing, for the record, “Our existence is not a crime.”) Deportation and racism are evoking a response, at least in some, in which the very existence of the human beings being targeted feels as if it is threatened.

It is an interesting headline in light of the totalitarian ideology Robert Lifton studied. The Communist ‘re-education’ prisons and schools of the early 1950s implemented thought reform on behalf of the Maoist revolution with an enthusiasm, pervasiveness and strictly controlled set of techniques unlike anything any dictator had tried before. The rationale given was that the bourgeois were enemies of the people, tainted by thought crimes which made them unworthy to exist. Communism had come to save the laboring class from the exploitations of the imperialists. Those who could not be re-educated, or not given the chance, were killed. It is estimated two million were killed in the terror against counterrevolutionaries. Those who survived to build what is now modern China were the true believers, the products of ‘re-education.’

It was not enough for Mao that the people go about their lives conforming to the party’s dictates. As George Orwell explained in 1984, the power driving totalitarians is not satisfied with outer conformity. Whether they are religious or political, these authoritarians insist on something more. Wilson, the protagonist in Orwell’s novel, is tortured in the final scene. All the power of the state has been brought to bear, he must be taught to really believe that if the party says 2 + 2 equals 5, it does. He must ‘willingly’ give his autonomy over to those who have broken him. This is what is at stake in subjectivity. I have argued that the ecological crisis stole the optimism we once had in progress through technology and science. This left us exposed. The heartlessness of technology turned against mankind’s innermost sanctum is what Orwell’s genius captured so disturbingly: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face – forever.”

Robert Lifton’s study of “brainwashing,” today known as the study of undue influence, confronts us with an uncomfortable fact about our subjectivity – it can be molded to serve the interests of others. So far, that is little more than a truism, but here’s the rub: it can be done, to one degree or another, against our will. Think about this a moment, it is frightening. The brain of the Homo Sapien Sapien can be infected, programmed with double binds that act as viruses which will attack the very sense of identity by which that brain functions. Viruses seek to reproduce themselves, whatever the cost to the host, just as ideologies among populations do. To one degree or another, and no one is quite sure where the final lines lie, each and every human being is susceptible to these ‘re-education’ techniques and their aftermath.

If we are to grasp subjectivity it helps to understand how it can be perverted. The first step, Dr. Lifton explains, is an assault on a person’s identity. The quote opening this essay is from this section of his book. It is identity that is at stake in subjectivity. “Our existence is not a crime,” cries out the victim. “Oh contraire,” insists the destroyer, “your being is flawed.”

There are great dangers here. The will Schopenhauer discussed becomes complicated. What are we to make of this evidence that there exists a difference between what we might want to call the true will of an individual’s identity, and this programmed, robotic thing?

What if subjectivity is the most important thing in the universe? It is not inconceivable. The size of our galaxy is astonishing but its complexity is rather lower than that which is found in the brain, from one point of view anyway.

It is a fools game to insist one part of our universe is ultimately more valuable than any other. Interdependence, and an eye that appreciates the beauty of individuality, subverts any simplistic approach to ordering values in a hierarchy. Yet, due to having the nature I have, willing what it is I will, a universe without subjectivity would, it seems to me, be profoundly incomplete. It would be as if a necessary half were missing; not the right side, or left side – but the inside.

We see nature producing individuals by the trillions, seemingly unconcerned about the fate of any particular one. More specifically, in light of evolutionary theory, the fate of any one particular mating pair and their offspring does not receive more care and attention than any other. Chance rules (but the tinkerer remembers!). Still, as one of those many trillion of individuals, it has come to pass within me that what I care about most are a few other individuals whom I have come to know well. It is their individuality which I treasure. Which is just exactly what the outstanding fecundity of nature seems to show us has little worth.

What if what we experience on the inside, in our love and compassion for other individuals, is more real than what we experience on the outside, where chance seems to rule our fate? More accurately, what if the combination of will from the inside, meeting resistance on the outside, is exactly the friction needed to sustain consciousness at all? World-Soul making. What if subjectivity is the most important thing in the universe, or at least, what if it is as important as what we encounter objectively? What then of these crimes against the integrity of the self which we have been examining in the various techniques of mind manipulation, thought reform, and undue influence?

We have recognized crimes against humanity. Perhaps we have yet to recognize them all.

I want to be a caring human being; one whose daily activities nurture and support the earth on which I rely and the fellow human beings in which I come in contact. My needs are few and simple and yet the physical reality of my environment, mostly man made, does not make that possible. To survive in that environment I have been taught to be a competitive hard-nosed realist instead. After years of introspection, I am still not that clear about how voluntarily I chose this molding of my identity. My will includes the fierce power of the thunderstorm, as well as the fierce beauty of the tiger and the lily. Like a guardian angel it looks out for my survival. I am clear that when I took my seat on compassion, however, I swore to defeat that which lied to me, about me; whether I found it within or without.

The Destroyer

And so it has come to this. The basement of the mind, the basement of our times. The journey within the psyche we have been examining includes a final feature that is the subject of today’s post. There, in the depths of what ego is able to encounter and endure, hides a very dangerous feature, one which we do not know all that much about, only that it is really there.

This feature of the mind is why, at least in part, there is a common wisdom in the west about not going too far with introspective practices. We have sayings like this one from the Native Americans, “a man loses himself in the blacks of his eyes,” or the half-comic characterization of meditation as “navel gazing” which implies it is nothing more than an adult attempting to get back into the womb ala Freud. St Anthony, the first Christian contemplative, goes out into the desert and is immediately set upon by Satan. The Tibetan meditative tradition has a very rich array of fierce Buddhas reflecting what they found when they went inside. We have been using shamanism as a model for these things.

A destroyer hides in our subjectivity.

One model of therapy I find cognizant names the parts of the psyche, recognizing that there is an Internal Family System within (IFS). The part of the psyche we are concerned with here is at the end of a spectrum of inner critics. The spectrum begins with the perfectionist within, that part that has very high standards for performance, behavior and production. When we do not measure up to its dictates it attacks us by insisting our work or behavior is not good enough. Under its influence what we do fails to nourish our sense of self worth because it seems as if it is never quite measures up. Each of us has this critic part of ourselves which we need to learn to deal with. Some people have had incidents in their lives, particularly childhood incidents, which makes this perfectionist within a major burden, but none escape completely unscathed. People in highly competitive cultures, such as our own, find the energy of our ‘Can Do’ drive is often and easily diverted towards this less than helpful delusion that we could one day be perfect. You know the drill: the right partner, church, job, house, car, clothes, friends, and all the rest the squawk box goes on and on about endlessly, will make out lives happy and everyone will like us, if only we would listen to the helpful advertisers treating us to their arcane knowledge about how best to spend what money we do have.

The perfectionist can become a bit more adamant. They then take on the characteristics of what IFS has called the molder. The molder works to get you to fit into a particular social mold, typically one based on your particular cultural and family mores. It makes you feel good when you fit in but attacks you when you dare to deviate. Notice how the worth of the individual is shifting towards the worth of a more institutionalized interpretation of what an individual should be. The molder wants to remake the world in their image and can brook no deviance. Fundamentalists of every stripe are captivated by the needs and values involved with the molder part of the human psyche. The molder is sure the only safety in this dark and dangerous world is to be found in the special habits of one’s own tribe. All others are heretics. Heretics threatening the very law and order of the cosmos.

Take this desire to remake individuals in the image of a perfect being one more step and the molder turns into the destroyer. The heretic and apostate must be killed. The destroyer is defined as an inner critic that makes attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It uses the weapon of shame. It seeks to persuade you that you should not exist. The perfectionist wants to make you do better in the world, it is simply not all that skillful so all it can do is harp on you about not being good enough until it wises up a bit. The molder wants to help you fit in within the many social aspects of your life. It fears the social isolation complete individual eccentricity creates, it just lacks the skill to communicate helpfully about the dangers it perceives. The destroyer, on the other hand, wants one thing only – to watch you die.

The torture chamber hells are what our imaginations conjure to clothe what we feel in the extremities of suffering. Here we turn on ourselves. The mind lashes out at the body, angry at its vulnerability and mortality. In its imaginative images it chops and burns, cuts and tears away at it until there is nothing left but a bloody, quivering chunk of flesh. Somewhere a frozen witness observes this – and is not fooled by who is who and what is what all along the long chain of karmic causes and effects that has lead up to it. The problem is, that if we do not find the courage to take on the battle within, we are destined to project the destroyer so that it walks among us as cruel injustices: abuse, poverty and war.

It is a sad fact that there are others who would gain a sort of satisfaction with your destruction. No matter who you are, your very existence is an affront to some group or another. When a person’s identity is with a particular group instead of their own self, anyone who lives outside that group is threatening. To see these outsiders destroyed confirms the true believers in their faith. Nations and religions thrive on this projection of the shadow and the creation of scapegoats it entails. Since all of us are individuals, we are bound to cross others and be for them the target of their ‘evil eye.’ That old phrase captures a psychological process whereby the burden of self-destruction is injected into a person as a result of their socialization. Inside our psyches we encounter not only protectors, which look and act fiercely but do so out of compassion and have our best interests at heart. We also encounter destroyers, that 10% of the shadow that is not gold, that is evil pure and simple. The teaching I like around this point is that the universe is only fully interesting and engaging with a devil in it, but we are meant to honor life by keeping a firm foot on its neck. The only karmically correct response when confronted by a destroyer is to thwart their plans, to short circuit their energy, to destroy them in turn by honesty, light, truth and reason. Remember, if you commit suicide, or murder-suicide, the bad guys win.

The tools of the Wrathful Buddhas are surgical, they destroy destroyers. They also accomplish the dismemberment of the shaman. How could it be otherwise in a universe that is wholly interdependent? Those who would venture in the lands of the inner worlds should know not all is sweetness and light there. Our evolutionary roots, while graced with wisdom, are also home to many relatives of the alligator variety.

Earth is a place in which we are all playing the parts of both predator and prey. Both parts in themselves are as pure as mountain streams. In man, however, there exists the ability to get lost in a dream, a world of his own imagining. This is what those bits of common wisdom about the dangers of introspection are warning us about but they, in my opinion, fail to place sufficient weight on the dangers of not working with one’s own mind.

It is true that at some point in every therapeutic treatment there comes a time to let the past be past and move on. In every shaman journey taken to the end the heart is properly placed in the Halls of Judgment. “First,” one of my earliest teachers once told me, “we have to get you right in your heart.” The human heart is to be weighed by the gods with the angels looking on. In other words, it needs to be liberated from the judgments of other people who cannot know you as only you yourself can. Only you know why you did what you did, that you felt what you felt. The heart cannot be given its final judgment by any human being – not by mother or father, not by teacher, priest or prophet. It was said by St. Augustine, “Love god, and do what thou wilt.” This describes the same view – doing what you will takes up your conscious focus and you let others worry about the right and wrong of it. A creature is to deal first with their creator, and it is a profound confusion to think the moms and dads of the world are the final arbiters of that power. It is right to be liberated to do what thou wilt because you lead with your heart, following the truth of love and compassion. To put it yet another way: being in a place of healing involves a real acceptance that you are never going to get all your vices in order before you give your all to life. We have to learn to love the outcasts, the downtrodden and the sorrowful we find within and without. So many of us are caught up in provisional living, snared by some complex or another from really committing 100% to this life just as it is. We act as if this is the dress rehearsal and the real thing is going to start anytime now, just as soon as we get a few things in order…

We do the same thing socially and it is starting to have some serious real world implications: we will stop driving the animals to extinction just as soon as we get good, solid economic growth going again; will leave some clean water for our children to drink just as soon as we get this little problem of a diminishing power supply figured out; will cease overfishing and clear-cutting just as soon as we have paid off our loans. It is the modern modus operandi for all things related to the real ecological burdens our way of life creates.

We as a society have become entranced by scenes of torture and mayhem. We see it everywhere from the short scene in BBC’s Sherlock on Masterpiece Theater, to longer scenes in James Bond films, and on into the depravity of torture porn proper such as we see in the Saw series. The news carries the same things. The real world Texas Chainsaw Massacre like abuse of human beings (women and children, minorities and the poor more often than not it is worth pointing out) haunts us. It is as if we understand that before someone does these kinds of things on the outside, they long ago did the same thing and worse to parts of themselves on the inside. This scares us all. It can literally scare us to death.

Reason sheds its loving light on the search for the destroyer within. The ego’s waking mind can teach this wild imagination of ours the difference between a metaphor and a reality. The truth is that very few people, thankfully, will ever experience first hand the psychological state of extreme duress brought on by being tortured. However, as our “entertainments” are quick to capitalize on, we all share places within where our deepest fears around our fleshy vulnerabilities are imaged through torture in hot and cold hells.

The child wakes up screaming from a nightmare, their head filled with monsters, wild animals, weapons or torture devices attacking them, or any of the other shamanistic idioms. The parent soothes their fright with words of reason; there is no monster in the closet or under the bed. Eventually the child’s mind coalesces around real world fears, such as burglars coming through the windows, covert night visits by sexual predators in the family and other dangers of the real world the child is working so feverishly to understand. Reason is the boon of compassion. It does not go away but greets us again fresh each morning, regardless of what terrors may have visited us in the night. Our reasoning ability needs to teach the rest of the mind its knack for separating what is real from what is poetic, metaphor, exaggeration, or simply thoughts way too extreme to be applicable to the real daytime world as we experience it.

Against the destroyers we bring our protectors. These are every voice we have ever heard and glance we have recorded from the people who have seen who we really are as individuals, not remaining content to encounter just the personas built for the roles we fulfill as needed by some institution or another. Our protectors have seen who we are beneath the character armor and liked it. They hold a revelation it is almost impossible for the hurt parts within to really accept: loving kindness. The protectors act like a cloud of witnesses made up of everyone who has ever encouraged us with a kind word to do our best and be happy with that, as it expresses our own unique brand of Being Human via DNA ™. The protectors assert the rational truth that you have as much right to exist as any other creature that has ever won the DNA lottery. Protectors call destroyers what they are – liars. The devil, the Bible states, has been a liar and a murderer since the beginning. Protectors, on the other hand, defend life and stand firmly on the truth of things. They are warriors which keep the warrior’s honor.

This is in stark contrast to the destroyers. A warrior will not cause his or her opponent’s face to become washed in blood. They will not shame their enemy. That is dishonorable, a despicable act; to fight fair the shame shot is not taken. The willingness to do so is what makes the bully-torturer pathetic in the eyes of a warrior.

And so it has come to this. It is not exactly that we have elected a Bully in Chief, but indisputably President Trump brings a public meanness to the office not seen before. Does President Trump shame those he attacks, or does he stay above the belt and fight fair? Only the victims of his attacks can answer that. We all, however, have a stake in the answer to that question. For a great many things it will come to matter a great deal whether this nation is being led by a warrior in disguise, or a destroyer.

Remaining mindful of ecology we are not given to despair over the shifting fortunes of empires. We have been training in bringing aid to the suffering, under triage conditions, among the two-legged and four-legged for quite some time now. Don’t be fooled by shifting circumstances, big oil doubling down and taking over the apparatus of government, for example. Give it another ten years before drawing any conclusions.

Change would be coming about now, we were told a long time ago. Change was certainly needed; it has become patently obvious that business as usual has no long term future. Well, change is what we’ve got. Let us all pray. Pray with compassion filled hearts for each of the suffering sentient beings on our most precious, rare and beautiful earth. Pray the inevitable death throes of big oil will not be too destructive to that which remains.


I have added a a new page under poetics. It is hoped it might comfort with it’s simple reminder to Go forth and love life.

Healing the Loss of Soul

It is not easy being a self aware animal in a universe seemingly unconcerned about one’s fate. The human struggle for survival is not just about the four Fs of food, fighting, fleeing and procreating. It also entails an irreducible psychological element as well, one that must deal with this existential situation. Shamanistic imagery speaks to our subjective experience of being an awareness in flesh. In the psychological realm adaptation and survival are translated into how well we are able to recognize what is real and what is a misperception or misunderstanding on our part. Earlier I mentioned that the shaman works to find the real by calling the unreal non-existent. The shaman has always understood a mystical monster is best beat with a magical stick. Many of our shaman stories concern themselves with how to separate the real from illusion, as best we might. These shamanistic teachings have been passed down from prehistory, conceivably from Neolithic times. For, you see, the most unique survival skill we homo sapiens bring to the table is our ability to adapt through the use of our understanding.

We have no fur, nor do we sport a fang, but we carry coats and knives. These coats and knives we have learned to make and use from long experiments with the real world. This molecular world we encounter within and without has strict rules, yet they allow for open ended exploration of evolutionary spaces. Our evolutionary space involves our understanding. Not yours. Not mine. Ours. This understanding of what’s what we learn and inhabit but also inherit and pass on.

Shamans are taught to use animal allies to defeat monstrous illusions, much as the Buddha defeated the illusions of Mara. Magicians, urban shamans with book knowledge, are taught to test the spirits and uncover the demons masquerading as angels. All these mythic ways of talking deal with this central epistemological point: how do we ultimately determine what is real about who and what we are in this life, on this earth, with these people we come to learn to love and hate? How do we know what we know? What separates justified belief from opinion?

I dare say it is almost as if the reality of the universe is basically good, just as the Buddha Nature and Garden of Eden teachings have it, so that when a child is abused (or otherwise encounters adult devastations) it is as if an unreality is created in the evil of the act. Of course nothing can really create an unreality so this sets the whole world askew, distorting the warp and woof of the universe. The wounded child becomes of necessity a shaman voyager of the deep physiological and emotional roots of their body and mind. What the wounded child discovers is that the whole universe seems primed to respond as if it was activated by the assault to restore wholeness and balance. Animals and angels seem to be there as allies. (Emergent phenomenon on many different scales often depend on homeostasis, we should not underestimate its power either in the individual psyche or in the collective psyche of a society.)

Less poetically, sometimes I wonder if all it takes to save a badly abused child from the suicide or debilitating drug abuse the percentages say lie in their future is just encountering one person who really sees them, really sees that they are precious, interesting individuals. Other people have dispensed with their existence by treating them as things to be used, instead of beings with legitimate subjectivity. The result is a gnawing sense of worthlessness burdening the victimized psyche.

We all struggle against the terrors of the unknown but for these young minds, and the minds still frozen young in previously abused adults, those terrors know no bounds. They lack the self correcting negative feedback that would allow the psyche to restore balance. Instead, these terrors tend to escalate with positive feedback into full blown panic attacks. Other parts of the psyche are frightened of this potential loss of control which places their survival in danger. They repress the terrified parts which in turn try to escape their prisons in binge behaviors and other out of control times. Childhood is a nightmare precisely because it lacks the touchstone of reason and reality where no real thing is without limits. Reality is merciful only in that no torture lasts forever. The traumatic events do not continue endlessly in time and space. They might seem to, however, in the mind. That is basically the definition of post traumatic stress syndrome.

This is going to sound funny, but it seems that becoming acquainted with the real terrors of life is the quickest way to defeat the burden of unreal terrors implanted in victims by their abusers. For the adept, the shaman who survives their ordeals, their personal death becomes an ally. That, as I understand it, is the shamans journey. Not quite as romantic as it has been made out to be but not as irrelevant to the crisis of our times as we might like to think either. After all, we have treated the psyche, the atmosphere of the mind, as we have treated the atmosphere of the planet; as an open sewer. The distortions of reality created by the evil that seeks to destroy earth for short term corporate profits are threatening all life forms with centuries of suffering. This is real. It is happening again today out here in the molecular world with its strict accounting of abuses and consequences. There is a bit of the shaman in all of us now.

No life is without pain. In the normal process of maturation the child psyche moves through the stages of development without encountering adult emotional trauma before they are adults. The mind has proven itself to be extremely resilient as it grows under the pain-filled experiences everyone encounters during childhood: embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, betrayal, rage and all the rest. So many parts of ourselves need to be recognized and integrated, many of which come with very painful struggles. The work of integration can take months, even years. Somehow most of us grow through these learning experiences into caring, functioning adults. Living lives of quiet desperation perhaps, but finding our way through the many labyrinths of simply surviving in the molecular world.

Adults all encounter, sooner or later, the complete devastation of the ego that comes along with heartbreak. A child dies, a spouse is unfaithful, a parent wastes away in dementia, or some other arrow of poison is shot into the heart. There is no such thing as a life without pain. These are not the run of the mill sufferings and sorrows of the heart that I am talking about here, these are the life changing devastations that can cause a person to question everything they have ever believed about goodness and love. These dark nights of the soul deepen the character by etching lines deep within the perceptual and emotional make up of our nervous systems. They mature us and prepare us for death. That some kind of hope and love, light and life eventually return to most people’s lives is a profound witness to the resilience of the psyche and the intelligence by which it has been formed over evolutionary time.

I think we can safely say that when confronted with such top of the line pain-filled events in our lives, our first reactions are anything but healthy. We do the best we can and struggle along, day after day, by the best lights that are available to us at the time. This leaves people at all different stages along the maturation process. Adults who do not complete the journey, or at least have not yet, remain enslaved to cheap substitutes for the peace of mind they are finding so elusive. Sentimental movies and novels exploit these dangling needs and feed off the impulsiveness created by repressions that need to hide the pain from a psyche that is not yet ready to effectively deal with it. Many of our entertainment arts, though aiming to enlighten the human condition, can serve instead to distract the human psyche from that which it fears.

Over the centuries, as adults have all struggled with these things, they have been guided to come together around a variety of institutions and traditions by which persons can aid one another along the journey. The elders among us have been around the block: those left with wisdom as the end of their lives approach can help those they recognize as being involved in earlier stages along the way. They have experienced the psychological devastation of ego death and lived to tell the tale.

This is the normal course of events. What happens when one of those adult level devastating events comes crashing into the world of a child’s developing psyche? The child has a special kind of illness as a result, a loss of soul. Aspects of the human psyche, parts, step in to protect the self. This is recognized by the ego as out of body experiences and a set of accompanying ‘skills,’ namely, one pointed concentration (Samadhi) and dissolution (spacing out). These parts are not as mature as the elders, they too are but children at the time. Though they do the best they can, they are not capable of carrying the burden of the self into adulthood. In other words, such children will need to find a way to heal themselves if they are to have a functional, relatively happy life in the years to come. Those that manage to find the path of healing under these very adverse circumstances are given a type of preview into the type of psychological work required of all people sooner or later. Because they were broken early they are particularly skilled at helping those who break later. These people are what traditionally were recognized as shamans.

Shamans use ritual, meditation and entheogenic drugs along their healing journeys. These are able to re-imprint the nervous system, retrain it to feel being alive is worthwhile. Because these activities hold out the hope of healing a part of the psyche becomes enthusiastic about their use, obsessed even. This does not change the fact that these are like nuclear bomb level experiences for the self. The adult mind learns to fear losing its sanity, its grip on reason. The perceptual and emotional changes shamanistic technologies produce all shake these girders of the soul. They must to break the habitual ways of the character armor. A heroic quest is underway to find the way back to the time when their world seemed ok, before the disruption of the psyche’s continuity. These memories and parts need to be escorted across the abyss, as it were, into the full awareness of the mind as it is structured now in its post-traumatic form. Traumas such as I am discussing change the nervous system, in particular it seems the relation of the immune systems and parasympathetic nervous systems are effected. The “shaman” technologies are designed to address the wound at this level.

Are these techniques dangerous? Yes. I once was told of every 10,000 that even find their way to the abyss only 1,000 make it across. The rates of suicides, accidents with funny circumstances, homelessness and drug addictions both legal and otherwise, indicate that maybe that old saw carries some weight. It would be helpful if as a society we could come to understand that those on these kinds of paths are not choosing them due to their cussedness, they need them. They need the healing they potentially can bring to their wounded self.

One problem is none of this fits into the capitalist culture. By pretending competition is the main social force in a world of social Darwinism the whole emotional system related to the parasympathetic nervous system is denied, denigrated, and dishonored. Safety, satisfaction, comfort, compassion and caring are not highly regarded. Recall the ongoing creation of a lack of satisfaction in mass media saturated cultures is how our extremely high levels of consumerism are maintained. It is not true that our non-indigenous consumer cultures do not have shamanistic traditions, for Christ is the heart’s shaman for western European history. What has happened, far as I can tell, is that our non-indigenous consumer cultures have unwisely allowed unregulated exploitation of these psychological wounds by anyone who can use them to turn a profit. There is big money in broken children. The rock star junkies, the prostitutes, the frail bulimics, and on and on – they all make good add copy.

Another problem is that none of this shamanistic subject is well understood in the modern western world. For example, according to the federal government there is no difference between pot and heroin. It is hard to imagine being more wrong. The healing lesson of the real shaman always includes a type of humility of the human being before the great forces of the cosmos. This humility arises naturally in the process of accepting the personal pain involved in the death of love. This type of humility is distinctly out of style in the youth worshipping culture designed by Madison Avenue and funded by Wall Street. By the time the whole subject of shamanism is piled high with cosmic foo foo by their manipulations of its image into something “cool” there is very little skin left on the bone.

I mentioned in one of the first posts that I had thought long and hard about including the term ‘mindful’ for the moniker of my work. So much crap had accumulated around the term I feared using it could distance myself from the very audience I am hoping to reach. In the same way I considered not using the term ‘shaman’ at all. In both cases I decided that there is something important enough for the healing and well being of people in these troubled times that it was worth the risk of being so completely misunderstood. Besides, I think that what these terms really refer to might play an important role in helping us through the long descent of our ecologically ignorant and dangerously unbalanced culture.

What shamans learn, those that survive, is to pick their battles carefully. The parts of the psyche that usurps the role of the self in this type of spiritual emergency include an inherent ignorance that is dangerous. Generally these parts are acting with stellar motives. They are just not well equipped to do what they are trying to do – keep the traumatized psyche alive – so they do not do it all that skillfully. The healing comes as the shaman learns to reclaim the wisdom of the self: rational and balanced without cognitive and emotional extremes. Part of that healing process includes learning to defend the self from the ignorance inherent in the parts of the psyche trying to upsurge its role. One learns to fight back. Doing so well is harder than it might seem. One must learn to attack and to dress wounds without causing more harm in the process. So many self-help attempts just make everything worse. Lead by the compassionate self, the shaman in training learns to use a dart instead of a sledgehammer.

Like the contemplative, the shaman needs to discover how to extend a place of grounded safety to the hurt and abused people-like parts found within, just as surely as they work to extend a hand of compassion to those parts of people they meet out in the world. Over time the parts can learn to trust that the self really does have their best interests at heart and lay down the burdens they had acquired. They truly let go of the memories and feelings frozen in time, re-stitching the traumatic events back into the proper chronology of the mind’s autobiographical story. These traumatically frozen knots are what make up the character armor we have discussed. These knots require constant energy to maintain; just look how quickly our minds are able to leave the reality of the present and find themselves caught up in other times and other places. The teachings are that the path of healing is aided by mindfulness, that is, by the ability of awareness to return to a focus on the safety and security of the present moment in all its perceptual, cognitive and emotional reality. The frozen parts seem to be ignorant of this, as if they were not included in the on-going maturation of the psyche.

When dealing with the most difficult psychological material, that related to abuses of persons and earth, we are not seeking to obliterate ourselves or others. We are seeking to integrate the hurt parts of both ourselves and our societies. We can do so by remaining centered in our self. One way to regain or remain centered is to maintain an awareness of the body, for the body is always and only in the present moment. Bringing oneself back to the present, by becoming aware of the breath or tapping a finger, is a fairly common teaching among those who spend hours meditating. It is a major turning point in a person’s life when they discover and learn to honor the healing power of the self and take their seat. They are no longer being led around by the nose in desperate attempts to redeem themselves in the eyes of their abusers, no longer looking for a better mom or dad, no longer expecting to find the holy man with all the answers or the sacred prostitute with ultimate sexual encounters. They have recognized the inner guru, done what needed to be done.

With these few introductory remarks about what shamanism actually entails I would like to take a look next at what it is these psychological voyagers encounter. In speaking of the Christ as the western shaman mention was made of his ascent to heaven and descent to hell. I want to take this as a framework to share some speculative ideas next week.