Confessions

“In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reason in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.
The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state’ in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and places, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the ‘object’ when it is taken all alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unshareable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up.
… I think, therefore, that however particular questions connected with our individual destinies may be answered, it is only by acknowledging them as genuine questions, and living in the sphere of thought which they open up, that we become profound. But to live thus is to be religious… It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.”
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Italics in original

 

Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.

Its symbolic currency includes Death, the Devil, and Hell. Get the meaning of these wrong, what these symbolic teachings are really about, and the mind can be lead to madness, the heart can have compassion torn from it, and the body can be lead to commit suicide or “sacred” murder.

I believe that Buddhism, particularly Vajra Buddhism with its understanding of magical ways, is going to play an ever increasing role in the West as its social, economic, and spiritual collapse proceeds. The Buddhism of Tibet only had a major impact on the culture after it had integrated itself with the people’s shamanistic Bon religion. I think we are involved in something similar now, that there is a task of integration with Christianity that is needed if Buddhism as it is practiced here is going to be anything more than skin deep. That entails a conscious reconciliation with Christianity. It is not unusual in the American Buddhist circles to hear of well known American Buddhist teachers suddenly becoming Christians. These are not necessarily mistakes on their individual journeys, just less wise than it might be. As we learn to become still, sitting quietly, the traumas of our lives surface. That is the universal formulae grounded in human biology. For people raised in the Christian West this often, though not always, will include a confrontation with the religion of one’s ancestors.

I am not interested in some abstract theological argument in which people are concerned which of these traditions, Christianity or Buddhism, is “right.” I am concerned with how healing trauma takes place. Creeds can soothe the mind of a convert for awhile but their possessive glow always wears off eventually. We are concerned with a change of heart that lasts a lifetime. We are looking for something that slams the door once and for all on the power of the suicidal impulses instilled within people wounded by abuse.

For many people engaged with issues of world religion and comparative mythology the Christianity of today is a tradition that seems to lack depth. People who study the philosophy of the East are left wondering why the sacred books of the West seem to speak on the level of nursery tales, lacking psychological sophistication. For many people in the West those who talk most about jesus are seen to be little more than smug and shallow people who are moved by any number of psychological needs to push their religion – except compassion. For every Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu we seem to get 10,000 bible thumping fundamentalists coming out of the Western traditions, obsessively elitist and emotionally cruel. Reason sticks with evidence and as it was once said, by their fruit you will know them. We as a society have seen a lot of bad fruit.

Christianity in the West has all but forgotten its own contemplative traditions. As it is often understood and taught, it lacks real respect for the mystical states of consciousness inherent in the religious search (which provide the bridge between psychological science and religious faith), it has a poor grasp of the role its tales of magic and miracles plays in our dreaming and waking minds, and, perhaps most alarming, has been transformed into a farce by TV preachers and those of the “jesus meek and mild” camp or, even worse, converted into farce by the Rambo-jesus of the Holy Warriors preparing Armageddon in his name. It’s hard to imagine that jesus ever saying “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

In these posts we have talked about Buddhist concepts more often than Christian. This is going to shift. I was born within a Christian culture, it is what I know biologically. It gave me my mind’s most basic terms for clothing the mystery of being. This was not only due to the Santa Clause and Easter Egg traditions we have already talked about as operative in many American families. I further attended a private Episcopal school and spent considerable time meditating in chapel by my own choice. The corpus on the Cross made a profound impression on me as my young life fell apart. A love-hate relationship with the religion of my society has accompanied me ever since. I want to talk about what I’ve learned over the years watching myself and others deal with religious issues, Christian and otherwise. For those like myself who took Christianity in with their mother’s milk, and took it seriously, it is my hope that something I say will resonate and maybe aid your own relationship with the mythological clothing over the mysteries with which you were born. I think it has a treasure trove of profundities most people have never been taught to see. For those from cultures that are not Christian, I hope that this exploration might provide pointers for what to look for in their own traditions. We share the same biology. We share the same task of needing to make peace with what we were given.

No location on the planet is going to be left unaffected by the changing climate, sixth extinction, and the rest of the baleful bag of bad heading our way. Everywhere this wrestling with who and what we are as a species is going to be taking place, and taking place under triage conditions. It may go better if people of goodwill, religious or otherwise, can find one voice. Earth needs each person of every faith in this, her hour of trial, teaching clearly that real spirituality starts by first showing respect for the reality of what we have been given. We are not going to skillfully address the ecological crisis without addressing the need to better understand the human psyche which created the crisis. That seems to be the task. From the cave paintings on to the Louvre, we have been inescapably involved in the evolution of that realm that is as real as rocks in its own way, yet populated with the angels and demons, the as-if beings who populate the metaphorical world where we find, or fail to find, meaningful human lives.

Dogmatically insisting our metaphors are something other than what they are displays a dangerous lack of faith in that which is real. It lead to the dangerous willingness to sacrifice the real for fictions which we see all around us today. What ails us is the accelerating collapse of stable ecological systems at our own hands. We are being told that the solution for what ails us is accelerated economic growth, isolationism, war, patriotic racism, and a return to “old fashion religion.” Those who have become mindful of ecology disagree. We see other factors at play and believe other solutions are needed.

I was taught to meditate in the Vedanta fashion when I was five or six years old; the interplay of Eastern and Western thought has always been a part of the world I have known. It was decades ago that I learned what the inner parts of the Christian Mysteries mean to me and made my peace with that. I would not want to mislead any of my readers on this point by not mentioning that I am also a card carrying Catholic. I am “legally” able to attend Mass, the West’s signature symbolic ritual. It has been in the interplay between mysticism and church, atheism and faith, religion and philosophy – both Eastern and Western – that most of what has helped me deal with my own abuse has taken place. There is an element of ambiguity in all this which I have been taught over the years to see as a source of creativity, not something that needs to be escaped. I keep my mandala open in the eastern direction. Life is large, I am large, the people I know and the people I love are large – too large to be put into neat little dogma boxes.

The complete mandala is three dimensional so can only be seen with stereoscopic vision. “A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs,” William James writes, catching the fullness of the whole. We need to learn to see all sentient beings this way. In that spark of destiny dynamically being made real, we see the sacred.

The determining feature for me is not an intellectual choice to uphold this or that creed so much as it is a surrender to biological facts within my experience of conscience. This is what leads me to say I am both a Buddhist and a Christian (and a religious psychologist of sorts). Actually, I don’t say that. These are only useful as labels to convey to my readers something important about my position. The labels are bridges fraught with misunderstanding between something I sense to be important within my way of thinking, and you who are graciously reading my words. When I think about myself I tend not to consider myself either, though each have earned my loyalty. I am just a human being who has been blessed with a chance to learn from some good people how to listen to my own broken heart. Here, in the coincidence of opposites, is where I found the truth, the way, and the life, and whatever healing I have known or been able to share, old fool that I am.

One of the things I have learned, sometimes the hard way, is not to be too carried away by enthusiasms. Young men and woman full of charisma can be found shouting assuredly of their various faiths left, right, and center in America. I have learned to be a bit more patient. I am interested in how these recommended “religious” tenants and practices bear fruit in the way people actually live their lives. The temporary fruits of the moment do not interest me much. After all, the first act of a tragedy is characterized by everything seemingly going well. Show me the men and women of your faith in their 70s or 80s and let me see if their hands touch me with the unmistakable warmth of compassion and their eyes glow with a delight for life and peaceful gratitude – or if they are just frightened, terrified to face the end and struggling to keep the ego-persona in place that denies how deeply the fear has effected them.

The point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. Just as life is. The religious mythologies, in particular, display all the necessary contours of that which is of the psyche, yet larger than the individual personality. Countless people before us found these stories important and saw to it that they were handed on. Long after we are gone the same stories will still be around, continuing to influence and form the human experience for better and for worse. That which is larger than ego does not conform itself to its beck and call. The strong streak of independence in the West have left Americans thinking they are free to choose any mythology that fits their fancy, or none at all. Some even dare to twist them into any shape that seems to serve their immediate needs. Let me repeat: the point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. This is the mistake fundamentalists of all stripes make: they put god in their pocket and become all together too chummy with the great emptiness from which the ground of being flows. It is not wise to make god your personal servant, mafia don, publicity hound, the core attraction of your business plan, or the personal guarantee of your government’s foreign policy.

Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.

We will begin talking about this next week.

Dead Poet Societies

“Deep is the well of the past, shall we not call it bottomless?
Indeed we should, if – in fact, perhaps only if – the past subjected to our remarks and inquires is solely that of humanity, of this enigmatic life-form that comprises our own naturally lusty and preternaturally wretched existence and whose mystery is quite understandably the alpha and omega of all our remarks and inquires, lending urgency and fire to all our speech, insistence to all our questions. And yet what happens is this: the deeper we delve and the farther we press and grope into the underworld of the past, the more totally unfathomable become those first foundations of humankind, of its history and civilization, for again and again they retreat farther into the bottomless depths, no matter to what extravagant lengths we may unreel our temporal plumb line…”
Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers

 

This post continues our discussion of religious child abuse. It also touches on the horrors of sexual abuse by priests as it is experienced by their victims. It may not be suitable for all readers.

There are two videos linked to this essay. The first shows the power of mytho-poetic imagery to serve life, the second shows how it can be used to destroy its joy. The second one contains explicit adult material and deals with what I consider the truly demonic, namely abuses around our sexual identity carried out in the name of god. It also hints at where healing might come from in these situations. Such material can trigger people who have spiritual abuse in their past but it can also aid their healing by giving voice to that which had been gagged. Please use wisdom in deciding if viewing this material is right for you. I do not share it lightly. We are discussing these things because, I believe, they are highly relevant to the social and spiritual aspects of our ecological crisis and the ongoing collapse of our integrity and infrastructure it entails.

Stories of hero quests are meant to inspire us. Tales of dragons slain and mountains climbed let us know that those who went before us were able to overcome the evils of their day and that they were able to obtain the vision of the mountaintop. Stories told to the young inspire them to find their own voice. The poets have cast a net of words around those elements of life that move us immediately and directly, bringing tears to our eyes, groans to our chests, and, at times, laughter midst amazement at it all. They act as guides for the in-between places where soul or psyche is found. It exists midway between the physicality of the body and its emotions, and the mercurial thoughts and intuitive insights our nervous systems host. Poetry uses words to evoke images and images to evoke words not of the mind but of the chest, words that echo as if resonating from the well of deep time.

The dreams of the heart, those that inspire us emotionally, are able to encompass their audacious desires only in tales of magic and miracles. Reason knows miracles are so highly improbable as to be, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Yet, when the heart talks it evidently needs these images drawn from the imagination since we find them in all times and in all places humans have been. This is how the heart guides reasoning, aiding it in where and how it should be applied. We have seen with the work of neuroscientist Damasio that emotion is necessary to reasoning well, providing the reason for reasoning. Or, as Pascal had it, “The heart has reasons reason does not know.” Faith is the idea that reason can justifiably trust in these things greater than itself.

Robin Williams’ masterpiece, The Fisher King, turns a compassionate artist’s eye to the issue of healing the mind traumatized by the violence of the modern world. Respecting the gravity of soul, it necessarily also respects the role of images in the mind of the victim, alienated from consensual reality, lost in their pain. The movie explores the dangers of mixing poetry and prose, that which is a metaphor and that which is literal and does so without losing sight of the ultimate healing such dangerous moves by the psyche are seeking by insisting on leading the personality towards wholeness. This earns Robin a special place in my book. I’d like to let him speak for the poets rightly understood. Here is a fine video that captures the work of the poets as a guide for the young, indeed, for all those who remain young at heart to the day they die. It is based on his work in Dead Poets Society.

“Carpe Diem, seize the day, gather your rose buds, while you may.”

This balance between the head and the heart, which poetry accentuates, is the essential challenge of a human life. In that balance we find our middle way, a way that gives the proper due to both our thoughts and our feelings. The head or the reasoning ability provides us with powerful truth seeking tools. We have the ability to recognize what data is relevant, how a theory can explain what we find, and how to clearly communicate those findings with others. Mathematics serves that clarity and allows us to make bridges and skyscrapers that do not fall down and all the other boons engineering provides. It also allows us to communicate the degree of our unknowing and confidence. This proves to be critical in both sciences and engineering as well as in decision making and the rational creation of public policy. The heart, on the other hand, gives us our arts. The theater, and today movies, can share stories with us that speak so intimately to our own unique needs and dreams that they become touchstones for the rest of our lives. This is what happens to people of faith with their core religious story. This is one of the powers of stories and has been understood in the West since at least the ancient Greeks. With the help of math we are able to build a bridge that will not fall down under the weight of cars and trucks. With the help of stories we build an inner bridge between the person we are today and the person we want to become tomorrow, one that will not fall down under the weight of daily disappointments and setbacks.

For many people in the past, and many alive today, the most important story of all in their lives are the ones that tell of their religious faith. Faith, broadly understood, is what the poets are concerned with. Poetry involves intellectual elements placed in service of a soul-task. Words are used to point beyond words to the actual experience of living unmediated by cognitive filters. Training in faith we slowly learn to become comfortable in the unknown and unknowable. We learn we need not fear that which will forever exceed the intellect alone. It is assuredly true that the unexamined life is not worth living, the philosophers correctly  insist that their love of wisdom is an essential ingredient of a life lived well. The poets, however, remind the philosophers that a life not lived fully has little material worth examining!

Here is the point. Carl Jung insisted that he found religious imagery in the dreams of his patients. He found that imagery was indispensible to the healing of the psyche. This means minds subjected to spiritual abuse suffer a confusion at a very profound level. Images of god, Self, light, angels, beauty and truth are normally bringers of peace, strengthening the mind of the dreamer for the tasks of maturity and responsibility the day brings. Kids with a healthy faith find that the religious imagery bubbling up in their dreams is supporting their efforts at learning and growing into their own unique selves. Kids who have suffered under the wickedness of spiritual abuse do not have this foundation on which to build a life. Nightmares dominate such kids night lives and the repression of them steals the energy they could of used to deal more skillfully with their day lives. For them all the imagery associated with religious thought has been marred, perverted from its life serving causes and turned into a death dealing one. The ideas of god, devil, heaven, hell, love, compassion, and on and on – all are no longer sources of strength but triggers for re-traumatizing. Spiritual abuse is a uniquely twisted form of abuse in the sense that to heal from trauma typically requires the strength found in a new, adult chosen faith. This is very hard for those who have been cut to the quick by the churches.

REASON – emotion
reason – EMOTION

In the Calculus and other such endeavors we shift our attention towards the reasoning end of the reason-emotion spectrum. Big reason, little emotion is as far into objectivity as we embodied beings reach. In myth and poetry our attention shifts towards the emotional end of the reason-emotion spectrum. Big emotion, little reason is as far into subjectivity as we embodied beings reach. Beauty and harmony lead the mathematician towards truth, these are the emotional elements playing their role. A logical consistency within the altered physics of a mythology remains as the rational element, giving coherence to the overall picture images.

The real environment in which a human being will live out every day of their lives consists of the rather mundane. Graveyards and gardens, toilets and supper, dirty dishes and mended fences are everywhere. There are moments, however, when it is all transformed and we are struck by awe unutterable. Tales of magic and miracles exist side by side with this human experience, capturing something of the wholeness evolved from this mix of the mundane and the numinous. The tales help us by clothing what it is like at times to experience our experiences, to be authentically human. Myth and poetry agree it feels like magic when we fall in love, that it feels like god heals us when we are comforted in the midst of our afflictions, it feels like we could fly over mountains, feed the hungry, and comfort all the afflicted when we are filled with the flowing powers of life. Myth and poetry are not interested in expressing absolutes, they point beyond themselves for their referents. We in the modern world have been taught to dismiss these referents because we are taught that how a person might feel about things is basically worthless. We are smart in so many ways, and yet we are astonishingly symbolically illiterate. There is something very, very real being expressed in these stories, something we could grasp no other way.

The abused are moving through this mundane world with a burden. They carry the effects of trauma in their bodies, an anchor of the truth about their own life stories and yet, before it is healed through compassionate acceptance, it also acts as the milestone by which they can drown. In sorrow. In confusion. In fear. Hurting people seek relief. There are not many life enhancing reliefs to be found in a culture dominated by the idea of keeping people in need of endless purchasing for acquiring status and self worth. The hurt who survive are able to find some immediate relief, be it in drugs, sex or strange religion, that at least lets them get through the long night. In these ways “they too can be ‘Heroes’, if just for one day.” That the immediate reliefs bring their own problems is just more of the complicated nature of abuse psychology. Without the immediate relief most of these victims would be worse off, they would be dead.

Healing involves addressing the burden. This involves facing terror, the Guardian on the Threshold that holds the “thought that dare not be thought, the feeling that dare not be felt.” Because the victim has been taught by their abuse some form of the “it’s for your own good” lie, they also believe, at some level, that they deserved whatever abuse they suffered. To face the terror involves seeing clearly they did not. One gives up fantasies of pure evil spawned by the supernaturally powerful devil of our stories, for the tragic truth that there are only people – and the things they do to one another. It is terrifying to look on the face of evil. But it is something the human being can survive.

Abuse is basically one single lesson, though it is taught in the different forms we see abuse taking: sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. That one lesson is that “I, great being that I am, is why the universe exists. You, little being that you are, exist only to serve my whims. Fail to please me and I will wipe you out.” Playing ventriloquist with jesus as your meat puppet doesn’t change things one bit.

What kind of home do you live in? The Logical Spectrum of Existence
evil creation by an evil god — neutral creation — good creation by a good god
H.P. Lovecraft’s Gnostic “piping idiot god” – ? – Bible’s “and god saw that it was good”

The abused need to learn that the universe that sick human beings taught them they live in is not the universe as it actually is. They have come to believe that existence is at its root one of unpredictable violence, where good and innocence is always victimized, man’s reasoning is powerless to make any real sense of an existence defined by paradox, and human emotions can only confuse the mind further by blinding it to the double binds it is forced to believe. They live in a world of madness, one created by an evil god: the view of the unhinged psyche. Healing cuts through this image of existence, delivers the victim from the hypnotic prison in which the abusers had placed their soul.

Most all forms of abuse are carried on by people who twist their own hearts and minds into convoluted rationalizations for their pain causing behavior. It is a rare human being that wants to be evil for its own sake, a very small percentage of the race is so fully psychopathic. Most evil is committed by people who are quite convinced that what they are doing is, in some perverted way, serving the greater good. Something gets twisted along the way, turned upside down, turned the wrong way around. Now I happen to think that as part of the healing process the wounds from these very acts of evil are turned into strengths of character, though never fully losing their poisonous sting. When healing happens, IF healing happens, this transformation is something the divine, the Self, god or one’s angel brings about. This is what Carl Jung was at pains to point out, that something greater than ego is involved, that there is a reality to the psychological realm where demons and angels dwell. Healing is not something human beings have any right to count on. It does not give the abusive room to dismiss the full cruelty of their actions. Such healing, this placing of crowns where there had been scars, is not something that always happens. Many lives just stay messed up, viciously hurting themselves and others until the day some tragic death, at their own hand or another’s, finally brings them peace.

How did all this come about? How is it that the human mind can be so deformed that existence itself becomes too painful to bear? What is the root of this sickness of the soul? I think the root cause is reading myth and poetry literally. Those who do so betray the love and concern of our ancestors. We are not powerless in the face of this confusion, not by a long shot. A single rational thought can dynamite a whole edifice of confusion and lies. It doe not matter how colorful its facade might be painted or how tempting the seducers of false certainties might be. Once you know you know, you know. And there is no turning back.

Something like this one-way event happened when the sexual abuse scandal hit the Catholic church. It is not just that these things happened but it is in how they were covered up and allowed while the princes of the church were busy hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. It seems to me that history is leading the West in the direction of St. Francis’ vision of a poor church mixed in with liberation theology’s witness to the truth that Amnesty International knows about empire and torture, all spiced with a repentant attitude of sackcloth and ashes. The Abomination of Desolation has been placed in the Holy of Holies. The central symbolic institution of the West for the last 2,000 years has been corrupted, or at least attacked, at its core. It is now The Next Day. If church spokesman in the future put up justifications for holy nuclear war, it will only be more fuel for the fire that has already been kindled.

We are left wondering what might be happening to the reality of these psychological symbols within all of us who inherited this mytho-poetic tradition. The reality of the psyche and the symbolism by which it feeds is involved in an earthquake within Christianity. That reality is not separate from the ecclesiastical institutions but not wholly subsumed in them either. They leak, as it were, into the public square. The United States is not alone in suffering strange politics due, at least in part, to reversals in religious symbolism. The scandals in Catholicism and the hardening of fundamentalism among the Evangelicals seen in the United States correspond to the earthquakes we see in the other monotheisms: the rigid political Zionization of Judaism and the appeal to violent Jihad among Muslims. Nor does the East escape the quake. We all live in societies inspired by dead poets.

A Pound of Flesh

“Throughout his life, Trump has been obsessed with nukes. In 1984, he claimed that he could single-handedly force Russia to accept a nuclear truce, telling a reporter: “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles … I think I know most of it anyway.” In 1990, he told Playboy: “I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process,” adding that the assumptions behind the US’s long tradition of non-use were ‘bullshit’.”
Paul Mason, For Trump and the US right, breaking the nuclear taboo has always been thinkable

“…the deepest human fear is to face the anarchies of personal madness or civil breakdown. That is why the urge for lawful order stands at the bifurcation leading either to imposed tyrannous rules, or to harmonies of inquiry, self-knowledge, and compassionate identification.
In tyranny, a fundamental despair over the possibility of lawful order in the universe leads to an attempt to master it, to become the law, to dispense fate, to externalize pain rather than be subject to it. But when lawful order matures, the laws of the living organism of the universe are understood and counted on to extend through every boundary, to reach everywhere; or to originate everywhere. The same unfolding rules regulate my heart and the stars. There is only one place. There is no person-like being who sees everything with a giant eye; but each event billows upward out of nonbeing with a sovereignty that marks out the paths of electrons as well as the orbits of galaxies. The simple comfort of a law-giving father can be relinquished, when lawful order brings awareness and comprehensibility to an otherwise improbable and pell-mell world. Dispassionate, accurate observation of reality reveals an infinitely layered and exponentially complex order everywhere. The sense of lawful order is the sense that there is something behind it all, that there is something to it all. “An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is reality. That is the truth. THOU ART THAT.”
Paul R. Fleischman, The Healing Zone: Religious Issues in Psychotherapy

“He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly mislead.”
Mark 12.27 NAB, italics added

 

This post continues our discussion of religious child abuse. It also touches on the horrors of nuclear war. It may not be suitable for all readers.

Dr. Fleischman’s point about tyranny as a lack of faith in law and order is crucial, as is the point about there being a bifurcation exactly here, a choice to be made. This ability to believe in a universe of law and order is what is destroyed in victims of religious child abuse. Those who have been religiously terrorized as children form an evidence based belief that the cosmos does not contain a core of dependable law and order. They have experienced deceit in those society holds reverently as its main truth tellers, they have experienced the death of morality at the hands of those society holds as the pinnacle of ethics. Justice in the courts and fairness in social relations never come to these kids. The powerful remain powerful, almost untouchable as the 2015 Best Picture Spotlight made clear. As a result the hurt now live in a world where human facades fail to fool their broken hearts. The preacher going on and on about how god is love might just as well be from another universe entirely. The preacher going on about the god of love on Sunday and raping them on Monday is a monster that calls into question the existence of meaning in existence itself. Just imagine, if you will, seeing the universe from their eyes. The Western idea of an all knowing, all loving god who is all powerful but chose not to intervene does not answer their needs. So many of these victims die on our streets unacknowledged: overdosed with needles in their arms, hunted down by the diseases of prostitution, driven to suicide, murder or madness by the “saints.” It is in their name I offer these speculations.

These discussions are going to turn their focus towards Western religious traditions. The Biblical influence on the development of arts and letters in the cultures of the West is pervasive and remains so. It is not possible to understand the ecological crisis we are in without also understanding the psychology of people that allowed it to develop this far and are allowing it to proceed at its ever accelerating pace. Each culture will need to examine its roots as the maturation of the psyche under the tutelage of crisis continues. I absorbed Christianity with my mother’s milk, I am sure others are making similar investigations into their religious traditions in the same way. The silent abused child is silent no more the world over.

These comments around religious abuse and the misuse of Christian symbolism are offered in the spirit of compassionate speculation. Many of my acquaintances are people who, like myself, were hurt very badly in their childhood by the misuse of Christianity or more broadly, the mytho-poetic symbolism of Western religiosity. For those who were tortured and terrified by the followers of a perverted form of Jesus Christ, clarification from the psychologists’ position are going to be offered to aid healing by, hopefully, increasing understanding. This is valuable in itself. There is, however, a larger relevance to these speculations for the culture at large as well.

The issues brought to a head in this type of child abuse are the same issues that are driving formerly Christian countries crazy. These countries are becoming less and less able to bring wisdom to bear on the real problems and challenges they confront. They turn towards fantasy, seduced by magical thinking. Everywhere we see these formerly Christian cultures giving up on the ideals of Christian charity when it comes to public discussion and policy making. Even hypocritical lip service to these ideals is becoming rare among their leaders as they flirt with the older ideals of the strong man where might makes right and woman and children and members of other races are no more than slaves, trophies and property. Religion, in these countries, has become a nice-to-have but hardly necessary component of societies that seek to increase their economic might above all else. The old fashion Christian ideals of helping the poorest of the poor, orphans, and widows has been placed on life support.

Against this tide of secularism defined as neo-liberal values and consumer capitalism, a backlash of Christian fundamentalism has risen and taken positions of power. Christianity is being redefined as unquestioning obedience to male authority by those who “know” it is the “only true religion.” Satan, by this narrative, is everywhere and everywhere winning. The only thing to do is bring back the days of Puritan Law and Order, Christian Reconstructionism along Old Testament lines. This is highly unlikely under current circumstances so racial and class differences are being used to divide and conquer the population, shattering the social contracts. This social and psychological fragmentation serves the interests of fascism – government run by corporations instead of citizens. Populations confused about the wisdom in their own inherited religious traditions are cut off from their cultural roots. They are easily persuaded they have found a new purpose when they are united by their leaders against a common enemy. They can drown painful anomie in patriotism. When the hot wars start, all the painful social inequalities are set aside in the rally around the flag.

Let’s make these speculations a bit more concrete. A few days ago the official spokesman for the United States military used a very carefully crafted phrase to state that the US “is not looking to the total annihilation” of North Korea, but “we have many options to do so.” This is fear mongering. As hypnotists know, the unconscious mind does not deal in negative propositions. (‘Don’t think of an elephant’ doesn’t work in dream land.) When that phrase was planted in our minds the little word “not” was stripped off. At some semi-conscious level images of a whole population consumed in flames took place in every educated mind that heard that phrase. It might even be that the night after hearing these words most Americans dreamed a shaman dream, one full of BBQ’d flesh and beastly Eucharistic meals. Dreams most people would not be likely to remember on waking. Why would we do this? Because warriors become great again by eating the flesh of their enemies, one of the oldest ideas in the history of ideas, one still very much alive in the unconscious mind. Because we are a democracy we share in the responsibility for the actions of our leaders. As citizens we understand this on a very fundamental level and can be expected to process it in our dreams and unguarded moments. This is how the human mind works, trying out various scenarios in our imagination to aid our ability to make good choices in our waking life. This nuclear scenario as a possible future was rather forcefully implanted in our minds by the use of that phrase “total annihilation.” This proposed act has such large potential ramifications on the probability of the United States’ future survival, that it became impossible to ignore by the mind’s scenario spinner that lives within each of its citizens.

However that may be, it is important to recognize how disproportionate the threatened response was to the provocation. This is a classic sign of psychopathology. Granted we said we don’t want to do it, just like any bully convinced of their own self-righteousness might say “don’t make me hit you.” This is all very dangerous. We need to be damn sure we are not goaded into flippantly using nuclear weapons in response to hurt pride and little else. The rest of the world could then make a strong argument that we are too dangerous to not be placed in some sort of quarantine. We would stand accused as the only country to have used these terrible weapons.

Parts of the unconscious mind are rather primitive in their ideas of justice. Purely illustrative, lets indulge for a moment in the bizarre world of fully distributive justice. But first a word or two for why, to set the context. I think there is an element of real evil in the escalation of threats around using nuclear weapons that is taking place on the world’s stage just now. I think that cause and effect, karma if you like, might somehow really matter in the ongoing effort to avoid World War III, which all people of goodwill have been involved in, at least in their hearts, since 1945. It is something I hope every reader will spend some time seriously contemplating. What if, just for example, nuclear weapons are going to be used again on earth six months from now. If you knew this was going to happen, would it change anything about how you live today? Might it change your contemplations and prayers? Would it change what you have the courage to talk about with your friends? Might it make the easy, flippant answers we normally give about the satanic majesty of our arsenals ring a bit hollow?

Here, presented more in the spirit of poetry, dark and dismal, than in the spirit of prose, is a back of the envelope version of distributive justice. The scenario is that the president of the United States presses the red button in a few months and brings “total annihilation” to North Korea. We avoid all the real world complications in an effort to get to exactly what was implied in the fear mongering phrase used. Because citizens of the United States live in a democracy it must be said that our fingers would also be on that button, at least in some ethical sense. But how much guilt should each of us rightly be assigned? This is the kind of question the human mind goes to work on, and it can become obsessive. Just ask any concentration camp survivor. Distributive justice is a first attempt at finding some rational answer that will satisfy the mind. That it is wholly inadequate to satisfy the heart will become obvious.

The existing population of North Korea is 25.37 million people. The average body weight in Asia is 127.2 lbs. Multiply these together and you find the pounds of Asian flesh being targeted. There are 323.1 million citizens of the United States. Divide the total US population into the total pounds of Asian flesh to find the distributed justice allocation for each of us. It works out to be just about 10 lbs of BBQ’d human flesh for each citizen of the United States.

I present these ideas about the death of charity and this admittedly bizarre calculation as evidence that the meaning of the Western Christian tradition has been sorely misused and misunderstood. I believe, like all legitimate traditions of all peoples, that there is an element of inescapable truth about the human condition within Christianity  – and a trap for those who would misuse it. It is what we are going to be exploring by contrasting that life affirming aspect of Christian religious thought with this other tradition, this one of Rambo Jesus born from those who would flip the crucified one upside down and turn the cross of Christ into the sword of Damocles, the sword of nuclear wrath.

The Next Day

“What about the criticism that perpetrators of religious child maltreatment should be discounted because they are not ‘real’ believers, that they are misguided as to what faith is truly about? In response, I question whether anyone is qualified to ascertain just what constitutes a righteous individual. I know that I am not in a position to know what makes someone a ‘good’ Christian, a ‘real’ Jew, or a perfectly devout Muslim. I do know, however, that in case after case of religious child maltreatment I have studied, the perpetrators believed without a doubt that they were the real deal.”
Janet Heimlich, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

 

Next week marks the third year anniversary of this blog project. With some trepidation, it is time for the graduate studies. I want to talk next about spiritual child abuse. This type of child abuse is not as well known by the public as the horrors of physical and sexual abuse, nor, in my experience, is it very well understood by many of those working directly with its victims. I think this subject is a necessary ingredient in Mindful Ecology. My trepidation comes from recognizing that it is a subject very likely to be misunderstood by readers who have not gained some insight into the Mindful Ecology view from the previous years of essays. If this is your first encounter with this material, it might be best to start with earlier subjects.

Every religion has a light side and a dark side. The point I will be making is little more than this. I believe that it is in an honest recognition and healing of this shadow cast by religion’s light that we might find a way forward. Harnessing faith could be just what is needed to wake up to, and embrace, our human responsibilities under Homo Colossus. In other words, if we can be honest about what spiritual abuse is, how it works and what we must do to protect ourselves against it, we will find the door opens to deal rightly with our abusive relationships with the earth. In my experience this is how it works in individuals, this process of waking up. It might be the means that can also change the existing suicidal society.

Fundamentally the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis: we are terrified of existence; our god is dead and in a tantrum we are destroying all our toys. It has got to stop.

Are you enjoying the lungs full of forest fire smoke as you count the days of this year’s record breaking drought? Or, where you’re living, are you one of those caught in the torrential rain and howling winds flooding your neighborhood? Maybe where you are weather records are not being broken and your summer season is wrapping up more or less as you remember it did in years past. As I read the charts there are not too many folks in that later category, blessed as it would be. For all the rest of us – welcome to swimming in karma. Swinging to the left, a little too far. Swinging to the right, a little too far. Touch too much sun, touch too much rain; will we ever find our way back to the middle path?

This is Earth abuse. I think this is what we are doing every day in which we do not work to minimize the destructive ecological footprint of Homo Colossus. Giant-sized fossil fuel industrialization might have been built in innocence, but those days are long past. To continue accelerating our rates of pollution and resource over-use is a crime against humanity, plain and simple. It is a crime against the human heart and a crime against the human future.

Earth abuse only happens because some people have some other people so scared, they cannot speak. Psychologists say that the perpetrators of abuse ‘project their own shadows’ into their victims. This means that they inject guilt into them, guilt which they do not deserve. The young girl victimized by incest tends to come to the belief that somehow they were at fault in the crime, the young boy beaten ‘for his own good’ comes to believe they deserve to be treated this way. All abuse shares this secret, this technique for gaining authoritarian power over another person’s will. Every sick family, and the species is a family, projects the shadow in the same psychological torture routine:

Two Rules of Madness
A – There is no problem (from divorce to incest) (from ocean acidification to topsoil loss) and you are elected the Black Sheep / Scapegoat to carry it for us (outcasts and heretics)
B – Rule A does not exist but must never be broken (and will not be discussed)

There is very little understanding of the full ramifications of childhood sexual and physical abuse within our societies. We are not self-aware enough to normally see how the acts perpetrated in secret get shouted from the rooftops, how these seeds of hate sewn in our private lives reap wildflowers of fire in our public events. There is even less understanding of the spiritual abuse of children and what these things cause. Earth abuse, I am suggesting, is a further step along the spiritual abuse continuum. We act the way we do, treating the earth as a whore and a sewer, due to our values as a people. A people’s values are intimately connected to their intellectual convictions around what has worth and what is worthless; who has worth, and who is worthless. But values are not wholly rational, they also involve a people’s emotional reactions to various social rituals which invoke the strong, visceral reactions of purity and disgust associated in our nervous systems with the holy.

Spiritual abuse can be defined as sexual or physical abuse that takes place in a religious context or when the perpetrators are in positions of power within religions. The essence of the crime, however, is much more subtle and involves what can quite accurately be called a psychological rape. That is, it forces ideas and images into a person’s psychological interior life that they did not choose. These ideas and images cause extreme emotional and intellectual reactions within the victim against their will. It is a crime against another person’s soul for cults and cultists to inject religious idea-images that trigger suicidal reactions when the victim dares to consider leaving the cult, changing the faith, or otherwise exercising their free will. We are not talking about normal persuasion or education here. There is a definite line that is crossed that makes what I am referring to clearly abuse.

The couple phrases italicized above could also be used to describe the global psychological circumstances that are involved in our ongoing ecological and social breakdown. People of good will do not want to be destroying the world their grandchildren’s grandchildren will be playing in for the sake of an iPhone. Yet here we are. How are we to understand this? The faith in neo-liberal economics does not suffer fools gladly, silencing every dissenting voice. Though the true believers cannot see how they are being driven to make the world inhospitable for human beings, it has become evident that this will be the result of their efforts if they remain unopposed. What I think we need is not another set of street protests that lead to replacing the old boss with the new boss, exchanging one set of chains for another. We need stronger medicine.

Fatherlessness is epidemic in the lands where ancestors once prayed the Our Father. Hate and cruelty are replacing compassion as the social ideal, much as Nietzsche thought might happen in the West with the death of god. A culture of suspicion has spread its influence into every nook and cranny of our social intercourse. Cultures steeped in Christianity, its Western form in particular, are breaking down under class and racial divisions that have become so extreme as to be un-sustainable. What we need is a street theology. One powerful enough to overcome the destroyer, one that can “bind the strong man” within ourselves and our institutions.

Must?

“He practiced rational emotive imagery at least once a day by imagining that people were really acting stupidly, letting himself feel very angry about this, and then working on feeling only disappointment and frustrated, but not angry, about their stupid behavior.”
Albert Ellis, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything

 

I care deeply about the destruction of the ocean. Since my earliest childhood, playing in the waves has been one of the ways I most treasure participating in the powerful natural forces of our earth. I have taught my wife to bodysurf. I have taught my children. I deeply want my children to be able to teach their children the same joy of splashing in and swimming with, instead of against, the great currents of our planet. I tell you this so that you can understand when I say it is important to me that the oceans do not die on my watch. When I consider that what my society is doing today is likely creating the ocean die-off time-bomb that will haunt my children’s children’s children, and on, and on, for longer than my heart can bare to think about, anger lives inside me. Then I remember that even an ocean die-off is unlikely to remove the act of bodysurfing from the planet. That sweet kiss of flesh and salt water in which an organic return encapsulates billions of years of hard earned evolution by choosing to come back and play, to laugh in the tides, that will remain. The anger is gone. I am deeply disappointed in the people around me. I am frustrated they do not see and value as I see and value. But somehow in correcting my view of the ocean die-off it also alters my view of my fellow human creatures. No one is deliberately setting out to do evil; that’s one for the comic books. Tough, but there it is.

I have transformed the anger into frustration. Anger is susceptible to rage and rage to violence. Shutting the door on anger I now deal instead with issues around how well I am able to tolerate this frustration and disappointment. Working on my frustration tolerance is no walk in the park, but I can do so with a peace denied my angry mind. The key to shutting the door on anger instead of repressing it was using my reason to reframe my understanding.

Flights of fancy, day dreams, artistic inspirations and many other states of mind use the non-rational and irrational productively. The bounds of reason are far too limited to capture all that the heart needs to communicate. Symbolism and metaphor fill our art and poetry, drama and literature to compliment our understanding. Comedy and humor, so often the balm of life, very often depends on cognitive errors like exaggeration for their effect. We are called, at times, to be our own poets, artists and comedians, so it is important in mind training that we do not try and control our ever changing thoughts too much. If we grasp at all this too tightly we just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Still, the art of cognitive training consists of catching the mind as it engages in irrational thoughts being passed off as rational – and firmly disputing those irrationalities. In our mind training, as in science, we are after more truth. We do not expect perfect or absolute truth. We do expect we can whittle away a bit at our own ignorance with work and practice. The key is to look for those thoughts that will not stand up to a rational analysis yet claim to be rational. These are the ones that are worth keeping an eye on. Their deceptive cloaks can make us feel as though we are being rational in the moments we are entertaining them. It is only when we step back and take a look at things more objectively that we recognize that what they are asserting is highly improbable, if not down-right hokey. Happiness, even sanity, depends on firmly disputing these cognitive errors.

The model of REBT teaches that when we are deeply disturbed we are telling ourselves something in a semi-divine imperative voice. We are lording over ourselves with a MUST. Which is giving you your greatest difficulty?

I must do well.
You must treat me well.
The world must treat me well.

We greatly prefer to do well and be treated well but we only hurt ourselves if we think we must be. That is nothing more than childishly magical thinking born of taking ego as divinity. Adults should recognize that human beings are fallible creatures and the world is an imperfect place. The sort of absolutism this kind of must-thinking represents is not at home in these conditions. It is not well adapted to reality so it can cause all sorts of trouble both for individuals and nations.

One of these variations of what Ellis calls MUSTerbation will likely be at the root of whatever it is that is disturbing you. These beliefs destroy peace of mind by judging your self-worth against unrealistic criteria. If you believe these types of things you have been set up to fail because these are really double binds. If these are your criteria for self-worth you just cannot win because even when you do well today, or someone treats you well today, or the world bestows its finest gifts upon you today, you know that tomorrow will most likely be a different matter. Win and you fail; fail and you fail; the Catch 22 of the double bind.

So of course, once we clearly see this, we simply must not use must. Right? And around and around we go. Here is where skill comes in. It teaches us to bring to the work a gentle touch, knowing we are most effective when guided by patience. The psyche is complex. As we have previously discussed there are many times that the shadow is working important work in maintaining our actual adaptation to the actual environments we find ourselves in. All that seems weak, sinful, sniveling, all those parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and make outcasts, they need to have a place at the table of the Self too. No self improvement program started by the ego should dare to try and shed that shadow too quickly or too completely. Perfection is not for us. We can not even perfectly accept our imperfections – but we can imperfectly accept our imperfections and that is good enough.

REBT is a good tool to have on the cognitive tool belt. We all are prone to some crazy-making and we have it in our power to diminish or even, sometimes, remove it entirely. I have found myself using REBT periodically for decades. There are times it’s powerfully helpful to lay out the semi-conscious irrational beliefs that I have gathered from the on-going confrontations between my character and the world. Things shift around with the passing of the years and this technique has let me periodically tighten up the Ship of State, as it were. Writing out the irrational beliefs and writing out their disputations as taught is a bit silly but it has had surprisingly powerfully positive effects for me and thousands of others. Your mileage may vary but I am convinced that some form of disputing the mind’s irrational beliefs is required for mental health.

It is also required for social health. A society that cannot hold its own irrational beliefs up for examination loses one of its most effective means of navigating events and finding appropriately proportionate responses. The idea dominate in the over-developed world that the earth simply must give us the resources we need to continue feeding Homo Colossus is one of those irrational beliefs. Seen through the lens of mindful ecology our accelerating use of dirty oil, dirty coal, and dirty nuclear energy in the face of climate change facts is just a way of saying to the earth, like a somewhat ungrateful bully, “you owe me.” “Look at all I have done in my building and dreaming, creating technologies that mimic the magic of the gods, it cannot all have been for naught!” This is just more MUSTerbation and now it is doing a deadly dance with All-or-Nothing thinking. It implies, no, it insists that the only way forward is more of the same or “by god we will blow the whole thing up.” Isn’t that how the rest of the semi-conscious threat-thought runs in the haunted basement of the public square?

Working on our minds is the most direct route to working on the issues of ecology.

The REBT exercises train the mind to be on the lookout for temptations towards exaggerated conceit on the one hand, or self-damning on the other. These are the mistakes that accompany irrational beliefs. If we allow ourselves to have too high and mighty evaluation of our place then the slightest ego threat is perceived as an attack on our fundamental worth and can lead quickly to violent rage. In the other direction self damning leads to depression by confusing the guilt that might rightly belong to an action taken in the past which we have come to regret, with guilt about our very existence. We are confused by thinking not that I did a terrible thing but that I am a terrible person. This cripples the solution to past terrible actions, namely, future non-terrible actions.

These cognitive errors represent the human mind claiming god-like powers. This is rather obvious in the commands behinds the MUST but its not hard to see in the All-or-Nothing’s black and white perfectionism either, and so on for the rest of the cognitive errors we are prone to. This western mind training becomes a way of keeping in touch with the genuinely human. This is where, as the pages of our life history and our community’s history unfold, we will do many things well but not all things, others will often treat us well but not always, and the world will take the most exquisite care of us, furnishing us with everything we need to survive, even thrive, but not always.