March 1995, Volume 2 Nr 7, Issue 19
There is a tendency in our consumerist and speed-driven society to try to have, do, be MORE. The emphasis on personal growth is a part of this. People today often respond to spiritual desire with the growth paradigm. In a time when so many of us are already stretched to the limit with more-focus, moreness, it is with an odd desperation that we follow the wide road of more to seek what is essential, to seek love and spirit and soul and God. What a relief it would be to learn that we can do less and become essential, essence, a-sense.
There are powerful archetypes in the language. If we choose language that emphasizes growth, we set in motion many half-conscious or unconscious factors. Our ecological crisis may be blamed in part on such growth focus. But so can the spread of democracy over the last thousand years. Colonialism was growth, considered good or bad by different people at different historic times. We may applaud when a small company grows well (Ben and Jerry's, Apple) or be appalled at the impersonality of a corporation grown huge (Exxon, Apple). Cortisone, synthesized the year my husband was born, has been a key to preserving our son's life. Cortisone was both the product and the flagship in an enormous growth in pharmaceutical research.
My point is that growth is not all bad. It can be wonderful. But it is not the only, nor even the best, paradigm for spiritual practice. I perceive that it is the dominant modern paradigm however. Let us take several points one at a time.Baby Teeth
I work in the dental field and have amused myself with metaphors of teeth. (Jung said that people relate to their teeth as either tools, weapons or ornaments. What a rich idea! Think about that one for a moment, your teeth. Your friend's teeth. Smile.)
There is a condition known as "Pattern of Retained Deciduous Teeth." Baby teeth that do not fall out before permanent teeth are erupting. To develop a healthy, functioning dentition - for eating, for speaking, for appearance - may require extractions and/or orthodontic guidance.
Many people seem to have the psychological equivalent of this pattern. They are not growing properly. They have grown up teeth: ability to think abstractly, adult bodies, reproductive maturity, age of majority...which are coming in askew. They are still using their baby teeth to chew, still retaining the social styles of children: vulnerability, dependency, manipulativeness, egotism. Baby teeth serve a purpose. We could not do without them. Children need those traits (yes, parents, even manipulativeness and egotism have their season). In normal development, the roots of baby teeth are resorbed, and by the time they fall out the roots are nearly gone. In the unusual pattern of retention I'm describing here, however, the roots are still deep. In the psychological version, the habits and styles are anchored, tenacious.
The behaviors and thinking appropriate to children in which many adults seem frozen are the basis of much therapy. The Inner Child is the character motivating us even as adults if our childhood needs were not met. We could not mature, we were locked at a particular stage of development. Our growth was stunted. Inner child therapy is nothing new, has gone under many names. A key is befriending and parenting that child, guiding him through missed phases toward maturity. Sure, there will always be a part of one that is the child one was, but a conscious relationship with that part of oneself is different than the unconscious patterns of an unacknowledged inner child.Democracy is By and For Adults
Therapy today is often overfocused on the past, on examining childhood. James Hillman shares some of my concerns:
That is a very important consideration: "Democracy depends on intensely active citizens, not children." Citizen and consumer are not interchangeable terms but the prevailing attitude in this country is that of consumerism, not citizenship. John F. Kennedy's famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country", was directed toward adults, citizens, who recognized and accepted their roles and responsibility. Civic duty is not always fun. It involves delayed gratification, showing up at town meeting, voting on the school budget. Even in presidential elections our national turnout is abysmal, well below less developed nations where getting to the polls maybe very difficult, even dangerous.
Children are disenfranchised. As adults we must protect and exercise the franchise. The Child archetype is beautiful and powerful in its innocence, creativity, and spontaneity. It should be celebrated and nurtured in our world, but not out of proportion to other archetypes, like Warrior, Mother, Healer.Helping Groups
The child archetype wants what it wants now. So we have a credit card crisis, and the United States is the largest debtor nation in the world. Focus on instant gratification and deferred responsibility are childish. The consequences of an excess of these behaviors are not fulfilling to adults. They bring a hollow, unsatisfied feeling, which ironically, we may try to fill with continued instant fixes, continuing the cycle of grasping.
The child needs support. Fifteen-million Americans each week go to some form of twelve-step program. They don't go out of their house and away from their TV or the mall in order to serve the community. First and foremost they go because they want support. To be supported. In the process there is a magic that occurs and people become supporters as well as supportees. But long time veterans of such groups lament that there is far more selfishness these days.
I want to make clear that I honor and celebrate support groups. Some societies have a (real or imagined) history of supporting members in need, such as in illness or grief. But the modern self-help movement may have no historic precedent. Today, groups are actively supporting people through cancer, sexual battery, etc. There is also the remarkable phenomenon of traditional social outcasts meeting in mutual respect and care: these run the gamut from Alcoholics Anonymous, where people help one another change destructive behavior; to Dignity (a gay Catholic organization), where people support the sanctity of their whole persons in light of a beloved religious tradition which usually negates or condemns them. Members of support groups share practical and spiritual stories as they live them. These are the explorers of much new territory. Cartographers of a shifting wilderness. Many groups are melting pots, where differences in class, race, religion and age are diminished by a transcendent ethic of loving care.
Here are two ideas about 12-step (Anonymous) groups. First, recovery is the operative word and guiding principle. Can some of this energy and love be channeled outward to another kind of recovery, like Franklin D. Roosevelt's National Recovery Act? Here citizens strove to support other citizens, those trampled by the Great Depression. Second, it would only take a small but critical change of focus for these insular little groups, these self-contained (but interchangeable) huddles of wounded, to become heart-centered civic warriors. The small political meetings many of our parents attended, neighborhood and ward councils, are a rare species today. Alfred Adler (the less remembered third in the triumvirate of psychotherapeutic pioneers which includes Freud and Jung) used the word Gemeinschaftsgefuhl. It means communal feeling, which Adler regarded as the final goal of therapy. I think that there is a kind of love and communal feeling evident in support groups. The energy is there, and self-help groups could metamorphose into helping groups. Service benefits both the giver and the receiver. Civil servant may become a dignified title again, and one with meaning. Adult children could emphasize and act from their adult personae.Snakeskins and Birdfeathers
So, I wish to turn down the volume of the growth paradigm. What alternate images may we use? How about shedding? A snake sheds the skin that doesn't fit anymore, like those baby teeth, those adolescent behaviors, those twenty-something heroics, those romantic illusions.
Shedding is not "fun." It is rich, and one comes out the other end of such a cycle feeling clean and light. We have habits that don't fit, stale patterns. Yes, we're in a sort of balance, a familiar, if ill-fitting, outfit. But, balance is overrated, often misunderstood. Balancing is for checkbooks, not for art. Life should be art. Art requires the courage and discipline to shed. Kierkegaard: "The deeper natures don't change. They become more and more themselves." Jung says individuation is becoming more and more oneself. Not a clone, conforming to some limited social uniform, but the person who has recognized and accepted her destiny to live the particular artistry that becomes her. Hillman said, "...becoming more and more oneself - the actual experience of it is a shrinking, in that very often it's a dehydration, a loss of inflations, a loss of illusions."
Another reason we avoid shedding is because it is often unattractive - we clump around learning new dance steps, and we're not Fred Astaire. We dare to appear in public looking half-plucked, like the molting birds we are. And, if our elegant snakeselves are glistening with sleek new scales at one end, well, we still may be dragging the crackly grayish old skin along, like a dingy slip showing a foot below an evening gown.
It's awkward and even ugly, but shedding is wonderful, and the new feathers are worth it, the glimmery scales. Best of all, you have cleaned out the closet, gotten rid of some of the proverbial baggage.
Judith Viorst's book Necessary Losses, is subtitled The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. In the introduction she writes, "the road to human development is paved with renunciation", and "I would like to propose that central to understanding our lives is understanding how we deal with loss."
The child archetype in society is quite evident in our limited patience. That includes a lack of patience for our own or other's melancholia, mournings, acknowledgment of loss. We tell ourselves to "grow up" and "get over", when more apt directive metaphors may be "shrivel up" and "wade through". For the paradox is that we grow through loss and that the surest way around is through. "Only on love's terrible other side is found the place where lion and lamb abide."Ordinary Onions
One of the greatest illusions is that of growing toward enlightenment. Enlightenment is not an endpoint. Although often considered the goal of long years (or lifetimes) of spiritual practice, enlightenment is paradoxically atemporal. Present moment. Here and now. It is not a sudden experience of gorgeous colors and heavenly choirs and blissful sensations. Sorry. Unh. Unh. Those experiences are available, and they are lovely - or terrifying. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Those experiences are not the point. If we either grasp such experiences (Jack Kornfield refers to this as "Settling for the Booby Prize") or push them away, we are missing the raft. No matter how flashy the emotional or sensual pyrotechnics, "all experiences are side effects."
Enlightenment is ordinary. It is profoundly ordinary. When all of the skins are shed: all the trappings, all the names we give ourselves, all the roles we play, all the personalities we wear, all the attachments we have, all the aversions we have. This is not growth. It is radical shedding. It is stripping down to the nakedness of our beating heart and going inside to find our essence. You are like an onion. As you peel away skins those layers get thicker and more pungent. You may cry. You certainly get smaller as you near the core. And of course there is no core.
Sogyal Rinpoche writes, "Spiritual truth is not something elaborate and esoteric, it is in fact profound common sense. When you realize the nature of mind, layers of confusion peel away. You don't actually 'become' a buddha. You simply cease, slowly, to be deluded. And being a buddha is not being some omnipotent spiritual superman, but becoming at last a true human being."Less Becomes Moore
Bestseller lists don't impress me - I find my cynic well-nourished when it sees that hackneyed Lawrence Sanders is "America's number one mystery writer", and that the dreadful ode to the unexamined life and the socially incommunicative, Bridges of Madison County (I call it Bridges of Madison Avenue) is still riding the cloth list after two years. Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul is a bestseller that surprised me because it is sometimes scholarly and does not give answers. It is not a formulaic self-help package of short chapters with many lists and exercises. Finding Thomas Moore's books on the bestseller list does make my cynic suspicious. There is ample evidence that these are like M. Scott Peck's popular spiritual books in this way: they are bought to be given to others as much as, if not more than, to be read by the buyer.
One thing that can explain Moore's popularity is his subtitle: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. That phrase is a wistful breath, a breeze, fresh air. It implies that sacredness is an ordinary everyday thing. Soulfulness can be lyrical and deep, but it cannot be bought. It won't take more of your precious time, yet it can make more of your time precious. It won't cost money. It won't mean workshops and seminars: though these may be helpful, they can be entered into consciously and calmly, not with the desperate obligation of the consumerized seeker.
Here is a quote from Moore's book:
When we trade in the desire for more for an experience of depth, we find that richness doesn't have to do with quantity. Quantities of things or money or experiences is not what answers the cry of our soul. You can pile quantities of these into the hole of felt need that the ego begs you to fill. But the ego is not the soul, and ego is, by its nature, never sated. The ego is the personification of the scarcity view. Scarcity teaches that resources are limited, there is never enough to go around, no matter how big your bankbook (of love, food, money, sensations, etc.) there will never be enough. This ego is a huge mouth, and it acts like a baby tyrant. We feed and feed and feed it, because it cries so loud. It expresses no gratitude, is never satisfied.
One may fall into the illusion that one only need change the ego's diet. Stop feeding it junk food like cookies and television and put it on a vegetarian organic plan of meditation and exercise, good books and Kosher food. That's probably a step in the right direction, but be aware that this ego still won't be satisfied. Soul, as Moore describes it, is not the rarefied eternal spirit, but rather the very human soul, which exists in relationship. It is fed by art, music, poetry, stories. This does not mean we should heap our plates high with the artifacts of culture in order to sustain our hungry soul. Soul is more discriminating; she responds to depth, mystery. Sensory overload is a turn-off, like a switch. Yes, soul has moods, phases like the moon. This is what I mean when I say balance is over-rated and often misunderstood. Balance is too often portrayed as gray compromise: spiritual practice as lithium.
Many people think they have achieved balance when they have a stretch of calm, a monotony that is safe if uninspired. Don't rock the boat time. Such periods may be only phases. The lunarlike phases of the soul. Melancholy, hibernation, gestation, rebirth, flowering, ripening, dropping/dying/harvesting/ gathering in...all phases. Each as sacred, as soulful, as another.
Balance is presented as a therapeutic or religious goal attainable in this lifetime. Indeed it is, but not as a steady state. Balance is not so much achieved, but experienced, by grace, as a cosmic surprise, an "ah ha!", an "of course." Robert Johnson writes, "one cannot stay very long in this middle place, for it is a knife-edge, outside space and time. A moment of it is enough to give meaning to long stretches of ordinary life."
Such balance is not gray, not neutral. It is beyond and contains all colors, all polarities. It is Tao, creative synthesis. It is the perfect plumbline described by the sine wave of dualities, phases. It is the pulse of paradox.Spiritual Maturity
Growth maybe a wonderful paradigm for spiritual evolution. But any system, any paradigm, only reveals its richness if challenged, questioned, explored. If unexamined, a focus on growth as of ultimate value can lead to ignorance of the hazards.
Spiritual maturity includes shedding as well as growth, descent as well as ascent, community as well as individuality. Such maturity can tolerate, even celebrate, paradox. There is a sensation that the psychic ground is shifting under your very feet, seismic tremors which resolve only when you shift to the fulcrum, the balance which dares embrace both sides of a question. Spiritual maturity has the patience to embrace questioning itself. To love our questions, to live them, in a manner not of anxious quick answering, but patient wonder - that is vibrant adulthood.
Let us create a community of citizens; adults who cherish but don't idolize their psychic and physical children. Let us be humans who are symbolic serpents, whose undulations describe the sine wave; whose very movement appears as forward and inverted question marks, the punctuation of paradox; whose ancient image, Ouroboros, finally describes the wholeness of a circle.Quotations In always increasing experience, we sometimes forget to learn from experience.
Nothing is better for a man than to be without anything, having no asceticism, no theory, no practice. When he is without everything, he is with everything.
Personal regression is easier than social change.
Little by little, wean yourself. This is the gist of what I have to say. From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood, move to an infant drinking milk, to a child on solid food, to a searcher after wisdom, to a hunter of more invisible game.
What the immature adult really wants is a womb with a view.
Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony. This is how everything exists in this realm of buddha nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect balance.
I sloughed myself as a snake sloughs off its skin. Then I looked into myself and saw that I am He.
I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Don't reject truth which is partial, modest, incomplete, ugly or confusing. Truth is part of life, and the best truths are still breathing.
© 1995 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski