Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

The Wasteland and the Dandelion

I’ve felt inspired to write several posts this spring with hints of weeds in them. My reality has begun to match my imagination as dandelions have overtaken my front lawn. I felt only the slightest embarrassment about the unruliness until one of my neighbors commented on it in a negative way. It was at the end of a long and stressful week, so, in my anger, I immediately got a weed-wacker and started hacking at them (my mower is hand-powered so it doesn’t do much). I felt exhilarated by the fact that my “solution” to the issue was only making the problem worse by neatly disseminating the seeds in every direction.

As I sat with the situation and how I handled it, I felt a budding sense of recognition of my old friend shame. When someone judges me, I tend to move through a place of humiliation so quickly that I don’t realize what I’m feeling, and I then either berate myself or behave defensively. Someone else’s reaction to us is secondary to the meaning we give it internally—we only feel shame when we purchase what they are proffering. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to spend some time uncovering the roots of our shame as trauma survivors and relating the specific experience I had in this instance in tending it.

That Which Secrets Hold

Shamefulness births lies and deceit. In the case of childhood trauma, this may take the form of hiding our suffering from ourselves. When we are unable to connect to a part of our experience, we release it into an inner wasteland where it metastasizes and spreads. The more we disown who we are or what we’ve experienced, the more inner control it takes to restrain the outgrowth of our horrors. Through aches and illnesses, our bodies often begin to articulate that which we cannot acknowledge.

Childhood abuse of the physical or sexual nature involves bodily violation whereas mental and emotional abuse violates us psychologically. These defilements, particularly when they occur without an affirming and protective adult to intervene, produce shame. It is in a child’s nature to eat shame as deserved; after all, if the abuse is committed by a loved one, the alternative is to reject the very body and being of those to whom the child is closest.

In some cases of abuse, abusers may be making manifest their unprocessed and shamed traumatic past. I believe this can heighten the chances that the individual who is acting in an abusive manner will, in the moment, deliberately induce shame in the child as way to further distance themselves from their past. Only my body knows what this really means–it is too painful and difficult for me to put into words what it feels like to become a conduit of another’s self-hatred. If we have no other reason than this to work on our own shame, I think we have reason enough.

But It Blossoms Into Tears

So, if we are trauma survivors, it is likely shame has gained a foothold. Should we, as my neighbors clearly expected of me, head off for pesticides and torches and get it gone? If only it were that easy. Shame is a cancer that splits each time you cut into it, resilient and resistant. We can’t weed-wack our way out of it.

I believe the function of internalized feelings of shame is often to hold back grief. Rejecting a part of ourselves as sullied and vile because of what happened to us allows us to break the timepiece and stay in the moment of terror, rather than to move forward to face our little self and grow. Who are we with the inclusion of all of our scars and sorrows? Every time we pause to allow another’s judgment to creep in to how we picture ourselves, we disallow ourselves comfort for whatever we are appearing “less than” in comparison. I pride myself on respecting other’s boundaries and needs, so my neighbor’s observation on the state of my patchwork-grass exposed a lack of attention that didn’t fit with how I wanted to be seen.

Going further into the wasteland of shame, I find the aloneness with which I cope each day appears as a scrubby tree whose branches crackle in reminder that if I had a partner or a child or family, my lawn would be nicer because there would be someone to remind me about it and to help me maintain it. A Cheshire-grin jackrabbit hops by, noting that I also “should” be productive and work hard and never stop moving. This is a trauma-time loop where I believed I could prevent the next incident of abuse by staying ahead of it; knowing when it would occur could stop it, so I thought. Finally I arrive at my destination, a small pit of murky water. Here I find my grief. I feel outside of time as I pause in this place. What arises is an awareness that I felt “safe” because I perceived myself to be following the rules of being a good neighbor. By doing so, I thought I would be able to maintain positive relationships with the neighbors I like. The humiliation of shame-induction rises up and the water goes black. The sense in me is that there is no safe place, no way to undo it, no path through which I can go where I won’t be hurt. I am trapped, helpless and alone. My best effort wasn’t good enough and when the cost is body and psychic violation of the nature I experienced as child, failure really matters. Shame, reaching out into oozy mud, covers me. Shame is a tar pit and grief is the only water that dissolves it.

I see her finally, the little self who doesn’t know how to maintain a lawn because she was never taught how to do so. The little self who thought being quiet and staying inside her plat of land would be enough to win favor. The little self who just wanted to have her own home where she wouldn’t be hurt, and who marveled at the dandelions because they made her happy. One tiny moment—a ten second interaction—cast me into the wilderness of my shame and it took me hours to find my little self and transform tar to water. Tears finally come. Judgement is irrelevant when I know I met myself today in this exploration and it was worth it. Sure, I’ll buy a stick to dig out some of the blossoms, but I’ll leave plenty there to mark the pathway out of my shame and back to myself.

Embodied Heart

Reimagining Our Flaws

I have been sitting with deep feelings of inadequacy for days now. The genesis of my current state was caused by negative feedback I’ve received in a few areas of my life, which then cracked open the feelings of shame and self-loathing with which I’ve always struggled. I have little interest in believing myself competent, superior or gifted in all areas of life; protecting my self-esteem comes at too high of a price if it costs me my honesty and authenticity. For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, we’ll be taking a deeper look at how to shift the paradigm away from projections of perfection into a viewpoint that captures our ugliness and envisions grace in its bumps and asymmetry.

Feeling judged, rejected or abandoned is an invitation into a deeper relationship with our inner world. We cannot truly know its state without keys to unlock the doors of what we hide from ourselves. I believe we spend much time shoving away anything that could cause us discomfort or make us question our abilities. If we sit with these difficult emotions, we may gain entry into internal places which we’ve never tread. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have been amazed at the specific connections I am able to make (within the safe context of therapy) between my current feelings and my past experiences. It can be disheartening to realize we’ve been playing at the same script for decades, hoping this time the ending will vary, but it may be that only through this awareness that we can fully know ourselves and can then help to heal those little selves of past pain. The less we shy away from difficult realizations, the more the awareness they reveal can improve our self-care.

Goddess as Universe grants us an open window into how to respond to our foibles. I view Her as the ultimate creative force. Any time life dies back, She has in a sense “failed.” However, She is just getting warmed up. Into the void She tosses seeds, sprinkles showers and directs sunlight. There is no lasting failure, only the possibility of new growth.

We do not operate on the same time scale, so our failures feel more acute and permanent. Our corporal beings may not outlast our bare earth or charred stumps. This is where the interconnectedness of all beings comes into focus as a healing conduit to change. Perhaps we ourselves cannot not regrow or replenish completely, but our actions of turning over the decay and watering it through our tears could lead to future fertility. Grieving our losses and our neverhads is part of the heartbeat that flows between generations and through time. We may never say of a loved one “she mourned well” but our lives will undoubtedly be fuller and blossom for her having done it.

Grieving and gratitude symbiotically imbue with life essence the undergrowth of our life in places where traditional markers of success may go unmet. To whom would you entrust your soul, a person for whom roses take hold instantaneously or someone who has cut back the ivy, found only ruin beneath, and still stands in appreciation of the warmth of the sun through the clearing? Suffering and failure may not be grace, but pain—held with sorrow and appreciation for what remains—is the core of authentic life.

I think there are two way-stops on the pathway to grateful mourning. Many times we may barely take two steps forward, so strong is the pull to deny where we lack and to smile our perfect-toothed grin of false pride. Believing ourselves infinitely gifted and impervious to what others think may appear strong but belies the thin soil on which we stand. Those brave enough to journey onward may get sidetracked by esteeming incompetence—shallow mourning or masochistic desires for our defects to define our identity. In these instances, we take depressive emotions and pity as substitutes for vanity. Being given attention for where we fall short, we swallow the prickly gift and wear our suffering as an emblem commanding respect.

These are very difficult statements as I think they reveal a hard truth—suffering by itself is movement but I think we can go further. We can metabolize our pain, digest our lack, and recycle it to the world through our weeping and our uplifted hands in praise of that which we do have. Those are the people I most want to know, those who know where they are weak, who care for their weaknesses, and who move through them to integrate them into their strengths. Those who have spill many drops of grief for what life has cost them, and who are not afraid to have it take from them even more because they know the value they may pay will return a thousand-fold in future generations.

What is your relationship with your weaknesses and flaws? Where in your life have you, through mourning and/or gratitude, transformed your suffering? Are there other way-stops in which people may get stalled before access grief and gratitude?

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Resolving Expectations of Compassion Toward Abuse Perpetrators

A fellow blogger, Alexis Rose, shared an excellent post about her feelings on the word forgiveness.  As I read her post as well as the replies, I felt like the veil finally lifted on what I felt I had been accused of lacking in relation to my abusers by the various people with whom I’ve shared my story. It wasn’t forgiveness as no request had made to do so. Rather, it was compassion. Those of us who have been subjected to the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate are expected to feel empathy and to practice understanding for those who harmed us. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart and #SurvivingnThriving post, I will explore why this expectation may exist and outline best practices in responsiveness for those who wish to support trauma survivors in relation to this topic.

*Please note that I do dichotomize the condition of survivors and perpetrators in this post. I am aware that an individual could fall into both categories; I will not be fully addressing that complication.

But They Had a Rough Life Too…

To me, the function of pushing compassion towards abusers on trauma survivors is that it serves to dismiss any grappling with grief, pain, horror and estrangement by the commenter. If victims and perpetrators can reconcile, what need is there to fully acknowledge the awfulness of the actions and the destruction they cause for their victims? Within this mindset, the discomfort can be wrapped up quickly to move on to a world with less injustice.

As strange as it may sound, those who view abusers with complete hatred and malice—for instance, those who hope they get raped in prison—are simply the other side of the same coin. If the abuser is either monster or another form of victim, we are spared the gut-wrenching realization that all of us have the potential for evil within us as well as the difficult work of having to make meaning out of the actions of those who succumb to it.

Sex offenders (and, to a lesser extent, parents who physically abuse their children) are one of the few true pariahs of our society. The main impulse people seem to have towards them is that they should be banned from everywhere and imprisoned for life, if not outright killed. The hypocrisy, though, is mountainous when it comes to survivors, who are expected to be the ones to redeem them through their acts of forgiveness and compassion. I see value in restorative justice models; however, it is not my job as a survivor to fix the system or the situation for those who violated my being. I view it as an act of cowardess to extend an expectation of reconciliation to those who have been most wronged while absolving one’s self of any need to struggle with issues of evil or to create pathways to restoration. I suspect many such expectations are coated with a little bit of soot-shame: sure, it was the perpetrator’s fault, but isn’t the victim a little defective as well? And, if so, I (speaking here as if I were a non-sexually abused human) can leave the whole messy bunch to figure it out amongst themselves.

The current movement to rehabilitate the men rooted out by #metoo will, I suspect, fall victim to the “fix it yourself” crowd. If such an ill-conceived project as Charlie Roses’ talk show occurs, I fully anticipate a woman who has been sexually harassed in the past will be paraded out to make nice with her former boss or co-worker. I do not have any answers for the place at which the fallen (mostly) men who harm others sexually should arrive, and it isn’t my calling in this lifetime to grapple with this burden. Every time someone tells a survivor they should forgive their perpetrator, or wonders to the survivor what awful things must have happened to the perpetrator to lead them to their behaviors, they thrust some of the most challenging moral questions a person may face: Why do some people defile others? Does evil deserve compassion? Is everyone able to be redeemed socially, and, if so, how do we make it happen? at the people least deserving of pondering them.

To take this one step further, I think again about calling. If there is any justice in this world, I feel there needs to be a 50-1 network of supporters of trauma survivors to supporters of perpetrators. I do genuinely believe some people’s mission in life is to work with perpetrators and I support them in their efforts. At the same time, numbers and substance matter. I was deeply disappointed earlier this year when I learned a Pagan conference I wanted to attend regularly welcomes sex offenders and holds specific meetings for them, while paying little attention to the needs of trauma survivors. I am not saying these programs shouldn’t happen, but the fact that one group’s needs were clearly more valued than another’s turned me off to the whole enterprise. Trauma survivors themselves are not overrun with resources and educated supporters, that much I can ensure you.

Best Practices in Supporting Trauma Survivors in Regards to Abusers

I cannot recall another blog I’ve written where I’ve spoken to those who might be support people to trauma survivors; nearly all of my work is directed at trauma survivors themselves. If you read a hint of anger in this post, it’s there. I’ve been hurt far more than I’ve been helped by others when I share my story. The ones who get it, though, are invaluable.

  1. If you feel compelled to mention forgiveness or compassion for an abuser to a survivor, ask yourself the following questions: Have you yourself volunteered or worked with perpetrators of violent crime? Have you supported restorative justice efforts? How many sex offenders or parents who have had their children removed from them do you care for in your daily life? Perhaps you can exercise your compassion muscle towards the individuals you so strongly feel are in need of it directly, rather than expecting the victim of a crime to do the work for you. We are not your tools of healing; it is up to you to create the changes you think society needs.
  2. Respect the survivor’s boundaries. Do not act as an intermediary between the survivor and the abuser unless it is at the survivor’s request and with their permission. Even then, examine your motives and be prepared to set your own boundaries if you feel compelled to do so. I was betrayed by an individual who knew both my parents and me after I started to come to terms with the abuse. This person gave away my new address to my parents which resulted in them stalking me and me having to go to the police. We don’t need heroes like this; those who know when to say “I’m not comfortable talking to so-and-so for you” may do much more to help us heal.
  3. Know that healing is a process. Part of the recovery from childhood abuse often involves long periods of depression and anger. Feelings of helplessness and hopeless may crop up in you. To some extent, these may be projections onto you by the survivor as they relive and digest their experience. As weird as it sounds, it could be a sign that they really trust you, enough to let you see them “messy.” It is completely understandable that you will need your own support system during this time. With attention to confidentiality, it is vital for you to have others to whom you can turn to help you through your reactions and emotions. We cannot heal ourselves and you at the same time; you doing your own inner work is one of the most compassionate acts you can undertake.

Cultivating compassion towards an abuser is largely irrelevant to the work of being a supporter of a trauma survivor. People may be able to operate in both spheres (one of my most helpful therapists did so), but these types of callings are exceedingly rare. If you are someone who wishes to help trauma survivors, expect them to raise their own questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer them the unfailing belief that they are capable to navigating these waters themselves with you as a steady hand to their shoulder. Do not, under any circumstances, believe yourself more able to paddle through these silt-filled bogs yourself. If you instead believe it is your task in life to support the rehabilitation of those who have harmed others, have at it.

I have varying degrees of compassion for those who harmed me most. As my spiritual journey has evolved, my feelings have grown as an outcropping of the inner work I’ve done, not as an intentional shift in direction. To trauma survivors, my main message is that self-compassion is vital to healing (ironically, it is also the topic on which my free Goddess Spirituality circle this summer will focus). The ways in which you work out your feelings towards those who harmed you are sacred waters; the only people with you there should be those you invite.

Naturally Mindful

No Shade: Connecting with the Fullness of Nature

We had a very warm spell where I live this week. As I spent time outside, I repeatedly experienced a sensation of “too much sun.” I wasn’t sure how it could be possible for there to be too much sun, or why everything felt plastic and excessively green. Finally, it dawned on me that, although the temperature was pushing 90⁰ F, the leaves were only just starting to come out on the trees. Save the shadows of bare branches and objects like houses, there were no patches in which I could pause for a moment to get a break from the sun. Something in the “not quite right” and uneasiness of the moment led me to ponder more completely the ways in which I connect to Nature for today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday.

I experience an inner paradox in my relationship with Nature. I have had some of my deepest feelings of awe and wonder in natural settings and am continually reminded of the presence of Goddess in green spaces. At the same time, I am nearly phobic of insects like ticks, easily physically overwhelmed by heat, and triggered by the activities of humans while outside. My desire to seek Goddess in Her Wilds becomes tenuous when I’m not in a balmy, mildly sunny, park-like setting. I feel a sense of hypocrisy and disappointment in myself for not loving every breathe of hiking untrailed pathways, splashing in muddy rivers and falling asleep to the crackle of the campfire. I believe, though, that I am not alone in my discomfort and that there are many people who, for various reasons, would benefit from a deeper relationship with Nature but who are also cautious in their embrace of all She has to offer.

Goddess as Earth is not only gentle and sweet. She has fiery tempers, walls of tears, barren hollows and deep pits of rock and soil. She sweeps away with wind and tumbles down with jolts. I find much resonance in the fact that we cannot choose the weather in any one location in which we find ourselves, just as we cannot dictate our fate on more ethereal plains. Consider also that significant amounts of our money and energy in life are spent protecting ourselves from Her in hovels of concrete and wood and maneuvering ourselves through Her in cages of glass, plastic, metal and rubber. And each time we think we’ve conquered Her as a species, She shapeshifts straight through our boundaries.

In recognizing the moods of Nature, I’m dwelling also on how to meet Her. For instance, I marvel at the gloriously undignified art of camping—living so close to Her possible howls and unexpected dew and creatures. Picnicking on grass with ants visiting our blanket and swimming in murky water where our feet explore depths our eyes cannot penetrate offer a blending of the sublime and the mundane. I yearn for the opaque and muted tones that are only found where tidiness ends.

Where I feel led in this meditation on Nature is to find my edge. Permaculture principles teach us that edges are teeming with life and possibility. Staying inside the fence will no longer suffice for me. At the same time, forcing myself too far outside my natural comfort zone will only overwhelm and further disconnect me from that which I am seeking, which is a deeper relationship with Nature. As I ajar the gate slowly, I want to let the weeds take up a small residence inside the corner of my need for creature comforts.

Specifically, I plan to engage in the following practices:

  • Sit with a thunderstorm and meditate on its rumblings.
  • Find a bug and make it a friend (or at least observe it well).
  • Gather rainwater for my altar.
  • Delight in the mischievousness of Nature—specifically in Her human form—by reimagining at least one behavior that stresses me as the antics of an overgrown ape.

To what extent are you beholden to creature comforts? In what ways would you like to deepen your relationship with Nature? Where are your edges in experiencing Nature, and how can you more fully inhabit them?

Goddess Thealogy

The World Altar

For today’s #Thealogy Thursday, I want to share a spiritual knowing that revealed itself to me. I do not in any way claim that it is Truth, but rather, share it as an outpouring of the blessing it gave me. I’ve written recently of my difficulties with finding family, so this envisioning held special meaning to me. I find my belonging and my being encapsulated in it.

In my vision, I saw four altars: to Self, a romantic partner, my family of origin and my children. Everyone would have these stones of sacrifice, although the recipients of our dedication may vary. In relationship, each altar becomes a table of living reverance, on which we gift of ourselves. When the object of our devotion is no longer in our lives, the altar transforms to a grave – table to headstone. The meaning of the relationship and the lessons learned from it inscribed themselves on it. My altar to my family of origin is a grave as that relationship is irrevocably severed. For romantic partner and child, I hold the liminal space between conception and decay, uncertain as to whether to mourn their absence or whether to pour of myself to enliven the dedication. On my altar to Self, I make sacrifice; I invest in myself and venerate my body. At times, I’ve clung to its rocky facade as the only relic I had.

As this knowing unfolded, I saw myself turning ’round in this sacred place. The landscape was dotted with circular altars. One stood out from the rest. The altar to Goddess, to Earth, to the World and Universe, to all of Being. So large that every human and every creature could fit around its circumference. Sacrifices here return to the giver in abundance. Life-giver, guardian of the deep, all that is. Tunneled in every direction from this altar was a web connected to each of the individual altars; She under-girds all we do.

Everything to which we dedicate ourselves exists within this medium. There is no escape in the most affirming way possible. Sure, we can enslave ourselves to false pillars from which no life has ever emanated. We can serve graves and mourn the living. We can spend decades holding fast to the cold marble of bygone or neverhad, unaware of the abundance which would flourish if we would simply unfix our gaze. But we don’t have to anymore. More than knowing, I experienced this reality—the belonging to and for and how that for so long has evaded me.

I find a profound justice in this model of the world. No matter the altar, each of us meets our end on this outstretched plain. She calls everyone to Her when they die, returning all to Herself. No one gets to write the last lines of their story except for Her.

In the glow of this revelation, I think transcendence occurs when we are able to glimpse our altar to Self turning to grave and relish the gathering dust as our final gift to the world. We can die not clinging to the edifies of what was or should have been, but prostrating ourselves in gratitude for what has been received as well as taken. Only in the exchange of being held and losing refuge do we meet love.

Does this mean we should not grieve what is gone and what could never be? No, but I think we do well to know when it is that we face memory and when it is that we face possibility. Mourning is relevant, sacred and true. It may mean we spend time clinging to and scrapping at rock, willing life where it no longer blossoms. If we give ourselves over to it wholly, I think mourning eventually allows us to set our back against tomb and to recircle ourselves with all who celebrate Her. Love is daring to devote ourselves to Self and others, with an embodied understanding that time loops us all into non-existence or at least recycles every bit of who we are. Life is so precious that nothing endures.

Toko-Pa Turner has noted that sacrifice means to make sacred. My vision revealed the depths of this for me in a way that has unbound my heart and released my holding to flimsy and false rockface. I have home now, stone steps and the wide berth of granite that goes on forever. I rise to meet Her there, carefully placing each flower and spoon of honey and grain offering in turn. She consumes them as She envelops me. I am remade each time I offer myself, returning lighter and deeper and fuller. There is nowhere we can go without Her, and no one She cannot transform at the World Altar.