Sacred Spiritual Growth

Mistaking the Familiar for the Safe: On Whose Path are You?

There was a major snow storm in my area this winter. My Yorkie, despite his diminutive size, typically vies for the lead with me when we go for a walk, ambling wherever his little heart desires. After the snow, however, we ended up with snow drifts three or more feet deep after shoveling the driveway and walkways. As I walked him, I became nearly claustrophobic as I sensed how much his world had temporarily shrunken. He could only go where I had cut a path for him. As I observed his behavior, I wondered about the extent to which each of us might engage in similar behavior in terms of our life choices. For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring the implications of making decisions based on what we’ve known, rather than in relation to what is possible.

In another post I have coming out soon, I wrote something to the effect of “mistaking the familiar for the safe.” This line brought chills to me as it hit at the core of much of my existence. How often do I make decisions that are comfortable because they line up with previous choices I’ve made, only to later realize that I was unnecessarily limiting myself? Or, alternatively, when might I try the opposite of a frequent course of action, not because I really buy into it, but because it allows me to rebel against my own norms?

Psychological theories of social learning and conditioning provide ample explanation as to why we might act in ways that curtail or cut off the truly revolutionary choices and actions in our lives. We can easily become habituated to a particular series of events, ones that to an outsider would appear frightening or “crazy.” This is of particular concern for childhood abuse survivors, who may allow individuals into their lives who act harshly or in a demeaning manner, simply because that is what they have come to expect from people. In addition, the rewards offered by individuals who are abusive in the form of “sincere” apologies, contrition, promises to do better and literal gifts are often sufficient to entice survivors to believe that this time will be different or to question even their own perception of the abusive incident that now seems dulled under so much “love” and hope.

How do we go about making decision and interpreting events in ways that expand our horizons rather than contract them? A concept on which I’ve been mulling for some time now is that of an “Inner Goddess.” This is one of many ways of stating that I believe there is a wisdom in the universe into which we can tap that is greater than the sum of the parts of ourselves. Something about perceiving it as housed inside me reduces my fear of it, although thealogically I see Source/Self/God(ess) as both within each of us and intertwining through every piece of existence, permeating space-time without the normal adherence to the laws of classical physics. The nature of this energy can be endlessly debated; my interest instead is with the practical lived experience of centering myself in Her and instantaneously being granted a clear-sighted vision of my life that I know at my core shreds my normal limitations of habit and conditioning. My main obstacle is that I return repeatedly to living without accessing this higher consciousness. I follow the path that either my own fear and anger or another person has decided to carve for me, tracing and retracing the same worn footfalls. My earnest hope is that I can now root myself in Being that is somehow the trajectory of path itself, the sum of everywhere I’ve already wandered, the birds-eye view of the pattern my wanderings have and will whittle out, and the ground on which I walk.

Where has your path in life led you to mistake the familiar for the safe? Do you have a sense of an energy that transcends your own learning history? If so, what has been transformed in your life as a result of the guidance that this energy has provided to you?

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

Unreality: The Distortion of Dissociation

When children are abused repeatedly, particularly when they are abused by trusted caregivers, their brains are left with an impossible dilemma. The individuals on whom they rely for protection and care are also the individuals who are hurting them. In order to resolve this discrepancy, they sometimes engage in dissociative behaviors. These behaviors enable them to stay connected to their caregivers while enduring the traumatic experience. Viewed in this light, dissociative behaviors are a life-saver as, through their use, children may achieve some sense of normalcy and can able to function in the outside world. Like any fortified structure, breaks and cracks will develop over time. Eventually, either in part or as a whole, the dissociative walls will come down and people, now adults, may be overwhelmed by the barrage of memories, sensations, emotions and thoughts that in fact assailed them as children but feel like fresh attacks. Having lived through this experience myself, I can attest to the sharp curve into “too much reality” after years of unreality. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to explore what it means to be dissociative and how it can affect our spiritual lives.

Aspects of Dissociation

Dissociative behaviors include depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization includes feelings of being detached from one’s body. Derealization involves detachment from external stimuli; everything around the person feels unreal. Both of these experiences are thought to be survival mechanisms that are triggered by extreme stressors and trauma. Instead of a provoking a “fight or flight” response, the body may engage in a freeze response if running to safety or fighting for one’s life do not seem like effective choices.

Additional autonomic systems are engaged, including the parasympathetic system. This system slows body responses such as heart rate and respiration. As I understand it, freezing behaviors, or “tonic immobility,” can also include an activation of our sympathetic nervous system but to a lesser extent than our parasympathetic system. This means the person experiencing such a response is basically frozen in fear. Endorphins may also be released, which cause bodily and emotional numbness.

All of these physical responses are adaptive tools our body has; for instance, if you were being killed by a large animal, most likely you’d want to be “out of it” and unaware of what was occurring. These defenses become problematic when we become conditioned, through traumatic experiences, to deploy them in moments that are not truly life-threatening. I have issues with dissociation beyond depersonalization and derealization, but I wanted to start my exploration of this topic by going into more depth with these two core elements.

Depersonalization

Depersonalization occurs when people feel as though they are not in their body, but are instead observing it from a third-person viewpoint. Some individuals will describe feeling as though they were floating above their bodies. I tend to find myself utterly lost in a pattern such as a piece of wallpaper, unaware that I’ve traced it again and again in my mind unless I lost all sense of my body. It can also include experiences of distance from one’s thoughts, as though another person is thinking them. Emotions may be expressed without the person’s internal sense of connection to them. I’ve felt there is nothing odder than having tears streaming down my face with a look of sadness while feeling completely calm and serene internally.

People experiencing depersonalization may feel as though their body is taking action without their conscious control. We all do this to an extent, for instance, your mind may wander while you are walking around your house; you find yourself going in to a room and can’t remember why you went in to it. During an experience of depersonalization, this mental state cuts across decision-making. When I’ve had times of depersonalization, I find myself in the middle of a sequence of action without awareness of a conscious decision to start or continue the sequence. I once had a car break down early in the morning. By the evening, I found myself at a car dealership buying a new one, without any memory of conscious choice on my part. This day included a period of time in which I was driving aimlessly, as though the solution to my stress would appear if I just drove further. Some individuals escalate to episodes of dissociative fugue, where they may be found days later having gotten “lost,” wandering and forgetting most if not all of the personal memory of who they are.

Derealization

Derealization takes many forms but, at its heart, involves a felt sense of one’s surroundings being dreamlike and strange. If you’ve ever spent far too long playing a video game or watching television, and it took you a minute to snap back to reality when you looked around yourself, you’ve had a small example of what derealization feels like. The form of objects and the space between them can become distorted; when this happens to me, I often feel like people’s faces are mere inches away from me even though they are sitting across the room. I’ve also experienced objects like tables seeming to grow or shrink in size; most of the time I would be aware that the object had not actually changed but that it was my perception of it that was altered.

I once dated someone who quickly showed signs of becoming abusive. I somehow ended up in a situation where, while staying at the person’s house, they left for a few hours for an errand and planned to decide during this time whether or not they wanted to end the relationship. I could easily have slipped into my car and escaped the situation, but instead I found myself in nearly a literal fog; everything around me seemed opaque and glossy, as though it would fade into mist if I reached out to touch it. My thoughts fell out of my head as soon as I had them (another example of depersonalization); my short-term memory was impaired. Everything around me seemed muted and at a distance. The person returned and told me they were ending the relationship.

As I drove back home, each mile seemed to make the sun brighter and the lines on the road clearer. My thinking stopped looping and I realized what had happened and how much danger I would be in if I stayed with this person. I received frantic messages a few hours later begging me to get back together, but thankfully the physical distance had diminished my dissociation to the point where there was no doubt in me about the relationship needing to be over. This is how dissociation can work; when a person is in a sufficient state of physical or emotional risk, or when a person is inadvertently triggered intensely enough to provoke an inaccurate assessment of risk, fight or flight can transform into freeze or, as I see it, float, where everything is soupy and sort-of, and time, body and surroundings seem to be malleable props of actual lived experience.

Before I engage in a discussion of dissociation and spirituality, I do want to note a persistent theme I have encountered in both my scholarly work as well as my personal therapy for dissociative issues, which is that of will. I try to reconcile myself to the idea that I am responsible for my actions, even when I am dissociative and feel detached from what I am doing. Where I vehemently disagree with some of the work I’ve seen is that dissociation is a consciously-controlled, enacted behavior. When it has hit me at full-force, I felt completely unable to do anything about it. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t have done anything, just that, in the moment, I don’t know if I could have. That’s the point, it has to work seamlessly and quickly in order to be effective. Sitting around thinking “hum, should I mentally escape into myself now or not” isn’t an operative defense. In fact, times such as painful medical procedures where I’ve consciously attempted to dissociate, I’ve been unable to fully do so because the key element of being trapped with relational danger was not present. I’ve felt shamed on many occasions by people who seem to view dissociative behaviors as interchangeable with acts of pretending or choosing to ignore, which they are not. I am extremely curious to hear from anyone who also struggles with it as to your interpretation of how it works and the extent to which you think you “choose” it or it simply “happens” to you.

Dissociation and Spirituality

In some ways, being capable of dissociative behaviors mimics certain spiritual states of ecstasy and trance. I had a short stint in the Pentecostal world of speaking in tongues and crazed dancing in the spirit. I marveled at the amount of time it took others to work themselves into a spiritual lather, whereas I could immediately slip into an altered state at a whim. I didn’t need the repetitive music, exhortations from the spiritual prophets, or the embrace of the Holy Spirit to go there, so to speak. Oddly, the immediacy of my experience showed me how shallow it was, and the “on-off” quality of my transformation led me to reject this lifestyle within a few months. I wonder at how many of the individuals of various faiths who go into trance states are dissociative.

Where dissociation can clash with spirituality is in the deep inner work it takes to grapple with spiritual challenges and difficult ethical questions. I find it tempting and sometimes succumb to the desire to un-realize and un-personalize myself from the muck of the surrounding world with all its troubles. Dissociation can provide a bubble, within which no negativity can penetrate and no betrayal, shame or ugliness can enter. This is of course an illusion; some part of ourselves is in fact absorbing everything that is happening, but to the part of ourselves with whom we identify, it isn’t our truth or our experience.

Practices of breath-work, grounding and centering have become vital to my spiritual practice, enabling me to face harsh realities and dialectics without trying to circumvent them. In addition, my spiritual walk is immensely tangible, with literal altars and enacted rituals. The balance of head and heart is more focused on heart, not because I lack intellectual depth but because I am all too skilled at using my head to disengage rather than engage.

If you are a trauma survivor, what does dissociation look like for you? If you have struggled with dissociative behaviors, how have they impacted your spiritual journey? What types of experiences have you found it useful to incorporate into your spirituality to assist you in staying grounded and centered?

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

The Walking Wounded: Struggles in Recovery from CSA

Today’s #EmbodiedHeart post feels particularly vulnerable as I take a hard look at my potential for recovery and functioning as a childhood sexual abuse survivor and as a person with multiple chronic physical and mental health conditions. The insight I’ve gained from this personal reflection has allowed some of the internal distress and discomfort that’s become particularly acute for me the past six months to make more more sense to me. My insight has not yet led to a particularly workable solution, so I am hoping to learn about how my readers have handled similar situations. I will say that ideas like “look on the bright side” or “remember others have it worse,” although not entirely without merit, are typically experienced as invalidating rather than as useful in most situations like mine.

I’ve unfortunately set myself up in a situation where I need to maintain a high level of performance across a variety of domains in order to stay on top of my finances and to preserve my living situation. My job is high stress and demanding. I have sufficient funds coming in but face an uphill battle to get my student loans paid off. I have to stay in my job at least a few more years in order to have the possibility of my loans being forgiven realized. As a homeowner, I am solely responsible for the upkeep and repair of my house. Without my family in my life, maintaining close ties to friends and acquaintances takes on a heightened sense of importance. My health is assisted by the fact that I stay active and eat a decent diet, but both of these behaviors require constant effort and monitoring. In short, I feel overwhelmed by trying to keep up with the demands of my life, while simultaneously becoming increasingly aware of the toll it is taking on my mind and body. I know that the situation in which I am in is largely my own doing, but that sense of “choice” doesn’t mean much when I can’t see a quick way out to a lower stress environment.

Despite the external and internal pressures under which I find myself operating, I’ve kept on keeping on for years. Recently, though, I’ve heard a loud “no more” from inside. Parts of me feel as though they are holding on to dozens of tangled strings, attempting to contain my mental health symptoms and body sensations. They are threatening to let loose of all of them at once, which I can only imagine would mean a severe deterioration in my functioning. I had a few years of significant impairment in my 20’s. At that time, my internal system believed I was in a safe enough environment to let go and then found out it wasn’t. Now, though, the issue is less motivated by hope and more by exhaustion and frustration.

I had a breakdown in therapy last year in which I shared with my therapist that I perceive myself as having full-blown PTSD and other disorders, but the pressure I feel to maintain my functioning is so strong that I can’t even allow myself to experience the acting out of the symptoms. Instead, I think I dissociate further and tuck away any loose articles that might tumble out of the overcoat of “I’m good, I’ve got this” in which I blanket myself. Something always gives, though, when we dissociate, and the hollowness and joyless outlook with which I am currently struggling is one such outcome.

There are steps such as a slightly reduced workload and more vacation time on which I’ve embarked to attempt to rectify the situation. My fear is that I won’t be able to fully placate the parts of myself who are completely fed up by my inattention to my inner needs and who almost seem to desire for me to “lose it” so that everyone else will witness the folly of my attempt to appear to have it together. I keep reminding myself that, as a general rule, decompensating to the point of needing intervention is very likely to be retraumatizing and brutal, not the posh vacation with room service which pieces of my mind seem to believe it to be.

My internal imagery for my experience one of running a race far beyond what my body and mind can take, with my single-minded focus on the finish line obscuring from me the fact that my shoes are torn beyond repair and my skin is crusted with salty dehydration. Now that I see the state in which I am, I know I need to recalibrate my intention and take some rest periods, but I also realize I have to keep moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. There is no reasonable option in which letting myself sink into the sandy landscape surrounding the track will do anything for me other than cause me to wither to a helpless shell of myself in the blazing sun. There is no one coming to save me, just as no one came to save me a child in an abusive home. Now, though, I believe I can look to my fellow travelers for at least encouragement as I plod along.

What have you done in situations where you felt you were in over your head? What resources have you leveraged to reduce your burden? How have you found the energy to keep going?

Goddessing Self Care

Moon-time Howling

For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be examining focusing on how women can engage in healthy and healing behaviors during our moon-time and throughout our cycle. This time is especially fraught for me as I suffer from PMDD, which stands for premenstrual dysphoric disorder. I describe my experience to others as having full-blown depressive episodes around the time of my cycle, which dissipate rapidly once bleeding commences. This experience can feel animalistic to me in its rawness and rage, even as I seek to reclaim it as part of my femininity. My writing here regarding moon-time is primarily aimed at those who identify as women, although I think it could also be useful if you have women in your life for whom you would like to serve as a support person.

The physical aspects of being a woman of child-bearing age have never been easy for me. I went through puberty earlier than most of my peers and did everything possible to hide the fact that I was getting my period. I would get severe stomach problems every month, to the point I’d need to leave school. I now experience migraines that correspond to my cycle. My mood swings during the premenstrual time are extreme and leave me feeling disillusioned with life and detached from those around me. I am prone to rage. My PTSD symptoms also increase significantly.

Given the distress I experience with my cycle, Goddess Spirituality has opened a new world to me in terms of the ideas of “red tents” and “moon-time.” There are dueling theories regarding whether menstrual huts served places to separate women who are viewed as spiritually unclean, or as places for women to gather during their cycle because of its sacred power. I think the former is much more likely than the latter in many societies, but I hope women gathering together in this way can become something we claim as sacred ground for us to celebrate our feminine experience. I think there is a good deal of cultural appropriation as well in what we make of these rituals, so I hope that we can develop new practices that are not overly reliant on customs and practices that may be sacred to a culture different from our own with which we are unfamiliar.

After coming to an understanding of how menstruation can be celebrated instead of shamed, I feel more able to view my experience as part of the general ebb and flow of life. In gathering in community with other women, I’ve seen how common some of my experiences are. I feel encouraged to take the time where things get especially rough for me as an opportunity to turn inward, and to release those things in my life that are no longer suiting me. I have high points as well throughout the month and I put more effort than I used to into harnessing the energy and strength I have at these times towards accomplishing tasks, so that there is less to do at low points.

I’ll be describing the self-care that I’ve personally found useful throughout my cycle, but I do want to note that you may not find yourself following the same pattern. Some women are energized during their time of bleeding, and drained around the time of ovulation. Others may not notice these changes. Trans-women as well as women with certain physical conditions may not have a traditional menstrual cycle, but may still identify with the ebb and flow of energy throughout the month.

Self-Care During the Waning and New Moon Phase

The time of the month leading up to and when we are bleeding correspond to the waning and new moon phases. Your energy may begin to decrease, and you may feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities you have in your life. You may find yourself withdrawing from others. Your emotions may be heightened. This time of the month and moon cycle offers an opportunity to:

  • Deepen your inner work. Your intuition is ripened and ready to release new knowledge. Use this time to learn more about yourself and your unconscious needs and desires.
  • Connect to your support system. Even though the impulse is to pull away from others, staying in touch with them and opening up the vulnerabilities you may be experiencing can enhance your relationships. I often find myself having more meaningful and longer conversations with a select person or people during this time.
  • Attune to your body’s needs. My body proclaims its needs loudly during this time. I ignore it to my peril. I tend to be more likely to schedule doctor’s appointments and adjust my habits to ensure healthy nutrition and sleep during this time.
  • Refresh your environment. I tend to redecorate, organize, clean and update my physical surroundings during this time, releasing any physical materials that are no longer needed. Surrounding myself with fresh flowers, scented candles, incense or other fragrant materials keeps me in touch with beauty even if I feel “gross” physically.

Self-Care During Waxing and Full Moon Phases

When the bleeding time ends, we enter a stage of energy and excitement as our bodies build towards the full moon of ovulation. You may experience a feeling of needing more in your life. Sexual desire could increase. Creativity blossoms. This time of month and moon cycle provides a chance to:

  • Set goals. The beginning and middle of my cycle can be a place where I take the reflection I did during my moon-time, and decide upon the specific goals that will get me closer to what I am seeking in life.
  • Direct your energy flow. There are times during this part of my cycle in which my energy can feel abundant. If I’m not careful, it gets spent on activities like making expensive purchases or starting a project for which I don’t truly have the necessary time or resources. It takes sustained effort for me to ensure I am channeling the energy I feel into productive and healthy endeavors.
  • Participate in community action. I am more interested in spending time with others at the start of my cycle. I find it useful to balance my engagement so that I don’t over-commit for the rest of the month, and so that I take advantage of this time to dig into relationships and activities.
  • Rejuvenate self-care behaviors. I find it easier to make positive changes in my eating, sleeping and exercise behaviors as I approach ovulation. My body has fewer cravings and I have the energy needed for vigorous exercise.

Your experience throughout your monthly cycle may mirror mine or may unfurl differently. What changes, if any, do you experience throughout the month? How does your energy peak and descend? How are your emotions and relationships affected by these changes? Women’s cycles have been stigmatized and ridiculed throughout human history; it is vital for us to stake our claim to our experience as our own unique way of being a woman in the world, and to find the common ground we all share.

Inner Work

Elemental Psychic Bathing

One of my many struggles as a trauma survivor that I experience is a difficulty in channeling my internal energy. Specifically, after a negative emotionally-charged event, I tend to hold on to and recreate the feeling again and again. It is as though I’ve walked through a sandstorm and keep finding grains tumbling off me in every direction, unable to shake myself clean.

When positive experiences happen, I have the opposite problem. I find myself unwilling to accept the natural ebb and flow of these feelings. I’ve tasted a delicious morsel and keep biting into random pieces of spiritual savories, refusing to wait until another special occasion for a nibble. For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I will be exploring a method for restoring internal energies to homeostasis.

Discharging Negative Emotions

Before I get in to specifics, I want to couch my guidance here carefully. The process I will be describing is intended for situations where something went wrong externally during your day and has already been resolved. So, if it is an issue within a relationship, you’ve discussed your concerns with the other person or made a clear plan to do so. Or, if it is a situation where something has physically broken and needs to be repaired, you’ve identified the problem and set in motion a fix. I do not see this technique working well if you are procrastinating in taking practical action in the real world; it isn’t a substitute for confronting what is causing you anxiety, anger and/or sadness.

My personal struggle with negative emotions, especially anxiety and anger, is that they persist well past their needed moment. For instance, I recently had a roof leak. I hired a roofer to fix the leak. He made repairs the same day and everything seemed in order. Instead of having even the tiniest faith that things would be okay, I obsessively checked the leak area every 30 minutes or more for hours, and began to go to other areas of my house that have minor problems, checking them as well. My initial burst of anxiety at seeing a stream of water where it should not have been simply would not downshift even when the coast cleared. I needed a way to let go of the energy I’d accumulated, which is why I turned to a psychic bath.

Taking an elemental bath gives you an opportunity to get creative and to use your imagination. I find it difficult to imagine complex visualizations, but the emphasis on physical experiences helps me during this ritual. You can use any of the four elements (earth, air, fire or water). It is likely that the element will change depending upon your emotion. You can also incorporate a physical sensation or practice into this ritual. For instance, you might light candles or a fireplace for fire or run a bath for water.

When I’m facing overwhelming anxiety following a stressful situation, and the purpose of the anxiety has run its course, the element that connects most effectively for me is air. I imagine myself in a desert or a high plain, in the midst of gale-force winds. They swirl and nearly knock me over with their sheer intensity. Any residue of anxious energy that clouds my psyche is stripped away, reabsorbed into the ether. The anxiety may have different colors, depending on the exact situation, such as green or black. I imagine these colors being dissolved into clear as they are carried away, each atom scattered from the next until they become part of the whole. I am left calm, sedate, and windblown. I may need a drink of water or a bath in order to balance the intensity of engaging with the air element.

No matter the element on which I center myself, I find it necessary to imagine it at peak intensity. I think this because my internal energy needs an external force of equal magnitude in order to be shaken loose. I do want to emphasis that I do not see any part of myself letting go or leaving, rather, I see the emotions which the various parts of myself carry as being adjusted. I do not have an internal barometer or thermostat; my feelings seem to be either all the way up or non-existent. Or both at once. This exercise enables me to readjust mentally without having to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. If you experience greater graduation in your feelings than I do, your visualizations may also be less intense. Perhaps a soft breeze is all it takes mentally to remove excess anxiety.

Harmonizing Positive Emotions

At the end of an event or experience I am enjoying, I often feel as though I’m slamming into a wall. My emotional high-point has crested, and I am not willing to accept the lull that follows. In order to better titrate my experiences, I’ve found that elemental bathing which centers on water is the most useful.

Imagery and physical practice involving water can be used as a way to “blend” emotions and transition between emotional states. The metaphor of ocean waves approaching and retreating from a beach allows me to reconnect with the idea that my internal energy ebbs and flows; it is not stable and cannot always be at high tide. As I sit with this mental picture, I find my internal state swinging like a pendulum and then gradually slowing and centering.

I can also recognize the extent to which liquid water comprises my physical state. We are made almost entirely of water, and still we need to ingest it to sustain life. Here the active practice of mindfully drinking tea or water infused with herbs can refresh my body as well as calm my internal cravings to keep a positive mood afloat.

Literal bathing or soaking allows me to steady my energies. As I repose, I visualize the intense energy of excitement, happiness, connection and joy swirling and dashing through me. Gradually it begins to soften and loosen in the water. It dissolves outward, spreading to my surroundings with a burst of light and fragrance. These emotions can be draining if we try to hold on to them for too long; I believe they are meant to be shared and to inspire creative activity. As someone who struggles with depression punctuated by brief episodes of hypomania, my desire to always be in an “up” state can sometimes compromise my inner sense that this state is unsustainable. Frequent practice with the equilibrium offered by the water element has been beneficial.

Whenever I read about any technique related to emotions or cognitions, I find myself in a state of hypervigilance, scanning for any potential judgment or criticism. With that in mind, I want to note that I do not see this practice as even remotely all-inclusive or relevant to everyone. You may be able to modulate your emotions with little effort needed, or you may not wish to alter your experience of internal energy in any way. I am simply offering one possible practice that has connected for me. I look forward to learning more about the rituals and methods you use in relation to your emotions and energy states.