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.

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.

Surviving & Thriving

Vulnerability and Trauma

It has been difficult for me to get myself to write lately. I’ve felt like my walls are up. This experience has occurred in concert with working very hard in therapy to dig into my childhood trauma on a deeper level. I feel as though I can only muster so much vulnerability as an individual, and increasing it in one area has unfortunately decreased it in my writing. As I contemplated my experience for today’s #SurvivinggnThriving Tuesday, I pondered the discomfort I’ve had with the word vulnerability, and saw that it is because I associate it with threat. To be vulnerable means to open myself up to possible attack and harm.

What are we afraid will happen to us if we are vulnerable? By and large, I think one “attack” that we might fear is being invalidated. In terms of traumatic experiences, we might be discounted and told that we are remembering things incorrectly. If our memories are factual, we are exaggerating them. If things are really as bad as we say they were, we must have brought it on ourselves. If we were in fact innocent victims, we need to show signs of “healing” like forgiveness and love in order to have our experiences “count.”

While many factors influence the reasons that traumatic experiences—especially those of a sexual nature—tend to get discounted, one aspect that I think stands strong is the fact humans are exquisitely tuned in to each other as social animals. We may be expected to preserve the “tribe” at any and all personal costs. The pressure to conform to the idea that people get what they deserve and to believe that everyone is trying their best can outweigh our willingness to grapple with evil and with the nuance in the nature of human relationships. We may feel a need to trust in authorities such as political leaders, clergy and parents, even when some of the individuals in these places of authority betray their charge.

How can this focus on our place as highly social beings help us in being willing to risk vulnerability, especially when our trauma has come at the hands of other people? As hard as this truth is for me to accept, relationships are a major healing force, perhaps the major healing force from trauma. All of the evidence-based treatments of trauma include an aspect of witnessing, listening, processing, talking, displaying, feeling or in some way being with our past experience of trauma in the presence of a safe and caring individual. A refusal to be vulnerable is likely to serve as an impediment to healing in therapeutic relationships that are “good enough.”

Being vulnerable presents other risks. We may be rejected, judged, criticized, betrayed or humiliated. I’ve shared previously about strategies through which we might discern if another individual or group is worthy of risking vulnerability. There is no gain in allowing ourselves to be mistreated, even if we may sometimes think we can undo the original trauma by defeating it in an adult form. Nothing feels more like failure to me than realizing I’ve been “sucked in” to an adult relationship that mimics an aspect of my childhood trauma, having mistaken the familiar for the safe.

What, though, can we do if we know deep down that we are in a safe relational space, but our walls are still up? I’m still terrified of having unpleasant reactions to my blogs, but honestly thus far *knocks on wood* I’ve had really kind and supportive readers. In parallel, in many offline areas of my life where I’ve taken risks, I’ve expected to be attacked and instead found acceptance. I believe it takes a significantly greater number of experiences of trust to undo a hurt than it takes hurts to break trust. All I can do or any of us can do is to keep trying, knowing this reality. And I believe empathy is vital—for those who have managed to have a lot of safe and loving people in their lives, know that you are indeed privileged and consider offering support instead of incredulity to those of us who may shrink at the first sign of relational conflict.

How have you navigated the terrain of vulnerability? What behaviors do others do that allow you to lower your defenses? How do you find the motivation to open up again after a relational wound?

Embodied Heart

Releasing the Narrative

Everything was planned out. Flying high in an aerial yoga class. Sporting a new haircut, shopping and hitting the town. Sacred ritual and intuitive creativity time. My vacation was going to be epic! About 48 hours into it, “disaster” hit in the form of a positive flu test. Based on the myriad of bodily dysfunction which ensued for the next week and counting, I can safely say I’ve never come down with the actual flu before. All the good times I was going to have, the stories I was going to write into my life experiences, had to be tossed or at least postponed into choppy, disjointed future moments. Building from this experience of having to rewrite the script, for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I want to spend some time with the themes of how we narrate our lives, and, in doing so, will focus on telling the story as it is, rather than as it should have been or should be.

I feel confident, likely too confident, that I know the story I would like to tell of my life. The one that would wrap up the loose ends and redeem the broken parts of myself. I feel shame and a desire to hide though, when I start to consider the content of the real story. Not solely because of failures on my part, but also because the deep wounds of my childhood are still ragged and visible to anyone with an eye for such things. I am not healed and all is not forgiven. Justice has not been served.

What harm it does a person, when betrayal throws off any veneer of civility and cracks any illusion of someone being in charge. Especially when the soul-shattering betrayal comes first, not after a long string of snapshots filled with love and protection to build up one’s defenses. I knew from a very young age that no one was going to shield me from pain, and that terrible things happen in the dark.

The themes of my life—meagerness of love, betrayal, self-preservation and reinvention—seem to lend themselves to a never-ending cast of characters. I dig into a relationship, hopeful that it will meet my deeper needs. The inadequacy of it to do so eventually starts to make itself known in the majority of cases. In time, I choose myself over the relationship, and we are on to the next casting session. I will always choose myself in the end, because I have seen time and again the destruction that results from favoring the relationship over one’s wellbeing.

The parts of the chapters I want to highlight and foot-note and dog-ear are the ones where I don’t have to choose; the person with whom I’m in relationship and I are well-suited enough for both of our needs to be met to a substantial degree. For some reason, I continue to expect every new entry, each new buildup of an individual with whom I think there could be a connection, to be worthy of reading and re-reading. But life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes we spend years writing and crossing out the same few lines, thinking that if we just say it right or pause at the correct moment, it will flow perfectly, when in fact that particular association was never going to be worthy of more than a passing mention.

It seems easy in hindsight to want to edit, to go though and delete or redirect entire storylines, but the only way the story can ebb and flow and has any chance of building to a moral or crescendo or at least a worthy conclusion is to recount it as honestly and promptly as we can. In my case, I have fallen far short on this account. I denied the abuse I suffered for a few decades, burying it in the recesses of my mind while attempting to keep my family as a part of my lived experience. I always knew the story wasn’t a pleasant one, but the degree to which there were skeletons in the closet proved quite significant. And, at least at this point, I am the only one interested in cataloging the bones.

Many of my interactions hold this thread. Whether it is (on my part) intellectual arrogance or intuition or both, I tend to believe I can see right through most people I meet to perceive the cracks in the façade they present. The unpressed seam or askewed collar of their narrative glares at me, begging to be noticed. I then wish in earnest for them to tell the story as it actually is, not as their defenses would have it rehearsed, and feel like my efforts are wasted when they repetitively turn the same three pages they’ve convinced themselves are worth reading.

Denial of the nature I faced in my family and through which I had to pierce, once deflated, has proven intolerable. These are the people I want in my storyline—people who see themselves and their situation for what it is, and whose acceptance of it spurs them, as it does me, to both tell the truest story possible of their past and to write into being the most hopeful and evolved version of themselves. To what extent does the metaphor of a narrative connect with how you conceptualize your life experiences? Whose narrative are you proud to recite? What signs let you know someone belongs as a central character in your story? How do you respond with compassion to your own or other’s denial?

Surviving & Thriving

Reflections on Power and Authority

Cross-posted at Goddessing Heart, my Sagewoman blog.

Relationships are the theme of today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday; specifically, relationships that include a difference in power. The focus of this post is in regards to how we relate to those in authority; I intend to write further on how we can best create a Goddess-honoring environment in the positions of power we may hold.

It is very common for individuals with PTSD and related conditions to have difficulty relating to authority figures, especially if the trauma they experienced occurred at the hands of someone in a position of power. Each subsequent individual higher up on a hierarchy who enters our lives has the potential to serve as a trigger simply because of the role they inhabit and/or as a result of the specific behaviors in which they engage. I’ve found conceptualizing them as an authority figure based on their role rather than as an inherent difference in quality or ability has lessened the amount to which they serve as a trigger for me.

Powerful People

Deciding whom we should view as authority figures, if anyone, requires wisdom. I think there are two kinds of authority: authority which we see as embodied in an individual based on a person’s qualities, and authority prescribed by the nature of the roles we and the other person occupy. The first must be earned, the second may be dictated to us without our consent. I’ll call the first attainment-based authority and the second role-based authority.

I am enamored with Starhawk’s distinction between “power-over-others” and “power-from-within” in The Spiral Dance. She argues that when our power is personally derived, rather than bestowed to us by others, it builds others up without draining anything from them. In contrast, power-over-others concerns itself with conquest and domination. I think it is vital that we learn to identify which of these types of power authority figures are exhibiting, and that we only grant people respect as attainment-based figures if they show power-from-within.

Attainment-based authority occurs when, after careful observation and extended interaction, we come to see people as role models, teachers, leaders or spiritual coaches. We look to them for wisdom and may consult them when we are facing difficult decisions. I think it will take an entire post to describe the signs of a potential candidate for this type of relationship, but here I’ll just note there will likely be many more applicants for this role in your life than are worthy of selection. Anyone who demands this type of respect from you or attempts to manipulate you into a hierarchical relationship should likely be immediately disqualified. Someone who is truly deserving would not engage in such behavior.

Even if you come to see a few people as attainment-based role models, it is vital to remember that they are human beings with many flaws, and should not be put on a pedestal. You should be able to disagree with them and still stay in relationship with them without your spiritual walk being questioned. The concept of power-from-within suggest that our view of people as attainment-based authority figures should not become the fuel for their power and vitality, but rather serve a mere affirmation of the place of personal power from which they are already operating.

Role-based authority plays a part in our everyday lives. Unless we want to endure negative consequences, we are, to some extent, at the mercy of our bosses, community leaders, law enforcement, government officials, educators, and medical professionals. I see these relationships as entirely transactional; certain deferential behaviors may be required because of the nature of the hierarchy, but there is no personal loyalty or inner adherence to the same principles as a role-based authority figure needed. I may choose to obey in order to get what I want, as a sign of respect for the position they hold or to get along, but I don’t have to buy into their demands as the best way and I don’t have to defend the authority figure’s behaviors to others. If what I am asked to do violates my moral principles, I can either remove myself from the hierarchical relationship, or push against the social norms that are impacting the situation. The nurse who stood up for a patient’s rights recently, and got arrested for her troubles, serves as an inspirational example here.

I think things get very complicated when people place themselves in a position of attainment-based authority, when in fact all they can realistically claim is role-based authority. Those who purport to be spiritual teachers, for example, should have to prove their merit before we place ourselves in a hierarchical relationship with them spiritually, if we do at all. I have made many mistakes in my life because I assumed someone’s role-based authority automatically meant I needed to treat the person as worthy of attainment-based respect.

Personally, I think we are currently limited by our biology to require at least a bit of both attainment-based and role-based authority in our society. There are those who wish to move beyond these systems, creating a utopia with no one or everyone in a leadership role, without any hierarchy. I don’t have the idealism needed for such an optimistic view, but certainly the expectation many have that their status in society should instantly convert them into attainment-based figures in our lives needs some adjustment.

Personal Power Interactions

Nothing irritates me more than someone speaking to me in a way that shows me they assume that my personal characteristics and the nature of our power difference give them authority to dictate to me how to live my life. I’ve observed that I tend to go to my one high point, which is my educational achievement, as a retort. I try to fight power with power; this doesn’t necessarily feel like the right move, but is also sometimes the only way I can get an authority figure to take me seriously.

I know I am triggered by power dynamics because of the nature of the abuse I suffered as a child, as well as the larger religious upbringing to which I was exposed. Women were not supposed to speak with authority to men. Younger people were not supposed to instruct older people. Higher education was completely devalued and viewed as akin to “worldliness” and sin. Blatant hypocrisy was to be swept under the rug in service of the greater God-granted good. Authority figures did not speak from their own limited viewpoints; they were literally channeling the voice of God demanding deference and obedience.

Most of the people raised in this system found a way to exist within it. My sense of myself is that I could not have done so no matter how hard I tried. Something in me was born in rebellion and fought tooth and nail to get me to freedom. I don’t know how to justify my exit without a judgement of myself as being more enlightened or intelligent. It’s as if as soon as I try to examine the formational powers in my life, my thinking warps back into their viewpoint on the world as well. Black and white, right and wrong, yes and no suddenly are the only types of words that make any sense. Yet, I manage to exist in my current life with at least a slightly decreased focus on who’s in charge and how badly they are performing in their role.

In examining my own relationship with authority, I see that I have very little wisdom to offer to others who struggle in a similar way. There is a tremendous amount of growth potential I haven’t unlocked in terms of how I relate to those in positions of power. My basic rules at this point for myself are to only ascribe to others the level and type of respect due by the nature of their position, and to challenge authority when I see it corrupting past a certain point. I have not integrated my issues with authority into my spirituality in a deep or paradigm-shifting way at this point. I do see the ways in which I manage my own personal power as evidence that some growth has occurred in me, but clearly the upward-focused dynamic is still in flux.

How do you manage triggers you might have in relation to authority figures? Do you differentiate, mostly likely with your own distinctions, between attainment-based and role-based authority relationships? How does your spirituality inform your response to authority figures? I welcome you into dialogue regarding these queries; I have much to digest and reclaim in terms of power dynamics and I look forward to learning from your experiences.