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?

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.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Resourcing Our Spiritual Needs: Interconnectedness

For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, we’ll be exploring ways we can meet our spiritual need for interconnectedness. As I reviewed my thoughts, I was struck by the concrete nature of most of my proposals. I believe this is only one layer out of many through which we can tap in to the heartbeat of the Universe. I welcome learning from your experiences and ideas on this topic!

1. Observe the Threads

Many phenomena in our environment include intricate links. As I spent a recent frigid morning raking leaves, I was reminded of the relationship between trees of the same species. Consider making it a priority to witness natural points of connection like spider webs and waterways. The narrow culvert or stream near your home likely feeds into a larger body of water. As you run your hand through the water, allow yourself to sense the pulsation of the whole in the single artery you are touching.

You may also want to trace your family, cultural or spiritual roots. Placing ourselves within an historical context mitigates our sense of specialness and aloneness. Who each of us is and the rituals we treasure are intricately linked into a chain of human history, some of it beautiful and some of it grim. We tug on the ribbon, making a small movement forward, when we both honor and critically evaluate the origins of our beliefs and practices.

2. Volunteer

By participating in a cause that reaches beyond yourself, you create space for connection and the flourishing of our best achievements as humans—empathy and compassion. Nearly every time I volunteer for an event or organization, I am surprised by how quickly the experience enables me to move beyond my own concerns. The opportunity empowers each of us, through collective human action, to achieve something more significant than any of us could do on our own.

It is of course best if our motivation for volunteering comes from our wise inner self. However, even an act of kindness done for show can at times portend an internal reckoning where upon we come to see that the cause for which we are giving of our time and energy is worthy of more than mere pity. Especially with tasks that require physical labor, taxing our bodies and our spirits, there may be splinters of insight that prod us into understanding that sheer fate is all that stands between us and the individual whom we see as needing “charity.”

3. Travel

When traveling, observe human-made webs such as airline connections and interstate highways. Most places on Earth are only a few plane rides away, something that would have baffled our ancestors. As you explore a new place, it is easy to find the differences from your native land. Take time also to see the similarities and strands of influence from one culture to another.

I’ve always marveled at the mingling of cultures. For instance, although not without critics, some experts have recently claimed that a Viking burial cloth contained Islamic writing. Bearing in mind the fact that cultural appropriation is a genuine issue that is often overlooked within religious contexts, I do think there are valid ways in which multiculturalism can lend itself to progress in our practices. As we travel, either literally or through learning about other cultures, we deepen our appreciation for the tangle of peoples and customs from which each of us makes our way in the world.

4. Weave Together Stories

Attend to similarities as you write and vocalize your life experiences with others. Knowing that someone else has been through a situation like ours places our experience within a systemic context, instead of leaving it alienated as an isolated experience. There can sometimes be a slight sense of the rough edges of our jagged existence being rounded off as we bump into each other’s liminal spaces. Although I can experience this as a limitation, I then often go on to see the benefits of the reciprocation of my experience as it comes back to me through the eyes and voice of another person’s anecdote.

From the pieces of our own accounts, we are able to co-create shared narratives. For instance, we can have the story of women or the story of our culture or the story of people with a particular disease or mental health condition. Again, the rich personalization of listening to each individual person is lost in this type of sharing, but, when used judiciously, it enables us to expand our narrow viewpoint into a panoramic visage of faces all shining in a chorus of communal chronicle.

5. Accept Internal Cycles and Patterns

As soon as we observe ourselves repeating a cycle or behavior pattern, our first impulse is often that we need alter what we are doing if the behavior in questions is “unhealthy.” Although this can definitely have its merits, I find myself wondering at the transformational power we may encounter if we instead give ourselves time and space to fully appreciate the internal bouncing from one behavior to the next that we may be doing. Our inner world is just as replete with connection as our outer world.

Where do you experience a sense of interconnectedness most fully? The examples I’ve included are mostly tangible and literal. How you elevate the experience to a psychic dimension? What insights about the human condition have you derived from witnessing the fact that each of us is innately part of the whole?

Inner Work, Pagan Practice

Yule: A Time of Dormancy

I’ve struggled to pull together a theme for Yule this year for my #PaganPractice post. It occurred to me that Yule is a time where there is an inner tension within some aspects of Paganism as well as within the time of year as a whole. Paganism which focuses on the Sun God/dess sees Yule as a time of light, heralding in rebirth. Goddess Spirituality during this time of year may include a focus on the myth of Persephone and Demeter, namely, winter being a time of mourning as Demeter brings death to the earth while mourning her daughter’s exile in the Underworld. Death and new life, utter contrasts on their face, are woven together.

As I sat with this divergence in meaning, I was drawn to remember the Earth-based aspect of my spirituality. At least in my location, this is a time of year for things to go dormant. Both plants and animals draw in their resources, having hopefully stored what they needed during the harvest time. There is little activity and indeed little indication of life, unless one is a careful observer.

Things appear to be resting and sleeping away the long nights. I do believe that this time of year beckons us inward, to shut out excessive distraction and activity, and to open the cupboards of our inner world and see what supplies remain. We may feel drawn thin in terms of spiritual provisions, needing to conserve our energy and our effort. It is not only acceptable, it is actually necessary to take some time to take stock of who and what we are in order to equip ourselves for times of plenty and activity.

I sense a pregnant pause during this time; we can not only count our inner inventory, we can also begin to shape our intentions for busier times. One symbol of Yule that I’ve found particularly meaningful this year is that of a candle being lit. As a representation of light and rebirth, it shares with us hope during the cold and the dark. It reminds us that this withdraw inward is only temporary and that something is coming. From a Goddess Spirituality perspective, I see the something as a someone, Goddess reborn in all her splendor as time renews. But for now, the long shadows of early nightfall make it hard to see beyond our feet, and, while we pause to rest, we’ve much to sit with and divide and cast off and hold onto and make new. Her light attends our latency.