In a room of 200 people, a woman stands up. Seated at the front of the room are two teachers, a man and a woman, both in their 70’s, impeccably dressed and groomed. The woman stands and announces her name. She recounts a story. As a child she was tormented by her mother or father or caregiver, made to feel less than, small, meaningless. She internalized this experience and as she aged this internalization became entwined with her fundamental sense of being. She starves herself, tells herself terrible things, cuts her wrists and engages with men or women or bosses who abuse her. The man and woman at the front of the room, through careful, thoughtful and exacting guidance, reflect this woman’s own machinations back to her. Tears are shed, and she begins to tell herself another story, a more loving, accepting one. In the following days and weeks and months and years, she inches closer and closer to wholeness. She is setting herself free.
I watched this scene over and over again during my three plus years studying spiritual psychology. The details would be different, the gender, the context, the ways in which harm was self-inflicted, but the story almost always embodied a version of this trajectory. The more I paid witness to this, the more convinced I became of the singularity of the human experience. We are each, in our own way, caged and whether we are conscious of it or not, are constantly attempting to set ourselves free.
For some of us, freedom is found in constraint. It sounds ironic, but it’s not. If I don’t need, then I am independent. After all, isn’t craving and expectation the primary cause of our suffering? It’s an inverse form of control. To need is to be vulnerable. And vulnerability can be scary, especially when disappointment has been the norm.
How do we work with this?
First we must admit our loss. We must recognize that first loss, whether it happened at birth, at 5, 15 or 20. Likely we buried it, funneled the pain into something else. But it’s still there, yearning for expression. We then must cradle that part of ourselves, breathing life into our dormant parts. This takes time, effort and courage. But the more we acknowledge our hurts and give them voice, the more we find a new sort of wholeness, where acceptance leads the way.
More often than not we’re also hurting ourselves to feel something, anything. Constant denial creates a void. Pain becomes the only recognizable solution– and an addictive one at that. It’s the flip side of hedonism. Both are a form of escape. But both are part of the journey back to ourselves.
Whether or not we’ve experienced the scenario described in the opening, we’ve all paid witness to our own imprisonment. We just may not recognize it as such. The beauty of self-inquiry is where it leads. Sometimes it takes only speaking something aloud to shift our behavior. If you can name it, you can change it. This is far easier said than done, but it’s the necessary first step towards healing.
Artwork by: George Stoyanov.