Sunday, February 12, 2012

Songs to the gods of my soul

As promised, but more belatedly than I had hoped, allow me to humbly offer you the next installment of Therapy by Proxy.

The reason it has taken me a while to update you is simply because I am onboarding so much information it's like drinking from a fire hose. As a result, I have been in the throes of processing, as well as trying to figure out what to share because I want to share all of it. But where to begin! For instance, I wanted to explain that therapy comes in many forms and to try to explain a little about them because how the hell is a lay person supposed know to which model of therapy to choose when many, many, MANY exist . . . The kind where you sit on a couch and free associate in the presence of a silent, inscrutable therapist (which I think causes more damage than good, IMHO), or the kind where the therapist is engaged, offering not only an empathetic ear, but asking challenging questions, holding the space for your emotional tsunamis, and generally helping you learn to feel comfortable with life's paradoxes, tragedies, and learning curves (which, of course, is where I'm at)?

Since I don't know where to begin, I'm going to jump right into the middle since the middle is generally where we find ourselves -- in the middle of a crisis, in the middle of work, in the middle of love, in the middle of a thought, etc. We are always in it. "It" being life as a lived experience. And therapy is not something outside of being in it but another angle from which we can bring awareness and compassion to our experiences while we are in the middle of them (or after, it doesn't really matter).

After Andy died, Dawn, his wife, gave up anxiety. Or, rather, she made a distinction between what can be helped and what can’t. Far too early in life, she’d had plenty of reasons to become anxious, not the least of which was her mother’s death from a car accident when Dawn was twelve. Death didn’t end there. Dawn’s high-school boyfriend, Dan Eldon, was machetted to death on a tour in Somalia as a young photojournalist. By this time, Dawn was already dating Andy. She got the news of Dan’s horrific death from his mother, who later published his stunning photo journals, which Dawn could not bring herself open and look at. That is, until after Andy died.

To distract herself from worry before Andy died, Dawn cleaned and organized her house. Everything had to be perfect. It never occurred to me to ask her what perfect meant because I had my own anxiety-distracting version of perfection, which I never bothered to define because that would mean unpacking it. It was a felt thing – I would know I’d reached perfection by a feeling of safety, which, of course never happened, which, of course, was the point. I kept myself in a constant state of striving because somewhere I knew that if I stopped, my idle hands might come into contact with icky-sticky things just underneath my psyche's tidy surface, like other people's chewed gum or, worse, their boogers, or, far worse, my own. So, I did what Dawn did. I cleaned and organized. What I cleaned, however, was not kitchens or houses or even desks. Instead, I sanitized relationships.

In my twenties and thirties, what I looked for in my relationships and – surprise! – found were flaws in the person I claimed to love – itty bitty idiosyncrasies I just knew I could fix, if only I could convince my boy of the error of his ways and the benefits of the Liz Plan. To me, love was something I had to mold in my image. It never occurred to me that it was something I could behold (in their own image). In those days, I wouldn’t have recognized the infinite shape of love even had it taken up permanent residence in my bed, which is where I thought it should lie, like a pet. But we'll get back to this later . . .

A few weeks after Andy died, Dawn anxiously confided in me that her son, my nephew, was worried that he was going to die, too. I paused for just a moment before I said, “He will." There was simply no other answer. Dawn’s face suddenly relaxed because she understood the truth of this truth. In the aftermath of Andy's death, Dawn and I had both puzzled over two inexplicable crying jags she'd had in the week leading up to the crash, one on the night before. Both times she had come to bed hysterical for no reason she could fathom, imploring Andy, "What will I do if you die?" The strangeness of this coincidence is something I cannot fathom, so I leave it to the world of mystery. What I do understand, however, is that her worry didn’t stop what became Andy's destiny. All too clarifying in its utter isness, Andy’s death showed Dawn just how powerless she is to alter what the Existentialists call “givens” – i.e. the inescapables of life, such as death.

 Accepting life's givens is not the dark, scary thing we have come to expect from the Existentialists (a misreading, I believe). Givens are one of life's most affirming gifts.

Thank you grnly for this perfect metaphor

My own time working with a Buddhist, existentialist therapist (for five years) helped me accept anxiety as something as necessary as a limb, or my heart. Because what the Existentialists understood about anxiety is that it's an important alarm system that can tell you something in the world or inside you needs attention. Anxiety is the reminder that we are alive and that we are the sole owners of our lives, and that we have to make a thousand and one decisions every moment about how we want to live this inexplicable life  . . . with meaning.

But the best explanation I have heard for why we – by which I mean anyone inculcated in the paradigms of western culture – should not eschew anxiety but embrace it is James Hillman’s discussion of polytheism (versus monotheism).

Hillman, a Jungian, and father of what's known as Archetypal Psychology, deconstructs the traditional Judeo-Christian framework through which psychological states have been pathologized. Hillman focuses instead on western mythology as a gateway to exploring, deepening, and understanding our many psychological states, which he did not judge as good or bad but as simply different modes of being and vital to the evolution of one's soul.


According to Hillman, we have internalized the drive to eradicate anxiety in western culture because we have internalized monotheistic thinking that strives for perfection in everything – from allopathic medicine that seeks to eradicate illness, to worshipping a single, all-powerful God who will forgive us all our sins, to the reduction of our very souls down to two states of being: good or evil.

The polytheistic model, by contrast, attends to a variety of states with no "preferred positions, no sure statements about positive and negative, and therefore no need to rule out some configurations ... as ‘pathological.’" Not only does "each complex deserve[] its respect in its own right,” with none being good or evil, there is no bad or "evil" state to be in. Hillman writes:

"The Greeks had no Devil; each form of consciousness had its specific component of wrong-doing and tragedy. Evil was not a separate component, but a strand so woven through everything that the ‘integration of shadow’ was already given in the patterns of life rather than the task for an ego to do."

Like a modern-day Yente, Hillman hooks up each psychological state with a mythological (archetypal) mate. "Each [mythological] God has his [and her] due," meaning the chosen god for a person's particular state would both mirror and challenge that state, like a good soul mate does, or a good therapist, to deepen that soul and help it become more of itself.

A polytheistic approach to psychology, therefore, is not about hitching a transcendent wagon to the star of self-improvement, but rather it "obliges consciousness to circulate among a field of powers," i.e. our states of being and their soul mates (our god guides) are multiple, relational, and contingent -- all the archetypal gods help us evolve as we live through our life's experiences.

This model is homeopathic, allowing each state full expression, which Hillman calls soulmaking. Repression, or attempts at excision, of these states only results in deleterious effects on the psyche, not to mention the body, leading to what I call sick-making.

Okay so what exactly does this look like on the ground in a therapist's office? Well, instead of a therapist trying to alleviate suffering, per se, a therapist might not approach depression as a pathology in the first place. Rather, it's just one of many states in which a person may find herself. And the question is not how to get rid of it, the question is how to go deeper into it, not only to potentially discover something more about the self, but to engage in soulmaking through acceptance of every aspect of the human condition. Depression, as it were, may have something to teach us. It may be alerting us to unfinished business, to places of deprivation, to buried anger, etc. A Cognitive Behavioural approach to depression (read: monotheistic), for instance, would likely furnish the patient with tools for managing those feelings without fully exploring those feelings, which does not actually honour depression's depth, power, and potential for a cure in working with instead of working against.

Polytheism’s magic lies in the way it “favours differentiating, elaboration, particularizing, complicating, affirming and preserving” emotional, psychological states. In a polytheistic therapeutic model, “The emphasis is less upon changing what is there into something better (transformation and improvement) and more on deepening what is there into itself (individualizing and soul-making).”

"When the idea of progress through hierarchical stages is suspended," argues Hillman, "there will be more tolerance for the non-growth, non-upward, and non-ordered components of the psyche." The psyche will be accepted as multiple, relational, and contingent, not something to be judged and cleansed.

Salting Hillman's account of polythesim is Thomas Moore's discussion of the Marquis de Sade’s provocative writing, which locates polytheism in a different set of archetypes, i.e. so-called sexual perversions. (A former monk and author of Care of the Soul, a book that shook my world views to their core, Moore's chapter devoted to the gifts of depression was game changing for me. Up to that point, I believed that depression was a disease requiring nothing short of a psychological root canal. But I digress . . .)

For those unfamiliar with de Sade's writing, lets just say it makes modern-day porn look like child's play. De Sade's novels, plays, essays, rants, and other sexually-soaked missives are considered so transgressive, they are often locked up in library basements. And that's no metaphor!

In his book Dark Eros, Moore explores de Sade's account of human nature in all its manifestations, especially the dark, the horrifying, the sickening. De Sade’s overarching principle, paraphrased by Moore, states: “If nature plants ‘sick’ fantasies in our imaginations, then perhaps nature is expressing an unfathomable and revolting truth.” This notion becomes an entry point for Moore in his role as a therapist, especially after he realized that a moralizing approach to his patients’ dark fantasies did not honour their inner world. Moore learned instead to approach that world on its own terms, opening up to the shadow as something with an important message to deliver.

Moore argues that de Sade’s sexually explicit and allegedly morally perverted themes, “which on the surface we find repugnant [,] from a deeper point of view have their place. It is up to us, therefore, not to moralize against them because they do not fit into our limited repertoire of acceptable human actions, but to contemplate their necessity.”

Moore's sensitive, intelligent unpacking of de Sade's "sick" fantasies as the locus of our deepest humanity and, potentially, "the cure" for our dis-ease, resonated with me like a prayer gong booming across a vast jungle. Probably because I'd just had a rude awakening in which my own monotheistic, morally outraged thinking was floodlit by a friend's protest to what turned out to be one of my famous self-improvement plans. In a moment of deep trust, this friend shared a few “dark” fantasies with me. But what he said so threatened my sense of emotional safety (one that I had built up through unquestioned cultural and social convention) that I boldly suggested his fantasies were a form of denial, an escape, a diversion from his blah, blah, blah – anything to remove his frightening fantasies from my squeaky-clean world view. In the name of accepting him, I pinned his dark butterflies behind glass and named them as if they were mine to capture and own. After many conversations, this friend finally broke through to me, quite emphatically: “Why can’t I be accepted, fantasies and all, Liz? Why must they be something I need to change in order to be accepted?”

Why indeed. The penny dropped like an anvil. This person’s inner life was not only none of my business, but it was as acceptable as my own mysterious, dark places, which, by the way, I had not bothered to share with him.

Moore reminds us that “One of the most important moves in psychotherapy is to take whatever is presented and simply hold it and give it a place.” We think of psychotherapy as the great fixer, the happy maker. I'm here to tell you to abandon that fantasy. Happiness is not the eradication of pain, it is the United Nations of inner worlds in all their Technicolour glory, including our conservatisms, radicalisms, extremisms, perversions, our great neediness, our dark secrets, especially the ones we don't even know we hold, as well as our democracies, our generosities, and our willingness to collaborate for the greater good.

When I  stopped trying to mold my friend in my image, I was left to buzz inside my own pain. And like the homeopathic cure it is, my anxiety was able to do its magic of  peeling back the layers to get underneath my insecurities, to air them out, to give them expression and love, and to let nature take its course in healing me. How? Full self acceptance. Including my insecure places, which actually diminished when I stopped trying to control my friend. Bonus: he simply got to be himself and I got the opportunity to behold him. When I listened to my own anxieties instead of focusing on his, I saw that we shared a desire to feel accepted unconditionally -- which made me feel closer to him.

Interestingly, this same friend would do anything to eradicate other anxieties that he judges as bad. When placed side by side, however, his loving protection for his "dark" fantasies versus his outright rejection of his "bad" anxieties revealed to me just how random and complex our self judgments are. Why should one thing be acceptable and the other rooted out like a dandelion infestation?

Getting back to wondering what kind of therapy to choose, perhaps the best approach is a polytheistic one. In other words, there is no one right model. You could engage with a number of therapies in your lifetime, whatever make sense at that point in your soul's evolution. It might even be possible that an inscrutable therapist is exactly what you need, even if it's to cut your teeth on understanding what is not good for you! I had a friend who spent two years on the couch with a traditional psychoanalyst who sat behind him and said nothing. So my friend shared nothing during each session and cried all the way home. But what he got out of that was a real, lived connection to his sadness, not to mention information about what kind of therapy he would avoid next time. That's good information to have! As Hillman says, “No one model would be ‘before’ another, since in polytheism the possibilities of existence are not jealous to the point of excluding each other. All are necessary in that they together serve one law only: necessity.” What do you need right now?

What I need now as a therapist-in-training is a new language. A way to talk about “depression” or “anxiety” that does not pathologize these soulmaking states. Hillman uses western mythological language to explore soul states. But as someone who has forgotten her myths (must I go back to school again?), I feel the need to look elsewhere for my terms of reference, or to start making up some of my own. The point, however, is instead of numbing it, fixing it, denying it, or moralizing it away, we could stop calling our various soul states names. Instead, we could just experience them. Let them be there. And not judge them or believe a particular state is THE TRUTH. An experience, and our interpretation of it, might be a truth in this moment. But it will pass. As everything does.


Editor said...

Thanks Liz for taking the time to post this for readers. Moore's Dark Eros is a gift that deserves wider circulation.

We lost an experienced soul guide when James Hillman died Oct. 27, 2011.

Patrick said...

"But as someone who has forgotten her myths..."

Really, you think?