Laura's life is falling apart: Her belligerent and divisive co-parent refuses to pay child support. Her attorney is overcharging and under delivering. Her boyfriend is not following through on his commitments. Even the Uber driver is taking her for an emotional ride - literally. “I am a strong dam,” Laura asserted, “I have no expectations. [When others mistreat me] I raise my level of consciousness to stay in a place of peace.”
On the surface, it sounds like Laura’s Zen habit is serving her well. To avoid the storm flooding her nervous system, she constructs the strength to remain in equanimity. She can maintain her emotional repression until, she blurts, “the dam breaks” then her emotions surge like a tsunami.
Jack Kornfield, Buddhist mindfulness teacher, calls this process a spiritual bypass - using spiritual tools to avoid discomfort (e.g., eradicate our expectations of close others so we don’t have to feel the disappointment of loss, the pain of rejection, ask for what we need, or maintain boundaries and feel the inevitable fear and vulnerability).
Outside her level of awareness, Laura is self-sabotaging by damming her desires, and the world is offering her exactly what she expects -- disappointment, deceit and despair -- so she can dismantle the dam layer by layer and begin to feel fully alive.
Metaphor is a powerful healing tool -- a symbolic language that emerges from the deep inner world of the unconscious. The inner life, as Carl Jung described, is the secret life we all lead with our unconscious inner selves. This unseen inner part of our own self listens and registers information at 11 million bits per second -- like a supercomputer. Our conscious mind, by comparison, listens and registers information at 40 bits per second -- like a dial up modem. So when my client boldly asserts that she is a strong and formidable dam, I begin the deeper conversation with her inner self. Together we need to find out why her life is a tsunami and why she is holding back the water. When her soul speaks to her in metaphor, we need to listen.
We are shaped by our world, and in turn, we shape our world. This shaping is both constructed and informed by our history, by adaptations to our environment, and by our experiences with close others, because our world, as poet John Keats affirmed, “is a place of soul making.” This shaping is an inevitable aspect of the human predicament.
In effect, Keats and Rilke are saying that life’s design is to awaken us to our own inner knowing so we may become whole. It is in this potentiality, this threshold, that the unrealized can become realized, the lost parts of ourselves can reintegrate, and we can wake to the world’s wonders in effervescent joy, heartfelt connection, and insatiable curiosity, and in this ebullient love with life align to our soul’s purpose.
Jung called this process intimation - the gradual movement to our unique expression of our wholeness. Said simply, intimation is a reconnection with our true nature -- the whole self we experienced in childhood with our 360 degree personality emanating vibrancy, creativity, wonder and worth. When we were one and two years old we were so bright we emitted fireballs of energy and exhaled love into the world.
One day we realized that our parents didn’t like a particular part of our fireball so we learned to lock it away in a little room, with a tiny key, and keep that part of ourselves a secret. As we grew we slowly dismembered ourselves, one personality trait, one passion, one emotion, one behavior at a time, and placed those shadows inside the little room. By the time we were twenty, the room was filled with our soul’s longing for itself and our true selves had become a distant memory. We started living linear, cognitive, rational lives with clearly defined goals and ambitions that allowed us complete control of our secret room.
Today, well into adulthood, in order to conform in this rigid world we must build a dam to hold back the parts we have sundered from ourselves, the aspects we do not want to see.
Then the dam breaks. Benevolently. Now we can begin the work needed to come to terms with those hidden aspects of ourselves, to heal them, to reincorporate them, to reintegrate the split off parts of ourselves back into our true selves. These parts are essential to our wholeness. They are part of us. Seeing them is essential.
Intimation, our gradual return to wholeness, necessitates a personal engagement with our hidden selves, with our shadows, with the abandoned parts of ourselves that we use to construct our dam. Any unresolved emotions, adaptations or left over issues must be let out of the room, brought into the light of day, and compassionately, tenderly, lovingly reabsorbed back into ourselves. We must swing between these two parts of ourselves: the conscious and unconscious, the social self and essential self, the shadow and light, the known and unknown.
This rigorous commitment to self-examination, this swinging between heaven and Earth, is stimulated and directed from the world outside us, and our relationships are our greatest teachers -- our greatest catalysts for the alchemy of intimation. Each relationship is a mirror reflecting back for us our interior beliefs and shadows, showing us how we invest our needs for them to respond to.
We decide who we call to us to activate our soul retrieval --
our soul’s evolution toward wholeness.
Why is Laura’s life a tsunami of deceit, disappointment and disaster? We discovered that the bedrock of her dam is built on a belief that she cannot create discomfort for others. Her life-role is to spiritually, beautifully, gracefully, withhold her own desires so those around her don’t have to. She must silently suffer so they don't.
Damming her desires protects Laura from rejection, failure and fear while her spiritual bypass allows her to rise above the fray.
To build her dam, she attracts to her what she expects to find: manipulative people who will take advantage of her or misunderstand her. And with each disappointment and deceit she adds one more layer of self-denial, dismemberment and disengagement to her wall so she can hold back the rush of emotions that will flood her if she speaks her truth and sets boundaries.
She is shaped by her world, and in return, she shapes her world layer by layer constructing her dam. When her Zen habit cannot hold back the surging water, predictably, her dam breaks, and with that crack the opportunity for intimation presents itself: a beautiful and benevolent process of erosion. Rilke saw shadow and chaos as the unavoidable ground of the natural world, creativity and wholeness; he would not have us avert our gaze from suffering:
Eventually, the realization arrives that the hidden parts of ourselves, since their entrapment, have had little to do except plot escape. The dam breaks and we can no longer avoid the deluge of emotions that flood us. These put-away parts are now reflected in behaviors from a lover, or colleague, or close friend, and through this mirror we are forced to see parts of ourselves that we didn't know were there and had no conscious wish to know.
A light breaks through the dam and, unexpectedly, the put-away part throws a shadow we can clearly see, and like Rilke, we learn to love the darkness, dance with our shadow, and tenderly begin to disassemble the self-sabotaging mechanisms we’ve constructed to feel safe.
It is hard work.
There is death in this reconstruction and reclamation of Self.
In time, through this holistic, intuitive soul-making process, we begin our gradual return to wholeness, and from this perspective, no longer hold back the wall of water. We begin to feel our way through life and life begins to feel like a stream.
The more we feel the brighter we glow, and as we shimmer, those around us sense, intuit without understanding how they know, that we are shadow dancers, that we are not afraid of the darkness. In our light, a respect and reverence is reflected back to us and our world is reshaped in miraculous and beautiful ways.
Our metaphors begin to change. We no longer need to be a strong and formidable dam. We begin to take on the luminous quality present in healthy ecosystems, in old-growth forests, in mountains. We become the eagle circling the sun, the whale breaking the ocean's surface, the hummingbird's joy. We become what naturalist poet Robinson Jeffers calls, "divinely superfluous beauty... the incredible beauty of joy." And in this incredible beauty of joy, we reclaim our 360 degree personality, our true nature, the very essence of our soul and ignite a light so bright that our ecosystem begins to flourish.