Any form of personal distress warrants an attentive and honest review of our lives. Perhaps, there is something in our character that has been put off for so long that we’re unable to make the connection between a defective trait and a present situation. Perhaps, the tendency to ignore the elephant in the room is the root cause of chronic anxiety. One thing is certain- our problems grow in proportion to the degree we ignore or suppress them. Whether we try to suppress or medicate reality, the shadows remain and they lurk between the realm of the unconscious, feeding and growing off their neglect until they have grown to the point of inevitable crisis. When investigating sudden mental breakdowns or intense crisis in individuals we find that they are rarely abrupt and random. They are the byproducts of an accumulation of piled up suppressed and unattended problems in the individual. The infant shadows that were thrown into the basement of the mind have now grown into gigantic beasts. They break out of the hidden parts of a person, seeking validation and expression, only by now they are much harder to control and wreak havoc in the outer and inner life. This reality plays itself in the idiom “what we fail to bring to the light, multiples in the dark.”
The founder of depth analytical psychology, Carl Jung proposed the idea that the unconscious and conscious function as a regulatory system, much like the human body. If the body becomes too cold, given it is in decent health, its regulatory system will work to raise the temperature at attempts of bringing it back to balance. The mind will function in like manner, in which the contents of both the conscious and unconscious function as complimentary and compensating systems. An avoidance and ignorance of who we are, the suppression of difficult truths, will always create a breakout of the ignored content- often times in undesirable and hideous ways. For example, a consciously persistent tendency to look at oneself and the world in a one-sided manner of perfection often produces feelings of terror and anxiety stemming from the hidden parts of the mind, many times so overwhelmingly powerful that it results in destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and substance abuse. There are many examples of this sort in people that have grown up in “perfectionistic” families or in homes where open communication was not encouraged. One-sidedness, where the shadowy and unfavored parts of our reality are ignored can lead to the involuntary emancipation of their exaggerated opposites. It is not difficult to understand this concept, once we examine our fears and anxieties and line them up with the more formidable and essential truths we consciously avoid. The trait of seeking control, for example, may play itself out in the irrational and disproportionate phobia of ants.
So, what are we to do about such a problem? How do we know what we may not even be aware of if chronic avoidance has led to genuine forgetting? The first step is going beyond any form of political correctness and gentle honesty. It is a willing commitment to confront the undesirable reality of our darkest parts in order to appropriately integrate them into our conscious waking lives. It is the daunting and necessary step of being brutally honest with the “inner dragons” and “demons” of our nature and the willingness to fight hand in sword and seeing what or who emerges on the other side. It’s through this journey where we find who we really are, a journey that parts from the light into the deepest trenches of our defects. It’s the place where we take off the masks, stop looking at the atrocities of the world with such astonishment because we understand the horrors live inside of us as well. It’s knowing that history and the present with its most ingenious occurrences as well as its malevolence has a home in the human heart. It’s “Know Thyself and To Thine Own Self Be True” and emerging from such a reality fully awakened.
We talk too much, often expressing what we think we desire rather than taking time to listen to ourselves… it’s no wonder we fluctuate between anxiety and depression. Our default focus tends to be on the anxiety producing concerns of what others are thinking or doing, on what should be or could be, and on what appears as the accepting consensus. All the while, the depressed soul withers from its unattended cries of purpose, identity, needs, and passions. It’s hard to explain this to the disquieted person. It seems it has become easier to increase dosages and wait in line for a prescription than to address the pressing matter of who we really are, what living is really about, and how to live according to our individual purpose. We live in a sedated society, medicated by detached practitioners who themselves, through ignorance, evade the real issues and causes of anxiety, depression, addiction, and other ailments.
“Pick me up and throw me where you will. Wherever I land I shall keep the god within me happy…” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I’ve heard many stories from people in recovery dealing with obstacles, some so severe I wondered how they were managing to stay clean and sober. Some had lost their homes to foreclosure. Some were laid off from work. And some had even lost children to illness. In every account, the same statement reappeared at the end of each share, “But I didn’t drink” or “I didn’t pick up”… “no matter what.” These people were living proof that something profound had taken place within, a spiritual awakening. Though the external reality of their lives were constant and difficult, there was a wise and directing consciousness beneath what they presented. This consciousness was impenetrable- although their lives were shaken, they were far from broken.
Recovery is spiritual awareness. People become aware of the divinity within and make a decision to honor it on a daily basis. Outside circumstances such as death, divorce, and financial problems cannot influence the spiritual life within. Many people in AA refer to this idea as the “98 Burn”, a statement made on page 98 of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book text which states “job or no job, wife or no wife…burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.” While our world may be shaken or everything seems to be crumbling down around us, we must acknowledge the god inside us, unfazed, smiling, and always willing to direct us towards the next step. Stability, healing, and recovery depend not on what happens to us but on the reckoning and daily practice of honoring the divine life within.
I have to admit I was never a fan of Mac Miller. But there was something about his recent passing that impacted me. I guess, in some way, Mac Miller was a semblance, a representation of all the young men and women I had come to know over the past 13 years who had also fallen to the grips of addiction and as result went spiraling down to the harrowing end of an overdose. Like the young rapper, many of the people I came across had artistic dispositions, possessed a unique way of looking at the world, and always expressed themselves via creative means of music and art. Sometimes, they sang songs, poems, or played musical instruments in between therapeutic sessions. Sometimes, I’d watch in amazement as the words rhythmically escaped their mouths, cigarette hanging out of the side of their lips, their tattooed arms bearing the faded healing needle marks flaying about with the sounds of the music. These souls who I had come to know were soon gone, victims of drug dependency. I could still remember the songs, the poems, the debates, the drawings many of them left behind. It is this art, somehow clearly unfinished, that leaves behind a sense of bitterness and sorrow. I can remember rationalizing their deaths as “a part of the disease” in the many community vigils… later, having to pull my car over succumbed by the crushing reality: Addiction is powerful…indiscriminate, and it takes the lives of young men and women who possess great potential.
It has been through these individuals that I’ve confirmed there is something creative and divine about the addict. The addict lives an expressive life, in a state of constant desperation to reunite with a greater reality- unfortunately, many times, the connection is an erroneous one, sought artificially through a substance. Many addicts die in their relentless pursuit to be whole again, to be reunified with their source and relieved of their separateness. Mac Miller and the 350 souls that die daily from drug related deaths in the US alone should remind us all that money, fame, and achievement alone does not grant us wholeness and that the ultimate source of fulfillment must be sought after to make recovery possible.
The traumatized psyche of a child contains a silver lining. With time, love, and treatment, as the child enters adulthood, he or she with great skill and finesse will have an exceptional capacity of reaching high transcendental states through meditation or prayer. These wounded souls have acquired this ability through the mechanism of dissociation- a detachment of psychological and environmental surroundings used to protect itself against further trauma. Since meditation also requires a practice of detaching from the ego or thinking mind, these children would have already experienced and understood what most of us seek…less outside distractions and a more intimate connection with our internal world. Perhaps, a further look into this matter will initiate a shift in which children who have been damaged by trauma can be made into “little Buddhas.”
I remember as a child before going to sleep, I’d turn the lights off and dash straight for the bed. I’d strain my eyes open, desperately seeking light- that minute of waiting felt like an eternity. I’d initially feel a sense of dread staring into the nothingness of the air, nothing could be seen beyond the opaqueness of the night. In that minute I’d think, “there is nothing, I am nothing.” I was small, consumed by a great void. This terrorized me. But as the minute passed, the darkness faded. Small rays of light dispersed through the room and I’d begin to see. I could see myself. I was put together. I wasn’t so small after all. I could look at my surroundings…my hands, and smile. The wonderful realization about this process was coming to understand later that no matter how dark I had perceived my surroundings to be, the light was always there, waiting for me to grasp it. I just had to hold on and patiently trust it would show up.
On a psychological and emotional level, we lose precious souls because it becomes too dark within. A moment of despair can feel like an eternity where light never comes. We desperately look around. We become restless. We feel small. We say we’re nothing or nothing matters. But the night is only temporary, it was only a reaction to a sudden change we needed to adjust to. The light is coming. It has come. You are awake… you look at yourself. You’re not so small. As a matter of fact, you’re pretty f****** beautiful. You love yourself more, and best of all, you’ve learned to love the night.
Often, in times of solitude and reflection I think about past impactful events of my career as a counselor. My mind wanders through the corridors of a crisis unit where the majority of our patients had a history of multiple suicide attempts. There were people there who had experienced the worst kinds of acts-abuse on every level, witnessing first hand tragic losses of close friends and family, and sudden abrupt life changes such as financial loss and divorce. Many of the people I encountered possessed a common characteristic- they were immobilized by their pain and were unable to focus on anything outside of the now prevailing emptiness that pervaded their lives. Any forms of therapeutic interventions or words of encouragement were lost in the void. One thing I came to understand: depression at its peak can paralyze a person, both on the physical and cognitive levels. Remedying emptiness and difficulty then requires more than persuasion of changing perspective or acquiring tools to cope- it requires a journey further into the experience of despair where light is found through, not away, from the problem.
Healing takes place when we are able to sit with reality as it is. When pain is immense it produces a numbness that a person may not even be aware of how they are feeling. A process of uncovering emotions through validation and recognition of feelings provides us with a sense of belonging and security. Identifying feelings gives a person the ability of observing their lives from a higher perspective. The act of observing provides a space between experiencing pain and “paralysis” where finding ways to persevere becomes possible. The sufferer finds freedom in understanding that although they are in emotional pain, they are also capable of observing and becoming participants of their own experience. People gradually move away from the all consuming thought “I’m in pain” to “I am aware, this is happening to me.”
Difficulties can be the means by which we discard what matters most. All one needs to ask to reach an effective conclusion is “what is this difficulty teaching me?” Perhaps the things we placed so much time and value on really didn’t hold any weight in our crisis. Sometimes, it takes a significant life event to learn that our time and energy was spent on falsehoods that contributed greatly to the nagging pangs of emptiness. The moments of crisis are the opportunities by which we get in contact with reality- we discard the fake and commit our lives to what is true. This is evident in people who have experienced and overcome crisis. They emanate authenticity and have a zero tolerance for anything that portrays hypocrisy and deception. These people have learned the principle of impermanence- that things and people are unpredictable and fleeting. In this, there is great freedom.
It is sometimes a game changer when we realize that tragedy is tragedy only when it manifests itself in our lives. However, tragedy occurs daily. I cannot think of a single individual who has not experienced the death of a loved one or not experienced a loss of some kind. Pain and emptiness may initially draw us more inwardly, but can also give us the chance to notice that difficulty and feelings of emptiness are universal. On some level, we have all experienced a loss and many have been able to overcome the resulting darkness and go on to live healthy and productive lives. If we occasionally gaze our eyes outwardly during crisis, we’ll find the comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering and we will eventually get through it.
“The scars had finally healed. Looking back on every laceration, every opening… was only an attempt to break free, a way to release all the things I wanted to be and all the things I wanted to say. Each scar collectively became a map of where I wanted to go, a clear direction for a lost soul. The scars had finally healed, and I knew this because what I had done to myself physically, through the process of healing, was finally transcended and attained on the spiritual realm.”
The worst sickness in mental health is not classified as an illness. It is rare in contemporary psych literature and discussions. I would go as far to say that the majority of us are unknowingly suffering from it. Yet, when we closely examine the effects of this problem we find that it is correlated with all self-injurious, suicidal, and addictive behavior. These three problems contain the common theme of self-loathing-a self loathing that is perpetuated by the cunning and deadly state of denial. But it isn’t a denial of the actual behaviors that are my concern. It’s the denial of something deeper that evolves out of a mainstream consciousness that people are entirely good and that “badness” is an external mysterious force that selects only a small percentage of us. Wrong! The reality of human nature is that within it there is both good and evil and to exclusively attribute one to who we are is to deny our exact nature. People are good, but they are also inherently flawed and capable of evil. The goal is to live responsibly with these two natures. However, the majority point of view tends to deny this fact and what results is a perpetuation of symptoms and high risk behaviors. When we deny who we are and do not embrace our wholeness we become imprisoned by what we should be. When the evil or flawed nature arises, on a subconscious level, we experience discomfort, anxiety, and self loathing. The battle of suppression begins, often to intolerable heights leading to self-harm behaviors such as self-mutilation, addiction, and suicide. When we internalize the lie that man is good and that’s all that he SHOULD be, a frantic self-loathing society emerges-addicts use, cutters cut, and the hopeless attempt to nullify themselves into oblivion.
Imagine if we began to break the chains of internalized messages of what we should be and began to embrace what is- who we really are. When people fully acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses-their goodness and flaws- they are prone to inflict love rather than pain on themselves and others. I believe it’s time we awaken to the reality of the all encompassing duality of good and bad.