Courting the Caves: Honest Self-examination Isn’t Afraid of the Dark

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“Pain, instead of being something to avoid,
can actually bring us closer to the truth.”

― Pema Chodron

Courting the caves.   I first coined that term, and reference it repeatedly now in my life, when I was writing my grief memoir about the days surrounding my mother’s death. The first of my referring to the term is in Chapter One of this book that I have yet to publish:

I write and chronicle and document and work out knots, and have done this for as long as I can remember, tapping the unconscious well, going to that place where cave spiders dwell, taking darkness on. Even as a child I was the one who befriended monsters and made them my allies. In adulthood it’s been a little trickier to spot the shadowy demons, but once spotted I am never afraid of foraging through the tangled, weedy backwoods, of courting the caves, of sticking a finger in their horrific faces and starting a fight. I’m afraid of everything else in the world, but not that. I’m a true believer that the way out of the hole and into a peace of spirit is with a good, bloody brawl.

It seems I’ve spent my life soul-searching and self-examining. I’m an overly-analytical person anyway. I’ve been told that before, and I do know it to be true. Just the other day I ran across a note I’d written to myself  (rather than the traditional journal volumes many keep and amass over years’ time, I just amass little post-its all over the place with thoughts I don’t want to lose). This one read:

You don’t need to know why. Stop needing to define this feeling. Stop talking it to death. Stop thinking it to death. Stop decoding. Just have the feeling, without needing to intellectualize it, or understand it. It doesn’t need to be shushed away. Allow it. You don’t need to be talked down from it. Go through it. It exists for a reason. Listen. Your body is a pristine barometer for what’s happening in your world. Honor that knot in the gut. That racing heart of foreboding. It has something to tell you. Don’t quarantine it is some kind of bubble that can’t allow you to feel unless that feeling is a happy one. That is a dangerous aspect of the Positive Principle movement, a movement that is an inherently good concept while having its kinks, such as the practice of a denial of feelings that are actually valid and whole, in order to wear an inauthentic mask of  IT’S ALL GOOD. Sometimes it’s not all good. That’s OK.”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a post-it. But do you see what I did here? I was trying to talk myself out of overthinking something, only to evolve the thought into something quite overthinking. I can’t help my brain. And the truth is, while that trait can sometimes burden me and others, it has also been a gift, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the person I am because of that self-understanding seeker’s road.

I’ve read all the books. Everyone from Deepak Chopra to Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve jumped on that bandwagon of trying to be a more evolved version of myself, of trying to reach some kind of higher consciousness, of trying to heal old “pain bodies, ” as my good friend Eckhart says.  Yeah, no, Eckhart Tolle isn’t actually my friend. But you had to know that he would be one of the many I’ve read on this trek, and he feels like an old friend. I have a dear sister-girl who shares this path with me, more or less, and we’re both constantly asking each other, “what would Eckhart do?”  We say it with tongue in cheek, and are usually following it up with laughter over some crazy thing one or the other of us has done. But it actually does help ground us. Just to be able to step back for a minute and re-frame. It always manages to bring us back from the crazy brink.

I wrote a little credo years ago, and it has been my email sign-off ever since:

  1. Create  ― even if you’re not an artist
  2. Support artists ― especially the independents
  3. Live well ― doesn’t take money to do it
  4. And be whole

This is my most heart-centered request of mankind, beyond the obvious one of do no harm, and it has everything to do with self-nurture, which means it’s really a request of myself. Lately, I’ve had to really think about what #3 means.  What does it mean to live well? I don’t mean to live affluently. Pretend money and status don’t exist.  Then ask yourself if you are living well.

Without giving it too much thought (yeah, nice try Angela), my instinctive answer to what living well means is the ability to be as whole, centered, and conscious as we have the potential for. Living a life in that higher agreement state. If we can make ourselves whole, we can (and do) minister more authentically and more willingly to the global family and to the planet. And that ministers to us. It all rounds back in often inexplicable ways.  Likewise, if we take the steps toward ministering, it can’t help but foster wholeness. But what does wholeness mean? Everyone has a story, a history. Some call it baggage. It shapes us. And it is most beneficial to us (yes, baggage can be beneficial) when we are able to face it, identify it, HEAR what it has to tell us, and then take the steps toward transcending it. Then we stand a chance of getting whole, and getting happy. That’s what it means to live well.

The “hear what it has to tell us” part is where I do my best to live when it comes to my spiritual journey. And one of my self-discovery practices (of the many I have) is one I find too scrumptious not to share here.  It’s called SoulCollage®, and it’s the brainchild of the late artist and psychologist Seena B. Frost, who developed this incredible practice as a way for the artistic and therapeutic layman to participate hands-on in his/her own self-discovery, and to create beautiful works of art in the process.

SoulCollage is, quite simply, the making of collage art. Beyond that basic modality of creating something artful, however, is a therapeutic process that taps into the subconscious with its vivid mood and collision of imagery, and cultivates the powers of the intuitive.  Through the seemingly unrelated images of a collage work, much can be revealed about the deepest parts of who we authentically are.  You need not be an artist of any experience.  You need only be hungry for an extraordinary journey of self-excavation and growth.

I became a student of SoulCollage through one of its facilitators in Los Angeles, folk artist and radiant spirit MARGO GRAVELLE. For many years now I have met with a group of like-minded seekers to make collages toward the purpose of the ongoing creation of a “deck” that might be likened to a Tarot deck, the result of which reflects and represents the varied and many aspects of each person’s emotional and psychological pantheon of characters (called “the committee”), as well as a discovery and identification of archetypes, which dips a bit into the work of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Carolyn Myss, etc.

My own experience with SoulCollage has been a deeply sacred and life-changing one for me. I have sought many healing modalities, including cognitive therapy and grief counseling, and have never felt more clear about who I am (the good, the bad, the ugly, the brilliant) through any means more potent than through this extraordinary, and completely non-judgmental practice. And often, it is the shadow images in the collages that give us our greatest dawning and light.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
― Joseph Campbell

This post isn’t about selling SoulCollage on you (I’ve got no investment other than the personal healing in it), but if you’re interested in finding out more, please visit Seena’s site: SOUL COLLAGE.   If nothing more, it’s absolutely fascinating exploration, and may even help you to find a class in your area, which I recommend for anyone on a self-seeking path for transformation.

Why I adore this particular practice so much is because it seems to me that the self-examination movement has taken an odd and, I feel, uncourageous turn. I have spoken of this in past blog posts, but here is where I’ll try to elaborate. There is a trend, a force, a movement, within the self-help world that abhors conflict, that does everything in its power to manifest a rosier view of life, without the planting of the groundwork first, without a visit to the caves, and to encourage the practice of denial in its followers. Conflict is an interesting word to me, because I want nothing more in my life than to live with some measure of peace of spirit, and it’s what I strive for every day, yet as a writer what I know for sure is that conflict is everything. There is no story without conflict. A story without conflict is just an ad. Exploration of the human condition, and that means conflict, is what any story should be.  Sometimes that conflict is resolved in the story, but the more interesting ones really just pose questions that make us think, that give us varying perspectives, and that expand the palate of our understanding of the human race.  That’s what the best writers do.

So, here’s the thing.  Because I am a writer, and have a pretty specific opinion of what a writer should do, I tend to approach my own personal journey in the same way as I do my writing.  By courting conflict.  Not as a way to wallow, which brings to mind the Native American parable:

A grandfather says, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” When asked which wolf will win the fight in his heart, the old man replies, “The one I feed.”   

It’s a wise parable. There is a danger to the spirit that wallows, because it is kept broken, and then we find ourselves just perpetually running with stuff, and letting it be the loop we’re in.

What I’m referring to is the wisdom in courting conflict as a means of transcending it, not denying it, but of being willing to face it, challenge it, figure out what it’s feeding to make it stick around. That one lodged in my head, like a mighty slap, from the Tony Robbins retreat I attended a couple of years ago.

Carl Jung from The Philosophical Tree says: “Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

And so I go back to the idea of our baggage being beneficial. It will always teach us something we need to learn. But only if we are willing to identify and face it.  That’s where we stand the chance of transcending it.  There isn’t a breakthrough in existence that wasn’t accompanied by some pain, but what comes out on the other side, always, is freedom. A freedom worth cultivating and renewing and re-strengthening every single day (I just quoted myself, again, this time from an earlier blog post).

Lately, I see a lot of seminars and courses on “healing yourself with….” fill in the blank with your preferred motif. And I’ll always look into them, because I’m always on a path.  What I find in far too many, however, is a process of uncovering all the ills in your past that anyone else has ever inflicted on you, so that the blame can begin. The last part of that phrase is mine, and IS being judgmental, admittedly, because I do believe that’s what the bottom line of these modalities tends to be. Looking under everyone else’s hood except your own to find the culprit of your suffering and damage.

I’m not saying it’s illegitimate to identify an external source of harm to you. It’s important to do so. But it is only a part of the process. The pretty crucial other part is the courage it takes to identify our own complicity in our internal disrepair.  Not to mention the harm we cause others.  And we have all caused someone harm.

I have a friend, Frank Ferrante, who was recently the subject of a documentary called May I Be Frank. And there is a moment in the film, during his own battles with self, and ultimate transformation, when he recalls punching his younger brother badly in the ribs as a young boy.  And he never even put it together that a constant and chronic pain in his own rib area, that he had been living with for years, might’ve actually been a manifestation of his guilt over that act.  I do believe we carry our transgressions against others in our bodies as pain, sometimes even literal and physical.  So when that moment of revelation happens for Frank in the movie, the first time I saw it I almost crumbled, myself, because I fundamentally understand and believe in the power of that kind of purgation. Going through the process is so ultimately purifying, even if painful, that it can’t help but begin to lift burdens, lighten our existence, and allow the door to be opened to a genuine peace of spirit and to happiness.

Frank was so brave to have walked the path illustrated in the documentary.  And because of his bravery, he has experienced a jaw-dropping transformation of body and soul.  It ain’t for sissies, this self-exploration stuff.  But I believe in its absolute cruciality, toward the purpose of delivering oneself out of suffering and into a place of compassion, empathy, and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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