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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In 2017, I…

In 2017 I... Blog Banner

In 2017, I…

Lost my father.

Lost my brother, too, in a manner of speaking.

Found my voice as a poet.

Found my brother.

Endured whiplash, of both the physical and the emotional brand.

Found a spiritual home for myself, for the first time ever.

Got spooked by the nature trail that had given me life.

Fostered anxiety.

Thought about my father.

Read some of the most amazing books of fiction, memoir, and poetry that I’ve ever read.

Lost my feline girl (though technically it was at the end of 2016, but it was THE moment that launched this longest year).

Blocked out the White Noise of the White House.

Watched my city burn, and a few others nearly drown, while feeling the haunting wail of a planet in trouble.

Witnessed the unfettered power of #metoo, and the spiritual vacuum cleaner that got unleashed.

Lost my brother again.

Bonded with family in an unprecedented and crucial way.

Found baby bro yet again.

Learned to love and let go in equal measure.

Re-learned it every single day.

Experienced pain and beauty in fairly even amounts.

Thought about my father.

Wrote about my father.

Conquered my fear of the nature trail (had to do with a bobcat sighting), and drew her into my bosom again, after nearly a year without her.

Lost more and more people, in too heartbreaking a number.

Had a talk with Death.  It was a come-to-Jesus moment, with a few side-eyes between us.

Got back to yoga (how I missed you, old friend).

Did Goat yoga!  (seriously, Google it)

Wrote my 1st short story.

Wrote my 118th short story…and 30 poems.

Deemed myself officially (if it’s not obvious by now) addicted, fixated, obsessed with words; an addiction from which I hope to never recover.

Submitted pieces like a mo-fo.

Got rejected.

Got rejected.

Got rejected.

Never wavered.  I am a poet.  A wordsmith.  Begone now, before someone drops a house on you!

Had/did/received loads of healing, of both the spiritual and the biological kind.

Grew more thankful, and more in love with the random nature of life (that helps in the forgiveness department).

Felt my age.

Killed a plant.

Went vegan.

….ish.

Made a movie with my orchestra (a very sick day, but too much irreverent fun).

Had the exhilarating honor to interview some amazing wellness-seeking human beings for a tiny documentary I made.

Had the exhilarating honor to be interviewed by a couple of amazing young women for a grand and extraordinary documentary that they made, with 2017 being the launching year for screenings all over the world.  #thegoddessproject

Lived up to my hype.

Didn’t live up to my hype.

Failed my hype miserably.

Decided that hype was not a word worthy of my time.

Talked to my father, my mother, my stepfather, the ancestors, all those who have left this earth but are never far, and who give me living tips daily (sorry, Daddy, that you had to join the League of Gentle Council. Really thought you’d be the one to make it to 100).

Wrote these thoughts to usher out an old, and to usher in a new. To ritualize the idea of rebirth, renewal, and restoration, because I am a New Year’s baby, and so it is in my DNA to ritualize, to chant, to pray, to dance, to give auspiciousness to the concept of new beginnings and rites of passage, to participate in burning bowl rituals, to summon the rains and the gods, to burn sage, to close my eyes, shut off the valve and listen. Listen to the wind in the trees tell me what I need to know next, what I need to do next, how I need to sing next.   And then I sing.

The very last thing I did in 2017 was sing.  As it has been, since forever ago and auld lang syne.  I sang, and sang.

And baby brother is home.  Nestled in all the love his family has to give.  We get to remember my father together.

All of us. Together.

Welcome 2018. Be nice now.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Phone Message 1/1/92.   Hilarious chaos ensues.   But best of all, my father’s voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Elm & Houston Revelation

Elm & Houston Epiphany copy

 

Last week, for me, saw four intensive days in seminar with the iconic Tony Robbins and his “Unleash the Power Within” doctrine.  If you’re not familiar, look him up on YouTube. There are hundreds of lectures, TED Talks, etc, on the man.  If you ARE familiar, I’ve found, you’re either behind him with a sense of devotion that just about any other motivational speaker out there would be hard pressed to rival, or you’ve concluded that he’s a modern day Jim Jones. I find almost no one who has a tepid reaction to him.

Yes, I did the firewalk.  No, I was not injured.  Yes, it gave me a high like nothing else, for what it was designed to symbolize; the power to accomplish anything, even the seemingly impossible, a subject-matter I am painfully intimate with.  I had a personal stake in doing this.  And it delivered.

And finally, yes, we’re talking about the same UPWDallas2016 that blitzkrieged the news on the firewalk night. “Hundreds burned in failed Tony Robbins Firewalk!” As someone who was there, I can vouch for the real thing being nowhere near as dramatic or perilous as the coverage made it out to be, because, of course, “if it bleeds it leads.”

Dallas is a city I’ve barely been to, in all of my many trips to Texas.  It’s usually been a case of flying in or out of DFW and picking up connections to other destinations.  So in preparing to come to this city for the Robbins conference, on my menu of intentions was to visit Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination of JFK. I really have a thing for visiting these kinds of historical landmarks, and this one especially has been on my list to visit, because our nation changed radically after (perhaps even as a result of) the assassination that day in 1963.

We only had the last day in town, after the seminar was over, to check it out thoroughly, though we did actually run across it by accident on the first night of the seminar.  The friend I was traveling with, and I, had decided to walk a few blocks away from the Convention Center to get our Uber, since eight thousand other people were all trying to get back to their hotels too. And at a certain point, a few blocks into our midnight walk (the night of the firewalk, so we were already on a kind of high), my friend suddenly stopped in his tracks, looked around, as if he was lost, and then said “I think this is it.” “What?” “Yeah,” he continued, ignoring me. He then proceeded to stroll across a grassy knoll (I’m still not catching on), and pointed to an X in the street. “This is where Kennedy was shot.”

It was a quiet night.  Clear sky.  Bright moon.  I was already open-veined and euphoric, because I’d walked on hot coals tonight, baby!  And I had not burned my feet, because I had applied the fierce focus and intention taught us earlier that evening.  And it was not a parlor trick; the coals were freaking hot.  And so, when everything finally came into dawning for me, and I saw the corner street signs of Houston and Elm, and the picket fence where the fourth bullet had allegedly come from, and the building formerly known as the Texas Book Depository, I stood there, having just experienced something rather larger-than-life, and cried a little, just to myself, at this other larger-than-life historical ground zero.  It was an eerie and haunting thing to stumble upon by accident at midnight.  We spent a bit of time there, as one does, then called for our Uber.  And then proceeded to end every night of the conference with the same agenda.

So, by the time we got to our last day in town, and had the seminar firmly behind us, and had a cousin of mine who lives in town escorting us for the day, to go experience this thing in the daylight, do the museum, and be official tourists, we had already experienced it the way everyone should, I’ve now concluded.  The midnight visit had been a sacred, internal moment that had allowed me to feel that bit of history in an intimate and private way, and to have an emotional reaction to it.  In the light of day, it was an entirely different experience.  All the opportunists were out in droves, selling their bogus copies of “the actual newspaper headline from The Dallas Morning News!” and their angle on what really happened that day.  Every wild theory was flying out of the mouths of the carnival barkers, creating a cacophony of chatter that was almost musical.

And then a most interesting thing happened.  One such barker that I was standing near, and trying to listen to, as he explained to a huddle of tourists about the fatal shot, couldn’t’ve been more than 50 years old, and yet was saying things like, “and that’s when we all hit the deck, and then ran across here behind the picket fence…”  He then pointed to a blurred figure, in a crowd of other blurred figures, in an old, dog-eared photograph he was holding, with the doomed presidential motorcade in the foreground, and said, “that’s me.”  Even though blurred, the figure he was pointing to was clearly an adult, someone who was not an infant, which, at a stretch, is the only way this guy could’ve potentially been present at this 53-year-old moment in history.  So yeah, we were dealing with crazy, I concluded, and he officially lost my interest in listening any longer.

From a distance, however, I continued to stare at him do his thing.  I sort of couldn’t take my eyes away, because I was suddenly reminded of the most profound thing that I had learned from Tony Robbins during his game-changing seminar intensive.  That all of our problems, struggles, dysfunctions, etc., exist and linger because they serve a need.  And as long as they continue to provide a benefit, they will not be repaired.  There is something that they fulfill.  I remembered that one stopping me dead in my tracks on, I want to say, Day 2 of this thing.  And so, as I stared at this man, who was more likely mentally ill than a simple con man, I was suddenly softened from the earlier eye-rolling, head-shaking, dismissive stance I’d taken against him, and wondered what need his story was fulfilling for him.  A sense of significance in a world that had rendered him insignificant?  Combating a crippling loneliness by surrounding himself with people who could potentially find awe in his story, and him?  Whatever the benefit was, it certainly wasn’t a financial one, since everyone around him had him nailed, and no one was buying his story, or his wares.  Yet they were continuing to hang on his every word, because crazy is entertaining.  And it was at that moment that I realized I would probably never look at any other situation again, neither another’s nor my own, without asking that question:  What need does this serve?

That changes the whole playing field, doesn’t it?

There is a plethora, a right worthy grocery list, to be honest, of struggles and hiccups that my own personal growth seems to be bombarded with these days.  Much of which I’ve chalked up to a case of what I do, or don’t, deserve.  Or I chalk up a certain behavior, which is nonetheless frustrating for me, to being a hardwiring.

For example, one sentence I’ve claimed for years as part of my story: I’ve spent my life not being picked.  Or at least believing, always, in that outcome (which pretty much means it’s guaranteed).  Case in point:  My boyfriend in 8th grade literally moved on from me to someone else without a word my way.  How I found out was when his “new thing” and I were racing against each other in a track meet.  The girl had actually been my friend, and the boyfriend and I had not had a single conflict, so while I get kids just moving on from each other thoughtlessly, I never understood the venal nature of the moment.  He stood at the starting line where she and I were poised to run the 50-yard dash, and he muttered, but for everyone to hear, “Beat her, Albertine!  Beat her good!” Albertine didn’t win that race that day.  I did.  But it gave me no pleasure in the victory, because I was also the one beaten.  I didn’t understand my breed, and I didn’t get what I had done so heinous to have deserved such malevolence.  Today I can see clearly how that one incident has been so indelibly stamped on me that I have always tended to enter into an agreement with isolation and outsidership.

I’ve just thought of it as a hardwiring, a simple case of, “This is who I am. I don’t fit into circles and clubs.” But here’s the danger in that; chalking anything up to a hardwiring presupposes that there’s nothing that can be done about it.  It takes the power (if it’s a plight we’re actually interested in fixing) right out of our hands.

And if I have taken nothing else away from this seminar, I have taken with me a new understanding that any emotional baggage we have only sticks around, and is given momentum, because there is a need it serves.  That one just blew my head right open.  Done.  Brains on the dashboard.  Blood and guts everywhere.  Absolutely nothing I’ve ever learned in my years’ long pursuit of self-examination has made more sense than that.

And so, rather than tossing off my penchants for outsidership, for example, as a hardwiring I can do nothing about, I need to figure out what the role of outsider in my life has been serving all this time.

One thing I know for sure is that it’s been a bit of a badge of honor.  I do love my solitude, and marching to my own drummer, and I have a natural penchant toward inward-turning and contemplation.  So, what it’s feeding is pretty obvious.  But it’s also a dubious badge, as there is always an overtone of loneliness and missed opportunity that is a part of the outsider landscape.  So, maybe it also feeds a kind of “poor me” comfort?  I’m not sure yet, but there is so much to play with here.  So much to discover, to answer for myself, so many lids to pry open, so that maybe I actually stand a chance of delivering myself from some of these frustrations, and finally give myself the permission to pursue just exactly what I want in this life.

As for Crazy Grassy Knoll Man, he will likely remain who he is, though we never know who or what comes along to change our state, and our stake.  But my attitude toward him (once I got past the stun of him cursing me out for not buying any of his wares) became more compassionate and empathetic to the battles that must be his, the battles we all experience to varying degrees of crazy.  And to know that there is an answer, somewhere, somehow, for every one of us.  I just want to be that little sprite whispering into Crazy Grassy Knoll Man’s ear, “I see you.  You are seen.”

This was merely one of fifty hours worth of ideas that were drilled into our heads by Tony Robbins during his four days of exhaustive saturation.  I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on what this seminar did for me.  And honestly, I’m not sure I’m meant to share any more of the experience than this one example, because it was such a deeply intimate odyssey for me, one of identifying belief systems, and transforming them.  It was so intimate, in fact, that when my friend and I couldn’t get a seat together on Day One, we ended up not doing any part of the seminar together, as it was nice not having to be self-conscious around each other.  And that was easy enough to accomplish, in a sea of eight thousand people.  We just met up on dinner breaks and when it was over each day.  We didn’t even witness each others’ firewalk.  Instead, upon completion of the walk, I cheered for my triumph with the people around me, who were all doing the same, a communal pep rally.  New bonds got formed.  In fact, my firewalk partner and I decided to remain friends.  The experience was intimate and expansive at the same time.

I’ve been changed by this four-day event, that’s for sure. To what degree will be discovered in the days to come, as I venture forth to apply these tools and get out of my own way.  But I don’t think I truly got hit with that feeling of difference until my revelatory moment on the corner of Elm Street and Houston, the same corner that was John F. Kennedy’s last.  A setting ripe with ghosts and guile.  And maybe even a little grace.

 

 

Dedicated to my dear friend Ross Wright,
who gave me the gift of this experience,
went through it with me,
and who roots for me always.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.