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 might slap, from the Tony Robbins retreat I attend 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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Of His Many Legacies

MLK small copy 2

January 19, 2015.   Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I woke up this morning and hastened to the computer to post my father’s portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. on all of my various social media accounts. It’s a portrait that became sort of famous in the 1970’s.   The only one of my father’s paintings that he ever made reproductions of, so that it could be owned by many. The portrait could be found, in the years that followed its creation, in several city halls throughout the country, other civic buildings, schools, private homes.  I even once opened an Ebony Magazine (I was a teen at the time) to an article about an Atlanta attorney.  I don’t even remember who the attorney was, as what happened next is the only part of the story that was important to me.  There, under the byline, but before the title of the article, was a photograph of the attorney in his Atlanta offices.  And there in the background of the photo, hanging on a wall, was my father’s King.   It counted as the only example of that kind of experience I’ve ever had regarding my father’s work, since he was an artist who never exhibited, never had reproductions made of his work, save the King, and almost never offered his works for sale. He was a peculiar artist in that way.   He’d made his living as a graphic artist for the aerospace industry for his entire life, and so the fine art pieces he did were purely for love and personal reward, or sometimes on commission.  All of his children have his works, and many other family members and friends.  But otherwise, the King remains the only of his work that circulated the country a bit in its day.  Sorry about the tangent.   This post is not about “the King,” as we have always called his painting, but I’m a proud daughter, so there you go.  And here it is, in its entirety.

MLK small

Anyway, I posted my father’s painting on Facebook, Twitter, et al., along with one of my favorite quotations of Dr. King’s, as my contribution to paying tribute to this national holiday of the birth of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

The quotation was: “Let us truly, deeply, authentically occupy the dream, the dream of a world that works for all life, where each and every one of us is a shining star in a constellation of love.  Everybody can be great . . . because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.” 

There are so many of his wonderful quotations that it was hard to choose the one that resonated the most with my heart today.  As all great men and women tend to inspire, on any given day a different aspect of Dr. King’s lifework might ring in my heart and the accompanying quotation in my ears.  Because the many avenues of his life’s work extend far beyond civil rights and racial equality, as a friend of mine reminded in an email he sent out this morning to a handful of friends.  Dr. King also fought for unions, supported labor strikes and better economic realities for the poor of all races, and lastly, but hardly least, he was passionately outspoken against the Viet Nam War, and against war period.

I made the post, and then went about the rest of my day, periodically checking back to see if any comments had been made.  Isn’t that what we do?   The rest of my day consisted of meeting up with friends for lunch and a bit of business, then working on some graphic jobs for clients, and then taking the afternoon to go see a movie, as this is the time of year that I and my ilk (a small circle of us) log in the requisite Oscar nominees.  It’s our favorite time of year.  I’ve seen some pretty wonderful movies this season, and today’s was going to be American Sniper.

As I sat through this well-crafted Clint Eastwood film, I found myself physically uncomfortable and fidgety in my seat.   I am a movie buff (I guess there’s a range of buffness; so perhaps I’m just a semi-buff).  I love movies for their honesty, their irony, their in-depth character study, and their unsentimentality.  Just tell a story, and let the story, itself, do its job to move us, or anger us, or teach us, or make our hearts soar, or make us laugh, or confound us, or take us to the couch.

I honestly don’t know what I thought of this movie (I’m sure I’ll have a firmer grasp of my feelings on it a week from now, or a year from now).  It yanked me in many ways.  In the final frame, it was clearly making a statement about what war does to soldiers, and yet it also intended to lionize the protagonist, who is based on a real-life person.  And from what I understand, the real-life person, whose autobiography the movie is based upon, was quite unrepentant about his killing credits.  So, is he a hero?  Or if the movie is not about heroes but about men, do we need for him to be depicted as remorseful?  Or simply as someone indelibly changed by the circumstances of war, even if he is in denial of it?   These are just questions.  I have no answers to them.   But what clearly made me restless in this movie experience was the juxtaposition of having chosen to see this film on a day that has been nationally designated as commemoration of the man who once said, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”

I woke up this morning with Dr. King firstly on my mind.  I woke up with his many, many words of great inspiration swimming in my head, because I am on his side in these matters.  I do not believe in war.  I’m sure my politically conservative friends and my military friends will have their issue with me on that.  That’s for us to work out.   But I can appreciate a depiction of war, which is why I was sitting in a movie theater this afternoon, seeing this film.

It’s the juxtaposition of having chosen this day to go, which didn’t even dawn on me until I was in it and committed, and which was most definitely the source of my restlessness, that puzzles me.  What I found most poignant and most troublesome wasn’t even in the film itself (though I did find the film itself gravely problematic), but the audience’s various reactions throughout.   There was hearty laughter when killings happened.  Silly, immature laughter.  There was universal jingoistic applause when a tension-moment in the movie ended in enemy-slaughter at its most brutal.  This was the audience from a Rocky movie or a soccer game.  Did the filmmakers have that kind of whipped up lust as their intention? Because propaganda, after all, was at the heart of this film, and that’s what propaganda is designed to do.  Eastwood’s direct trajectory in the film from 911 to our invasion of Iraq, as though one had anything to do with the other, is why I charge him with propaganda.  And yet, before I go any further down the rabbit hole of political polarities, that is not even the component of the film that left me in turmoil.   That component I simply, disappointingly, chalked up to the Big Lie.

What left me divided, and it’s finally hitting me even as I write this, is that Eastwood, himself, was divided.  I don’t believe he really knew what story he wanted to tell.  Because while he most assuredly directed a very deliberate go-get-’em piece of patriotic frenzy-whipping, Eastwood also depicted a man wrecked by his experience over there, even as that man lived in denial of his distress. And those were the moments that had a human, thoughtful, nuanced, insightful element to it.  Those were the moments that reminded me why I have always championed Eastwood as a director.  But while I didn’t need for Chris Kyle to be a redeemed man, or to have some kind of awakening about his actions, it was extremely important for that to be inherent in the narrative, and it just wasn’t.  It brought to mind, for me, Paul Schrader’s and Martin Scorsese’s powerful and chilling Taxi Driver.  Here is a character so deeply troubled, and unredeemed even to the very end.  But though Travis Bickle is never redeemed, his story, his narrative, IS, through its making a comment about society.  American Sniper had every opportunity to do just that.  And ultimately, because propaganda was allowed to prevail instead, it failed.

As I filed out of the theater with an audience that was more revved up than contemplative, my heart truly broke to see the fruits of a culture and a generation that I believe has largely fallen from grace, and grown numbed and desensitized.  I don’t know if the blame belongs to movies like this, or to social media, or to the blitzkrieg-&-hysteria-style TV programming that calls itself news today, or to technology, which disconnects us far more than it connects us, or to a generation of parents and schools dropping the ball on guidance, or what.  They’re all easy targets, and they’re probably all complicit.  WE are probably all complicit.  But whatever is the source, it’s happening.  The deadening of the collective heart.  Now, I’m not a dark and gloomy doomsayer.  There’s always hope.  I think that’s part and parcel to what this day stands for.  But it requires action.  I’m not always an action person.  I can tend to be very insular in my life, and in my beliefs that being a creative artist, and putting thoughtful content out into the world, is enough.  But maybe it isn’t enough.  And so, this collective deadening of the heart was a pretty sobering bit of business to witness, and to be in the midst of, and to conclude, on this day, the national commemoration of a genuine peacemaker in our history.  A man who said these many words:

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”

“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

“I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act.  It is a constant attitude.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

I don’t know why I chose to see this movie today of all days.  It felt wrong, as soon as I was in it.  Even though I think Mr. Eastwood did a skillful (if dishonest) bit of directing, and Mr. Cooper did a remarkable turn as Kyle.  But I think that if I’d seen the movie on any other day, I might’ve had a very different experience, a different level of sensitivity, a different outlook on humanity.  And so perhaps today was exactly as it should be.  To force me inward.  To contemplate.  Not only King’s legacy, but how we citizens have been shaped (or not) by it.  How I  have been shaped by it.  And what to do about that, if the answer turns out to be a less-than-proud one.  Because, really, that’s what today’s movie experience was about for me –– a mirror.  Which brings me to my favorite of all of Dr. King’s words: “The greatest sign of maturity is self-inquiry.”

I am chasing that maturity every single day.   On rare days, I even catch the little fucker.

Portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. by Ted Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.