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Psychotherapy Without Soul Can Fuck You UP


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Without an appreciation of the soul’s radical desires, psychotherapy can interfere with psychological and spiritual maturation and promote a non-imaginative normality that merely supports people to be better-adapted cogs in a toxic industrial culture’

Bill Plotkin

There is a marvellous moment in Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships by the pioneering Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood when a client finally hits the ground of infinite possibility. The truth is, she says, that right now I am a completely fucked up human being and cannot be otherwise. This revelation was no doubt preceded – as it is for many of us – by years of therapy and workshops, potions and pills. From that moment of crystalline authenticity doors began to open as she sank into the richness of her own being without judgment or concept.

One of the cavernous blind spots that snag the seeker lies in the poisoned nature of the ground in which she seeks healing. Without the soul as companion too many therapies are simply confounded by what is presented. How can that which is devised within the confines of ‘toxic industrial culture’ – that which fails to incorporate blessings and curses, ancestral hand-me-down wounds and individual karma – bring cure to what ails?

Again and again I have seen clients struggling under the weight of a geis, or what I call conditions on the soul, failed, inevitably, by systems that don’t get them, don’t want them and finally throw up their hands in confused failure offering another diagnosis by way of compensation and to save professional face.

Soul sickness does not respond to that which is soulless. It does not seek a fix, although the personality which accompanies it will. It cannot be touched by much in this world. For what has taken root in a human being, what has found a home there, is both incurable and a reflection of what is not right in contemporary culture. This sickness comes from being separated from the beauty that has been lost and which the soul now desires as a matter of urgency. The individual holds both the illness and the answer for that which lies outside the Self.

It is almost that after the soul’s journey over many lifetimes the pressure builds to a point where only death or breakthrough matter. It has to be one or the other. Nothing else will do. I am either going to find the beauty within or I will return to it in the Otherworld, the realm of the ancestors. The mood is pressing and the initiatory circumstances both more terrifying and exciting.

In Zen, it is said that the nature of dilemma is like having a red-hot coal stuck in the throat. It can neither go down nor out. You can neither cough it up nor swallow it. This stuckness or impasse is common in both individuals and society, and as Jung said it represents a preparatory period before significant breakthrough, even an evolutionary leap.

We are too quick to want to get out of this wasteland. In these days of sound bites, quick fixes and instant communication the thought that the soul might have its own agenda and desires is abhorrent. That it might want you to grow sicker and sicker until you are beyond human aid is unpalatable. This is where insight into the mythological level of life is critical. Without understanding and accepting the soul’s need for slowness and to sink into its own depths it is too easy to think a life is no longer worth living.

But the soul is calling you down, deeper than you would go on your own, farther than seems necessary to the conscious mind that only wants to ‘get on’. It takes a long time and much flailing about looking for ways out of our dilemma before accepting, like the client above, that perhaps there is no cure, at least none that we can see. If you study mythological tales, this image of the fall from grace, the wasteland, and the kingdom once abundant now in ruins is everywhere. And it is a necessary part of being alive.

For the sickness pulls us down into territories of great learning, a brush with death, and strips us of all we have known thus far until all that is left is the vision with which we were born and which has been forgotten. ‘The only way to treat the condition,’ says mythologist Michael Meade is to get everything out of the way and allow the sickness to speak for itself. It can only be heard when all the possible cures have been eliminated and its incurability has been admitted. The soul sickness needs permission to be the strange story that it declares itself to be.’

The only way at such times is to understand we have ingested soul sickness, that it is purposeful and contains great gifts, and to go further into it. In other words we have to follow where the sickness leads and where it leads is often to a threshold we don’t even want to see let alone cross.

In modern times, I see this happen most often in relationships. Everywhere I turn I hear people stuck on the horns of dilemma: should I stay or should I go?; I love him but I’m not in love with him; I just don’t feel anything any more. As soul, that feelings of passionate aliveness, most often enters us in western culture through our romances, small wonder that is where we will feel its absence.

People stay miserable within these dilemmas for years, for the sake of the children or a myriad of other sensible reasons. Yet soul is not interested in common sense or material security. It just keeps pressing in on you until you give it its due and it won’t let up until you do, ever. That does not mean the solution is to break with relationship. That may or may not be the case. It does mean you have to find a way to attend to your deeper life or get sicker.

In a sense, the more soul sickness you’ve imbibed the better equipped you are to heal what is within and without. In turning towards what is dark within the Self and the culture we increase the possibility of bringing some of the beauty trapped in the Otherworld back over the threshold. It is as if we have to risk death to step over and beyond ourselves, but what we bring back can alone illuminate that which has fallen into forgetful chaos.

Can I Embrace Death?


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I’ve just turned 49. I can hardly believe it. I feel young, often mischievous (close friends call me that) and alert in spirit, and yet, 49 is not considered young in body anymore and the evidence of age is becoming ever more apparent in my skin and around my eyes.

I’ve also noticed that as I’ve moved further into my forties, ageing, sickness and death have moved into my consciousness much more.

In March this year, I was forced to look ageing, illness and death straight in the eye with the death of my beloved aunt – a kind, patient and generous person (modest too) – aged 79. My aunt was like a second mum to my sister and I. She didn’t have a family of her own and was very much a part of our childhood, supporting my single mum and often holidaying with us.

During the last two years of her life she suffered unbearable emotional and physical pain, endured endless operations and was in and out of hospital. Despite a strong will to live, her body could not take any more.

I got a call from my mother just before Easter, saying that I needed to come. I was just about to go on a two-week retreat in the Scottish Highlands but I changed plans, booked a flight to Germany and went straight to hospital from the airport. I got to spend the final hours with her, witnessing her last breath just after 5am – something I’ll never forget. She was gone forever.

Death as we all know, is the one certainty we all share in life and yet it is something we find very uncomfortable to sit with, to talk about.

Can we find a way to turn towards that which many of us consider the most intolerable and painful experiences in life – ageing, sickness and death – with an open heart-mind? They are, after all, experiences that we all have to face – whether we want it or not.

Would we find it easier to talk about ageing and death if we learnt to relax into and accept that the life is a process, a continuous cycle of becoming and ceasing, embedded in a larger cosmic cycle of life and death.

Seeing my aunt’s suffering caused me enormous emotional pain. It also taught me a lot about myself. I discovered that the distress that I was experiencing came from not wanting to accept her suffering and from not knowing how to tolerate the unbearable. I wanted it my way; I wanted my aunt to be well again, I didn’t want her to suffer. I didn’t want to suffer seeing her suffering.

When I was able to see things as they were, when I was able to sit and see my aunt’s sick and decaying body, and the presence of her nearing death for what it was, I felt something in me relax and soften, which helped me to turn towards the experience with patience. I was then able to offer a loving attitude towards my own pain and discomfort in the midst of the unbearable.

Taking responsibility for one’s death

My aunt’s death was also a wakeup call for me to reflect on my own death and to begin to take responsibility for it.

My aunt had no will and this caused much difficulty for my family.

Shortly after my aunt’s death, I made an appointment with a solicitor to make a will. I asked two of my closest friends to become my executors. I asked another friend whether she would be willing to lead my memorial service. I decided to be simply buried in a green burial – to dissolve back into nature.

By taking responsibility for my death, I must face up to the fact that I too will die, that I too may suffer from sickness, that I too may need care, that I too will leave a life and affairs behind for others to deal with.

Taking responsibility for our own death is a tremendous gift to ourselves and to the people we leave behind.

Accepting the life/death cycle – turning towards what is intrinsic and inevitable in life, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen; to feel enriched and empowered by the cycle of life and death we are all born into.

seventysomething: Time Lapse


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Pile of photos

Today, I feel the need, I’m sure you understand, to retreat into a safe haven of my childhood. I used to love to sit on the blue carpet in the living room and rifle through the wide, shallow drawer at the bottom of the breakfront where photographs were casually tossed. This was before the iPhone, before digital files, when photos were both more and less important than they are now. Some black and whites were lovingly mounted with adhesive corners into leather-bound albums and labelled in my sister’s hand…Susie 1947, mother and daddy behind the counter in the family antique store 1952.

Read the full story here: seventysomething: Time Lapse

Nursing home looks normal on outside – Inside is designed to be a familiar 1940s neighborhood


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The Lantern of Chagrin Valley, located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio is only one of three amazing facilities designed specifically for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. report this ad Designed to look like small houses with porches leading out to a golf course, the living facility feels like a community in the 1940s. With incredible attention to […]

Read the full story here: Nursing home looks normal on outside – Inside is designed to be a familiar 1940s neighborhood

Life in the Slow Lane.


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About six years ago I joined one of those jokey, purposeless Facebook groups. We never meet up, we never do anything fun, we never did anything except bitch about how slow tourists walk. The group was called, “Get out of my way. I walk faster than you.” I think mainly geared at people going to Oxford Street, thinking it’s a good idea at the time, and emerging from the tube into an unmoving throng of people moving slowly, eating, texting, or pointing at planes.

I was the one totally not understanding why anyone under 80, with no bad health problems, would not do the left side of the escalator, the walking up the steps side. I was thinking, don’t you want to get out of the Hogarthian miasma of tube hell asap, don’t you want to join the huddled masses queuing for ill fitting bras at Primark, cos they are cheap? What I was noticing was that a lot of people on the left, walking side of the escalator were wearing fitfuckinbits. Trying to clock up their steps so they could feel scientifically fit at the end of a day. Wankers. The whole point of the left side is to get out of the tube faster, not to work your quads. The right side, the standers, OK if they had big suitcases, OK if they had mobility problems, OK if they had small children ( very OK, my son was horrifically injured as a child, going up the fast lane, where the moving steps swallowed one of his finger tips when he fell). Other than that, why?

But now, I see the world as a very slow walker, on crutches. I hate that I can’t get anywhere fast. The five minute sprint to Tesco Metro is now a 40 minute round trip ordeal, always ending in tears, addictive painkillers, and a bag of frozen peas (not to be eaten, but placed on gimpy foot) People are treating me as a proper old lady. Cars at zebra crossings actually stop as I hobble across the road, in the time it would take to say, move to North Dakota, raise five children and train as a rocket scientist. If I have carry a shopping basket, with the crutches, the surly, stoned guys on minimum, now security guards, will follow me around with the basket as I plunk in my embarrassing purchases – ice lollies, a trashy magazine featuring stories like “I thought I had tummy ache. Then I gave birth to sextuplets in the car park at Homebase, without ever realising I was pregnant” and frozen veg which will not be eaten but placed on swollen, post operative foot.

Is there any good news about being forced to slow down? Yes. You have to stop to rest every now and then cos walking on crutches is basically walking on your hands, full body weight transferred to your upper half, which in my case is fly weight. This means you get to overhear all the mobile phone conversations people have at bus stops. True sample: “I never. ( pause) No I never. She got proper trashed and wound up in the bus garage in Sarf London, and I was like, I didn’t abandon you mate, you puked on my Guess dress, I was like so outta there. I was like all sexy for my date and then he was like sorry love you smell of sick… I fuckin hate when that happens.”

And it makes me glad to not be young anymore. To listen to this stuff instead of live it. And people are kinder when you walk slow, on crutches. They don’t do irritated faces. They do “Take your time, love” gestures, and I do. I hobble over to the corner shop and buy old lady things, like Bigga processed peas and Smash. Open a tin. Just add water. This is the extent of my cookery skills, on crutches. The drug dealers who piss and smoke crack on the stairs say “Mate, you should take the lift” which is about right. I listen to The Archers. It makes more sense on crutches. I don’t know why. I shuffle over to the balcony on nice days and watch people wilfully ignore their pit bulls shitting on our few patches of grass and I think, oh wow I have crutches, I can do that think of pointing and shaking my crutch and shouting “Oi, I see you. I see Jay Z there dumping his crap on our greenery. Pick up after your dog, you lazy sod.” Except I don’t as I am only temporarily crippled and will have to face them again in real life again, when they will kill me. Life in the slow lane is different. It’s like playing a role that may be your real future life. I would take time to smell the roses but there aren’t any around here. Instead, I stand on the balcony in my unwashed dressing gown and watch the blue tins of extra strong brew sparkle like diamonds in the grass. Then I shuffle back indoors, place some frozen veg on my feet, neck a couple of Co Codamol and wait for sleep.

Redefining the Spiritual Journey…


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‘Spiritual life begins when seeking fails.’ Adi Da Samraj 

The freshness of the day glinted through the window, navigating its way through the small opening and spreading out like a fan made of silken butter, over the sheets and into my caress. I wanted to marvel at its honeyed wonder, but was instead wrestling a demonic hangover. One of the dread trials of the dependent drinker is waking. A febrile and sweaty worry greets the day, the only compensation being that it doesn’t matter if it’s rain or shine although rain does not carry with it the same burden of guilt; the guilt of time about to be wasted, already spent.

It takes time to be able to meet any day after drinking and even in the hours before the first eye opens warily upon that day, a nightmarish fear would take me over in the dusky threshold between two worlds. I imagined that I did not have to wake as at sixteen – yes I was only sixteen – a familiar heart-thumping dread was hanging low in my belly and was about to climb into my chest. Generally, I turned over and tried sleep again.

Unconsciousness is always preferable to the alcoholic. If only I knew then how lucky I was and that my fear was only of my parents’ hostility and not yet the terror of waking in a soaked bed, occasionally with someone I had never clapped eyes on, with the sure knowledge of recent disgrace. Blackouts are useful but do not save one from repercussions, aftermaths and consequences.

But this, I soon remembered, was a big day, not one whose preparation best required a night on the town. I was about to be confirmed. Sweetly, a girlfriend and I had sought to cement our union before it was whipped away from us and it seemed right to have God’s blessing whether or not we believed. In a sense my two addictions had dovetailed neatly, drinking and love, yet this ceremony hinted at a purer wine, one that I desperately needed but was too young to understand.

I emerged and was, fairly, greeted with a certain frostiness. Relatives were coming, godparents, friends. I was looking bilious and quickly needed to find my sea legs before nestling into the backseat of a 40-minute car journey, hoping that I could sense the earth and see the road. It wasn’t long before we were pulling over. I flung the door open, threw up and crawled back inside, not green any more but white. It didn’t give me the sort of virginal innocence that could have elicited sympathy and we pulled up at the cathedral, soon all smiles after a lengthy silence, as the more sincere religious among us found us in the crowd.

The service stretched before me like some accursed desert, dry to the mouth and interminable, no oases yet an ending some way down the road. If I looked up into the cathedral vaults I got vertigo; if I looked down a wrenching sickness I struggled to hold down. The bishop, looking fine in his regalia, his fish-hat faintly ridiculous, his purple robes rippling under a moted shaft of sunlight. It was way too hot and he seemed to go on and on. Finally, it was my turn and I knelt before him, fighting hard to keep the dread blend of bitter and lager within my body. Rarely had I struggled so hard or had to endure so much. I got away with it – just. For years afterwards, I saw images of a jolly fat man in a fishy hat and a purple dress sprayed with projectile vomit, a thousand-strong congregation dashing for the exit. I often had the sense of getting away with it by a whisker, making light of my revelry in order to avoid the pain that drove it.

Outside, in the lee of the building that I loved and had attended every day while at school, I managed to pose for photographs, and introduce two families. We returned home for the celebration and I retired to bed exhausted and sick. Everyone wondered where I was and excuses were duly made. It was not my finest hour and while mostly I drank away from my family there were occasions like this one when it was out in the open.

I threw up in spectacular fashion that same year on a boat across Niagara, my sea legs more needed yet less available than ever. It was a pattern that progressed for another ten years, almost fatally. At 26, I was done and almost at once catapulted out of this shadow aspect – the addict – into the land of the lover. He had long lurked underneath the pain and chaos that drove me. I was, in short, a natural devotee and, as my focus turned 180 degrees I discovered that alcohol is called spirit for a reason. Like a drunken native American in many a western, I had been robbed of the conditions I needed to thrive, and so my spirit went underground emerging like a mad genie in a bottle.

It is nearly 28 years since I stopped drinking and began the search for what really ailed me and what I really wanted. I rarely think about it now except occasionally to give thanks. There are countless stories these days of ‘recovery’ with people wrapping themselves tightly in their new identity. It can be an important phase, yet as the ego calms down one that needs to pass, in my view, and life met again. So this is not really a story about drinking at all, but of a search.

When I was 18, a school friend – actually a girl I hardly knew who not long after died of cancer – gave me a copy of The Magus by John Fowles. It was my introduction to mysticism and it bore a quotation from Little Gidding by TS Eliot: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Eight years later when I came to, I fell in love with Taoism and Zen Buddhism and came to realise that I lived in a patriarchal culture where the effortless being that I was reading about – the feminine qualities of love and relatedness – had been driven out by a tyrannical masculinity that wanted only money, power and control. Later, as I explored Jung, I saw there was an evolutional power in the universe that sought wholeness and integration of the duelling opposites both within the world and in the psyche.

Slowly, as the fog cleared, I realised that the conscious life was meant to reflect the wholeness of the Self, which could only be achieved by doing the work of integration, which meant dredging up the long buried contents of my unconscious, facing my shadow – both its darker and more golden aspects – and making peace with it.

It is a monumental work and so often traumatic events are the springboard that propel our seeking. Without pain, where is the spur? Some people are drawn to the essence of love, to what Rumi calls the root of the root of loving, a place where all other desires have been seen through, cleared away. I realised, with a start, that my longing made me a mystic and that I would never be satisfied by the rewards of society.

‘Love draws us back to love, and longing is the fire that purifies us,’ writes the Sufi master Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Andrew Harvey, another mystic, recommends a good nervous breakdown in your 20s to propel you out of what he calls Stage Two, where we settle for the reward and bribes of the culture, continually fulfilling the false needs of the false self.

My breakdown had been spectacular, my false self – that scaffold we erect to stave off the wounds of childhood – utterly ruptured and a beam of light had hit me between the eyes, smack in the third eye. A portal had opened, my longing had found its proper context. I was a natural mystic and I wanted soul union and that was that. My ego, however, had other ideas.

I was given to over-indulgence in sensual pleasures and was charged with the task of embracing both my humanity and my divinity. I felt in exile all of my life, but again realised without that sense of exile, of not be-longing, I would never have had sufficient longing to travel the journey I have.

That journey took me into living in various communities, becoming a travel writer, re-training as a therapist, studying with different spiritual teachers, travelling to India to study yoga and meditation, finally becoming an initiate of an ancient inner mystical pathway that showed me clearly that the physical world is a realm of reflected light – all its pleasures and pains cul-de-sacs and dead ends that herald our awakening.

The light of pure consciousness can only be found in the heart by turning within. Like everyone else, I spent years looking in this world of reflected light, chasing shadows. Alcohol was only one dead end. There are many others of course: work, sex, food, drugs, gambling, success, achievement. Remarkably, on a bad day I still fall into some of the same old traps.

‘When you extend yourself frenetically outwards, seeking refuge in your external image or role, you are going into exile. When you come patiently and silently home to yourself, you come into unity and belonging,’ wrote the late Catholic priest John O’Donohue.

We are all addicted to exteriorizing our lives, living in our false selves or egos. The more pain we carry, the more we live outside ourselves, for the first thing we encounter within is our distress. Ask any therapy client.

Somehow, we have to learn to be displeasing to ourselves. One of the great deficiencies of The New Age is its emphasis only on love and light and its denial of the shadow. The ego always wants pleasure without pain, happiness and high vibrations linked together in some happy clappy harmony. But I like the dark as well as the light, sadness as well as joy, pleasure and pain. Freedom is letting go of the need to feel good all the time.

If you notice, most of the many programmes for self improvement – often costly – are popular precisely because they appeal to the false self which is predicated on the belief that there is something wrong with us that needs changing. In a sense that is true, but it is the false self itself that is erroneous. There is nothing wrong with our true nature, but most of us are not living in it.

As it says in Alcoholics Anonymous, self will cannot overcome self will. Instead the will has to be surrendered, the false self relinquished entirely not improved. Yet of course, like everything else in this realm of reflected light, the game goes on and people keep buying it. It is, after all, what makes the world go round.

I realised there is nothing wrong with the game just so long as you know it is a game. I have my own place within the game and yet I know it is not real. Success and failure are both impostors.

Finally, seeking is seen through and starts to wind down and then we are in a place of unknowing.

For a time, I followed the teacher quoted at the start of this piece. He said this: ‘The childish individual wants someone to save him; the adolescent wants to fulfil himself absolutely and independently. The true man simply serves good company and surrenders to Truth, the living God.’

I can be in any or all of those states in any one day and I find that quote a good and true barometer for my being. Today, I am doing the deepest inner work of my life, which involves facing more pain yet I know it is not real and that the veils between worlds are parting.

‘Do not stray into the neighbourhood of despair for there are hopes: they are real, they exist. Do not go in the direction of darkness – I tell you, suns exist.’ Rumi was referring to his experience with his own spiritual teacher, Shams of Tabriz, the sun that eviscerated Rumi’s darkness.

In some ways, the 16-year-old boy that I was has come a long way; in another sense, no way at all. For in truth there is no journey, although the mind can only conceive life so, only a gentle swerve into an innate rhythm long forgotten that waits patiently for its own rediscovery.

TS Eliot had it right.

© simon heathcote

 

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