Over the next few days, I'll be sharing the story of an afternoon I spent with a woman who was struggling with overwhelming feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, and despair. She had dedicated the last decade to spiritual practice and community and had come to a real turning point in her life.
While details have been changed to protect the identity of this courageous person, I have been asked by several readers of my book, The Path Is Everywhere, to share this story which was originally published in the book's Appendix ("The Love That Assembled the Stars").
Before printing the story in The Path - and again before sharing it here - I received permission (and the blessing) to do so, from the woman who is the subject of the encounter. I hope you find her journey inspiring, interesting, and helpful.
A Love That Assembled the Stars, part 1 of 3
I spoke recently with a friend who shared with me how her spiritual life had given her so much: the many ways it had helped her open her heart and experience a depth that she had been longing for since she was a young girl. She had also become aware of how her engagement with spirituality, in subtle ways, enabled her to avoid aspects of her emotional life and unmet pain from the past and kept her split off from feelings she did not want to feel.
While her practices at times brought her closer to herself, which she was deeply grateful for, she saw that at other times she was actually using them to escape from herself and abandon some of her most vulnerable experience. She was in such a raw place with it all: such appreciation on the one hand while also knowing that she needed to look anew at everything, be willing to start over fresh with beginner’s mind and the amateur’s heart, as she was being called deeper. I just listened … and felt honored to be able to bear witness to such intelligence, such unfolding wisdom, such genuine passion for the truth, such darkness, such raging light.
As she continued her inquiry in the relational field unfolding around us as we sat together, she noticed some grief that she had touched at an earlier point in her life but, for whatever reason, had not been able to stay with at the time, and as a result had covered it over along the way. As the grief (and accompanying shame and sadness) poured out, it was like a firestorm of energetic possibility, all of this unmetabolized material in her psyche and in her heart, unleashed in an eruption of reorganization.
She wasn’t sure she could do this; she would dive in for a couple of minutes and then retreat, only to head back in once she felt it was safe enough to return into the fire. I told her I knew she could go deeper, that I trusted the intelligence of her process, and assured her we would stay close regardless of what appeared, with no shame, no blame, and no pathologizing what emerged into the holding environment we had found ourselves in together.
We made the commitment to go wherever she was guided, into the utter darkness and emptiness if that was what was required, into the black hole inside her that she was beginning to touch, as well as into the light that was attempting to break through. We would dare together to hold all of her symptoms and experiences as pure information and guidance, honoring them as the attempt by her psyche and her heart to reach her and reveal wholeness. While she had quite a bit of doubt and fear about how much she could actually hold, I felt confident that she could tolerate and contain a lot more. She trusted that I would push her in a way that was provocative and on the edge, but not so far that she tipped into overwhelm or fell too far outside her established window of tolerance. I explained that, in my experience, confronting anxiety, groundlessness, and uncertainty could be supportive as long as we stayed close and attuned in real time to what was unfolding. She remained unsure and shaky, acknowledging that some fear was present. But somehow she kept going.
As she allowed her experience to unfold and remain for short periods of time inside the core of the intensity, things slowed way down in a way neither of us fully understood and she touched something she had not quite known before. Something new was emerging from deep within her body and her unconscious apart from what had historically revealed itself. In this place, she discovered a cosmic sort of permission in which she could allow herself to go into the unknowing, despite the fear, and allow herself to fall apart a little, removing the pressure to hold it all together and maintain any image or idea of herself. This felt somewhat risky, but despite the trepidation she was curious and almost excited. For the first time, she was able and willing to see clearly the ways that she did not feel seen and loved at the most primordial level. She had thought she had been to the depths of this wounding and was surprised to find even more. And even more.
And so it goes on the path of love … always more. We realized together that there is no ending to the depth of the heart. No final landing place in which all of its wisdom has been given. Always another layer, another revelation.
She sensed that it was possible for her to meet and directly experience these long lost soul-parts of grief, hurt, unlovability, and abandonment—and that until she worked through this material in a deeply somatic way, the realizations she had experienced would always remain on the surface, never able to fully penetrate her most deeply embedded conditioning and somatic armoring. As part of her inquiry, she also had a deeply embodied intuition that she could never truly love another until she offered a home and sanctuary where the perceptions, emotions, and bodily sensations could become conscious and be illuminated in her loving awareness. She saw so clearly how this yet-to-be-metabolized material was not and had never been “obstacles” to her healing and awakening but each a certain type of ally on the path. As she continued to share all of this with me, I couldn’t help feeling such awe and love for her, for her (our) journey, and for the immensity and implications of what it truly means to be a human being.
As she continued to open—not all at once, but in many short bursts, followed by periods of quiet and rest—she discovered that she could meet this ancient sorrow directly rather than orbiting it by focusing solely on her thoughts about it. And that it took a lot of awareness and concentration to make this discernment in her immediate experience. What appeared as “moving closer” was often not that, but more of a conceptual approach to her experience that was still serving to keep her out of the fire and at a distance.
As we went deeper into this, she discerned that she could practice intimacy with her feelings while not falling inside them, not tumbling down the rabbit hole, and not becoming fused or identified with them as who she was in an ultimate sense. Intimacy, without fusing—that was the alchemy she was exploring. She was experimenting with sending awareness and warmth into what was happening in her body at the level of felt sense and raw sensation, and how these affective and somatic experiences colored her perception by way of a subtle narrative that grew around them.
Additionally, she had deep insight into how these various levels of experience (perception/emotion/sensation) intertwined and interpenetrated one another. Without our conscious awareness, they tend to fall into a looping pattern, playing off one another, on automatic pilot with a seeming life of their own. But as she slowed down and made experiential contact with each level of the spectrum, something else revealed itself. What this was we could not name, necessarily, but it seemed to catalyze a wave of freedom, as well as compassion for the tender complexity of the human experience. More than anything, more than needing to pin it down into some conceptual framework, at least for this moment, we wanted to touch the mystery of what she was in its entirety. A partial communion was just not going to do. Not for her!
In some ways, what she was encountering was so very personal, but in other ways she was touching the sorrow that dwells in the collective, that all sentient beings have met at some point. In this way, inner work is never for the individual alone and is intergenerational and transpersonal in its implications, reaching back into the past and forward into the future to untangle the knots of the cosmic heart and reveal greater meaning and purpose.
As she continued her exploration in an embodied way, descending beneath the density of the narrative about why the sorrow was there, who caused it, how it originated, and the urgency around transforming it, she began to cry, shake, and tremble. Her breath became shallow and she was struggling to hold it all together. Something was reorganizing and she wasn’t sure she would make it through to the other side. Even though she was feeling anxious and fearful, I reminded her to breathe deeply and ground her awareness into the earth, and that together we could go a bit further. At times she pulled back and we rested together, feeling our feet on the ground, looking up at the sky, listening to the birds nearby. When she approached that place of near overwhelm and shutdown, we would stop the active part of the work, sink into the sensual world together, look at one another, and reaffirm that everything was actually okay—and then she would return into the fire.
Memories streamed in of when she was a little girl, gazing out the window while her mother and father drove away, leaving her alone and helpless at a young age. “You’ll be fine,” Mom admonished; “Stop being such a baby,” said Dad. She remembered wondering what she had done wrong to cause them to abandon her, to reject her, and to need to spend private time without her. She saw images of herself crying in her bedroom, totally alone, longing to be touched, to be seen, to be held, and to be validated as a unique, living, breathing being. It was the most profound feeling of existential aloneness and despair.
After staying with her deep sadness and grief, we were both a little shocked as these feelings yielded to a wild, untamed sort of rage at consistently being discarded and unseen. In an instant she went from sorrowful and sweet and transformed into Kali, goddess of the dark. There must be something she was doing wrong that triggered her sense of core rejection but she couldn’t quite pin it down. The only truth she could access was that no one was listening. No one wanted to listen because she was so wretched and unlovable as she was. The rage intensified in the wake of this perception.
“Where the fuck was everyone?” she yelled. “And by the way, where the fuck are they now?” She thrashed around and screamed at the top of her lungs, all the while eyeing me carefully to see if I would reject her, invalidating her rage, shame, blame, and turn from her, which had been the pattern in her family during times of emotional intensity. As I discussed earlier in the book, in our families or origin there were certain feelings and ways of expression that were allowed and others that were strictly forbidden. In some families, for example, anger was okay, but not sadness; in others, the expression of dependency led to anxiety and disruption, while showing independence was honored and rewarded. We learned (often the hard way) that certain emotions, styles of vulnerability, and personality structures were safe and led to increased affection and attunement while others were disastrous, triggering withdrawal and profound anxiety in those around us, leading to aggression, rejection, and neglect of all kinds.
In this particular case, she was never allowed to be angry or sad, or to create any sense of disturbance. Dad was too busy with work and Mom was an alcoholic and depressed. Any emotional expression was treated as an attack on the family, and asserting any sort of need was interpreted as an utter lack of gratitude for everything they’d given her. She learned that retreating to her bedroom and burying her feelings was her only chance to stay safe in an environment that was simply not able to contain the intensity of a fragile little girl. The sensitivities get buried, the vulnerability squashed, the emotional intelligence thwarted. It’s not difficult to see the untoward consequences of such dismissal in our lives and in our world today.
Fortunately, she felt safe enough, held enough, and heard enough to continue, though I wasn’t sure where we were headed. This is always a very delicate time in relational work, when the unknown is clearly in charge, something is breaking through, and there is no clear road map to follow. Psyche is clearly in the lead. During these times, which are liminal in nature and feel as if we are in between birth and death, the intensity can become too much and the temptation is to quickly return to safe ground, a natural response to prevent disintegration and re-traumatization. To fill the space with some meaningless conversation, to cover over the embarrassment, rage, fear, and despair, anything to counteract the open nakedness of the groundless ground.
While there is some intelligence guiding the process of when to pull back and turn from the intensity, at the same time dousing the fire too soon can interfere with the unfolding of some very high-voltage guidance and information, where who we are at the deepest levels is trying to break through an old internal working model of partiality and reorganize in a way that is more integrated and a more transparent reflection of our wisdom nature.
Again, it is uncertain, complex, and contradictory territory, and it doesn’t easily yield to conceptual analysis and the timelines we have laid upon the healing journey. Unless we’re careful and in very close touch with what is appearing for integration, we can unconsciously remove ourselves from the cauldron, defending against and splitting off from the jewels that are attempting to emerge from the darkness. It is so easy and natural to slip into distractions of all kinds at this point and it is helpful to remind one another of this tendency and renew our commitment to stay in the fire, if we can.
Continued tomorrow …
My new book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available
The next event, The Magic of Being Fully Human, to be held in Ojai, CA on October 14-15.