Book - Healing the Soul wound

Healing the soul wound - Review by Barry Goddard

It is an axiom of modern psychotherapy, that who we are is to a large extent shaped by our parents and by our upbringing. It is a cause-and-effect relationship that you can spend years exploring in therapy. There is just one problem, which is that I don’t think it’s true. At least, not nearly to the extent that we are led to believe.
I first encountered this counter-notion some years ago through the Jungian psychotherapist James Hillman. He said that psychotherapy is predicated on the idea that the earlier an event occurred in life, the more deeply it has shaped us. He said maybe that is not true. More recently, I read Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption in which, using pre-existing research papers, she showed that parents have far less influence over who we become than is normally assumed. She is limited, though, by her own very modern assumption that who we are is determined purely by DNA and environment. In her later book No Two Alike, she ties herself in knots when trying to explain the sometimes big differences between identical twins raised in the same family.
As a result of these ideas, I have made a deliberate point of backing off from explanations of who I am in terms of my parents and upbringing. Sure, I can find explanations of, say, my anxiety, in terms of my father or my mother or my boarding school, all or any of these. Our minds are creative, they make up stories, and that is what these explanations are: stories. They may or may not be truly explanatory. It can be hard to know.
I think the ‘childhood shapes you’ axiom tends to confuse correlation with causation. Cause and effect is a particular explanatory approach that works well for science. But I don’t think it works so well in the much broader field of the psyche. Synchronicity is, I think, a better model. There is, maybe, a synchronicity between your parent’s marriage and the way your own relationships have turned out. It is useful to take their marriage into account, don’t get me wrong. But it needs to be held lightly. There is an essential, defining mystery to who you are in relationships that has nothing to do with your parents or anyone else.
I am not even talking about not blaming our parents for who we are. I am assuming we have gone beyond that. There is a subtler level, where just the fact of explaining who we are in terms of parental influence can still be limiting.
By relegating this childhood-as-cause axiom, we may rob ourselves of explanations of how we came to be who we are, and therapists of their livelihood. But it gives us our soul back. We are no longer the product of something external to ourselves, lost in the mists of early childhood. Our soul becomes fully our own again, demons and all.
Who we are is a mystery. Life needs to be lived close to that mystery, which psychological explanations can take us away from. The 7th century Bishop Paulinus, in his attempt to convert King Edwin of Northumberland to Christianity, likened human life to a sparrow flying through the feasting hall. It was there for just a brief time. Where it flew in from, and where it would fly out to, were a mystery. Who and what we are is surrounded by mystery.
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And yes, we do have demons that turn up and torment us. Coming into relationship with them is an important part of life. It is, if you like, the central moral quest. It requires honesty and humility and the ability to bear discomfort, without reaching, too often, for the sticking plasters of alcohol, relationships, chocolate, porn or whatever it is we use. Note I say not ‘too often’: we need to be human and forgiving, as well as demanding, of ourselves.
We have, perhaps, become soft in modern life. Amongst Native Americans, the teenage boys were sent into the wilderness naked, with just a blanket, for four days, seeking a vision for their lives. (There was an Elder looking out for them, but they didn’t know that.) Contrast this attitude with some US States, where it is now illegal to let your children play outside unsupervised.
They also had the Sweatlodge, in which the proud young warriors were prostrated by the heat. And they had the Sundance, in which the flesh was pierced with sticks, and you danced until you tore the sticks out of your flesh. As you surrender to the suffering, so does a deeper relationship with the Spirit open up. For all its bloody and fundamentalist history, Christianity, with its image of the crucifix, spirit being nailed to matter, also understood this. There is a joy and meaning to be found in this encounter with the Spirit that goes far deeper than the contentment experienced through the satisfaction of desire. It is also the difficult but ecstatic path between the East (Spirit) and West (the Body) of the Medicine Wheel. In Astrology, it is Capricorn, the imprisonment in matter of the spirit sign of Sagittarius, as well as the traditional yearly sacrifice of the old king to ensure the fertility of the land.
We are robust, we are ‘anti-fragile’, a term that has been invented to counter our modern cosseting. It is important for our Spirit that we find what we can bear. For we have to bear a lot if we are to grow, to create that deep foundation in ourselves that only the ability to stay with our demons can create.
There is always something to bear, that is the nature of life. But it is not just about being stoic. There is insight into the nature of things to be found, as well as a creative relationship with that which troubles us.
A more indigenous attitude to our demons is to view them as not essential to ourselves, but as visitors belonging to the universe with which we need to come into relationship. I first encountered this approach in the work of Native American writers Lewis Mehl-Madrona (Coyote Medicine) and Jungian analyst Eduardo Duran (Healing the Soul Wound.)
Eduardo Duran works with Native Americans, for whom alcoholism is often the issue. He begins with a bit of smudge and ceremony to create the spirit context, and then asks the person to see the alcoholism as a spirit that comes to visit them, and to introduce themself to it. This simple step, he says, immediately changes their relationship with the bottle.
I have been taking this approach myself with anxiety. Certain practical money situations can make me extremely anxious, out of all proportion to even the worst possible outcomes. I have stopped trying to explain and thereby mitigate this response through examining my childhood. Ax a result, I feel I own it more now: the simple fact is that I have this response, wherever it comes from. Explanations are ideas, and as such can take me away from experience.
Sometimes, on my own in the evening, the anxiety can consume me. It sits there like jagged lightning in my guts. And then I remember it doesn’t have to be in control. And I begin to see it as a figure over on my right: the Horseman of the Apocalypse, a mounted guy in armour. There is humour in this – and humour helps create proportion and perspective – because it is as if the end of the world is coming, and of course it isn’t, not remotely.
Lately a teenage boy has been clambering out of his armour and off the horse, and I have been embracing him for a while. I am the father that reassures him that the world is not coming to an end. Much as he likes this, it is not his habitual way of being, and after a while he starts wanting his armour back on. So off he goes and becomes the horseman again. These things take time, and you have to leave the familiar its place. Don’t frighten the horses, as they say!
But I can feel my anxiety response slowly changing through this inner work, through encountering this spirit and becoming intimate with it. It is slowly enabling me to feel that I can stand fully upright and confident in the world in a way I have never done (not that it is obvious to most people who know me that underneath I can feel unsure of myself in this way!)
There is the well-known Leonard Cohen line, that there is a crack in everything where the light gets in. That is what these demons are: gateways to the soul. Through staying with them over time, at least occasionally, and getting to know them, not trying to reduce them to just a childhood trauma (without denying the reality of that), a mysterious alchemy gradually occurs, that enlarges us, that centres us in who, in a sense, we always were. It is not ourselves that does the changing. Who are we to know the purpose of these demons, or to judge them? They are what they are. Our job is simply to get close to them so that Spirit can do its work.
Sometimes I’m asked to do a bit of Soul Retrieval work for people. It is typically to help people address some troublesome bit of themselves, that stops their life working in a functional way. Sometimes I will say yes, if I have the feeling to do so. But it is always in the context of people becoming closer to themselves over time, and the Soul Retrieval is in order to give that process a bit of a nudge. I like to spend time getting to know the person first. I really don’t like the idea of someone turning up, me ‘fixing’ them with a Soul Retrieval, and then they go. Even two or three sessions isn’t enough. I can’t rule out that way of working very occasionally. But as a model, it is very superficial. It makes me roll my eyes. I think the major change happens through long-term relationships with people, and it is a 2 way process, both of us transform. Most Soul Retrieval, as we call it, happens spontaneously and incrementally. It is a gift from Spirit that comes from living closely to ourselves on a day-to-day basis.

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