Richard Chadek | Blog
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Trauma and Power

These days I’ve been aware of how important it is to distinguish what’s going on around us—whatever the state the world is in—from what’s going on within us—the state we’re in. 

In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of the moon and the lake to point at this.  And for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t read my January 2019 post, imagine you’re sitting on the shore of a mountain lake.  It’s summer, it’s warm, the sun is going down, not a cloud in the sky.  Just now, the moon begins to rise and as it’s rising you see a reflection of it on the surface of the lake in front of you.  The lake is so still, the moon’s reflection so precise, that it’s visually impossible to tell which is which. And then some kid down the shore kerplunks an enormous rock into the lake and we say goodbye to that illusion.

But if we pay attention, we see the presence of illusion all around us. After all, there is a world out there, but the only way we know anything about it is because of its reflection on the surface of the lake that’s inside us. Whenever our lake is quiet, we get a pretty accurate representation—or let me say re-presentation—of what’s out there. But when we’re anxious or afraid or perhaps a bit panicked, not so much. We end up seeing the disturbed waters more than the world reflected in them.

The bad, as well as the good, news here is this: there’s a kid in here with us who regularly throws rocks in our water.

I’ll tell you a little story by way of illustration.  One night recently, as my wife and I were lying in bed, talking about the days we’d had, which of us was on dog duty in the morning and who was going for groceries, Dianne said “You know, I just haven’t felt well all day.  I’ve got this headache, and my chest is tight and—I don’t know—I just have this sense that something’s not right.”  Given the world we’re in these days, it wasn’t exactly good sleep hygiene to hear this, and I’m sure my brow furrowed, but a little while later I found myself drifting off to sleep. 

The next morning, I got up early and sat with my cup of tea and my dog watching the dawn and the birds at the feeder. But my heart and mind weren’t open to the scene before me. I continued my worry from the night before: does Dianne have this virus? In the online news feed I turn to for distraction I see the stock market falling, there’s enormous confusion whether we can afford to go back into lock-down or whether we can afford not to, a chaotic election is nearly here, the bridge I use between the ferry terminal and Seattle is closed—maybe forever and the rent on the office I cannot use is coming due.   Seemingly out of nowhere it occurs to me I haven’t actually touched anyone I’m not married to for months.

Then, because this is part of the work I do with my clients, I ask myself: Richard, what are you feeling right now? And I say: Good God, my mind is just racing. My whole body is tight like a fist.  I’m only breathing into my throat. I don’t know whether to run, screaming, into the woods or fall, weeping, to my knees. I feel helpless and overwhelmed and alone.

And because this is also what I do with my clients, I ask: And what’s all that like?

And you know what it’s like? It’s just like it was, growing up in my family, with an alcoholic father: I’m confused and I don’t know who to trust and what’s happening is just too big for me to let it all in.

It’s at that point that I take a deep breath. I feel how much like my younger self I feel and how different a thing that is than the man I also am, in the year 2020. And even though I know I cannot know what’s going to happen, I understand that it’s OK, as the man I am, to be uncertain or even confused. The tightness in my chest and the knot in my back start to relax.

But I hadn’t actually been aware of this younger version of me emerging. I just sort of became it. Every one of us has experienced things that have been too big for the person we were to take in, whether it was a divorce or having to move, repeatedly, to a new home or having a parent that couldn’t be their best when we needed them to be. We all learned ways of titrating that experience in order to simply endure it, either by running from it, or closing ourselves down or exploding in rage.  And whenever we come upon events that are big like that now, we stop seeing them as they are. Instead we re-experience who we were, then.  Or said another way, that kid kerplunks our lake.

In the beautiful and terrible way of these things, the capacities we may have developed in all the years since those first overwhelming experiences are lost to us.  If we think of power not as the amount of force we can bring to bear upon the world, but rather as our capacity to withstand whatever forces bear down upon us without becoming distorted, it’s the loss of power that results.

There’s something in these troubled times that troubles us in ways which reduce our capacity to tolerate or respond to them. We become younger than we are.  We become captivated by the choppy waters of the lake inside us, seeing less and less of the world as it is. The consequence is that we can’t see the actual present, let alone any possible future.  We only see our past.

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What Life Wants

It doesn’t take much looking, these days, to see problems around us for which there are no easy fixes. In fact, the problems we’re confronting are wickedly complex.  Consider the precarious nature of our ecology, the increasing concentration in our economic system, the lack of equity in so many different realms, the state of politics throughout the world…

Today, the truth is that anybody who wants to know what’s happening to our world can see it.  But, apparently, not everybody wants to know, and none of us can bear knowing it all.  That’s simply the way it is.

Not infrequently I’ll become aware of some symptom of one of these problems—an Orca mother carrying her dead calf for days and days; pictures of people or animals starving to death; the rubble of a neighborhood in a place of war; albatross chicks with stomachs bloated on the plastic lighters and bottle caps their parents mistook for food. I’ll feel a familiar bulge forming behind my heart and, if I’m not paying attention to my intention, the next thing I know I’ll have moved on to something else.

There’s only so much loss we can take before we become saturated with an accumulation of grief and anger and helplessness. 

It’s easy to become frozen or stuck. But that’s not something that happens to us: being stuck is something we have to actively do. Being stuck is a consequence, not so much of what’s taking place ‘out there’, but rather of our saying ‘no’ and turning away from what’s taking place ‘in here’.  

There’s an intelligence in Life, an ability to adapt in ways that ensure survival. That’s why we don’t put our hand on a hot stove more than once.  It’s why we have fear and anger and desire. Obviously, we recognize what feels painful or humiliating or ‘dangerous’.  This is hard wired.

And yet, what do we feel whenever we grow or reach for anything new—like a new job, falling in love, speaking in public about what really matters?  Inevitably, among other things, we feel fear, pain and sometimes even humiliation.

If we say ‘no’ to experiences that make us feel those things, what happens then?  We stop whatever Life wants to be expressed through us.  And Life doesn’t really care about our feeling these things, it just wants to grow and flourish and, when it’s time, let go. 

Our experience of Life wanting what it wants is what I call developmental pressure. It’s rarely comfortable. And turning away from the discomfort of this pressure is one of the most potent forces in the way of what’s trying to emerge, within us individually as well as through the collective culture.

And this would be a force even if we’d had the most loving parents, grew up in communities that actually looked after our well-being and stood by our side as we faced into the great mysteries of adolescence, adulthood and death.

None of us can hold all that’s happening to our world, all that we’re participating in because we live in this time on this planet. We simply are not capable of feeling all that we’d feel if we were to let it in.  Turning away is part of the intelligence of survival. 

And yet…

There’s a paradox here: the pain of these times is actually the result of our love.  Our love of the world and each other.  When we turn from the pain, we also turn away from something essential about loving, and then loving, too, is less accessible to us.

If we are to turn toward the kind of change that’s trying to emerge now, it will surely involve finding a way to turn toward our loving—including the pain that loving involves.

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Being Love

I think it was either Crazy Horse or the Oglala chief Low Dog who said, “Today is a good day to die.” The story we have about this may be apocryphal, but we say whoever said it was facing the battle of the Little Big Horn. Everything of importance was on the line that day and this was his way of surrendering to what his life stood for and to the place that life had brought him.

Now, it’s not like we’re preparing for battle, but I think we’re in circumstances very much like the ones they faced 150 years ago.  Today, everything we hold dear is on the line. And the outcome we hope for is by no means certain. Much that’s irreplaceable is at risk and, no matter which way things go, much will be lost.

Because, let’s face it, this is the month of Valentine’s Day. And if we push past the superficialities of the little heart-shaped candies and the Hallmark sentimentality, this is a day about love. And when we speak of love, it’s a good day to die.

Anyone who’s really committed themselves to a loving relationship will understand me when I say that love is not as much about feeling good as it is about what’s been called love’s harsh need to change us. This kind of change means a part of us dies so something else, something greater, lives.

What we often have in mind when we say love is the experience of being ‘in love’. But if we pay careful attention to what’s happening when we’re in it, we’ll see that ‘in love’ has more to do with us than it has to do with the other. You see, there’s a reason ‘in-love’ is an early-in-the-relationship experience.

When we’re in it, we’re generally making up a story about the other person, one we believe in completely. They’re a perfect fit with whatever we think is ideal or what we think we want.

Or they’re almost perfect.

And whenever we’re with them, everything feels so right.

Until it doesn’t.

That perfect partner turns out to be the kind of man who doesn’t think to pick up after himself. While he may say yes to almost anything, it’s really hard to tell what he’s feeling. And even though it seemed so great spending all that time together when we were dating, now that we live together it seems like there’s just no space.

It’s somewhere around this point in relationships that we usually get started on The Project. This is the project of making the one we’re ‘in love’ with act like someone else, someone we want them to be.  When you think about it, the arc of “in-love” traces a movement from blind acceptance to total intolerance.

Of course, this is just another way of describing what happens as we become intimate. We start seeing—and showing—more and more of how we actually are. Including, of course, our limitations and distortions. And as projection gives way to reality, especially in our culture, it seems like we can’t stop wondering whether or not this partner is actually the right one.

But what if… What if it’s not about finding the right one?  What if it’s about being the right one?  

What if being ‘in-love’ is merely the threshold of being love? After all, when our projections won’t fit, isn’t that the beginning of seeing, with real precision, this other being?  What if it’s this precision—I see you, and I’m not asking you to be something else—that is actually love? 

And what if being love is, among other things, better understood as a spiritual practice? The slow diminishment of me, me, me and its replacement with Thou, Thou, Thou?  What demands, what requirements of ours have to die for that to take place?

What if the aim here isn’t safety or comfort, but sanctuary; if instead of trying to make relationship be a refuge from things that are difficult or painful, we made it a place to bow down, with our partner, to what’s bigger than us?

Here, then, is what Valentine’s day could be: a good day to die.

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