As many of you know, ‘inner work’ is something I believe is central to personal growth and becoming an increasingly whole human being. It is the most important practice in life that I engage with persistently and consistently, and recommend to everyone with whom I work. Life hands us anything and everything, and inner work offers transformational potential; it provides the alchemical way to turn the inner lead into inner gold. For this Field Note I will share a recent personal experience and my related reflections along with some broader implications.
I imagine that the personal aspect of my sharing will resonate for many. You might also consider how this narrative and related reflections may mirror many inner world reactions that lead to personal, relational, and community ruptures, and how inner and relational work can be performed with these experiences.
I went out for a run one morning; a very usual event for me. My end point was to be Granville Island Market, as I wanted to pick up a few food items and buy myself a coffee from my favorite Island cafe. My usual pattern is to run for a certain time frame, using a HIIT (high intensity interval training) pattern, and then to walk back. I usually take a small packable bag, and my credit card and some cash, all in a small clip-on pouch. It was a slightly damp and grey Vancouver day. The run went well and was enjoyable.
When I arrived at the market I walked around a bit, evaluating where I would make my purchases. When I had made my decisions, I had a sudden shock. I had forgotten to pack my small pouch: hence, no money and no credit card. I felt a crushing pang of anxiety, and a flash of knowing that sent a shock wave of realizing something about myself and also about the life experience of those who do not have the usual options that I do. I felt helpless and frightened, like a very vulnerable and young boy, and simultaneously realized that my reaction was well out of proportion to the actual event.
I come from a middle class secularized Jewish background. Growing up I often heard my mother worrying about finances and my father telling her “don’t worry.” Listening to my mother, I believed that at times we were one step from the “poor house” that my mother would predict for us when she was very distressed. At other times, I assumed my father was ‘right’ and didn’t worry. On this particular morning, I arrived at the Market with my father’s attitude, ‘nothing to worry about,’ and in a flash moved into my mother’s sky-is-falling consciousness. I was astonished to witness this rapid flip-flop of my consciousness that precisely reflected the respective templates of my mother and my father. As a child, I internalized what I was witnessing daily: my parents’ modus operandi based on the patterns of their thinking and perceptions, as well as of the dynamic behavioural interactions. What the flip-flop of my consciousness showed me is that I didn’t get to integrate within me the two polarized and polarizing patterns that my parents consistently and persistently represented.
And in seeing how shocked and fearful I was at the discovery of my missing transformational substance, namely money. Russell Lockhart, a Jungian analyst, referred to money as the ultimate transformational material as it can be turned into almost anything. Of course, what it cannot be turned into is love or wisdom, I was aware almost immediately that my reaction was truly a very large reaction, for what was really a very small circumstance!
I did not grow up in poverty, nor did I ever suffer from material deprivation. I have had times in my life where my material world was threatened and at these times I was very anxious, but the reality is that I have never had to sleep on the street, or go without food. I did not suffer these kinds of deprivations. Such has been my privileged life. Nevertheless, my privileged circumstance did not prevent me from experiencing emotional disconnection and misattunement, which led to considerable distress and suffering in my youth and as a young man. In the subsequent years in my emerging professional life, I worked with many people who, coming out of privileged childhood backgrounds of material wealth and social standing, suffered severely in the inner and emotional realm, and in some cases to the point of requiring vigilant and sustained care.
R.D. Laing, the famous Scottish psychiatrist, observed that ‘most all craziness is actually a reasonable response to an untenable situation.’ My morning experience showed me rather clearly the untenable situation experienced by me as a young one, growing up hearing two diametrically opposed viewpoints of my parents. Again, I do not at all wish to compare my experience to the experiences of those who indeed suffered great deprivations, terror, brutalization, and abuse. However, I have seen that the internal experience of repeated absence of attunement to children, no matter how it is manifested, seems to have very similar effects on the recipient; and this seems to be most all of us.
When we go deeply into another person’s experience and reflect how it is in reality the endpoint to all the experiences that came before and that have converged at a moment in time, we are in a better position to understand that person and ourselves. I recall years ago working with a young boy who was diagnosed with some form of paranoia. He was part of an immigrant family who rented a premise, out of which the family business was run. However, the family was also secretly living on these premises, which was not allowed. All his early days were lived in an atmosphere of constant watchfulness and worry about being ‘caught,’ living behind shuttered windows at night, and being suspicious of anyone who could possibly ‘turn them in.’ For him being highly suspicious of people was completely ‘normal’ and sensible. The family’s survival depended on not being caught out. Yet, in the ’view’ of the dominant/dominating medical paradigm he was evaluated as paranoid. For him to be very suspicious of others was not something that he had any developed ability to question.
We are all at our core very sensitive and impressionable, and particularly when we are small and our survival depends on the ‘big people,’ our caregivers. These early experiences form us and our personalities in the service of survival. We tend to believe that how we have turned out is who we truly are, whereas it is these multiple and repetitive early experiences that have shaped the egoic selves, within. The implications of all this for me is that, through ‘catching’ the glimpses of the constructed nature of my self, such that I experienced this particular morning, I can initiate a change process to my constructed self. By knowing my inner world increasingly, I can gradually step out of the pressures that went into constructing this egoic self. I don’t have to be who I have become, and who I am not! However, in order to be my more authentic self, and not my self that was constructed for survival, I have to come to terms with the inner and outer forces that ‘conspire’ to pressure my consciousness to be fearful and not able to separate reality from perceived reality.
At our core, according to many wisdom traditions, is a non-dual consciousness; a consciousness that allows us to see life as it is, accept (not necessarily like) reality, and be open and ready for anything and ready to respond without hesitation in the ways that fit you, others, and the entire context.
When I reflect deeply on this momentary experience of acute fright, helplessness, and anxiety, I have insight into what I believe are/were the underlying deficits that were an outcome of my experience with my mother’s worries and my dad’s dismissal of these worries. As well, I am further able to integrate the intentions of my mother, which is to really to be mindful, and of my father, which I now believe was to keep a lightness of heart in the face of difficulty. Further the whole experience has provide me an enhanced appreciation for the fear, angst, and pain of those who have lived lives of physical, material and emotional abuse and ultimately, deprivation. It is not surprising really that those who suffer so, thus resort to activities and actions that are judged by the dominant culture as abnormal.
I believe that Viktor Frankl’s view is fitting, “I take everything as a question to myself.”
As always, appreciation to Heesoon Bai, aka my chief collaborator, for her support with this Field Note.