Paradise Lost; Paradise Gained
“I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend…”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost
John Milton points to the way; descent into the Shadow, and from this descent the ascent path can become apparent.
As I have written about previously, you and I have been formed into various sub-identities that are geared for our survival and to allow us to get support, approval, and love. In the process of, or as part of this identity formation, many sub-identities are formed to cope with “strange” responses from our external environment, including, and most importantly, our primary attachment figures and symbols, such as Mother and Father, and also all those people, institutions, cultural norms, and so on that we encounter as we grow up. For example, within a family structure, when a baby cries from hunger, and Mother does not show up to nurse him, that is a “strange” response to the baby who is designed to seek nourishment and comforting from Mom’s nursing. Mother in this instance could have been ‘indoctrinated’ by infant care experts (Benjamin Spock and Gabor Mate to name two): both of whom after advocating ignoring crying babies at night and both of whom at a later time realized what a grievous mistake this was, recanted, and acknowledged the damage this advice and practice would and did cause). Of course, the baby has no way of knowing what is going on when their cries are ignored. The baby may also hear their mother crying in the next room, wanting to go and pick up her baby and nurse him but afraid to do so because that would, according to the expert knowledge, spoil her baby and make him or her a terrible person. Rejected and exhausted, the baby stops crying, and when this scene and pattern is repeated, the baby grows up expecting no help and support from the world. In fact, the eventual adult who was this baby, grows up seeing him or herself behaving as an ‘independent’ and self-reliant person who is very reluctant to seek help and support from others. Such independence is really based in fear of dependence and, of course, is not independence at all. This so-called independence is really a manifestation of ‘against dependence.’ When he or she is paired up with a partner who is quick to come to him for support and help, when he didn’t ask for help, he gets very upset at his partner’s “intrusiveness” and puts up a wall of self-protection. Why shouldn’t he, given his history and his identity formation as a very ‘independent’ person? Conflicts ensue repeatedly between him and his partner, and they end up in a therapist office. This as a good outcome is stuff for another Field Note.
By the time we become adults and encounter circumstances that are very different from the original environment, we still respond, because of our identity formation, to our new circumstances as if they are the same as the original circumstances that no longer exist. Our behavior, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations are triggered by this unconscious psychological projection. And all this is seamlessly ‘fused’ with inner and unconscious conflict, relationship conflict, and the development of body symptoms that arise from the ongoing inner physiological pressure/stress. We are constantly in distress, in big and small ways, and often we don’t even know that, other than as a vague felt-sense that we are not happy or content. Such feelings are most always accompanied by a tension that is barely noticed as it has ‘always been there.’
We need to find ways to work with our sub-identities. Reflective practice and inner work are ways to re-form your sub-identities. In the current neurobiological lingo, we need to rewire our identity circuitry. Practice builds skill with developing in an ongoing way the identity that can learn and apply spontaneously in a skillful way the fitting response to inner, outer, and relational circumstances that are constantly changing in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Here is a small example:
I am with my partner. She says something that brings up hurt and anger in me. I recognize that my response is out of proportion to the current circumstance. I have an immediate association to a memory with my Mother. I had come home from university with a story that I had received a very good grade on a paper that I had submitted. Without pause she said, “You forgot to take out the garbage this morning.” I was crestfallen. Clearly, she was possessed for her own reasons with this failure on my part and no condition to appreciate me or my accomplishment.
I identify in my inner world two sub-identities:
Avi1 is hurt and angry. (I am aware of my thoughts, emotions, body sensation, and that my life energy is flattened.)
Avi2 is attempting to take care of Avi1, and tells him, “You don’t need her. Pull away.”
Avi1 says: “Yes, I don’t need her. She was unkind to me. But I do need her. At least I think I do, and for sure, I want her approval, recognition, and love.”
Avi2: “You don’t need it from her.”
Avi1: “I don’t? That’s not clear. And you’re telling me I don’t need her is just adding to my confusion. I feel unhappy and I am stuck.”
At this point I am at identify edge. Within the context of the inner hurt that is quite all consuming and I cannot conceive myself beyond this point. This is the edge of my known world. Avi1, who is part of my inner community, needs more help than he is getting. What is possible?
Avi1: “I understand that you are trying to help me, and the help you are offering has been offered by you numerous times previously. I think we need to do something different. I believe we need to focus on the relationship: our inner relationship.”
Avi2: “I don’t know what you are talking about. I am doing the best I can to help you. You do not take my advice….”
Avi1: “I cannot take your advice as I really want my Mom to recognize me, and right now I need you to recognize and acknowledge me.”
Avi1: “I will demonstrate. Listen carefully. I see how unhappy and tired you are. You keep giving me your best advice, and it goes nowhere. I appreciate your efforts.”
Avi2: “You appreciate my efforts!? I feel weird. I don’t know what to do with that.”
Avi1: “I appreciate your honesty and your vulnerability”.
Avi2: “You do?? I think I am going to cry. I feel tearful, and suddenly I am aware of how very tired I am.”
Avi1: “Perhaps we can be friends and work together. I see that you want and need recognition and support just as I do.”
Avi2: “Yes, I do….”
Avi1: “I recognize now, as I could not when I was younger, that my Mom also needed recognition and love, and that this translated into her wanting help with the household chores. I think in our house the relational field was on the barren end of the continuum.”
Avi2: “Yes, I can see that.”
This short and abbreviated version of some inner work is an example that can help the sub-identities in the inner world grow from the point of their arrested development and over time transform into a collaborative inner world community, and not conflictual opponents. As well, the egoic structures that constitute these sub-identities will grow to become more fluid and flexible. The inner space will allow the free flow of the life force energy and create increased possibility for the right form of identity to appear, perform, and subsequently disappear until it is next needed.
*This Field Note was written with the collaboration of Dr. Heesoon Bai, a.k.a. my wife.