The famous TV science fiction series, Star Trek: The Final Frontier, has a well-known line as part of the introduction to each episode, which is part of the mission statement of the Starship Enterprise, “. . . to go where no man has gone before . . ..” (Of course, today, we need to say, “. . . to go where no humans have gone before . . ..”) As a psychotherapist, whenever I hear that phrasing, I think of such intrepid journey of exploration and discovery taking place in the inner and relational worlds. I think this journey can be just as perilous, albeit in a different way, as an actual space voyage. In any event the comparison in perilousness is perhaps a moot point. Let us just focus on the voyage in and with the human psyche. The edge here refers to the known limits of the human psyche and human beingness in terms of the inner and relational worlds.
I have written previously about egoic structures and suggested that we do not really have these inner structures that manifest as various aspects of our personality. Rather, I have suggested that we are had by these structures, that they exist within us, dictate our way of being in the world, and they are largely out of our awareness. Further, I have offered that these structures represent a stopping point in our development: a point that has its beginnings in the very early days of our existence. What I have not said so much about is how strongly these ways of being are and how powerfully these ways are influenced by culture at large and a whole variety of subcultures, including family cultures. I think it’s fair to say that these structures represent the effect of trauma both overt and covert, big and small. I believe that what we might call small trauma is really perhaps better described as invisible trauma, and such trauma is the outcome of what is lacking and that we as infants and small children really needed for our fullest and most whole development. In reaction to the deficits and lacks we developed ways of being that helped us to get at least some form of the attention we wanted and needed in whatever forms it was available, and also is intended to protect us from attention that we really did not want. As you perhaps know such experience leads to the development of ways of being that are largely unconscious and that survive into our adult years and are at the core of our personal, interpersonal, and professional difficulties.
The pressure to conform to, along with the pressure to see, all aspects of life in very prescribed ways by cultural forms and forces is exceedingly powerful. Such conformity is you could say isr ‘correctly’ ‘interpreted’ by our early self/selves as crucial to personal survival. As an infant you and I had to learn what was required in order to obtain the food, air, water, shelter, bonding, and love that we needed. I suggest to you that there are very basic requirements and ways that are built into our little bodies and psyches from our most nascent days. An infant’s will to survive, grow, and thrive is a primary feature of the life force energy. The expression and flow of this energy will be channeled through the primal beginnings of what will become our egoic structures and as I mentioned in the previous paragraph will show up in our adult formation and effect and affect our experience in all aspects of our lives.
The will to live, grow, and thrive is profound and powerful. To the extent it is compromised by lack of physical, emotional, and psychological “nutrients” that are to be delivered through encouragement, validation, acknowledgment, and the sheer bestowal of love, will dictate who we as individual persons-in-becoming evolve into, for better or for worse. My sense is that most of us have developed a personality that is more or less removed from who we truly are: that is, beings who are free and fluid in their awareness of moment-to-moment emergence of becoming. I have purposely used the words, “moment-to-moment,’ to capture the felt sense of reality that, as many Eastern philosophical traditions teach us, is constantly shifting and flowing, as in reality there is no fixed ‘self’. I would suggest that our self is really an ever flowing and shifting process. Rigidified personality structures do not allow a feeling of freedom and flow. The central question I pose to you is how rigidly are you constrained and controlled by these structures? And are you able to soften the rigidity and facilitate the transformation of your personality structures so that they are living breathing manifestations and expressions of your truest nature?
I wrote at the beginning of this Note that the edge referred to is the known limits of the human psyche and human beingness in terms of the inner and relational worlds. Experientially, we would experience the edge when we run into our own rigidity. It is like running into and colliding with a concrete post that we didn’t see around the corner. We have little awareness. It just happens. This occurs every time we are on auto-pilot with little awareness and with no ‘say’ over how we will react to life’s circumstances. We have run into the rigid egoic—that is, personality—structures that became built up, mostly unconsciously, since our very young days. I am reminded of the Sufi story attributed to Rumi, ‘I am banging on the door trying to get in. The door suddenly opens. I realize that I have been on the inside trying to get out!’
How can we work with the edge? To work with an edge, we need to know what it is that we are working with: that seems intuitive enough. Hence, I suggest that you identify your own edges: where you bump into your limits, repeatedly, unconsciously, and where you feel hardness and rigidity: it is the ‘end’ of your own and personal universe. Of course, our edges our unconscious, by definition they are not accessible to us. This means we have to be some kind of psychological and behavioral detective and look for the clues. You might notice strong emotions and reactions, thoughts that seem to be out of proportion to events, body sensations that seem to speak to at least some kind of emergency where in reality there is none, acting as if some life threatening or body threatening experience is taking place, shouting, sulking, blaming, and so on, Study how this edge phenomenon is constituted in your consciousness of body, emotions, and mind; and how your life force energy is impacted. Discover your own history that has led to the personality (egoic structure) that you have currently; or, rather, that has you. Such self-study is all in the service of knowing yourself in a more profound way. Once you embark on this project, you will find that there is no limit and no end to this study; a most profound subject. I have given some clues above and I will say that a test for edge experience is hard to come by. Rational evaluation of a reaction to a situation you are in that suggests reaction, and that is not an attuned response, and is out of proportion to the actual events that took place is, of course a good clue for you.
Any personal edge experience represents an enormous opportunity to become more of who you are, and to experience life increasingly free of constrictions and limitations. I should add that this does not mean as is often understood to mean, the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and wherever you want. What I mean is a freedom of energy; life force energy. You can feel it and have freedom to choose how you will have and/or manifest this energy, and what you choose will be a great expression of your creative spontaneous self, will be interconnected with the force of all nature, and will be guided by a felt sense of your natural ethical tendencies and morality. The work to see the signs of an edge and to softening them by embracing them is radically different than what most of us were brought up to believe: run away from the edge for fear of falling off, for hurting yourself, or, most likely, just out of pure conditioning of “Don’t go there!” Painful and limiting experiences, experiences of disappointment, and even experiences of victimization, all provide these opportunities for edge creations. (By the way, If you have never read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is about his survival experience in a Nazi concentration camp, I encourage you to read this surprisingly uplifting narrative. Frankl discovered his inner self increasingly, and his ability to choose within the bounds of his extreme contextual reality, and which was guided by his ongoingly increasing ability to make and derive meaning from his experience. I might add that part of how he studied this was by observing his fellow-prisoners. He became very expert at assessing those who had lost all hope and whom he came to see would soon die. He had a dream to recover certain significant aspects of his former life, all the while knowing that such might be not possible. This, amongst other things, sustained him. Frankl was no doubt working at the edge of his own consciousness and identity. All of this was in his inner world as he could not afford to allow it to manifest outwardly in the service of sustaining his corporeal self.
The edge must be recognized for what it is, a part of us, an egoic structure that is automatically triggered into action under specific conditions, and a point at which it is extremely easy to fall into fear, dread, and ‘woe is me.’ This is the point that in its earliest stages will be signalled by a variety of unpleasant feelings and a repetitive experience of suffering. Entertaining the idea that recognition of an edge experience is itself a huge opportunity to grow beyond our current personal edge, our limitation, and to grow into a new, or perhaps better said, way of being. Recall that pain, hurt, disappointment, and so on, are a given in life. What very often accompanies such is suffering, which can eventually become ‘optional,’ as our edges soften. Pain remains just pain, not festering miseries; inconveniences are experienced just as inconveniences, nothing to be enraged about. Insults we receive do not devastate us, threatening to undo our very being. Anger flares up like torch-like signals but do not threaten to burn down the house of the person holding the torch. In all these examples, what we experience as suffering can be defined as the repetitive and persistent experience of whatever reaction you have to pain.
If you can risk seeing your pain and suffering as a potential doorway to a bigger sense of self and the world, your opportunity will be to live a fuller and richer life. Here is a constructed example that I present to you as a personal story. I invite you to come into the narrative and see if you recognize your self, albeit terribly exaggerated for dramatic visibility.
I am to do a presentation that is important for me and for what I am doing. I am a little nervous in anticipation and also quite filled with anticipatory excitement. The presentation is in seven days. Three days prior, I start to feel unwell. The next day I have a high fever and tremendous gastric upset. The following day I feel even a little worse. It is clear that I will not be able to deliver the presentation. I notify the organization. The reality at that point was that I was too unwell to deliver the presentation.
However, the next thing that happened was my anxiety and worry about the effect of my cancellation and request for re-scheduling. In fact, when I informed the organizer (let’s just say, it’s a ‘she’) of my sorry state, she was most sympathetic and understanding, and said she would get back to me shortly with some other possible dates and times. So, all sounds good. Right!? What comes next in my consciousness is not so good! I start to ruminate, endlessly, and perseverate; what if my reputation is damaged? What if they decided that I am not reliable? And maybe they will spread the word about my cancellation? My income will be affected permanently! I will lose all my income resources and wind up living on the street! And on and on. My body is seized with tension and feels stiff and rigid, literally. I remember other situations where I had such worries. I am also afflicted with a fear that this state will never end. I have reached the end. I am now at my edge. I am in familiar territory: all too familiar! My consciousness is hiding and some part of me knows that it needs to wake up and see a bigger picture. My thinking and understanding part sees that my worries and suffering are guaranteed to continue, and over time, I am bound to have this familiar pattern re-play any time I have any doubt whatsoever about any decision. I have taken the actual events and produced with my consciousness a catastrophe, which in the moment is ‘true’ for me.
Now, I am going to do some inner work to work on and with my edge experience. My first action is to slow myself down, not giving into the mounting panicky state that pushes and rushes me into the next worry and the next vision of catastrophe. I STOP and ‘listen’ to my experience. This means feeling my body experience, noticing my emotions, acknowledging my thoughts, and noting the state of my life force energy. I begin to notice the little fellow within who feels very lonely and frightened. I know he needs warmth, connection, and support…
What I have just spoken about is certainly a difficult and challenging step to take, and only the beginning of my inner work process. As well, I will be noticing any associated memories from my early years that emerge. In all my early life, I was told to do whatever it takes to not feel bad, to get away from difficulty, to not deal with unpleasant people, to see the doctor if something hurts as he/she can fix it, and so on. In other words, I have been advised, over and over again, to do anything but face the reality of my experience. To be sure facing reality can include getting help. The point is to not avoid the reality of the experience. With all very good intentions, my parents, my friends, various elders, and all manner of authority, in short, the entire culture around me, have done what they can to advise me how to get out of feeling bad. What a strange idea it is to actually engage with all these ‘bad’ inner experiences. Why would I want to do that?
Some of you may be familiar with the Daoist story about the three dragons and the Daoist monk.
One day the monk is sitting in his hut drinking tea. Suddenly he hears a tremendous noise at his door. Foul sulphuric smelling smoke is coming under the door, and there is a tremendously loud knocking on the door. He is momentarily taken aback but quickly recovers himself, moves towards the door, and slowly opens it. He finds himself face to face with three fire breathing dragons. He again draws back but only momentarily. He looks directly at them and says politely, “Would you like to come in for tea?” It is now the dragons turn to be surprised but they recover soon enough and come through the door. He invites them to sit down and proceeds to get cups for each of them and to pour tea. One of the dragons upon witnessing all this asks, “Aren’t you afraid of us?” He replies, “Yes! However, I know that if I run, you almost certainly will chase me. I think it will be better for all of us, if we have tea and get to know each other.”
Presumably they had an enjoyable enough time, and I doubt that the message of this story is lost on you. Running from what scares you, really running unconsciously from fear that arises in your inner world is a certain guarantee that what has provoked your reaction is a pattern in you that will surely recur, unless you get to know the pattern: all that constitutes a personal edge. Eventually you will be able to soften the edge, make the rigid shell that holds you in a powerful grip more pliable and enlarge it; and at some point, you grow out of and beyond even the pliable but still limiting shell, and grow into a bigger and more awake/aware version of yourself. this is metamorphosis, akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
Each of us has many edge possibilities in our life time. We are caught between our survival needs and our needs for liberation, liberation which is really seeking a larger and felt-sense of freedom. The culture and much of our personal learning suggests strongly to us that being safe is the best idea; the devil that is known versus the devil that lurks in the darkness. We cannot readily choose one or the other. This impasse signals that the need for transcendence is in the foregroun. You can learn to intervene into that which repetitively and unconsciously holds you at your impasse. The process is asking us to succumb to the gravity of the impasse situation in the service of learning how to transcend it. The real question is how to embrace the polarity, study, and learn from, in, and through the entirety of the process. So, let us leave our study of the edge for now.
In the next Field Note (June 1, 2021) I will give some unique ideas and practices about life beyond your current edge; and consequently living with a feeling of more ease, freedom, and clarity of inner and outer vision, or maybe even on into what might be thought of as ultimate freedom and meaning, assuming that there is such a condition! We will see.
Until then, shalom . . .
As always, my gratitude to Heesoon for her able support with this field note…