Coming Home to Ourselves; a Lifetime Experiment

September 2018 Soul Notes

When I was 4 years old, I used to head off to the small wood at the end of our street and climb into the trees. I liked the rustle of the leaves to accompany my quiet thoughts. A musical accompaniment to my retreat inside myself. I liked the solitude. I remember this as a place where I could "be myself" and long for that sensation now - the chance to "be myself".

Then I read May Sarton's poem, "Now I become myself", and I wonder "What does this mean?" How can we be anything other than ourselves? How do we become ourselves?" Where do we go if, as this line suggests, our self is something to be discovered, recovered or crafted? 

Each client who comes to me describes a way in which they find themselves lost. He or she may feel disconnected from people or from purpose; be in conflict and struggling to find a voice; be exhausted and depleted and lacking energy for daily life. She may feel out of touch with events in her organisation or in the world at large and a sense of irrelevance or impotence. He may carry a fear of losing everything, of being a failure, of not being good enough. She may feel attacked by others. These are illustrations. But maybe there are some that you recognise? That sense of alienation, isolation, not just from others but also from yourself, that get in the way of life and living?

I wrote last month about Kets De Vries paper The Shaman, the Therapist and the Coach, and the connection he makes between the work of the shaman as the retriever of souls, and the work of coach and therapist as retriever of self. He describes depression and anxiety and other pain as a sign that a part of our soul has been split off, and it is trying to reintegrate. As coaches and therapists, our clients come to us with a problem or a suffering, expressed perhaps in some of the ways above. Usually, it is something they can’t see clearly and are keen to understand more so they might feel better or achieve more, but underlying that are likely to be some big questions….”Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” “Where do I belong?” “How can I stay true to myself and be in relationship?” Or, to reframe the first line of the poem, “How do I become the whole of myself?”

In spite of the big questions, some clients want us to give them some “tools and techniques” so that they can feel “equipped” to deal with the matter at hand.  This can be a trap for both of us, and an easy one to fall into.  A client who asks this may have lost access to their own resourcefulness so I already have a clue of something to consider together. I wonder what the story is there? Why does this successful, competent person believe the answer lies beyond themselves? What is blocking their access to the swathes of wisdom that lie beneath the surface?  There will be a story attached to that. A place where that route was blocked in the psyche. A person/people who reinforced that belief. 

These experiences can be disturbing. The parts that are unknown are often our shadow self, or alternatively, our truly brilliant self, both of whom can be challenging to accommodate.  These parts are unknown so not only do we not recognise them, we don’t accept them as part of this self. I often hear clients say that “it’s just not me” to say that thing/behave in that way/think in that way. Or perhaps, we just don’t have the language to express something that feels so unfamiliar. One client even asked me if he could "just get rid of" his shadow. David Whyte describes beautifully why that's not possible in his mouthwatering book, Consolations:

"To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt."

Our work is to allow ALL of that experience in. As my supervisor tells me again and again….to give ourselves to ourselves, just as we are, not as we would like ourselves to be. For as long as we deny any part of our experience and hide it away from ourselves and others, we dilute our presence and leave a part of us unavailable to live this life. This is painful.  Irish poet and scholar, John O’Donohue speaks of this in The Inner Landscape. He says:

"Any life that is to honour its own possibility has to learn to foster its own sense of loss and how to integrate its own dark and bleak times.

If our clients are willing to spend time exploring their own “interiority” as part of our work together, we coaches/therapists can mediate the discovery. We walk with them as they reveal themselves to themselves and begin to recognise, acknowledge, explore and nourish all of the experience. In this way, the lesser known parts move out of the shadow and into the light and we can find space for them as part of this self, rather than parts to be split off and hidden.

However, to be there in that way for others requires that we are bringing the same radical noticing to our own inner world. We must have explored these questions for ourselves and trodden the paths between our own conscious and unconscious. We must know how to be our own guide, and be willing to be guided. We need to know which of our “selves” will show up with each client and what that means for our working relationship. At the same time, we must acknowledge that we are in the process of “becoming” too. We’re not the finished article. We can and will be changed by our clients as much as they will be changed by us, if we are open to, and allow the mutuality.

Psychologist Karen Maroda, writes that “change begins with the letting down of defences, or emotional “surrender”. I had always assumed that I knew what this meant – namely that the client needs to be willing to let down their defences and surrender to our process. However, I’m beginning to realise that it is a mutual endeavour. I must be prepared to do the same.  My job is to create a safe container where transformation can occur and I can only do that if I know where I might make it unsafe, where I might tighten and limit the possibility, where I might get lost or caught in a habitual pattern that does not serve my client.  

So confession time. Knowing and staying close to my self can be a challenge, especially as an empath. I’m good at getting alongside others and feeling their experience but less adept at being with my own. I know that I can get lost when there is aggression or conflict in the room; I know I often want to hide any flaws or imperfections in myself; I become ashamed in the face of certain intimacy; I find it hard to speak of my own vulnerability. Knowing this gives me a better chance of recognising when these things are at play in my work. It doesn’t mean I can always do something about it, but I can own and investigate my experience and understand how it might impact my clients and our relationship. It also helps me be more compassionate as I review relationships that haven’t gone so well and I can see where I withdrew, or came down to harshly, or lost access to my resources and I can see that that too was part of the experience of becoming myself.

I would ask the same of you. Where do you get lost? What do you want to hide? What are you ashamed of? What is it difficult for you to speak of? And how does that show up in your life and your work today?

Existential psychotherapist, Emmy van Deurzen writes that:

Being human is about becoming.  Sometimes we need to pause and ponder, but mostly it is our action or lack of it that determines who we are and how we become.

Coming home to ourselves is a lifetime experiment which takes time, patience, courage and compassion and I feel grateful to be walking alongside so many others who are willing to tread the winding path. May we all find ways to become ourselves, alone and with each other.

Right now, I hope you're enjoying the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet and the rays of warm sunshine on your face as you walk your path. I'm going to find a tree to ponder in :)

With love,

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