Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sin, Virtue and Society

The seven deadly sins were the seven cardinal sins enumerated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century – pride or vanity, envy, gluttony, greed or avarice, lust, sloth, and wrath or anger. These seven certainly are the cause of much human misery and may even be among those faults that condemn us and those around us most certainly to a life of pain, a future of failure and the loss of our most significant emotional attachments with those closest to us. Unfortunately, as a catalogue of human weaknesses, this list of seven is not nearly exhaustive. It is a starting point in examining one’s conscience.

Most of us will have been guilty of at least these seven at one or more times in our lives, but most of us are not trapped in a cycle of failure, repeating the same mistakes endlessly. Those of us who are hurt so severely that we bear the psychological scars of abuse are among the unfortunate mortals whose lives are dominated by patterns of thought and behaviour that result in slavish, predictable, habitual acquiescence to our imperfections. For such people these seven sins, and so many others, are controlling, driving, compelling imperatives.

The Christian tradition teaches that to sin is a choice and therefore is deserving of blame and punishment. If only that were true for all of us. For some innocents the punishment comes first. The resulting damage that one bears can be lifelong and it drives us on a downward spiral, unknowingly digging our own premature graves. Does this deserve to be called sin? The word loses its meaning when one becomes enslaved by pain, misery and confusion. Choice seems like a remote ideal, a luxury, for someone who is truly desperate, whose feelings are numbed and whose thoughts, driven by a powerful current, rush and tumble like a cold whitewater river hurtling over rocks and swirling down into deep eddies. The disordered individual may, without intervention, never become aware of his entrapment, his curse, the fulfillment of a cycle. He might wander aimlessly, endlessly up and down the paths through his own particular forest of pain, failure and confusion; or with love, help, commitment and perseverance he can heal; he can change the pattens in his head and in his life.

From the tradition of monotheistic religion to the western medical tradition the focus on sin, weakness, fault and illness has the goal of correcting, civilizing, and socializing the individual to satisfy the expectations and exigencies of the family, the church, the state or the society.  Take, for example, the seven cardinal virtues. These are the sacred counterparts of the seven deadly sins: chastity, temperance, generosity, diligence, patience, kindness and modesty. They may be good and noble virtues, even among those gifts that will be bestowed upon you  in the course of your progress along the paths mapped out in this book, but they are not the most important goals for us to achieve as people recovering from abuse, from pain. This book is not about religion; I feel that there are enough books written from that perspective, from Thomas Aquinas on. In this book I am not approaching the subject from the point of view of the group, the church or the gods. I am approaching it from your point of view, as an individual who has suffered and who hopes to end the suffering. My purpose is not to build better citizens for the state, or more productive workers for the society. Rather I come to the problem from the point of view of the individual suffering unnecessarily.

The journey we shall take commences at the point when one’s inner life begins, as a child, but not a living child, an inner-child, locked in time, forever orbiting in the universe within one’s head. Each of these cursed children that is set free, each triumphant release, will advance the sufferer toward his new authentic self; toward a life free of the urgent imperatives and compulsions of his pain and imperfection.


A Journey to a New Life

Personal growth and recovery from abuse is a journey. The journey we shall take commences at the point when one’s inner life begins, as a child, but not a living child, an inner-child, locked in time, forever orbiting in the universe within one’s head, and there is likely more than one such personality inside us. Each of these cursed children that is set free, each triumphant release, will advance the sufferer toward his new authentic self; toward a life free of the urgent imperatives and compulsions of his pain and imperfection.

Personality disorders exist within a spectrum and are often associated with depression. Physical and emotional abuse can also be classified within a spectrum, from common and mild to exceptional and severe. In this work I am using a broad definition of abuse that is not restricted to physical, sexual or emotional harm. Harm can come from an invalidating environment, one that demeans or denies the intrinsic value of the person, a failure to treat the person with attention, respect, and understanding. This environment may be a family, a relationship, a person or a status, such as poverty or persecution. The nexus of abuse exists in a transaction between an invalidating environment and the emotional sensitivity of the person. Milder, or short term, psychological pain is a normal condition, a part of life. Psychological pain caused by abuse is a common contributor shared by the majority of sufferers of depression and those with personality disorders. Though not all sufferers of depression or personality disorders report having experienced abuse and not all those reporting abuse have depression or personality disorders. Both the environment and the emotional, or pain, sensitivity of the person bear on their long term mental health. This is not to rule out genetic, biological and other physical causes of psychological distress and dysfunction but our focus is on the invalidating transaction and, using the techniques of mindfulness, pre-visualization, myth and fantasy, mapping a pathway on which one can progress from pain and acting out to fulfilment and satisfaction.

The morning sky might be a brilliant, cloudless expanse of blue; the sun’s brilliance enough to sting your tired eyes, yet the beauty of this overture to your new day mocks you, insults the memory of your nightmare from the night just passed when, awash in anxiety, you dreamed that someone was trying to kill you. The sounds of the day beginning are like tinny music from a distant radio station distorted by loud static. Your head aches mildly, for no particular reason that you care to discern. Movement, even lifting a limb, is an effort that demands more than strength; it requires a force of will that you have long been incapable of rousing. “Face the day,” you tell yourself, and the question rebounds immediately: “Why?” Bluebirds may alight upon your window sill; the gay chatter of children may summon your attention; a partner may reach tenderly to touch you, and yet you recoil, mentally pulling the heavy covers over your head to hide in the darkness, to sleep forever.

Angrily you curse the advance of time that forces yet another twenty-four hours upon you. Around and around the hands spin on that impassive dial, advancing, but going nowhere; it feels like still another merciless lap of the marathon track that is your cursed life. Bitterly, you regard joy, beauty, respect, kindness, love & happiness as expensive jewels that you could never afford. Instead, you wrap yourself in the threadbare cloaks of cynicism, jealousy, false modesty, or vanity, and isolation; cold comfort indeed.

In moments of reflection you feel anxious, lost and confused. Though you are unhappy with your life at present, and unsure of its purpose you are unwilling to take action to change it. To outside observers this might seem irrational or phobic. If it were true, they would be right, but it is not quite true: you may be willing to take action but you are unable to choose what action to take. In your current state you are struck by a paralysing fear of unknown consequences, which becomes a fear of change. Without committing to change you cling to your present painful circumstances, you cling to certainty, and it rewards you with predictable pain. Your fear of change is a fear of uncertainty. Strangely, it is this path into the unknown, this state of uncertainty, that will lead us out of our pain and toward progress. You need to destabilise your repetitive, cyclical patterns of maladaptive thought and behaviour to develop new, more mature behaviours, to reduce the pain and to stop acting out.

Some people exist for many years in this fearful paralysis, until one day, a calamity befalls them that forces them to change. A positively transformative life-changing event may also force changes upon such a person who otherwise might have existed in stasis for the rest of their lives. To spend one’s life waiting for this to happen is like expecting to be struck by lightening and knocked off one’s horse like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. It’s like waiting for “Mr. Right”. It’s like hoping to win the lottery. It happens, but not nearly often enough to make a difference to most people’s lives. So what is one to do?

Suffering, feeling numb, or feeling bad and being unable to identify the feeling, provided me with the impetus to search for the part of me that existed before the damage. Reading and therapy sessions raised the idea of the inner-child. Visualisation and exploration of my inner-child was instructive and illuminating, revealing pain and other emotions that had been almost forgotten, but this information alone opened up no paths to progress. Many people with personality disorders are high functioning individuals with well developed life skills. However it is common for sufferers to use dissociation to achieve high level functioning in adverse life situations. An individual may “dissociate”, or split off, from his or her actual present self into another functional persona, such as an “inner child” or a character that is a projection of his inner-child’s imagined maturity, a wish fulfilment state. These personas are often called splits.

Some therapies, including regression therapy, make the mistake of indulging the inner-child; they treat the discovery and appreciation of the inner-child and his needs as the ultimate goal of therapy. It is not. The inner child is searching for new parents; the challenge is to re-parent oneself, a seemingly impossible task.

Research and further therapy revealed to me the exact nature of the seven challenges that constitute this re-parenting task. The map of the seven paths is illustrated here. The key component of the seven challenges is the commitment to change. Progress is not possible without change and change will not take place without acknowledgement of the pain and abuse, including radical acceptance of one's present situation, feelings, faults and limitations (the symptoms), followed by a deliberate and committed intention to take action to effect change and to adopt the products and imperatives of change. This will result in changed behaviors. Recent psychological research into the condition known as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has developed these ideas as a therapy called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). An adaptation of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, it has been found to provide consistently significant benefits to the majority of subjects presenting with BPD.

Taking my cue from DBT I view progress and maturation through change as dialectical in nature. First one must discover, examine and accept one's particular emotional sensitivity, one's pain, and then develop a true understanding of, and a coming to terms with, the invalidating environment; this is radical, nonjudgmental acceptance. The damage you have suffered is bad, your sensitivity to the pain is neither good nor bad. This acceptance must be accompanied by an unwavering commitment to overcome your challenges by monitoring your thoughts and feelings, adopting strategies and behaviours that are situationally appropriate to better outcomes and by incorporating this new self knowledge into a new self-concept. This is the process of re-parenting oneself toward the goal of authenticity with integrity, honesty, and resilience. Authenticity does not mean self-pity or self-indulgence. It means speaking your own truth and living by it.

Achieving the goal of a new life requires that one completes the seven steps. The last of the seven commitments is to have faith. Faith draws one forward, like the light at the end of the tunnel. It is the opposite of despair. I am not talking about religious faith, though that is a type of faith that helps some people. Having faith, one can reenter a childlike state wherein one can experience the dreams and emotions of the inner-child and so, discovering a real person there, commit robustly with love and faith to re-parenting that vulnerable child.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Aurora's Dreams Begin

The story of the sleeping Princess Aurora dates from the Middle Ages. Known as "La Belle Au Bois Dormant", The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood, the classic fairy tale published in 1697 by Charles Perrault has been a favourite with children for hundreds of years. Her royal birth and her tragic curse are well known, and like all fairy stories she and her prince meet and live happily ever after, or so we think.

What is not known is the story of Aurora's dreams. She was a young girl of fifteen at the time of her curse. Her body was preserved through her one hundred year sleep, so her mind must have been preserved, vital and youthful, as well. While we don't understand the reasons, we do know that dreams are essential to maintaining mental and physical health.

The untold story of her hundred years dreaming is the story of her inner life and her as yet unrealised potential. One hundred years is a very long time, so we might presume that the story of her dreams would be a very long story if we were to follow it from beginning to end.

It would be hard to make sense of such a lengthy volume and dreams rarely make sense on their own without an understanding of the dreamer's inner life, so we will need a map; not a map of a territory, but a map of her mental terrain. Tracing the course of her inner life will be a journey of the mind. As we begin exploring her dreams we might begin to know her by first preparing ourselves for the journey. We ought to study the map.

Aurora herself, being a young girl, had no idea what sort of journey she might be undertaking in her dream state. She knew no more when she fell into unconsciousness than any of us know about what dreams might await us once our heads hit the pillow and our eyes shut out the world. What hopes and fears will arise within us on the other side of the door that leads beyond, into the unconscious? We do not know.

For Aurora, the gentle messenger of all knowledge from the other world was The Moon. Each lesson, each glimpse of hope, each hint of understanding helped build a great plan, a map, so to speak, of the world beyond the door, the world of dreams. Beyond the arms of any earthly mother, The Princess took as her spiritual mother that shining heavenly body that glided overhead each night. The map she needed was created by her moonlight with The Moon's wise and patient guidance. As The Moon would teach her, "There are many paths..." She, who is so pale and quiet has yet the power to move the oceans, so how could she not move the troubled water of a young girl's soul?

While she was cursed to sleep one hundred years, she was, however, blessed, to spend so long in this non-temporal world, watched over by her spiritual mother. Her dreams would reveal her character, her true identity and the potential which she would claim upon awakening to her new life. Some might say it was her destiny, yet so many grave threats would she face that for many years such a thing was more elusive than the tiny phosphorescent sprites that trail dolphins in dark ocean waters at night as they swim and play in the moonlight.

I have created a map for you based on The Moon's Guidance. Study it slowly, it is a map of may paths, but none of them can be read from start to finish. It is more like a trail of breadcrumbs, a series of hints and lessons, than a roadmap. There are signposts and waypoints, but you will need to construct your own journey. The map you will need is a series of slides that can be found here.