In our Western world, much attention is given to the important phases of child development. If you are a parent or work with children, you know one of your jobs is to help develop the wild force of the child's ego into a functional human. Research informs us that "good enough parents" produce children with a "good enough" self. If we can achieve that, we have done well. Thank you, Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott.
But what growth follows a "good enough" ego structure when most of us still suffer, gripping tightly to our "pain stories" and negative perceptions? I have had many successful and healthy adults on my couch wondering why their happiness eludes them. From a shamanic viewpoint, we pay a hefty price for our functioning egos: mostly, the numbing or loss of our aliveness.
In his book, The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz states the only way for us to remember information when we are little is to agree with it. As children, we internalize the agreements and expectations of our elders - either blindly following along or rebelling against them. Our authenticity suffers and we lose energy. This plays out subconsciously until something shakes us out of our human trance: 1) A peak experience of intense pleasure, connection or love; 2) An experience of intense pain; and/or 3) An inner voice saying, "there is something more."
These experiences of increased aliveness often propel us onto a spiritual path. This is is where the magic and the difficulty lies: coming home to the authentic self requires us to develop our ego beyond its domestication, childhood agreements, and “pain story.” We face many challenges on this journey, which the Toltec path outlines as five distinct obstacles or gateways: Fear, Clarity, Power, Knowledge, and Death.
When faced with growth or change, fear shows up first and we believe it unequivocally. Fear generates strong emotional reactions, and it's a great mechanism when you think about it. How else would it get our attention that something was out of alignment? The ego fuses safety with what is known (no matter how unworkable) and backs away from anything or anyone who challenges it. Some folks need a crisis or to "hit bottom" before they are willing to consider doing it differently.
In therapy, we teach F.E.A.R. as "false evidence appearing real." In my moments of suffering, my Toltec teachers repeated don Miguel's words: "your feelings are real and they're based on lies;" When I lived from the Dream of Fear, I felt dismissed by their words. Over time, I experienced how life got easier when I felt my feelings while letting go of the story causing me pain. Whatever our "fear story" is, we have a choice: to let it stop us or to face it and keep going. It is an obstacle or a gateway depending on what we choose.
Clarity is a tricky visitor. She is sure and confident, yet more hidden. Where fear grabs our attention and screams in our face, clarity rests back and says, "I see." It takes a fraction of the information and believes it sees the whole picture. We think we understand exactly what is going on, especially other people's issues and problems. Ha! Caught in the trap of clarity, our mind grabs onto our newest insight without taking the actions needed to really change how we are living.
Few make it through the gateways of Fear and Clarity because they are connected to the reptilian part of the brain wired for survival. When we are hurt, we become identified with the pain and believe it as not "what is happening," but as "who I am" or "who they are." We fixate on it to avoid getting hurt that way again. This works against us as we filter out anything not aligned with our pain story and end up arguing for what we do not want.
The satisfaction of this trap is we get to feel right, but the cost is our happiness and connection. The next obstacle is even more difficult.
True empowerment is beautiful, but when our power comes from our hurt or from the traps of Fear and Clarity, we reach for the cheapest, most common form of power we know: Power Over. Like the saying, "Hurt people, hurt people," Power Over diminishes others; It is controlling and critical, it dictates and demands. It's like putting pure, organic power in the microwave because we are too impatient or insecure to wait for the alchemy of the slow cooker. When we approach others from this place, it puts them in a position of Power Under.
True power is humble and shares Power With others. True power gets curious and asks questions. It is vulnerable and magnetic. It is forgiving, and does not hide behind our armor. True Power is like the blade of grass: flexible and yielding. Power With others can be messy and takes time. It is the willingness to own our light and our underbelly, to be seen completely. Power With is risking to live from our center and supporting others in living from theirs.
What do you know and how do you know it? If you are like me, the list of what you know is very long, and the list of how you know it, quite short. That is interesting when you consider knowledge comprises *every* single thing we believe! And, rarely have we tested it for ourselves.
Knowledge is great - it's rational and grounded and we need it to communicate. Yet, it is also hugely limiting. How can we comprehend the vastness of our or another's being? It is impossible. We cling to our identity believing I am this and you are that, but any story, good or bad, limits us.
In 2003, I was in Davis, CA participating in my first fire walk. Feeling nervous I planned to just observe, but as night fell and people started walking, I felt an opening. Halfway across the hot coals, "knowledge" popped in and said, "You're going to get burned." As I reached the other side, I stepped off the coals and, in disbelief, took the gum out of my mouth and dropped it where I had just walked. Instantly, it sizzled and burned black. My mind could not comprehend what was happening.
As the night progressed, Knowledge kept tugging at me. Pain throbbed the bottom of my right foot and I was sure that fire equaled getting burned. Getting into the car for the long drive home, I began sweating and feeling panicked. "I need to go to the hospital," I told my friend, shaking. She calmly asked me how bad the pain was. "It's a nine!" I exclaimed.
She gave me water as we assessed the severity of the blisters forming. She assured me we could go to the hospital, but asked if I would do something first. I agreed to try an energy practice as she drove and if I still needed the hospital, to let her know. I followed her simple instructions to breathe and imagine I was pulling the fire up my body and out through the top of my head.
By the time we got back to Berkeley, my pain was down to a three. In awe, I nixed the hospital and continued the practice until I fell asleep. I awakened the next morning to mild heartburn and a tiny, pink, heart-shaped mark on my right foot. The blisters were gone! It was a complete "mind blown" moment for me. If I could transform a belief as basic as "fire burns," then else was I capable of?
Death is the universal gateway. We are all going to die and our time here is limited. Yet, we live as if we are endless, while never really living at all. If you read my last blog, The Transformation Card, you know some of my very eventful spring and summer. Death visited me as I moved offices, said goodbye to my home of five years and became a first-time homeowner. A year ago I could not have predicted so much transition was afoot.
Death often arrives unannounced. We are domesticated to view death as an inconvenience or as something to be feared or avoided, leaving us unprepared to die and offering a lonely journey for the grieving. We live so disconnected to life that many never witness another's birth or death.
In October, as my Toltec Wisdom Circle was in its last month of the Mastery of Awareness series, we worked with the energy of Death. They were given the opportunity to get complete with people and to do anything they needed to do to be ready for their own death. When we live as if death is imminent, a new attention forms heightening our awareness to the gift of life. Staying connected to Death as a gateway, we are present to how precious our lives are. Time shows up as a gift instead of something to rush through. By the time our weekend drew to a close, the joy and aliveness in their faces were indescribable.
The group process is the most efficient way I have found to do this work. Being held in love and honest reflection makes it easier to traverse the challenges of these obstacles. Starting in January 2018, another powerful circle of people will gather to embark on this life-changing journey of transformation. In our culture, a circle like this is a precious rarity: to have a safe place to shed our conditioning and agreements and to reconnect with our authentic selves. For some, it is a massive awakening, for others a subtle opening. If you are drawn to this work, I would love to talk with you. Why wait another day to create the life you want?
May marks its third year and final month for my office location on Fordem Avenue. This past March I was in the middle of writing a blog post about ego development promoting my Toltec Wisdom Circle (starting this weekend) when I got the letter from my landlord explaining the new plans for the building. I gasped, only to feel a rush of excitement soon follow. The idea of moving my office had been with me for well over a year, but I had never committed myself to it.
Finding my new space was relatively smooth and easy. Just as I signed the lease for my new office on Atwood Avenue, I received an email from my other landlord: she wanted to move back into my apartment. And of course she did. It's an amazing place, in a fabulous location, surrounded by great people. But, that was the gut punch! I've lived here for half a decade and have cultivated relationships with the land and neighbors. I couldn't imagine breaking the news to my kiddo who sees them as extended family.
Now, I needed to sit down. Take a breath or two or five. I needed a good cry. I couldn't focus on marketing my class. I sat on my back deck and resisted the urge to whip the mindfulness jar across the lawn. Instead, I swirled it, got still, and asked myself, "What is being asked of me in all of this happening right now?" The message came in clear: Get bigger, Rainbow.
"Getting bigger" is necessary if we want to evolve. Getting bigger is how we grow, it's the nature of everything wild and free. As humans we do so much to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable state of change. Our egos wrap their arms around everything in our lives, even the crappy bits, and refuse to let in anything contradictory or unfamiliar. What lies on the other side though is everything we deny ourselves by believing, "I can't do that" or "I don't deserve that." So really, what's in our comfort zones is our limited thinking. Getting bigger requires us to step off the cliff into the unknown, to say, "Yes!" when we want to run and hide.
Have you ever noticed how the disempowering conversation lives right next door to the empowering one? I know it's true for me. Life hands me things: opportunities, challenges...I get to choose. If I don't consciously direct my attention, my ego will spin anything into the negative. In therapy we refer to that as the thought problem of Negative Thinking. In Toltec, we call it Disaster Mind! I like to imagine that while my ego is having a fit in the house of disempowering conversations, my spirit or higher self comes to the window with a flashlight and engages her in a silly game.
It is not lost on me that just as I am about to start a group based on transformation, life would hand me The Transformation Card. Of course it would! Walking in integrity means I live what I teach. Being able to hold myself through major life transitions is exactly what I need to be able to hold space for a powerful group people committed to their own transformation.
One of the big jokes of this human journey is how we are taught to believe we are our egos. It leaves us dissatisfied and forever chasing what we will never find: comfort, stability, assurance. We're better off embracing change by feeling our feelings, guiding our ego and allowing our comfort zones to expand. So, as I prepare to move in to my beautiful new office in one of my favorite neighborhoods, I'm also now house hunting - because I don't choose to live anymore in the disempowering conversation that I can't buy a house on my own. I will leave you with the sweet chant we sometimes sing during our Toltec Dreaming Ceremony. Melissa Phillippe sings, "As I say a tender yes to everything that comes to me, my heart is open and I am free. I open to all that is, it brings me to my knees. I surrender, I am free." Living free in surrender is a brave path to walk and I invite you to join me. If you're interested in joining our Toltec group, there's still time. Just say, "Yes!"
The passing of years is a wonderful marker - a way of honoring our journey through time, like the rising of the sun and moon. Many people (myself included) welcomed the end of 2016. Between the contentious US presidential election, our world's ongoing humanitarian and civil rights crises, the continued impact of climate change, the slew of celebrity deaths - there was a collective perception: 2016 was a tough year. Even the New York Times asked, "2016: Worst. Year. Ever?"
As January comes to a close, I wonder how you're doing? Has it gotten any easier? Even though we inaugurated our 45th President, we still have a divided nation. Whether you were boycotting or celebrating, have you stopped to consider what you inaugurated into your own life? Reflecting on how you've been feeling over the past month will shed some light on the answer.
Most of us do not have a conscious relationship with our Will. Our state of well-being is determined by the people we do or don't live with, our neighbors, our parents, our political leaders. In the Indian system of energy, the Will is the third energy center or chakra in the body. It's located in the space above the navel and its focus is power. When we are unaware, our Will is ruled by the desires and fears of the Ego; our well-being is easily disrupted. In my Toltec work, we learned the practice of anchoring our Will to the sun's pure life force energy. Literally imagining a line of energy from my Will to the Sun shifts my state every time. In a recent session helping a client process his fear response to anger, he reported feeling much calmer just by imagining himself connected to the sun. Getting consciously and wisely connected to our Will, to our own "right power," is a good medicine for all of us. The Christian tradition has its own version of "Thy will, not my will." Whatever tradition you use, just anchor yourself to something steady and affirming.
When the going gets tough, what do you do? I worry sometimes. Okay. Actually, I'm a World Champion Worrier. But, I also know to seek counsel from those much wiser than me. Alice Walker, the internationally acclaimed writer, poet and activist, is one of those people. While living in the San Francisco Bay area, more than once I was blessed to sit with her. When she speaks there is so much space in and between her words I inevitably find my breath again. Her poem, "While Love is Unfashionable" is a source of strength and direction for me:
While love is unfashionable
Another wise teacher, Pema Chodron, reminds us that everything is always falling apart. Our elders who are people of color, LGBTQI or female will tell you how they have lived through difficult things before, and still. The human struggle is not new. So, what sustains you when things fall apart, when you're scared and hurting? What does it take to "gather blossoms under fire" as Alice Walker guides?
There is an Eastern teaching I use a lot in my work with people: we spend much of our lives scrubbing the window so we can see the light better, all the while never realizing we are the light shining through. We get fixated on what's wrong with us, what's wrong with the world and, if we are not careful, we get toppled by it. You are ridiculously awesome. Yes, even with your humanness. The world contains a beauty beyond our comprehension even with all its darkness. We can and do benefit from doing our work or "scrubbing the window," but we must do it with laughter and levity remembering we are the light. Already brilliant and whole.
When the darkness comes, and it will come, remember who you are. Connect with the sun, feel your power, and take an action that's life affirming for you. One of my favorite humans and internet sensation, Kid President, says, "Sure, there's bad stuff in the world, but there's also you." There is you! The world needs your light, and if you're like me, you need it too. So in 2017 I invite you to inaugurate your power. To become conscious where you anchor your Will. Shine, regardless of everything. It will make it easier to find each other, and ourselves. So, shine!
Poem, "While Love is Unfashionable" taken from: Walker, A. (1997) Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism. New York, NY. Random House, Inc.
The day after America's Presidential election, I went to California for the wedding of my dear friends. I hadn't slept much the night before, and while Americans were awakening to the news of a Trump Presidency, I awakened to the excitement of my child yelling, "Mommy, is today the day we fly?!?" As I packed the last of our things, I received messages from friends and clients sharing their reactions and concerns. Waves of fear came and went with each message and I did my best to ground the energy.
Now it's three weeks later and I wonder, how are you doing? I saw many people these last few weeks feeling various levels of fear, regret, anger, and exhaustion. Fear was by far the overwhelming thread, and I get it. I used to be afraid of everything. When I first went away to college, I remember going on retreat to a spiritual center in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. Despite its apparent safety, I was so afraid of the quiet and dark I forced myself to walk the halls at night to try and overcome my fear without success. Whenever I attempted meditation back then, I was flooded with images of being stabbed or killed in some terrible fashion. I experienced the world as a pretty terrifying place.
Therapy didn't help much either. While I gained tools to help me cope with my fear, the constant dread never went away. I was afraid of myself and my numerous flaws being discovered; I was scared of the collective "you" and the power you might wield against me; simply put, I was frightened of everything known and unknown. None of the techniques made a dent, until I had my first guided shamanic experience. She was a Native American woman with a wild spark in her eye, it was a darkly lit room, she handed me a cup of tea, which I drank. The next few hours are a blur of visions, but I remember her compassionate eyes afterwards as she whispered, "Oh sweetie, sweetie, sweetie...so much fear."
The days and weeks that followed, left me experiencing for the first time, my truest self: me in the absence of fear. It was a temporary bliss, as my undesirable companion did eventually return, however, I had a new context I hadn't had before. My work went from learning to cope with fear, to finding how to bring myself back to fearlessness over and over again. I worked with a variety of shamanic teachers until I found the Toltec work.
During my Toltec apprenticeship I learned how to connect myself to earth and sky, a process we refer to as "grounding." My mind didn't understand why that made a difference, but it did. Grounded, I was no longer a singular "me," but a "we" who had the support of the whole universe to find the core beliefs holding fear in place. As I uncovered and confronted layer after layer, there were many times when I relied on my Toltec community to see me better than I could see myself. Fear was a blind spot that kept me out of connection and miserable. With all that light shining on me, the fear transformed.
In graduate school I learned what fear's true purpose is: mobilization. When we encounter a stranger while walking alone at night, fear gets us moving towards safety. When someone spews hateful speech at us, fear pumps cortisol into our limbs so we can flee or fight. When a domestic partner raises their fist to strike again, fear sends us into freeze, the life-saving action of non-action. Fear is a powerful tool with a solid purpose, but it is not the most sophisticated one in the box. Our responses to immediate threats are rightfully reactive and rooted in the survival parts of our brain, but many of the fears we face today require our executive level functioning - our thinking, empathy and wisdom. So what can we do when fear comes?
Empowering Action, Grounding, Repeat
Fear is designed to get your attention, so let it. When scary thoughts arise, stop and ask yourself, "Is there an immediate action I can take right now that would help me feel better?" And by right now, I mean immediately. Do I need to reach out for support from my community? Do I need to call my legislators? Walk outside and breath in fresh air? Organize a meeting? Make some art? Truly looking if there is something I can do in this now moment shifts me from feeling victimized by my stressful thoughts into active power. It's not enough to think of the action, we must do it.
Once the action is taken or if one cannot be identified and fear is still present, then it is time to do a grounding practice. This could be as simple as noticing the way the ground, seat or car holds your feet and body, providing you with unconditional support. We are actually always grounded, but bringing it into conscious awareness gets us into relationship with that support. This makes us present, where we can notice the truth of our safety right now.
A more formal grounding might look like this: Choose a place to sit and imagine your energy pushing down through the base of your body and growing roots into the earth. Find a place to plug in - this might be the earth's core, an underground pool of water, a crystalline structure. Pull earth energy up your roots and into your body as you imagine expanding upwards towards the sun. Let yourself plug into the sun and allow the sun's radiant light to flow into your body. From this place you are connected to unlimited energy and support.
Prolonged fear is a most destabilizing force. Taking empowering actions and grounding yourself will leave you with energy available to give to the communities and causes that inspire you. Be mindful, if not vigilant, of the conversations you engage and the social media and news outlets you take in. Pay attention to how you can strike a balance of being awake and aware without feeding fear.
There are a good number of you who have until now been numb/unaware. For you, this is a most uncomfortable time. Awakening is deliberately difficult and much like birth it has a rhythm of pushing and pausing. Allow the process; know you were built for it. Connect yourself with grounded community; they are your best ally. Now is not the time to isolate. Let yourself get woken up.
Being at a wedding during a time when America is painfully forced to look at its own shadow was a gift. At the reception, friends of the couple stood up and shared the Jewish tradition of never cancelling a wedding, no matter what tragedy might have occurred. I like the commitment in that because to love in these times is a radical act. If we practice these tools together, I think we will find the world is a much safer place than we ever knew it could be. We need each other now more than ever. Action, grounding, repeat.
Rainbow Marifrog, MA, LMFT is a holistic psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner living in Madison, WI.
Rainbow A. Marifrog