Trigger Warning: If you read my blog, What if They're Not Monsters, parts one and two, then you know about the personal work I've done to understand people who sexually offend. Readers should know that this story may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. I invite you to not read it or to have support if you do.
In September of 2018, I lost my ex-partner and one of my best friends when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I met him five years earlier in a 12-step recovery room. I first noticed his kind eyes and lispy-like way of talking, as I have a lisp too. I noticed how often he cried during his own and other's shares and the permission it gave others to feel their feelings. One day after the meeting I went up to him for a second hug and mid-hug, embarrassed, realized I was really drawn to him. He respectfully touched my arm and acknowledged me as "his sister in recovery." But, a friendship began that day. We went out for coffee after meetings, and that soon led to local theater outings and dinners together.
At the time we met, I was working at an agency providing treatment to severely abused children, and with a two-year-old of my own, it was taking a toll. David was one of the first to reflect to me that I was burned out and not living my passion. He had this way of seeing me so clearly. "You no longer fit there," he told me. "You need to have your own practice." But, I was terrified. How could I support myself and my child? What if I failed? David was adamant that my happiness was possible and said to me one day, "I hereby declare 'Operation: Liberate Rainbow' has begun." And, as a Navy veteran, he wasn't kidding. He started texting me multiple times a day and picking me up for coffee breaks and "Operation: Liberate Rainbow" pep talks. I was so touched by his belief in me and his commitment to my dreams.
What neither of us knew at the time was that my liberation would be two-fold. As our relationship deepened and I learned more of the details of him being on the sex offender registry, I had to confront something deep inside. As a survivor myself, a parent, and as someone whose career had always focused on the protection of children, I had a hard time reconciling this.
But, sometimes liberation comes from the most unlikely sources. Sometimes we do enough work on ourselves to face our demons and heal.
He had already completed sex offender treatment, but I told him that in order to be in a relationship with me he had to be in therapy. I also laid out my rules for how he would be around my child. He agreed to both and I sought help too. I remember in my first session telling my therapist, "I don't know if I can love a sex offender." She said, "I think you already do." And, she was right. I had already fallen in love with David; he was my best friend, my dear love.
But, a rough road would lie ahead. His deep shame and my polarized views of offenders were incompatible bedfellows. We triggered each other, and couldn't see each other clearly at times. He wanted me to move past his worst moments and I wanted to understand them.
We were also each other's best medicine. As my black and white thinking towards offenders was healing, I deeply received his immense capacity to hold my vulnerability. "Your vulnerability is your superpower, Rainbow," he would tell me. He saw me as a Goddess, a warrior, and it greatly impacted my confidence as I left the agency and developed a practice that flourished.
I watched as his acceptance grew for the consequences of his actions, the most painful of which was the court's decision to separate him from his children. As David worked on rebuilding their relationship, I encouraged him to be a loving presence in their lives without need or expectation. When he was denied entry into Mexico because of his sex offender status, I reminded him of the "travel ban" of sorts that survivors have to live with. How offenders steal their joy and give them work that was never theirs to do. He got it, and softened, filling with regret for his actions.
Our relationship was deep and expansive, playful and divine. He nicknamed me "Gnat Eye," (shortened from "Rainbow Gnat Eye Mari-canary-frog") because whenever we went for bike rides, a bug somehow always made its way into my eye and "Mari-canary-frog" for how sensitive I am. He was the guy I jumped in the car with to go on unplanned road trips or to see our favorite bands. He could shift me out of a bad mood better than anyone. Our love for each other was unconditional and it was a deep friendship above all else. Loving him broke me open and apart and into pieces and back again.
In the latter years of our friendship, he started dreaming of a way that he could work with men with offending behaviors. He was already a leader in his recovery community: teaching meditation and mentoring men who were new to the program or were facing prison sentences. Yet he struggled so fiercely with his shame. He desperately wanted to fit in and be accepted, but that was a barrier to facing himself fully and doing the work on all of his hurt parts. When he died, he was wrestling hard with self-forgiveness, working with his childhood trauma and was struggling to accept my feedback to develop a relationship with the offender part of him. It was not a comfortable place for either of us.
I miss David every day. He was one of the silliest, wisest, and most generous people I have ever known. Everywhere we went, he was greeted by countless friends, people from all walks of life coming up for hugs and conversation. There's much I could say about the complexity of David - how his impulsivity and defensiveness challenged me. Yet, right there are all the tender moments when I held him as he cried about the terrible choices he made. How he quietly gave me donations to send to various organizations, including my daughter's school. How much he wanted to make the world a better place and spent his work days bringing solar energy to the planet and discounting his services to any organization doing good in the world.
He was extraordinary and pained, so longing for a path of redemption. I did my best to guide him to freedom as he had guided me so well, but I only wish I had loved him more, better, longer. The path I have taken in this life is the road less traveled, and in a different way so was David's. We each came here to grow big or go home, and with each other we were lucky to find both. "You will always be Home to me," he told me. Well, same here, my Beloved. I'll look for you in the next life where hopefully the lessons will be gentler!
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.
Rainbow A. Marifrog