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?
Rainbow A. Marifrog