“May I offer up my suffering so that all beings will be freed from suffering.” –A Buddhist prayer
What happens when we trace the thread of emotional pain throughout our lives, following it unconditionally like a baby duckling follows its mother? What happens when we follow the suffering of the body deep into the recesses of our unconscious? Do we fall apart? Do we break? Do we grow divided within ourselves? Do we succumb to despair and suicide? Perhaps some do—perhaps some must. But perhaps we can do something else. Perhaps we can also become whole and end up having something to say to the world.
One day, I awoke in pain. Or it would be more accurate to say that there have been thousands of days filled with pain and many awakenings—a spiral in and out of suffering. I had been raised by a family that was torn apart by a secret they themselves did not even know they shared because the truth was too hard to face. The trauma of childhood abuse and its result, misplaced rage and hurt, had marked our family going back several generations. I, too, had been its victim, but unlike my mother and her mother’s mother, many factors, including the generation in which I was born, my level of education and my temperamental and intellectual proclivities coalesced to enable me to heal and transform it.
Somehow, even when mental and physical pain sometimes left me flat on my back and unable to function, I knew on a deep level that if I failed to look deeply into this pain on all levels, from physical to emotional and on to spiritual, I would live a hollow half-life enslaved to denial of pain or entrained to old sufferings like a madwoman. I would be continuing the hurt in my bones and perpetrating harm on others that had been done for generations.
The choice to seek healing over madness began long before my body tightened up with pain and I started to have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I remember a day in my mid-twenties when I saw this fork in the road. A ferocious snowstorm had shut down the city. The man I was dating at the time and in whom I was madly in love had called me to say that because of his worries about driving in bad conditions, he wouldn’t be coming into town that evening for our date. I was devastated. I was so in love with him that weather would not have stopped me. His hesitancy seemed to speak to a lack of commitment and love. I chastised him and told him that if he really loved me, he would take the risk. Under pressure, he reluctantly agreed to make the 30-minute drive from his countryside home to meet me. He sounded cowed and slightly angry.
As I waited anxiously for him to arrive, I thought of him poking along the deserted, icy highway with abandoned cars adrift in high snow banks. I momentarily opened up in empathy to his fear of wiping out and being stranded, at best, hurt or killed, at worst. I reviewed in my mind the conversation with him. Suddenly, I heard my mother’s disparaging, critical voice, her unreasonable expectations, and even more unreasonable demands based on some warped idea of love. I felt the awful burden of unrelieved guilt I had carried as long as I could remember. I saw in an instant of self-awareness that I had done the very same thing to this man, supposedly my beloved. In that moment a kernel of insight made something terribly crystal clear: I knew I was at risk to walk down the same road my mother had. To devolve into mental illness with legions of friends and my only loved ones hounded and even absent due to my having driven them away.
I did not know then about the diagnoses in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV of Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but I was beginning to notice the instability of mind and emotion in myself that had surely fed into my mother’s own madness. It would take me another 15 years to figure out that my mother suffered from these diseases and then yet another 10 years to determine that she also may have been manic depressive. Since she had never been diagnosed due to never allowing anyone to even infer there was anything even slightly wrong with her, I had to rely on my own skills as a researcher and scientist to put the pieces together.
The choice I made in that moment on some subtle level was to follow the call down the other path. At every crisis that I encountered—of which there were many—even though the plunge into the unknown waters was terrifying, I chose to follow. Each time, resistance to and fear of the process little by little melted away and surrender followed. Surrender eventually gave way to acceptance and peace.
As the years passed, it became more and more clear that this work was my calling. Psychoanalysis, various forms of body work, Buddhist meditation, prayer, and journal writing became a central focus of my life. Even my career choices going back to the age of 18—several degrees focused on the study of Communist Russia where abuse of the body and spirit had been in place for centuries and eventually a Ph.D. in folklore and anthropology leading to teaching the connection between violence, trauma, storytelling and healing—ultimately were unconsciously pointing in the direction of the knowledge of the self.
Yet for more than a decade, this work on myself was wrought out of a need to escape from my own personal suffering. Eventually, it became a study of the body of suffering, not just my own, but humanity’s. Dogen Zenji, from the Genjo Koan, says: “To study the self is to forget the self/To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas,/To be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas is to free one’s body and mind and those of others.”
Finally, there was a day when I was free enough. At the age of thirty-seven years old, after over 15 years of tracing the thread of personal pain to its source (as Anna O. described her work with Freud in the late 1800s) when I knew it was finally time to write. Part of the pain was a fear of writing—afraid I could not survive if I wrote, afraid that speaking out would destroy me.
What was the source of this fear? Writing for me was diving into a place of complete empowerment where every word, thought and experience counted, no matter how irrational it seemed. Writing meant daily tapping into the whisperings in body and mind that usually go unnoticed as we push ourselves to survive in a world oriented to surface things. It meant allowing the domain of dreams, symbols, archetypes, and visions to come out of the closet. It meant standing up and claiming the truth as I saw it in a world that largely rejects and denigrates that which is not concrete and seen and in a family where an invisible mental illness not widely recognized as such by society at large distorted its own story.
Because writing meant putting my creativity first, it also meant a radical restructuring of the way I had been taught to live which had demanded that I put survival first. To that end, I was deconstructing the way my mother had been taught to live, and her mother and her mother’s mother, going back so far that time had distorted our generational memory into believing that this state of dis-ease, of separation from our inner world and from others around us was the norm. I became aware of the degree to which the legacy of the white Western European destruction of our own indigenous roots and the destruction of the indigenous peoples by my ancestors going back to the time of Galileo and before had wounded us. Without an intimate relationship with the natural world and with the unconscious seamlessly interwoven into waking life, we were cut off from an essential source of wisdom enabling us to survive well. The claim of the dominant culture that the patriarchal, intellectual, materialist, rational, scientific, and cognitive worldview provide us with the only reasonable tools for survival, have sown the seeds of our own madness. In such a world, madness is seen as the inevitable result of living a creative life.
My body knew what was needed and propelled me towards the beauty, power and healing capacity of such a life. But there was still a long way to go. Three years before my decision to write, while sitting at my computer terminal at work, composing yet another dull office memo, suddenly I could not move my head from side to side. Any attempt to do so led to searing pain radiating down my torso. I was terrified that I was becoming paralyzed and, in a sense, I was. Trapped in a hostile work environment at the time and still entrained to catering to the unreasonable demands of my profoundly troubled mother, I ceased being able to look freely upon the world.
I could no longer wait. Carrying in my body and mind the collective wounds of the patriarchy in which the Great Mother, the animus, she who represents Soul, en-spiritedness, inspiration, enchantment, intuition, psyche, had long been denigrated, I had for years suppressed the powers of my own intuition and, at five feet two, hated my small female body. I had dammed up my creativity until my flesh began to freeze in one place, the muscles less and less easily expanding and contracting, the bones unable to move without friction due to tendons and ligaments pulled taut: the pain of the mind manifesting within the body.
I was eventually diagnosed as having a condition known as fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is not life threatening, although it can be quite debilitating. It is also largely a female disease with over eighty percent of all cases reported by women. Consistent with the tendency in our medical establishment to doubt, downplay and denigrate the diseases of women and because the cause of pain cannot be measured by current scientific techniques or located as emanating from a particular source, it is considered by many to be a completely psychosomatic disease.
The great irony of this pronouncement is that it denies the inherent truth of all disease. What disease does not have a psychological component? Whose body does not speak when the mind and heart are breaking? What physical symptom or disease process does not, like a beautiful line of verse when read closely, express and expose the unique territory of the emotional and spiritual life? Everything is a metaphor. Where there are physical sources for all symptoms, so there are intangible, psychological, spiritual, and emotional ones. Our bodies and minds are one; there is no separation.
Yet although I was willing to look for the psychological and spiritual sources of my physical pain in my mind, there was no doubt that the discomfort I felt had its roots in some physical process. This pain was as tangible as if I had put my hand into a fire and burned the flesh away. And although I held a hope that I could someday cure this physical pain by healing my heart and mind, I also understood that some diseases persist long after the spirit and mind have returned to wholeness. In this way, we see that the intersection between body and mind is part of the Great Mystery of life. Just as all great mystics, whether Christ or Mother Theresa, have to die of physical causes or by a ravaging of the corporeal body, so must all our bodies eventually fall away and rot.
Thus the initial source of the impetus to write was telling the tale of my healing, a story inextricably connected to my relationship with a difficult and brilliant mother. I had all my life felt this telling was part of my destiny and, indeed, this relationship was then part of the core story of my life, shaping every choice I made. Eventually, though, as the writing progressed and healing deepened, the story became larger and more profound. It took many years to get to the point where I could release my writing into the world to tell this story.
Writing this memoir over a period of a decade became an unfolding vision of how to live with my feet in both worlds: the inner world of spirit and the outer world of matter. Finding the courage to release it into the world did not happen until I stepped fully into the calling to be a healer in the disciplines of the new shamanism, an emerging spiritual and therapeutic movement in the West that has grown out of the remains of the indigenous traditions whites tried to hard to destory.
Thus writing this story also became an articulation of a path to heal the dis-ease within our own culture, the separation between body and soul, the loss of living rituals, and the loss of meaning. My path then became an articulation of how white Western Europeans can take back our projection on the indigenous peoples of the earth by reclaiming our own earth-centered roots buried hundreds of generations in the past while yet still being held in our ancestral memory. We can also embrace what can be learned and salvaged from indigenous healers and teachers who have taken the brave step to reach out to those who are ancestors or even kin by virtue of race or ethnicity to offer what they know for our mutual healing.
Besides the part of this story about the new shamanism and its complexities, this story is also about living with a family member with mental illness about which not much is known in the general public. We hear about schizophrenia, manic depression, despression, and even multiple personality disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder), but generally Personality Disorders such as my mother had are not heard about in the media. For my family, this lack of information made living with and understanding our mother incredibly challenging, as by all accounts, she described herself as “normal”. It was only at the end of her life when her behavior and her view of the world became so distorted that we finally began to see clearly the writing on the wall.
When someone lives with a family member who is mentally ill and who is still alive, the process of grieving is extraordinarily complex. There are no clean endings, no easy sense of closure. Because the ill parent or sibling may go in and out of sanity, hope is constantly raised, only to be shattered with each relapse into the behavior of insanity, dis-ease, or depression. Each time, the old wound reopens and the old tears rise again. This state of emotional limbo can be very confusing and debilitating, leading to lifelong depression and even mental illness in the siblings or children of the mentally ill family member. It therefore takes endurance, effort and courage to delve into that pain and find healing.
Once when I was in the middle of a difficult time and chastising myself for always being so focused on myself, for being so “solipsistic”, one of the many beloved healers/therapists said, “You should thank yourself for loving yourself enough that you are able to commit to your own healing.” I experienced her words like a bolt of lightning in my body. She spoke a clear, but simple truth: the work of healing oneself is a worthy endeavor that requires incredible patience and love. Patience because it is a task that even continues after the death of the body. Love because it takes that much time and work. Not love in the sense of Narcissus slavishly and vainly gazing at his frozen reflection in the mirror, but in the sense of looking beyond surface appearances to the unfolding spirit within. It means being willing to hold oneself with loving kindness and to meet squarely one’s inner demons.
If, like Alice walking through the world beyond the looking glass, we go beyond the gleaming reflection of things as we wish them to be, we not only see that which is beautiful and seemly, we also inevitably run right into the shadow parts of ourselves, those traits that we wish to disown—our hatred, greed, jealousy, meanness, childishness, neediness, panic, hunger, and fear. Who really wants to look at these characters in our drama and share them with the world? Not Narcissus. His attachment to the lovely figure of youth eventually causes him to lose love and to death in a watery grave—the grave of his own disowned emotions. His story shows us that to disown the ugly is truly the source of madness.
Yet it is the human condition to be crippled by fear in the face of pain and to get lost in frantically running after the seeming beauty of surface appearances, whether that pain is caused by suffering on the extreme end of the spectrum, such as in war, murder, or rape, or whether that pain is subtler, such as in forms of verbal abuse and emotional conflict. In our culture, a lie is perpetrated that we can escape pain through popping a pill, buying the right car or having the right body. These false myths have us brainwashed into believing that to enter into pain equals death. They grow out of a worldview that life is a linear process from birth from nothingness to death into nothingness. They are a mistaken extrapolation of evolutionary theory and from spiritual fundamentalism—whether Judeo-Christian, Muslim, or any of the other religions based in the patriarchal split from a nativist, earth-centered cosmology where dark and light, heaven and earth, male and female are joined as one—that our small lives are a single, unbroken line of development, ever upwards towards perfection and transcendence, or, if we choose the wrong path, downwards into infamy and even hell.
Because Darwin and his peers believed that the white, Western European male represented the cutting edge of civilization, the theory of evolution did not go as far as it could have. Evolutionary theory in a spiritual sense could have reconnected the West to the living truth that has always been expressed in all the indigenous belief systems in human history, whether black, red, yellow, or white: because all things are interconnected and dependent one upon the other, so the impact of pain and suffering and its integration into our wholeness results in better adaptation to life. Life is a constant spiral of creation wherein that which dies is reborn in a new form. Without death of what is unneeded or unworkable, we cannot survive well and long.
Having lost this indigenous worldview of life as a circle in our culture—representing a perpetual spiral in and out of life and death and back into life, in and out of stasis and movement into stasis and back into movement again—we don’t understand that commitment to individual healing becomes a spiritual practice benefiting the whole. As a culture, we are confused. On the one hand, we have a fascination for gossip and voyeurism as evidenced by television programs like Entertainment Tonight and seamy, conflict-ridden talk shows. In these cases, our individual and collective participation only leads to greater pain. On the other hand, the reading of our neighbors’ lives can be a heartfelt striving for understanding the Other so that we may better know and understand our Self as an individual and our Selves as part of the human family.
If we take the latter path, then like the story of Christ (“I am the Way”), our own small lives and our sufferings can be a template for finding peace in the midst of chaos, joy in the suffering of the war zone, equanimity in the center of conflict. In this context, looking deeply at one’s own story is about finding the truth—both personal and collective.
As my own healing unfolded, I found myself thinking that if everyone only knew what the fruits of such work are, they would be willing to do it. If they only had someone to hold their hand and reassure them that they will be all right and that the path of suffering leads straight into the arms of ecstasy, then maybe they would have the courage to face their own pain. Thus, as I, one memoirist among many in this time, mine my own childhood pain and show the unfolding search for relief from personal suffering, perhaps I am telling the story of every suffering family—how we get captured and held prisoner in the tower of the false self and then slowly climb down, each in our own way, to meet our real selves.
In the process, we learn about compassion for others, about how to love what we are taught as children to hate the most in ourselves, and about acceptance of everyone who was a part of the drama. In this way, the teller of a tale calls out from deep within the silence of shame, fear and stoicism, allowing us to acknowledge we are each in pain and yearning to be free. In this way, our personal stories end up being a journey into healing the collective ills of our society. Thus we affirm the truth held in the Buddhist prayer, “May I offer up my suffering so that all beings will be freed from suffering.” May it be so.