People can be an obstacle; they can shake your faith before you are firmly established in virtue; but once you are established everybody can know. Â? Irina Tweedie (1)
Acknowledgement and support cultivate inner strength, give us the will to endure and deepen our trust. When the results of inner work are intangible, in-visible, undefined or slow-going, genuine acknowledgement and support may sustain us through periods of uncertainty or despair.
Support includes encouragement, listening, understanding, sometimes not interfering and 'being there', uninhibited by inner blindness, denial, prejudice, judgment or projection.
Acknowledgement is more tricky. Sometimes it is quietly noticing, valuing the changes and the growing process; sometimes it is a quiet understanding, a knowing of experience. It is life-affirming and unafraid, uninhibited by ignorance of inner processes, lack of depth, awkwardness about silence or unawareness. Instinctively we may look for these things in the people we are closest to. But often they are unable to meet our needs, because they feel threatened.
Personal counselling suffers when our inner search conflicts with our loyalty to our loved ones. When husbands, wives, relatives or friends are antagonistic to our personal growth and withdraw their support, we may have to choose between loyalty to others and loyalty to ourselves. If we choose the former we become alienated from ourselves, if we choose the latter we become alienated from our loved ones.
If the people close to us have never engaged in inner work, they may find it difficult to give us the support we need. They may be unable to understand what we are going through and it is unlikely that they will respond positively to our growthful changes. They tend to have an investment in our remaining as we are, or, when they see some 'fault' in us, in correcting it in a way they would prefer. Either way, they cannot provide the kind of openness and acceptance we need.
In family relationships and friendships, we play roles and when we step out of these roles things become uncomfortable, for us and them. Like performing a well-rehearsed dance routine and suddenly changing your steps, everyone is thrown off.
Openly sharing our self-discovery can arouse denial and defensiveness in others. In The Alchemist, Paul Coelho shows us that blatant honesty may even invite ridicule. Sometimes stating the bare truth sounds so preposterous to the prejudiced listener that it is certain to be treated as a joke.
Following a series of adventures the boy and the alchemist are riding through the desert with the legendary Philosopher's Stone and the miraculous Elixir of Life in their saddle bags when they come across a group of Arab bandits. The leader demands to know what they are carrying and the alchemist replies that they have an elixir that dispels illness and a stone that turns metal into gold. The bandits burst out laughing and allow the two of them to ride on with their belongings. The boy, thinking that the alchemist has gone crazy, asks why he openly revealed their precious cargo. The alchemist replies, 'To show you one of life's simple lessonsÂ? When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.' (2)
Our inner discoveries may not be believed by others too. Either through cynicism or fear, the negative response of others can be enough to plant in us seeds of doubt.
The effects of inner work become outwardly visible over time, but the last people to notice any difference are often the ones closest to us. Unless they are also working on themselves, their image of us may be so strong that they resist even obvious outward signs of our inner changes.
Often the ones most likely to doubt us are those to whom we are closest. In her unpublished autobiography, Helen Shucman, the unlikely channel of A Course in Miracles, describes the response of her husband Louis to one of her transcendent experiences. Riding on the subway one day, Shucman perceives the human race in all its physical, emotional and sensory sordidness: coughing and sneezing, nauseating odors and dirt, vomit and perspiration. She feels overwhelming revulsion, disgust and sickness and becomes convinced that she herself is fatally ill. Then a blinding light fills her and in a vision she kneels on the ground in great reverence. Embraced by a loving arm, she disappears and with the light growing ever brighter she experiences a love so intense that it makes her gasp and open her eyes. This love pours from her to everyone on the train. And then the light fades and the scenario of human degradation returns. Greatly disorientated, she reaches for her husband's hand and triesÂ? to explain her stunning experience of light and all-encompassing love... Patting her hand and assuring Helen that it sounded like 'a very common mystical experience', Louis then told her not to give it another thoughtÂ? (3)
Many people have their deep inner experiences dismissed by people close to them similarly.
We ask a lot of someone when we expect them to understand our deep inner processes. We not only require them to be open and willing to really hear us, we also ask for their intuitive empathy and understanding. We may ask their understanding for what we do not yet understand ourselves. Until we are very solid in our truth, we need to be acknowledged by someone who can really be with us and hear what we have to say without criticizing or judging. Often we will not be able to justify ourselves or our behavior towards them and others. We need to be allowed a great deal of space without always being able to make sense of what is developing inside us.
Judy was the epitome of 'the good little girl'. Now a woman in her mid-thirties, she was a devoted wife and a shining example of domestic efficiency. She came to therapy, partly at her husband's request, when their marriage became stifled and lifeless. In therapy she uncovered deep historical resentment towards her father who had made her his favorite and manipulated her to meet his expectations to win his affection. As her emotional blocks began to thaw, she had unexpected outbursts of raw anger. Anxious to preserve her relationship, she asked me how to deal with this in her marriage. I suggested that she tell her husband that she was likely to express her emotions unpredictably and prepare him for what might happen. This way he could anticipate his reaction and not turn her outbursts into arguments. He also needed to understand that this was how Judy would achieve emotional health rather than suppressing her feelings and that the relationship could grow in time from a new healthier basis of aliveness and openness.
This type of strategy demands understanding and caring. When we don't feel understood, we may become self-conscious or embarrassed when we need to take ourselves seriously. We can become the saboteurs of our own process when we feel that our inner processes are threatening our relationships. We may not be ready to put our close relationships at risk when our partner's image of us collides with our new emerging self.
Our partners, friends and relatives may be tested and challenged as they witness the changes in us. Naturally, we feel we want to share our new experiences with those we love. But as we change, what we need from our friends and partners changes too. As we recognize the different aspects of our character and shed life-stifling patterns, we expand and grow. If our relationships feel too confining or our roles with our partner and friends are not suited to our deeper self, we may outgrow those close to us.
Friends or partners who are not supportive of our personal growth may feel excluded, confused and threatened. They may sense some distance growing in the relationship. We may be unwilling to adapt, compromise or limit ourselves in the ways we previously did. So, however much we reassure them, their concerns are justified, because as we grow we change. When we engage seriously in inner work, we are bound to emerge a different person. The relationship or friendship will then have to accommodate or embrace new dynamics. Our partners may be hurt and behave reactively. We may feel that we are forced to choose between compromising ourselves for the sake of our partners and remaining loyal to ourselves. Sometimes the connection is not strong enough to accommodate such far-reaching changes.
At times we may ask ourselves whether our personal exploration justifies the hurt we cause our partner and friends. We may ask whether our love for them doesn't warrant the sacrifice of our personal journey. It may not be all right to hurt them, but what right do we have to hurt ourselves by stunting our growth? Caring for them and caring for ourselves may seem equally important. We may decide to follow our own process in spite of the pain it causes others. The man or woman who blazes a trail uncompromisingly, lives life fully, takes risks frequently and is sincerely committed to personal transformation may be forgiven much.
The acknowledgement of our family may be hard or even impossible to obtain. One client went to her father for support and encouragement. He was clearly threatened and scared by what she was exploring in her therapy. His aggression startled and repelled her, as it was no doubt designed to do. But this didn't dissuade her from trying to gain his support several times. Some innocence motivates us to try to include our family and loved ones in our inner discovery. We feel that since we have found the courage to open up to our inner world that those close to us can somehow share in it. Coupled with our need to be acknowledged, recognized and supported by those who played a part in our historical dramas, we are possessed by an overwhelming need to have them involved and on our side. We also need them to admit their part in what has happened to us. Sometimes it seems that their acknowledgement or confession is all we need for healing to be complete. But we are unlikely to get it. Usually we will have to live in the knowledge that the other members of our family are in denial or don't see it the same way as we do or feel so guilty that they will never admit to any responsibility.
Therapy is a massive act of disloyalty to the past. Sharing private confidences with a therapist, we may feel that we are betraying our parents, siblings, spouses and friends. Our personal shame reflects the collective shame we feel towards our family. But with acknowledgement and support from people who we respect we can succeed in a correspondingly strong act of loyalty to ourselves.
A group is a powerful environment for mutual acknowledgement and support. But group members may sometimes collude to deny and distort the collective experience. When this happens the negative power is equal to the positive. In one of my group weekends, a tremendous event occurred: the participants touched the spiritual essence behind their personalities. They saw themselves and each other from an expanded perspective. It happened spontaneously. I still remember vividly the brightness in the air, the rarefied atmosphere that seemed to promote startling clarity. Each participant saw their essence, their specific archetype. The Archangel Michael, an alien space traveler, the dark goddess Kali, each hidden archetype became visible and pointed towards their potential and their life purpose.
But at our next meeting the group suffered from collective amnesia. Each person had great difficulty recalling their experiences of that weekend. And the consequences were extreme: some participants had fallen ill, some had gone through tempestuous difficulties in their relationship and two had left their jobs.
One woman described how she tried to share the experiences of that weekend with her partner. He listened disbelievingly, suspiciously and uncomprehendingly to what she told him. Eventually, she found the distance that this created between them so painful that she made fun of her experiences to avert the ridicule she felt from him and to lessen the distance between them. Later, she became ill and took to her bed for five days in a deep depression.
What happened to this group? When each person deepened into their spiritual essence, they moved into the realms of the archetypes Â? the forms or essences that underlie our individual selves. Traditionally, you take gifts when meeting a spiritual guru, as a sign of respect for the teaching. When you are in the presence of a god, you bow. You do not meet gods with disrespect. The group collectively, felt the wrath of the gods. The amnesia and making fun of the experience caused each person to suffer when they were obligated to acknowledge and honor their experience. When each dishonored themselves, they experienced the suffering that drew them back into the depths which they had denied. They needed only to remain receptive. A part of them was now consciously sacred so it took too much energy to deny.
One man described how he turned it around. On the morning after the group he developed a high temperature and fever which confined him to bed. Feeling helpless he deepened and surrendered. Following three days of restlessness and intense dreaming, in a place between sleeping and waking, he had a dream that was 'like a vision'. A being clothed in green, which he identified as his archetypal self, appeared to him and said, 'You are This' and, opening his palm, he revealed a tiny sphere. As Ian gazed into the tiny sphere he felt that he looked into the universe, the totality of all feelings, thoughts and emotions and finally all universes. He felt a tremendous surge of exhilaration, gratitude and love. Afterwards, he fell into a deep dreamless sleep and when he woke the next day he had recovered. Surrendering to his vision was the belated acknowledgement and deep integration that supported and brought his inner work to fruition.
Tao is the Chinese word for the truth that lies at the source of all things. The sage Lao Tzu distinguishes three kinds of response to the Tao:
When a wise scholar hears the Tao,
He practices it diligently.
When a mediocre scholar hears the Tao,
He wavers between belief and unbelief.
When a worthless scholar hears the Tao,
He laughs boisterously at it. (4)
Through the limitations of our character we meet the sacred with wisdom, mediocrity or worthlessness. We can be wise 'scholars' or students of life sensing the Tao behind our changes. Or our practice may be mediocre as we vacillate in our faith. Or we may ridicule the truth, humiliate ourselves and render all that is precious in us worthless.
Acknowledgement and support are crucial for the success of inner work. Receiving them as gifts from others gives our inner work substance and validity. But the most important source of acknowledgement and support is ourselves. Self-acknowledgement and support strengthen our commitment, refuel our inner resolve and encourage us to go further on our inner journey.
(1) Tweedie, 1979, p.82.
(2) Coelho, 1995, pp.140-141.
(3) Miller, 1998, p.37.
(4) Lao Tzu, 1990, p.62.
Coelho, Paulo, The Alchemist, Thorsons 1995, pp.140-141.
Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, trans. John C H Wu, Shambhala Publications Inc. 1990, p.62.
Miller, D Patrick, The Complete Story of The Course: The History, The People and The Controversies Behind A Course in Miracles, Rider 1998, p.37.
Tweedie, Irina, The Chasm of Fire: A Woman's Experience of Liberation through the Teachings of a Sufi Master, Element Books 1979, p.82.
About the author:
Richard Harvey is a psycho-spiritual psychotherapist, author and spiritual teacher. He is the author of The Flight of Consciousness: A Contemporary Map for the Spiritual Journey (Ashgrove, 2002). His work spans over 30 years. During that time he has led groups, workshops, seminars and training courses throughout Europe, as well as maintaining a private practice.
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