In this article I propose to explore the idea that we come into this life with an essential self that will be with us throughout the course of our lives. It is this essence that contains the “DNA,” the map, of the path that we are meant to follow. How to connect to our essence, and find and follow our life’s path is the subject matter of this blog. This is the first in a series of articles on this subject. In this series I will address the power of pleasure, fear, vulnerability, and shame, as well as the virtues of sensitivity, love and grace in the process of discovering our true selves.
When we enter this life, we are beginning a journey that we are only partially aware of. We are born with a unique character and temperament; just as we are born in a particular place, to a particular family. Our parents may be able to recognize that we have a distinct personality, even as an infant, but with or without this recognition, we arrive in our family as we are, in a life that will at times gradually unfold before us, and at others will hurtle us into distressing, impossible circumstances that we could not possibly predict. We have a life path that we are mostly unconscious of and are often bewildered by. Depending on the health and sanity of our family, or the dysfunction and distress that are present there, we begin to be subjected to experiences that we are not equipped to deal with or understand; or we will enjoy a wonderful period of feeling safe, loved and supported, in which we can begin to explore what life offers us and who we are meant to be. Most often than not, our life experience falls somewhere in between those poles.
Whatever happens to us in our early life, however, the growing consensus among many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and other practitioners of the healing arts is that we all do possess an “essence,” a core self that accompanies us, even as we emerge from the womb. This essential aspect of ourselves will stay with us throughout the course of our life, whether we are aware of it or not. There are all kinds of ingredients in that essential self, but no one has given us the exact recipe for what makes us, well, Us. So a good case could be made for the importance of our getting to know this essence, so that we can manifest it happily and successfully in the world. How are we to discover this? How are we to find our way through all the twists and turns of our life and somehow be able to be true to who we really are?
Luckily, it turns out that there is important information and insight available that makes getting to know our essence possible. One of the significant elements in gaining this self-knowledge is becoming aware of what we truly love. What calls to us? What fascinates us? What do we most enjoy? The answers to these questions are the fabric of both our dreams and our heart’s desires that we will want to weave into this lifetime. These loves, fascinations, and pleasures will become some the cobblestones that make up our life path. If we become aware of them and learn to respect and treasure them, they will guide us on the path and keeps us true to our essence.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we can always have what we want, or that our life can be perfect. What I am strongly suggesting, however, is that our essence contains the map of a life path that belongs to us. In a sense, it is the GPS for our life’s journey. It is not a perfect GPS, however, because so many of our future destinations are unknown. But we do have an internal guidance system nonetheless. This guidance system wants to be of help to us. I believe this essential aspect of ourselves is synonymous with our Soul, which embraces the stuff of life that we love most dearly. If we learn to attune to and trust our essence, it will be an invaluable resource for the rest of our life. To illustrate this aspect of the Self, I would like to tell you about an experience that I had in the last month, which hopefully will serve as an example what I am pointing to here.
Anyone who has ever written a blog on a monthly schedule knows the feeling I am about to describe. I would compare it to the anticipation one might feel waiting for a baby chick to hatch. For much too long a time, you find yourself staring blankly at this perfectly un-hatched egg. Now the baby chick has her Mother’s warm breast and belly to facilitate the hatching process, but the solitary blogger is left to find his own resources and his own inspiration. I would call my hatching process “creative procrastination.” I have ideas mind you, lots of them, but letting those ideas coalesce and hatch is another thing altogether. My plan for this blog was to write about the ideas in two really fine books, “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker and “The Highly Sensitive Person,” by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. Each of these highly informative and cogent volumes is a toolbox of transformational ideas in itself. But for some reasons these eggs didn’t hatch for me in the weeks leading up to my writing this article. Surprisingly there was a third egg in the nest!
Starting about three weeks ago, I began what I later came to think of as a “meditative” practice, looking at my Facebook news feed for ten to fifteen minutes once or twice a day to find the most beautiful and meaningful things that were posted there. When I found something that moved me, I would re-post it and write a short poetic tag to go with it. This gave me the opportunity to attune to my poetic muse, which I don’t get to spend enough time with these days. In addition, I got to view some truly spectacular art and photography. What I didn’t expect to occur was that my postings and poetic comments would connect me to a new set of friendships with some very creative, loving, people. I would never have guessed how these beautiful human beings from around the globe would inspire me with their loving kindness and their devotion to love, oneness, and Mother Earth. They were happy for my words of acknowledgement, and I felt blessed by their responsiveness, and their warmth.
So here is an example of this pleasure principle: if we follow what we love, are attracted to, or inspired by, and doing so gives us pleasure, we may be connecting to the essence of who we are. When we begin to make this connection, we may find that we are being guided in some way, and if we can give in to this guidance, experiences that are in synchrony with who we are can begin to develop. In my example above, my love of visual art, both painting and photography, and my love of poetic words of wisdom guided me into an experience of connecting to like minded people in a way that nourished and nurtured all of us.
Two Boys, Toby Landesman, Copyright 2013
When we begin to allow ourselves to be open to being led by what excites us, conflicts within ourselves can easily begin to develop. Pretty quickly for me, as pleasurable as this “meditative” experience was, feelings of vulnerability began to arise. As an old political radical whose consciousness took root in the late sixties, I knew that what I was experiencing was susceptible to scathing critique. I won’t begin to mention the voices and thoughts that started going through my head as I thought of various friends and colleagues chortling to each other about “my enlightening experience.” But here was the thing; I found that I was actually immune to these voices, because my sense of what I had fallen into through my “practice” was very positive. I had the exciting experience described years before by Buffalo Springfield, “There is something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
In truth, I felt fascinated by my growing connection to the people that were posting these beautiful, poetic, and often stirring photographs, paintings, and spiritual quotations. And I felt inspired to respond to them. I knew that people posted all kinds of things on Face Book, and that not all of them were artistic, interesting or worthwhile, but I felt like a gold miner who had hiked up a particular mountain stream on a whim, and ended up finding the “Mother Lode.”
For me this experience not only underlined two trail markers that are essential to our finding our essence, I also began to feel that my essential-self was being awakened. I first noticed that something was gently guiding me to valuable new understandings. In retrospect, this experience showed me what I needed to be writing about, discovering our “essence” and connecting to our life path.
There is another surprising ingredient that can put us in touch with our essence and contribute to the accuracy of the GPS that is guiding us on our way. This is our personal experience of vulnerability. When our foundations start to shake and our internal windows start to rattle, we are likely on the verge of learning something very important. Vulnerability, the sense of standing on the brink of our existence, where we feel vibrations of fear and excitement running through us simultaneously, is another strong indication that we are attuned to our souls, to our love of being alive. This vulnerability can indicate that we are opening to the mystery, the awesomeness, and the fascination of the Sacred!
Those of you, who know me personally, know that I have long been an advocate of “vulnerability.” Now, thanks to the work of Brene Brown, all of us know that vulnerability is something we humans are often afraid of, try to avoid at all costs, and hide from with a variety of carefully honed strategies. What I learned from my own healing journey in therapy was that it wasn’t until I surrendered to being vulnerable and open to my innermost thoughts, feelings, and visualizations that my wounds began to heal. Each time I teetered on the brink of revealing a problem to my therapist or to my therapy group, I began to feel very shaky, a feeling I didn’t have a name for then. That feeling of anxiety kept me from opening my mouth more often than I would like to admit. But, when I found the courage to risk real self-disclosure, what would happen for me felt powerful, exciting and enlightening. I would arrive at the point where I either had to surrender to what was really going on with me and express it, or continue to cover it up. If I risked speaking the truth of my feelings, I often felt cleansed, revitalized, and open to new life.
None of the healing work I did in my therapy was sanctioned by my family. My family members, myself included, had not had any similar experiences that compared to what I opened myself to when I started learning to be a psychotherapist. We had even less experience of someone attempting to embark on healing emotionally. As I stumbled along my healing path, I learned I had defenses that I had created unwittingly in my childhood and adolescence, and that these defenses existed at the subconscious and unconscious levels of my psyche. I was in uncharted territory. The very fact that I was getting in touch with what had harmed me without my fully realizing it at the time, was potentially a cause of shame for me. Boys, like men, were supposed to have the inner strength and courage to overcome any emotion whatsoever. That’s what my father had taught me, and his father had taught him. I was in effect, going against the wisdom of my paternal ancestors.
The prevailing psychological wisdom that has accrued to us over the years, between the work of Sigmund Freud and the present, is that as we are growing up, we have experiences that are difficult for us to make sense of. Because some of these experiences hurt us and even wound us, we come to conclusions about ourselves, other people, and our life in the world in an attempt to protect ourselves from these hurtful experiences ever happening again. We develop fears, beliefs, and conclusions about ourselves and our life which arise from the cauldron of our experience. These powerful elements are forged under pressure without adequate information. Our fears, decisions and beliefs then go underground into the subconscious and unconscious mind, but they continue to color our perceptions and inform the choices that we make. It is this partially conscious aspect of ourselves that obscures our sense of who we truly are and begins to obscure and thwart what is possible for us in this lifetime.
So rediscovering our essence and connecting to the path of possibility and creative manifestation of who we are is absolutely essential, in my opinion, to living a fulfilling life. In this series of articles I propose to explore and identify what we need to be carrying in our “back pack” as we make our life’s journey. Here I am proposing that knowing what we love, what gives us pleasure, and being aware of our feelings of vulnerability and aliveness are essential psychological processes that we need to have access to as we explore our path. Milton H. Erickson, the father of modern hypnosis and strategic psychotherapy said this, “People have psychological problems, because of their failure to gain access to psychological processes.” For Erickson, almost all of the aspects of human experience were best understood as psychological processes. Feeling confident, having the courage to face our challenges, being able to feel and express love for another person were all processes that we needed to have at our fingertips in order to live life fully.
At the same time that Erickson was evolving his theories, another great psychological thinker, Eric Berne, was writing about what could block us from living fully and realizing our potential. He called these blocks “Script Decisions.” These were conclusions that we drew about ourselves, others, and our life that were based on painful and fearful experiences that we never wanted to have again. These decisions were often “negative” in nature: I am not good enough; I will never find success; I am a failure, unattractive, stupid, foolish, and unlovable!
It is this kind of decision that reflects the fundamentally human experience of shame. According to Brene Brown, this feeling of shame is the fear that I am unworthy of love and connection. Once we have come to decisions and conclusions like this about ourselves and our lives, our essence becomes more and more obscured and hidden from us. If we wish to recover this sense of who we really are, we will have to become aware of and peel back the decisions and blocking beliefs that are in the way of our fulfilling our destiny. In ensuing installments of this series, I propose to do just that. I plan to help light the way to uncovering who we are meant to be, and to making a safe and successful journey on our chosen path.
Thank you, dear readers, as always for your participation and feedback.
Great thanks to Toby Landesman for her beautiful photographs, which you will find available here.
Great thanks as well to my Facebook friends, both new and old, for awakening and inspiring me with your beautiful images and enlightening words, I offer my gratitude and deep bows of respect!
Here once again is the link to Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability!
Article Written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.