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It’s Not Always A Mental Illness!

7 Jul

I have worked in the mental health field for twenty-three years. I know the terrain extremely well. And although I am grateful that public knowledge of mental illness has increased, I grow weary when I frequently hear every societal problem attributed to mental illness.

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Not everything is a mental illness!

Sometimes we’re distraught because we’re going through something tough. Perhaps a death in the family, a divorce, or job loss triggers a challenging period. Or maybe we’re anxious because we haven’t learned to manage stress well and we’re going through significant life changes without much social support. These types of things greatly influence mood state and to a certain degree are a regular part of life. Human beings suffer terribly and we are all challenged by how to develop resiliency.

I invite us to consider the concept of mental wellness. How do we learn to function whether we’re ever given a mental health diagnosis or not? We all need to address mental wellness no different than we look after our physical health.

Mental health exists along a continuum. It is comparable to physical health. For instance, if I have a runny nose, am fatigued, and don’t feel well, I meet the criteria for a cold. After two weeks, when the symptoms have cleared, I no longer have the diagnosis. But if I have diabetes or a heart condition, I might have the diagnosis my entire life and then I learn to manage the symptoms. Mental illness is no different. Sometimes we’re given a diagnosis at one point in our lives but later, we may no longer meet criteria. With another illness, the diagnosis might persist. Or, we may never meet criteria for a diagnosis. Nonetheless, we still need to develop basic coping skills and to manage our emotions and stress in a healthy manner.

Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t the root cause of all sociological problems. It is actually the other way around. Sociological problems can put people at risk for developing mental illness. There are only a cluster of diagnoses whose etiologies are based in pure biology and genetics. More often than not, mental illnesses emerge from a combination of factors such as trauma, genetic predisposition, environment, social isolation, family dynamics, relationship ruptures, abandonment, and abuse, etc.

If we want to reduce mental illness statistics, we also need to address bigger cosmic factors that contribute to it. We have to stop pointing fingers at “mental illness” as the cause for all and start looking at the impact of how we treat our fellow humans. TLC goes a long way in influencing mental wellness. So does social justice.

On the same token, just because we have risk factors doesn’t mean we’ll develop a mental illness. Likewise, even if we aren’t exposed to primary risk factors, we could still be vulnerable to developing a diagnosis. We could have all the support and advantages in the world and still live with schizophrenia or severe depression. Mental wellness is a complex issue because we humans are complex. We’re a unique blend of body, spirit, intellect, and emotions. We all have different temperaments and life experiences.

Finally, one of the greatest mythologies about mental health is that people with mental illness are all violent. It has become very vogue to explain every catastrophic event that occurs as a by-product of mental illness. If a crime is committed, we immediately assume the perpetrator had a mental illness. If a child or teen acts out, he or she must have a mental illness. Because who in his or her right mind would commit a crime if sane, right? Well, crimes are committed all the time by people who do not have a diagnosis. In fact, only four percent of gun homicides can be attributed to those with a mental illness. What then compels people to violence? Why do we hurt each other? Is it greed, entitlement, poor impulse control, no moral compass, ignorance, or evil? Who knows. But not everything is caused by mental illness alone.

But one thing is certain. We can all work on our mental wellness. We can challenge ourselves to engage in basic acts of self care. Exercise, get enough sleep, breathe, socialize, and relax. Explore feelings and get in touch with our inner selves. See a therapist or join a support group. Laugh. Reach out to others. Connect to something that endows life with meaning. Because we all need to feel like we have a purpose and like we’re in relation to others. That part isn’t rocket science. It’s fundamental to humanity.

 

 

Sobriety of Mind

6 Sep

It’s astonishing how obsessed we can become with our own thoughts. It’s an addiction not really discussed but we’re all susceptible to it. Our thoughts can take us down quite literally. I have seen in it myself and I have seen it in others. Sobriety of mind is a noble undertaking.

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Ultimately, recovery is a process. We can never completely free ourselves of our thoughts. It’s the nature of the mind to look for trouble. To cling and grasp, catastrophize, and create drama.

We can gain some degree of sobriety though. We can learn to tame our minds. We can alter the way our perceptions tyrannize. And we can practice serenity.

I weary though of talking heads who say we create our reality and that everything external is a reflection of our internal perceptions. To a degree that is true but tell that to the woman diagnosed with cancer. You’re basically telling her that her diagnosis is all her fault. Tell that to the little boy sitting stunned in blood caught in the crossfire of war whose photo went viral. It’s a cop out to say something like that as it reduces life’s crap and evil to simplicity and allows us to abdicate any responsibility for helping others in situations far less fortunate than our own.

If I get hit by a bus, the reality is that it is going to hurt. I am going to have to deal with the aftermath of the accident. While I have some measure of control regarding how I deal with that reality, it’s still going to have to be dealt with. If my legs get broken, they’ll have to be fixed. Pain is a part of life. Our minds will react to circumstances and stimuli.

So where is the line between addiction and sobriety? When do our thoughts make us spin out of control into complete excess? And what do we do about it?

It’s not as simple as mind over matter or willing ourselves out of our feelings. Emotions are crucial because they give us information that something is wrong. As the brilliant Sufi poet, Hafiz wrote, “The Heart is right to cry even when the smallest drop of light, of love, is taken away.” Quite frankly, it’s not the tears that are an issue. That is just energy releasing that ultimately frees us. When we move the energy out we break long held karmic patterns of hurt the yogis refer to as samskaras. Instead it’s our thoughts that can keep us stuck, prisoners in our heads.

When we cling to what happened or what could happen and then dissect every angle of something completely beyond our control, we are simply grasping for control. And that is absurd.

We want perfection out of life. We want everyone to like us, for there never to be a mishap, and to micromanage ourselves and others. This will never be attainable yet the mind will keep questing for it. Why we build an alter to worship at it, I will never understand.

There is no constancy, as much as we long for it. There is our breath and this moment. That is it. The more we can move from one moment to the next without clinging or rejecting, then we achieve a degree of sobriety.

It’s okay to have pleasure. It’s okay to say, “F— it to worry and pain.” The pain and the worry will always be there because we are masters at it. We can ruin even the happiest of moments with obsessions but we don’t have to live with drama 24/7. For a bit, we can let go. We can enjoy ourselves.

Prison of Shame

12 Jul

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary for a 5th felony DUI she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. She had asked me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in.

I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a challenge. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

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Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

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Wrestling with Waiting

6 Jul

Most of us have done a fair amount of waiting. It’s a part of life. Yet there are times when waiting starts to feel like we’re living in a &^%$# production of “Waiting For Godot.”

There are so many ways in which we wait. “Your time will come,” people will say while one waits for a job, or a meal, a paycheck, or a diagnosis. We wait for good or bad news, for the traffic to lift, for the storm to clear, or for that lucky break. We wait for others to change or for love to finally arrive.

Waiting becomes harder for us in today’s instant gratification culture. We can no longer tolerate standing in line at a store without checking our phones or making calls. When we arrive at the counter, we nod to that checker as if he or she were a mere servant inconveniencing us and then we promptly ignore him or her.

The most excruciating period of waiting I ever had was the seven days in-between receiving a suicide note from my mom and the news that she was dead. July 11th – July 18th, 8 years ago.

How do we wait and is there any benefit in the process? Is there a way out of existential angst or are we relegated to it like a form of purgatory? Can we sex, drugs, and alcohol our way out, or do we chin up like a little tin soldier? Do we collapse and fall apart or scale the mountain to greatness?

In yoga, the space between the breaths is viewed as quite significant. It is the transition point. The point were inhalation gives way to exhalation and then gives rise to inhalation again. That is the practice. Learning how to sit through the transitions of felt sensate experience without repressing or collapsing. It is its own Gethsemane. We typically endure alone while the disciples sleep. We die and are reborn in each impasse if we allow ourselves to breathe through it. It is the road to Spirit and to Grace.

It’s not fun to feel. But it is this arc, this wave that gives rise to desire, to momentum, to action, and to transformation. It is what ultimately brings joy. Without it, there is no art. No creation. No change. And no intersection.

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Life, Death, and Creativity

30 Nov

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My family lost a member to suicide this week. For all involved, it has been a time to process this information while offering support. There is a legacy of loss here that can’t be negated. My mother’s death from seven years ago was on people’s minds as well.

Tragedy always strikes in the strong currents of life. There is a never an ideal time for loss. Often you’re already at max point with the demands of work and day to day, yet death insists that you stop. It insists that you keep going as well. When I received my mom’s suicide note, I was asked to come into work until I knew more because the hospital accredidation surveyors were there for their annual review. I thought this was the height of insensitivity, particularly from a mental health organization, but I went in and led groups and charted my notes. Three days later the police called me.

This is life. It will toss you about like a garment in the washing machine on spin cycle.

The day after news of the family death, I received confirmation that my male lead in the short film I wrote and am producing and starring in got cast on another film. He was already in Europe on a film and starts work immediately on a new feature.

Making a film doesn’t begin to weigh in comparison to the life and death of an individual. Yet in this chaotic swirl of the last few days, creativity affirms life in the face of death. We can collapse or create. Or collapse and then create. We film in a week in LA. Figuring out a new shooting schedule with a new lead who has the chops was like trying to solve a rubik’s puzzle but we did.

It is a constant honoring of loss while moving forward with life. After the film wraps, I see clients, finish up a course, and then get on a plane to see my grandmother one last time before she passes. She has held out beautifully on hospice living longer than we expected. Then it’s another plane ride and teaching for a week while we all continue to grieve for the recent death.

For the most immediate family members, they will not be moving on quickly. For them, they will need time to stand still. They will need to simply rest while remembering to eat and take out the trash. And then one day, the darkness will lift a bit. They will take a step out from the shadows and they will see a ray of light and life. During that time before and after, we will hold hands and make phone calls for this is God’s grace.

 

 

 

 

For Some, For Others, For YOU….

19 Sep

I have a colleague who often self-discloses about a traumatic car accident she had when she was sixteen. Hit by a drunk driver, she almost died. It took months for her physical injuries to heal and significantly longer for her psychological scars to heal. She was afraid to drive and became increasingly isolated. Distraught, she asked her mother, “When will I be normal again?” Her mother looked at her and quietly said, “For some, for others, for you.”

What a beautiful way to conceptualize healing and recovery. There is no cookie cutter formula for getting better and there is no specific timetable either. My colleague’s mother was basically saying that normal might as well be a setting on a dryer.

The best thing we can do when coping with trauma – (aka life) – is to approach our process with curiosity and compassion rather than judgment. Instead of asking, “Why am I not over this YET?!!!!”, we can instead ask, “What is still hurting that needs love and attention? What do I have yet to learn from this irritation and sting? How can I soothe the pain and transform it into something of beauty that affirms my life versus negates it? How can I help myself, and in helping myself, help others?”

Although we can begrudge winter and wish it away, nature never adheres to our pleas for summer. On the day we curse the snow and chill, Nature typically shows no mercy. The frigid air remains. Yet in her own time, she rewards our patience with miracles.

Although all our lives are unique, the themes of death and transformation are universal. Snow melts and Spring explodes in splendor. The roads clear and the driving conditions improve.

Eventually, we feel like driving again. We find the courage and the desire to get behind the wheel, heading out on the lone country road. We might not know where we’re headed or whether we’ll pick up any passengers, but we are indeed in the driver’s seat once more.

It is always the journey and not the destination that matters. And taking the road less travelled is often the most exquisite ride.

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Who wants to stay stuck in traffic looking at a view of Target and WallMart? Why not take a much more glorious highway or side road while ditching the GPS?

For some, for others, and most important, for YOU.

Broken Open By Love

7 Sep

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Sadly, it is often only in retrospect that we see our parents more clearly. It took my mom’s death to really understand the depths of her love for me, despite her deficiencies stemming mostly from alcoholism and depression.

My mom was not initially depressed. In my formative years she was vivacious, enthusiastic, hard working, and fun. But when her second marriage ended, my mother was never the same again. That was the beginning of the end for her emotionally.

I remember being frustrated at her never ending melancholy that would get amped up during the holidays. Who would carve the turkey, if there wasn’t a man to do it? Why cook a turkey if there wasn’t a man there to enjoy it? And who would help us put the Christmas tree on top of the car and who would get it in the stand? These were the jobs for men. Now, we women had to figure it out. I was a kid. I loved Thanksgiving and Christmas. I just wanted to enjoy the bloody holidays without her still crying over a husband who was no longer around.

What I didn’t realize was that in some ways, the train had left the station for my mom. Despite actively dating, she never again found a suitable partner. The whole process wore her down. When she did finally feel a connection with someone, he was married. Completely out of character with her morals, she had an affair, which of course was the worst thing ever for her self-esteem. The man never left his wife for her and once again, my mom felt she had no value. She couldn’t get a man to stick. She also had to make her way in the world financially all on her own, which she nobly did.

During the time I focused on her neurosis and fragility, I neglected to see her largesse of spirit. It took her years to get over the hurt of her second failed marriage and yet because of me, she learned to forgive. When I moved back to California as an adult, I initially stayed with the man she’d been married to and with his family. It must have torn at her heart that I was with them instead of her, but she didn’t have room for me in her tiny studio apartment. At the end of the day, she knew that her ex was helping me in ways she couldn’t. When he bought me a much needed used car, my mom was grateful despite the weirdness of it all. She was able to transcend her hurt of not getting the life she desired for the fact that he was helping me, her daughter, who needed father figures in her life. My mother also showed up at my biological father’s bedside when he was dying, once again to support me.

My mom always thought that her second ex-husband stopped loving her. I think he always cared for her, despite moving on to a new relationship, but that was too hard for her to see. After all, she never got another shot with someone. And she wanted the love that comes to a wife; not the love that feels more like that reserved for an acquaintance or neighbor. A “hello” here, a “hey, what’s up?” there… But once again, it’s the breaking of hearts that often opens them. When my mom died by suicide, it was her ex that was there with me identifying the body. It was her ex and his wife, that hosted my relatives at their house because with Comic-Con on that week in San Diego, all the hotels were booked. He and his wife hosted the reception after my mom’s service and took me under their wing during my grief.

One day while swimming and trying to work out an issue that had been troubling me, I felt my mother’s spirit so strongly that tears came to my eyes despite the fact that I was submerged in water. I heard her say in my head, “On the other side, it doesn’t matter. All the things humans worry about, it doesn’t matter either way. In the end, it doesn’t matter.” I realized then that she’d found the love she’d so long craved on earth. The love that here on this planet we often fail to perceive because we’re caught up in duality, caught up in lack, caught up in ego, and caught up in need. Living in a human body, in the human world, is painful.

It’s a long journey home. It takes active work to perceive that home is here and available to us all while still living in this dimension. My mother reminds me that love is all there is, if we reach out to Spirit and ask Spirit’s presence to be known. The rest of it just doesn’t really matter.

 

 

On Trauma, New Hearts, And New Bones

29 Aug

Without a doubt, Ezekiel is one of the weirdest books of the bible. It juxtaposes extremely misogynist, violent passages with some of the most exquisite prose on healing and redemption ever written. It is a strange read indeed and perhaps one of my favorite texts – perhaps because of this very contrast between horror and transcendence.

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Ezekiel is rarely preached on. After all, how do you explain that God alludes to Jerusalem as a whore, for aligning herself with other nations and that for this unfaithfulness, God basically decrees she is brutalized, raped, stoned, and cut to pieces?

Ezekiel 16:35 – Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whoring with your lovers, and because of all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. 38 I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. 39 I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. 41 They shall burn your houses and execute judgments on you in the sight of many women; I will stop you from playing the whore, and you shall also make no more payments. 42 So I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer. 43 Because you have not remembered the days of your youth, but have enraged me with all these things; therefore, I have returned your deeds upon your head, says the Lord God.

Yeah. That’ll preach…

I’m not a biblical scholar so I’m not going to exegete this text or provide a long historical context for this particular book of the Old Testament. Yet current scholars speak of the prophet as being traumatized himself, as a Hebrew in exile, and that some of the violence of his exhortations reflects his own experiences of victimization. Scholars claim Ezekiel’s own internalization of the oppressor. What I’m more focused on are the healing and the redemptive components of the book. How do traumatized people restore their hearts and souls? How do humans find meaning, hope, and life after profound brutality? How do cultures that have been decimated, exterminated and/or marginalized ever experience wholeness again? How do survivors survive? How do people face the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man and not have hearts of stone? How do people receive new hearts? These are the challenges of healing trauma on personal and political levels. More often than not, we need God’s redemptive grace for transformation to occur.

If God is the breath – the spirit – the ruach – how do we breathe in new life?

Is it not in breathing that emotions release and life force begins to flow again?

We see in Ezekiel 37 a profound shift in language and message:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Ezekiel 36:26 states: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

I love these passages for as I watch the news each night and take in what I know of the world, the amount of trauma truly overwhelms. The degree of suffering in the world is beyond belief. But somehow, the spirit endures. It lives and transforms and there is a message of hope – despite it all.

While I don’t condone the misogynist language of this ancient patriarchal text, the violent metaphors, contrasted with healing and redemption, nonetheless exerts its power.

Why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Isn’t Enough

14 Jul

I have never been a fan of cognitive behavioral therapy. Sorry. If insight was enough to change, most of us would have quit smoking, lost weight, and kept any other New Year’s resolutions by now. Most of us would know we are worthy despite maybe having been mistreated as a child and most of us would make choices for ourselves that are healthy.

CBT is based on the idea that how we think influences our emotions and behaviors and without a doubt there is some truth here. If I wake up and see that it is raining, a thought such as “Oh, crap! It’s raining. Now the day is going to suck,” will definitely get the day off on the wrong foot. Yet if I wake up and think, “Oh, wonderful! I love the sound of rain on the roof and we need the rain,” then I’m going to be in a much better disposition. But what if you implement the positive thought and yet your mood doesn’t follow suit?

Herein lies the problem. Our thoughts aren’t enough. Here in Western society, we make cognition the King, the Supreme Being. Thinking (pun intended) reins over all systems. We negate the intelligence of our emotions, the secret knowledge of the heart, and the ridiculous accuracy of our guts.

In reality, behind every thought form is energy and energy vibrates at certain frequencies. Not only that, the energy that accompanies subconscious thought patterns often trumps any conscious work on “catch it, change it, change it” strategies.

How then do we break down old narratives?

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I’m a firm believer that some of the deconstruction has to start on the physical, cellular level. We do this using our breath, by having corrective, positive interpersonal interactions, and by creating new neural pathways vis-a-vis kinesthetic movement. In the process we begin to rearrange dimensions of our nervous system, which in turn influences mood, emotions, thoughts and behaviors. We embody new narratives when we create a new reality of presence.

Yet we also have to purge ourselves of the energy associated with the traumas that created the thought forms in the first place. What subconscious contracts did we make with our parents? What energy did we pick up in the household (or in the society at large)? What belief systems do we carry that aren’t even ours? Have we taken on one parent’s issues and energy in order to stay loyal to him or her? Are we subconsciously holding ourselves back because to live a different life would be to betray mom or emasculate dad? Do we dare to be happy if our ancestors weren’t?

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How come the third generation of Holocaust survivors sometimes relate to the terror of the Nazi occupation on a visceral level, when the family history was never discussed or even acknowledged? Why might a child in utero sense the mother’s fears and resentments about an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy? Why do various ethnicities carry historical trauma even when healing has occurred and why can you burst out in tears during a massage when a certain knot in a muscle is expunged? And why can the touch of one’s beloved make you cry out in relief and ecstasy?

Sometimes my clients look at me weird when I suggest a method of treatment that entails flushing out traumatic memories and patterns vis-a-vis the energy centers of the body, or chakras. Yet even skeptics can’t help but acknowledge that when they place their hands on their hearts or throats while declaring a specific statement or pattern unique to their experience, they sometimes experience intense images, feelings, insights, and sensations. The body doesn’t lie; the body keeps the score; the body is a wealth of knowledge. The subconscious, now made conscious loosens, as does the energy and resulting belief systems associated with traumas. Catharsis, as painful as it can be, clears and removes long held defense structures held within the body and cognitive schemas.

We can’t always think our way out of the the energetic ramifications of trauma. In fact, we never can. We feel, intuit, move, and then think our way out of intra-psychic prisons. Prayer too helps because it changes the energetic frequency when you invite in the presence of the Divine. Catharsis of repressed emotion and giving voice to long held anger can also liberate and energize.

Healing is a far more complex process than keeping thought records and dissecting behavior like diagramming sentences in grammar class. This can become mental masturbation and a Woody Allen monologue. Transformation comes when we dive into the energy of our traumas and into the joy of movement, breath, and sensate experience.

 

The Eyes of Your Heart

13 Jul

Ephesians 1:18 isn’t one of those bible verses you see on coffee mugs and bumper stickers. It’s not one of those Jeremiah moments proclaiming that the Lord has plans for you to prosper, or an Ecclesiastes musing on the ups and downs of life’s seasons. It’s not commonly quoted. In fact, you may have never heard it: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious.”

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This was the first scripture I ever laid eyes on that appeared as Living Word. I have always considered words as living, powerful entities that shaped our souls. Forget the Bible. I believed the words of Shakespeare, Rilke and Whitman were Holy. The Bible was either a great work of literature, or all literature was God.

I didn’t know if Ephesians was in the Old or New Testament. I didn’t know the Ephesians were a group of individuals living in Ephesus and that “Ephesians” was an epistle addressed to them. All I knew was that a few weeks after my mother died by suicide, a pastor I knew only as the guy who surfed and wore flip flops, responded to an email from me saying, “I will pray for you. Check out this verse: “Eph. 1:18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” I don’t know what induced that pastor to send me the verse. I didn’t identify as Christian, and I had never read the Bible. I just know that when I read the verse out loud, I felt something quicken within me. I felt a sense of hope at a moment of profound grief over my mother’s death. Sure, I might have felt better because someone reached out to me in a moment of isolation via an email but this was more than a warm fuzzy from a stranger. These words spoke directly to me from God.

What was the hope to which I was being called? What eyes of my heart needed to be enlightened?

This verse ushered in a profound calling to learn more about God. I’d always believed in a higher entity but I had never believed in Jesus. On the contrary, I found much of Christianity a major turn off. I had studied and honored every religion but Christianity (and I still honor those faith traditions).

Life doesn’t get any easier just because you have a spiritual awakening and suddenly sense the presence of God. In fact, life can get harder. You still have the same trials and tribulations and just when you think you’re good with God or that God is Santa Claus, life can pull you back into that existential pit of hell that is part of being human.

It is the anniversary of my mother’s suicide on Saturday. She wrote me a suicide note on July 11th and the police called me on July 18th. Although I have healed much since her death, and her passing ushered in a period of respite from constant worry, fear and crisis, this year has been the hardest of my life. This year, for the first time, revealed to me the despair that made my mom finally say, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m throwing the towel in on life.”

Why would anyone want to throw the precious gift of life away? Why would anyone abort the breath, love, talent, and vitality we have to offer, particularly when living in America in relative safety with food, clothing and shelter? To do so threatens to negate the impact of genocide, rape, poverty, violence, human trafficking, racism, famine and disease. Yet many Americans are starving from isolation, lack of belonging, lack of purpose, and lack of authentic connection. Many young Americans are also starving from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. These too can kill you. Broken dreams, too many years of talking to the walls at night instead of pillow talk next to a living breathing human, too many years of fractured relationships, deaths, betrayals, violations, and loss, can kill. But what is this hope to which we are called?

Last night at that same church, seven years later, during the anniversary period of my mom’s death, a different pastor ended worship with that same verse. It’s not like pastors go around quoting Ephesians 1:18. It’s not a common occurrence. It’s not biblical slang/jargon. But I heard those words and thought, WOW. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order to know that hope to which you are called.”

God’s vision for our lives is so much bigger than we ourselves can see. He wants so much more for us. The hope is life in Him. It’s not in fame, fortune, or glamour. It’s not in a house, marriage, kids, and a white picket fence. It’s not in how many likes you get on FB or how well you do in the stock market. The latter are fine and wonderful things but the only true hope – the only hope that makes sense – is this much grander element. The only real salvation comes when we reach out to our neighbor and lay our lives down in one way, shape, or another. I’m not talking about being a doormat, co-dependent, or a martyr. I’m talking about making an active choice to love one’s neighbor more than oneself. There is a difference between the two. One is active and conscious; the other passive, unconscious and perhaps stupid and/or manipulative.

God has saved my life many times. Not because I’m some ignorant fool who has to make up a God in order to get by in life. I’m plenty strong and resilient, thank you very much. I am indebted to God because in the darkest times of my life, when I have been on the floor in a hot mess of despair and anguish, my eyes were enlightened to a hope beyond my reckoning. Beyond my vision. Beyond my time table. But nonetheless to a hope far greater than I. It was the same hope that hours after the police called me, informing me of my mom’s death, I knew that she was finally okay. The nightmare had passed. For, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4.

If you have to bow your head to the ground every hour of the day to feel this hope, do it. While life can be profoundly beautiful, joyous and ecstatic, even those thrills can pale in the face of God, and those earthly delights can certainly change in the blink of an eye. But this hope to which we are called, puts light in the dark, puts joy in the midst of tears. It does not wave a magic wand and solve human created situations, but it is so much bigger and so much more loving than we could ever fathom.

It is redemptive. It is salvation. It is every story that has ever been written. It is creation itself.