The River of Life

River of Life

In all things there is a hidden wholeness

                                                               Thomas Merton                

The River of Life

Life is always flowing, changing moment to moment as are we. Nothing stays the same, yet we have a tendency to view ourselves and situations in our life as if they were solid and we could maintain and hold on to them. We take a kind of mental snapshot of how we should feel and present ourselves in the world in the hope of being loved and accepted. It is understandable. We all want to feel good, be approved of and feel safe and secure. However given the changeability of life, attempting to identify and present ourselves in a certain way causes difficulties, yet we tend to try anyway even though it never works out.  We want “A” but get “B” we think we’re going to feel happy about an experience but end up feeling something else. This is the nature of things.

 When the winds of our life shift, situations occur that disturb us or we perceive as threatening. We may not get that promotion we were promised, a sudden illness occurs or perhaps difficulties in a relationship. At these times we experience “negative” emotions we would rather avoid or turn away from. In Carl Jung’s terminology our personal shadow is revealed; those parts of us we have learned from society, religion or family to disown or keep locked out of consciousness. The personal shadow develops with messages when we are young like: “good children don’t get angry” or “boys don’t cry”, and so we stuff these normal human emotions, as the poet Robert Bly suggests, in a “long black bag” inside of us. We may put our anger in the bag and fear or grief and anxiety may go in as well. When things change, whether in a negative or even a positive way we may feel those feelings we attempt to keep in the bag.  Over time that bag gets stuffed with our split off parts. The walls we build to keep out unwanted emotions also keep us locked in.  And attempting to present to ourselves and the world only those feelings we learned are acceptable, (in light) we remain fractured inside rather than whole. This is often how symptoms begin. They are the “red flags” that point us to the suppressed human feelings long kept in “exile” that need expression. The more parts of ourselves we put in the bag the more energy it takes to keep them “down” and the less free we feel to be whole, to be ourselves. Eventually the parts we have stuffed into the bag develop a personality of their own and as a result symptoms from living half a life “leak out” as symptoms within and in relationships.

The root of the word “heal” comes from the old English word that means to make whole. We are already whole and so our healing means being aware of our wholeness, and working to reclaim those parts we have come to turn away from.

Two qualities I find most valuable in bringing our shadow parts into awareness are non-judgmental attention and curiosity. For example when a client enters therapy and tells me they are suffering from the symptom of anxiety I ask them where they feel it in their body so, “x” marks the spot where there is some tension or constriction.  If we are able to be mindful and explore the tension of anxiety in the spirit of exploration rather than a judging condemnation of our emotions, a new openness begins to occur. And in that open attention and curiosity, is the start of bringing out into the light what has been kept in that black bag for so long. This is the beginning of psychological integration and wholeness rather than living a split off life. It is the beginning of healing.




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