With this article I am mindful of running the risk of opening a cosmic can of spiritual worms. So, I will stubbornly stay above the fray and opt out on debating the righteousness of any one set of spiritual beliefs versus another. I write this article hopeful it may engage your curiosity about the essence of creativity and its relationship to the mystical realm no matter where you fall on the “faith continuum.” I have no doubt that my experiences inside of as well as outside of traditional and non traditional houses of worship have influenced my spiritual beliefs. Moreover, this article in large measure represents the fruits of my evolving artistic sensibilities inside and outside the treatment room. It is an outgrowth of my own search for truths about human nature, the universe, and what it means to apply these truths in the service of living well.
Mitchell Milch, LCSW is in private practice in Ridgewood, NJ. His practice specialties include: Couples Counseling, Addictions, Mood and Axiety Disorders, ife Transitions;Divorce, and Parent Education.
My working hypothesis is that mystical transformational processes are at the heart of the value of “being” and indispensable to the regulation of self esteem in a world rife with injustice and loss. Furthermore, it’s my contention that our purpose for “being” in the present, which I will term the only possible moment of creative possibilities, is to become enlightened as to our reasons “for being” or to say it a different way, our purpose for living. Finally, I contend that this process of self discovery or self creation requires trust in one’s self to process wisdom the universe gifts us, and faith in forces that operate inside and outside of us to render the unintelligible, intelligible.
If we are too closely identified with whatever we are experiencing then, it is as obvious as the noses on our own faces absent some sort of reflecting pool that we need to achieve one degree of separation between our experiencing selves and observing selves to be esteem our selves. Sounds logical doesn’t it? Thus, without space we are not aware let alone capable of attending to our changing self states on any given day. Many of our self states and reactions to our self states are conditioned earlier in life and unaltered by time and circumstances due to real and/or imagined recollections of the threats to our physical safety and emotional security posed by questioning the validity and reliability of how our caregivers saw us and wished us to seem them. So when I use the concept of self I am thinking about nurtured autonomous capacities of self observation and self reflection in the service of processing, integrating and using in a coordinated fashion, what our senses receive. Without space these developmental milestones will not take place. When we regress to earlier stages of emotional development this space may temporarily collapse.
Like a good wide receiver in football who must create space and separate himself from the defensive player covering him so he can catch a pass, we must develop separation and space from how our caregivers wished for us to experience them and how they wished for us to experience ourselves and the world in order to create new and more flexible mindsets. It is imperative that we do so because otherwise, we will suffer painful consequences by not respectfully and considerately relating and responding to those in our immediate presence by virtue of being wedded to expectations shaped by a world of blacks and whites with very few shades of gray. Such idealized and simplistic notions degrade our capacities to enrich each other’s lives. It’s as if our limits and limitations discourage us from trusting and valuing our selves to process and use our experiences to benefit ourselves an others. Furthermore, we may have learned that the creation of and use of space to sense and evaluate the world beyond the limits of the wisdom imparted to us by our role models could result in a loss of their love, hurtful judgments, or physical and/or emotional abandonment, then this process of self creation may to varying degrees be stunted. This is not a knock on anyone’s parents. It’s the respectful acknowledgement that we are all human, imperfect, limited and flawed. Thus, no one should be revered in such a manner.
The bottom line is that we need the freedom and operating space
to practice being, trusting and valuing our selves. To use an analogy this might be equivalent to trying to make sense of the world with our eyes if our faces are pushed up to a pane of glass. This is a gross form of blindness or loss of perspective. Or imagine being packed into a subway car like sardines during rush hour. You would lack the operating space to protect and promote your self interest should there be a sudden jolt or a boundary violation of some kind.
For example, I imagine that very few of us who do not possess the mentalities of a stunt man or woman would attempt to learn to fly an airplane as an unseasoned student if we feared that such mistake-laden learning the ropes might result in our instructors getting angry, disgusted and perhaps, parachuting out of the plane leaving us all alone and terrified with the overwhelming responsibility to fly and land the aircraft. These analogies are meant to drive home the point that the development of selves and self esteem does not happen in a vacuum and must take place within the context of supportive and trusted relationships.
I often liken psychotherapy to be a holding environment or to use a construction metaphor; the scaffolding while the patient’s personality is renovated. No matter how painful, self defeating and even self destructive can be the ways we live our lives they are the weight supporting beams or infrastructures for our personalities. We will not risk deconstructing our ways of being so that we can reconstruct how we experience and use these experiences to guide our actions without the security of knowing that these structures will not collapse. The trusted and valued psychotherapist is that scaffolding or weight bearing beams while we renovate the way history has shaped the unfolding of our stories. If there is one truth I hold very dear to my heart as a result of working in the field of helping others develop selves is that anxieties over non existence or the collapse of ones’ personality will most often supersede fears of death due to illness, injury or other accident of fate.
As much as the development of trust in our selves is critical to the growth of self esteem, since how this comes about remains much a mystery we are forced to venture into unchartered waters on faith. I think about the mystical forces of creation as functioning like coalescing glue. Imagine for a moment wind borne asymmetrical scraps of paper lifted out of unrelated containers of some distance from each other somehow coming together to form coherent and cohesive documents of exact rectangular dimensions. This metaphor captures my utter amazement at the incomprehensible intelligence of the universe as it works through normal folks like you and me.
I still scratch my head at a loss to explain the mechanisms by which I intuit ideas that seemingly rise to the level of thought out of thin air. I am a very, small fish in a very big pond of artists of one sort or another who have described the creative process as “taking on a life of its own.” As a sports fan I often hear world class athletes speak about “being in the zone.” They often describe having a sixth sense of the events to unfold as if some inexplicable force outside themselves guide the outcome of events. It is not an original idea by no means that imagination is the soil within which new realities germinate. When I begin to reflect on these mysteries I recognize how dynamic are the boundaries between my self and others, the past and the present and even between parts of my self. These boundaries can be fluid and permeable and so fuzzy at times so as to temporarily disappear.
My perspective is that one degree of separation between our observing and experiencing selves, and between our selves and others makes a world of difference. It’s the difference between overcoming our inner resistances to adapting constructively to an ever changing universe and unhealthily tying up our creative energies in the service of resistance to living life on life’s terms. As you will readily see as I develop my thesis, suffering and loss are constant and often unpredictable companions no matter how well you learn to play this game of life by its natural laws. Still, those of us who grow in self esteem over the course of our lives do not forsake rich and meaningful attachments out of fear and anxiety even though our losses are inevitable, often irreparable, and unavoidable signposts that no matter what roads we travel will lead us to the end of our lives as we know it.
The good news is that what doesn’t kill us literally or figuratively makes us stronger. We become more resilient in our transcendent natures or to be put another way our abilities to experience ourselves as much more than any ephemeral attachment no matter how much we cherish our attachments. Thus we can grow to fear less, potential threats to our identities and are better able to fully engage our loved ones, vocations and hobbies. This is because “I” increasingly becomes one with the light of re inventive consciousness and it is this light that unmasks our illusions that our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and flaws are anything more than artificial and transient constructs parading in and out of our fields of vision. They are only as powerful as our investments in them as obstructions to our paths toward enlightenment. No matter how senseless, cruel, inexplicable, unjust, unpredictable and earth shaking are our personal tragedies necessity being the mother of invention, we can find in trust and faith in our selves movement towards an expansive sense of ourselves; a oneness with the infinitely creative, uncontrollable, uncontainable, ineffable and indescribable universe. This process improves our abilities to take what feels like a fatal shot to the heart and live to see and enjoy another sunrise.
For example, between one and two years ago I ended a relationship with a woman I had been dating for 3 ½ years whom I planned to marry. For 4-5 straight weeks I channeled my anger into fully engaging my grief. I was immersed in an ocean of tears. The water conditions ranged from choppy to hurricane-like. Sometimes I was able to keep my head above water and observe that despite my pain, anger, rage sadness, etc., I was fine. The world had not split off its axis and the warmth of romantic love would in all likelihood grace my life again. There were other moments I seemed to be drowning in the collective tears of so incompletely mourned losses. It seemed for the first time in my life I could comfort myself and crying lost its lost its lethal symbolic meaning that I had lost something so priceless as to not be able to recover and move on.
I cried before I saw patients at the start of the day, between patients and after my sessions ended. The energies liberated from the breaking of this attachment were awesomely powerful, primitively terrifying, and hard to contain, observe and make sense of. With great trepidation and fear of drowning I dipped my cup in this ocean of cryptic wavelengths on faith that something much greater than my self would put me back together and leave me more resilient, flexible, more tolerant of distressing experiences, less identified with what is ephemeral and more identified with what is infinite. Such was the case. After 5 weeks the storms subsided and I was free to pursue love more courageously than ever. At the writing of this blog about 15 months later I am soon to be married.
Now, I would have survived this experience one way or another Still, to give credit where credit is due I would not have survived as a wiser, more resilient, more grateful and more loving person if it had not been for the “otherness” of my analyst one degree removed from my self and one degree removed from what our resonating beings stirred up inside of her. Dr. L. offered me a container to help hold and process that which at times was too chaotic, confusing, distressing and crazy making to tolerate. Yes, I did say crazy making. This grieving experience riddled me with self doubts as I struggled at times to observe my self and process and reconcile feelings of helplessness, uselessness and worthlessness with my identity as a psychotherapist. My self doubts became occasions to anxiously regress back in time to derive a false sense of safety and security in identification with how my idealized parents of childhood viewed and treated me. To experience my self as weak, vulnerable and dependent rendered me temporarily incapable to trust, value and mobilize my self in the service of comforting my self and keeping perspective on my loss. In truth I was functioning rather well despite my emotional crisis; tears or no tears.
Dr. L. was my unsinkable buoy, my life jacket that anchored me in the present and reminded me that the hurricane-like state in side of me was not reflective of a life having been reduced to rubble by primitive and malevolent forces. Dr. L. was able to identify with my experiences without being drowned by them. She maintained the degrees of separation necessary to be able to contain, help me process that which was too distressing for me to contain, make sense of and deliver back to me in a more logical and manageable form that which helped me to reconstruct a wiser, better integrated, more grounded and secure sense of self. With Dr. L as my extended container, I took sensory snapshots of my experiences, observed them when possible, tolerated the frustration of not knowing, and patiently on faith let these snapshots develop in the dark room of “nothingness” until these energies coalesced into something and rose to the level of thought. Dr. L. nurtured me to grow and in opening her self up to what was revealed and was likewise, changed by the experience. My point here is that personal growth and change is a collaborative and inter subjective experience.
There is great wisdom in the old adage that people either move forward and expand their subjectivities or their relationship to space contracts and they move backwards. For those of us in varying states of contraction or to say it differently habitually engaged in learned acts that are self defeating and self destructive we may find life to be largely traumatizing, trust eroding and faith destroying. We may find ourselves becoming progressively amnesic about our connection to the mystical until we reach a point of no return. It has been my experience that when we forget our connections to the mystical we grow weary and restless over being trapped in our artificially claustrophobic containers. Suicide of many varieties are not conscious and deliberate or completed in a flash and yet, full proof in their lethality over time.
No matter how much we evolve in our wisdom about our selves and the workings of the universe it is my educated guess that the leading edge of uncertainties and unknowns will always outstrip our evolving efforts to make logical sense of these matters. So as much as the final frontier beckons us with promises of knowledge to help us master our fears and anxieties this may be the ultimate cosmic tease. What I am putting forth here is that somewhere over the rainbow of the most cataclysmic and sublime events are answers that explain how we fit into a logical and symmetrical universal order. An order that perfectly marries form with function.
I am thinking specifically about the spiritual conversions of quantum physicists who having chronicled their observations of the properties of subatomic particles. Many speak reverently of a natural order previously relegated to the realm of the supernatural. When bonds are broken and energies are released what is observed may be a function of one’s limited understanding of the dimensions of time and space as they relate to identifying the container or crucible of creation and what is or not is contained and transformed. Given that there are no clearly defined limits on our potential to grow in our trust and faith in our selves as architects and instruments of creation then our existential angst is a direct outgrowth of what will and will not unfold in the dark emptiness. This suffering can be attenuated but can never be eradicated. So, our existential angst of not knowing what will become of us during our lives and after we cease to exist in our skins is the suffering that both propels us forward towards a relationship with the mystical and pulls us backward in futile, self defeating and sometimes self destructive efforts to re-live the illusory safety and security of childhood. The times of our lives when we were deluded with notions of divine grandeur are not so easily relinquished.
Best case, acts of creation have never to my mind been better described than it was by one of the most widely acclaimed writers of the 20th century, Franz Kafka: “It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.” Worst case when dealing with the energies of traumatic recollections these same energies can feel like being enveloped by a Tsunami while not being the merciful recipient of a swift loss of consciousness. Having processed my experiences as a writer, psychotherapist and former athlete I have reached the conclusion that these processes are fraught with blood, sweat and tears. They can take us in equal measure to ephemeral breathtaking heights of exhilaration and ephemeral depths of despair. What strikes me as irrefutable that with each successive generation there are individuals and groups that make quantum leaps in our understanding of our complex relationships to each other on ever level of organization. It’s a way of saying how Leonardo Da Vinci, Sigmund Freud or even Bill Gates were way ahead of their times.
Before I end this article I’d like to thank the like minded folks who have been my guides on this spiritual journey. I have embraced the teachings of several Relational psychoanalysts who have integrated Buddhist principles in developing their theoretical orientation and practice techniques. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them by name because without them this blog might not have been written. The first is Wilfrid Bion whom I consider to be “The father of spiritually based psychoanalytic practice. Bion has written that being with the creative process is the “closest we will ever get to God.” The second is Dr. Mark Epstein, whose writings ushered into the mainstream of psychoanalytic thought Buddhist psychological traditions, and the third is Seth Warren Ph.D, a colleague and former instructor who introduced me to Wifrid Bion’s writings. The thread that binds these three men together is the notion that trust in one’s self and faith in forces at work inside and outside of us are not mutually exclusive and indispensable to acquiring wisdom abut each other and the universe. This “giving birth” of new ideas cannot take place without the interdependence of two individuals mutually influenced by their unique perspectives or to use the analytic term, “inter subjectivities.
I invite my readers to enter into a dialogue with your selves and others that will hopefully extend the limits of our understanding of and nurture the growth of our collective self esteem within the context of learning about our selves, each other and the universe at large. Where do you see yourselves fitting into this celestial tapestry? What are your ideas on self esteem and how they are or not influenced by spiritual ideas?