I sit with humanity one person at a time, but humanity nonetheless. The universality of feelings, sensations, thinking, beliefs, and efforts at loving grows ever-more deeply familiar and beautiful to me, while simultaneously remaining somewhat mysterious. And that too is beautiful. I take much comfort in being with this lovely paradox and my clients seem to as well. The multidimensionality of the human experience is fascinating. After all this time, I still feel awe-struck with wonder and gratitude at the gifts these people bring to me through just their sheer ever-opening presence of Self.
I feel mixed about Billy Graham’s passing and his legacy, though mostly negative. A good handful of my gay Pagan friends have expressed understandable disdain for him and what he leaves behind, given how he spoke hatefully about homosexuality. Unfortunately, Graham’s son is even worse, another dime-a-dozen, polarizing evangelical hater we can do without. Thinking realistically, I strongly suspect the son won’t change, much as some are surely naively wishing he will be “inspired” to be more like his father. I have one friend on Facebook who wrote this as a wish before they then deleted the post after I filled them in about Graham’s stance on gays.
When you are actually a member of a group that is spoken of so hatefully, it’s different than being an ally of that group, no matter how well-meaning you are as that ally. A gun pointed at one’s own head is different feeling than when it is pointed at your friend’s, much as the latter is painful and enraging to witness. Allies can only empathize and understand up to a point. Hence, I would have to be self-hating in the deepest way to block out feeling my own and the collective pain of my gay brothers right now to then somehow “rise above” and speak respectfully of Billy Graham. For my own self respect and integrity and for that of my fellow gay men, I just can’t.
That all said, speaking from the concept of relativity placed along a spectrum of “bad to absolute worst,” I do wish all evangelicals were more like Rev. Graham, who was “bad” behaving as opposed to “worse” or “the worst” among all the offenders of such social and (un)spiritual conduct. For he too adhered to the sticky wicket of hating on us gays in the name of being “true” to the Bible and its teachings. Such extreme, troubled thinking and speaking has been a big part of visible, vocal “spiritual” expression in the U.S.A.– by Graham and his generally even more intolerant ilk. Billy was accepting of other faiths and races, as I heard liberal Christian apologists say on public radio earlier today, and they are right, of course. But, yet again, that leaves just us homosexuals as the token pariahs or “filth,” one group among the masses, the rest all to be loved by “good Christians.” So, Graham was part-way to decency, which still left him short of full arrival there. Logically, how was he completely a “good Christian” then when Christ himself preached to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” leaving no group of people, including gays, to be left out of that admonition? Expecting me to praise Graham would be like expecting a black person to think and speak kindly of an inherently racist leader upon that leader’s death, even though said leader had expressed and done goodness in so many other ways. The white, heterosexist patriarchy holds its haters close and dear, including Graham. After all, it’s “just gay people” and nobody else.
It’s simply too soon to expect those of us who were direct targets of Graham’s deeply hurtful beliefs and words about us to “get over” this. Healing takes time. Maybe someday I will have more positive things to say about this old preacher, maybe, though maybe not– regardless of how healed I and my brethren have become over this spiritual level of toxic shaming Graham participated in doing. Ultimately, I trust and hope, Graham will have to account for that somehow in the after life now that he’s shed his mortal coil. Regardless, his relevancy for me and my fellow queers is fast-fading away, and therein lies the healing.
I feel very similarly about the current Pope as I do about Graham, except maybe a little softer towards the former because he seems to be wrestling a bit with his beliefs against gays, perhaps. The Pope in his position is the gentlest of “bad” compared to his “absolute worst” predecessors, and for that I am guardedly thankful. On other fronts these days, there interweaves a network of far more hardcore, villainous-behaving leaders and followers who we GLBTQ+, other minorities, women, and disenfranchised/vulnerable groups of people are up against. We need to do all we can to neutralize them from power as peacefully as possible.
Reflecting on Billy Graham’s legacy, I am reminded how organized religion has not done well by me or my gay brethren. This has been particularly the case for Abrahamic faith institutions– though filled as they are with wonderful, loving individuals. Hence, this is a big reason why I am not a member of such an organization. I worship the gods alone and in small groups, making my way on rare occasion to a local Unitarian Universalist Church, where I take the best, leave the rest, and am accepted, at least formally, as I truly am, a gay Pagan.
As an Eclectic Pagan, I appreciated the shamanic ancestral practices beautifully and respectfully shown in the BLACK PANTHER, as well as the nature-based, animal form goddess and god worship in that movie. The religious and spiritual material appeared to be inspired by and derived from centuries, even millennia, of a variety of actual indigenous tribal ways, with a bit of ancient Egyptian and Hindu pantheon names (Bast and Hanuman, respectively) thrown in for good measure. And while the cosmology of the Wakanda peoples and land was entirely made up, it was laid out at the start in a caring, celebratory way that left me with a sense of honoring or veneration. This pleasantly touched the devotional side of me. The very positive, normalizing portrayal of a culture of Pagan worship that is also technologically advanced while existing harmoniously with the rest of nature (or so this was at least suggested) felt deeply affirming for me as a modern Pagan. There really is a lot of goodness to be found in the refreshing imagery and ideas within the film BLACK PANTHER, from which I continue to derive good feelings.
Sitting with people as I have done all day, five days a week, for the many years I’ve been doing this sacred work has helped me to better see, and then assist in bringing forth, the essential Buddha/Christ/Divine/deeply good nature in people, all sorts of people. On increasingly rarer occasion, I haven’t been able to do this with someone. It’s clearly been because I wasn’t the right vessel at the time to allow an individual’s core, good Self to come through, sometimes due to my own blind spot(s) I still need to address. However, more frequently, it’s because of their own issues, or parts, somehow clashing up against the image and sense of me they see and hear before them. But, often, the person is simply not yet ready to allow this healing process to happen the way they so badly need it to. At those times, I turn over trust to the universe that these folks will find the right healer(s) and place to finally arrive more into their true Selves. And to that end, I offer them other names of colleagues and other supports as indicated.
While my husband and I were enjoying our vacation in Southern CA about three weeks ago, an image came into my mind that has continued to stick with me: a brain enclosed in a cage of thin intersecting wires. Each small section of wire represents a “do,” “don’t,” “should,” or “shouldn’t.” Like all of us, I grew up with people constantly instilling rules and guidelines for appropriate behaviors to exhibit, ones not to exhibit, and thinking patterns and values to internalize. My parents did this all the time as did schoolteachers and other adults around me. I needed to be formed “correctly” to then become a good, contributing member of society.
One side of my family of origin was Catholic. While that worldview was rigorously challenged and explicitly rejected by my smart, creative, feminist adoptive mother in her early 20’s, the rigid style of thinking and disseminating about “right” vs. “wrong” thought and action often was not. To be clear, my mother did and has always meant well. I think all parents do. The “do’s” and “don’t’s”, “should’s” and “shouldn’t’s” needed to be imparted to me, but how they were was often problematic. I’m guessing almost everyone reading that last sentence can agree to at least some extent.
It is not my intention here to bash Catholicism or single it out as being the only cause of a “braced” brain. There are many institutions and streams of thought that do this as well and that has been widely written about elsewhere. Ultimately, it is well-intentioned people who pass on rigidity to a new crop of subsequently constrained, shame-based thinkers, from any number of sources, their parents being a primary one.
Then there’s graduate school.
As a Masters level mental health professional, I experienced a second, specialized round of initiation and indoctrination into adulthood via grad. school. Smith College School for Social Work and the accompanying internships out in two different communities immersed me in an ethos of standards and ethics to work and live by. The experience was challenging and ultimately rewarding. I would not be where I am if it weren’t for the theory-heavy, dynamic higher education I had the privilege to obtain. However, I repeatedly experienced these two conflicting messages throughout school: “Making mistakes is part of learning” and “You should know better.” The second one was much more implied, but steadily there nonetheless. A particularly difficult supervisor during my first internship suggested this repeatedly in her harsh words and tone in response to my insecurity as a novice social work intern struggling with extreme anxiety, which I made it a point to get treated as best I could. I also witnessed and heard about this message being relayed to some of my fellow students, whether it be by challenging supervisors they also had and/or Smith’s administration. People dropped out around me, often because of personal reasons resulting in them not being ready for grad. school at that time in their lives, but others because they were not adequately supported in the assorted institutional-political binds and/or personality conflicts they found themselves thrown in at problematic internships. The political implications for the school retaining field placements had to take precedence, so often it was easy to pathologize the student. Hence, somehow, it was useful to imply they “should have known better,” and/or other related shaming messages.
A culmination of this “You should know better” occurred for all of us students one evening towards graduation. It was over twenty-two years ago now, but I remember it clearly. The then brand-new dean of the social work school stood up between the rows of seats in the auditorium, her hard-set pale face framed against shellacked-looking black hair, and angrily chastised us for being overly-critical. Honoring one of Smith’s many traditions, we graduating students had gathered in a forum to witness a selected handful of us give formal feedback to the faculty and administration about the strengths and shortcomings of the graduate program. There was general agreement among the students that the presentation was fair and balanced, having included much positive input about the school. Many of us extended the forum in the parking lot with the dean before she drove away for the night, where we tried to explain ourselves in more detail, with an even more measured, compassionate tone. Apparently, though, the dean arrived in her office the next morning complaining loudly about “those students!” For me, it was more “You should know better,” as I think it was for many others. And while the dean herself should have “known better,” a view shared by many of us students, I remember even then the overarching importance of holding compassion and concern for her. She was new and seemingly unused to a tradition of students giving feedback so directly. She was on her own learning curve. The fall back defense, however, was the recurring message, “You should know better,” all-too-familiar at that point in time for me and others.
We social workers can often be hard on each other (and, hence, most likely, on ourselves), even a bit more so than other healthcare professionals. The edgier side of the ethos from my grad. school days continues to haunt me now and then. Working for over twenty years in the social work profession, most of those as a clinician, I find a lot of my colleagues often harshly implying how another of their own among them “should know better.” It is an interesting, albeit sad and frustrating, phenomenon. I have not been the only one to remark on it. A psychiatrist friend of mine who works on an inpatient psychiatric unit remarked about this to me sometime ago. He explained how he has often witnessed nurses and physicians being more supportive of their colleagues than the social workers are with each other.
I think a lot of us social workers get caught in a brain brace, bound up in our heads around the vitalness of adhering to our profession’s ethical rules and standards, which, of course, are good and necessary. I’ve seen this brain-braced shaming happen a lot on online professional list serves/forums. What often gets forgotten and/or lost in translation person-to-person is the inherent trust that one’s colleagues mean well for their clients– just as oneself does– and most certainly so if they are reaching out for help or are sharing their own views on an online forum. We as psychotherapists always keep this in mind with our actual clients no matter how problematic their thoughts and behaviors are. At least, that has been the thrust of my own professional training and practice. Keeping this in mind and holding heart space with colleagues, including over faceless online communications, needs to be practiced more consistently. Unfortunately, I don’t think it often is. The tone and wording of the message is so important. Otherwise, people get polarized and either shut-down/withdraw or act judgmental (the most extreme of this being combative), neither of which fosters learning and growth. People need to feel welcome to share on a list serve or other professional forum, no matter what, even if they need direction/redirection to share further elsewhere and get the specific help they need to keep doing a good job for those they serve. It’s always positive when someone dares to reach out to fellow professionals, especially strangers. Judgment of another colleague online is two-layered, the 1:1 shaming and then exposure to a crowd which can bring on feeling humiliated. It is interesting yet frustrating for me to hear rationalized excuses colleagues make for their harsh tones they speak from, such as “tough love” or, “Tolerating strong affect is part of professional maturity,” etc. But, it’s often stated to support the message of “You should know better.” The underlying shaming is then allowed to continue. We therapists do not intentionally shame our well-meaning clients– and I do believe all clients’ (all people) at their core Selves are ultimately well-meaning. I certainly don’t shame in my practice, though I repair as best I can on the very rare occasion that I mistakenly, unintentionally do. I think a sensitivity to being shamed is somehow the case for a good many of us who enter the clinical social work profession, perhaps the vast majority. It would be interesting to see any studies on this, if they exist.
I’ve felt some seasoned therapists seem hard around the edges, conveying, “We know and practice our ethics and skills readily and smoothly, so all others, no matter how new in the field, should too (!).” Translation: “You should know better.” Well, yes, but only after one has clearly reached their latest learning curve, whatever that happens to be. A message to each other in the profession could come back more to this: “Mistakes are part of learning” along with something like, “I trust you are well-meaning and are continuing to learn how to know better.” We clinicians reach out and share because we are constantly trying to “know better.” That’s a given. “Should” need not apply, if we can only trust the good intentions of our own Self and our peers. To be clear, many of us already do this well, but others don’t.
The braced brain image has been a revelation. No longer do I have to cleave to distrusting my own heart-Self, from which a worldview is based, a perspective of wonder, compassion, and curiosity over people, places, and things around and beyond me. It involves letting go of old conditioning.
I grew up in a family with a lot of distrust in it, as trust had been broken in all sorts of ways on both sides, three sides actually, since I was adopted by my father’s second wife before I turned six. A legacy of poverty and hardship was passed down to my father, who grew up in working class Northern England during and immediately after World War II. He remembers feeling hungry all the time and being beaten by his father. So many ruptures in trust right there. Yet, my father went on to live the American dream as an immigrant, bumpy as his life was until it peacefully mellowed and truly blossomed during his third and final marriage. He now continues to be open-hearted in ways I never thought he could.
My birth mother Gaye was kept close to her mother’s apron strings, not trusted to fully grow up and take care of herself in the world. Her mother, my grandmother Julia of hard-working Irish and Scots-German descended ranchers in Texas, believed she needed someone in her very own corner, all to herself. She was one of eleven children who then married a career Marine. He spent years at a time away from home, including fighting in two wars. “This one is mine,” Gaye told me on more than one occasion when describing the look in her mother’s eyes in a photograph of her holding Gaye as a newborn. The trust there was clearly very limited, such as the trust that Julia would somehow be okay in life without her daughter close by her side.
As for my adoptive mother, I have said enough earlier, re: her strict Catholic upbringing, which I think she managed to at least partially transcend, just not (yet) completely in terms of style or structure of thinking and communicating. I will add that there is no true trust in a person’s own well-meaning Self in the doctrine of that old religion, which teaches that we are sinners by nature and God above must redeem us through the teachings of Jesus Christ His son. Maybe that is changing because of how so many who actually practice Catholicism are finally gleaning the inherent existence, goodness and trust-worthiness of the Self (e.g., through Jesus’s nature being born within us already, perhaps?). That is from the flock, though, and not really from the hierarchy of the Church itself, from what I can tell, even as comparatively progressive the current Pope seems to be next to his predecessors.
So much distrust, so much believed need for a brace around one’s brain.
I am taking much relief and joy at feeling this brace around my own brain floating away and being based outside of me. It appears externalized more than ever now, still enclosing many other people’s brains, many institutions’ collective brain, our current U.S. president’s brain (though more braces than brains within that head it often seems).
This over-arching distrust of our own Self’s well-meaning, heart-centered qualities and intentions, what Richard Schwartz labels the Eight C’s of the Self, is naturally part of a growing process, not something to always retain as a worldview. We don’t keep the braces on our teeth indefinitely. So, no need to keep our brains braced with distrust-laden rules and standards to try and live by perfectly out of a sense of shame (or sin). The false assumption to keep doing so is, “You don’t know better and won’t ever if left to your own self understanding,” or more simply put, “You’re bad, like a beast.” If we trust our children to learn, be curious, and do well, then we look for those qualities and intentions that affirm that reality. If we inherently trust students and professionals in the field of social work– one of the most explicitly well-intentioned professions that exists– to hold compassion and learn from that caring place, including trusting that they are always wanting to find out how to “know better”– and will indeed find out– then we can steadily all relax. We can let go of the admonishing, over-arching braces, the cage of “do’s,” “don’t’s,” “should’s,” and “shouldn’t’s.”
How do we let go of this thinking cage and the shame it ultimately holds in place? Well, it’s a practice, like meditating or brushing your teeth. Listen to what makes your heart sing, where your curiosity naturally goes. Allow yourself to notice and enjoy the small things and beings around you, be it a child or that beautiful tree you walk by often. Do something new and different because you feel like it. Take risks reaching out. Listen a lot and share from that listening. Sing out loud. Grieve what needs to be grieved. See a psychotherapist to help heal from constrained thinking. Love your partner, children, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors truly and openly, as scary as that may feel. (This has all been written about by others elsewhere.) Do this personal practice being in and with your Self a little bit, every day, one minute at a time, one day at a time. Then, the heart opens, the brain brace loosens and falls away.
Yesterday afternoon, in between clients, I took a brisk walk along the pond by the office complex where I work. The fading light in late afternoon fell gently against the water and trees’ leaves, many now starting to change. I felt autumn in the breeze, a coolness matching the dimmer sunlight compared to last month’s. Soon, it would be Mabon, fall equinox, when the day is equal to the night, on the planet’s way to the increasing pull of darkness, angled more away from the sun. I reveled in these mild moments of September, my favorite month here in Massachusetts. I did something I haven’t done in a good while; I broke into song:
I am a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x) You are a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)
We are a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)
This is a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)
I felt my energy build as I sang. My voice grew louder, more confident, quickly softening as I happened to come near another person walking or sitting in their parked car, then rising in volume again as I moved further away. I soon saw circles everywhere: nearby ripples in the pond, the holes dug for certain trees for them to safely grown within, the arch of the sky to the earth (a part of such a great circle). With the vibration of my voice and the wind rustling in the leaf-filled branches above me, I felt my chest expand. I offered the song to the trees and felt joy surging through me as I took in their togetherness, branches intermingling. The ground beneath their trunks and my feet sloped gracefully upward on the left of the asphalt path.
I started the chant all over again, my eyes taking in the pond on my right, the trees all around, the lightly clouded sky overhead. This was it, everything before me, here and now, everything connected, including unseen people, places, and things far and wide. My mind flashed on past moments: how I’d drawn a flower growing from a human heart back in 5th grade (and whatever happened to that picture?); when I had walked on other trails in woods or mountains; when I had last seen a friend for lunch and looked forward to seeing her again soon; when I had recently sung a select portion of this chant with a client, who I would be seeing tomorrow. I felt joy and relief in the openness of my heart then and there, relief that this was continuing to happen and not a brief “phase” or simply a giddy mood in response to some great news. No agenda, just openness.
And then I walked past a woman carrying a cloth bag written on it: “Warm hearted.”
“Nice bag,” I stated, smiling. “Thanks,” she replied, returning her attention to the cell phone in her hand.
I finished the song, letting the words flow through my mind, course through me. Then, I hummed a partial tune to some rock song I’d long forgotten the title of or who originally sang it.
I approached the building where my office is, feeling refreshed and energized, curious and excited about my next client and whatever he would be bringing in to work on that day.
Yesterday morning, I sat with my first client of the day, leading her through an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) resource enhancement protocol to help her feel more grounded in the present and build tolerance to some extremely difficult emotions and imagery. From a small switch on a device in my left hand, I activated a gentle electric buzzer in each of my client’s hands to create bilateral stimulation (BLS). BLS is a way to bring someone’s attention to an external stimulus while also having them focus on a thought-based image, sensation, and/or feeling. This simultaneous outside-inside noticing process is known as dual attention.
My client shared how a brief visualization of “a circle of life” had been particularly helpful for her in recent weeks. Building upon this, I interwove a simple chant to make this circle in her mind more vivid:
“I am a circle within a circle. We are a circle within a circle. This is a circle within a circle.” I indicated my whole office with a hand gesture in response to the third phrase. I offered more interweaves: her own encircled presence is safe within the space we share, another circle, and then my office space being its own circle holding us both and all of what’s inside her. All this time, the buzzers in her hands were going, slowly back and forth, to which I synced the pace of the singing.
With repeated encouragement, my client sang the words back, her voice hesitating at first but steadily growing stronger. From call and response to sometimes singing the lyrics together, my client’s awareness shifted somewhat away from distressing internal preoccupations and she grew calmer. She actually looked directly at me, albeit tentatively, this woman who often finds eye contact very difficult to do while in the midst of experiencing intense, vulnerable feelings stemming from a horrific childhood. I had incorporated into someone’s treatment a portion of a beautiful chant I’d learned and sung with some fellow Pagan men in several seasonal rituals (Sabats) over the years. So much for feeling the need to always separate out my direct spiritual practice from work because I “should” do so as a proper, secularly trained professional.
While finishing up the session, I instructed my client to find times to sing this chant while doing BLS on herself, such as when walking around her house, and/or while doing the “butterfly,” an exercise in which a person crosses their arms over their chest and taps a hand on each arm, one side at a time. She said she found the EMDR while chanting with me helpful and seemed more hopeful than when she had arrived. I felt an excitement in my heart over having applied a piece of Pagan ritual practice (some would say “magic/k”) within my psychotherapy practice.
It was as if some little wall I always thought needed to be maintained had fallen away, leading to a clearer sense of how what is above is also below; as within, so without. Circle of one, circle of two, circle of space between and around us, and so on. So mote it be.