6 types of spiritual experiences (part 2)

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In part one of this post, I gave a brief intro to The Spirituality of Imperfection, and the first three types of spiritual experiences that authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham outline in the book:

Release, Gratitude, and Humility.

If you haven’t already,hop on over to check out that postfirst. (I split it into two posts so it wasn’t super long!)Here, I’ll continue with describing the other three types of experiences:

Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home.

Tolerance

“When we accept ourselves in all our weakness, flaws, and failings, we can begin to fulfill an even more challenging responsibility: accepting the weakness, limitations, and mixed-up-ed-ness of those we love and respect. Then and only then, it seems, do we become able to accept the weakness, defects, and shortcomings of those we find it difficult to love… Spirituality begins with this first insight: We are all imperfect … Tolerance begins with vision—the ability to see the world in a way that is somewhat ‘different’…This vision, of course, goes beyond the grudging mere ‘tolerance’ of ‘putting-up-with-because-I-have-no-choice’ of a non-spiritual vocabulary. The essence of tolerance lies in its openness to difference.”

I’ll admit that I do cringe a little when I see the word “tolerance” because of exactly what the authors point to in the above excerpt: that it seems to bear a connotation of “begrudgingly putting up with” each other, rather than doing our best to whole-heartedly accept each other, flaws and all. However, I do think that the authors’ meaning of “tolerance” falls more in line with the idea of “openness,” as they note, which has a softer feeling to it.

In a coaching session recently, I shared with a client an example I read somewhere (I believe in one of Russ Harris’ writings on ACT) about how to distinguish between “tolerance” and “acceptance.”Imagine that you’re going to hang out with your closest friends: would you want them to tolerate you being there, constantly checking to see if you’re still there and wanting you to leave? Or would you want them to accept your presence, flaws and all? I know to some degree it's semantics, but language is also powerful and can have a very tangible impact; for instance, I don’t think society should aim for just “tolerance” of LGBT friends and family. Rather, we need to accept them whole-heartedly, because that’s how we strive to treat people we love, even if we don’t always agree with them.

I also love the authors’ point that we cannot truly accept others’ shortcomings if we are not willing to practice acceptance of our own. “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete” — Jack Kornfield.

Forgiveness

“Resentment is the poison of the spiritual life…The opposite of ‘resentment’ is forgiveness. The main spiritual shift that takes place in the event of being forgiven/forgiving is thus a new experiencing of self; blaming others falls away, and we begin to accept primary responsibility for who we are. Forgiveness comes when we let go of the feeling of resentment by surrendering the vision of self-as-victim.”

I have seen resentment so powerful that it caused a loving mother to lie to everyone (including herself) and continue down a steep path of life-threatening alcoholism, ruining any chance of saving her marriage or having custody of her children. Her resentment toward her husband and other family members was palpable, and though it was a significant focus of her treatment, she was not in a place where she was spiritually open to releasing her grip on these resentments and moving toward forgiveness. I wish this story were unique, but it’s not—which is why resentments are a core component of Steps 4 and 5 in AA and other 12-step fellowships. I have been fortunate (and feel a little spoiled, frankly) to say that I have never been abused or betrayed to the point that I have built up strong resentments in my life. Most annoyances or “mini-grudges” have been insignificant or short-lived.

In the work that I do, though, I regularly bear witness to women who have have been treated horribly, often by those who are supposed to love them the most. No wonder resentments form. Especially if abuse or neglect occurs in childhood, a child has no choice but to be a victim of that situation because they are fully dependent on the adults in charge of them. As an adult, being victimized happens, too — but as Kurtz and Ketcham assert, we will continue to hold onto resentments if we view ourselves as victims. There is a key difference in acknowledging that you have been victimized in a situation (and healing to become a survivor), versus living your life from a victim stance, feeling that things just happen to you rather than taking responsibility for your choices.Again, I’m not talking about acts of violence. We’ve all known (or at times, been) that person who constantly complains about their situation but doesn’t seem to take any real action to change it.

To move toward forgiveness, you must take responsibility for yourself and decide that your wellbeing is more important than being “right” or constantly playing the “I’ve been wronged” tape in your head.As the old adage goes, holding a grudge is like letting someone live in your head without paying any rent.

Being-at-home

“Modern humankind feels homeless in the deepest meaning of the word: not in the transient sense of having no place to sleep for the night, not even in the wider sense of poverty’s homelessness, but in a monstrous, universal sense of having no place wherein we fit… the experience is of lost souls circling endlessly… for only in finding that ‘fit’…does one find a place to rest, a place to hide, a place to be one’s-self—a home ... A spirituality of imperfection helps us find that experience, that fit. First, by accepting ourselves as imperfect and essentially mixed, we fit into our own being. And second, by applying the spirituality of imperfection to our relationships with others, and especially to family, we learn to ‘see’ all relationships in a different way, and so learn how to fit with others, how to find a real home.”

I can hear Brené Brown’s voice in my head right now saying, “As humans, we are hard-wired for love and belonging.” And as usual, she’s right. Not only are we wired for this from an evolutionary / survival standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint, too. We long to feel “a part of” and are most deeply wounded when we feel “separate from.” Now, this doesn’t mean we want to be around each other all the time! Believe me—in this phase of my life I’m realizing more and more that I am truly an introvert who has masqueraded around as an extrovert for much of my younger life. I like having lots of alone time. But if I don’t feel connected to others at a meaningful level (and that does include some quality time with them on a regular basis), I feel very alone and disconnected from life. The assumption that introverts don’t like being around people is one of the most common myths about this group.

To me, “being at home” means having a handful of people in my life with whom I can show up as all of who I am without fear of rejection. It means feeling at-home in my body—which does not mean thinking my body is perfectly beautiful, but rather that it is my body and I am embodying it and respecting it because it is a significant aspect of me and my earthly experience.

I also have to remember that, at times, I will feel that familiar loneliness creeping in and start to believe the thoughts that I do not truly belong, that I'm not really wanted— but thankfully, I now have tools to deal with those thoughts so I don’t run rampant with them. I have a husband and other people in my life who will talk me off that cliff. Like most of life’s most important lessons and all six of these spiritual experiences, part of my spiritual practice is the forgetting-and-remembering, again and again.

Which of these 6 types of spiritual experiences do you feel most comfortable with? Which is most difficult for you to open up to?

6 types of spiritual experiences (part 1 of 2)

6 types of spiritual experiences

Note: Since I realized this post would be stupid long all as one, I'm splitting it up into 2 installments. Enjoy! 

In the past couple months, I’ve  moseyed my way through The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning as I’ve been simultaneously reading several other books, and, quite honestly, just not reading as much as I’d like. (I’ve been doing great with a lot of my other habits, so I’m trying to be forgiving and patient with myself with this one!) This book is a treasure because it is at once both simple and profound. It weaves together ancient and modern anecdotes across many religious traditions, and examines how Alcoholics Anonymous has one of the healthiest perspectives on spirituality of our time, which actually aligns with many ancient, wise visions of spirituality. 

I’m just finishing up the book now, and in flipping through all my dog-eared pages covered with underlines and stars (it’s the only way I can absorb nonfiction —no digital or audiobooks for me with this stuff!) to determine what to write about, I decided I wanted to share with you the main ideas from the final section of the book, “ Experiencing Spirituality.” In this part, authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham name six types of spiritual experiences: Release, Gratitude, Humility, Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. While I highly recommend reading the whole book, if you’re anything like me you have about 25 other books on your list already — you may not get to it very soon. So, my goal here is to describe bit about each of these six experiences and encourage you to explore how you are (or aren’t) opening up to these in your own life.

Introducing this section, Kurtz and Ketcham write,

“Spirituality involves not just talking about something, not just reading about or considering something, not even just doing something: it involves actually experiencing life in a new way. Spirituality makes possible—makes one capable  of—specific kinds of experience … these experiences cannot be commanded. We do not call them forth when we want them: they become available to us when we need them, if we are available to them. They happen and we experience them, if we are open to them, but we cannot control when or how they happen, nor can we control when or how we experience them. Once again, we find ourselves locked in a paradox: We cannot command precisely those realities that we most crave.” 

Release

“The experience of Release has been described as ‘the chains falling away,’ ‘a light going on,’ ‘a weight lifted,’ ‘something giving way.’ The very language attests that the experience is not one of triumph (‘I did it!’) but one of awe and wonder (‘I somehow see what I never saw before!’).” 

“Release” has to do with the recognition that we can never be fully in control of our lives, and acceptance for the lack of certainty that this fact entails. In recovery, it’s called “surrender.” The book quotes spiritual director Richard Rohr, from an article he wrote on AA’s 3rd step in which he states that “spirituality involves the ‘letting go’ of three needs: the need to be in control, the need to be effective, and the need to be right.’” 

Read over that last sentence a few times and just let it sink in. When I did that, I was amazed at how much suffering could be alleviated if we only released our grip on the “need” for those three things. Even in my just my own life! The idea of release / surrender is incredibly freeing and powerful, and it aligns well with mindfulness and mindfulness-based therapies such as one of my favorite models, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT devotes significant effort to illustrating to us just how ineffective most of our attempts are to control or avoid internal experiences (thoughts or feelings) we’d rather not have. The behaviors we use to try to numb or suppress, or patterns of trying to “think our way out of” feeling a certain way, often are not only  ineffective, but also tend to create even more suffering than the initial pain/discomfort itself. The alternative, then, is to release the grip, to “drop the tug-of-war rope” with the mind and practice willingness (acceptance) to experience that which is beyond our control. As ACT says, we humans are pretty good at solving problems “outside the skin” and think we can apply this same logic to problems “inside the skin,” but the lived experience proves otherwise. 

Gratitude

“Gratitude can be best defined and understood as the only possible response to a gift, to something recognized as utterly, freely given … The experience of gratitude has been lost, too, because we tend to think of it primarily as some kind of feeling. Feelings are fine, but they are also transient and ephemeral; gratitude is not a feeling but an ongoing vision of thank-full-ness that recognizes the gifts constantly being received. A feeling is fleeing, an emotion for the moment; gratitude is a mindset, a way of seeing and thinking that is rooted in a remembrance — the remembrance of being without the gift.” 

I love this perspective on gratitude, because as I allude to in the previous section, we are not that good at “making ourselves” feel a certain way. So, if I don’t feel a surge of genuine, tearing-up-like-I’m-watching-Parenthood gratitude every time I think of my family, my job, the roof over my head — does that mean I’m cold and ungrateful? No! It just means my feelings are not a faucet that I can turn on and off at will. What’s much more meaningful and significant is the decision to remember why I am appreciative of these things; to consider what my life would be like without them and meditate, even for 30 seconds, on what they mean to me. 

Humility

“In an era that fawns on ‘the rich and famous’ and adopts as its rallying cry, ‘Me First,’ humility is a concept scorned, or worse, neglected. The ancient, favorable sense of the word — connoting mildness, patience of spirit, and the willingness to remove oneself from the center of the universe _ has been eroded in the modern era by unfavorable interpretations in which ‘lowly’ calls to mind servility and self-abasement, ‘meek’ is equated with cowardly submissiveness, and ‘mildness is interpreted as blandness — plain vanilla ice cream in a freezer crowded with Chocolate Raspberry Truffle and Swiss Almond Praline.” 

YES. From my work with the 12 steps, I knew humility was an important value, but this description helped so much to explain why our culture has such a negative connotation for the idea of “humility” or “being humble.” It does not mesh at all with our fantasies of power, control, wealth and fame. (Also, gotta appreciate the ice cream metaphor, amiright?)

Another statement I had to share from this section originally comes from Dag Hammarskjöld’s book, Markings: “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exultation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is—is nothing, yet at the same time one with everything.” 

The importance of being “right-sized” should be required psychoeducation for every 4th grader. We spend so much of our lives either trying to puff ourselves up (often by putting others down, even in covert ways) or putting ourselves down. Life can start to feel like a constant competition, and if the ego is already so fragile that it cannot possibly withstand any perceived criticism, the spikes come out.

Outside of 12-step, the most I hear about humility is in a religious context — ideas that we must be humble before God, acknowledge how vastly inferior we are to Christ, or acknowledge our place as lowly humans in comparison to the divine. This type of humility may fit well for some, but it does not appeal to me, because on some level it feels fear-based and externally motivated. I would rather think that if there is a divine loving power, I am not bigger or smaller than it, but rather that I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. 

Tune back in to the blog soon for part 2 of this blog post, which will discuss Tolerance, Forgiveness, and Being-at-home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what resonated most with you about this post, or how you are exploring these topics amidst your own spiritual journey. 

what everyone should know about trauma and trauma resolution

Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, [or what is referred to as 'self-leadership'.] The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed.  - Bessel van der Kolk

Recently, I finished reading Bessel van der Kolk’s new book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. I can’t recommend it enough; the book is incredibly well-written and accessible, and an equally important read for clinicians, trauma survivors, and their loved ones. This post is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the book, but rather a few points that I wanted to pull out and highlight to convey some of the “big picture” ideas about traumatic stress and trauma resolution.

Why Diagnosing Trauma Matters

As a psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration (VA)  in the late 1970’s, van der Kolk witnessed first-hand the impact of traumatic stress on vets returning from Vietnam. At that point, there was no diagnosis for traumatic stress, and very little research into the impacts of trauma on the functioning of mind and body, or how to successfully treat the symptoms these vets were struggling with. In 1980, a group of researchers and clinicians lobbied the American Psychological Association (APA) to include Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the DSM-III (third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). (Gotta love the alphabet soup of healthcare, eh?) The creation of this new diagnosis resulted in a flurry of interest and funding for research and the development of effective interventions for treating post-traumatic stress.

Thirty-five years later, thanks to a wealth of research as well as major advancements in neuroscience, we know a lot about how trauma affects the mind and body and how to effectively treat it. But we’re far from done. Many studies have pointed to the need for additional trauma-based diagnoses, as traumatized individuals don’t all fall into one homogenous category. Different types of trauma impact the body and brain in different ways, and a one-size-fits all diagnostic and treatment approach is woefully insufficient. One study found that traumatized people fell into three basic groups: those with histories of childhood physical or sexual abuse by caregivers, recent victims of domestic violence, and people who had recently been through a natural disaster. The failure of the APA to acknowledge a need for additional diagnoses like Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) and Complex PTSD (also known as DESNOS, Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified for victims of interpersonal trauma) has a very real impact, as a lack of sufficient funding for research and treatment directly impacts individuals struggling with traumatic stress that do not fit in the “traditional PTSD” box. I will avoid going off on a tangent about just how broken the DSM is, but suffice to say that the American Journal of Psychiatry and the National Institute of Mental Health have both published strong criticisms of the DSM-V, with NIMH’s president stating that the agency could no longer support DSM’s “symptom-based diagnosis.”

One of the topics that fascinated me most in The Body Keeps the Score was the information van der Kolk presents about DTD. I could see so many of my clients in his case studies and descriptions of how traditional mental health treatment fall short for these individuals. He makes a compelling case for child abuse as our nation’s largest public health problem, and as a therapist working with traumatized clients, I couldn’t agree more. So, whether the DSM ever gets on board or not, clinicians need to acknowledge these distinctions and the unique needs of trauma survivors that may not look like the “typical” PTSD patients. Where do we start?

“Top-Down” and “Bottom-Up” Regulation

Van der Kolk asserts that, when your brain has been impacted by traumatic stress and the areas responsible for emotion regulation are out of whack, we essentially have three choices for how to help our brain regulate, utilizing its own natural neuroplasticity. Some of the examples of treatment modalities and interventions below actually combine two or all three of these, and trauma survivors almost always need a combination of these rather than just one in order to achieve regulation.

1) Top-down regulation (via modulating messages from the medial prefrontal cortex):This type of regulation involves “talking, re-connecting with others, and allowing ourselves to know and understand what is going on with us, while processing the memories of the trauma.” It's also about strengthening your mind’s ability to monitor your body’s sensations, so mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can be helpful interventions. More traditional methods of psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and coping skills training like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can be valuable for this type of regulation as well, but it’s important to remember that talk therapy alone is not enough for trauma resolution.

2) Working directly with the brain: This can be achieved through taking psychiatric medications that “shut down inappropriate alarm reactions” or utilizing technologies such as neurofeedback and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) that fundamentally change the way the brain organizes information.

3) Bottom-up regulation (via the reptilian brain, specifically the amygdala): This type of regulation focuses on "allowing the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.”  From a neuroscience perspective, it involves recalibrating the autonomic nervous system, which can be accessed through breath, movement, or touch. Thus, interventions such as breath work, dance, massage, somatic and experiential therapies, and utilizing biofeedback (for example, to improve heart rate variability) can be very effective. Yoga is also valuable for bottom-up regulation, as it is proven to significantly improve arousal problems in traumatized individuals, increase self-awareness and self-regulation, and cultivate interoception by "gaining a relationship with the interior world, and with it a caring, loving, sensual relationship to the self.”

What Does it All Boil Down To? 

At the end of the day, trauma treatment is about helping people to:

  • find a way to become calm and focused;
  • learn to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind them of the past;
  • find a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around them; and
  • not have to keep secrets from themselves, including secrets about the ways they have managed to survive (often self-destructive behavior patterns that originated as protective defenses.)

As van der Kolk reminds us, “these goals are not steps to be achieved, one by one, in some fixed sequence. They overlap, and some may be more difficult than others, depending on individual circumstances.”

I was tremendously inspired by this book, as it validated many of the trauma treatment methods we use with clients on a daily basis at The Ranch, and helped me understand more about the neuropsychological underpinnings of both trauma and trauma recovery. I’m also excited to get my EMDR certification later this year as well as start yoga teacher training in the fall. We need a lot more clinicians who understand the “big picture” of trauma treatment based on the most recent research, and are open to the wide range of holistic interventions to help people find health and healing in mind, body, and spirit.

Is trauma a topic that interests you, and/or has touched your own life? I’d love to hear any thoughts, questions, or stories you’d like to share. Leave a comment or drop me a line at valerie@wakingupinwonder.com