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How Deep Should You Dig?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

“Now it seemed like everyone suffered from some trauma; they just didn’t know it yet.” (1) 

 

Trauma awareness does indeed seem to be everywhere these days, spurring the use of trigger warnings and encouraging the adoption of various practices, from analysis to hallucinogenic journeys, meant to help uncover and heal it.

 

For those whose lives are consciously unhappy and dysfunctional, the need is obvious. For others—those wondering if their sore neck, bad sleep or tendency to get snippy are based in half-forgotten wounds, some kind of investigation may seem necessary or at least intriguing. The feeling is that understanding past trauma is fundamental to present happiness.

 

What though, if one feels fairly content with life? Should we go digging as rule, just in case it would make us even happier? Or should we leave well enough alone, and not risk disturbing our peace? At times I feel I’ve reached the point where I’m done with excavating the past, but that doesn’t mean I’ve achieved all I want in terms of self-development.

 

So as I approach the last third of my life, hoping to release both guilt and ill will, should I pick up a shovel…or open a door?

 

Picking Up the Shovel

 

My pagan friends often refer to “shadow work,” a set of therapeutic techniques for mining the unconscious that can be translated to a ritual setting. With energy raised through chanting and drumming, visualization and trance can be used to touch into hidden wounds so they can be addressed through role play or even “somatic experiencing”— trauma relived and released through the body rather than the mind.

 

The idea that one could cleanse trauma through bodily experience came up often in my yoga training. We were encouraged to go deep into long held poses and forms of breath retention that took us to the edge of tolerance. It was at that edge that the energies of anger and fear might arise. Whether one could connect these energies to past wounds or not, the act of witnessing them steadfastly was said to free you from their distorting effects.

 

This deliberately disturbing form of practice was not for beginners. It was effortful and challenging, experience taken to the extreme, in order to wash up on shore after the storm. Every feeling was to be tolerated, even encouraged, in order to stretch one’s capacity for witnessing the whole self—shadow side included.

.

A similarly challenging method involves ingesting hallucinogens like ayahuasca or mescaline, used for centuries by indigenous peoples as a means to travel to the spirit world. Today, in all-night, shaman-led sessions, seekers take the plant medicine in the hopes of arousing intense, unconscious imagery that will unlock suppressed or unresolved issues.

 

All these approaches involve a deliberate intention to delve down to what is hidden, what lies at the root of one’s suffering. All involve an effort to break through the surface of consciousness and address deeper issues. Whether the “shovel” is extreme physical sensation, ritual trance, or hallucinatory experience, it is taken up with a will to go “digging in the dirt” as in the Peter Gabriel song: 

 

Digging in the dirt

Stay with me, I need support

I'm digging in the dirt

To find the places I got hurt

Open up the places I got hurt

The more I look, the more I find

As I close on in, I get so blind

 

That last line is a warning—dig too deep too fast, and insight dissolves. Dig too deep and you may be overwhelmed by the kind of thing we tend to bury the deepest. Or, once the challenge of having faced these depths is met, there may be a kind of inflation of the ego, leading to a dangerous  sense of amoral freedom. Just look at the many gurus who have used the charisma they gained from practice to exploit others.

 

A lesser danger lies in the stories we tell ourselves about the facts and feelings we uncover. If we become attached to the role of victim, we might see our pain or learned helplessness as a badge of honour. I’ve certainly done that. And, newly acquainted with some past hurt, I’ve been caught in a self-righteous anger that didn’t look beyond blame to understanding. 

 

Healing rituals and intense yoga both worked to uncover my difficult places, but they could also give me a sense of obligation to those places that kept me tied to them. I felt an anxious urge, even a duty, to resolve everything and so achieve closure and transcendence. I felt a sense of failure when that transcendence didn’t happen, or didn’t last.

 

Opening the Door

 

Eventually I found myself drawn to a practice that put less stress on intention and goal-seeking. In Buddhist meditation, we don’t go looking for trouble so much as allow it to arise. We don’t aim for transcendence so much as acceptance. And we consciously engage compassion for ourselves and others at every step of the way. 

 

Rather than a strong intention to dig, we work to be steady enough to remain open during a period of enforced silence and stillness in which the urge to analyze and solve everything cannot be satisfied. At first the mind is flails about trying to do just that. But once it settles, a space opens up for whatever is ready to float to the surface. Gradually, we learn to just be with it, withholding judgment. If ritual and magic aim to “change consciousness at will,” meditation is the act of refraining fromthat willfulness.

 

With the mind directed away from striving, emotion is laid bare. A steady attention acts like a solvent on that emotion, revealing the hurt beneath anger, and the sorrow beneath hurt. From that sorrow, compassion for self and other arises. This is what makes it possible to let go of hurt without resolving anything. To reach peace and let go of the drive (or the duty) to achieve perfection.

 

And then another door opens—to the insight that one’s feelings and reactions, even the strongest ones, are not as solid, not as real, and not as much to be obeyed, as they might seem. There is an insubstantiality to them that becomes apparent when judgment and desire are withdrawn, and the feelings shift into the different keys that open into a broader compassionate awareness. At a certain point the clouds part and the need for for justice or closure or resolution disappears. 

 

All that remains then is a sweet release: that of not taking oneself so seriously.

 

I still practice ritual and yoga, although without the tension of striving I once had. Both can open the door for me. But meditation is, for me, the way to keep it open, so that I continue the lifelong process of letting go, in preparation for walking through that final door without regrets.

 

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1. Michael Pollan, This is Your Mind on Plants, Penguin Press, New York, 2021, p. 229.

 

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.
 

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 15 September 2021

    Archer,

    Great article as always. Those spiritual exercises sound pretty intense, but I'm glad they helped you. Who among us [adults] doesn't have old hurts? They say that time heals all wounds, but you know it isn't true.

    Bonus points for the Peter Gabriel reference.

    Buddhist meditation sounds a bit like Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius' book, "Meditations", changed my life. It helped me put a lot of emotional trauma from the past in perspective, like you were talking about. He never intended it to be a self-help book. It was a journal he wrote for himself, to keep him on the philosopher's path. That's why he writes like he's talking to a friend.

    How easily could we become monsters, if we allowed ourselves to be corrupted by absolute power? Maybe that was Marcus' "Shadow work".

    Thanks again for sharing! There's always a tangible benefit to reading your stuff.

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