In The Art of Shame I discussed why it is so important to practice the paradox of self-expression – good for the individual, good for society. But lately I’ve been exploring the relationship between my voice (the way I talk about myself and my world), and my self (the way I AM in the world).
We all know that our self-talk creates our self-image (we do know that, right? What we believe is what we are), but the human brain is there to protect us long enough to enable us to procreate. I guess it might be there for other things, but that seems to be the main point of evolution. So what happens to that self-talk – self-image connection when our survival is threatened?
Traumatic events can cause the brain to dissociate. The mind is like a smart computer, in the face of a destructive virus (trauma), it automatically puts up a firewall, logs-out, shuts down or throws the virus into a sandbox to be dealt with in quarantine from the rest of the system. The more chronic and severe the trauma, the stronger the defence mechanisms have to be to prevent total system overload.
These coping strategies work so well that a child suffering serious abuse can slip through life unnoticed. But the brain is permanently changed. And if the child manages to create for themselves a safer adulthood their sophisticated survival mechanisms can begin to cause problems.
At this point the self-talk can appear to be at odds with the self-image. Finding words to express anything at all can be difficult. Memories may appear to be unavailable but this is only a retrieval issue – the brain has never stopped soaking up inputs and they are all stored somewhere in some form, ready to trigger all kinds of thoughts and feelings. How does this sit with the idea that our thoughts are our reality? Perhaps what this shows us is that it would be more accurate to say that our self-talk creates our realities since all of us are changing moment to moment.
It seems to me good therapy is an attempt to develop and practice what Taoists call the Tao mind and Buddhists call Buddha nature. That is, a fully-present and integrated awareness. Not just integrating the self-talk with the self-image but discovering a spacious acceptance of all that is – and that is my definition of compassion. If that is the model of ideal mental health then most of us have a long way to go and the pathology seen in people with mental illness may be a more extreme version of the stress we all experience by virtue of being alive. Turns out we are all suffering from fear-of-life sickness.
Or is it fear-of-not-living sickness? We are so busy worrying about things that we miss out on life altogether. If the measure of mental health is how in tune we are with our own voice, or rather our own many voices (our voices being the precursors of our realities), then the path to mental health must be to listen. The teachers were right all along – Pay Attention! But not just to the foreground yammering, we need to develop the skill of hearing what is going on behind that.
Maybe we need to feel safe to grow or maybe it is our growth in awareness that increases our sense of security. Compassion is the surest way to happiness and, possibly, wellness. But the converse is not necessarily true. I have spent most of my life thinking that I would have more compassion to spare if I felt better and that I could forgive only under strict conditions. I have begun to realise that the necessary conditions keep shifting and can never be met and the loud voices in the foreground will never voluntarily stop soapboxing long enough to let anything else be heard. I have to actively pay attention to the rest of my experience and everywhere I put my attention flowers and comes to life. I must work on the compassion and forgiveness and feeling spacious and safe in the moment no matter what else is happening.
What is important is my unwavering intention. And this is where I think we sometimes focus on the wrong thing. I don’t need to find new words to say the same thing over and over, expressing how I may have been hurt through sculpture, dance and song. And stoking an unwavering intention to be happy is like asking the rain to keep me dry. I need to focus now on finding ways to express my intention to be compassionate, accepting and equinanimous. To be aware of the thrill of this fleeting existence in this very moment. Not because it will lead to all the other things I want, but because it is the only thing I can control.
And here is what I have found so far: in the tiny space before I breathe in I can feel a slight nausea just under my diaphram. It happens every single time. It is my ‘just before’ feeling. It is a smaller version of the sensation I get as I go over the top of a roller coaster, just before I plunge down, or the feeling I get just before hearing some anxiously-awaited news. And it is the same exquisite out of balance queasiness that I get when I am in love. It is all there, all the time, I only need to pay attention.