Each experience of love nudges us toward the Story of Interbeing because it only fits into that story and defies the logic of Separation. ― Charles Eisenstein
I start on the screen of my choosing. I am on a zoom call, Dec. 6, 2017. Here, in encountering my isolation I forge two new relationships. The first was with the woman on the screen, a therapist and member of what Glennon Doyle in her best-selling memoir Love Warrior refers to as “the universal underground of sisterhood.” The screen is a compromise on our being together in physical presence, but this does not stop something memorable from happening that day because this is where it started. This is where the second relationship was born with the part of myself that had been trapped in the wallpaper of my own life for decades.
The therapist I was working with had been a mediator for years and after decades of trying to assist people deeply polarized in legal conflicts, she shifted her interest towards the processes necessary for finding forgiveness. Here, she discovered the usefulness of ‘inner-child dialogue’ to access the core wounds that often lead to polarized conflicts in adulthood. ‘Inner child work’ was something I had personally known about for years but had thought it a bit silly and trite. The truth is, though, that each time I had tried in the past to connect with an ‘inner-child,’ I hadn’t been able to find anyone.
But on this zoom call, with the help of my guide, it happened. Perhaps something shifted this time because our political climate had turned up the volume on my need to reconnect, perhaps the feelings I was experiencing made it easier to follow the threads, or perhaps the therapist I was working with had enough confidence in the sisterhood, enough strength, faith, and patience to help me keep looking.
What I first saw was the familiar, red-brown veneer on a flat-panel, sliding door I knew from the corner of my childhood bedroom. It was a tiny glimmer of recognition at first, a felt presence that rose in my awareness that somehow led me to intuit she was there on the other side, her knees up against her chest as she huddled in the corner behind the divide between us. As I felt into her presence, I realized why I hadn’t been able to find her before. She was hiding after all and someone hiding in a closet doesn’t exactly want to be found. This small fact, discovered like a point of light in my heart, spoke to me of such a depth of distrust that this kind of separation felt safer than connection. Closets, we’ve learned as a culture, after all, are good for that. They block out the world when something deeply personal – and often gender-related – feels too precious to safely express.
At a time when it’s hard to point to anything that unites us, a rare, universal truth is that we all started out as children. Another truth is that many of us have children hiding somewhere in a closet inside us. We love the children we know in our lives, but by the time we are teenagers and well into adulthood, we’ve traded in the tenderness, spontaneity, dependence, and sensitivity of childhood in favor of our autonomous, rational ‘adulthood.’ We’ve built a wall that obscures our beginnings and tucked those dimensions of our essence away. At some point, we forget what it was like – that softer space of playful, relational innocence, sensitive, perceptive, unrestrained. Our childhood becomes history. Gone.
Except, it’s not; it lives in us, impertinently driving our actions against our will (and against reason) with unconscious longings, fears, feelings, and unmet needs. When the outer world pressures us in ways that scare or trigger these trapped feelings, the so-called ‘adult’ in us kicks into gear, pushing them down, often using large and small addictions to avoid the inner calls. Addictions, maybe, like those to a cell phone news app in the first year of Trump’s presidency? Or to the obsessive thoughts we generate to create the illusion of control…
It took time for me to understand her mistrust. If I ‘found her’ she would feel the pressure to connect with me and, based on her history, my history, connection, itself, signaled risk. But when I saw this wound up close this way, it cracked a part of me open that I’d been guarded against for decades. My heart slowly softened to the silent withdrawal I was witnessing. Compassion arose as a willingness to offer my ongoing, patient attention. Patience, understanding, curiosity… finding her had opened a door in my heart, a heart that, in the finding, was now willing to earn some trust.
After all, what did this little girl have to go on? I had grown up learning to be a ‘good girl,’ to focus on pleasing others, putting my needs and feelings aside, not making waves. And here, in the closet, hiding – because she felt she had nowhere else to go – was the part of me that wanted to say “I am precious no matter the waves I make! If I can’t come first, I’ll keep to myself here, where I won’t risk being hurt ever again.”
It is hard to capture in words the experience of reconnecting within one’s body, to oneself, that particular, delicate, yet long-lost familiar flavor of homecoming. Something about the number of years I had successfully severed this kind of connection with myself spoke to the gap between a childhood laden with distortion and the knowing of something so vulnerably human that felt it didn’t belong in this world. In the darkness of that closet, however, a light was slowly starting to glow. After that session, abiding with curiosity, awareness and patience with this long-hidden child, we came to see each other more clearly. With the support of my therapist-guide, I opened, one by one, to the feelings she had been holding in her all-too-human heart. This attention, in turn, provided the assurance over time, breaking through me again and again in tears, building a tender bridge of re-connection within myself. Any judgments – or shame I may have had about the prospect of connecting with an inner child couldn’t hold a candle to the value of this relationship. An essential landing pad inside me was being crafted – a touchstone in the wild unsettledness of the Trump’s presidency, resonating as a growing, open tenderness.
Fear and Reconnection
On a subsequent zoom call with the same, gracious “member of the sisterhood,” I caught a fleeting glimpse of another younger version of myself, this time living in my racing thoughts the days after Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord and Republicans, one-by-one, acquiesced in silence to Trump’s mounting abuses of power. She was in such a whir; it took some time to see her. She was hovering, maybe two or so feet above me, her only security a thin thread that anchored scrambling thoughts to my brain like a balloon tied to an electric wire whipping in the wind. Her fear was so contagious, I had to steady my attention hard to see her.
Fear is a state I found at the front gate time and again when turning towards my experience in that first year. In the absence of a secure paternal influence, I grew up feeling like there was nothing I could count on but my own best thinking and self-reliance. As the country sank deeper into insanity, I felt increasingly fearful of my powerlessness over the growing distortions of reality, fear for my children, for those who would be impacted in the courts, for immigrants I love who woke up managing their terror each day … fear of losing the country I thought I lived in and thought I loved.
Sensing directly into the fear, paying attention to the whir and taking the time to patiently abide by it, I began to gain more awareness and, fumblingly spoke these words to myself : “You’re terrified, aren’t you?” In all honestly, I wasn’t sure how to connect at first. I felt the self-reliance in this part of me, her reluctance to trust whatever I might say. But I said it again, and then again, trusting, perhaps, that with patience and my own growing motivation to connect, she might hear. There was something else, too, in my awareness. A question that rose up: What might this scared child need that she didn’t get? I was open in the asking.
I can’t say where it came from, the mysterious cocktail of fortitude and dedicated love that somehow then ran like a quick current up from my feet to my eyes and back again. The energy in it contained a loving fortitude and vigor that felt like a full radiating beam in the center of my chest. Something in this strength leaped out and ‘grabbed’ the string on that whipping balloon to steadily draw it down. I ‘placed my hands’ firmly on the shoulders of this panicked inner-self and shook her firmly but lovingly, looking her dead in the eyes.
“Listen, I’m here. I’m H-E-R-E.” Her eyes remained vacant and scattered at first but I continued to direct my words to her, nonetheless. I felt in my presence a mix of strength and love – vulnerability and fortitude – that might best be described as courage. Again, and again I sensed into the current of clarity and uprightness inside me and reassured her, slowly and clearly until, eventually, I’d caught her gaze locked back towards me. My words were not shaming, they were firm and strong, a kind of ‘rooting for the home team.” Sensing into my body hearing the words land, congruent inside me: “I’m here and I understand it felt there was nothing you could trust. Like checking out was your best defense. But I’ve got your back now. In fact, I’ve got your eyes, your shoulders, your heart and your legs, too.”
With this, I take a deeper breath. I am not just ‘talking to myself’ – I am filling up inside myself – inside my body. There is a feeling of contact in the connection and awareness within which the qualities of strength, love, and compassion arise. I am aware that my nervous system has gone from high alert to a more settled attention. With this, gravity returns. My limbs feel substantial, a sense of warmth is here as my embodied awareness and presence strengthens against the power of my thoughts.
Importantly, I am supported not to rush with this noticing. I allow the sensate shape of my experience to take form, touched by it, appreciating its weight, sensuality. Another breath. “It’s OK,” I say to myself now, gently and reassuringly, “It’s OK.”
The balloon falls slowly down, settling lightly on the ground beside my feet. I take in the horizontal plane I stand on, landing on this ground we call the earth. Another breath. Down.
The truth is, I had a lot of stories about Trump’s actions and CNN’s, CNBC’s and Fox News’ embroilment in the whole catastrophe. It’s not that those stories had no basis in reality, but they weren’t all of reality. There was more and I needed to be able to let go of my thoughts long enough to see what else might be going on.
In this case there was a body that was still alive and breathing, still capable of functioning on this earth, still responsible to two children, still able to breath on a planet that we had, as yet, not entirely destroyed. I needed an awareness of that flesh and blood best friend– my body – the ally that has accompanied me from birth, long before any racing ideas took over. I learned here that my body was the ground zero of awareness, a sensing in that would be essential, in this age of anxiety, to any further illumination.
Hidden Parts and the “Women in the Wall”
In the months that followed, there were more conversations, conversations that built bridges of compassion, courage and care that I had resisted or simply left uninitiated for decades prior. These conversations became a foundation for a growing connection to myself and yet as these younger parts were seen and an understanding was forged, they seemed to then dissolve, opening the door to a more, authentic, mature adulthood – one far better suited to grapple with the wild and woolly problems I heard about on the news.
Of course, both of the vignettes I’ve shared here – about disconnection and fear – speak to a dialogue that has resonance with the exchanges Gilman wrote about between her character and the lost figures in the yellow wallpaper. Like Gilman, the fear and pain I had experienced had forced me to a tipping point, one that, as I paid attention, was opening me more to the possibility that perhaps it was not me who was mad, but the culture around me and its steadily unraveling hold on the truth.
Something, here, was clearly different from Gilman’s story. Since 1892, the fields of psychology and also spirituality have developed beyond anything Gilman might have imagined during feminism’s first wave. While parts of me, and many other women and gender-warriors today, do still have the experience of having been ‘relegated to a third-floor room’ (in my case, a closet in my childhood bedroom), today we don’t have to work our way out on our own.
In my case, I had a guide, a member of the “sisterhood,” and she had techniques and the support of confidence forged through her own experience and available to support me. Today, in fact, a growing number of therapies, teachers, and cultural norms are midwifing a different paradigm of consciousness, one focused on healing trauma, exploring separation and re-connection and that acknowledges our all-too-human, embodied, emotional, inter-related world. On the heels of Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy, Jon Bradshaw developed his work with addiction recovery in the 1980s, and following that, Psychosynthesis, Hakomi and Internal Family Systems. Work with trauma in the body, like Somatic Experiencing and Generative Somatics has further leveraged more embodied, compassionate, validating reconnections with inner experience. In short, a new, more relationally validating culture has been steadily unfurling on the heels of Gilman, and many other women’s pioneering critiques of prevailing societal norms from the last century.
While many of us today engaged in this sort of work take it to be the water we swim in, what this adds up to is a cultural momentum that gives leverage to the kinds of insights and awakenings that feminist writers of the 19th century pioneered. The wisdom that our mainstream culture has buried is being tapped in these new therapies and as more people do this kind of work, it opens a tenderness in us, building a sense of confidence in those who turn towards their vulnerability, finding there the truth, wisdom and confidence of self-authorized experience. Amidst the crazy, apparent devolution all around us, then, there is cause for pause and celebration. A growing interest in, and support and respect for connecting with tender parts of ourselves to decode historical messages in our body has arguably been driven by an emerging feminine/feminist consciousness over a hundred years in the making.
These new techniques as a whole reflect something rising in our culture that values inner lives and emotions against the long history of our mainstream culture’s judgements about vulnerability, reconnection and tenderness as lesser, childish and dismissively relegated to women. What this also translates to is that, today, we don’t need to end our stories as Gilman did, circling around on the floor of an upstairs bedroom proclaiming liberation in our madness. Today, we get to leave the room, walk down the stairs and then out the front door into the rest of our lives…