When a client, an artist, came to me suffering from PTSD after a terrible car accident, his life was shattered. To make matters worse, the experience provoked earlier traumas to rise back to the surface to the extent that all the ordeals merged into one solid state of suffering. No amount of talking about it was going to reorder his world or help him forget what happened. No amount of relaxation technique would enable him to let it go. I knew from the start that I needed to help him engage the memory of the event from another perspective.
The Key to Restoring Health
As he described the story of waking up bruised and broken, covered in bloodied fragments of what was once a windshield, I understood that I couldn’t support him in moving toward the new perspective without bringing along the old one in a repurposed form. He couldn’t leave the past behind, because it lived with him in the present. The same was true of the future he longed for, the one free from the constantly recurring memories of the terrible upheavals he’d experienced. He couldn’t face his painful past in the present. He couldn’t move past the present pain into a pain-free future.
Whether the focus is an individual, joint, or collective healing; the ability to embrace and hold contradictions and opposites is the key to restoring health and wellness. What gives us the ability to do that, to engage extreme hardship and all the associated feelings that we naturally want to reject?
The answer is perspective.
For my client, my listening was essential. He needed me to hear what he could not. He needed me to identify the opposite of what was present in his own words and story, then offer it back to him in a way that might allow him to make an ally of the incident that had become his enemy. He couldn’t paste a smiley face on a tragic picture, avoid his powerful feelings and emotions, or make an intellectual leap to simply reframe in his mind the automobile accident he’d been through. Doing so, or even trying to, would only increase the chance of his thoughts continuing to intrude and his pain being recurrent, because he would be leaving something behind in the process. Every time we cut something off or out without repurposing it, it will chase us into the future, looking for our eventual attention in another circumstance.
Finding a Fresh Perspective
In order to turn this enemy into a friend, we had to find a way for him to have a fresh perspective of what was as it was, so something new could unfold, something that allowed him to integrate the horror of the experience in a digestible form. In my experience with so many others like him, I knew it had to come from the words in his own story. Ultimately, we had to tap his well-established nature as an artist, so he could use this new vision of “stained glass,” the bloodied windshield of his car, like a medieval artisan would. He needed to create a resplendent cathedral window from it; a new window of perspective.
I had to help him embody that concept by creating an experience for him to explore. I began by offering him a mental picture of himself as a Gothic artisan and “traveled” with him on a creative adventure. Piece by piece—shard by shard—we put together the window of a new reality. He needed to bring his natural talent and ability to bear in an even greater way, one that transformed his feeling of being caught by the past and trapped in the feedback loop of the accident and its aftermath.
In doing so, we weren’t leaving the judging mind behind. His recovery, as all healing is, was hinged on his ability to bring this metaphor into practical meaning, to piece his world back together as a work of art without separating any part of his experience in the process. The judging mind needed to be on board with this larger and broader perspective. It needed to choose to engage all the “making” and “breaking” actions of his day-to-day life in such a way as to organize around the full spectrum of his experience.
Inspiration vs. Criticism
Most of us respond to the world within and around us with the perception that what comes to meet us in life is a mix of good things and bad, sorted by emotions and thoughts we endorse and others we avoid. As a result, our inner voice fluctuates between being a continual source of inspiration and an enduring inventory of criticism. We need both and respond accordingly. Very few of us, if any, live with a consciousness that doesn’t eventually develop an opinion, often followed by an investment of emotion that constructs a belief, about something being either good or bad. We’re constantly filtering our experience through inspiration and criticism, attachment or avoidance. It is so much a part of our nature that we can’t leave it behind. On the other hand, even though we long to live life in resplendent color, life also necessarily includes black and white on the artist’s palette.
Creating Our Reality
It’s popular in the healing world these days to talk about how we “create” our reality. It may be true that, in moments, we have a choice in how we respond to the circumstances we encounter and, to some degree, how we react to them. That is, when we’re not forced by primitive instincts into the perilous land of the fight/flight/freeze response, the place where adrenaline and black-and-white thinking outperform the color palette with their Olympic best. When repeated, mantra-like, the phrase “we create our own reality” reveals our not-so-secret attachment to our own narrowed reality as the expression of the Great Mystery Above. Our kingdom come, our will be done; so we create it, so it shall be.
Yet one has to wonder how much evidence really exists, whether scientific or belief-based, that suggests conscious choice alone plays a significant role in determining what happens to, around, or because of us. I’m suggesting that shifts happen (because of our perspective and response) when shit happens (because of circumstances beyond our control and influence).
It’s a moot point to speculate about how much ability, conscious, subconscious, or unconscious, we possess to create what happens to us, if any at all. Religion and science might offer a glimpse into the big question of cause and effect: What causes one event to wreak havoc in our lives, while the result of another event is bliss? Is it karma? A memory imprint from past trauma or success? The devil made me do it? God blessed me? A projection of the collective human unconscious? Falling somewhere on a continuum between complete randomness on one end, in which nothing has a cause and everything is, in effect, an accident; all the way out to super-determinism, in which everything is pre-ordained, from the next word you read to the next thought that pops into your head?
At least for now, there isn’t a single answer to any of those questions, unless we drop an anchor down to one particular belief to the exclusion of others, bobbing up and down on waves of understanding as they gently lift, then release us. Otherwise, any accounting of control over what happens to us remains a mystery, calling us to sail on and on to ever-new horizons with no end in sight. Maybe each experience of belief holds a part of a whole image. Then again, perhaps this picturing of belief-in-duality I create is, in itself, just one shard in an even more complex and beautiful stained-glass window as vast and endless as the ocean itself.
We Are All Connected
In the end, why my client wound up in an accident in the first place doesn’t much matter after the fact, though his response to it might go a long way in influencing his future. In that sense, maybe he can rely sometimes on his ability to “create” shifts when shit happens, but only in tiny moments that he, himself just one piece connected to a larger stained-glass window, cannot ever hope to harness as being solely his own creation.
We don’t often acknowledge that most things are out of our individual and direct conscious control. In our self-interest, we like to lay claim to the effects that turn out to be good and point the finger away from us to lay blame for the bad. This extends to our entire species and reflects our human-centric view, which might be near the root of the greatest question or mystery of all. Why do we actually think we operate independently from one another, as well as from nature?
The problem is human perspective is innately blurred by this false separation. We act as if what we do does not affect our personal environment, family, friends, neighbors, community; and the ecology of the whole, trees, animals, plants, rocks, and all the elements. This either/or thinking carries over and distorts everything we experience as humans, from our individual health to relational wellbeing, from partnership to politics, from the tug and pull of honoring cultural diversity alongside the need for collective unity. When filtered through the persistent perspective of separation engendered by both sides of the fear and greed equation, even our concepts of what to do, why we do it, and how we coalesce the duality between good and bad become skewed.
Which brings us to the truth about what we call “healing.”
Healing is not the act of getting rid of one (bad) thing to gain another (good) thing. It isn’t about fixing something that is disconnected or broken. It isn’t about the recitation of what we want exclusive to what we’ve got. The first law of thermodynamics assures us that none of that is even possible. Rather, it tells us we operate in a closed system where a total amount of energy is always constant, though it continually changes form. Nothing can be subtracted or added. Nothing is lost and nothing is found. Healing is simply returning to the embodied awareness of wholeness that always is. Shard by shard, piece by piece, we assemble our world.
Perspective doesn’t eliminate pain, or what we call misfortune. Experiencing what we consider bad doesn’t mean we have cursed karma or have failed to do something, whether in the practical or spiritual realm, to prevent it. Shards of pain are part of the whole. An experiential shift in perspective is the tool that allows us to change, usually minus our intention to do so, the past and the future, opening the double doors of paradox onto a repurposed and refreshed reality when the pain of what is, in the present, is simply too much to bear. Until it isn’t.
And until it is again, because shifts happen when shit happens and as we can all predict with absolute certainty, shit happens.
The gift of pain is that it affords us the opportunity to transform a windshield that has suddenly shattered our lives into a dazzling stained-glass window at the top of a spire in a Gothic cathedral. It points out to us with uncanny immediacy and precision where we are in a given moment on the arc of that resplendent mystery that has no resolution. Ultimately, it gives us perspective on the paradox of bringing the truths of our desperate need for healing together with no need for healing at all.
Pat Heavren is a life coach, mediator, and educator who is passionate about supporting individuals, couples and groups to flourish by aligning with the wisdom of the natural world. She is the author of Magic in Plain Sight: When Acceptance is the Healing and is former senior teaching faculty with the Four Winds Society, an international school of neo-shamanism and energy medicine. Pat has led workshops across the U.S., Canada and Latin America and works worldwide with clients via telephone and Zoom from her Woodbridge, CT, office.
She can be reached at: www.livingsource.us and 203.444.4424 for appointments.