Phoenix Rising

There’s been a lot written about September as Suicide Prevention Month. There are walks scheduled, grassroots support movements growing…in particular Project Semicolon, a brilliant step toward reframing the question in a way that warms this grammarian’s heart…

It’s been a passionate topic for me for a long time: I’ve seen friends teeter on the edge and – thankfully – pull themselves back, or allow themselves to be pulled back. Other classmates, sadly, were not so fortunate.

And I also spent a long, long time in my 20s and 30s teetering on that drop-edge of yonder, often getting just close enough to draw blood, at one point making desperate flesh-offerings to propitiate the gods of shame, guilt and helplessness that kept me incapable of changing my past or present.

Those physical wounds were slow to heal…and their scars, like the forces that drove them, remained in my body and psyche. Like an alcoholic always hyper-aware of the location of the nearest bottle, I was always conscious that the drop-edge still awaited should I choose it…and if I forgot, the scars were there to remind me.

Yes, a whale of a lot of personal work took place in the twenty or so years that followed…and I can’t begin to say how grateful I am to the teachers and friends who stood by and supported with their wisdom and their prayers. Sometimes it seemed to take a village  just to keep this woman topside.

What caused the anguish and rage? – do I really need to go into that? Every woman who’s been there – and probably many men – can recite the litany: Not-enoughness. Self-doubt. Shame. Self-hatred. Fear of success. Fear of failure. Fear of being seen. Perfectionism. Self-judgment. The whole Pandora’s box unleashed by a Depression-raised father from a small town with shame/inadequacy/rage issues of his own and an eternal need to be right….followed by a husband whose deep childhood conditioning led him to see women by default as authoritarian abusers. Between the internalized echoes of his mother, and my father, didn’t we have fun…

No. When those echoes started ringing in our minds, it wasn’t fun. We were lucky in that we were deeply involved in parallel men’s and women’s personal-growth organizations, so we were somewhat more conscious than we might otherwise have been, but processes and scripts can only have so much effect when generations of epigenetic trauma are pulsing in one’s DNA and nervous system.

Lots of regrets there. Lots of work to heal, lots of conversations in spirit with a husband nearly 10 years dead. And I would still occasionally lean over that drop-edge and consider…And then pull back.

When did it shift? In the months after my father, after six months’ sharp decline in which we both struggled to reach some kind of reconciliation, passed in my arms, I began realizing – I was no longer obligated to be the good daughter, limiting myself to fit his projected standards, overcome his disapproval. It was over; I was free to be myself.

But while he may have passed, his internalized voice had not…nor had the family shadows. One night’s plunge into the darkness, miraculously allowing Spirit to speak once the convulsions of tears had passed, let me see: if I take that leap off the drop-edge, the darkness wins…for me, and for everyone who knows me. There’s no coming back from that choice. In surrendering to the darkness, I’d bring it closer to those I love.

Previously I’d just waited out the storms – choosing sleep, choosing books or videos or Internet-surfing or other distractions – but that night was different: I chose life. Not out of guilt – what a horrible, selfish person I was to think of ending it all! – but as an active, conscious vote against surrender to the darkness.

As the Project Semicolon people say: A semicolon represents the place where a writer might have ended a sentence, but chose to pause and continue. You are the author; the sentence is your life.

I started looking again at those scars that night – my flesh-offering to the gods of darkness and despair – thinking of some way to shift the energy they held in my body. And the idea of the semicolon kept returning…transforming the energy of the scars with a semicolon…?

Over the next weeks and months the idea grew…perhaps to call priestess-friends to join and bear witness in an Equinox (balance of dark and light) ritual tattooing over the scars, with a semicolon butterfly? The friends I invited were supportive, but their schedules were booked, and how would I get an artist to come and do the tattoo at my home? The idea was shelved, while I supported other friends through their own drop-edge struggles.

That was a hard couple of months. Meanwhile my own self-doubts resurfaced as I worked to birth a deeper vision for my life and work: who did I think I was? All the internalized lessons from my father came roaring out…how could I exorcise these inner demons?

Finally, Andrew Harvey gave me the key in a spiritual-direction session that shook me to the bones. Tonglen practice was the tool I could use, he said, describing a variation on the ancient Tibetan meditation: to sit naked in front of a mirror, tapping deeply into the compassion of the Cosmic Christ/Great Mother Goddess as I viewed myself. To see the place in my reflection  where the blackness lived, open it up and see the dark, viscous, smoggy smoke come pouring out, and to open the Sacred Heart in me to receive it, transmute it into Light, and send it up to the stars. I should do that daily for a month, he said….and yes, most definitely get the tattoo! As I felt the hope and enthusiasm rising in response to his words, I realized – a butterfly was a lovely image, but I needed something stronger.

We agreed: a phoenix. And it should be my personal ritual, in the company of an artist who could support an individual ritual. I began that day to find the image and the artist…and to begin the practice.

My first attempt at the meditation was like draining an abscess. I felt deeply empty and clear afterwards – the shame and self-doubt for once not knotted at the pit of my stomach. Browsing Pinterest in the afterglow, I found the phoenix image I was seeking: stylized, tribal, a dance of flaming flourishes for the bird’s head, wings, and tail. I found the shop: a Steampunk establishment in Frederick, highly recommended by Witchy friends for its spiritual sensibility. I set an appointment to chat with the artist, Miranda; if the energy felt right, I would schedule the appointment for Equinox day.

The meeting went well…the art and the feel of the place resonated; Miranda was friendly, respectful of the ritual element, and powerfully supportive of my intent for transformation. Could she do it on Wednesday? No – that was her day off, but we could do it in the days before…or  we could do it that same day. After a meditation in a nearby park, I was clear: this was the day. I set the circle in the work area Miranda screened off; I called in guides and protectors and stated intent; Miranda stated her intent to support, and the process began.


In the weeks since that day, I’ve been coming to realize the depth of magic worked in that glorious tattoo. The scars are completely hidden, one under a flame-feather of the phoenix’s wing, the other in a flourish of her tail; their energy of death and despair is completely gone. I look at the dance of red and gold on my arm, the semicolon that forms the bird’s eye and beak, and my heart lifts. A door has opened in my soul to the voice of hope and change, the ability to make new decisions, dare new ventures, reach for new connections. The Tonglen practice, like radiation, is dealing with the tentacles of generational trauma deep in my soul, and – as Andrew Harvey predicted – the tattoo and its intent started the process of healing.

Would Dad, during his life, have approved of his daughter becoming a Tattooed Lady (as he would say)? Most certainly not. I can say that now, thanks be, without the internalized child-sense that I am wrong for venturing outside his approval (where I’ve lived my life anyway); without the need to flaunt my pushback; with a sense of release that that cowering, self-effacing element of the code I learned from him is no longer mine. I am free to live by my lights, to rise, reborn, from the pyre of burning shame.

I have marked myself as my own woman, in my own integrity, making my own choices. choosing my life. And it is good.








Learning to Let Go

During my husband’s years as a water pourer for sweatlodge, he had a statue on his altar of the “weeping buddha” –
a powerfully built yogi with his face buried in his hands. There were many stories about this traditional Balinese statue, from a meditation on the tragedy of war to a folk remedy for daily heartaches.  The statue went with him to the sweatlodge ceremonies he led, and was often the catalyst for deep healing. Upon his death, it passed into the hands of another water-pourer, and continued its impact.

As much pain as the statue expressed, somehow I also found it deeply comforting,  a reminder that the “dark night of the soul” is one aspect of the spiritual life. Not a pathology to be medicated, not an inescapable, eternal black hole, but one aspect  of life…a natural response to loss, transition, and the sufferings of the people, the beings of the earth, and the planet.

In Original Blessing, theologian Matthew Fox offers tools for navigating these dark times of the “via negativa” – letting go,  allowing silence and solitude, letting the pain be pain, trusting the darkness and the sense of falling as avenues to compassion and deeper wisdom and connection.

As I prepare for the second Spirituality Conversation Circle, on the Via Negativa (see Events), I find myself walking this path again. Or rather, becoming increasingly aware of the via negativa that our culture, and all the cultures of the world, are experiencing as environmental and social systems break down at an ever-increasing pace.

I see the television ads for antidepressants and drugs to boost antidepressants, and I wonder what would happen if we all actually admitted our hidden, socially-unacceptable (You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought) feelings of grief and loss as one species after another falls to extinction, whole regions of the world’s oceans are deadened with oil, radiation fills the air and waters of the planet.

But in this society, in this economy, popular wisdom says, we can’t afford to be incapacitated by such feelings…we are supposed to remain happy, positive, upbeat and perky! Don’t think about such things now…instead, medicate, immerse in virtual reality, shop more!

Does anyone else see the cognitive dissonance here? This is our planet, our home, our inheritance and our bequest to our children. No matter how corporatist we may be, we cannot deny our chemical, organic, and genetic ties to this miraculous spinning ball of fire, earth, water, air, and spirit, and the millions of beings (whether created or evolved) that share it with us. Does this planet mean so little to us that we cannot allow ourselves to admit, and grieve, its slow destruction at our hands?

Ah, but once we admit the grief and loss, the full (literally) earth-shattering tragedy of what is happening, how can we see daylight again? How can we not be incapacitated,  sucked into the black hole of despair, leading at best to paralysis, at worst, to the temptation to self-destruct?

In a dark time a few months ago, I wrote:

if the news were a movie
and i a child watching
i’d be asking mommy
can we go home now? i don’t want
to watch any more
…but it’s not…

The news is filled with people leaving the movie of their lives. Just the other day a woman told me on Facebook that suicide was an understandable option, given the state of the world. When I shared with her the words of a wise teacher — that we can give up, we can choose a way that avoids the issues, or we can take action — the woman reacted as if I were judging any way other than taking action.

I am in no position to judge. As I write, I have a dearly loved cat sleeping her way either to death or to recovery on my lap, and can only respect her process and support her as I can…the fourth of my cats to have faced this passage in two years. This is following the death of my husband in 2006 and the death of my mother in 2007.  All of these losses are compounded by the ongoing news of global environmental destruction and disaster.

These losses are not  unique to me – they are simply my particular experiences of the pain each person undergoes, my portion of the suffering of the cosmos described in Buddhism.

I have not considered “walking out of the theater” for many years, but in times of sheer emotional exhaustion, I have wanted simply to stop. I have spent nights crying, praying for help…and somehow, whether from an inner nudge, or a guide’s advice to go out and stand barefoot on the earth, or the call of a friend, or a book falling in front of me to be picked up…sometimes a simple distraction that takes all my attention and relieves the pain through work…the strength comes to pick up and go on. Every time, somehow or other, the strength does come.

Those are the easy shifts…the quick fixes, so to speak…but there’s a deeper level that they don’t touch. I have seen it happen again and again in myself and among my friends and animal companions;  I believe it is happening today in our culture and on this planet: that at some point in our lives, whether in regard to our physical, mental, or spiritual health, we find ourselves in a place of deciding whether we choose to live, what our life means to us, how deep the resources are that we must tap if we are to continue living. And – perhaps – choosing life at its most profound level – not “the good life” of endless distractions, but an essential life with purpose, vision and mission.  Life that serves an integral, creative, positive purpose in the greater scheme of things.

At a time like that, I am coming to believe there is no option other than to give up – that is, to let go what is not essential.  In Original Blessing, letting go is described as a key element of the via negativa:  Letting go of the illusion of control…the constant need to be busy-busy-busy, whether with work or entertainment…the need to source our identity based on money, things, status, or even relationships. To let go of stuff of all sorts that’s cluttering up our lives, our minds, our bodies, our souls, hiding the deepest, most essential core. To allow ourselves to be emptied, give up pretending to be anyone but who we are at the place of pure awareness and connection to all that is.

Such a time is happening now as I sit vigil, watching my cat negotiating her passage in dreamtime. She is not in pain, she needs nothing from me, she is simply in process, and inner guidance tells me that all is as it needs to be. I do not know what her final choice will be; I have no control here, there is nothing I need to do to fix things. I am alternately grieving over her,  giving thanks for her beautiful life, and listening to inner guidance, learning to let go and trust.

I don’t have answers… What I do have, what I cling to at this moment of loss and unknowing, is the example of teachers who have survived the dark nights and still maintained their hope and vision – if anything, deepening their vision by passing through the dark. These teachers aren’t superhuman beings who dwell on heights the rest of us will never reach, heights where they are untouched, unweakened by the soul-stopping weight of grief and pain. If anything, they are unequivocal about the grief they have experienced, the depth of their own falls into despair. And they are unequivocal about those times of grief being a crucible of growth, compassion, and deepened connection to Spirit and to other beings.

Dr. Fox again: ” The divine image [is] present in every being, indeed, every atom in the universe.  It is the “light in all things.”  It is also, with its incarnation in Jesus, the wounds in all things.  Divinity is both the light and the wounds in all things. ”

The Right to Own Our Mental Health

I heard it again at a recent Christmas party, as my girlfriends from high school were sharing the “whatever happened to…” of the last 30 years. Another friend had suicided, the second in our class of barely 30, and this one by an overdose of antidepressants.

I came home heavy-hearted. Not just at the tragedy of a life needlessly lost, but the means of her going: during the hormonal uproar of my 30s, I’d attempted the same thing. It took far too many appointments with far too many psychiatrists whipping out scrip pads the moment I sat down in their office, far too many descents into pharmaceutical hell, before I finally found people who would teach me to manage my turbulent thoughts and emotions, not manipulate my brain chemistry.

Evidently, my high-school friend had not been so blessed.

So what I am about to say is rather passionate – and there have been those who have told me it is uncompassionate. I hope not…from personal experience I have profound empathy toward women suffering in these circumstances….and a great deal of anger regarding what I see as destructive and disempowering patterns in addressing their suffering. And I am speaking specifically of some – many, I believe – women’s experience, based on my own history and that of women I know, not to imply that men have no mental health issues, but simply because I cannot represent their experience.

First of all, the physiological facts. Let’s face it – the environment in which we find ourselves is growing steadily more toxic, loaded with chemicals known to disrupt hormonal activity. Add this to the imbalances of the Basic American Diet (a.k.a. B.A.D.), high in chemicals and low in genuine nutrients, possible food allergies or sensitivities, along with the high stress of daily living (whether working at an outside job or inside the home), topped off with the hormonal ebbs and flows that a woman’s body normally undergoes during her childbearing and peri/menopausal years….

The truth is that all – yes, all – of these factors can affect the mind, and are rarely if ever looked at in an initial psychological workup (or often in the average medical exam).

That’s not even touching on the silencing wounds that women may experience in the family, in school and in church, wounds that cannot be verbalized because they go to the level of profound feelings of shame and unworthiness – even unworthiness of life. How many women, suffering these wounds, succeed only in describing the most superficial emotional symptoms, and feel ashamed even of admitting those? And how many psychiatrists, running on a ticking clock, diagnose only on the basis of those superficial symptoms, and miss the core of the problem completely?

That was certainly my experience….and from talking with other women, I know I was not alone in this (though I certainly believed I was at the time).

Instead of an exploration into all the factors that might be causing a woman’s suffering,  however, she receives a new diagnostic identity (“clinically depressed,” “bipolar,” “depression/anxiety disorder,” or what have you), a scrip pad is whipped out and the latest drug is prescribed for the perceived pathology… sometimes, theoretically, to dial down the symptoms until she can learn to do it herself through therapy.

More often, however, therapy is severely limited or left out of the equation entirely, based on insurance restrictions: it’s costly and uncertain, dependent on the therapist’s skill and the patient’s willingness to heal. Now, so far from empowering the patient to take any personal, active ownership of her own mental health,  supplementary drugs (with side effects including suicidal ideation even in adults) are being promoted in case the original antidepressant doesn’t solve the problem!

And with the message being subliminally repeated again and again – doctors and drugs make you better, your experience is chemically based or pathological, you are sick and we have the cure – there is nothing to suggest, instead, that the client has control of her mind, that she can choose her thoughts, that she can imagine more than one interpretation to an incident or a conversation, that she can reframe and heal from past or present traumas, that she can own her feelings and perceptions and intuitions and deep wisdom,  that her mind is her sacred territory and not a chemist’s test tube. In fact, the very people who claim to be helping her are, instead, leading her deeper into disempowerment and dependency.

As James Hillman points out in The Myth of Analysis, the roots of this pattern go back to the beginning of psychiatry as a science, back in 1817, when psychiatric pioneer Jean-Etienne-Dominique Esquirol equated visions with hallucinations, thus effectively placing matters of soul on a par with pathology. The pattern, driven by the rationalist French Enlightenment, continues to influence psychiatry even now…and while psychospiritual therapy is gaining ground, psychopathology and psychopharmacology still have a firm grip on insurance payouts.

All of this, of course, is light-years from Jung’s view that the patient held the keys to his or her own process, that s/he had the intuitions and connection to Spirit/Source necessary to effect healing from within; the therapist’s role was to support the work. Or even from the Buddhist technique of contemplative therapy, using meditation as a tool to become aware of and rein in rogue thoughts and emotions. Both of these are facilitated approaches; both place a high value on the client’s own inner awareness and guidance system.

I’m not saying I  believe the brain can’t have organic or chemical disorders; certainly the boundary between physiological, psychological and spiritual affects appears to be very porous: autism is being linked to environmental toxins and extreme depressions to postnatal hormones; thoughts are known to affect brain chemistry;  and psychologists from C.G. Jung to Dr.  Maureen B. Roberts have reported remarkable results in treating schizophrenia without anti-psychotic medications. For this reason, I believe that chemical treatment as the default  serves the insurers’ and pharmaceutical companies’ bottom lines at the expense of the client’s true healing.

And frighteningly, as Big Pharma gains an ever-tighter stranglehold on health freedoms, this default appears likely to become more the norm, not less.

I fired my last psychiatrist for that pharmaceutical default, and was blessed – and driven – in pursuing healing on my terms. My late husband’s work with an international men’s organization led me to a women’s personal growth community that provided my first taste of Jungian deep-process work. From there I went on to experience healing insights through Earth-based spirituality, shamanic paths, Five Elements acupuncture, Reiki, mystic spiritual traditions,  diet and supplement changes, and have been blessed with the help of rare and wise healers and teachers all along the way …’s been a long and continuing mind/body/spirit path, with plenty of twists and turns and switchbacks and heights and depths and detours.

I’m recognizing now that that ongoing experience has not only been a life-saving process of personal healing, but also a process of claiming my mind and soul, my right to my life and self-determination, from a grossly dysfunctional culture that cynically fosters a half-life of profitably marketable distractions, addictions and dependencies rather than placing a value on personal awareness, aliveness, and inward and outward responsibility.

It’s a process necessary and unique for each of us…not just a self-indulgent exercise in achieving  personal wholeness, but a culture-saving process that makes it possible for us to take an effective role in healing our society and our world.

If we do not recognize the patterns that bind us psychologically, how can we work to change them, or recognize the impacts (good or ill) of the patterns that guide other cultures? If we’re not awake to our culture’s (and our own) blind addictions and dependency on outward solutions and outward scapegoats, how can we stand for responsibility in ourselves, our communities, our nation, or our planet?

Looking from this perspective, my friend’s death is not just a tragedy for herself, her family, and all who knew her – but also for the world. And the conditions that led to her death – her death, and that of how many others? –  represent the grossest possible social injustice.