Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—William Butler Yeats
I guess every age goes through something that feels apocalyptic. Not sure what Yeats was experiencing, but if you believe the rhetoric that’s flying around these days, you’d think, to use Yeat’s words later in the poem, “the Second Coming” is at hand. On the right, I was surprised to discover that some Q’anon advocates are waiting for Kennedy to rise from the grave and lead them to Jerusalem. On the left, I guess anybody other than Trump feels like a Christ figure.
How are we to hold all this drama and suffering?
The drowning of “ceremony of innocence” is not such a bad thing. That’s what apocalypse is for—it’s a revealing of a deeper reality, one that in order to preserve our innocence, we did not want to see. But seeing it, on the political, and on the personal levels, is critical to health. The false “good” gives way to what is true. Only then can the truly good emerge.
Let’s look at it from a more personal, psycho-spiritual perspective because, let’s face it, the shit storm is also in here. Stuff happens that makes us feel totally out of control. It can be stuff that’s happening to us. Or stuff, that’s happening through us. We act in ways that we don’t even understand: sabotage our own success, fly from the very love we say we want, turn the ones we love into enemies, choose bad partners (again), find yet another reason to keep ourselves in a state of despair, rinse and repeat. At some point, the question arises, what’s my role in all this suffering, because when looked at it objectively, the common denominator in all of it is us.
Do we take responsibility for the whole shebang? Some of it? None of it? How we answer that question determines much. Generally speaking, the more responsibility we take for the condition of our life, the more freedom and emotional health we will enjoy. But is there a limit? I’ve heard it said that neurotics take too much responsibility for life, and psychotic personalities take too little. What’s the sweet spot? Is there a sweet spot?
Now, you’d think that the fix would be to do all your inner work, deal with trauma, etc. , do a Vipassana retreat, (all good ideas) and the whole mess we’re making would go away. But have you noticed that even after we’ve done all our trauma work, even after we’re solid into our meditation program, the patterns in our life that create drama and suffering may endure. We’re taking responsibility, but what’s up with Ground Hog Day?
Well, it’s a mystery for sure, and I don’t claim to know the answers. But sometimes it’s fun to play with radical possibilities. I read a book by Dr. Carolyn Elliot, Existential Kink. Full marks for the catchy title. It was she who got me to engage with her rather radical take.
What if the life we have reflects our deepest desires perfectly? Could that be true collectively as well? I’m not talking about our conscious desire, but our unconscious desire? It’s about deep shadow work, with a twist. A dark, (maybe) sexy twist?
That twist is that at an unconscious level, we’re creating all this stuff that our conscious minds are dead set against. We’re split. Consciously we want one thing. Unconsciously, we want another—namely, all the stuff we say we don’t want. Healing this split (the ancient magic principle of unio mentalis) means being of one mind, which means owning our shadow, which means, wait for it, actually loving it all, all the fucked up messes and drama we call our life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
That possibility is captured by Elliot’s principle, Having Is Evidence of Wanting. No need to do ten years of psychotherapy to discover your deepest desires (is this self-sabotage for a psychotherapist?). Just take a look at your life, as it is, all laid out before you in all its glorious and grim details.
The ego protests. No bloody way. I didn’t choose this. I’ve been on the receiving end of some gnarly forces, out there. Real stuff, out there,(not in here) that had nothing to do with me and that caused my life to be this way. I got these genes, I got gaslighted by an abusive boyfriend. I got all kinds of trauma in my childhood. I was bullied. And I sure as hell didn’t choose it all.
Well, Elliot is calling bullshit on us. Playfullly and even delightfully, which does make it go down a bit easier. She’s doing it in a way that actually, (she claims), is empowering.
I’ve noticed that in my life, even after doing all this work, there is some dark gravitational force that attracts me to go back into the fuck up zone. To give an example, after years of psychedelic psychotherapy, I realized that I have a lot of rage. It’s at the ready, surveying the landscape for opportunities to let it rip. I’ll spare you the details. But suffice it say that I’ve brought it all to consciousness, expressed it, I own that I’m angry, I’ve grieved the underlying causes, etc…Great.
And guess what? I’m standing outside in the freezing rain waiting for somebody from the restaurant to acknowledge my presence (can’t wait inside because of COVID which is also a great opportunity to feel outraged—at least as far as my ego is concerned). I’m freezing, and after fifteen minutes a young woman asks me how I am today. How am I? Well, fuck you, that’s how I am. (No, I didn’t actually say that, with my outside voice). But I did tell her that I wasn’t happy waiting in the rain without any acknowledgement. Then, she told me there would be a 35 minute wait. I turned and walked away without a word. So satisfying. So fucked up.
So, have I “dealt” with my rage? Well, yes, insofar as I’m now aware of it and am willing to take responsibility for it. But it persists, like a crouching tiger. Is it possible that there is a part of me that doesn’t want to get over it? Like, I enjoy it. As in, get off on it – not so much putting down innocent servers – but on my own sensations of being unjustifiably ignored and neglected and then treated as though everything is okay? It feels so deliciously like reality. It’s so me, so familiar. The sensations of enacting my relatively harmless form of revenge. Delicious.
And I get the added bonus of the adrenaline rush of getting enraged. It becomes a habit, one I don’t actually want to give up? Is that possible?
Well, maybe. At least that is Dr. Elliot’s theory. But here’s the kicker. Instead of being ashamed of that possibility, rather than being morally outraged at myself that I get some sadistic pleasure out of blowing off steam, why not love it all? Like, really love it. As in, take pleasure in it. (And for her the pleasure can actually be orgasmic). Once that unconscious desire has been truly fulfilled, as in felt, enjoyed, revelled in (this is the “kinky” part of the title), then I am liberated to evolve other desires more consciously— like loving the poor server, who herself is a victim of COVID protocols.
(It should be mentioned that the healing practice involves enjoying this kinky pleasure on your own, as in not acting out on innocent waitresses. It’s a practice that we enact in private once we realize that we’re stuck in habitual, “negative”, patterns).
In other words, adopt an aesthetic stance toward the shadow, rather than a moral one. Imagine that you are an artist exploring the sensations associated with sadistic (or masochistic) pleasures. Imagine that your life is performance art, and as such you want to feel and express the fullest range of sensations and experience the beauty in it all—not just the so-called “good stuff”. Give up your moral outrage. I wonder if this is what Rumi meant when he wrote,
“Out beyond ideas of right doings and wrong doings, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”?
Still with me? There’s a metaphysical and magical dimension that undergirds this arrangement according to Elliot: namely that we are, remember, Spirit/Consciousness having incarnated (in this flesh and blood package that goes by your name) to get the full ride in the amusement park of life and all the sensations thereof. There will be ups and downs, goods and bads, light and darkness. Spirit by its Nature is all-loving, and all-accepting. While undivided (non-dual) in its own nature, it sees absolute Beauty in the duality of incarnation. Spirit loves it all and not just the good bits. Our Spirit self just wants all the sensations of being alive and embodied. So, in doing this kind of shadow work, we bring our Spirit nature to bear on the whole shebang. By loving it. Getting off on it.
One the one hand, this isn’t so radical. It’s a version of radical acceptance of what is. Standard enlightenment stuff. (But even this ain’t as easy it it sounds, because “what is” includes all these rather shadowy desires that we want to disown) . The radical bit is in the way we don’t merely accept this nasty S&M set up. We revel in it. Which, to reiterate, doesn’t mean acting out on it. Just fulfilling it by enjoying it without egoic judgment. (I’ll address this in my critique below) So, drop the moral ideals, and see life (my life) as a work of art, in which Spirit is happy to have the full range of sensations, wants it All, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the only way to move beyond the shadow desires, is, paradoxically, to embrace them, love them, get off on them until we’ve had enough, and then we’re free to evolve them.
Like an alcoholic, who finds himself lying in his own puke, again. And wakes up with a knowing. That’s it. Enough. I’ve fully realized my unconscious desire of full indignity, helplessness, and victimhood. Let’s move on to another desire that doesn’t involve drenching myself in last night’s dinner.
You get the idea.
Oh, the magical bit. Well, we’re all magicians, says Elliot. But if we think that the magic is in transforming our bad life into the good life, we’ve underestimated our talents. In fact, the bad life that we so desperately want to transcend (at least our conscious mind) is actually part of the magic trick. We’re already powerful magicians beyond our imagination.Just look at what we conjured up with spells and incantations (negative thoughts, attitudes, etc.). Our life, as it is, is a masterpiece of suffering. Now that we know that we’re magicians whose deepest desires actually do manifest (as evidenced by our life as it is) how can we use that power to consciously create the life we desire?
Okay, to use Yeat’s phrase, the specific “ceremony of innocence” that is drowned is the belief that I’m a victim of life. Elliot leaves little or no wiggle room. You have created the life you have Bruce, and therefore you have the power to create the life you want. Sounds pretty good.
Incidentally, you can have direct access to Dr. Elliot for 1500.00 U.S. per session. She went from standing in soup lines to a seven figure income. So, the magic seems to be working for her. Guess she’s lit up by seven figure outcomes. Fair enough.
But enough playing around. What could be the downside of the Existential Kink method?
1. First, let’s get metaphysical. (Yes, Olivia Newton John did come to mind! ) It raises the question for me if Spirit / G_D is really, in Elliot’s words, such a “nasty motherfucker”—evidenced by wars, tyrants, and all manner of evil. Is G_d/the One, really ethically neutral, and interested merely in having a sensual experience of the good, but also the bad and the ugly? I mean, it’s one way to resolve the thorny problem of evil. There is none. There is just experience. Just Spirit getting off on Itself, through us and the rest of the world. Just sensation, and it’s all okay.
But is that true? Elliot’s thesis is a little short on ethics. So, for example, she was grateful to her abusive boyfriend for showing her how she much she enjoyed being abused. She actually set him up, says she, to treat her like dirt. In fairness, having fulfilled that desire, she then left him to move on to meet her true love. But was that all set up by her Spirit Self, just for the buzz?
And this is why a non-dual theology, for me, can be problematic. There are versions that make some sense to me, but that’s for another post. If we’re all just The One having a game of hide and seek with Him/Her/Itself, there is no actual other to give a shit about. Only Me having an experience, because you (and everybody and everything else) are just me in drag. So we can kill each other, and sure, we can make some rules and laws to follow in the domain of space and time but in the end, it’s just Me relating to Myself, through you and me. It’s a kind of cosmic narcissism. I know that non-duality is all sexy and new agey, and the way to go if you want to get rid of God-in-the-Sky judging us all as bad and punishing or blessing the minions below. But I submit that there are others ways of dealing with this pathetic image of G_d as a mean, judgmental father.
2. Whenever you move into this territory of “we create our own reality”, of which this is a version, well, it can tip over into a solution to yet another thorny problem: we’re so fucking out of control as humans. Solution? Take absolute and total responsibility for the whole screwed up situation, for our abusive partner, for our poverty, for our cancer, for contracting COVID. You see? I’m totally, absolutely in control of the whole drama. Which is a solution to the victim mentality, sure, but is it true? I mean at some point it just starts feeling cruel.
3. Don’t try this little game of Existential Kink if you are depressed or haven’t worked through your trauma. This is Elliot’s advice as well, and kudos to her for issuing the warning. If you are depressed it will just take you down further into victimhood. Look at the fucked up life that my fucked up self created. It’s a ticket to self-hatred. I’m bad and this is just more proof. And if you haven’t grieved the violence and lovelessness of your childhood—none of which you created—EK is little more than a gateway to spiritual by-passing. Elliot thinks that’s it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that chestnut that gets thrown around new age circles, that we choose our own parents, or the nasty uncle, the same ones who beat and berated us, because we wanted to experience that kind of suffering in this lifetime.
To which I say, ahem…bullshit. How can she know this? I think it’s an intellectual move to establish control where is none.
Let’s say it is true. What are we supposed to do? Act as though we’ve been mistreated, do all our trauma work as if we were actually victims as children,(and not generators of the experience) but then advance to the master class where we understand all of that was just an illusion, and we need to thank our abusers? Just ignore our crushing heart-break, rise above it all and get on with life by exerting willpower. Because our abusers are us? Sorry. Not going there.
Where I land is that at that point in our healing journey when we’ve done a whole bunch of work (play?) on ourselves and find that we’re repeating the same old patterns, then absolutely, take a serious look at what you’re getting out of it. But leave out all the metaphysical mumbo jumbo. It may be that the last step of integration involves seeing how strongly we are attached to an old, trauma self, the old adrenaline hit we get from it, the old personality we put in place in an attempt to be safe. But we don’t know what the new self will look like yet. That’s uncomfortable. As in anxiety-provoking, as in, it has the power to send me scuttling back to my old self that is at least familiar, (including the parts that create a ton of suffering. Better the devil you know…)
That anxiety of not knowing what to make of ourselves, that is, the self we haven’t yet consciously curated, but is within our power to do so, is what the ancient Hebrews encountered as a crisis of liberation. Many of them, according to the old biblical story of Exodus, wanted to go back into slavery, because the Promised Land was just a little too uncertain, a little too far off, and required just a little too much faith to proceed. And maybe, just a little too much freedom. Three squares a day, even if you had to put up with the odd cockroach.
Take as much responsibility as you possibly can for the condition of your life. In maximum responsibility, there is maximum freedom. Up to a point. But you didn’t set yourself up to be beaten, abused, neglected, etc. And those who did it to you don’t get off the hook because you chose them before you came in, or because they are you in drag. There needs to be accountability for deliberate acts of cruelty. And, you sure as hell weren’t getting off on it when it happened. Do shadow work to see if you’re unconsciously attached to old patterns just because you’re afraid of not knowing what the new you looks and feels like. If you keep treating yourself as though you aren’t the beautiful, radiant being that you are, then it’s time to write a new script. I agree with Elliot, that the key is always love of self—the whole self, not just the good bits. And that’s the source of our truly magical power to re-create ourselves.