For a few years now, Doni and I have been talking about doing something different on a news Café. One of the ideas that bounced between us was a Dear Abby column where readers would send in questions of a psychological nature that I would attempt to answer. Another idea had me writing a series of columns devoted to particular topics such as ADHD, insomnia, anger management, anxiety, depression, etc. I could never quite decide what to do or how to do it, but it seemed sensible to attempt some kind of hybrid of these two approaches. And while Doni has been extremely patient and always supportive and encouraging, I’ve been dragging my feet. I could never quite commit to plunging in and just doing it. Until now. I think I’m ready. I hope I’m ready. I guess we’ll find out.
We decided to call it Conscious Conversations because that is what I attempt to do all day long in my office. When people are suffering enough to seek out the services of a psychologist, they are usually open to change. They are done messing around. They are done faking it. They want to be real with someone. They want to be honest with someone who will accept them as they are and not judge them, who will listen carefully and seek to understand them.
For many of us, it is too easy to float through life unconsciously; thinking, feeling and doing the same things day after day. This works until it doesn’t, until something breaks, until the pain gets bad enough that we wake up. When we are conscious, we are present and when we are present, we are mindful and when we are mindful, we are ready to learn. And when this happens, our conversations change. We want to talk about things that matter, things that are real, things that relate directly to the heart of why we’re here.
So here is how this works. My plan is to write words that I hope you’ll read. And then, I hope you’ll write words that I will read. And then I hope to write words in response to your words, kind of like a conversation. And then it will be your turn. And so on like ping pong only slower and with ideas instead of little white balls. I will say things and ask questions and hopefully you will say things and ask questions, and together we will discover whether we have anything to say that is of value. If we get this right, my guess is we will all learn something, something useful, something we came here to learn or teach or both. And our conversations will be conscious, alive and real and provide us with tools that we can use as we seek healing and connection in our gentle journey through the marvelous madness of our common life. I hope you will join with me and see where it goes.
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Life After Fire
“Only to the extent that someone is living out this self-transcendence of human existence, is he truly human or does he become his true self. He becomes so, not by concerning himself with his self’s actualization, but by forgetting himself and giving himself, overlooking himself and focusing outward.”
“Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ and find that there is no death.”
When we are born and begin developing into a person, our parents behold us. They marvel at our existence and if we are lucky, they fall in love with and communicate a profound, unconditional acceptance of us. They see us and we see them seeing us. We realize that we are being seen. They mirror us. They validate and affirm us. They tell us verbally and more importantly, nonverbally, that we are special and important to them. We matter. We are significant. We are loved. And because of this, we trust. We relax into this understanding and test it, challenging our parents to love us, even when we are not very lovable. As time and experience repeatedly confirms this acceptance, we come to naturally savor, relish, appreciate and celebrate the fact that we are safe and secure in the loving embrace of these special others who attach and bond with us for life.
Of course, people are imperfect and so this process does not always happen perfectly. In some cases, it doesn’t happen at all like this. Some children are abused, exploited and violated. Those of us who were blessed with adequate parenting feel deep empathy for those who weren’t. For those adults who enjoy some level of psychological health and wellness, they can thank an adult who was there for them when they were small, defenseless, helpless and completely dependent on them.
Studies show that adults who are psychologically resilient cope with crisis more effectively than those who are not as resilient. And our resiliency comes from the fact that someone believed in, supported, and loved us and came through for us when we needed them.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful theory and helps us see how satisfying certain basic needs allows us to pursue more advanced, sophisticated or complex needs. For example, we first need to have our physiological needs met, to feel safe and secure and know on a deep level that we are loved and we belong to a person, a family, a tribe or cultural group. Once these needs are reasonably satisfied, we can build a positive sense of self, which Maslow calls esteem. The lower form of this depends on how others see and treat us. The higher form develops when our self-respect is not dependent on an external source.
Originally, Maslow described the final stage of human development as something he called self-actualization, which could be defined as fulfilling one’s potential or becoming what one feels called to become. When we feel that we have a purpose in life; when we come into awareness of the reason we exist; when we connect with our deepest values and feel and believe that we are acting on those values and fulfilling our purpose, we might say that we are self-actualizing.
Like many theories, Maslow later revised his understanding of his hierarchy of needs and added one last stage that he called self-transcendence. This term refers to the awareness that develops when we are not content merely meeting our personal or individual needs and instead aspire to give ourselves to others. Their needs become as important and, in some cases, more important than our own.
Some of us have been fortunate enough to realize, and wake up to the fact that separation is an illusion. While our bodies are separate and we all function as independent beings, some of us have tasted and become intimate with the knowledge that this is not fundamentally real or true. That which is deepest in me is deepest in you. At my most fundamental level, I am pure awareness and so are you. Your ground of being and mine is the same. In fact, it doesn’t make much sense to call it “my” ground of being, because “I” don’t possess it. Rather it possesses me. It gives birth to me and you and all people and all physical reality. It is what we are. However, until we fully wake up to this reality, we identify with, cling to and attach ourselves to physical things and limitations that are not fundamentally real, permanent or spiritually sufficient.
Collectively, we are all living in a time of cultural, political, and environmental instability and transformation. The “new normal” is anything but normal and is unlikely to ever feel normal. Instead, everything seems to be changing rapidly. For some of us, we have been personally and directly impacted. For our family, losing our home to the remorseless rage of the Carr fire was not the end of something; it was the beginning.
The idea of dying before you die is an old one and like any old idea, it is open to many interpretations. Before we can die, we must live, and to truly live, something in us or about us must die. Our attachment to illusions must die if we are to wake up to who we really are and why we’re here. I am grieving, not just for the loss of our home and the precious “stuff” we spent a lifetime accumulating. I am grieving for my community. I am grieving for nearly every person I know and care about who is grieving for our shared loss of innocence and the dawning realization that this is just the beginning of a new world we are creating together; a world that is harder and meaner and more cruel than anything we’ve known before. And it calls for resilience. It calls for transcendence. And it calls for spiritual awareness. It calls for community and unity. It calls for love.
You are meant to be here. You have a purpose. Our lives have meaning. You are important. You are significant. We are in this together and it is time that we accepted our role in creating whatever it is that comes next.
We can identify with separation and illusion or we can identify with wholeness, oneness and truth. We are here to learn from these trials and sorrows. What is it we are meant to learn? What happens when we lose, when people and things we’ve attached to disappear? What are we to make of our world when we no longer recognize it as our world?
And yet I ask you who is it that sees the world changing? Who is it that identifies with loss and pain? Behind and beyond our experience on this stage we call our life, there is a being – a self – looking out from your eyes and mine that is unchanging, that is unlost, that is perfect, complete and serene. When we sit in this awareness, when we awaken and transcend an old and limited idea of self that no longer works or serves a useful purpose, we can allow reality to be as it is, act with trust and purpose and remain solid in the knowledge that beyond all appearances, all is well and will be well.