Sunday, May 22, 2016



This year, something unexpected bloomed in M’s garden. It’s like that every year. I meet the new flowers through a text message, waiting for my time to visit, hopefully showing up before they have grown tired of waiting for me. When I finally arrive, I drink them in like water from a fire hose. 

Every spring, I long to put my hands into the earth, to understand the visceral truth about soil: the darker the healthier. 

While light is necessary, growth happens from the ground up.

My first and only garden was planted for me by the previous owners of a house I purchased but never felt was truly mine, a fully mature perennial garden made up of a series of beds so well planned that as one flower died, another bloomed. There was no time for mourning. 

The only role left for me was weeding. My ignorance at the time, however, was such that even identifying weeds required a new education. With a dearth of teachers but a great deal of hope, I weeded the garden with administrative fervour, never allowing myself to sit idle, never stopping to just be with the beauty of my upkeep, not knowing just how quickly it would slip through my fingers.

Fifteen years later, I got to spend hours digging in the dark earth of someone else's garden, removing old roots and stirring in manure, mixing shit with soil that had lain fallow for years, the ground matted with wild trees and flowers to whom I tenderly apologized as I cut their ties, turning the soil again, uprooting more plants, then more turning and more uprooting. It seemed, finally, my education might start from the ground up, from first principles. If I could learn to ready the soil, I might learn to grow nourishment, sustenance, and beauty. 

This time, although the teachers did arrive, I did not. The garden was borrowed. And like in so many of my dreams, I found myself stuck in another city, at a retreat or convention centre, my own home still at large, with no sense of how to get there. For me, home is not a going back. It’s a constant trek, like a soul endlessly walking the distance an airplane has traveled to deposit all the world’s viable lovers into fertilized territory. 

As the jet stream dissipates, I am left with only clouds as guides. I cannot stop walking because there is no back to turn to.

At my current dwelling, I host two planters outside my front door. Dead grasses in one, weeds in the other, snow-burned soil in both, and I wonder if I have the strength to return to a nursery to make a choice. 

Both planters require that I start from scratch. But choosing among annuals feels like choosing among ice sculptures melting in winter sunshine. 

I have grown weary of starting again, of the short term. I'm tired of the recurring dream in which I am at a university or a hotel, but never home. I want the kind of return that means food, the return of worrying over bugs and working to find organic solutions to organic problems, the tending daily to something that has a greater chance of return in full bloom next year if I nurture it in this one.

Today I awoke thinking about small paintings. The kind with simple relationships -- glass and fruit, light and shadow -- the kind I can make in an hour without agonizing over worth or purpose. As I allow myself this small luxury of a future pruned down to a few hours in a single day,  the inevitable question forces its way through my deliberately narrowed focus, like a daisy pushing through concrete. 

For whom?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Forget Therapy

I quit.

That’s right, I quit. Everyone knows September is when the real New Year begins, when we start real things, like school. But I quit. I quit school. I QUIT SCHOOL.

Breathe, Liz, breathe.

Is it a coincidence I quit right around the Jewish New Year? While it’s true I’m a Jew – if one of the world’s worst – the fact that my soul’s new year also begins every September, which generally coincides with Rosh Hashana is, I think, only . . . um . . . coincidental.

Or is it?

There are mysteries afoot in my life right now that make me wonder if coincidence is really random -- coincidence itself not being the mystery but mystery’s symptom, its bell. 

For instance, I recently moved a bookcase from my side of the bed to the side my lover sleeps on. And I changed its orientation (the bookcase’s, not the bed’s or the lover’s), which had faced into the room but now faces the bed so that one can contemplate all those stories lying in wait, especially on sleepless nights when I am alone. 

This new arrangement led to my partner spotting
Amnesia by Douglas Cooper, a watershed book from when his first marriage came apart. “I’m amazed you have this book!" he jubilated. "We've read the same book!” he sang out, identifying yet another synchronicity in a growing list of delicious synchronicities, reinforcing what has felt so right, so destined, so homey from the start.

“I haven’t read it,” it pained me to admit. “That’s my shelf of to reads.” How many times had I picked up this book, read the cover jacket, and put it down again because it simply didn’t resonate. This time, I immediately cracked the book to gain insight into my lover – why was this book so significant to him? What I found was my own story. My own story right now, that is. Any other time it would have been a good read but perhaps not a profoundly resonant one. With quitting school just before September, just before Rosh Hashanah, I’m fairly vibrating with

The book is about storytelling. The protagonist splits himself in two, projecting one part as himself-as-storyteller in order to tell himself-as-audience the terrible crimes he committed.
Amnesia is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to forget, the stories we tell ourselves in order to remember. It’s the confessionals we tell a listener to relieve ourselves of the burden of shame and guilt, or stories that toss a rope to those in need, or to those we wish to pull into the vicinity of love; it's the stories that serve as mirrors so that we might see ourselves and be seen in order to judge and forgive ourselves in the hopes that we may heal. 

Two weeks before reading
Amnesia, I had quit therapy-training school. The decision had been painful but, once made, joyous. But not for long. I’m now walking around with deep worry in my heart. If not a therapist, then what, what is my purpose? And what story do I tell others to make this decision make sense, but mostly importantly, what story do I tell myself?

Amnesia, the protagonist's is so preoccupied with home-life traumas that he unwittingly destroys a woman he loves, and who loves him, much the same way Hamlet's obsession about his uncle destroys Ophelia -- not directly, because Hamlet did not seek to harm her. But he was so hell bent on avenging his father that he missed Ophelia's love altogether. He didn't even notice her.

As September approached, I obsessed about quitting all the things I didn’t want to do anymore (which is kind of what therapy is about: quitting bad patterns that are self damaging). 

I quit school because my body felt sick when I thought about going back. And then I quit feeling like I owed an explanation for that decision to anyone, especially to the school. While on this quitting roll, I tried to also quit feeling responsible for people for whom I am not responsible. And I longed to quit avoiding conflict because as much as I hate conflict, I know that whatever disappears from the surface inevitably reappears on a subterranean level and eventually poisons my well.

My quitting obsession transformed me into a cocoon. My mind went numb. Last September, I read a freight train of psychologist, cultural theorists, visionaries, thinkers, and other declarers on the nature of the human condition. I nibbled at a smorgasbord of rational-to-mystical offerings, which left me feeling either empty or full but never really nourished. That was the real problem. I was not hungry, yet I ate. I felt bloated and uneasy in my skin.

Looking back, I wonder if I was trying to put myself into a state of hibernation: consuming in order to conserve. Whatever the reason, I stopped noticing anyone else. My desire to quit became so overwhelming that one day I simply left the table. Burrowing into a tree or underground might have actually served me better since a good depression is rich humus for evolution. But I stayed above ground instead, seeking flat lands. I needed to see the horizon. I didn't trust the dark. I slept with my eyes open.

And the people around me suffered. I began avoiding contact. Even my partner did not get all of me. Friends in crisis could not reach me. Nothing penetrated anymore.

So now I'm growing worried. I'm worried that past events in my life – Andy’s death, for instance – have cut so deeply that I’m not willing to take a deep dive for fear of never resurfacing. I'm worried I've pitched my tent in a daffodil-filled meadow from a sanitary-napkin advertisement in order to avoid the bloody work of digging a foundation.

I'm worried quitting is a form of amnesia, a way to forget things, a way to avoid more mourning.

Two emails arrived this week, however, that have snapped me awake . . .

The first was from a friend with whom I had recently discussed our new beginnings for September, her fall being filled with teaching and getting her long-awaited tenure portfolio ready. But before she could get started, her father required a sudden hip replacement, so she dropped everything and took up residence at his hospital bed located in the “Close Observation Unit.” Feeling helpless, she did the only thing she could do. Closely observed him. 


It was not an email she sent, but a story, a true story, a heartbreaking story. I wept. Her drawing of her father haunted me for days. Only now as I write this do I realize what has been pulling at the corners of my psyche: this is the same story of Rosh Hashanah, of
Amensia. All three are about carved-out spaces in time when our lives may be in the balance and close observation is the only thing we can do, and also the best thing we can do: a time and place of reckoning with ourselves and our loved ones, a deep-dive exploration into our oceanic sides, our hidden creatures.

The Close Observation Unit is where we wake up to the realities of our lives, where we see how we operate in the world. It's where we open up to our own hidden truths, where we heal and recover.

Rosh Hashanah is just another kind of Close Observation Unit in which God opens the book of life for ten days during which time you get to closely observe (i.e. reflect upon) your sins; and where you get to make amends and then plead your case (i.e. tell your story) in the hopes that God lets you live another year. Since you don't know which fate God chooses for you, all you have left to do is to act in good faith towards yourself and others.

Amnesia, the protagonist undergoes a long, drawn out Rosh Hashanah as he unearths his wrong doings in the company of a witness (even if the witness is another part of himself) in order to take responsibility for his forgetting, in order to remember, make amends, and heal. 

What I find fascinating about this process is that in telling our stories, we reproduce our creator because we presuppose an audience who will hear us and forgive us.

As I look at my friend's drawing of her father, I realize she has reproduced her creator in order to engage in their unfolding story together. Reproducing him is an act of devotion, an act of gratitude for what has been given, such as her gifts and talents, such as her very life. We the children are the lucky ones because we already know the person we reproduce through story telling (or drawing, or whatever form it takes). Our parents did not have that benefit when they imagined us and sought to reproduce us. But our act of devotion is based on a lived relationship, one we have the priviledge of acknowledging. What’s even more lucky for the children is that our relationship to our parents is not the product of our love for and with someone else; it is direct with them. It’s no different to a direct relationship with God. Or with ourselves as the divine.

There is something existential about Rosh Hashanah: the fact of God's will. In other words, you can plead your case through a story, but God will decide your fate in the end. God's will is another way of representing the givens in life that we cannot control. Whether someone loves you, or your fortunes rise or fall, or you get a PhD (or not), you will die. That's a given. Apart from the givens, however, you get to make your own decisions about the rest of your life. How will I choose to be in this world? Bitter and blaming or responsible and grateful? These choices can almost seem like too much freedom. I know it can be overwhelming for me. If not a therapist, THEN WHAT?

What matters, however, is not the answer to that question, but the beautiful freedom I have to choose in the first place. Even to choose to quit. Quitting is just a moment of decision making, and, as such, an act of living and self love.

The second email was from another friend whose father died much more quickly than she or her family can bear. “I’m beyond devastated,” she wrote. “My dad . . .” And I knew exactly what she meant. She had written the only expression possible for such a catastrophe.

For me, this is where surface and depth meet. Where sand whips around my tent reminding me there is no safe space where death won’t take away those I love. This is where therapy begins and ends, where one person tells another person the contents of their heart and other person hears it with all their heart. I wept. And I wrote back whatever support I could offer. 


When I admitted to my partner “I can’t do this anymore,” this being go back to school, he said: “Perhaps you want to live on the surface of things right now.”

And that’s why I love him. Because I knew he would reflect me back to myself. He gave me permission to surface, to come up for air, to cease diving into places that were pulling me under at at time when I couldn't bear it.

But also I knew his meaning was double. I knew that he knew the surface would not sustain me, that this was not an end point, only a beginning. That there would be another diving under later, another fall, another September when I could and would decide what’s next. Decide who I want to be; what I want to do. Just not now.

I feel so grateful for the ten days ahead of me when I get to join the ritual of reckoning, of admitting my wrong doings, of making amends, of visioning what is to come, and of being truly present with those I love, especially with my partner, whose preoccupations never seem to obliterate me. He always notices me. I am awash in the way he sees me, through the eyes of love.

In the Close Observation Unit, life becomes simple and clear: the world
is and we respond; acknowledgement is love.

So whatever I am right now (or at any time, really) -- whether I quit or stay the course -- there are no perfectly right answers; just close observations. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Therapy Actual


The word had been dogging me since starting therapist-training school. Dogging my mind, anyway. My body simply slept through it. In class, in therapy sessions, it was appearing everywhere, like synchronicity in action, but I didn’t really know what it meant. I mean, I knew there was this approach called “primal therapy,” and I knew it had its hayday in the 70s, or maybe it was the 80s, but it had either passed out of fashion or was currently hidden and only practiced by the old guard or in secret therapy societies. I didn’t bother to look it up. 

For weeks we’d been studying Western Mysticism. During our weekend classes, we were introduced to traditions outside of psychotherapy’s more accepted paradigms – we took journeys through forests, many of us meeting spirit-animal guides in meadows, others of us mediating on loving kindness. We built a variety of altars and reconsidered existence through the lens of quantum science, learning that photons fired in opposite directions will mirror each other’s actions instantly – when one changes direction, the other changes in the same manner, despite their being in different locations – suggesting that there’s some other dimension undetectable by our current science in which communication occurs at faster-than-light speed.

But it didn’t matter because I had stopped absorbing. My feelings came slowly, as if from under water, never breaking the surface. The usual insecurities were pulling me under – am I good enough? Will I be loved enough? Will I be loved at all . . . ever . . . WHEN? These questions came in the midst of being loved in the way I’d always dreamed, yet I still had to ask. Nothing was penetrating. Everything had a "but." But it’s probably not real. But it won’t last for long. But nothing ever works out.

And then there were the questions about my life’s purpose: what the hell am I doing with my precious life – not painting, not writing, what and, again, WHEN?! When will my life proper begin, the one where I have a fulfilling and solid career, a sense of purpose? It didn’t matter that I was writing blog posts, or editing my book (that will never see the light of day), or learning a new day job, or studying for my “vocation” (was I really going to be a therapist?!) These things didn’t seem to count. Nothing counted.

Every week I went to therapy and talked, and sometimes mustered a tear or two, but left feeling that while my mind got it, my body was failing the class. It was not therapy’s fault. Something was corked in a deep part of me. I couldn't seem to dislodge the blockage, so I did what I always do when faced with what I perceive as an immovable obstacle: I decided to quit. Quit school, quit therapy, quit dreaming about my future. 

At the end of one particular therapy session in the midst of my doubt, we heard a shattering cry through the wall. 

“Oh. That’s just an emotional release,” said Karen, my therapist, as if she were describing someone’s digestive gurgles. But it was too late. A door had slammed. And it was mine. “I can’t do this,” my mind said, using her inside voice. My body had already slipped into a coma. “I can’t bring people to that place,” I insisted to my interior audience. I was already thinking about popcorn and movies. I was already somewhere else.

“Have you ever been to that place yourself?” A fifth-year student asked me in the waiting room the following week. I was waiting to see Karen. She was waiting to go into Group (which I’ll write about once I’ve done it.) I told the student therapist I was thinking of quitting the program. She told me she'd been seeing patients for two years already and couldn't imagine doing anything else. She loved it. "Have you ever had a primal in therapy?" she asked again.

Had I ever been to a place of total emotional abandonment? I’d come undone before, spent years crying to and from class, to and from work, to and from the grocery store. But letting out a soul-wrenching scream from the depths of my wrenched soul? 

“No,” I admitted.

“Well, that’s why you’re scared,” the student therapist concluded. And she was not wrong. “It’s hard to describe the transformative quality of primal work,” she explained “unless you’ve done it.”

“It’s pretty great!” She added, like describing a ride at the Ex.

Half way through therapy that day, I ventured off the path. “I wonder if what I need is a primal,” I suggested. I had no idea what I was saying. I didn’t even know if that’s how you said it. Was ‘a primal’ a noun?

“We could do that,” Karen said, gamely. My eyes flicked over to the clock. “Well, there’s no time today, anyway. So, let’s do it next week,” I quickly backtracked. Surely a primal required at least an hour, if not longer. There was only half an hour left.

“We could do a dry run today,” Karen suggested, only she had already gotten up to prepare the matt on the floor while explaining what she was about to do. “I’ll be pressing down on your back along its length,” she said, making it sound like a massage. I started to relax, looking forward to releasing some tension in my shoulder blades.

I lay on my stomach and Karen pressed on my lower back. The pain shocked me. Since when do I have pain in my lower back? I had never noticed it before. How long had it been there? Then she moved up my spine to where my pain normally resides. All that pressing felt good, despite the pain. If this was a primal, I was loving it.

Then Karen told me to make some statements as she pressed the pain points. She gave examples like, “I hate my job” or “My mother never let me eat between meals” or whatever else came to mind. Except my mind had gone blank. Shit. I’m going to fail the primal, I panicked. Then Karen pressed really hard on my lower back and a voice broke the surface with the force of the scream from the week before, “I’M TIRED OF WAITING!”

“That sounded pretty true,” Karen said. “Let’s try something else.” She told me to get on my knees, my torso upright, my arms raised above my head, my hands clasped. She placed a tower of pillows in front of me. Then she assumed the same position adjacent to me and came down on the pillow tower, hitting  it with her outstretched arms, yelling, “I’m tired of waiting!”

I giggled uncontrollably. Karen got up and moved behind me. I started to explain that I would not be able to do that because I felt self conscious, "Karen, I don't think I can do . . ." when she pushed me! I fell forward, flooded with anger, and screamed I’M FUCKING TIRED OF WAITING. I’M TIRED OF FUCKING WAITING. I’M TIRED OF ALL THIS FUCKING FUCKING WAITING!!!!! 

Images flooded me. Waiting hours for my mother to pick me up at school. Waiting for dinner to be ready. Waiting for her to be happy so that I could stop trying to do the impossible. Waiting for my fatigue/resistance to ease up so that I could paint. Waiting to feel qualified at . . . well . . . ANYTHING. Waiting for my asshole neighbour to give in on the right-of-way issue to my front door so that I would not lose the value of my home. Waiting to be able to live alone. And yet tired of living alone. Tired of waiting to one day live with a partner again, waiting to possibly get married, waiting for a family of my own (and really tired of feeling ashamed to want these things) –  

And then I stopped. I stopped feeling. Because I knew I would never have a family. That piece of my life has passed me by (and, truthfully, I'm not sure I want children. But is that because of circumstances or because of an inner truth? I'll never know). The people I have loved in the last decade already had families, ones they built with their ex’s. And those children, those roots, those physical and emotional edifices did not include me. I was tired of waiting for inclusion (and, again, tired of feeling ashamed for wanting it). I was tired of waiting on the fringes of other people’s schedules and priorities and pasts. I was tired of waiting for my own will to live.

When the feelings of loss are too great, I shift out of waiting mode and into resignation, which looks an awful lot like quitting.

Andy’s death is the perfect example. For years, I couldn’t wait for the day when both my brothers would stand up for me at my future wedding the way they had done for each other. But that waiting is futile. It will never deliver Andy to my aisle. I guess it’s one less thing I have to wait for. And suddenly I am flooded with fatigue. Who cares? I just want to go to sleep.

Karen held me as I cried. I didn’t cry a lot, but the wave came from somewhere deeper than usual. “Your face looks so much softer,” she said. But the truth was, my time was up. We had come to the end of the half hour. 

On the two following nights, I dreamt about two women from my past, women who had endured family traumas on the level of Andy’s death and greater. In the dreams, they each came to me for comfort. I have always found both these women somehow remote -- able to describe their trauma but not necessarily express it, or maybe not even feel it. It occurred to me when I awoke that feeling is healing. And that I, myself, had become remote. In the dreams, however, these two women had softened through their pain, through their new ability to be vulnerable, to ask for help. Both had snuggled up to me like children seeking comfort in their mother’s arms. I don’t know what that’s like, to find comfort in a mother's arms, but in the role of mother I felt right at home. I took them in and held them. And something from deep within me radiated a feeling I can only describe as love. I may not ever have children of my own, but perhaps I might still become a mother.

As I lay in bed feeling the deliciousness of being needed, even if only by dream "patients,"  the mantra from a Rolling Stones' song resonated its soulful, human-condition truth from the top of  my head down through my  body like an alarm clock without a snooze button: you can't always get what you want; but if you try some time, you just might find you get what you need.

As for this sense I have of always waiting, well, as one therapist told a friend of mine, my pathology may just be my destiny. Waiting may be the teacher I have been waiting for, pushing me to the point of such exasperation that I stop waiting and start doing. Or, even better, realize that I'm already being.

And here's where primal therapy might do a world of good. It's nothing if not about being. When you can feel the nature of your pain, it unfreezes things, lets lifeblood flow again. All the ways in which I believe I'm forced to wait are not actually the truth. They are just cover ups for a deeper pain -- my sense of deprivation, which goes back to ... well, that part is for me to know and sort out. Like cutting, which is an attempt to feel something other than the pain of a trauma, waiting has kept deprivation at bay. But when I finally got past the surface pain of waiting to the raw pain of deprivation, it loosened its grip. At least for a moment.

I might need another primal or two for a full-body release ...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Songs to the gods of my soul

As promised, but more belatedly than I had hoped, allow me to humbly offer you the next installment of Therapy by Proxy.

The reason it has taken me a while to update you is simply because I am onboarding so much information it's like drinking from a fire hose. As a result, I have been in the throes of processing, as well as trying to figure out what to share because I want to share all of it. But where to begin! For instance, I wanted to explain that therapy comes in many forms and to try to explain a little about them because how the hell is a lay person supposed know to which model of therapy to choose when many, many, MANY exist . . . The kind where you sit on a couch and free associate in the presence of a silent, inscrutable therapist (which I think causes more damage than good, IMHO), or the kind where the therapist is engaged, offering not only an empathetic ear, but asking challenging questions, holding the space for your emotional tsunamis, and generally helping you learn to feel comfortable with life's paradoxes, tragedies, and learning curves (which, of course, is where I'm at)?

Since I don't know where to begin, I'm going to jump right into the middle since the middle is generally where we find ourselves -- in the middle of a crisis, in the middle of work, in the middle of love, in the middle of a thought, etc. We are always in it. "It" being life as a lived experience. And therapy is not something outside of being in it but another angle from which we can bring awareness and compassion to our experiences while we are in the middle of them (or after, it doesn't really matter).

After Andy died, Dawn, his wife, gave up anxiety. Or, rather, she made a distinction between what can be helped and what can’t. Far too early in life, she’d had plenty of reasons to become anxious, not the least of which was her mother’s death from a car accident when Dawn was twelve. Death didn’t end there. Dawn’s high-school boyfriend, Dan Eldon, was machetted to death on a tour in Somalia as a young photojournalist. By this time, Dawn was already dating Andy. She got the news of Dan’s horrific death from his mother, who later published his stunning photo journals, which Dawn could not bring herself open and look at. That is, until after Andy died.

To distract herself from worry before Andy died, Dawn cleaned and organized her house. Everything had to be perfect. It never occurred to me to ask her what perfect meant because I had my own anxiety-distracting version of perfection, which I never bothered to define because that would mean unpacking it. It was a felt thing – I would know I’d reached perfection by a feeling of safety, which, of course never happened, which, of course, was the point. I kept myself in a constant state of striving because somewhere I knew that if I stopped, my idle hands might come into contact with icky-sticky things just underneath my psyche's tidy surface, like other people's chewed gum or, worse, their boogers, or, far worse, my own. So, I did what Dawn did. I cleaned and organized. What I cleaned, however, was not kitchens or houses or even desks. Instead, I sanitized relationships.

In my twenties and thirties, what I looked for in my relationships and – surprise! – found were flaws in the person I claimed to love – itty bitty idiosyncrasies I just knew I could fix, if only I could convince my boy of the error of his ways and the benefits of the Liz Plan. To me, love was something I had to mold in my image. It never occurred to me that it was something I could behold (in their own image). In those days, I wouldn’t have recognized the infinite shape of love even had it taken up permanent residence in my bed, which is where I thought it should lie, like a pet. But we'll get back to this later . . .

A few weeks after Andy died, Dawn anxiously confided in me that her son, my nephew, was worried that he was going to die, too. I paused for just a moment before I said, “He will." There was simply no other answer. Dawn’s face suddenly relaxed because she understood the truth of this truth. In the aftermath of Andy's death, Dawn and I had both puzzled over two inexplicable crying jags she'd had in the week leading up to the crash, one on the night before. Both times she had come to bed hysterical for no reason she could fathom, imploring Andy, "What will I do if you die?" The strangeness of this coincidence is something I cannot fathom, so I leave it to the world of mystery. What I do understand, however, is that her worry didn’t stop what became Andy's destiny. All too clarifying in its utter isness, Andy’s death showed Dawn just how powerless she is to alter what the Existentialists call “givens” – i.e. the inescapables of life, such as death.

 Accepting life's givens is not the dark, scary thing we have come to expect from the Existentialists (a misreading, I believe). Givens are one of life's most affirming gifts.

Thank you grnly for this perfect metaphor

My own time working with a Buddhist, existentialist therapist (for five years) helped me accept anxiety as something as necessary as a limb, or my heart. Because what the Existentialists understood about anxiety is that it's an important alarm system that can tell you something in the world or inside you needs attention. Anxiety is the reminder that we are alive and that we are the sole owners of our lives, and that we have to make a thousand and one decisions every moment about how we want to live this inexplicable life  . . . with meaning.

But the best explanation I have heard for why we – by which I mean anyone inculcated in the paradigms of western culture – should not eschew anxiety but embrace it is James Hillman’s discussion of polytheism (versus monotheism).

Hillman, a Jungian, and father of what's known as Archetypal Psychology, deconstructs the traditional Judeo-Christian framework through which psychological states have been pathologized. Hillman focuses instead on western mythology as a gateway to exploring, deepening, and understanding our many psychological states, which he did not judge as good or bad but as simply different modes of being and vital to the evolution of one's soul.


According to Hillman, we have internalized the drive to eradicate anxiety in western culture because we have internalized monotheistic thinking that strives for perfection in everything – from allopathic medicine that seeks to eradicate illness, to worshipping a single, all-powerful God who will forgive us all our sins, to the reduction of our very souls down to two states of being: good or evil.

The polytheistic model, by contrast, attends to a variety of states with no "preferred positions, no sure statements about positive and negative, and therefore no need to rule out some configurations ... as ‘pathological.’" Not only does "each complex deserve[] its respect in its own right,” with none being good or evil, there is no bad or "evil" state to be in. Hillman writes:

"The Greeks had no Devil; each form of consciousness had its specific component of wrong-doing and tragedy. Evil was not a separate component, but a strand so woven through everything that the ‘integration of shadow’ was already given in the patterns of life rather than the task for an ego to do."

Like a modern-day Yente, Hillman hooks up each psychological state with a mythological (archetypal) mate. "Each [mythological] God has his [and her] due," meaning the chosen god for a person's particular state would both mirror and challenge that state, like a good soul mate does, or a good therapist, to deepen that soul and help it become more of itself.

A polytheistic approach to psychology, therefore, is not about hitching a transcendent wagon to the star of self-improvement, but rather it "obliges consciousness to circulate among a field of powers," i.e. our states of being and their soul mates (our god guides) are multiple, relational, and contingent -- all the archetypal gods help us evolve as we live through our life's experiences.

This model is homeopathic, allowing each state full expression, which Hillman calls soulmaking. Repression, or attempts at excision, of these states only results in deleterious effects on the psyche, not to mention the body, leading to what I call sick-making.

Okay so what exactly does this look like on the ground in a therapist's office? Well, instead of a therapist trying to alleviate suffering, per se, a therapist might not approach depression as a pathology in the first place. Rather, it's just one of many states in which a person may find herself. And the question is not how to get rid of it, the question is how to go deeper into it, not only to potentially discover something more about the self, but to engage in soulmaking through acceptance of every aspect of the human condition. Depression, as it were, may have something to teach us. It may be alerting us to unfinished business, to places of deprivation, to buried anger, etc. A Cognitive Behavioural approach to depression (read: monotheistic), for instance, would likely furnish the patient with tools for managing those feelings without fully exploring those feelings, which does not actually honour depression's depth, power, and potential for a cure in working with instead of working against.

Polytheism’s magic lies in the way it “favours differentiating, elaboration, particularizing, complicating, affirming and preserving” emotional, psychological states. In a polytheistic therapeutic model, “The emphasis is less upon changing what is there into something better (transformation and improvement) and more on deepening what is there into itself (individualizing and soul-making).”

"When the idea of progress through hierarchical stages is suspended," argues Hillman, "there will be more tolerance for the non-growth, non-upward, and non-ordered components of the psyche." The psyche will be accepted as multiple, relational, and contingent, not something to be judged and cleansed.

Salting Hillman's account of polythesim is Thomas Moore's discussion of the Marquis de Sade’s provocative writing, which locates polytheism in a different set of archetypes, i.e. so-called sexual perversions. (A former monk and author of Care of the Soul, a book that shook my world views to their core, Moore's chapter devoted to the gifts of depression was game changing for me. Up to that point, I believed that depression was a disease requiring nothing short of a psychological root canal. But I digress . . .)

For those unfamiliar with de Sade's writing, lets just say it makes modern-day porn look like child's play. De Sade's novels, plays, essays, rants, and other sexually-soaked missives are considered so transgressive, they are often locked up in library basements. And that's no metaphor!

In his book Dark Eros, Moore explores de Sade's account of human nature in all its manifestations, especially the dark, the horrifying, the sickening. De Sade’s overarching principle, paraphrased by Moore, states: “If nature plants ‘sick’ fantasies in our imaginations, then perhaps nature is expressing an unfathomable and revolting truth.” This notion becomes an entry point for Moore in his role as a therapist, especially after he realized that a moralizing approach to his patients’ dark fantasies did not honour their inner world. Moore learned instead to approach that world on its own terms, opening up to the shadow as something with an important message to deliver.

Moore argues that de Sade’s sexually explicit and allegedly morally perverted themes, “which on the surface we find repugnant [,] from a deeper point of view have their place. It is up to us, therefore, not to moralize against them because they do not fit into our limited repertoire of acceptable human actions, but to contemplate their necessity.”

Moore's sensitive, intelligent unpacking of de Sade's "sick" fantasies as the locus of our deepest humanity and, potentially, "the cure" for our dis-ease, resonated with me like a prayer gong booming across a vast jungle. Probably because I'd just had a rude awakening in which my own monotheistic, morally outraged thinking was floodlit by a friend's protest to what turned out to be one of my famous self-improvement plans. In a moment of deep trust, this friend shared a few “dark” fantasies with me. But what he said so threatened my sense of emotional safety (one that I had built up through unquestioned cultural and social convention) that I boldly suggested his fantasies were a form of denial, an escape, a diversion from his blah, blah, blah – anything to remove his frightening fantasies from my squeaky-clean world view. In the name of accepting him, I pinned his dark butterflies behind glass and named them as if they were mine to capture and own. After many conversations, this friend finally broke through to me, quite emphatically: “Why can’t I be accepted, fantasies and all, Liz? Why must they be something I need to change in order to be accepted?”

Why indeed. The penny dropped like an anvil. This person’s inner life was not only none of my business, but it was as acceptable as my own mysterious, dark places, which, by the way, I had not bothered to share with him.

Moore reminds us that “One of the most important moves in psychotherapy is to take whatever is presented and simply hold it and give it a place.” We think of psychotherapy as the great fixer, the happy maker. I'm here to tell you to abandon that fantasy. Happiness is not the eradication of pain, it is the United Nations of inner worlds in all their Technicolour glory, including our conservatisms, radicalisms, extremisms, perversions, our great neediness, our dark secrets, especially the ones we don't even know we hold, as well as our democracies, our generosities, and our willingness to collaborate for the greater good.

When I  stopped trying to mold my friend in my image, I was left to buzz inside my own pain. And like the homeopathic cure it is, my anxiety was able to do its magic of  peeling back the layers to get underneath my insecurities, to air them out, to give them expression and love, and to let nature take its course in healing me. How? Full self acceptance. Including my insecure places, which actually diminished when I stopped trying to control my friend. Bonus: he simply got to be himself and I got the opportunity to behold him. When I listened to my own anxieties instead of focusing on his, I saw that we shared a desire to feel accepted unconditionally -- which made me feel closer to him.

Interestingly, this same friend would do anything to eradicate other anxieties that he judges as bad. When placed side by side, however, his loving protection for his "dark" fantasies versus his outright rejection of his "bad" anxieties revealed to me just how random and complex our self judgments are. Why should one thing be acceptable and the other rooted out like a dandelion infestation?

Getting back to wondering what kind of therapy to choose, perhaps the best approach is a polytheistic one. In other words, there is no one right model. You could engage with a number of therapies in your lifetime, whatever make sense at that point in your soul's evolution. It might even be possible that an inscrutable therapist is exactly what you need, even if it's to cut your teeth on understanding what is not good for you! I had a friend who spent two years on the couch with a traditional psychoanalyst who sat behind him and said nothing. So my friend shared nothing during each session and cried all the way home. But what he got out of that was a real, lived connection to his sadness, not to mention information about what kind of therapy he would avoid next time. That's good information to have! As Hillman says, “No one model would be ‘before’ another, since in polytheism the possibilities of existence are not jealous to the point of excluding each other. All are necessary in that they together serve one law only: necessity.” What do you need right now?

What I need now as a therapist-in-training is a new language. A way to talk about “depression” or “anxiety” that does not pathologize these soulmaking states. Hillman uses western mythological language to explore soul states. But as someone who has forgotten her myths (must I go back to school again?), I feel the need to look elsewhere for my terms of reference, or to start making up some of my own. The point, however, is instead of numbing it, fixing it, denying it, or moralizing it away, we could stop calling our various soul states names. Instead, we could just experience them. Let them be there. And not judge them or believe a particular state is THE TRUTH. An experience, and our interpretation of it, might be a truth in this moment. But it will pass. As everything does.