Personal Growth, for healing or evolution, follows a similar pattern to the one we find in nature.
One of the aims of Belonging is to help us to feel more at home in our bodies and in our individual selves. When we start with this, we can also get better at shifting our awareness to our inner lives, to our very own personal experiences, so that we know better how it feels to trust our own feelings about being part of the wider earth community. This can also enable our own personal myth – our story of belonging – to be a part of a greater myth, a powerful story of life, the universe and everything that not only makes sense to us but also feels right.
Individualism – pros and cons
Western societies like ours have a strong emphasis on the individual, which is not always the case in eastern or indigenous cultures, where cooperation in alignment with the group is a more common guiding model. The benefits of western individualism are enormous, especially in the sense that we get to make our own personal decisions in many parts of our lives, like who we would like to be in a relationships with, what sort of work or art or sport we want to pursue, who we vote for as leaders, what we buy at the shops, etc. But the downside of individualism has become more obvious over time too and this includes the mental health issues that just kept increasing throughout the 20th century. One of the biggies was a common sense of increasing alienation, with many people reporting a distancing in their relationship with others as modern society became more ‘splintered.’ This increasing fragmentation also led to an inner sense of disconnectedness for many, who also felt like they were becoming more alienated from their own inner, true or authentic self. This could be considered as a side effect of the spiritual vacuum of modern society (in regards to the loss of a meaningful religion that a majority of people could align themselves with), as well as of the industrialisation that results in a depersonalizing machine age, amongst other factors.
But as far as we go within ourselves, the psychological difficulties of modern society generally revolve around a core issue – we are all complex individuals with many different facets and a range of possible responses to our circumstances, so how does all this fit together so that we can feel whole and complete in some way? To put it another way and ask the existential question, who are we anyway? And now do we cope with these psychological and emotional influences of alienation and fragmentation?
Getting back to the Garden of Paradise – a common personal myth
Let’s take a concrete example that helps us to explore how this can occur in our own lives, how it can make us feel and what we can do about it. First of all, the natural state we have lost when we feel alienated from who we believe we are as a true self, is that someone who feels whole and complete. This is our authentic being, with personal integrity, who does not need external validation from other people or through their status, car or job. This is the ‘garden of paradise’ myth that lies deep in within. It is often encoded in myth as a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, which we lost when society went terribly wrong (think of Atlantis, or Eden, or the time when we could talk with the animals, etc).
So, the first myth we often encounter as a person capable of reflecting upon ourselves revolves around this ‘natural state’ of peace and plenty. And by myth here I mean a powerful story that connects us to the more-than-human world of meaning (aka the sacred). Who remembers being in the womb? Plenty of people have reported this phenomenon, either spontaneously or through a rebirthing process. And what they report sounds a lot like some creation myths about how the universe begins, either of a peaceful garden or in a swirling kind of cosmic soup or flow, an indistinct fluid reality where nothing is separate. In the womb of life, everything is provided, including a feeling of being ultimately embraced by a higher being, process or order. However, while everything may belong here, there is also no individual ‘self.’ Nothing can really go ‘wrong’ but that is partly because we cannot know ourselves as someone for whom anything can actually go right either; there is no sense of an individual self yet, and we need to define ourselves as separated our from this state of non-distinction if we are to grow back towards a higher synthesis of complexity (which is one definition of evolution).
In this very common kind of creation myth, everything is OK, and then we get born. (There is also the creation myth that sees the original state as chaos, which is thankfully overcome by a beneficent god of order, and we will come back to in another session.) Birth from the fluid garden of paradise means making our way through a dark tunnel, out into the air and light, and then boom! We land in a whole, shocking new reality. Then, up into the loving arms and the nurturing breasts of mamma, and we’re back in heaven (all going well). This everyday, miraculous scenario of birth can be used as a model for our whole psychological lives. We start with the feeling that everything is good, when something happens to upset the balance, until we find a way to get back to what we feel is right and normal. This is a mythic process, in that it links us to the higher or deeper truths of our very physical being, including the eternal law of growth, which could be considered the sacred or divine force behind all life. This is also the way life continues, in spite of every challenge, through or around any barrier. We are driven to become whole again after every ‘perturbation of the system’ so that we can continue growing. We will seek out and integrate whatever makes us feel complete, beyond the personal challenges of everyday life. This is why Ganesh is the most popular of all the Vedic gods in India; because he offers paths beyond worldly challenges, ways to find overcoming, to create good fortune and peace of mind. German philosopher Hegel built an entire system out of this, in his Phenomenology of Spirit – first there is the ‘thesis,’ then it is opposed by an ‘antithesis,’ then we find a way to create ‘synthesis.’
Psychological Growth is Natural
So, one of the things myth does is to create a sense of completion, as if everything is just right and all questions have been answered. A successful myth does this so that we can believe in ourselves and in our world. When we feel like everything is just right, it’s because it is; because that we way we are thinking about and processing our experiences makes so much sense that it goes beyond reason. Finding a better way to do this psychologically makes us much sense as healing the body when we are ill or wounded. This is the biological parallel between story telling and nature. The body tries to heal itself automatically; it’s simply the logical thing to do for a biological system. When the body is wounded, white blood cells go to try and clean it up. When our minds or hearts are wounded, the psyche goes into action. We might not recognize this, but it is happening. The Belonging project seeks to make such tools more accessible to everyone possible.
So we can grow around the wound, even if we can’t “get over it”. We can leave it in the past, or convince ourselves our difficult experiences were for the best, or whatever narrative works for us at the time. But there are also the cases where this process does not serve us in the long run, where we tell ourselves everything is OK in ways that can be counterproductive. We protect ourselves too much from the truth that challenges our self-conception, or we remain idealistic and open-hearted when we would be better served going into self-protection mode. If we want to keep growing and evolving as people, at some stage the personal myth that helps us to feel good must also be challenged. Then a new myth must grow in its place – a synthesis to overcome the antithesis. This is like choosing to take a little bit of poison as medicine, rather than letting ourselves remain sick. Once we have figured out everything is not OK, we need to act intelligently, or put up with mediocrity. Getting better at the cultural medicine of mythic story telling allows us to become more robust selves in a biodiverse, flourishing ecosystem – in the world and within our own complex psyches. This is especially the case when one story stops working; when the way we think is right and natural does not work in a new situation, such as a relationship, change of work, or just in terms of ongoing mental health.
So how might this process work for us, right here and now? Let’s consider two ways experiences of pain and suffering can take root in our lives and what we can do about them to make sure we have greater access to feelings of belonging.
Example 1: Getting caught up in it – and changing the story
How do I get so caught up in different parts of myself, so that one aspect sometimes seems to take over at the cost of my overall sense of self? Examples include excessive anger, sadness, avoidance, etc.
We know we can interpret our experiences in many ways, but sometimes one interpretation that may not serve us very well takes hold and we suffer unnecessarily because of this. Changing this story and reminding ourselves of the deeper well of wisdom we have innate access to within can be a profound way to improve the way we live.
Exercise: if you are booked in for a Belonging workshop, bring along a belief or attitude you hold that you have come to realize no longer serves you. We will locate this idea in a bigger picture – of human evolution, culture and the laws of nature – and transform it to a new interpretation that overcomes the challenge of growth. This is finding the synthesis to the antithesis, so we can return to the thesis, the garden of paradise in our souls!
In the meantime, and for those who can’t make it to a Belonging workshop, here is another process that can be used at any time:
Example 2. Breathing in the freedom of a new body language
We all carry stress, fear and/or anxiety in different ways in our bodies. For me, if I get tired or frustrated, I stoop. Slumped shoulders are a sign I’m not getting by as well as I could.
Exercise: Locate where you hold onto negative emotional states in your own body. Breathe into this spot for 10 breaths. Imagine an inner glow rising from your core in the lower abdomen and melting the stress away. ‘Encode’ this process, so that every time you become aware of your breath during the day, it automatically does this melting process. Please see here for a more complete explanation of this process.