Mike Erskine — www.unsplash.com

A question of trust?

Part two of a dialogue between Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp around the issue of healing the psyche in a time of deep ecological and social crisis.

In the first part of our dialogue, Steve opened by setting out a kind of four part micro-manifesto for healing in our times, and Julia’s response led the conversation towards the ideas of paradox and and the psychological holding of polarities – male and female; the language of war and nurture; human and animal; spirit and science; ‘I’ and other. Julia ended the piece where she starts this one — with the idea of trust within the context of Charles Eisenstein’s stories of separation and connection.

You can find more about Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp at the top of the first dialogue in this series or go to their respective websites: www.juliamacintosh.uk and www.21soul.co.uk — and if you’d like to contribute to the debate, please use the Medium comment function!

The dialogue continues…

Julia:

…Hello dear Steve

At the end of the last piece I suggested that the next idea we might explore is trust, and how it relates to the process of healing.

So just last night I was reading a new book —Living Dangerously by the “spiritually incorrect mystic” Osho. I love this guy; reading him is easy, tasty and amusing — but also very nourishing. Coincidentally (or maybe not coincidentally) here’s something I found:

“Trust is possible only if first you trust in yourself. The most fundamental thing has to happen within you first. If you trust in yourself you can trust in existence…. Belief is like plastic flowers, which look like flowers from far away…. Trust is a real rose. It has roots, and roots go deep into your heart and into your being”. (p50–51)

Let me share a personal story. Not so long ago, I reached the lowest of low points. For many years I had been peeling away layer after layer of assumptions and beliefs, questioning everything around me, pushing aside everything that had been holding me up as a person. I had set siege upon myself: kicking aside any self-regard and stomping away with the mental and emotional equivalent of steel-toed boots. I remember very well reaching a point when I spoke these words internally: “I don’t trust myself.” What I meant was, I don’t trust myself to not be stupid, to not be ugly, to not continually make a mess of things with the people around me.

It felt awful, and empty. I’d always had internal props holding me up: my friends and family connections, my education and interests, my values and beliefs. These were the things that made me who I am. But in all the kicking and the stomping, I had managed to knock away these familiar supports. I no longer felt any strength from them. I no longer felt like the me I had known. I had become someone who would tear me down and let me down. That was when I started to say “I don’t trust myself.” It turned into an inner mantra, which then pushed me into hell — figuratively, literally. I let go, and went spinning out into the rushing roaring crashing splashing rapids of the river of life.

“We’ve been gifted the Garden of Eden, and this is what we’ve done with it. Seriously, can we trust ourselves as a human race?”

Is this the point humanity is heading for, in the 21st century? If we have managed to despoil our natural home with pollution and mining and monocropping, hoard our wealth among an elite fraction of the global population, wage continual wars steeped in ideology and judgment, build nuclear and chemical and stealth weapons that can wreak havoc, and put the straw men in charge of it all…. if we are essentially just shitting in our own nest here on planet earth, then what is left to say but “We don’t trust ourselves.” We’ve been gifted the Garden of Eden, and this is what we’ve done with it. Seriously, can we trust ourselves as a human race?

Jon Flobrant: unsplash.com

There are all these props we lean upon: our incredible histories, our civic institutions, our religious traditions, all the art and music and literature we have created, our magnificent cathedrals and skyscrapers, our medicine, our tremendous and mind-boggling scientific and technological achievements. These are all the things that make us who we are as a brilliant and incredible human race. But what do these things matter, if we can just press a button and detonate? How do these things matter if we allow children to starve or be sex trafficked or conscripted into battle? How can our achievements matter if we have built them with blood and slavery and abuse and suffering?

Again, can we trust ourselves as a human race? Can we trust ourselves to not be stupid, to not be ugly, to not continually make a mess of things with the people and the world around us?

Briefly: my own story didn’t end there in the rushing river. Amazing things happened after I let go of being the me I had known. Like Odysseus I ventured and adventured, and then turned my steps back home. When I stopped trusting myself, I learned how to trust myself. It goes right back to paradox: what if we must relinquish trust in ourselves as a human race, in order to find the trust in ourselves which we so sorely need, the trust in existence?

Well I’ve written all this, but I haven’t actually dug into what trust is and what it means for healing. Perhaps this is the place to pause and hand over to you?

With love

Julia

Steve:

…this is such a rich and honest beginning, Julia.

I think we’re stuck with a paradox (that word again!), and another set of polarities. You set out eloquently the best and worst of humanity. All the capacities that have enabled us to create brilliant things, are the same ones that make us destroyers. We are brilliant and stupid. Endlessly kind and empathetic and startlingly cruel. Some of this can be blamed on context, I guess (social conditions, greed, conflict etc etc.) but maybe some of it is just the paradox of the human condition — the limitations of the human animal’s real intelligence revealed in our inability to use what we have consistently for our own good and that of all the other species that share our planet.

So do I trust us — me? Only as much as I know our limitations; and only with a deep wariness of the human grandiosity that seems to be behind many of our ‘projects’.

Your piece is intensely personal, and I know something of the courage — and trust in yourself — you have had to muster to survive in the rapids. If everyone could face up to their ‘craziness’ in the way that you did, then there might be some hope. Your kind of healing is deeply inspiring and deeply spiritual (in the best sense of the word).

Maybe this tells us something about why the hollow men with their crazy shadows run rampage? Because they, and many of the rest of us, are scared shitless of what it would be like to lose control — to actually trust the descent? That’s why I like James Hillman’s writings so much: he always encourages us to go into the soulful, rich and loamy earth — down and in rather than always outwards and upwards — but the underworld is scary and dark. In these depths, he tells us, we abandon fantasies of healing via wholeness and unification of the self — accepting what he calls “the primal multiplicity of souls”.

Another deeper form of trust, perhaps?

Julia, you know of my love and devotion to my granddaughters! Ellie, the youngest, was one-year-old this week and we also had her naming day last weekend. I can never be with Ellie, or her 4-year-old sister, Freya, without being touched deeply by three things:

First, the stark originality in each of them (and each of us) — every new birth, a spark and a soul never here before.

Second, the fact that they are animal — like us all, their snuffling selves are never too far from the surface, even as they grow!

Third, that they (human baby/child/animal) are creatures of imagination —it is their/our stories and archetypes that make them/us special (though not special in a way that should privilege us).

Dmitry Ratushny: unsplash.com

We could trust these three things, perhaps? And in doing so we might start to heal a little. Facing up to both the specialness and ordinariness that is the birthright of us humans. Turning from a sense of grandiosity, entitlement and privilege in relation to the earth, other species and other selves!

Is it too late though? Here’s another paradox. There’s a persuasive argument that, despite what we are told by the 24-hour news channels and social media hype, we might actually be living in the most peaceful era in human history. If we accept this (even in a qualified sense), and the fact that technology and public health initiatives have massively benefitted many, many humans, then we should (perhaps by trusting these three simple characteristics) be able to look forward to an imagined, creative and sustainable future that, if not onwards and upwards, might continue to be a positive one for human life on earth.

However, as Naomi Klein and others argue, the crisis of climate change might have changed everything; and, if so, it must follow that this profoundly affects our psychology too. Even those of us who are in denial about the ecological crisis we face, must, deep down, be as terrified as the rest of us. This makes them crazy — as all denial ultimately must — and this kind of craziness is dangerous for us all.

And for those of us who do accept that we are on a path to X degrees of warming (insert current estimated rise!)— with the distinct possibility that human habitats and ecosystems might be rendered uninhabitable in a relatively short time — well, we carry deep fear for our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, and mourn the ecocide that has taken us here. We are made a different kind of crazy by the knowledge of all this, and the awareness of our powerlessness and helplessness faced with the possibility of such an apocalypse.

I guess, this takes me back round to why I sometimes see the healing of the wider human psyche as being such a massive task on such a global scale — perhaps an impossible one on an individual level. And yet I know, of course, that individuals matters — this awareness has been another benefit of the enlightenment — and it has allowed me, you, my lovely granddaughters and many others to live our lives with the freedom (and the privileges) that we do (though not, alas, as yet, millions of others…).

I suppose I just get despair sometimes. And doubt. But these, paradoxically, drive me on to love who I love, and to do what I do: this writing, my reading, my soulmaking work and so on.

Ellie’s naming day was a soulful, simple and joyful occasion, led by a lovely Humanist Celebrant called Jacqui Dickenson. She led a ceremony full of love, hope and, yes, spirit! We made our promises to this little girl, and in doing so, perhaps also made promises to the wider world. In these simple human rituals, hope was reignited and healing offered.

Isn’t it strange that someone whose work is explicitly within a secular, non-religious, humanist frame, could engender such hope? It shouldn’t be, of course, I’ve never seen depth of soul, joy of spirit and rationalist materialism as being mutually exclusive or contradictory, but some people have turned from rationalism, believing, somehow, that it has caused our problems!

Maybe a clue to this inquiry lies in the quote you started with from Osho: “Belief is like plastic flowers, which look like flowers from far away…. Trust is a real rose”. And, I’ll leave you with a quote too, which is as humanist in essence as it is spiritual; as healing as it is reverential; as hopefully human as it is embedded in nature: Mary Oliver’s wonderful ending to her poem, The Summer Day.

‘Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”.

In love and paradox, Steve x

Julia:

…hello again Steve.

A very happy birthday to Ellie! I love hearing your news about both the girls as they grow up. Young lives are indeed so priceless to witness — and so fleeting! And I love too your point about how closely small children live to their animalness, how grounded they are, yet at the same time soaring with unleashed imagination.

You mention despair and doubt, and frame them as motivators — what an elegant twist! Despair doesn’t have to be a miserable cul-de-sac; it can be the soil in which trust takes root. Doubt can serve as the tension which pushes new growth upwards toward the wide-open sky.

Osho calls doubt “the most precious thing you have, because it is doubt that one day is going to help you discover the truth. All these people say, ‘Believe!’ Their first effort is to destroy your doubt…. Once you believe, you will never be able to know on your own. Belief is poison, the most dangerous poison there is, because it kills your doubt; it kills your inquiry; it takes away from you your most precious instrument.” (p13)

You’ve brought us back to the question of scale, when you refer to “the wider human psyche.” Again and again: how can one small person’s bit of healing matter in the midst of such widespread suffering and disharmony in the world? Is it in our power to heal the world?

In his essay ‘The Art of Perceiving Movement,’ David Bohm observes that “many groups are trying to take measures to deal with the ever-mounting series of apparently unsolvable problems with which human society is beset. Unfortunately, however, most of these attempts are aimed, as it were, very downstream at the results of fragmentation, and not at its origin in our mode of thinking and using language.” (in On Creativity, p77)

Is the individual human psyche the cause or the result of fragmented perceptions of reality? Both/and. I have no way to prove it to anyone but myself, because my trust is rooted in those experiences which you very rightly described as ‘intensely personal.’ I can only gather up words about what I experienced and perceived and then share them like breadcrumbs sprinkled along a path, which is only one of endless paths leading in all directions to the same source. Here’s what my experience tells me: the individual and collective aspects of psyche behave like mirrors set one to the other, reflecting infinitely. Like a beam of light contains the potential to be refracted into a spectrum of colour, our personal perceptions contain both the whole and the fragments, both the collective and the individual.

http://www.quotemirror.com/david-bohm-collection-1/disorder/

Bohm also writes:

“We have seen that society is in a mess, which is the result of the conflict of arbitrary and fragmentary mechanical orders of relatively independently determined actions. Any effort to impose an overall order in this “mess” will serve only to make it worse. What, then, is to be done? I would first suggest that it is a wrong order of approach to try first to solve the social problem. Rather, the key is in the state of mind of the individual.” (‘On Creativity’ in On Creativity p.23)

You refer to “a different kind of crazy” and I wonder if such a thing exists? In hindsight I can glean lessons from my episodes of craziness, but I must be careful of not romanticizing what was in many ways an ugly, terrifying and nasty experience. Many people don’t find their way out of it — they take up residence in the chaos or they escape from it through suicide. As an individual crisis, it culminated from the very same denial and separation which burdens the world at large. As difficult as it is to admit it, there are aspects of the hollow men in all of us — we must forgive ourselves for it. We must hold the paradox in all its peculiar discomfort, that the ugliness or emptiness we see so frustratingly in others is only recognisable to us because we know it within ourselves.

It doesn’t make sense, and it does make sense. The denial and separation which arises from and contributes to our human suffering, itself leads to crisis and resolution. We find hope in despair, we find trust in doubt, we find healing in the deepest of deep woundings. We just can’t always see it, there in that fragmented mirror image bouncing off itself into infinity.

I’ll stop there, and send this, along with kisses for your lovely girls.

I wonder if there is anyone else out there who would like to jump in with us and share thoughts?

Julia xxx

Steve:

More juicy fruit here, Julia!

So, we have two seemingly contradictory views — start with the social change in order to heal the causes of madness and sadness, or start with the state of mind of the individual (as Bohm urges us to do). Or putting it another way, does the human world make us crazy — or is our craziness the root cause of the suffering, disharmony and destruction we see?

Another paradox, maybe? Both/and?

All craziness, and much despair, has projection in it — the kind of projection that separates us out from the world and each other. The kind that says “this is your shit, not mine”.

Let me say, at the outset of this response, that I’ve never experienced madness — not in the way you describe and have so eloquently written about. My relevant experience here is two-fold — as a therapist, and as an individual who has, I think, experienced real despair and doubt for periods of my life — but have been fortunate to have have found a way, as you put it, of “framing these as motivators” — and have been supported in this by the people who love and know me best.

I’d like to go right to the heart of craziness, and the question you post around whether there are different kinds. I think we’d both agree that madness is ugly, terrifying and nasty — and despair and doubt can also be awful to experience. The ‘dark night of the soul’ is not some romantic, new-agey version of pseudo-suffering; it’s the real thing!

All craziness, and much despair, has projection in it — the kind of projection that separates us out from the world and each other. The kind that says “this is your shit, not mine”.

When taken to the extreme and sustained over time, projections can become fixed and permanent — resulting in the kind of hollow madness that justifies inhumane and frightening actions. In this hollow version of madness, there is no self reflection, no compassion (or self compassion), no empathy and certainly no humility. If they once existed they have been long pushed away. And the pain itself is relieved by denying it, pushing it out and inflicting it on others. There is little chance of redemption.

The other sort of crazy, is what I have seen in a number of people over the years and, I think, is the kind that you describe. Sometimes (and I accept your point that many people stay in chaos or escape through suicide) this is recoverable from — but probably more painful — precisely because of self reflection, compassion, self-compassion, empathy and humility! It is the very fact that a conflict is created in the mind that can lead to the possibility of healing — a case of literally facing your demons. And I could make a similar point with the experience of despair that so many people experience so deeply these days — facing it, drilling down into the suffering can make the chances of healing more likely — but caring support and help is needed…

So here I’m finding myself fully in agreement with you on the value of good individual healing and/or therapy! However, I guess we need to consider what this might look like.

If it’s therapy that takes a person out of pain, then simply returns them to a human culture that is, in your wonderful words “shitting on our own nest”, then it doesn’t really change their “state of mind”, so doesn’t meet David Bohm’s condition. In my experience, there may also be a real possibility that the problem might come back in the same or different form.

Similarly, if it’s the kind of healing that invites someone to escape into spiritual awakening or alternative this-or-that (often bound up with Osho’s ‘poisonous beliefs’) then again this isn’t a real state of mind change, and can take an individual away from the rationalism that can be a real ally in their healing. That’s not to deny the spiritual transformation that is experienced in many people’s experience of ‘craziness’ — actually the opposite — but spirit needs a counterbalance, perhaps, or we can fly too near the sun with wings made from wax and feathers.

Image: Antonia Mora from http://es.paperblog.com/

I suppose the thing I’m worrying around in my poet’s mind is something about this deep wounding being in the individual psyche, in the Earth, and also manifesting in the human supremacism that denies animals their personhood, and denies the animal in us.

All of these. Together.

And so I am wondering what kind of practices for healing we might search for and craft in order to meet and engage with this paradox.

Let’s agree on both/and (your mantra has been a real gift to me in these dialogues so far!), and perhaps in our next conversation we can get practical and think about what might be ways of healing at individual, collective levels utilising spiritual and secular practices that might make sense in some kind of integral frame?

To be continued: this dialogue will be continued in a third post — but as Julia writes above, we welcome contributions and further conversation around the question of healing — individual and collective — and the way our psychological and wider culture can emerge into the future. If you’re on Medium (just sign up, it’s easy!) you can comment directly onto this piece, and highlight bits you like (or would like to debate!).