Friday, June 15, 2012

Each moment of each day a bead.

copyrighted photo by memyni 

I am a psychotherapist. My profession comes from a long lineage of psyche's healers, long before Freud, Adler, and Jung. There are the soul retrievers, the shamans who journey into the imaginal realm to find the wounded soul parts who wandered off, leaving behind a fragmented self. * There were the dream healers who did their sacred work in the Greek healing temple, the asklepeion.

Another psychotherapist of old and still working hard today is the confessional priest. Confession. Where a person can admit all that weighs down her soul. Where the shameful deeds of a lived life can be given over, aired out, and yet remain a secret without festering. The psychotherapist hears and holds the shame of the client and, like the priest, works to transform the telling into a sacred act.

Which brings me to the main point of my little ramble tonight. Atonement. I've been thinking quite a bit about this recently. If you read my previous post, you know that I confessed to an act of really, really bad parenting. Cruel words issued from my mouth have come back to haunt me years later.

My work is listening to people tell stories. Like the priest, I am called to be an exquisite listener. I listen to the clients' stories of their fathers who don't know how to be present to their sons' tears or tenderness. Of their mothers, so cut off from the Ground of their Being and so brittle they snapped in half. Stories of women who choose really damaging men to abuse them and then call it "love." I've listened to the young woman with a dozen diagnoses tell me what the people in the walls whisper to her at night.

And then there are the stories of their own cruel deeds, more painful to witness than all of the others. The stories of shame, guilt, violence, and sin. Sometimes they tell the story with no emotion. And sometimes they tell the story choking on their weeping. These are the hardest stories to bear, I think. You can't tell someone who's just confessed some awful deed that it's okay. Because it's not. There are reasons, of course. Always the story behind the story waits in the wings to be told.  But it's not okay. Justifiable? Redeemable? Forgive-able? Yes to all of the above. But not okay.

So where's the healing? As one person said to me recently, "Why would I tell this story to anyone if it means I'm going to be alone for the rest of my life?"

Good question. And yet, the story must be told, because otherwise it festers. It's the poisonous thorn that works its way from skin, to muscle, to blood stream, straight to the heart. The violence perpetrated against someone else then simply perpetuates as self-violence, the violence against the Other who is the Self. What to do?

I've thought of this in regards to my own partial confession. The word I keep coming to is "atonement." When I first thought of this word, I was uncomfortable. It has overtones of a Baptist revival. I don't have anything against Baptist revivals. It's just that - this isn't one.

To come to an embodied knowing of one's human weakness and ability to inflict pain is more than a feeling of guilt. It's more than, "Oh! my bad?" More than, "I'll never ever do that again because when I do I feel bad." More than the superego using the fragile ego as a whipping post.

For me, this experience took me right out of my self and into the larger world. I dissolved into the essence of humanity. A true Dionysian dismemberment.

"How to make it right" has been the refrain in my mind. It seems impossible. The hurt is done. It can't be undone. I can't turn back time. No number of apologies will make it right. Guilt is pretty useless as far as making it right. And I don't want to redeem myself. I want to atone for this deed. (The dictionary says that these two words are synonymous. But maybe you can feel the subtle difference I'm getting at here.)

I taught vulnerable adolescents for five years at an alternative high school program, listened to their stories, did therapy on the fly, gave them my heart and my soul. Looking back from this vantage point, I see I was doing more than following a vocational calling, building a professional resume, or redeeming myself. I nurtured these students, and the compassion boomeranged back to me was a chain of rosary beads. Every day was an unconscious prayer of atonement for the cruel words and all of the other ways I was not present to my son. It was a gift I gave and received unknowingly.

Now I'm awake. And I realize that atonement is a quiet, daily practice. It's not an announcement (so please forgive this announcement). It's a private, intentional living into and honoring what it means to be fully human. I understand now the significance of the rosary. Each moment of each day a bead. An opportunity. A blessing.

*(See Sandra Ingerman's website and this article for more information on current shamanic practice within the field of psychology.)


  1. Now I'm awake...that is atonement. Lovely post, Robin, you've drawn a fine scrawl down the page, leading the eye to the prize.

  2. Thank you, Madeleine. I love this image - "a fine scrawl down the page."

  3. I've had this post kept unread in my reader since you first posted it. I've read it, of course, more than once, but I keep it unread because I have continued to need to revisit it.

    What is it when we are called upon to atone for the misdeeds of others?