Applying the Heroic Journey to Healing From Sexual Trauma

cave (3)

The heroic journey was made famous by mythologist Joseph Campbell and even won Emmy Award for his series on PBS about the topic, but the heroic framework has been around since humankind. Found in every culture around our planet and in every spiritual tradition, the framework is timeless and universal and shows us that individuals, families, couples, communities, organizations and nations experience many examples of the heroic framework when we face challenge, rites of passage, loss and even trauma.

The framework is familiar to everyone – except we sometimes don’t know we know it, for it is used as entertainment. All of full-length animated movies for children by Disney and Pixar are built on the heroic framework and so are nearly every movie nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and SAG Awards. Also found in great literature for centuries, these all teach that the budding hero or heroine faces great challenge…the antagonist element of life. The antagonist is the element of life that threatens to stop, delay or sabotage us from reaching our goal or healing. In great stories, it is often portrayed by the bad guy, bad gal or a monster of sorts. The initiate (budding hero) must find a way to transcend the challenge. Many traumatic situations in life become the antagonist: abuse, trauma, profound loss,PTSD, a terminal or chronic illness or addiction – to name but a few.

The lessons embedded in the stories which capture the masses have the secrets of transformation and resilience. If we study the stories, rather than simply using them as mind-numbing entertainment they become a map of resilience or post traumatic growth. Once the “map” is learned, it gets reinforced anytime a person watches a blockbuster movie, read great literature or study the great writings of their spiritual tradition – if they have one.

What people can learn from studying the heroic framework is:

 Each challenge a person faces can have great meaning in their life if it is successfully traveled
 Some journeys will have solo times and also times where we have to learn (again) to trust others
 Each journey will utilize strengths which helped us to survive previous challenges, but does also require some on-the-job training which will require new skills
 The deeper journeys of trauma and/or profound loss will take us to “trench time” or what has been called “Dark night of the Soul,” “Night sea journey,” “Desert time,” “The dry well,” “The Abyss,” “The basement of the soul,” or even “Belly of the whale time.” Trench time requires us to release something to transform: maybe a belief system, a relationship, an old behavior which no longer serves us, or a no longer valid way to see ourselves.
 The framework teaches us to discern when to be tenacious and tough and also when to let go.
 The heroic framework also teaches ownership of our life and that when we face our greatest fears and negative voices within, we can transform.
 Each challenge, when identified, grieved and transformed can reveal the strengths within us to grow from struggle and pain.
 The framework also teaches every element found in all evidence-based treatment, as well as everything common with resilient people and systems of people and Post Traumatic Growth.

Learning about resilience through the heroic framework is also memorable and easily meshes with their favorite stories and movies, if we teach new ways to see that story.Storytellers for centuries have taught through story. What has been missing in our more recent culture is someone connecting the dots between the stories and the lessons and how they will teach them lessons all through the developmental stages of life.
Become like one of the ancient storytellers. Learn how communities and individuals for centuries found ways to make it through painful life experiences. Help them learn the lessons, like what Wayne Muller teaches in his quote below:

Within the sorrow is grace

When we come close to the things that break us down

We also find that which breaks us open

And in that breaking open we uncover our true nature

Bravery Is In the Eye of the Beholder

Bear penguins and cymbals croppedThis morning I was felt inspired. I read a blog post by the wise young soul Hannah Brencher who wrote about the anatomy of brave.

You don’t actually get to stand beside someone and tell them whether or not they’ve reached a level of bravery. You don’t actually get to determine what does or does not make a person brave, or lovely, or worthy, or good. That’s not your right. That’s not your calling.
Here is the truth about bravery. Here is her essence– she can’t defined by a measuring cup or a yardstick or a square foot. Bravery isn’t the kind of thing you measure; it is the kind of thing you activate. It’s pretty obvious to everyone– we walked into a life that isn’t always kind or bearable or comfortable or good and it takes a real chunk of bravery to just get through a day sometimes.

Bravery– if you ask me– is the day my best friend told me that she was getting sober and I watched her hands tremble over the hurdles of what would come next. Bravery– if you ask me– is watching a dear friend of mine raise four beautiful children with all the grit she’s got, and showing up for those children even when she is tired & broken & worn. That, my friends, is titanical bravery to me. Bravery– if you ask me– is the day he was diagnosed with cancer and the only response on his lips was this, “I will fight this thing. I will be relentless and I will fight this thing.” Bravery– if you ask me– is just her showing up at my door, the one with the big red handle, and speaking the truth out loud, “I want more. I have been afraid to say it for a really long while but I want more for this life of mine.”

So no, you don’t get to stand here and tell someone that a hurdle that has taken them years to finally get over is something they should have learned to limbo under several yesterdays ago.

Hannah’s words about bravery were reminders that bravery is in the eye of the beholder.
Bravery is an experience from within for none of us can externally judge the level of bravery of another because we rarely have a clue of the work of the internal antagonists which the saboteurs which live within creating resistance, paralyzing fear and excuses.
Bravery does not necessitate the absence of fear.
(Author Unknown)

It’s safe to say we have all experienced darkness in our lives. Darkness comes in many forms – physically, emotionally and spiritually. There are so many quotes and works of art based on the interplay of lightness and darkness. Day and night are parts of the Laws of Nature. Darkness is something we are often scared of and lightness is often connected to hope. Why is that?

We usually have a different view of the world at night? Fear, panic and dread seem more intense at night. When the light of morning comes, sometimes life can feel manageable again.

In the FIVE STAR book by Barbara Brown Taylor Learning to Walk in the Dark, Taylor speaks of how we – as a society – are conditioned to be afraid of the dark. Even in spiritual traditions, such as Christianity (which she is an Episcopal Priest), darkness is often perceived as the absence of faith. She spoke of a man who was terribly afraid of the literal dark. She shares:

The darkness never stopped terrifying him. Every single night it took all the courage he had [to do his nightly chores]. But while his fear of the dark may have been baseless, the bravery it drew out of him stayed with him for the rest of his life. “Courage,” he writes now, “which is no more than the management of fear must be practiced. For this, children need widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous.” Darkness, he says, fits that bill. Most parents would give their darkness challenged child another chore or offer to go with him. How do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?”

And by John Patrick Shanley:
“I am not a courageous person by nature. I have simply discovered that, at certain key moments in this life, you must find courage in yourself, in order to move forward and live. It is like a muscle and it must be exercised, first a little, and then more and more. All the really exciting things possible during the course of a lifetime require a little more courage than we currently have. A deep breath and a leap.”
• What helps you find your sense of brave?

• When have you stepped out in true bravery (remember, it is when you faced what was scary to you, not someone else)?

• If you had not stepped out during those times, who would you be now?

• What would you have lost if you had not found the courage?

• What did you risk when you found your moment to be brave?

• How do you ask the darkness to teach you what you need to now? (from Barbara Brown Taylor)
Finding our sense of “brave” can be continuing to show up even when we worry that our current life events will never change. Of course thing can’t NOT change, because change is inevitable.

The Awakenings – The Next Decade

 

More than a decade ago this week, the lives of millions of people changed…many profoundly.  On September 11, 2001, at home after having just returned from a double lecture tour and preparing for another, I watched in horror how life can be turned upside down in an instant. At close to 9am central time, the news of the attacks on U.S. soil hit the airwaves. As billions of people around the world became riveted by the visceral reminder of life, death, impermanence and priorities, I experienced my second powerful awakening for that year and it literally changed the trajectory of my entire life and continues to do so.

Just six months and ten days before that pivotal September morning, I was outsourced (along with the entire department) from a job of which I gave my whole focus to. My work family of twelve years was split apart by a corporate board, but there was very little time for finger pointing, I was unemployed and I needed to focus on replacing my seemingly “secure” job. Although that pre-9/11 wake-up call was disorienting and terribly sad, it quickly forced me to launch the beginning of a new way of living “fearlessly.” For me, that key word, “fearlessly” means to disregard the fear and go forth anyway.  Aside from my adult career dreams, there was no idea what to do next. The choice was made.  There was nothing to lose at that point. Life dreams were chosen out of default.

The illusion of security in life is an interesting yet very uncomfortable process to untangle and if we are fortunate…we get to bust that illusion wide open.  People have a tendency to hook a sense of security to other people, things or situations as if our life depends on it, which it rarely does. It is a painful lesson it is to realize that illusion, one that is often filled with a sense of betrayals, emptiness and terror. Denial is strong and I don’t think I am the only one who has clung to magical thinking when illusions are shattering. In the midst of that evolution, it felt like I was working without a net, but the net was there, it just couldn’t be seen. The journey to learn how to trust the unseen was terrifying, and that journey continues to unfold ten years later. Perhaps it is an ongoing part of the life journey.
 
Six months after the outsourcing, I was beginning the early stages of finding my new professional footing when 9/11 occurred. That historical began to call me to look at my own mortality and my life priorities and the intention in which I live life.  As I boarded a plane a ten days later, the post 9/11 stories were starting to be made public. The search/rescue/recovery process was still ongoing, yet those of us on the outer circle of the event, were beginning being thrust into making meaning of the event. It would be years, if not a lifetime for those who lost loved ones.

The utter panic I felt every time the wheels lifted off the ground reminded me the actual parameters of authentic control in life.  While looking around the plane, I wondered if it was my last day in this life and if that last breath would be drawn sitting next to someone where no eye contact had even occurred. That is when I began to realize that much loneliness is a choice we make.
 
After September 2001, I began to leave my books and magazines unopened, my highlighters capped and started talking and connecting those around me (a bit of a stretch for a strong introvert).  Seatmates would often share stories of what and who they loved, what made them laugh and they would tell about their life passions and fears.  What made life their lives sing became clear…propelling me to reflect on mine.
 
During that time the wheels- up panic was replaced with a calm question: “Are you ready?” Meaning: if this was the last day of this life of mine, has it been lived with intention and courage? Am I living with regret or fear? What was I going to choose? Would love or fear be my life motivator?
 
How I was willing to live changed.  What I was willing to spend my time doing changed. Gratitude, courage, risks, openness and love became the predominant factors. If any given day was my last (which it will be at some point), I never wanted anyone I loved to feel unloved or disrespected by me.  Although I certainly haven’t done that perfectly the last decade, it is my conscious intention for those I care about to have no doubt they are loved. No one should leave this life without the experience of feeling cherished by someone.

No longer afraid to tell people what was appreciated and admired, with no regard to if they reciprocated, changed my life.  The transformation of the heart provides a freedom like none other. What a powerful living legacy for the thousands of people who lost their lives that day…that one person…maybe tens of thousands of people were inspired to open their heart and love without hesitation.
 
Life is uncertain. Most things are impermanent. What is it that is truly unchangeable?
 
If today was your final day, what would you wish to leave as your legacy? Love? Fear? The choice is ours…each and every moment. I choose love. 

 

www.theomnibuscenter.com

What Finding Nemo Has To Teach Us

nemo_sm

The full-length animated movie Finding Nemo is on a powerful story about life’s heroic journey and begins with a series of traumatic events in the lives of Marlin and Coral, expectant parents of 400 children (clown fish) about to be born.  As the movie begins, Coral and 399 of their children-about-to-be-born are lost to a barracuda attack, leaving only one “child” to survive – Nemo. Marlin must deal with the profound losses, his guilt that he could not stop the attack and having a “special needs” child, Nemo, who was born with a defective fin.

The loving and traumatized widower/father would probably be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in our Western Medical model.

Nemo, an adventurous and vibrant little fish, wishes to break out of his father’s hypervigilence by getting outside the “perimeter wire” of the reef and see what life holds.  Through a series of events, goes off on an accidental journey, leaving his father with the dilemma of choices: What will rule his life?  Will it be love or will it be fear?

As actor Albert Brooks does so brilliantly, Marlin is anxious, pessimistic, terrified of what will happen because he knows that very bad things in life can happen, worries constantly, but becomes willing to change and heal. He chooses to face his fears for the love of his beloved son Nemo, and sets out on the journey to find and return him to the safety of their home.

Early in the journey, Marlin meets up with the seemly dingy blue fish – Dory – who is played beautifully by Ellen DeGeneres. Dory appears ditsy, forgetful, goofy and seemingly not very smart, but this wonderful mentor/ally/trickster is going to play a pivotal role as the initiation guide and mentor during Marlin’s transformation and help him find exactly what he needs to thrive in life…to truly live his life fully.

They begin to traverse the challenges of the initiation time (The Jellyfish Jungle), they come in contact with some challenges which are very dangerous. They meet a group of sharks – 12 Step-style – which are struggling to give up fish (Marlin and Dory are fish). Marlin reluctance and doubt to continue is met with Dory’s persistence  to keep him going.  As Winston Churchill once said, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.” Dory’s version of Churchill’s statement is a catchy little ditty she repeatedly sings, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

As they travel deeper and deeper into the dark and scary sea, into the metaphorical basement of Marlin’s soul, he becomes more frightened that he will never see his son again and his life – as he knows it – will be over forever. In this journey, however, a part of Marlin is going to die and another part will be revealed…The Hero Within. The feeling of hopelessness washes over him. It is during this time of complete and utter emotional and physical exhaustion – which is not uncommon at this point in the journey that Marlin and Dory encounter with a whale when they are in the deepest part of the sea. Although it appears to be quite similar to a profound Major Depressive Episode, it is clinically and energetically different and is an extremely transformative part of the journey.

When they find themselves in the mouth of the whale, Dory has the discernment and wisdom to quit singing “just keep swimming” – for she knows better. With her companion and initiate exhausted, he is in the perfect state of being for the next step of the journey. This complete lack of energy, ego and stamina is actually Marlin’s greatest gift. When we no longer have any emotional or physical energy left, we are much more likely to surrender to the very thing which transforms us. Surrendering is, ironically, the only thing which allows us to continue this journey because our ego or false self has been shattered. This is also the dangerous opportunity for transformation and why Joseph Campbell once stated,

“Madmen and saints, swim in the same waters, what drowns one, will transform another.”

For people who their sheer will and intestinal fortitude have gotten them through, the belly of the whale time may feel like they have completely been broken in two, having failed completely. Yet, it is the greatest sign of wisdom about to spring forth. When we have reached a bottom of our understanding and we resign – to God, a Higher Power, a universal force or what is to be or to who we really are – we can be transformed. Illusions are shattered, the false self is gone, the authentic self and authentic life can be revealed.

Mentor Dory speaks very important words to Marlin. “Just keep swimming” is no longer appropriate at this place in the journey. She instead says, “Just let go.” Since Marlin doesn’t have the energy to argue with her, he seemingly has no other choice. Instead of clinging tenaciously to the tongue of the whale, Marlin and Dory let go for the ride of their life…first into the belly of the whale and then, and only then, do they get blown out the blow hole so they may continue their life journey (to find Nemo and other marvelous things). When we reach the end of our rope, life is usually calling us to let go and allow life to carry us for a while as we release control. In essence, transformation comes in the form of becoming a whale loogie.

I won’t spoil anymore of the movie for you, for this is only the first half!  Many more adventures and transformative moments occur as Dory and Marlin are free to continue their journey, all while Nemo is having his own transformative journey. With the most difficult aspect of the journey over, they have the strength and hope to continue after they realize the importance of letting go so a new part can be reborn.

The belly of the whale time or dark night of the soul is an extraordinarily frightening and exhausting time. We tend to have tunnel vision, a sense that we are losing everything in our life which we hold dear, yet it is not until we surrender our will, that we find we are transformed. Theologians and philosophers – for centuries – have written about this very topic. One of my favorite authors, was Henri Nouwen, who wrote 40+ books before he died. Nouwen said of this time,

“I was forced into the basement of my soul, to look directly at what was hidden there, to choose

 in the face of it all, not death, but life.”

The heroic framework is a Universal Monomyth, found in every culture around the world, in every spiritual tradition.  During the deepest and most transformative life journey’s such as trauma and loss, perhaps with a trusted “initiation guide” such as a therapist or clergy we can transform the pain into beautiful and transformative life gifts.

Journaling or discussion questions:

 

  • Have you had a “jellyfish jungle time”? If so, what did you fear most? How did you come through that time?
  • What or who helped you through it? How?
  • What were your feelings and thoughts about yourself and life as you traveled that time in your life?
  • Have you find yourself in the mouth of the whale, where you were completely physically and emotionally exhausted?
  • What illusions were you being asked to let go of?
  • What did you have to grieve?
  • What positive realities began to come to you?
  • What happened? How did move beyond that belly of the whale time?
  • How were you transformed by the event?
  • How did that transformation help others later?
  • What would you tell others about that time in your life?
  • How has the wisdom and lessons from those deep journey times been helpful to others?

Lost in New Jersey – Redux – Tao of the Road Warrior

It is April 2002. Another trip and another lesson learned for this rookie road warrior. I now understand what it feels like to be a rat in a maze.  After getting lost for up to three hours daily this past week and the  frustration was exhausting. 

[Read more…]

One Moment At A Time

She looked to be only three or four and her disheveled ‘I’ve-been-traveling-all-day hair’ was held by a pink ribbon. A fuzzy jacket and leggings matched what held her ponytail, while her long black eye lashes rested on flawless cheeks as she slept peacefully. [more…] [Read more…]