July 1, 2002
One idea can block real healing.
Thinking has certainly been used as a distraction against feeling pain, and although any ideas can deflect our attention, the most potent ideas are belief systems.
Although there is a broad range of belief systems, the most all-encompassing ones are spiritual or religious. They present complete interpretations of the universe and how human life functions within that structure. These grand explanations are called myths.
Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or a picture...
Joseph Campbell spent most of his life discovering and presenting how all explanations of the universe, whether religious or scientific, are simply different myths that point to one essential reality. Just like each language uses different words for the same object, different myths can be used to explain the same truth. Myths are interpretations - not the final say on reality - which is beyond any "final say."
Unfortunately, most of our religious views are stamped on us when we are impressionable children - before we have the capacity to experience and discover the truth for ourselves. We are imprinted with the prevailing myth of our parents and culture. Some myths tell us that certain things are bad and certain things are good, that the world works this way and not that.
When spiritual views split reality into right and wrong, they deny the existence or validity of certain experiences or sensations. This denial of sensate reality can severely block the natural process of healing. Fortunately, what is is, and no part of reality can be removed by an idea that it should be.
When the body wants to heal, it wants to integrate itself. It wants to bring the shadows into the light and bring suppressed feelings into the circle of awareness. This is not a method dictated by the words (ideas) of a guru, saint, or holy book. It is a process, not a belief system, and can be witnessed in all aspects of nature - like the sun rising, or a plant producing buds in the spring.
Some of the most relentless blocks to this natural process are spiritual ideas and beliefs, such as:
"Don't be angry or it will sow the seeds of more anger."
"A spiritually mature person is always at peace and does not feel anger."
"Complaining is disrespectful to those who have it worse than you."
"It is vain to express too much joy."
"Sex is the domain of our lower self, something to transcend."
"When you were in the spirit world you chose your life and it's traumas."
"Accept the suffering of your life - it's your karma."
"It is divine to forgive."
"It is virtuous to suffer in silence like the saints. Our reward is in heaven."
"My suffering is God's test."
"I have sinned and this pain is my punishment."
"Anyone who tells you that this isn't the truth is wrong - even evil."
First I want to point out that these are all ideas. When people come to therapy they carry real physical/emotional suffering, not ideas of suffering. Spiritual ideas such as the ones listed above can block their bodies from being honest and expressing the feelings they are actually having. It is hard enough to cry and rage against the father who abused you without having to push through the extra terror of thinking you will be sent to hell for expressing it.
This points out the central motive of dogmatic views - they are all based on controlling with the threat of death and eternal damnation. Sexual offenders often protect their heinous deeds by saying that they will kill the children or their parents if the children tell. How is religious dogma any different? "If you say bad things, or go against my will, you will burn in hell."
I see the struggle and fear in sexual abuse survivors, and I also see it in "spiritual abuse" survivors - only the sexual abuse survivors know they were abused. The spiritual abuse survivors still struggle with betraying the grand authority by which they have been brainwashed. Sometimes they never get free.
This is a sticky issue, and confronting an idea with more ideas often doesn't help. What helps is reality. Pain, anxiety, depression, and boiling rage are real sensations and forces. Is it really the virtuous way of the universe to deny the existence of the steam building up in the pressure cooker? Or is it more realistic to acknowledge and work with those real energies? When clients balk at expressing their pain on spiritual grounds, I often say, "All right. So, what's the alternative?" Denying it hasn't worked. Positive thinking hasn't worked. More scripture study hasn't worked. Praying hasn't worked. A new resolution hasn't worked. Getting more disciplined hasn't worked.
The paradox is that for all the heavenly imagery, limited spiritual views are a massive attachment - a lead weight on life. When people let themselves be, and express what they are, they may pass through a fearful "letting go" of their familiar dogmatic religious view. This is often replaced by a more flexible, integrated view of life that arises from their own experience rather than the dictates of spiritual "experts." Having given up "spirituality," they find themselves feeling more connected and "spiritual" than they ever did before.