An allegory of healing from complex trauma
There was a deep, broad sinkhole of heavy cold mud. A large elegant bird, wings soggy with a patina of wet muck, flapped desperately, wings straining and agitated, trying to stay above the sinkhole, struggling to stay above. When the bird had reached the limits of its endurance, its energy expended, it folded its wings in defeat and dropped into the cold sinkhole. Without looking around, it rested just long enough to build the energy to give a courageous leap, fling its wings into the air and, heavy with cold and mud, flap ever harder, just to stay a few inches above the surface. Sometimes a warm breeze would sweep in and lift the bird a little higher and it was able to spread its wings and coast, just for a minute.
It had moments of hope that it was free of the agitation, the desperation. Then, weather being weather, things turned and it was raining, cold and heavy again and the bird was either in the sinkhole, ignoring it, trying to think warm thoughts, waiting to leap again, or frantically trying to stay aloft, with a few merciful moments of relief when circumstance sent it a warm updraft so it could rest. Occasionally a predator would set hungry eyes on the bird and the bird defended itself with the last of its energy and a bit of luck. The bird knew desperate defense and so far the predators had found it too difficult to bring the bird down. However, the bird feared the moment when it was caught with no survival energy left. The bird, in its core, did not believe it would live out its years, though it didn’t know how things would end. The bird did not want to die, but was trapped between exhausted survival coping and depressed defeat.
In time a spirit guide, a being of light spaciousness, approached the bird and strangely said, “Everything will be Ok”. The bird thought, this character is insane or simply can’t understand how long reality has proven to me that it has never been ok, is not ok now and will probably not be ok in the future. But in the absence of friends or comfort, the bird accepted the warmth of caring and friendship and continued to talk with the spirit guide. At least it provided a little more energy. As trust developed, the bird asked more and more often, “what do you mean, everything will be Ok?” and the guide responded, “I cannot explain to you, you have to experience it for yourself, you have to know it yourself”. The bird felt that things had been slightly better, even if it was false hope and decided to take a chance.
“What should I do?” The guide replied, “Stop flying, stop escaping”.
The bird asked incredulously “you mean, just give up? Sink into the muck? Fail? Fall? Freeze?”
The guide replied “No, I don’t mean, give up, I mean stop flying, rest and then take it from there”.
The bird valued the friendship and mild relief from loneliness. It did not risk it the first or the second time. With waning strength and a seemingly increasingly deep pit, the bird finally risked it the 7th time. This time, with some strength still in its wings, a hint of peace in its heart, it gingerly settled down into the cold, wet, heavy muck.
Guide “Wait, rest, look around”
Bird “I’ve been struggling in this pit my entire life, what do you expect me to see?”
Guide “I know, I’m sorry, please wait, look around, what are you feeling?”
The bird took some time before responding “I have been abandoned, I am alone, no matter how long I fly above the sinkhole, I feel the coldness, the sadness, the grief. All the effort I put forth, no matter how desperate, no matter how powerful, no matter how positively I maintain my attitude, I feel grief, I want to weep, I want to scream at the world, I want to hide my head under my wing and sleep. How is this ok? How is this going to show me that it will all be Ok? I’m sorry, but this sounds like steaming horse manure”
The guide said, “If you ever trusted me, unless you want to go back to sliding between defeat and flapping your wings desperately, I’m asking you to stop, sink into the muck and tell me what you find”
The bird, tired, without hope, without any other options, let go, sunk in and said “I think someone else is in here with me”
Guide “Who is it? Be very kind, very careful and very gentle. Who is it?”
The bird recoiled in horror “it is a vicious, scarred little hatchling. Maybe this is the source of all my suffering, this little demon”
Guide “What is it doing?”
Bird “It is huddled in the muck, cold, alone and savage. It looks relentlessly miserable”
Guide “What happened to it? Why is it there?”
Bird “I don’t know, I don’t want to know, it’s disturbing, I want it to go away. I hate it”
Guide “It is imperative that you do not reject it. Can you ask it what it needs?”
The bird had had enough. The bird leaped and, flapping frantically, flew above the sinkhole. “I exhaust myself trying to escape suffering and sadness and you ask me to keep company with such twisted misery as that? I don’t get it.”
Guide “That’s Ok, tell me exactly what you noticed, before you flew and now”
Bird, “I was horrified, disgusted by the hatchling, I wanted it to go away. It is a sinkhole of sadness, grief and despair. Now I am flying above it, I am tired, I feel fragmented and separated from myself, and the sadness, though muted, feels deeper and more intense.”
Guide “When you’re ready, please settle again”
The bird considered telling the guide to get lost but again, she had never had a companion before and she was loathe to lose the friendship. Eventually the bird risked settling into the muck again and the process occurred again and again. Most of the time, the bird refused to even acknowledge the hatchling existed and begged the guide to show her how to escape.
One day, while on the wing, the bird noted to the guide “I feel a little better, most of the time. I’m still tired, I’m still sad, but I’ve accepted that I can settle into the muck long enough to rest, as long as I don’t look too closely at the hatchling. I can gain enough strength to fly and get some relief from the sadness. And after all, you are here with me.”
The guide replied, “I’m sorry, but you are not done. No one is meant to live like this. This is not a life.”
Bird “but it seems to be my life and I guess it’s kind of livable.”
Guide, “Choose. You can live like this for the rest of your life, or you can be free of it forever, you can roost in a verdant tree, start a family if you want, build a safe place where you can rest without sadness, a place where you can fly without constant exhaustion. Choose.”
Bird “That sounds nice, amazing in fact, but I don’t believe you. I’m not trying to offend you, but I don’t even know what it is you’re describing or if such a thing exists. My mind has a vague notion of what you mean by a “tree” and “family”, but I have never seen those things, I can’t imagine one, there has never been anything but this.”
Guide “I invite you to imagine, if not for you, for some other bird in some fictional land, a warm gentle breeze, flowing under your wings, lifting, supporting you. Rather than frantically flapping to stay aloft, it lifts you effortlessly into the upper most branches. This tree has a large hollow with a small entrance in which you can nest, and rest, warm and safe.”
The bird replied “So something like my flapping now, but with less exhaustion and sadness? And a tree with a large hollow is something like the sinkhole but less cold and wet and less sad?”
The guide replied “Something like that. What do you notice in your wings, in your heart, in your mind and body as you invite that imagining?”
The bird replied, “For a split second, I felt a small burst of energy, that didn’t feel like fear, then my mind told me, this is horse manure and I felt worse than before I imagined it”
The guide replied “That’s good enough for today”
For days, weeks, months, this went on. On some days the bird could almost sense what it might be like, what these words meant, warmth, happiness, love, joy, curiosity, lightness, safety. On those days, the bird’s body felt stronger, as if energized by some fount of life itself, as if there were something other than a sinkhole and exhausted, agitated flying. One day, the bird imagined it so well – when she saw what was possible, realized how other birds lived, and saw the shining possibilities up against, the brutal, dreary, heavy, cold reality she had accepted – she was overcome with grief and plummeted into the sinkhole. This time, the guide said nothing, but only settled into the muck with her and kept her company. When the bird looked up, her eyes bright and sharp with grief she said, “I want that, I want that so badly, it makes me sick to my stomach, I’m sick with sadness, and heaviness and struggle and misery” and she screamed in rage and defiance and for a moment felt better, as if she deserved something else. The guide looked her openly in the face and simply said “good”.
With time and practice the bird became able to access the dream, the imagining, almost at will. Not every time, but often enough that she felt hope or at least the slightest sense of possibility. She asked the guide, “This is not real, I have a real life and it hasn’t changed. I mostly alternate between grief, sadness and anxious, agitated flapping that mutes the sadness but never makes it go away. How does this work?
The guide replied, “For now, I can tell you that there are parts of your mind, elements of your body, of your spirit, that either don’t know, or don’t care about the difference between what you imagine and what you experience. I’m not here to argue for alternative universes to you, but it’s possible that in some way, the imagining is a kind of reality the same as the experiencing”
The bird responded, “What you’re saying sounds simultaneously incredibly hopeful but also makes me feel ashamed and responsible, like what I’m struggling against, is somehow my fault, if only I had imagined the right things. Am I just weak, or stupid? Why are you the guide and I am stuck in this misery?”
The guide responded, “you are neither weak, nor stupid. You did not imagine this misery. It is real, it was forced on you before you could possibly have begun to imagine anything else. You denied the intensity of it because to know, in total, how horrible it is, you would have died or your young wings would have snapped trying to escape. No one deserves or creates what you are suffering. Anyone who tells you otherwise is bartering seeds in the wind. Furthermore, I am not your guide, because I am stronger or wiser in any way. I was also lost in the vicious winds of suffering and I also was helped by a guide. I also could not imagine anything else and I also thought I was stupid and weak. I am not special and forgive me for saying it, but your suffering is not special or unique. You share it with multitudes of birds and other animals and of those multitudes some will give in and live in misery, some will give up and die or fall prey to predators, some will survive by dragging their own hatchlings, mates and family into the muck and – some will choose to imagine something else and from that imagining, a different, kinder, more joyful reality grows.”
Bird, “What am I supposed to do with that. Should I lie and pretend I believe, so I don’t offend you or the gods or whatever miserable trickster allowed this to happen?”
Guide “Many would try to obligate you to believe. I disagree. This blames you for your suffering. As if, everything would be Ok, if you just believed. You cannot believe what you have never seen. I say that the truth is even more beautiful, more hopeful. You don’t have to believe. The gift of healing, of truth is not a magic trick where you say the right words and believe the right thing or you are consigned to hell. You do not have to believe, only invite, imagine. Just practice and hope, that there is a possibility of something else, something not different in quantity, but in quality. Not different in intensity, but of an entirely different state of being. If you practice and hope, and trust that you don’t have to trust. Things will change.”
The bird felt relieved that she didn’t have to fake belief, didn’t have to pretend trust. If she couldn’t trust, she would trust that it was ok, not to trust. If she couldn’t trust that it was ok not to trust, she would trust that it was ok not to trust that it was ok not to trust”.
At this moment, she had a glimpse of what it meant to experience something different in kind, rather than in amount. Previously, she had tried and tried to make herself think or believe something that combatted the sadness, the fear, the hopelessness. But every thought took enormous energy to generate when everything in her experience, her honesty, her integrity of self, told her, you are not experiencing that, you do not believe that. This was an exercise in futility.
Suddenly, the bird had a blinding revelation. Before, amidst frantically attempting to fly above her misery, she only confirmed her misery by how desperately she was trying escape it. Every attempt to think positively, to feel safe, to be stronger, only confirmed that she was not positive, was not safe and did not feel strong. Her fears told her – be afraid – and in attempting to escape the fear, she confirmed that fear was a thing of which to be afraid, which made her more afraid. Finally, she understood, that settling into the muck, did not mean giving up or giving in. It meant, not expending all of her precious energy attempting to escape something, that by her very attempt to escape, proved that there was something to be escaped, proved that she was sad, alone and bereft. Suddenly, she remembered the first thing the guide said, that had seemed insane “everything will be ok”. But somehow, midst the pain, midst the insanity, still sad, still grieving, still exhausted, she felt, mysteriously, inexplicably that everything was ok.
Afraid of losing the first real and actual freedom from suffering, if not from pain, the bird, mentally, emotionally, spiritually clutched desperately at the sensation – and it was gone. Heart wrenching in her chest, she described to the guide what she had experienced. Infuriatingly, the guide nodded and explained. “You realized the truth, that all suffering comes, not from the pain, but from the fear of the pain, not from fear, but from fear of fear. Not from loss, but from fear of loss. Fear is a self-fulfilling, closed system. It seems so entirely rational and based in evidence, but it completely obscures any evidence that could discount it and screams only the evidence that confirms itself. It is entirely irrational. You cannot use fear to escape fear. You cannot use fear to find freedom from fear. You cannot fear loss of freedom from fear, without filling that glorious, light filled space, with more fear. You attempted to control freedom from fear, with an action based in fear – control. So you filled that lightness, that space for spiritual and emotional freedom with fear again. You experienced freedom, which is by nature free and attempting to control it you dragged control between you and freedom. Freedom remained free, because that is what it is. You did not experience the loss of freedom, it is very present. You experienced your false attempt to control freedom, an act based in fear.
The bird responded bitterly, “So again, it is my fault, I would not be suffering if I were not so controlling or if I didn’t lack the wisdom or spiritual consciousness to win free of this mess.”
The guide replied “No. Fault implies the illusion of control. It is a lie based in the fear that you are the “kind” of bird, who lacks, and who, because of her lack, deserves to suffer. This is irrational and untrue. No one deserves to suffer. However, we do suffer if fear is imposed on us by the world, by life, by experiences, by parents. It is only when we see the glimmer of a choice, the hope of a possibility of a hope that we get the chance to work for something different.
The bird responded “I see the sense of what you’re saying, but in reality, the only reality I know, I continue to be trapped between this sinkhole of sadness and loneliness and terrified, exhausted flapping above it. I’m tired of platitudes, philosophy, spirituality. I’m suffering, I’m sick of it, my body is tired, my mind is tired, if a god were going to rescue me, it would have happened already. You say it doesn’t have to be this way. So how do I make it not this way? What do I have to do? I’ll do anything, anything, if you will only tell me that the outcome will be better”
The guide said, “all the practice of imagining and receiving the strength and relief of those imaginings, all of the experiences of relief you have felt in your wings, in your body, in your mind, your imaginings of kind and firm parental guidance, of safe nests, of towering trees full of sustenance, of warm gentle uplifting breezes, of wise spiritual guides, of fierce protectors, I ask you now to invoke them, make them bodily realities, hug them, hold them and then, I invite you to settle, even fight to the very bottom of the sinkhole, find that hatchling and look at it. Hold it in your gaze. Do that and tell me what you see.”
With great trepidation, the bird invoked all of her imaginings, flapped rhythmically in a manner that activated them in her wings, in her, heart, mind and body and then tucked in her wings and settled into the muck, digging deeper, feeling the upwelling of grief, loss, abandonment, despair. At the urging of her guide, in fact at the urging of her imaginings, she shook her body and wings, settling ever deeper until she was eye level with where she had seen the hatchling and before she could lose courage, she turned her regard in the direction she could feel and gazed at the hatchling.
A flush of fear crept in, chilling her. Her protectors, her guides, her totems kept holding her, warming her, whispering encouragement. She felt a wisdom, a compassion of which she had not been aware, filling her. And suddenly she saw and understood. The fierce, scarred hatchling, croaking angrily, furiously, attempting to scratch at her with its claws and peck at her with its little beak, was awash in terror. The agitation of its little body was the trembling of exhaustion and cold. The fierceness with which it pecked and clawed was infant desperation, hopelessness, trying to stay alive one more moment, unable to live and afraid to die. Its hatchling face, scarred, wet and filthy was the face of helpless weeping. The muck, the mud, the wet and the cold were waves and waves of lonely, abandoned, grief-stricken imaginings. The wet heaviness of the sinkhole was the longing for love, care, and a place in the world.
The bird was overwhelmed by the old horror, a desire to look away, a desire to protect herself from the misery of being in contact with the hatchling. She was also overwhelmed by a flood of fierce compassion, love, an intense desire to protect. Suddenly, within her breast there was a violent war, to fear or to love, to fear or to love. All of her guides, her imaginings soothed and comforted her “Don’t look away, just see the truth, see with clear eyes, be here, be love, be loving, be loved.”
The bird felt a deep anger at the injustice, the cruelty that could have resulted in this suffering little hatchling. Eyes on the hatchling, she spoke sideways to her spirit guide
“Who!? What vicious, heartless, evil creature, attacked, spurned, starved and abandoned this baby? Who is responsible for this?”
Her guide looked at her with sad compassion “first it was her parents, themselves lost to their own pits of despair, to their own agitated exhausted fleeing and fluttering. Then it was an overwhelmed, hungry world, each creature seeking its own emotional nutrition, its own relief from suffering. Finally, the hatchling was abandoned and scarred by the only one who had and still has a chance to save her.”
“Who!? I’ll peck her eyes out, I’ll claw the feathers from her wings until she can’t fly, until she herself is stuck in a pit!”
The guide replied “I don’t recommend that. It would only further hurt the hatchling as the one who last abandoned the hatchling is the only one who can still save her”
“Then I can’t save her? Am I to keep her company in her misery as you have kept me company in mine?”
“You can save her”
“You said, the last to abandon her is the one to save her”
“Yes, I mean exactly what I said, you were the last to abandon her, you are the only one who can save her”
The bird still gazing at the hatchling struggling in the sinkhole said, “but that is impossible. I am lazy, and stupid, I lack resiliency, I struggle between agitated fleeing and the despair of grief because I am too weak to properly be alive. I don’t have courage, I don’t have the strength for compassion. I don’t have enough energy to love myself, let alone this miserable hatchling.”
The guide replied “The only chance you have to be free of suffering is to unconditionally love this hatchling”
The bird replied “unconditionally? Who do you think I am? I tell you again, I cannot even care for myself. How am I going to care for something so miserable?”
The guide’s eyes betrayed a mild compassionate anger, “You still don’t understand? You still don’t know who she is? She is you! Your hatchling self, her scars are your scars, you were abandoned, you were left to the cold, cruel world, you were given imaginings of incredible suffering and misery. It is you, frozen in time, forever weeping and struggling, waiting for some kindness, for some understanding, for some compassion. Yet, every time you meet your own grief, your own suffering, your own story, rather than acknowledge what happened to you, what a tragedy it is, how much you deserve to be loved and comforted, rather than stay with yourself, you kick off from the sinkhole, your flailing claws scratching your infant self, scarring her already scarred countenance, abandoning her again, leaving her alone again, giving her real world evidence that her imaginings are true, she is unlovable, not worth saving, not worth caring for. She has huddled here, shivering, helpless and alone as you struggled ever harder with your adult wings, adult “understanding”, your adult fear-based logic to escape yourself. You fear the grief that when expressed, teaches you exactly how precious you are. The more intense the grief, the more precious the child. If you were actually stupid and lazy and worthless, there would be no grief, no sadness. No one mourns the abandonment of that which has no value. The intensity of your struggle is exactly the measure of how beautiful, how precious, how beyond earthly valuation you were, as a hatchling, and you are as a conscious, struggling, living breathing creature of flight. Your ache is the ache of freedom in chains, of beauty buried in cold mud, of grace exhausted and stumbling. Nothing meaningless and empty suffers.”
The bird felt a rush of sudden desperation, tucked the hatchling under her wing and attempted to launch out of the pit. The hatchling dug in her claws, fiercely, in terror and huddled deeper into the muck, waves and waves of fear and sadness creating more cold, muddying the pit.
“Stop!” the guide exclaimed. “is this compassion? Is this love, understanding and caring? Or are you just trying to escape once again, with no understanding or patience for what this hatchling has been through?”
The bird replied sullenly, “I can’t do anything right. I only want to save her. Why would she resist?”
The guide replied “What would you have done if I had approached you and without any trust or rapport, demanded that you descend into the muck. In fact, what if I had put my hands on you to force you to do so, what would you have done?”
The bird thought for a moment, “I would have fought you tooth and nail. I didn’t know anything but danger and predators.”
The guide returned “Just so. And I wanted and want desperately for you to be free of suffering, but you know what is the worst about suffering, abandonment, fear and abuse? You are stripped of your freedom, of your choices, even of your knowledge of yourself. If I approached you and refused to honor your choices, and tried to overwhelm you, even with good intentions, aren’t I doing more of the damage that your life experiences have already done to you? That isn’t me caring for you. That is me trying to relieve myself of the discomfort of seeing you suffer. If you can stand to suffer a little longer, then I can stand to walk with you and suffer a little also. If you truly care about the hatchling, you can offer no more and no less”
Dear reader, I apologize for interrupting the tale of the bird. I wish I could tell you that she instantly understood, that she was overwhelmed by compassion, self-love, love for others, joy and wonder so enduring that she remade her surroundings and her life in the image of her imaginings, an expression of her beautiful heart. But life isn’t always like that. At times, the bird regressed and became impatient, fell victim to the lure of the false certainty of fear. Joy thrives on possibility, but fear thrives on certainty. Fear offered her the certainty of suffering and sometimes, that seemed better. Her guide waited, watched and loved.
But in the end, struggle is not special, unique or even important. The consciousness that suffers struggle is important. The bird practiced, she invoked her imaginings, with increasing strength. Her love for her hatchling self became deeper and more fierce, more profound until any expression of fear, grief, sadness, violence or struggle from the hatchling, only elicited a deep love and compassion for her. In time, the bird noticed that the hatchling’s emotions slowly began to shift to trust and love, curiosity and joy. As this shifted, the cold, wet damp of the pit, turned slowly to rich, moist loam in which a seed planted by thought itself, slowly, inexorably grew into a mighty oak. In the powerful, subtly aromatic and verdant branches, there was an opening into the heart of the tree. It was just large enough for a beautiful adult bird to fit through, but too small for predators to invade. It was warm and sheltered from the occasional rain or tempest. Of course, there were seasons, frigid winter, soggy spring, but often enough, there were warm, balmy summer breezes in which the bird soared, effortlessly, collecting food for the hatchling tucked safely, happily into the heart of the mighty oak. In time, the bird met a mate, a funny, daring and loyal bird. They bore a brood of chicks and the bird noticed that it was the deep joy, the profound, wordless love of life within her own hatchling that allowed her to connect most deeply to the mysterious, overpowering love of her children, her mate, her world and of course, of herself. With each day that the bird chose love, compassion, possibility, her world expanded, offered riches of experience, adventure, excitement and joy. Her world grew into, met and far surpassed her wildest imaginings and she wondered that a long-ago reality that had seemed so total, so incredibly deafening and chaotic, could look, in hindsight, like something that had never been real at all. Her suffering might have been a fact, a historical occurrence, but she, the bird, her consciousness was the only thing beautiful and profound enough to be real. She reveled in her life, she encompassed all things. She existed as love, as joy. She was a beautiful elegant bird.