Alchemy for the Wounded
(originally published in Inside Out, June 2018)
“What I need to tell you, you may already know…”
(Eigen, 2005: 56)
How can we turn our suffering into grace? How can we relate to our most wounded and stunted aspects in a way that yields, not just healing, but maturity, expansion, and love? This is what I want to explore here – a route to relating more intimately with our wounds in a way that yields blessings. This is about the art of optimal ‘integration’; how we can digest our lives so skilfully that even our most painful trajectories can bear rich fruit.
I want to share a teaching I’ve been exploring, but do so vulnerably, with a heap of inner caveats, as an exploration in progress, and an offering to those of you with whom an element may resonate, as, in Bollas’ lovely paraphrase of Winnicott – a “possible truth bearing object” (Bollas, 1989: 110). This teaching arises in the boundary of the spiritual and psychological, and the territory I open here is two-fold: how we can draw on our relational wounding to mature in places where development has calcified, and how and why this approach may be of particular value for those of us with insecure or preoccupied attachment styles.
The path I want to elucidate asks us to deepen in love and receptivity in two ways: The first is a radical self-constancy in bearing more thoroughly with what has been hard for us; the second is a readiness to inhabit our underlying affinity with our most difficult others. Both are acts of great faith in ourselves, and in life. It demands courage to open further to the pain we have lived through; it is rare to willingly identify with those we feel have maimed, stunted or betrayed us. These pathways ask a lot of the human heart, but they also carry enormous psychological and spiritual potency.
Why would we engage with them? Because we find ourselves constrained: For many of us, some profound insecurity, pain, sadness or trauma carried over from formative relationships threatens to forever hinder our development. Despite all our efforts, therapeutic endeavours and spiritual practices, there are parts in us that do not seem to grow, and repetitions that dismay us. Our identity plays out familiar patterns; our empathy for particular others stays frozen; and our access to transformation, integration, and deliverance from what we know to be a compromised expression of our life-force stalls. Some early trauma seems to remain unreached – we continue to envisage life through the lens of our early pain – an archaic entitlement for a better world persists, and we do not mature.
That is the context in which I want to explore this approach. Its origin for me lies in a few sentences spoken by Susannah Grover, my Diamond Approach teacher, on a retreat a couple of years ago. Susannah’s teaching went something like this: one element of the way we grow is to work through our object relations (the constellation of bias, patterns and internal working models of self and other formed in early life that have come to shape our internal and external relating).
We can transcend these fixated patterns and identities, she suggested, by being willing and able to identify with both sides of an object relation as precisely as we can, and then to feel through the experience of each. This is to inhabit its dimensions, perspective, felt-sense as intimately and thoroughly as we can – emotionally, cognitively, viscerally.
Essentially, this is to invite us to open wholeheartedly to human experience where it has been most troublesome for us. Like many spiritual practices, this approach does deepen our compassion, but it does so in a very specific way. Primarily, it works on our identity and the rhythm and style with which we process emotional impacts, clarifying, tending to and then working to bring more dynamism to areas of hurt. This helps us to achieve a refined and nourishing balance between deepening in self-intimacy and self-compassion, while also feeling into our profound resonance with the roles and identities we have assigned to those who have hurt us: If we have been betrayed, it recalls us to our own betrayals; if we have been rejected, overlooked, it asks that we find within our history, those moments we have been the rejector, the over-looker, and to acknowledge and embody it as a part of ourselves. When we do this skilfully, without by-passing or minimising our own hurts, the result is deepening and expansive. In time, it yields a less biased, more open and flexible self than our fixation allowed. It gives us a way to grow up.
When I work with this approach, I sense myself in a new country, and as I write that I feel self-conscious, because I know it is an obvious country for an adult to live in, that many of you who read this will have spent decades there already. But in exploring this teaching, I was stumbling upon something new to me: digestion space, and a method.
How object relations may limit adult identity
“No one will allow themselves to be cured of who they are…”
(Bromberg, 2006: 110)
Let’s look for a moment at how a fixated object relation can work in us. Our conflicts, crises and complaints play out along familiar fault-lines: we have been ‘used’ yet again by a colleague or friend; nobody helps us in our times of deepest need; we feel left-out and nobody notices or cares; our hope that our love will land in life in a way that matters is crushed, again… In each of these patterns there is a template of self and other in which we find ourselves in a familiar position that does not shift. This comes to feel like a recurring, looping fate. It also feels like our life.
Over decades, we become profoundly aligned with this position: our friendships may blossom only among our fellow-brethren in disappointment; our position in intimacy as the one who ‘gives too much’ or is ‘never wanted’ may endlessly repeat itself; our political views may fixate here, always identifying with the silent and overlooked. For many of us, our sense of self and emotional loyalties continue to pivot around such templates. We resent where we find ourselves, yet we also grow extremely comfortable there, never seeing other possibilities, never opening into ‘more’ of ourselves. We struggle to inhabit the fluidity and complexity of our own being, and we don’t develop in empathy for certain kinds of others.
Instead, stuck in repeating outrage, or unprocessed hurt, our emotional process is calcified, and we continue to reproduce the same impasse.
How emotional process stalls
I want to say something here about where emotional impacts hit us, and what this tends to create in us. Eckhart Tolle speaks of the Pain Body as “the accumulation of old emotional pain that almost all people carry in their energy field” (Tolle, 2016). It seems, with many hurts, that we digest them ‘just enough’ to form a defence, and then we live out their impact within this structure.
When I look at my own habitual response to difficult emotional impact, both now and as a child, this is the broad shape I see: something hurtful happens, I feel some of the pain of it, but flinch quickly away toward some instinct to represent it, to explain to myself or others what has happened to me. I form an affronted or wounded narrative, (and also an almost unconscious felt sense) a stance toward the other that limits the raw wound of hurt. To the extent that I do not stay with my pain, it joins ‘the accumulation’ of unprocessed feeling that Tolle speaks of, and instead becomes language, thought, defence, psychic structure, identification.
I know this is a simplistic map, but nonetheless it captures much of what happens internally in our habitual way of processing life: some emotional impact is unfinished within us and a charge remains. How can we dissolve this charge in a way that genuinely integrates the experience on which it is based? It seems we can do this by making ourselves available to feel more thoroughly and completely (if we have the resources and resilience to do so).
The approach itself: a spacious attunement to self and other
This leads me to the approach I have explored in response to Susannah’s teaching. In essence, it trains us to process our experience more thoroughly and fruitfully than we have been able to do so far. As we ‘lean in’ to what is incompletely healed, we deliberately enter the painful territory of our failed interactions with others. We tune in to where things have gone awry in core relationships in ways that mattered, and the feelings we abandoned there. Our activity then is two-fold: We help ourselves to bear the impacts on us that remain charged or painful; and we align with who those problematic others became for us thereafter. This allows us to really take in our own suffering, but also to recognise that we have objectified and stereotyped others, and that we have polarised our identity to be ‘other’ than them, cutting off much of our own shadow, and of their humanity.
1. Abiding with ourselves:
“…it seems one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms…”
Arthur Miller (1964: 22)
The first surprise I had in working with this teaching was how naturally it amplified my self-compassion, and how thoroughly this soothed and calmed me. I had thought I was already more than adequately identified with myself. What I didn’t understand was that although I was mentally identified with being wronged in various ways - and well-practiced in defending my stances - I wasn’t actually compassionate toward my own suffering. I didn’t feel it. I thought it, and I thought it in very habitual ways. And so it circled within me, unresolved and unsettled, awaiting (like an infant) understanding, love or retribution, yet leaking enormous influence on my relationships and conception of life. This was the territory where my soul did not grow.
As I moved toward my experience more intentionally, I found I was aligning with myself in a new way – able to be there with much more space and interest. I could tune into the impact within me, then the other, back and forth. This rhythm supported my capacity to stay calmly with myself in a way that was honestly new to me. I experienced an unbiased, un-rushed opening to the distress and hurt I found within me. It mattered, I think, that I was not looking for evidence to ‘be right’ vis a vis the other, to prove that any wrong had been done. Instead it was just about meeting - with nuance, patience, compassion - whatever was there to be met.
I found a willingness to help my genuine experience register without the pressure of resolution. Where I expected to find only bleak feelings, I found space, capacity, tenderness; a sense of time slowing and being able to simply move through moments of impact, disappointment, hurt, fear, grief. I found I could abide with all these, because in feeling them I did not feel I was risking severance with the other – more that I was tending one half of a human equation – thoroughly.
So this is an essential part of the territory this approach opens - breaking new ground and creating a more secure rhythm in our ability to bear with ourselves, and soothe ourselves with the generosity of our own attention.
2. Sensing into the opposite pole…
“Perfect love is to love the one through whom one became unhappy…”
(Kierkegaard, 1960: 192)
When it comes to the practice of opening to our resonance with the opposite pole of an object relation, there are two broad ways I have explored this: a willingness to identify and open to the circumstances in which we have been a similar ‘perpetrator’, and a willingness to attune freshly to whoever in our lives seems positioned there.
2.1. Uncomfortable affinities:
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when Spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond,
and I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
from Please Call Me by My True Names (Nhat Hanh, 1993: 72-3)
When I explored identifying and opening to myself as the ‘perpetrator’, I found myself stopped in my tracks. I, who have been the rejected or less-favoured one (in my head) all my life, find inside myself the times I have not wanted to empathise with or include another. Times I have been overwhelmed, even enjoyed rejecting someone, blocking them, looking down on them. When I meet this, and open to it, all certainty in my brain starts to break. My body remembers being this person - its naturalness in those moments and its easy-going entitlement. All this is highly sobering, hard to take in. But it is a good, disorienting disruption. I feel the confusion of my familiar identity and self-righteousness bumping against the straightforward clarity that I too have been this person.
This may seem, as I express it, a contrived recognition – too easy an equivalence. Yet when I am willing to really feel into my own visceral and emotional experience of rejecting someone, of protecting myself from their demands of me, of rigidly sticking to my guns despite their expression of pain or protest, I allow something in my world-view to be punctured in a way that throws my heart. There is heaviness and self-disappointment. An enormous sobriety descends.
This is the territory of alchemy: once I find within myself a resonance with even a small version of what once seemed a ‘crime’ against me, there is a shift. I leave my mind and its certainties and enter my body; something feels like it starts to reach my conscience or my soul. I feel myself where the other once was. The momentum of fixed identity, and all it carries and believes, ceases its conviction. Landmarks are wrested from their familiar positions. I am in open country, and it is vast.
2.2. Opening to the Other
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Longfellow, 1857)
We know our ‘enemies’ intimately. We know them because we have watched and felt them imprint on us, reject us, hurt us, misconstrue us; and we’ve seen with critical righteousness all that is wrong with them. We bear the scars of their shadows and lacks, and those scars hurt.
Yet this intimacy is, from another angle, a blessing. Their ‘secret history’ is not so foreign to us, and inherent in it are needs, instincts and suffering that we know also to be human. When we are able to ‘drop the war’ and attune from openness to those who have hurt us, we make ourselves available to be altered. We invite something of their reality to enter and inform us.
Again, this is not a pressurised process, because it is essentially an internal one. This is important. We do not tune into them because we are obsessed with relational resolution or repair; nor are we trying to achieve any kind of immediate harmony. We are looking instead for an interior transformation. A digression here: one of the most powerful teachers I have ever encountered was Tibetan Buddhist Dzigur Kongtrul. He was extremely clear that heart practices had their own effect – in our interior. He advised us against trying to be nicer to anyone; rather encouraging us to trust the impact of the practices, in an authentic way, to transform our hearts, and in time how we treated all others. This slow, deep transformation from within is what we are after.
Our current structure depends on keeping our view of specific others intact. We envisage them from the precise perspective of our unresolved wounding – what they have done to us or failed to do. This approach calls for something else: It invites us to open to the existential truth of their lives, the inner logic of their behaviour, for who they are. We are looking to resonate with all this, to allow it, and to let it touch us. We bring the same generosity of attunement to them that we brought to ourselves, and because we have already thoroughly heard ourselves, this is no longer a distorted movement or a by-pass. Our perception doesn’t have to be precisely accurate to be of benefit. It simply needs to be more accurate and open than our judgements have been. This willingness to see – and to feel - beyond the range of our habitual energy is what dissolves the polarity we have always aligned with. And this is what transforms us.
One element of maturing is a journey toward an ever more refined, ethical, loving capacity for genuine intersubjectivity. The more deeply we ‘resolve’ our object relations, the more this becomes possible for us. In my initial exploration of this way of working, I’ve been struck by a bodily sense of literally becoming heavier. An experience of an alchemical impact on my heart, and a tangible sense of my soul deepening. In some ways I feel like an old wall breached by high seas. A sense of having been held back from being affected by some parts of life – not least the full ‘otherness of the other’ – and now new worlds flood in. Sensing anew their separateness, the pain they have endured - both in their own right, and also in relation to the positions I have placed them in. The impact feels immediate, almost intravenous. It is loving and sombre as hell. I sense the era of childhood dying; and the falling away of a naïve privileging of self, her sense of entitlement to something ‘better than’. Becoming more willingly committed to adulthood, wanting to live in the landscape of the real - no longer waiting for someone to heal something, or give me something I have long been certain I was owed.
It seems that allowing ourselves to be touched by the contours of either ‘side’ of our pivotal object relations deeply extends the capacity and wisdom of our hearts. By targeting our most rigid identifications and apparently unhealable hurts, it reaches the places in us that risk remaining untouched. (Of course, if we are lucky, there are ways that life offers us opportunities to do this naturally – but that leaves much to chance). This practice creates a bespoke and focused pathway to develop our empathy in the two directions through which it is most needed: toward the unhealed wounds that remain ‘live’ inside us, and toward those we most struggle to include in our empathy. In time, it yields a richer integration of the full range of our humanity, bringing forth a deepening respect for the integrity and separateness of others, while loosening our most rigid relational patterns and identities, and expanding our capacity to love.
Appendix: Relational wounds and attachment scars
the fruition of becoming a fully developed person is the capacity to engage in I-Thou relatedness with others. This means risking being fully open and transparent with others, while appreciating and taking an interest in what they are experiencing and how they are different from oneself. This capacity for open expressiveness and deep attunement is very rare in this world. It’s especially difficult if you are relationally wounded.
I want to highlight why I feel this approach may be particularly nourishing for the relationally wounded and insecurely attached. As we know, insecure or preoccupied attachment radically disrupts our capacity to stay in contact with ourselves, especially in relation to others. We are far more prone to collapse time and space prematurely by attempting to ‘regain’ the good will of others; and we also struggle to see others outside the lens of our own needs and hopes.
As I worked with this approach, it became increasingly clear that much of its potency is that it helps us develop a relational rhythm closer to that of the secure child. Essentially, it offers us a way of processing experience that replicates the rhythm and conditions of a secure childhood, and by inviting a balance in our care for self and other, begins to alter life-long patterns of self-absorption and self-abandonment.
Below I identify three strands in the habits of the insecurely attached, and afterward clarify how each is softened by this approach, which offers us support in accustoming ourselves to a new rhythm and balance.
1. Premature resolution - our haste to regain ‘connection’
When we are compromised in our inner rhythms, something precious and sacred gets badly damaged: the development of a true I:Thou capacity with others, and the space for love, communication and acceptance amidst difference, conflict and disappointment.
Instead we are inclined to deny conflict or difference and rush to regain connection. To ‘know’ we feel bad may seem catastrophic, because it threatens to jeopardise our already-too-fragile attachments. We disavow impacts and hurts for the sake of staying ‘close’. At times we may be inwardly reeling in shock, dismay, or disappointment, yet unwilling to feel it, because at a more primitive level, we need the contact back. Like the baby we once were, we are trying to get back to ‘us’. But the ‘us’ we return to when we return too fast, is not a true I:Thou space, but one clouded with need, anxiety and compromise.
Because we are so essentially insecure, we cannot trust that another will ‘come back’ to us from difficult moments. Instead, we sense a bond breaking. And this is terrifying. So we are always checking and always trying – checking the other is there; trying to secure connection. We need to learn to withdraw – in a healthy sense – to temporarily abandon our ‘primary concern’ for the other, in order to know what has happened inside us. When we take up the invitation in this practice to make room for ourselves, to attend more fully to our insides, we are discovering time and space.
2. A ‘gift’ for attunement
Another thread in the experience of the insecurely attached is our ‘gift’ for attunement. This uncanny sensitivity often looks like empathy and may even seem mature, but its origins often lie in a hyper-vigilance that has never settled. We could say that we are both other-preoccupied and fundamentally self-involved: our ‘empathy’ reflects a fear system trying to regulate, rather than a heart spaciously opened. We know how to bond by abandoning ourselves, but not how to bond from ourselves, with room for two of us.
Those of us built like this may find in the presence of others, we are available to feel with in a generous and often sensitive way. Yet ‘thinking about’ the other in their absence, solely on their behalf, is a weaker function. Instead, in the aftermath of contact, we are generally trying to reclaim our body and mind as our own, to recover and take stock, to organise what has ‘happened’ to us.
What does a more mature empathy look like? It does not leave the self-behind, is not fueled by fear, and is cognitive and reflective as well as instinctual. Mature, secure selves do not continually need to prove their value or secure their attachment to others. They are free to love and understand from differentiation and a more spacious inner rhythm.
3. ‘There is only room for one’ - the demand for self-abandonment
It may seem strange that we often act as if truly considering others must involve overriding ourselves. But there is history in this error, in how we have been related to and the conclusions we have drawn from it. For some of us, this will have been demanded of us as children, by parents who failed to see that our inner lives were as real as their own. They cannot support our subjectivity, because they are too compelled by their own. And so we learn that “there’s only room for one” (Wallin, 2007: 111), for one person’s view to be right, one person’s feelings to be relevant, for one person’s voice to be heard. And we learn that this one is not us.
When we are asked too young to abandon our own minds and hearts and take on the truths of another, a fundamental break occurs in our relational self-trust. We learn to disappear. If this demand is consistent, we get used to feeling invisible and learn to neglect ourselves as the most successful way to bond. Closeness is founded on self-contortion and this creates a dangerous, damaging precedent.
Meanwhile, our true self is paralysed, held back, isolated and alone. This true self accumulates a host of denied needs that will come back to haunt us; the need to be seen, to be attended to, to be heard, to be known, to be treated fairly, at times to be the only one who matters.
It is catastrophic for any child to learn that the price of being connected is self-abandonment. Yet, unintentionally, this learning occurs in many lives, leaving us with an apparent capacity and sensitivity to others which has its foundations in self-abandonment and relational pain.
Negative Capability, that is when a man [sic] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
John Keats (Keats, 1817)
We have identified three strands in the habits of the insecurely attached: a haste to reconnect before we are ready; a tendency to intuit and prioritise the emotional states of others; a relational habit of self-abandonment. All are catastrophic for our ability to relate with ease and integrity, and to develop mutually nourishing relationships in which we can mature.
When we use the rhythm of reflection offered by this practice to temporarily withdraw, to host our own hurt, we develop a relational version of Keats’ beautiful articulation of “negative capability”. We train ourselves to get used to the luxury of space, to the absence of pressure and urgency, and find that there is room for ourselves. All this invites us to embody a slower, softer rhythm of processing our experience, and to learn that temporary withdrawal need not destroy our bonds, and indeed, may deepen them.
This discovery of space – for separation, differentiation, digestion - is a radical and transformative gift to those of us who have never known it was there. Life waits. For us. Not always, but enough to alter our foundations. Inside us, when this happens, we may sense a quiet miracle.
I wrote this piece just before travelling to Israel and Palestine in May of 2018 for a group trauma training with Thomas Hubl. While there I had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary activists who continue to undertake deep inner transformation as they engage with the tragic and often desperate pressures of the political situation there. Their exceptional capacity for emotional and psychological openness under such conditions made a deep impression on those of us who spent time with them, and for me, echoes the themes and capacities I write about here. I’ll end with a quote from one of those I met - Ali Abu Awaad, who has lived through torture, imprisonment, hunger strike and the murder of his brother:
But I also realised it was essential to create a national Palestinian non-violent movement that would ensure two things: that we could resist occupation non-violently, but that we would stop being victims and begging others to help us. I believe this first step has to come from us. This doesn’t mean Israel isn’t guilty or that we are angels. But we have to create a place where we will no longer be prisoners of the anger that this situation creates every day. We must escape the prison of our narrative...
Awaad, Ali Abu, interview by Fathom deputy editor Calev Ben-Dor retrieved May 14, 2018, from http://fathomjournal.org/we-are-weak-because-there-is-no-palestinian-non-violent-movement/
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Welwood, J. (2011). On Spiritual Bypassing, Relationship, and the Dharma, an interview with John Welwood. Interview by Tina Fossella. Retrieved May 14, 2018 from http://www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.doc
Emma Philbin Bowman works as a psychotherapist, writer, teacher and workshop facilitator. She is a long-time practitioner of meditation, and more recently a student of The Diamond Approach, and of contemporary mystic Thomas Hubl. Through this work, which blends psychological and spiritual practices, she is deeply interested in the healing and transformative potential of relational inquiry. In 2018, she was one of five Irish graduates of Thomas Hubl’s Pocket Project Training in working with Collective Trauma. firstname.lastname@example.org, emmapb.com