Churning in the Charnel Ground: Dancing with the Victim/Critic Paradigm and the Emergent
High in the Alps during this last month of July, I did a lot of thinking. With the enormous mountains as my container, I felt held by their massive existence, which became a resource for me. The glaciers were melting for the summer, the streams gushing down the sides of the rocky landscape, the flowers particularly magnificent. Our landscape (both internally and externally) shapes us and it becomes a tool for awareness, if we use it consciously and metaphorically.
And I did. I danced with the rocks, the trees, the tall grasses, the lichen and the gentle breezes. I took my steps gingerly, noticing the way I placed my feet on the earth, step by step. This awareness of landscape as metaphor started, however, months before at the Tamalpa Institute’s Mountain Home Studio during one of my class sessions. I had the realization that the way I was working with the studio floor, walls, and ceiling, were part of my dance- they effected my every move- and I was working with them and even against them in my dance. There they were: Surfaces, landscape. And I was being effected by them and as a result of them. (There’s some pretty compelling neuroscience behind this reality). Our environment shapes us, informs our existence.
Several weeks later in Paris, while taking a workshop with movement therapist, G. Hoffman Soto at Canal Danse Studio, he asked us to use space as "the third". The third is everywhere. It is referred to as “the emergent” in Expressive Art Therapy and also this reality of “the third” appears consistently in the Vedic literature and throughout the Vedic knowledge. (As a result of some pretty big revelations over the last month, my Masters thesis will be about the intersection of these two bodies of work and how “the third” is involved).
This idea of the third has been turning up a lot in my life lately too. Several months ago, I went to my shaman and mentor for a session. I was having a lot of awareness come to me about my victim. She was really getting in the way of my personal progress and fulfillment and it was time to create a shift beyond just conscious awareness, something within my energetic body as well. This session was the beginning of much excavation, uncovering and honesty with my self and some real confrontation of very long-standing mental/emotional habits. My victim was really running my life and I’d not been in right relationship with her. My shaman told me that I was not in “right relationship with the destructive/chaos energy in my life” which both angered me and startled me. (Clue #1).
I will skip over the volumes of personal details that created ripe ground for said victim to flourish. Suffice it to say, there have been ample stories that helped her thrive, and there wasn’t much of an incentive for her to go away up until recently. But much has come of my victim self-awareness since then. And because the victim/perpetrator/savior is so engrained in our culture (almost all cultures historically) it is a story line I prefer to work with, rather than against. We could almost call this paradigm the “holy trinity” of westerncentric psychology. That said, there is no use in denying the existence of this storyline, nor ignoring it, or even wishing it would go away. It’s here. So let’s work with it.
Enter the victim and my inner landscape. The victim is not just a victim. The victim can only be a victim if there is a perpetrator. And every victim needs a savior- eventually. We don’t like to hear this, especially in this era of victimhood and superheroes, of actualized good guys and bad guys. This is the post-modern era of psychotherapy where the therapy often re-enforces the paradigm of victimhood more times than not. (The risk is that victimhood becomes an identity, one that is difficult to shift out of, and away from). This paradigm of victimhood has a long legacy and I could write volumes on it (as many have), but for the purpose of this article, I will stick to the interpersonal dynamics- the consciousness within, the inner landscape if you will- rather then external expressions of this paradigm.
As with the majority of my work, it is the interpersonal I am most concerned with and nuanced with. And I’ve noticed that my own victim is here to stay, and she is hugging my inner child, that little girl who didn’t get all her needs met, quite intimately. So they have this dance together. A dance that includes a tradition of stepping around and with the inner critic- that part of me that is never good enough, never can be, nor will be. Then it became clear to me recently how these two entities work together so epically. And they are so good at what they do.
They need each other- the victim and the critic. They work together. A victim is used to not being enough- not good enough, safe enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, etc. A victim is used to being held down, suppressed, unable to move forward. The victim has been dealing incessantly with the perpetrator of this oppression. Yet we perpetuate this paradigm for ourselves and with ourselves (often because of learned behaviors from familial lineage and/or our environment/social/cultural conditioning) until it becomes our experienced reality.
The critic can be called “the perpetrator” because our critic keeps us in a reactive state. The critic also keeps us in a binary thinking pattern where life becomes enough or not enough. Where we become enough or not enough as a result, creating an experience of being a victim of life and our circumstances, our thinking patterns, emotions etc. The binary state always creates a winner and a loser, happiness or sadness, success or failure. The victim responds to the critic with a need for being “saved,” needing a superhero to bring extra praise, acceptance, healing, wholeness etc. The victim is thus locked into a perpetual state of constant attack from the self. This is a self-perpetuating cycle whereby the critic is able to “attack” the victim with its judgment and the victim remains in a state of “not being good enough.” And the dance continues...
This paradigm between victim and critic continues to create storm energy internally/externally. The mental/emotional storm can become a powerful oppressive force in and of itself, one that is very challenging to extract ones self from. So the dance continues between victim and critic, until, and if, the third arises. What are the possibilities for “the third” here? A force that brings more of the same, or one that offers something different? Perhaps a shift happens, or a resource arises? Perhaps awareness alone, becomes "the third", a new emergent energy?
Like with most psychological phenomenon, I look to the cosmos, to see how we are influenced. I study Jyotish charts to see examples of these modern theories and their effects on life. I’m particularly interested in the mental/emotional experience of individuals and how these experiences and paradigms, both cosmically, and in life, take hold. How do they show up in our life map, our Jyotish chart?
Though there are unlimited possibilities when it comes to the planets, Jyotish is a science of patterns, energies, movements and relationships. We can note Saturn’s influence on the chart to show where the critic shows up. His gaze will give anxiety, worry and turmoil to the mind/thoughts (Mercury) and to the intellect/emotions (Moon). Rahu can bring avoidance, lack of awareness, nervous disorders, extreme binary thinking and emotional behaviors. He can show us what we are refusing to see effectively. Rahu’s effects on the chart overall can show where the karmas are ripe for mental/emotional disturbances. Ketu will remove the obstacles presented on the path to self realization, but usually will not do so with out hardship of some sort- particularly mental confusion and psychic disturbances.
For example if Saturn is the critic, Rahu might show what is being shadowed or hidden from our conscious awareness. Ketu will give the terror of “losing” our control over the matter or the fears over ripping off of the veils of illusion. These three planets are famous for creating storm energy and often they like to play with Mars in order for a bit of anger and fire to be thrown into the mix!
This mental/emotional storm energy is one of the many metaphors for the Vedic story of the churning of the ocean of milk which involves our good thoughts (devas) and our bad thoughts (asuras) as well as the shadowed aspects of our consciousness, Rahu and Ketu. The devas decided to churn the ocean of milk, but they had to have help from the asuras in order to churn the ocean, they couldn’t do it alone. (It’s good to remember that both “good” and “bad” played a part in the extraction of the Amrta, the immortal nectar). It was through this great, epic churning, and with the help of a mountain, a snake, and a turtle, as well as the great turmoil that arose, that Rahu and Ketu came to exist- the shadow parts of ourselves. And yet, out of all of this chaos, great consciousness and awareness was created as a result.
The churning represents our karma, and yet it is also a metaphor for the internal storm between the mental/emotional bodies. The mountain and the snake are indications of the consciousness, the transcendent/kundalini and the awareness that comes through Saturn’s hard work and suffering. Saturn is the grounding force, the structure, the container that enables us to burn off our karmas. Our progress comes when we commit to the process with deep surrender, take conscious action, through transcendence/meditation and sadhana, creative alchemy and confronting “what is” with the least amount of judgment possible.
I’ve realized within the last few months some new sense of what my shaman meant by “right relationship” with the chaos and destruction ever present within ourselves and our lives. Kali (goddess of time and chaos) as well as Shiva (god of destruction and silence) are intimate parts of our internal and external existence. There can be, and must be, an adjustment to and with the inevitable storms, but it doesn’t have to destroy us entirely. It can be done with conscious awareness. Allowing what is to be.
I believe this to be the “emergent third” that arises from the churning. The transcendence and transformation that is inevitable, yet the way in which we go about our metamorphosis can be informed or uninformed, passive or aggressive. I prefer mine to be compassionately informed. I believe I have relaxed more into the inevitable chaos and turmoil that is life at this point. Not that I won’t have reactions to what life brings to me, but that when I do, I can be ok with my response and be consciously informed of my reaction. I trust my self and my response, even when the going gets rough. I see chaos as a part of the wholeness, the container that holds us and shapes us in life. We need both, we are both. They are actually one and the same.
As Steven K. Levine explains in his book Trauma, Tragedy and Therapy: The Arts and Human Suffering, cultivating a relationship with ‘productive chaos’ can help us come to terms with our innate fragmentation. When we embrace the chaos of trauma without the need to expel it from our beings, to embrace it, rather than to escape it, we have the opportunity to find a sense of wholeness in its midst. The Expressive Arts can be a tool that can further our awareness of this “embracing.”
“In expressive art therapy, therefore, the body speaks, dances sings and enacts scenes not in order to deny its fragmentation but to reveal it. Such revelation is also a transformation, a gathering up of the disjointed parts into a unity of signification. This unity forms what we might call a ‘fragmented totality,’ a way of being a self that neither falls apart into difference nor escapes into an idealized identity.” (p.126)
This is where I’m reminded that beyond the ancient tool of meditation and the cultivation of consciousness, we can simply create and cultivate presence. It is the creative act itself that helps us flex the muscle of finding resources- new ways to look at old problems. Using the Body-centered Expressive Art Therapy work, I’ve been involved with this creative engagement process intimately. I’m reminded that the witness, whether it is as therapist or audience, can be a powerful force, can act as the third, and can be the reminder that helps us to cultivate presence, compassion, awareness and creative resourcing. Sometimes we need a mirror and then the mirror can be the catalyst for our own inner change. Ultimately, however, we must be our own mirror.
Being a victim of life is a choice. Letting our inner chaos rule our life is in fact a choice. Sometimes its necessary to choose to enter the storm, to work with it, dance with it, create with it. It is also about choosing when to exit the suffocating storms as well. As Pema Chodron reminds us in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, the charnel ground can be a metaphor for working with “what is” rather than what we wish it to be.
“Charnel-ground practice tests our commitment to embrace the world. It expands the range of ‘just as it is’ far beyond what we find comfortable. This is a practice for facing the fullness of our life, not hiding the unacceptable, embarrassing, disagreeable parts, not favoring one kind of experience over another, not rejecting our experience when it hurts or clinging to it when it’s going our way. In the charnel ground, we meet both wretchedness and splendidness- the totality of our experience as human beings- and discover that we need both to be a genuine warrior.” (Taken from the November 2012 issue of Common Ground Magazine).
The charnel ground is perhaps the biggest metaphor for working with the landscape- both internal and external. Watching what arises and dancing with the characters that emerge here can be part of the informed churning process; victim and all.