The Problem With Disney’s Frozen: Being a Savvy Counselor in an Emotionally Complex World

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Greetings all!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve got a lot of new and exciting things to write about, so bear with me while I get them all posted.

For today, I’ll be talking about that wonder of mystical wonders, the recent and (purportedly) feminist icon of a film, Frozen. Now, I fully realize I’m probably stepping on quite a number of frosty toes here, so before you barrage me with indignance, allow me to explain. There are quite a number of well-written articles on why Frozen isn’t as feminist as it appears at first glance, but discussing the relative feminism of Frozen is not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about counseling.

So what does Frozen have to do with Counseling? Well, quite a lot actually. Frozen is a story about two girls who experience some pretty intense and damaging things in their lives (the death of their parents, Elsa’s realization that she’s a danger to herself and others, and Anna’s loss of her sister, just for starters). While I don’t anticipate encountering any ice queens in my office, issues like these can cause some pretty big difficulties in a young girl’s life. So it’s actually quite likely that people like Elsa and Anna will end up in our offices sooner or later. It can become easy to get caught up in the “magic” when Disney movies start to play, so I’ll break down the movie into (not-fully-comprehensive-but-good-enough) bullet points for you, along with the emotional allegory that the movie implies, from my point of view as a counselor:

  • Elsa discovers that she has magical ice powers (Elsa discovers that she sometimes has strong feelings)
  • Elsa accidentally hurts her sister with her ice powers (Elsa expresses her feelings in a way that is hurtful to Anna)
  • Elsa and Anna are taken to some trolls, who tell Elsa that she is very dangerous, that she almost killed her sister, that she’ll need to conceal her powers from now on, and that Anna’s memory will have to be erased (Elsa is told that it is not okay for her to have these feelings and express them, and the fact that she has these feelings is glossed over and not talked about or acknowledged)
  • Elsa is hidden away inside the castle, and her sister is forbidden from seeing her (Elsa is required to keep her feelings hidden so that everyone else will be okay, and her sister isn’t allowed to see that Elsa has these feelings)
  • Elsa’s and Anna’s parents die unexpectedly, and Elsa has to become queen and somehow not freeze the land she’s ruling (suddenly, Elsa is an adult and, even though her parents aren’t around to reinforce the message that she can’t have strong feelings, she still believes she can’t have them and that pushing them down will protect people)
  • Elsa freezes the land she’s ruling (Elsa slips up and lets her strong emotions out, and people respond by rejecting her, just as she’d feared they would)
  • Elsa runs away, builds a snow castle, and sings “Let It Go” (Elsa decides she’s tired of living according to others’ rules, and embraces her feelings…sort of…we’ll get back to this.)
  • Anna shows up and tells Elsa that everything is frozen, and Elsa gets very upset because she’s hurt everyone after all (Anna tells Elsa that her emotional outburst hurt people, and Elsa feels despair because she feels guilt for having hurt people)
  • Elsa sends a snow beast after Anna (Elsa’s guilt and anger lead her to lash out at her sister)
  • Elsa is captured and brought back to the castle as a prisoner (people label Elsa as emotionally unstable, and therefore someone who needs to be put in her place, because of her emotional outbursts)
  • Elsa escapes and tries to fix things, but ends up stabbing an ice spear through her sister’s heart (Elsa tries to make it better, but learns that she doesn’t know how to reverse the damage that her emotional outbursts have caused)
  • Elsa figures out that love is what will thaw the ice and save her sister (the way to heal the damage caused by strong emotional outbursts is through love)

With me so far?  Yes, I’ve left pieces of this out, and yes I’ve focused mostly on Elsa, but it will make sense shortly.

This sounds like a nice narrative…until you realize that it’s not real.  You may be saying, “well of course it’s not, it’s a Disney movie.”  But once again, bear with me.

Let me boil down this story a bit:

A girl is shamed for her feelings, and sanctioned for even the smallest display of anger, or similarly strong and “negative” emotions.  She is taught to hide her feelings, fear her feelings, and fear herself. She is forbidden from ever displaying these feelings by all of the authority figures in her life.  She never learns to feel things in a healthy way, and instead bottles them up inside, hiding from people and trying to be perfect.  And then, suddenly, her parents die and she is expected to take over all of the responsibilities of being an adult.  All of her life she has been told how to behave, how to feel, and now there is nobody around to tell her anything anymore.  But she still has this pressure to be perfect, to never feel “negative” emotions, and especially not to express them. 

Sounds horrible right?  Sounds like a great reason to seek therapy.  But the story continues:

The girl gets angry at someone, and everyone sees it.  They shame her too, just like her parents did.  She can’t handle her “failure,” and runs away, trying to get away from the pressure.  When she’s gained some distance, it gets worse.

Have you ever stopped to listen to the lyrics of “Let it Go”…?  The song contains choice phrases, such as:

  • “No right, no wrong, no rules for me”
  • “You’ll never see me cry”
  • “The past is in the past”
  • (and my personal favorite): “The cold never bothered me anyway”

Alright, now let’s all put our therapist hats on.  You have a client that comes into your office and says that she was shamed and silenced her whole life, that her parents just died, that she is completely estranged from her only living relative, that she has no friends, everyone she knows hates her, that she’s hurt everyone she’s ever been close to, and that now she’s completely self-isolating with no intention of ever building up a social life again.  And she’s saying things like “you’ll never see me cry,” “the past is in the past,” “there’s no right or wrong,” and “[strong feelings] never bothered me anyway.”

I don’t know about you all, but I would be looking into a long future of slowly working with this client through the process of uncovering the grief, the anger, the pain, the guilt, the shame, and the realization that she had never really been given a chance to be a healthy, happy person.

But this isn’t what happens at all.  Elsa doesn’t sit in her ice castle and grieve.  She doesn’t feel her feelings.  She suppresses them.  “The cold never bothered me anyway.”  It’s all right there.  Her whole life has been a spiral of shame surrounding her ice powers (feelings) and now she’s saying that her powers (her feelings) never bothered her anyway.  That’s pretty classic denial if you ask me.

I’d love to say that the movie gets better after this…but it really doesn’t.  Elsa realizes that her feeling still exist (snow beast) and is then forced to confront the people whose town she froze (whose feelings she hurt).  And when it seems like all hope is lost, she figures out what will undo all those years of neglect, shame, and bottled-up emotions.

Love.

….Really?  Love?  Aren’t we missing something?  Or maybe, several somethings? 

Here’s the real problem with frozen.  Up until this point, I think it could have been salvageable.  But instead of Elsa realizing that she needs to feel her feelings, feel her anger, feel her loneliness, feel her guilt and grief and sadness and pain, Elsa feels love.  And love makes all the other feelings go away.

Which, once again, is some pretty classic denial.

Because you can’t just love away anger.  You can’t love away what some would call abusive parenting, and what would almost certainly cause major childhood-attachment issues.  You can’t love away everyone you’ve ever known shaming you for your feelings.  It doesn’t work.

You know those kung-fu movies where the kid who has never practiced a martial art becomes a master in the span of a few intensely-filmed training shots that last about two minutes of real time?  I think this is what we sometimes expect in therapy.  It’s a nice thought—it would be great if we could bring clients into our offices, teach them to love (themselves, others, the world, whatever) and send them out beaming.  But therapy doesn’t work that way, and neither does real life.  We can’t move through the healing process if we skip all the middle steps.  We can’t learn to love ourselves and others if we try to jump there directly from crippling shame and guilt.  We have to realize what our feelings are, what caused them.  We usually have to get angry about them (and this process definitely isn’t a hurried one).  We have to feel sadness over the loss of the nurturing and support we were never given.  We have to learn to find resolution through our tears and our pounding fists and our despair.  We have to touch those wounded places in ourselves and, slowly, stitch the jagged edges closed again.  And we will always have scars.  Only then can we start moving on to love—love of ourselves, of our families, of those who hurt us.

Love doesn’t heal all.  Love is what waits for us when we’ve healed.  Because it’s the process of going through all the painful, messy, horrible steps that allows us to love ourselves, to have compassion for ourselves.

So why is this relevant to counselors (particularly to Naropa counselors, I might add)?  Because we so very want it to be a true story.  We want to jump from shame to love.  We don’t want the messy steps.  As counselors, we’re trained to know that we have to go through the messy steps.  But our clients aren’t taught this.  It’s our job to gently let them down into that realization, and support them when they get there.

I’ve heard a lot of therapist friends of mine espousing about the wonders of Frozen.  And sure, it has its good points.  But I think a lot of them missed this.  Even therapists want to believe in the healing powers of love.  And it’s true that our compassion and empathy for our clients can be tremendously healing.  But that doesn’t prevent the messy parts of healing.  It just makes them more bearable.

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Finding Your Battery: How to Recharge When Energy is Low

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The spring semester of my second year in Naropa University’s Transpersonal Counseling Psychology program has come to a close, which means that I finally have some time to sleep in and finish all those little projects I’ve been putting off for the last several months.  Having all this free time has made me think about the ways that I spend my time, particularly when I don’t have much of it.  And it’s also highlighted for me the importance of spending that time on self-care, which I’ve decided I’m actually quite good at.

For those of you who know me, this may seem a very funny statement.  For those of you who don’t, let me explain.

Have you ever met one of those people who are so busy that you don’t know how they managed to maintain any sort of social life, or have any fun, much less focus on self-care?  Well, I am one of those people.  And while it is true that I do tend to be very busy, I actually do find the time to take care of myself.   Admittedly, part of it comes down to the fact that I’m fairly high-energy anyway.  But a big part of how I am able to accomplish so much and be so busy without burning out is that I’ve figured out ways that I can effectively “recharge.”

Learning how to recharge is one something I frequently discuss with my coaching students, as it seems that many of us were never taught how to do that.  Part of this could be due to our culture of busyness, in which taking two weeks off per year is supposed to provide all of the rest and relaxation one could possibly need.  Not a lot of value is placed on really taking care of ourselves, and very little information is available on how to do this.  There are definitely many books on how to feel “at peace,” or how to increase one’s energy through exercise, for example.  But there seems to be a common assumption that self-care looks exactly the same for all people.  At Naropa, people tend to conceptualize self-care as involving alone-time, rest, and maybe yoga or some other type of physical activity.  I suspect that these things can be very helpful for many people, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that they are not, but I’d like to suggest the possibility that the correct method for taking care of oneself cannot be prescribed by another person, and definitely isn’t one-size-fits-all.

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This gets to the heart of what I’m talking about.  I agree that self-care is very important, and that if we don’t take care of ourselves we won’t be useful to anyone, least of all our future clients.  But trying to force ourselves to go sit alone in nature when we really want to be dancing to dub step won’t get us very far.  Every person needs different kinds of self-care, and I sometimes think that not enough attention is given to encouraging people to take care of themselves and the way that actually makes sense for them.

I think that, too often, we have a default way of spending our time, and that we don’t stop to consider whether our “free time” actually feels like a break.  Often, I think we get stuck in habitual ways of spending our time.  This may be watching Netflix, or doing chores, or browsing the Internet.  And while those could feel recharging for some people, they could also just be a distraction to keep us from noticing how exhausted we are.  When we get to the end of that time, we may not feel any less exhausted, and it may seem like our “break” wasn’t really worthwhile.  This seems common among people who work a lot, and who are tired a lot, which is unfortunately typical for grad students.

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So if this sounds like you, maybe stop and pay attention to the way you feel *after* you do the things you do in your spare time, and don’t be so concerned if those things are typically labeled as “work” or “fun.”  It could be helpful to keep a journal, or to record in some other way how you feel after doing certain things for a couple of weeks.  The results may surprise you.  I discovered that one of the best ways I can recharge is by cooking.  I also discovered that while spending time alone doing artwork is enjoyable for me, it’s very hard for me to do a unless I already feeling energized.  And I figured out that lounging by myself in a bubble bath listening to nice music and “relaxing” is actually strangely draining, and doesn’t do much for my energy levels.   I know people who feel energized and ready to meet the day after cleaning the house, or after going for a run, or even after getting into lively debates with their friends.

The whole reason we’re in this program, or any grad program for that matter, is because we have found something that we want to do with our lives.  But we can’t expect these things to sustain us when they are also our chief sources of stress, work, and worry.  For that, we need self-care, and in order to take care of ourselves we need to figure out what we actually need to feel energized.

Wake Up: This is Naropa, and You’re Missing It.

I wanted to start this post by saying “I’m sorry, this is a departure from my other posts” and other things.  But you know what?  I’m not sorry.  This needs to be said.

In the past few weeks, I have come to feel markedly less safe here at Naropa.  I don’t need people to agree with me in order to feel safe, or even to accept me necessarily, but I do need people believe in the integrity of my own experiences, even if they don’t understand where I’m coming from.  And I need to know that, if someone uses a power dynamic or a privilege against me, that someone will stand up for me if I’m feeling too ashamed, or fearful, or dissociated to do it myself.  We were taught in Helping Relationships that even if we are the “authority” on mental well-being in therapeutic relationships, our clients are the “authorities” on their own experiences.  No matter how much we understand, no matter what we learn or how long we practice or how many clients we’ve seen over the years, we will never be more of an expert on a person’s experience than that individual is.  This is because, regardless of how much we empathize, we can never actually know what it is like to be another person. 

I fully believe this.  Unfortunately, this belief does not only come from the classroom.  It comes from a long history of misunderstanding and judgment from people who did not understand me.  While I have become accustomed to this, it is a lonely and painful way to live.  I’ve outgrown most of the people I’ve loved.  I’ve stood up for my beliefs, even when they were different than everyone else’s.  I’ve been ignored, teased, threatened, and even physically attacked for disagreeing.  I’ve had to quit jobs, withdraw from classes, and seek out resources for myself because nobody offered any.  I’ve had to advocate for myself quite a bit, and while I suppose I never really expect this to end, I had hoped that maybe I wouldn’t need to do this quite so much at Naropa.  Unfortunately, I’ve found the opposite to be true.  I’ve had to advocate for myself here, as well as for others, more than almost anywhere else I’ve been because Naropa asks us to be so incredibly vulnerable.  And while I’ve had a lot of practice advocating for myself, many others have not.  I’m starting to recognize more and more the incredible damage that can occur when vulnerability and misunderstanding are mixed.

Because that’s what we do here.  We’re vulnerable.  We break ourselves open and ooze onto the floor and hope that nobody minds the mess too much until we put ourselves back together.  And in our deepest hearts, we hope that people will understand.  Or, even if they don’t, that they’ll step up and say:

“Wow, I really have never known what it’s like to experience that.  I won’t pretend that I have…I know pretending would be meaningless, and wouldn’t help you.  It would only be to make myself feel better.  But I want you to know that I heard you.  I didn’t ignore your pain, and I’m not going to drop the ball.  I’m going to sit here with you and help you hold your fragile pieces together until you’re okay to hold them by yourself.  I’ll listen to what you have to say, really listen, and I won’t judge you for your perceived ineptness.  And I’ll help make sure this space is safe for us to do just that.”

But for all those hopes, I’ve noticed something in our classes.  I noticed that I am almost always the one who steps up when the space isn’t held.  When microaggressions happen, when people express powerful, scary things that are summarily ignored, when people express a need that the group can’t meet.  When issues of privilege and oppression come up.  When someone forgets, and slips in a prejudicial stereotype.  When someone makes an insensitive joke.  When someone’s real and honest feelings are labeled as “projections” because those feelings too scary for someone else to deal with.  When that happens, I step up.  And almost NOBODY ELSE DOES.

I routinely sit in classes of up to 45 people, who know and care for each other, who have been together through intense emotional and academic rigor, and who claim to feel deeply the suffering of their peers.  And it is ludicrous how rarely someone else steps up, ignoring the anxiety and fear of speaking the uncomfortable words that are needed to advocate for those who have been marginalized.  And every time I step up, a couple of classmates (and not just the same people over and over) come up to me after class and say, “Thank you so much for saying something, Mari.  It was totally unfair what that person was saying.” 

And I just have to wonder if what they’re really saying is “thank you for saying something, because I didn’t want to, and now I don’t have to feel guilty for not speaking up.”

There are people in this program who have experienced such withdrawal, such mass ignoring, such utter lack of support and understanding and empathy from us that they have stopped speaking about their deepest feelings altogether.

Let me repeat that: THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO FEEL SO UNSUPPORTED BY US THAT THEY HAVE STOPPED SPEAKING.

We are here to learn to be therapists.  How are we going to do that if we can’t even stand up and say something when our own classmates are marginalized???

What would you do if your therapist couldn’t handle your pain?  I know what I’d do, because I’ve had to do it with therapists who couldn’t handle my pain.  Who changed the subject automatically.  Who asked if maybe I was really dealing with some other issue, and that the issue I’d brought up was in fact just *hiding* something more important (so let’s not deal with the it please).  Who were so unable to tolerate their own anxiety that they wouldn’t let our sessions go deep even when I was ready.

You know what I did?  I left and never went back.

We can’t become good therapists if we can’t address our own problems, and most of us can’t address our own problems without a supporting relationship in which to process.  Naropa offers an opportunity the likes of which most of us will never have again.  We will probably never again have an entire community full of professionals and peers whose sole purpose is to instruct and support us in our personal and professional development in this way.  This is the best possible opportunity that we have to learn to advocate for others who are being marginalized.  And we simply cannot utilize this opportunity if someone else is always coming to our rescue.  Yes, it’s scary, and we’re afraid of confrontation, and we were yelled at as children, and we were never taught to handle anger.  So what?  Do you think our clients are going to care about that? At best you’ll lose your client.  At worst, you’ll re-traumatize them and set their healing back years.  

So think about that the next time someone says something oppressive, or microaggressive, or dismissing.  Think about that when you’re waiting for me, or one of the handful of other people who regularly step up to challenge inequities. Maybe next time, I’ll just stay silent, and see if anyone steps up.  Maybe next time, you’ll step up instead.

If I Only Had a Brain: Media Portrayal of Mental Health Professionals

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We’ve all seen them in movies and TV shows–the heady, overly critical, frumpy old therapists who look at their clients through thick spectacles and expound upon the psychological horrors that only they think plausible. They’re usually portrayed as incompetent, overly analytical, and generally out of touch with reality.

Characters such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest show a cold, remorseless approach to mental health, while others such as Sean Maguire in Goodwill Hunting display the belief that it’s expected for even good therapists to unload damaging counter transference onto their clients.  The list goes on: Dr. Thurman in Donnie Darko, Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, not to mention Anthony Hopkins’ incredibly creepy depiction of Hannibal Lecter.  The media is rampant with therapists who sleep with their clients, scream at their clients, betray their clients’ trust, even physically attack their clients.  And most of all, therapists in the media seem to have an uncanny knack for wrongly diagnosing clients, and consequently cause them countless miseries.

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Perhaps this provides people with comfortable distance from which to identify with the social fear this country seems to have of mental healthcare, but I find it rather troubling.  On the infrequent occasions that I do encounter a positive (or even accurate) depiction of a therapist in a film (such as in Lars and the Real Girl), I am reminded of how rare this sort of occurrence actually is.

So why does American media seem to hate mental health so much?

Well, to be honest, there are some good reasons for Psychology’s bad reputation.  I still find myself griping about Freud’s emphasis on sex, and shake my head at the gross ethical violations of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The field’s history is rife with unethical studies, instances of misinterpreting data to promote prejudiced views, and overall, there’s been a lot of misinformation.

Now, this is true for every field, but nobody seems to blame scientists for once believing that the earth was the center of the universe.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First of all, people care less about the effects of research on the lives of mice than their own.  But furthermore, science is all about figuring out new and better ways to understand the world and accomplish things, which the United States is all about. Psychology, until recently, basically focused on figuring out what makes the mind break.  Strengths-based approaches are fairly new, and still haven’t really caught on in the popular view.

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I guess that means we have our work cut out for us.  On the other hand, we’re also at the very forefront of a new wave of psychology.  We’re the ones who get to show people that counselling isn’t mad science, and that the therapist’s office isn’t (necessarily) a petri  dish.

What do you think?  What will it take to shift the public attitude towards mental health into the realm of the healthy, instead of the horrifying?

Women, Women, Everywhere: The Missing Men of Naropa University

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There are a lot of things you’ll notice within your first few minutes at Naropa—there’s nothing weird about wearing yoga pants for any activity here, hugs tend to go on for potentially uncomfortable lengths of time, and the school has its own vocabulary that is baffling to non-Naropans (including atypical definitions for “contemplative,” “container,” and “space,” just to name a few).  But probably the first thing that you’ll notice, particularly if you’re male, is that Naropa is dominated by women.

In fact, according to Naropa’s facts at a glance page, 61% of first year students are female, compared with the 39% who are male.  And while I couldn’t find any percentages for the TCP specifically, I suspect that the numbers are even more skewed.  Admittedly, these statistics don’t take into account individuals who do not identify as “male” or “female,” but no matter how you look at it, there are a lot of women here.  I’m sure that these figures won’t surprise anyone who’s wandered the halls for more than five minutes, but to the unknowing applicant, this may be somewhat surprising.

Furthermore, the men at Naropa seem to have a different sort of affect than many American guys.  While I don’t have any stats to back this up, my own personal observation has been that many of the men here are decidedly more connected with their emotions, more ready to engage in dialogue, and less inclined to assert the stereotypically qualities that are often associated with masculinity.

Which should be great, right?  Well, it depends who you are.  If you’re a woman, having this many other women around is probably pretty nice.  You can express your feelings with the knowledge that if someone complains about you being “too emotional,” that person is probably in the minority and will likely be socially castigated.  Plus, in the classroom, the discussions tend to be very accepting of women’s struggles in a largely patriarchal society, and acknowledgement of sexism is expected.

But what about the men?

I’ve brought up this topic to a few men outside of Naropa, and their responses have been invariably the same: “awesome.”  Yes, most non-Naropan men that I’ve talked to don’t seem to mind the idea of having two women for every man in every class (if not more).  However, the reality is not necessarily so cheery.  Because after a while, it gets tiring.

Think about it this way.  Women tend to have a sense of community.  We gravitate toward each other for support.  If a woman is crying in the bathroom, many other women will stop to see if she’s okay, and offer her a tissue.  Women chat with each other at bus stops.  When we’re clothes shopping, we can probably go up to almost any other woman and ask for her opinion about the dresses we’ve tried on, without worrying about it.  Women complement each other, help each other out, and generally look out for each other.  And when there are this many women in one place, we tend to form a pretty tight knit community.

But what about the guys?  What happens when you’re one of three men in a class of twenty five?  What happens when that class starts discussing sexism, and suddenly all of these hurt, frustrated women who have never been able to express this stuff in a safe setting let loose their stories of injustice?

Not sure? Well, what would it feel like to be the one of three women in a class of twenty five men who are discussing how angry they are at women?

No matter how you look at it, there’s bound to be some discomfort.  And this entire program is mostly women.  That means that men spend several days per week, for three to four years in a setting where they are bound to feel like an outsider at least part of the time, if not more often.  That alone would be enough to make a person’s life more difficult.

But as I said, women tend to have a sense of community that men often don’t have.  Of course, men have friends and colleagues that they get along with, and many men have female friends.  But it’s not quite the same in some ways.  Men aren’t used to looking to each other for emotional support.  Men who show vulnerability in dominant U.S. culture are often insulted and ridiculed, and sometimes just showing emotionality is considered grounds for physical violence.

I have spoken to a few men in this program, and while most of them don’t feel exactly unwelcome here, many do feel a certain degree of isolation.  This is particularly true for men who were raised in families or cultures where the “stiff upper-lip” mentality was prevalent.

Alright, so why did I choose to write a lengthy blog post about it?  Well, for two reasons.

The first reason is for the men at Naropa.  I can’t understand your experience, necessarily, but I do acknowledge it.  And I want you to know that I am choosing to be consciously aware of it as often as possible.  Please know that your presence here is important, and that I value your opinions as much as those of the women in this program.  I know it might be harder to speak up in class on gender-related issues, but I for one will always be interested in what you have to say.

The second reason is for the women here.  We need to be aware of this.  I know that we’re used to not having the privilege that men have, and that suddenly being in an institution where our sex is well-represented, both in the student body and in the faculty, can be incredibly comforting.  But please remember that not everyone here is comforted by this, and as the majority, we have a certain degree of power here.  We must use it responsibly.  I believe that it is our responsibility to keep ourselves from crowding out the men at Naropa.  So I’m asking you to let the men in your classes know that you value their opinions and their presence here.

Finally, I am interested to know more about the experiences of men here at Naropa.  Can you identify with this, or has your experience been different?  Please post your thoughts, if you feel comfortable doing so.  I am eager to hear your voice.

Making Meaning Without Religion: Ritual for the Secular



This morning, at the Nalanda Campus of Naropa, I was greeted at the door by an armed policeman in a bulletproof vest.  It wasn’t because there had been a shootout, or anything like that.  In fact, I don’t know why every entrance to the building was being monitored by armed law enforcement officials.  But I can only assume that it had something to do with the dozens of people who had arrived to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration.

That image really stuck with me.  Here was a whole community of people who had gathered together to sing, pray, and appreciate their religious community, but somehow the presence of armed force was necessary to ensure peace.  I don’t know the history behind this scenario, and perhaps it’s a new security measure in response to the recent protests in the Middle East.  But, as a secular person, it struck me to see the faith of these people who had gathered together to celebrate, despite the threat of possible violence.

As someone who was raised Orthodox Catholic, I am very familiar with ritual celebration.  In my childhood, everything from eating breakfast to celebrating Christmas involved some form of ritual.  We observed dozens of holy days that most people have never heard of, fasted before major holidays, and even seemingly simple tasks were often preceded and followed by prayers.  I think it is difficult for secular people to entirely grasp this.  It wasn’t as though every day was a holiday, but every day was special because everything in every day held meaning.  Life was full of rites of passage, which were celebrated with great enthusiasm.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I am secular.  I no longer identify with any religion, and religion itself has little appeal for me.  It’s not that I think religion is wrong; it simply does not resonate with my own spiritual experiences.  Yet, while I do not miss the religious aspects of my childhood, I do miss the ritual.  There’s something about the marking of change, progress, and growth in a communal, celebratory way that fills some deep need in me.  And in recent years, I’ve started to feel a strange anxiety over not recognizing these milestones.

So what is a secular spiritualist to do?

The largest problem that I’ve run up against is that I lack the element of community.  Having come from a religious background, and an immediate family of ten people, ritual simply doesn’t have the same meaning for me when it is performed in solitude.  But if the individuals participating in a group ritual do not actually feel a connection to its inspiration, it becomes meaningless pageantry, which feels invariably hollow.  Time after time, I’ve tried to organize some sort of ritual gathering to celebrate a life event, only to watch it morph into a meaningless night of drinking games.

And this doesn’t surprise me.  Because how can you successfully bring a group of people together to celebrate an event when the event doesn’t hold meaning for the people celebrating?  Ritual has to be personal, and celebration of events in this way must evoke some shared appreciation on an immaterial level.  Furthermore, how do you get people together who don’t just want a pageantry?  For people who were not raised in a religious context, the flashiness of ritual can have more appeal than its underlying intent, and sometimes people are more interested in the show of the thing than in the meaning behind it.  If the intent is not there, the ritual’s meaning is lost, and the felt-sense of acknowledgement is painfully absent.

Thus far, I have not been successful in figuring this out.  It’s something that I’ve been puzzling over for the past few years.  My struggle is this: what events exist in life that draw us all together, that we all care about enough to be personally invested in?  Of course, things like graduations, marriages, funerals, etc. exist, and involve a great deal of ritual.  But what about outside of these things?  What about when the seasons change, or when you have a particularly bad break-up, or when you wake up one morning and realize that your life has grown stale and you need to make a change?  Some people can, and do,  acknowledge these things by themselves.  But how do you do so as a group?  Is there any way for an entire group of people, who are not religiously affiliated, to be emotionally (and perhaps spiritually) invested in this process?  And if they can, how do you design such a ritual?  Do you design it as a group?  If the ritual is meant to be focused on one person, how are the other people incorporated?

I would love to hear from anyone who has experience with, or thoughts on, this topic.  It’s one that has been consistently in and out of my mind for a while, and I suspect I’m not the only person who has been feeling the anxiety of unacknowledged things.

In Memorial: What Does it Take to Rebuild?

Today marks the 11th anniversary of one of the most impactful U.S. experiences that has occurred during my lifetime.  It is the 11th anniversary of 9/11, the devastating event that killed nearly 3000 people and moved the nation to a collective state of shock and unity.  I’ll keep this post brief, because honestly, there isn’t much I can say.

I was a freshman in high school at the time, and knew very little about international politics or fundamentalism.  I knew that a large number of people had died, and I watched the planes hit the towers over and over again, because every classroom TV was replaying it (I lived on the west coast, so school had started already that day).  And as I watched those planes repeatedly hit the buildings, the most striking thing I remember  experiencing was my lack of surprise.

Bear with me on this.  I had grown up in a very sheltered, conservative community.  I never read the news, I didn’t watch TV, and I had only recently started attending a public school.  I didn’t yet know that the field of psychology existed, and I couldn’t have told you why the previous year’s election had been important.  Basically, I was a clueless 14 year old.  But somehow, the fact that people from halfway around the world hated our country so much that they would choose to commit an act like this was not a surprise to me.  This wasn’t because I thought the U.S. was a terrible place that deserved such a violent assault.  It was because ever since I was little, whenever I learned about American history, I learned about war.  We fought the British for independence.  Then we fought each other when the country was split on ideologies.  We fought in World War I and World War II.  We fought in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and we very nearly ended up fighting during the Cold War.  And these are just the major ones.  Every time there’s a conflict, the U.S. is there, in one form or another.  Our country has only been around for a few hundred years, and we’ve been fighting virtually this whole time.  And only one of those wars was internal.  Basically, we’ve spent our country’s entire history fighting other people.

So when I saw the attacks of a country that hated us enough to kill thousands of people, I wasn’t surprised.  Because, regardless of our motivation, and regardless of the outcome, we’ve been killing citizens of other countries for our entire country’s history, and I was honestly surprised someone hadn’t counterattacked sooner.

Which brings up an interesting point.  If war is so ingrained in our country’s history that even an oblivious 14 year old girl  can be so jaded, what can we do to break the cycle of violence?

I think there are many answers: improving education, cultivating an appreciation for nonviolence, trying to reduce the fear-based mentality that is so prevalent here…but honestly, I don’t know.  How do you change a country whose entire life has been war?  How do you change a culture that has spent so long demonizing others?  How do you implement an attitude of nonviolence, when already, just 11 years later, we’re involved in so many new wars?

What do you think?

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