I am returning to some of my favorite self-reflection books during these uneasy times as a way to keep centered and grounded amidst the chaos. Yoga and the Quest for the True Self was an obvious choice in the line-up as this book is filled with words of beautiful wisdom and insight. The author, Stephen Cope, integrates traditional psychology with yogic teachings as a bridge between the western and eastern worlds and our shared struggles as human beings. I highly recommend reading this book in its entirety, but for now, I would like to highlight “the twin pillars of the reality project” – clear seeing and calm abiding.
Much of my experience as a psychotherapist has been in the realm of trauma recovery. I have discovered that the process of healing includes facing the fear and pain from our past while tolerating the intense feelings those experiences conjure up. Stephen Cope would call this the ability for “clear seeing” with the support of a “calm abiding” self. Clear seeing is the awareness and acceptance of reality – the true nature of things when our delusions are broken down. We are attached to the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what happened to us and what the future holds. In trauma work, I find my clients are held back by avoiding, repressing and compensating for the disturbing reality of their pasts (which is often still playing out in the present). The pain of facing the reality of what was experienced, or even the more overwhelming conflicting beliefs and feelings those experiences create, can throw us into panic and fragmentation. People have referred to this state of being as a “nervous breakdown”, or a loss of the ability to self-regulate. The realization that we are not just our egoic selves (or the stories we create) can be destabilizing, which is where the calm abiding comes in to help.
The calm abiding is nonreactive and comforting. Often associated with the feeling one gets when safely and lovingly held by their mother or grandmother, the calm abiding has been internalized through knowing what it is like to be soothed and contained by love. It is challenging to tolerate painful truths when we do not have a part of us that knows we will still be okay. When I am beginning trauma work with my clients, I first assess and build the calm abiding self before getting into the trauma processing. This may be developed through the creation of a “Safe/Calm Place”, identifying real people or fictional characters that represent safety or compassion, or using other personalized methods that resonate with the individual. Of course, the therapeutic relationship itself ideally provides an external calm abiding for the client as an additional support and opportunity to experience what it is like to be nurtured in a relationship.
The danger in not seeing ourselves and the world clearly, is that the truth will be haunting us in subtle and obvious ways making it impossible to live a more meaningful, authentic life. But if we move too fast to uncover truth without access to sufficient love and containment, then we will freefall into the abyss with nothing to grab a hold of.