When my daughter Ruthie Lua was a child, she used to get the most awful headaches. Headaches which made her throw up with pain, and which could last sometimes for days. I was worried sick and tried all kinds of things to help her. I took her to the doctor. I spent a small fortune on cranial osteopathy, homeopathy, kinesiology, acupuncture and guidance from medical psychics. I tried cutting wheat, sugar, dairy and chocolate out of her diet. I fretted, and secretly feared that she must have some kind of tumor. When I gave her painkillers they seem to have no effect at all. I would massage her and try to talk her through meditations in which she could be supported to be kind and soften around the pain, and focus on other parts of her body.
But the thing I found most difficult was to open to the fact that I simply didn’t know what to do. I found it difficult to just be with her and love her whilst not knowing what to do. Surely there must be something I could do, or someone I could think of who could help. And I believe that what she most needed was my loving presence with her; she needed to know that I was ok with her being as she was, and that I could simply be with her and love her; she needed to know that it was not her fault and that she was not a problem to be solved by me; fundamentally she needed to relax, and all my struggles around it were not helping.
It is probably the hardest lesson for a parent to learn: that it is ok and unavoidable that the child feels pain at times, and that the greatest act of love is not to try and take the pain away but to be there with them in their suffering, and let them know that pain hurts but it is ok to feel it. So going back to my story, I am not suggesting that I shouldn’t have sought the treatments I sought for her, but that my worrying and endlessly looking for solutions took precedence over (and actually got in the way of) my capacity to simply love her where she was.
The other ‘technique’ I practiced was to immerse myself in another persons’ suffering as if it were my own. I decided early on – and I remember it, I must have been 6 or so – that if I took on as fully as possible my half-sisters’ pain (both of whom had lost their mother when they were 5 years old); if I imagined my own mother dead over and over again and made myself cry every day about it, and walked around with a cloud of dread over my head, that this would somehow alleviate them of the burden of having to carry it alone. Basically I believed it would help if I took it on. I carried on believing this without ever really inspecting it for many years (and sometimes still catch myself acting as if this were so!). So, back to Ruthie and the headaches, I would sit there for a bit – and I couldn’t take it for very long – imagining I had the headache, feeling guilty that I was alright while she wasn’t, basically making myself miserable and I’m sure making things worse for her.
I did get better, over the years, at recognizing that I couldn’t take her pain away and I didn’t need to engulf myself in it as if it were my pain. That I could enjoy the relative ease of my own body whilst supporting her in the difficulty of her body. That I could allow myself to love her and be with her and trust that all things move.
These lessons have served me almost more than anything else in how I am with those who come to work with me. I regularly work with people who have suffered awful and sometimes horrific early life situations and are facing the ways in which past trauma collides with present day situations. It is my capacity to differentiate from them and yet feel them, whilst staying firmly rooted in my own body and feeling responses – and fully allowing myself to not know what to do which allows me to be with the suffering without taking it on. This place of not knowing can be a painful one, when faced with another’s pain, confusion, despair or shame – there is such a natural urge to want to help and know how to. But I have found that again and again it is my willingness to surrender to having no idea which allows ordinary and unexpected miracles to happen. Things reveal themselves, doors open, not so much because I did anything but because I was willing to do nothing and know that that was ok. And I was willing to feel – often intensely – the pain of where they were at and our shared common human predicament.
In the twenty or so years since I have been offering sessions in groups and to individuals I have also been in an on-going process of training both with my teacher of 20 years and many other teachers whose work as called to me over time; somatic experiencing trauma work, shamanic work, psychotherapeutic work, working with the voice, movement, meditation and deep presence work. But more than any techniques I have learned, what is way more profound is an increasing trust in life itself and how things unfold when I stop trying to do anything.
I find myself on a daily basis sitting with someone going through God knows what and falling into that space where there really is nothing I can do to help. And I just let myself fall. I wait. I let myself feel what I feel as I sit with them. Sometimes it is boredom or awkwardness; sometimes it is intense pain or bewilderment; sometimes it is tenderness, compassion; sometimes it is anger; or sometimes I find my mind drifting off and a kind of fogginess occurring. These days I take all of this as useful information. I let myself touch a deep respect for the fact that each life is precious and there is an honor and privilege in being included in someone’s unfolding. And then I find myself falling through the space of having no idea – out of the mind and into a wider dimension. And it is like a falling. And the fact that someone is suffering in front of me and I have no idea what to do is very touching; I feel my own impotence and let myself love that. I know that this has nothing to do with my worth. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, I can just be with who I am with. I can trust the magic which happens when two or more people gather together with a shared intention to wake up and allow life’s natural movement and inclination towards wholeness to happen.
This is what I love most. I am often awed by what comes through. And the obviousness that I am not separate from whoever I am with; that we are absolutely interconnected and what happens in you is felt in me because of that – all of this becomes palpable. And I find myself surprised by the fierceness which comes through me, or the tenderness or the hilariousness of it all. In those moments I realize that I can be as surprised by what comes out of my own mouth as I am by who I am with. And there is a simple rightness in what then happens in the alchemy of our mutual exploration.
Sometimes people come to me and it is obvious they are seeing themselves as a problem to be solved, and my job as the problem solver or the healer. That attitude never bears fruit. We are in actuality both lost and both found, and sitting in the revelation of that is what is needed. And then what is actually needed has the space to be revealed. Because there are real needs which need addressing and meeting; but what those really are is often obscured.
If I do ever fall into the trap of thinking that I am the one who is sorted and the person or people in front of me are the ones who need sorting (and many people will attempt to perpetuate that fallacy with me, so it can be tempting to believe it), it goes tits up. It is increasingly obvious to me that who I am with is an extraordinary mirror to me – in their wounds and their gifts; in their magnificence and their small mindedness and self obsession; in their addictive and habitual tendencies and in their quirky originality. Not that we are the same – we are wonderfully different in fact – but in all of that distortion and glory there is a remarkable shared humanness. And I find that we are way more like each other than I ever realized before.
I am not sure if I have remembered this completely accurately, but someone once told me about the origins of modern day Ho’oponopono. Ho’oponopono is a Hawaiian forgiveness practice based on the words I love you, I am sorry, Please Forgive me, Thank You. I was told that there was a psychiatric hospital somewhere which was famous for its extremely high staff turnover rate. The nurses and therapists working there would leave after few weeks suffering from anxiety, stress and nervous exhaustion. The patients were people diagnosed with incurable and severe mental illnesses most of whom would be stuck there for life. Then one day a new director was hired and after a few months the change was radical. The staff were happy and had no reason to leave; the patients were not only stabilizing, but in many cases improving dramatically. One day, a stunned relative asked the director what his secret was. He answered something like – “It is simple. I sit with each patient, sometimes not even face to face. I tune into their condition and I allow myself to acknowledge and feel the ways in which I am similar to them. There is always, if I go deep enough, a place I recognize in myself which is like that. I let myself feel the remorse for not having been able to address this in myself. I then ask them to forgive me for the ways that my unconsciousness is contributing to them being in the condition they are in. And at that point I am ready to thank them for helping me see and heal myself. And in this open acknowledgement of our sameness, even though we are different, miracles happen.”
Of course this is advanced stuff. To be able to do this in absolute integrity because it is real to do so, rather than as a prescribed formula picked up somewhere, takes mastery. But the principle is profound, and can be increasingly lived if there is the interest, maturity and capacity to do so.
I believe one of the biggest factors which prevent us being able to get beyond old wounds and open up to our potential, is both our identification with and shame around having those wounds, and being run by the behaviors borne of them. If, as a healer, guide or therapist, I am genuinely not holding myself superior or beyond any of what the person in front of me is bringing to be explored – this goes a long way towards dissolving the shame and lessening the identification. It is not by any means an instant panacea. But in my view it is an essential element if the process is to be effective. And here I am speaking about the ‘process of presence’, or what I think Jesus meant when he said “When two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them…”
When I – with my worries, my fears, my need for self aggrandizement, my need for solutions, my pity and my judgments – attempt to guide and support someone, I become part of the difficulty they may be facing and I can compound it unwittingly however good my conscious intentions. But if I step out of the way and allow myself to fall into the empty space where you and I are not separate; where there is only a shared humanity and no idea what to do; and if I can allow a presence which is intrinsically mysterious, compassionate, humorous and intelligent by turns if not simultaneously – and includes both or all of us – then Life itself can do the work it loves to do. Which is, it seems to me, to be born, to do what it can to optimize its chances to grow, to blossom, thrive and then let go into death when it is ready.