The Paradox of Surrender & Trust in Spiritual and Healing Practice
The following blog post was not written by me. It was authored by Michelle, one of my LOC 1000 students. You can read about Michelle's journey to self-realization in the testimonial section. Michelle is a healer by profession, but she is also a brilliant and well-articulated writer. When she shared this article with me, I knew I had to publish this on my blog. The struggle of surrender a spiritual seeker faces on the path of enlightenment is real. Surrender means being willing to give up the idea that "you are a separate being from Divine". This is not easy because it requires you to come to terms with the fact that you are the Divine itself. This is not easy since we think the Divine is perfect while we are imperfect beings. It is easy to pray to a God rather than be one!
My friend A. recently posed a provocative question after a Sound Healing + Energy event I co-facilitated. Intuitive and savvy, A. tuned into two somewhat contradictory-seeming messages offered to the group. I emphasized the importance of listening to one’s own inner wisdom-- listening to the body, emotions, images, memories, internal communications with & from compassionate helping spirits.
I told people to throw out any concept of what was ‘supposed to’ or ‘should’ happen, to try to catch it if the mind seemed to want to go into comparison and wondering what was happening for others. Not to get lost in worrying whether to worry about offending anyone by setting boundaries, but instead to keep tuning into, and following, their own direct experience in the present moment.
My co-host’s message emphasized that we are only given what we allow, and that the best possible thing we can do is surrender to Spirit. She gently encouraged people to let go of fear or whatever might be holding them back. She invited people to push through discomfort, letting them know the different modalities we brought into the space could help release trauma. And while this release could be uncomfortable, the discomfort would confirm the healing.
My message boiled down to: listen to yourself, take care of yourself, go at your own pace, honor your own inner wisdom. Trust yourself. My co-host’s message, in similarly oversimplified form, was: listen to Spirit, don’t hold back, and let go. Surrender. Thus, A’s question: how do you trust yourself AND surrender at the same time? Where was all the caution she heard in my message coming from? Was it bad to ‘be open’ and let whatever wanted to happen, happen? Was there something to be afraid of?
Hearing A’s quite active and uncertain inner dialogue made me realize what a sticky wicket we get ourselves into when deepening into spiritual and healing practices. By nature, most of us who gravitate towards the open sea of spirituality are intuitive, so we’re picking things up all the time--but we don’t necessarily know what to make of what we’re picking up. It’s not always clear how to discern what’s safe.
We looped our friend C., then in her first year at the Barbara Brennan School of Healing (BBSH), into the conversation. She echoed that she’d had these same questions when she started BBSH. For instance, in orientation she heard that first year students weren’t supposed to do distance healings, or to work on people with severe illnesses, such as cancer. And yet, her first-year cohort was also being told to “allow the energy to move through” them. Above all, the instructors urged the first years to “follow your guidance.” C. wondered, if the energy carries wisdom and intelligence and will go where it’s supposed to go, why couldn’t 1st years work on people with severe illness? Why not do distance energy work?
The way C. articulated her doubt made me understand that for so many of us deepening our spiritual and healing practices, regardless of modality, we seem to arrive at an oft-confusing and paradoxical place. We are being invited to learn what it means to trust in something greater than ourselves, while also being told to trust ourselves to guide us as we go. Those of us who grew up in a religious tradition are often conditioned to think of the first type of trust as “faith.” For me, this idea of faith, and particularly divorcing faith from the concept I’d been force-fed in my Catholic upbringing, was both crucial, and a bit of a clusterfuck.
As if detangling trust and faith wasn’t hard enough, we’re also, simultaneously, learning to listen to, and to trust, ourselves: our bodies, our hearts, our guidance, our guts, our core being-ness. Ironically, as we begin to deepen into the process, what comes bounding up like wild stallions (or the four horsemen of the apocalypse) are darkness, fear, confusion and, if we’re lucky, awareness of our false beliefs and identifications. We start to see how different what’s actually going on is from what we’ve been conditioned to think is going on. We begin to use discernment to help us see the difference between the truth, and the distortions and habituated patterns we used to think of as real and solid and ‘us’.
So, from a simple-sounding instruction (surrender!) the question arises: what does it mean to surrender to Spirit??? Plus, for whatever reason (queue my partner who would pipe in with “control freak!”) I really struggle with the word surrender. So much so that I looked it up, and here’s what the dictionary says:
Cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority: over 140 rebels surrendered to the authorities.
• [with object] give up or hand over (a person, right, or possession), typically on compulsion or demand: in 1815 Denmark surrendered Norway to Sweden | they refused to surrender their weapons.
• [with object] (in a sports contest) lose (a point, game, or advantage): she surrendered only twenty games in her five qualifying matches.
• (surrender to) abandon oneself entirely to (a powerful emotion or influence); give in to: he was surprised that Miriam should surrender to this sort of jealousy | he surrendered himself to the mood of the hills.
• [with object] (of an insured person) cancel (a life insurance policy) and receive back a proportion of the premiums paid.
As a social worker, I think language matters. For instance, let’s not use the word “commit” with suicide, as we associate this word with criminal wrongdoing. Therefore, as I read the above definitions of surrender, I give myself a pass for the unpleasant taste the word surrender leaves in my mouth. Cease resistance to an enemy? Submit to authority? Lose? Abandon oneself? Give in? War, sports, and insurance?! It makes sense that my fierce warrior parts get stunk up about this type of surrender.
Given ‘surrender’’s lack of appeal , I’m not surprised that I always choose the “trust yourself!” option. But even I will admit that once we start to expose the grand spin campaign we’ve got going on internally, what we mean by trusting ourselves becomes almost absurdly complex.
Further muddying the waters is the relationship between trust + surrender. If I trust you, it’s pretty easy to surrender to you. If I think that surrendering to you means flinging myself off a cliff to my (early and gory) death, I’m gonna be hanging on pretty damn tight to the cliffside. But what allows me to develop and cultivate trust? If I don’t start off predisposed to trust (perhaps because I haven’t had many experiences of secure, nurturing attachment relationships) how do I develop trust?
As a trauma therapist, this whole theme makes me think about what I’m always telling my clients. Namely, as we start getting into trauma treatment, we have two equal and opposite enemies of healing. On one side of things, we have avoidance. The very nature of trauma means that the system will pretty quickly come up with all kinds of genius avoidance strategies NOT to feel the aversive feelings that threaten to flood the system if we touch into anything connected to the original trauma. So if I was attacked by a dog, I’m instinctually going to avoid encounters with a dog. This is great, and works well, in the short term. In the long term, I probably can’t find a way to live in a world where I never encounter dogs.
And if I don’t have the exposure to dogs who don’t attack me, or the experience of having a regulated nervous system when a dog is around, in the long term when I encounter a dog my anxiety will be sky high. Even if the dog in the present moment isn’t a threat, the physiological response and nervous system will scream at me that I’m in danger. We know that the vast majority of information (approximately 80%) flows from “bottom up.” This bottom up phenomenon means that we believe what our senses and our bodies tell our minds. So even if the ‘truth’ of the situation in the present moment is that we’re with Lassie, our bodies will insist--quite loudly--through pounding heart, contracted muscles, racing thoughts, sweating, stomach discomfort--that Cujo is right there, ready to rip out our throats.
Our human nervous systems are hard-wired to try to keep us safe. AND, avoidance is a near-enemy of authentic safety. It’s a little bit like a child closing her eyes and thinking, if I can’t see the dog, the dog doesn’t exist. Even though she might be able to get away with pretending in the short term, this is not a means to develop trust in oneself. The contradictory messages coming from the body (emergency 5-alarm fire bells going off physically) vs. the mind (a narrative pretending it’s ok, holding on for dear life to whatever the distraction is) perpetuate a self-schism that results in mistrust, escalating pursuit of the ‘fix’ of the distraction, and occasional moments of panic when our avoidance strategy of choice fails us.
The other side of the equation is that we also don’t want to get flooded (or retraumatized). So if you had the experience of being attacked by a dog, and then I took you to a place with off-leash, barking, vicious looking dogs, your nervous system would go into fight/flight (sympathetic mobilization) and we would’ve just reinforced your fear. In this scenario, the nervous system would be telling the brain that the threat is much more powerful than the self. The fear would feel overwhelming, all-encompassing, and it would shut down our pre-frontal cortex. From polyvagal theory, we know that the nervous system struggles to connect and to protect at the same time. When we’re in a calm, relaxed, open ventral vagal state, we perceive ourselves to be happily interdependent---we have access to the truth of our human selves as ‘hardwired to connect.’
And yet, when we’re in the midst of being flooded and dysregulated, either in the sympathetic mobilization of fight/flight or the dorsal vagal state of collapse + shutdown, our nervous system is engaged in the protective script of ‘us vs. them’. Another way of saying this is that we find ourselves in a Quentin Tarantino-style dualistic movie with really scary bad guys, carrying really big guns. Our senses and nervous systems are communicating that whatever or whomever is inhabiting the role of ‘other’ is not to be trusted. Essentially, our body equates surrender with death. From this perspective, going into freeze--the last resort of the human animal desperately trying to survive-- is the near-enemy of healthy and courageous surrender. Freeze, or ‘please and appease’  behaviors, involve relinquishing personal agency or power in response to threat or attack. While these behaviors might superficially look like surrender, I would argue that they’re driven by fear and hopelessness, not free will.
So avoidance is not healing (though it can feel preferable in the short term!), and getting flooded is not healing (though sometimes we’re tempted, especially with our Western culture values of catharsis, extremism, and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps). Now that we know avoidance and getting flooded both don’t lead to healing, what DOES lead to healing? What I believe, from my own experience and from my work with clients, is that healing comes from inhabiting the space in between--- from holding a compassionate presence with the wound, without merging with the wound.
And so why am I talking about trauma treatment, in a piece about the paradox of safety and surrender in spiritual practice? Because what I’m starting to see is that regardless of modality, ANY spiritual path or practice inevitably leads people into working with their own wounds. And certainly any path to becoming a healer means that you are always doing your own healing work. As Pema Chodron says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.”
Which leads me both to my hypothesis, and to the question that feels most alive and resonant for me right now. My hypothesis is that we develop trust in ourselves by learning to be present with our own darkness, and we really can’t do this without (paradoxically) also finding a connection to our own light, which is really just a spark of the Light (that is everything). Jung said “The individual who wishes to have an answer to the problem of evil, has need, first and foremost of self-knowledge; that is, the utmost possible knowledge of his own wholeness. He must know relentlessly how much good he can do, and what crimes he is capable of, and must beware of regarding the one as real and the other as illusion.” My question is: what are the best practices for learning how to (safely!) be present with our own darkness?
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
What the Barbara Brennan lineage and the Shamanic path both have in common is a healthy respect and acknowledgment of darkness, and a sort of ‘handle with care’ attitude towards the potency of ancient healing practices. Barbara Brennan goes into depth about the 4th auric layer, called the Astral realm---where it’s possible to find all kinds of Neil Gaiman-worthy, often grotesque objects and critters. Most experienced energy workers I know are not huge fans of hanging out in the astral, and are scrupulous about clearing after the session (since it’s not uncommon to feel like you got ‘slimed’ while doing 4th level work.)
At BBSH, students in their second year work on the heart chakra and the 4th layer, both of which are connected to the astral realm. I don’t think it was incidental that it was two years into my awakening process when it felt like every slithering, archetypally-terrifying astral critter started surfacing in my energetic field.
At that point in my process, the only thing I felt I could really ‘trust’ were my body movements, as they so clearly seemed to come from ‘somewhere else’, in the sense that I knew I wasn’t creating them, or making them up, or controlling them. Although I wasn’t really clear about much of anything at the time (was I a witch? A shaman? An energy healer? A wannabe?)I felt crystal clear about my body’s movements.
My therapeutic training had instilled a healthy awareness of my mind’s unreliable thoughts, and my understanding of neuroscience and evolutionary biology let me know that transient emotions might hijack my nervous system at any moment. The body movements, on the other hand, felt undeniable, visceral, and not driven by my ego’s agenda. I’d heard people talk about ‘trusting the process’ my whole life, but my movements felt like one of the first areas where I really grasped the possibility of trusting something I couldn’t explain and didn’t feel I had power over. Even if it drove me bonkers that I couldn’t understand what the movements meant.
That is, until the day that I scheduled an energy work session with a BBSH graduate in Kirkland, Washington. While in Seattle for a Core Shamanic training, the prerequisite for any advanced studies through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, my services-starved Juneauite self fit in community acupuncture and energy work the Monday following the training.
For those of you familiar with the greater Seattle area, I would also like to note that I’d started off in Ballard, gotten myself to community acupuncture in West Seattle for a 10 a.m. appointment, and then from West Seattle to Kirkland for my energy work appointment, and then from Kirkland to the Seattle Airport for my evening flight, never having to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus, and never hitting traffic. This miracle alone tells us that my compassionate helping spirits were on my side, as no one in the history of the world has ever had this experience with public transportation in the Greater Seattle area.
So I show up for the energy work session. The healer & I have a nice chat, and I relax onto her table. From almost the minute she begins, my involuntary movements kick into high gear--I’m a jumping bean. She tells me approximately 4500 times to breathe, which I’m finding, frankly, annoying. Before the session I told her about my movements, and made a point of saying I know she’s running the show. She can manage me however she wants. If she’s finding my movements distracting, she can just push my hands down.
Even though the movements have come up in pretty much every session I’ve ever received, no one has chastised me for moving or directed my movement---until this healer. She instantly tells my left hand “No! You don’t need that.” Suddenly there’s tension in the air, and it’s not clear to my conscious mind what’s going on, but it feels like an epic battle.
For the first 40 minutes or so I found myself gripped with what Sylvia Boorstein would call “a multiple hindrance attack”.  Doubt, boredom, restlessness, and irritation arose. I wondered :“is this healer overwhelmed by me? Has she ever had a client with spontaneous movements like mine? Why does she keep telling me to breathe--obviously, I’m alive. I’m breathing.”
Then she got up to my heart chakra, and I realized, when I felt the tears on my cheek, that I was crying. And I am not an easy crier. I’m able to count the years I’ve gone without crying in chunks of 5. When I became aware of my tears, the session took a turn, and though I could still feel a hint of the original resistance, it was also clear that I’d surrendered to the process.
Afterwards, she had me sit across from her in her office. I apologized for the wildness of my movements early in the session and told her that I’m never quite sure what’s going on with them, but that even for me, I was moving around a lot more than usual. She asked me some pointed questions, and then wondered if I’d like to know what she perceived from the session. I gave her an emphatic yes, and she told me she’d found an enormous black snake wrapped around your neck, extending all the way down the left arm, with its mouth in your left palm. She said “It kept trying to steal your energy through the mouth at the left palm, which is why I kept pushing your hand back and telling you to breathe. When you took a breath, you came back to yourself.”
Stunned and horrified, I asked her if she was able to get rid of it. “Unfortunately, no” she responded. And then she told me to consider wearing lighter colors (I looked down and noted my all-black ensemble, not atypical of me, especially when traveling). As she was describing the snake to me, I could feel the outline of its body all down my arm. It was grotesque. I texted my colleague, a second year at BBSH, in a panic. He sent me a soothing text reminding me that it was great this snake had come to my conscious awareness, as that meant I could get rid of it.
His words calmed me down enough to make my way back to Juneau, where I immediately got out my sage, played Taos Winds Protection from Negative/Dark Energy, and used a selenite wand. I felt like I was in a campy horror movie---every time I ran the sage smoke over my left side, I had the sensation of the snake pulsing and throbbing in protest. The shrieking eels from Princess Bride provided an inner soundtrack. I could feel the outline of the snake’s body, and my mind sunk into confusion. If the snake was stealing my energy through its mouth in my left palm, and the way that I got all my intuitive information was through my movements, how was I supposed to trust the information I was getting?
I seriously considered canceling my therapy clients the following day, and instead saw that I had a 45 minute window in the mid-afternoon. The opening meant I was able to schedule a ½ session with an intuitive I’d worked with before who I’d come to think of as a master of removal. For some reason, during ‘snakepocalypse’, I felt reluctant simply to tell him what was there---I wanted him to find it. My skeptical wanted the metaphysical version of a second opinion. The healer saw the snake, and I could feel the snake, but if it was ‘really’ there, shouldn’t the intuitive also be able to see it?
We got into the session, and I told him I was calling about something in particular that I didn’t want to share so that I could quell my inner skeptic. Within moments of me honing in on my internal concern, intention, and question, which seemed to allow the pictures to coalesce for him, the intuitive described what he saw--which exactly confirmed the healer’s diagnosis. He told me that these beings feed off of fear, an explanation that made 100% sense to me, and helped me understand how I’d gotten progressively more and more freaked out by the snake since the healer had brought it to my conscious awareness. The intuitive’s confident neutrality defused my fear-paralysis, and instinctively I started doing metta (loving-kindness) practice.
I kept thinking of my friend C.’s wisdom about the relationship between fear and love---which is what mystics throughout the ages have known, something that polyvagal theory and contemporary neuroscience now confirm. Namely, the near impossibility for our nervous systems to ‘protect’ and ‘connect’ at the same time, without one of these scripts being dominant. If we’re caught in fear, it’s hard for us to stay connected to our own loving hearts. As I was caught in a fear cycle, it was like I was giving the snake an energetic all-you-can-eat buffet. But the second I felt connected to my own heart, all of the snake’s potency evaporated.
So this brings me to my first response to A.’s questions, “should I just be open? Is there something to be afraid of?” I would say, it’s not about going around being closed, or hanging out in a state of fear. Especially because the fear feeds the darkness. It is helpful, however, to use your own discernment, and to trust your own instincts about what resonates for you--what cultivates increased coherence, calm, and compassion in your system.
When Dark Nights Become Blackouts
What’s really complicated about the process of using discernment to gravitate towards what leads your system to increased coherence and compassion is that the vast majority of the time, we tend to go through periods of incoherence, confusion, fear and despair on the way to a deeper and richer relationship with ourselves. One ‘cautionary tale’ sort of example comes from my experience with Vipassana meditation practice.
When we were in our early 20s, my best friend and I went on a month-long silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. Before going on intensive retreats, you’re asked to sign waivers, and to disclose if you’ve ever had mental health issues. My friend, who’d been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, had indicated his diagnosis, and noted that he was stable, on medication, under the care of a psychiatrist, and felt like his condition was well-managed. We proceeded on the silent retreat (not making eye contact, as that would be too much non-verbal communication!).
For me the retreat was deeply peaceful---I felt safe within a community for the first time in my life. My embodied sense of belonging created a cathartic & corrective experience. For my friend, the retreat was excruciating. Spontaneous movements (called kriyas in Kundalini) led to hours of painful jerking and spasming in his sitting practice.
Dr. Willoughby Britton, who runs the The Dark Night Project out of Brown University, speaks in a compelling way about how common it is for people who go to meditation retreats to end up in severe psychological distress.
The identities of Britton's subjects are kept secret and coded anonymously. To find interviewees, however, her team contacted well-known and highly esteemed teachers, such as Jack Kornfield at California's Spirit Rock and Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts. Like many other experienced teachers they spoke to, Goldstein and Kornfield recalled instances during past meditation retreats where students became psychologically incapacitated. Some were hospitalized. Says Britton, “there was one person Jack told me about [who] never recovered.”
What the article goes on to explore is the fine line between the spiritual struggle that is an expected part of the process, vs. something that is actually harmful.
Nathan Fisher, the study's manager, emphasizes two categories that may cause dark nights to surface. The first results from "incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided," while the second includes "those [experiences] which were necessary and expected stages of practices." In other words, while meditators can better avoid difficult experiences under the guidance of seasoned teachers, there are cases where such experiences are useful signs of progress in contemplative development. Distinguishing between the two, however, remains a challenge.
I love Fisher’s distinction between these categories, and appreciate even more the acknowledgement of how difficult it can be to distinguish wrong-minded practice vs. challenges that signify growth and progress in spiritual and personal process work. For me this brings me right back to the paradox of trauma work. Wrong-minded practice (similar to bad therapy!) can be seen as tantamount to a person getting retraumatized or flooded. Meaning, instead of facing the fear, and seeing through the fear, the fear associated with the original traumatic experience actually gets reinforced.
During our retreat, my friend was having the experience of mistrust of his male teachers, whom he did not feel were attuned to him. From a psychological perspective, he was having paternal transference to these men. In addition, he was not able to feel the flow or connectedness to Spirit he used to feel prior to his Bipolar diagnosis. In fact, he was finding that the more effort he put into his practice, the more distress he experienced. So his childhood fear (men aren’t able to attune to me or meet my needs) felt like it got confirmed, and his adult fear (being Bipolar means I’m no longer able to surrender to the flow without losing myself and my grip on sanity) was also reinforced. His nervous system kept communicating, in a number of ways, that the practice in that form, at that time, for him, led to greater dysregulation, not to increased coherence.
I remember that when I read Unmasking the Rose : A Record of a Kundalini Initiation by Dorothy Walters, I kept wanting to fling the book across the room every time the author talked about the splitting headaches she experienced after giving energy work sessions. As she described spending the next few days in agony in bed, my mind wondered, WHY WOULD YOU KEEP GIVING SESSIONS WHEN YOUR BODY TOLD YOU IT DIDN’T WANT YOU TO?! To me this feels as obviously wrong-minded as people who run to the point of injury.
While it’s ‘good’ for your body to get exercise, and we can get more flexible the more we practice (for instance I often feel like I might die if I run ½ a mile when I’m out of shape, while my body feels GREAT at mile 2.5 when I’m in shape), it’s really NOT helpful to push through pain to the point of permanent injury. I do recognize that it can be deeply confusing, in the same way as with running, to understand whether you are pushing up against your personal edge (how we get from almost passing out with a ½ a mile jog, to enjoying 3 miles), or if you’re injuring yourself.
Personal process-wise, it’s also the case that we tend to experience an initial period (or initial periods) of disorientation when we deepen into spiritual or healing practice. Shinzen Young, a meditation teacher, goes into detail about this:
Almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, [and] disorientation…The same can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. I would not refer to these types of experiences as 'dark night.' I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon. Within the Buddhist tradition, [this] is sometimes referred to as 'falling into the Pit of the Void.' It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling … it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin. This is serious but still manageable through intensive … guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases, it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive.
Young’s beautifully-framed conceptualization of “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin” makes me think about the famous Nisargadatta Maharaj quotation: “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life flows.” Falling into the pit of the void sounds like getting stuck in the cul-de-sac of wisdom telling us we’re nothing, without hearing a peep from love.
I often help my clients see that we are flowing between these two states---one of de-identification (the wisdom part of Nisargadatta). I feel angry, but I am not my anger. I was sexually assaulted, but I am not what happened to me. Thoughts fill my head, but I am more than my thoughts. The phase of de-identifying with everything can often feel destabilizing. What are we, if we’re not our thoughts, our emotions, or our histories?
Likewise, I simultaneously help my clients experience that we have 24/7 access to what Richard Schwartz calls our core Self---we don’t need anything outside of ourselves to come into contact with this compassionate, courageous, clear, calm, curious, creative, confident and connected core essence (Nisargadatta’s ‘love that teaches us we’re everything’). And when we’re connected to the core Self, in the present moment, nothing needs to change, or to be healed, or even to be fixed. AND all of the emotions, the traumatic experiences, the suffering lives on top of the core Self, often obscuring us from it.
But what I tell my clients--and myself--is that we learn Maharaj’s flow by messing up, and then catching that we messed up, and then reorienting. So for instance, we might merge with an inner part that feels abandoned. Then, if we catch that we merged, we can use our awareness to unmerge, connect to core Self, and then come back to be compassionately present with, and befriend, the abandoned part from core Self. But we cannot work with a part from within a part. In the same way that we cannot heal from a place of forcing change. However, this getting our sea legs under us feels non-linear and shaky in the beginning. To get good at practicing it, we need to be able to tolerate tremendous amounts of uncertainty, slowly increase our window of tolerance, unlearn the habituated defenses and strategies that we’ve lovingly developed and perfected over the years, and simply be with what’s there.
The more that we find our surefire pathways to the core Self, and the more the parts start to trust the core Self, the easier it is to have a sense of mastery and assurance that we can work with anything. We see that there are no bad parts--even our core wounds can be handled through the same method of unmerging from the wound, connecting with core Self, and going back to the wounded part. The rules remain the same--don’t repress/avoid/deny/shut down, AND don’t merge/believe/get overwhelmed by the part.
What Not To Do
Thinking about ‘the rules’ for effective parts work, or right-effort mindfulness practice, makes me think about coming into contact with any rule set. When I flash to my own experience at the two-week intensive I’d completed with Nan Moss through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, I remember initially feeling bewildered by all of the rules. Before the intensive, Shamanism + strict rules didn’t make for natural bed partners in my mind. My rebel heart chafed at what occasionally felt whimsically bossy--- “don’t look at Tarot cards, they aren’t part of Core Shamanism!”. “Don’t tell a person you’ve worked on what you did, just tell them ‘the work is done.’”
Since so much of my awakening process involved spontaneous direct experiences, it felt extremely disorienting to be asked to cast aside my usual stance-- of getting grounded, opening into my heart, and following my internal guidance--for the role of compliant student. My inner skeptic was working so hard to stay open! Now, the teachers seemed to be saying something contradictory: always trust your compassionate helping spirits (when journeying, with a drum and eye cover, if you found this compassionate helping spirit in the Lower or Upper world!), but remember that there might be all kinds of trickster spirits…& don’t trust those dudes for a hot second.
I perceived implicit caution in their words as they hinted at a number of dangerous things that could happen if you went rogue. I started to get the hang of going to the Lower and Upper worlds, and my relationship with my core posse of compassionate helping spirits deepened, at which point it did become pretty easy to trust them.
But what remained confusing to me was that I started to realize that I was journeying ALL THE FREAKING TIME, and didn’t need drumming, or an eye cover, or really anything to journey. This “24/7 insta-journey” style meant I wasn’t necessarily setting the intention to go to the Upper or Lower worlds, and in fact, my clairsentience felt the most recognition with the non-ordinary Middle world and Interworlds, which told me that I was hanging out in those sketchy neighborhoods multiple times a day with my psychotherapy clients.
When we were taught extraction work (the core shamanic skill of merging with your compassionate helping spirits to sense what doesn’t belong in the client and remove it), Nan seemed oddly insistent that we had to assess first, and not start the extraction process, until we knew what we were doing. Headstrong and bossy, my classmates and I huffed with impatience. We were eager to get into the work (and many of us already had our own experiences with extraction).
And then I think back to some of my early experiences with extraction. If you could see my sheepish expression, you would understand how disingenuous I think it is for anyone with any metaphysical experience to throw stones at other people’s glass houses. One night, shortly after I learned how to do animal communication, my relative in Anchorage asked if I could connect with her dog Max. Max’s front right paw was red & itchy, and he wouldn’t stop fussing with it. They’d already been to the vet and started a treatment, but my relative asked if I could check in and see if something had been missed. I was upstairs in bed next to my partner, who thinks animal communication is about as plausible as our dog Desmond writing the next New York Times Bestseller.
Within thirty seconds of connecting with Max, my whole right tingled and burned. At first I assumed that I must be feeling what Max was feeling. But then the irritation worsened to the point of alarm. Stunned, I opened my eyes to red welts (that hadn’t been there moments before!) from my right hand and arm up to the elbow. I learned an important lesson that day, which was: just because you can do something metaphysically, doesn’t always mean it’s safe for you, or even that it’s something you should do.
I would put this early experience with distance energy work firmly in Fisher’s category of “incorrect or misguided practice that could be avoided”. Now I knew what Barbara Brennan was talking about in her third book, Core Light Healing, when she says:
I have observed that most people who are bodyworkers automatically pull ...information in their bodies. Unfortunately, this is not the best choice; for example, to sense what is happening in the client’s injured leg, the healer must pull the pain into the healer. This means that the healer spends the day pulling the pain or disease configuration into their own physical and [energetic] bodies. This makes for a rather uncomfortable day, as well as requiring a great deal of self-healing afterward. pp. 63-64 Core Light Healing.
Brennan goes on to discuss her recommended method: sending out an “amoeba-like pseudopod of energy consciousness from the 4th level of the Human Energy Field to connect to the client, and then bring your High Sense Perception into the pseudopod to get information at the site.” As is so often the case with Brennan, what she feels can be “done very simply” sounds almost absurdly complex to the newb. How to make an amoeba-like pseudopod? How to get to (or know if you’re on) the 4th level? How to bring High Sense Perception into the pseudopod?
What I’ve found is that this gulf--between the incredible intricacy of any given system (and especially Brennan’s systems!), and the beginner or “don’t know” mind of the novice--can create a Grand Canyon of what my Vipassana teachers would call ‘wrong effort’.
In my case, with animal communication, I started off gobsmacked that I had this ability, using a technique learned from a $9.99 Udemy.com animal communication class to connect with other people’s animals. When I first realized I was able to connect over distance and communicate with animals I was incredulous. Had my acceptance letter to Hogwart’s gotten lost in the mail? Was it really possible that I could know nothing about an animal except for a name and image, and then have my findings validated by strangers??? Even though I’d learned about ‘distance’ energy work in my Reiki training, the idea of distance energy work seemed totally implausible. But after my initial awe and wonderment wore off, I quickly moved into what I think of as a ‘next phase’ of growth and development: practice.
Starting to Trust Your HSP (& Learning the Limits of Your HSP)
As I worked with many animals, I started to see that the information I got was not always straightforward or ‘verifiable’. Often I went into non-verbal energy work, and didn’t get any answers or direct communications from the pet to the person. Other times it felt like I, or a friend I’d worked with, had gotten something just flat wrong.
In one case, I decided it would be fun for me and a friend to connect to two dogs living in Michigan--dogs of a friend of a friend, which meant that neither of us knew anything at all about the dogs. We had their names, pictures, and the permission of the pooches’ person. Both my friend and I wrote down what we got, not letting each other see what we wrote. Amazingly, there were some clear overlaps. One of the dogs was having digestion problems, and we got the hit that she would do better with a different type of food. We also both got the information that this same dog wanted a softer, cozier bed with a different blanket, which seemed to be connected to arthritis and joint pain. But then my friend wrote down that the dog ‘missed her puppies’. When I conveyed this to the person afterwards, she said “but she never had puppies!”.
At this point in my learning process, it was still (relatively!) easy to acknowledge uncertainty and the human error factor. For me, I was fighting my scientific, rational mind’s desire for validation, replicability, and certainty. When it seemed that I had ‘gotten it wrong’, I just assumed I didn’t know what I was doing (yet). On the one hand this was great, as it’s closest to the stance we want to hold as we’re channeling and doing healing work: a stance of humility, reverence and self-discipline.
In another way, getting something flat out wrong can be challenging for developing trust in yourself. As my brothers would say, the force runs strong in me (and, I would argue, in our Western culture!) to want accuracy, validation, and consistency. If something ‘works’ or ‘is real’, shouldn’t it be reliable? What we don’t name is that we feel so comfortable with a scientific schema because we feel like if we understand it, if we can replicate it and validate it, we can have control over it. Which, let me tell you (and of course I learned this the hard way!), is the opposite of faith.
An experience from a distance energy work session comes to mind. I was leading an intensely distressed client through a body scan and trying to help her calm and regulate her nervous system. As we encountered places of blockage or constriction, I would ask her what she noticed. In the beginning of the session, she said she felt disconnected from her body. She often said she didn’t notice anything in an area where I’d felt a strong sensation.
When I first used my clairsentience in working with clients, especially on the heels of an experience like the one above where the dog’s person pointed out that my colleague (who actually had much clearer inner seeing than I did!) had gotten something wrong, I would just take the client at their word and assume I must’ve ‘gotten it wrong.’ In this case, I told the woman that I sensed pain in her left kidney. She said she didn’t notice anything.
We proceeded through the session and she said she felt much more relaxed afterwards, which she was happy with as she’d been having frequent panic attacks, bouts of insomnia and other symptoms of severe anxiety. The next time we spoke, she told me she’d gone to the doctor and it turned out she had a kidney infection! That day, I learned the important lesson that just because a client doesn’t feel something, doesn’t mean that my information is inaccurate.
One night, when we were out having gin & tonics at our local hipster distillery, I had stumped my (as previously discussed, hyper-skeptical) partner by asking him to pick a part of his body to focus on, not tell me what area of the body he had in his mind, and then I would use my clairsentience to tell him which body part. He played along with me, and focused in on a spot. Then I dazzled us both by getting it 100% right. He begrudgingly admitted that he had been focusing on a spot in between his shoulder blades in the center of his back, but continued to scoff at me when I talked about anything that sounded woo woo to him (which, at that point, was everything I talked about).
For me, experiences like the one with my partner, of being validated over and over, have helped me refine how I use my HSP. At this point in my practice I have a much clearer understanding of what my physical movements mean (for instance my head shakes side to side to tell me ‘no’, and ‘you’ve hit a barrier on your way to the lower world’ and ‘a part isn’t ready to be worked with’). I know when a client’s internal part is ‘talking’ to me, even if the client herself might not be aware of the part. With a recent client, who’d lost his father a few months prior, I could even tell that the area of the body where he kept all of his grief (oddly enough, his right forearm) wasn’t ready to be accessed yet.
While it’s helpful to keep practicing, and to continue to clarify and get validation that the information you’re getting can be trusted, it can also be difficult when you feel like your HSP isn’t developing in other areas. Something that had been percolating in the background for me as I was developing all these alternative healing skills has been a confusion about, and longing for, inner seeing, or clairvoyance. My top ‘clairs’ are clairsentience (for me this started as being able to feel what’s going on in someone else’s body), and claircognizance (just knowing, without knowing why you know or how you know, but knowing that you know.)
I was thrilled with my newfound abilities, and loved to incorporate them in sessions with psychotherapy clients (who knew how handy it would be to sense client’s somatic experiences and emotions and energy blockages?!). But it felt to me like whenever I read anything or tried to learn any system people were always talking about inner seeing, and it made me feel confused and less than. Maybe I was just ‘making things up’--if I couldn’t ‘see,’ was I really magical? Or did I just have strong intuition and could read people well?
With every single person I consulted about this--energy workers, psychics, intuitives, past life Akashic records experts, hypnotists, shamans--I laid out my spiel about how I couldn’t ‘see’. And that it drove me bananas that I couldn’t, and could they maybe find (and heal!) the ‘block’ that must be in place preventing me from seeing? Almost unanimously, these specialists gave me the feedback that yes, I was (and am!) a healer, and no, we don’t all have the same extrasensory abilities. That I might never ‘see’ how others made it sound (and that really it wasn’t like watching an internal movie).
A lovely woman named Gwendolyn Hill even talked to me about how not seeing had its advantages. Once I got over feeling like a small child being told that not eating the entire bag of Halloween candy carried the advantage of decreasing the likelihood of a stomach ache, I got curious. What advantage would there be to not seeing?
Gwendolyn talked about something I would get more and more interested in as I went, which is that any ‘interpretable’ piece of information we’re given is a bit dangerous, in the sense that we can think our interpretation is correct. For instance, in the above animal communication example, if my friend saw puppies, and seeing the puppies was coupled with a feeling of sadness or yearning, it would make perfect sense that his interpretation would be: ‘the dog misses her puppies’. Yet this could just as easily mean (and given the other information we gathered) that the dog missed BEING a puppy.
A great psychic I know freely admits that he’s not accurate 100% of the time. Just like a game of telephone, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with the initial transmission, and it doesn’t mean the people playing the game can’t hear or can’t speak the language---it means things can easily get garbled as we go. We as humans aren’t always the clearest receivers.
Many people have articulated this better than I have, so I’ll mention just a few of the provocative iterations on this theme that have resonated with me over the years. The first comes from Hank Wesselman, a research paleoanthropologist and shamanic teacher. In his book The Re-Enchantment, Wesselman talks about various “masters of deception”, or energetic entities that exploit open people, particularly psychics, for their own ends. Wesselman says he consulted Hawaiian elder Hale Makua about some of these malevolent beings, and Makua called them by their Hawaiian name ‘e ‘epa, saying that they’re:
Interdimensional demons who are devious and whose motivation is deception. He confirmed that they are not true spirits, and that psychics who channel are particularly vulnerable to them because these deceivers reside in the same realm in which most psychics operate--the mental-emotional-psychic levels of awareness and experience.” (pp. 136)
The Shamanic conceptualization, with the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds, is that in the Upper and Lower worlds we encounter ONLY compassionate helping spirits. Whereas when we’re in non-ordinary reality in the Middle World, we might encounter anything. Just as our ordinary-reality Middle world has kind people and mean people and dictators and Brene Brown and Donald Trump (guess who I prefer out of those last two?!), the non-ordinary reality Middle world similarity contains a mind-bogglingly diverse spectrum of beings.
So an important nuance is that just because something comes to your awareness in an ‘extrasensory’ or non-ordinary way, that DOESN’T mean it’s inherently benevolent, or trustworthy. I think one reason for the confusion has to do with language. In spiritual circles, we tend to use the word “Spirit” interchangeably with God, or Source. Whereas in Shamanic circles, we use the word spirits, plural, to emphasize the uniqueness and individual relationship it’s possible to have with distinct animals, creatures, trees, rocks, clouds, places, ancestors etc.
Which brings me full-circle back to the initial set of questions about surrender and trusting yourself. The actual (non-dual!) truth is that surrendering and learning to trust oneself are identical processes. Not that we’re surrendering our will to some external force who’s telling us what to do (and actually, we need to be the most cautious with any guides, spirits, or beings we encounter who dictate anything to us, given that the benevolent guides and compassionate helping spirits honor our free will & refrain from directives). Instead, it’s about learning how to recognize & allow ourselves to be in contact with our own Light within--which is really the same spark as the Light of Source.
Trusting ourselves means (compassionately!) letting ourselves see what our ego’s been up to, and bringing into the Light all that we’ve been relegating to shadow. And knowing that our true nature, as Almaas says, “...does not need work; it is primordially pure and complete.” But, as Almaas also says, “we need to work on ourselves in order to become sufficiently open and clear to even glimpse this nature.”
Although conceptually this non-dual understanding often feels elusive, or theoretically abstract, all we need to do is continuously tune into our own direct experience---making sure that we are not getting hijacked by thoughts or emotions, or bedazzled by energy or metaphysical phenomena. And we need to make sure we haven’t shut down our hearts.
We start out afraid that we are our wounds, feeling desperate as a child who needs a nurturing adult to make it all better. And as we deepen into our spiritual and healing paths, we find that we have everything we need already inside us. We don’t even have to surrender, as we’re not ‘giving in’ to an external power; we’re not ‘giving up’ anything; we’re not laying down our weapons at the feet of an external enemy. Instead, we are seeing ourselves through the eyes of the heart. We are allowing ourselves to come into contact with the Divine within. We realize we are both the wounded child, and the healer: we are the light.
 Let’s define trauma for our purposes simply as ‘moments when the nervous system gets overwhelmed’ and feels alone  If you’re not familiar with the near-enemy concept, here’s a helpful article that fleshes it out  https://schoolofconsent.org/understanding-trauma-and-how-to-heal-your-nervous-system/  Jung, C. G., & Jung, C. G. J. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. Vintage.  For Brennan’s excellent description of the astral realm, read chapters 7, 8, and 9 of Brennan, B. A. (2017). Core Light Healing: My Personal Journey and Advanced Healing Concepts for Creating the Life You Long to Live. Hay House, Inc.  https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma3/efphholder/efp9.html  Rocha, Tomas. "The dark knight of the soul." The Atlantic 25, no. 6 (2014).  Yes, the intensity of my reaction merits all those caps.  High Sense Perception, the term Brennan uses to describe the development of non-ordinary reality perception (also known as extrasensory perception, or claircognizance, clairaudience, clairsentience, clairvoyance etc)  From Wesselman, Hank. The Re-Enchantment. Sounds True, 2016. Appendix 2, The Three Qualities of the Shamanic Teacher. pp.179-181  Almaas, A. H. The inner journey home: The soul's realization of the unity of reality. Shambhala Publications, 2004.