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  • nancy willbern

Ancient koan:

Does the dog chase the cat because it runs?

Or, does the cat run because the dog chases it?

Answer: Yes

My waffling mind on politics: Opposing positions hate each other, while co-creating each other at the same time. They always arise together. You can’t have one without the other. And because of that, neither has any real substance to it. The foundation for each polarized position is the pull in the opposite direction from the other pole. That doesn’t mean that each or either position might not be factually right or true about some things. It just means that neither position is based on an independent truth, on a singular, inherent authenticity.

I know this. I know it to be true from my work with clients and from my own life experience, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still get magnetically drawn, quite regularly by the deep desire to be right and to find the other flat-out wrong. That’s such a delicious place to be. At least temporarily. It’s sort of like willfully eating a chocolate brownie you know is laced with rat poisoning. I know it will eventually make me sick, but it has chocolate chips in it, pecans, the tiniest touch of cinnamon! Icing on top! Chewy in the center with just a slight crispness to the thin, outer crust. Scrumptious! I remember from eating poison-laced brownies in the past, the burst of flavor that fills my mouth. And in that intoxicating, initial moment, I forget the nauseous aftermath that is sure to come.

There is a Vedic saying called, “Neti, Neti.” It means, “Not this, not that.” It’s a description of reality. In other words, reality can’t ever be fully summed up into a category that has boundaries drawn around it. There is always more to it than any particular conceptual definition could describe. Jesus often spoke about the “narrow way.” The space between this or that. To get to the narrow way, we have to shift to a qualitatively, different level of consciousness. We have to step out of the dualistic mind and into the inner chamber of the heart. We can only enter there through deep humility, from the space of, “Truth be told, I don’t really know for sure, what is right and true. I can’t see enough of the Whole to appreciate the fuller landscape.” And then we have to add, “But I am willing to be shown my place within It.” And it is right there, in that space of momentary openness, that the truth can emerge of its own (A Course in Miracles).

Whenever I am caught in the grip of thinking our current political arena is about as whacked out as it could possibly be, I remind myself of the best, albeit extreme example of the narrow way from the life and writing of Viktor Frankl - a Jewish, German psychiatrist, captured by the Nazis during WWII. (See Man’s Search for Meaning.) I remind myself, it actually could be worse.

Frankl and his whole family were sent to separate concentration camps. They were stripped of everything they owned – each other, their homes, their life’s work, their own clothing, their freedoms. While held captive, Frankl noticed a difference between the prisoners. Some died. Some went insane. Some joined the guards. Some remained in a state of vengeful retribution. All of these are honest, understandable and justifiable human reactions. There is no judgment here. It’s just that none of these reactions resolves anything. They keep us stuck. They make us sick inside. They steal us of the Life Force.

But there is more to the story. There were still other prisoners, who saved a crust of bread from breakfast to give to others who needed it most. Noticing the extreme differences in responses, Frankl asked the question, “We have all lost everything, what makes the difference, here?’’ And what he discovered was that those prisoners who were able to hold onto their own sense of self, to their own inner Authority, the ones who refused to be defined or reduced by the edicts of their oppressors were the ones who made it through. “You can take everything that I have and value, but you can’t take my truth or my connection to the Divine.” As such, Frankl, right there in the middle of hell, continued to uphold the Hippocratic Oath as a medical doctor, and did what he could to be a healing agent in the camp until his final release at the end of the war.

Remembering Frankl brings me back to where I started. The truth is not a position. It is certainly not a polarized position. It has nothing to do with any outer perspective. And therefore, it has no need to capitulate, nor to oppose. It is an internal experience that arises from inside the self when we give it space. A chasing dog? No not that. A running cat? No, not that? Conformity? Retribution? Self-righteous indignation? No, not that or that or that. The truth just is what it is. And it is our sacred privilege, moment by moment, to invite it in and let it live through us or not.

My constant mantra: Surely, if Frankl could find the narrow way in the middle of Auschwitz, I can find it in the middle of an election year in America. God help me!


  • nancy willbern


About a year before my dad died, he slipped off the planet into cardiovascular dementia. After walking out of his apartment in the senior living community where my parents lived, declaring he was going home, my mother and sisters and I made the excruciating decision to have him admitted to a geriatric psyche unit. He stayed there for three weeks to get his meds regulated.

I’ll never forget the first time I went to visit him. He sat in his wheelchair, in a drug- induced-stupor with chocolate icing smeared on his disheveled shirt. Entering that space felt like walking into the Twilight Zone. And although I am a psychotherapist, I don’t work with psychosis. This altered atmosphere came as a shock as one patient wrote lecture notes on an imaginary chalk board; another beckoned me to come sit next to him so he could sell me some shoes; while another pulled her chair up right next to me, putting her face next to my left ear to express her anger towards a man who “dared to pound the Bible” in her direction; while still another lay in a recliner loudly moaning out her obvious pain; and another got to her feet and walked over to the locked door, began to shake its handle while screaming, “Get me out of here! Get me out of here!” I wanted to join her. And, to make matters even more surreal, more jarring, Bob Barker’s voice could be heard over all the cacophony beckoning his, The Price is Right-TV-show-audience to “Come on down!”

I did my best to keep my focus on my dad, trying hard to hold onto any thread in the conversation, coherent or not. He didn’t make much sense, talking about an airplane that was coming to pick him up. My stomach clenched. My heart raced and ached with a depth of pain I had never felt before. An inner voice inside of me began to scream, “No, not this! Not him! Not this! Not him!”

When visiting hours were over, I made my way back to my car and drove home in a daze. When I got inside, I sat down to my computer and started typing out all of my frazzled emotions and my ignited rage at the indignity of it all. "This could not be happening to my father - my father, the well-respected attorney, my father the wise elder at our church, my father – the man who oozed dignity and integrity, a quiet, warm wisdom that so many had counted on in so many ways. This! This was not supposed to be happening to him!"

I realized I was mad at God. “How could You!” This was too much. It made no sense to me. It felt so completely unfair. Wrong! And then, I got really quiet and I went inside myself and asked my Guides, “Help him! Please help him! Help me! Help me to understand this! How could this be happening?!”

And then I heard Them, “Nancy, the father that you have always known, the one who is dignified and wise and lived with integrity, a quiet warmth – he has already gone. This one that you are screaming about is the remnant of the cloth. This part of him is not finished yet. He is working through something important. Can you not allow him the time and the space and the dignity to find his way through?" This gave me pause.

"And there is more, They continued. "This is not just happening to your father, Nancy. It is also happening to you and your mother and your sisters. It is a time for you to ask, ‘Why is this on my plate? What is there in this situation for me to learn?’ No one is left out, Nancy. There is a gift here, should you look more deeply, a gift for all of you.”

That Voice got my full attention. It said things, noticed things on a level I was not used to maneuvering in. It brought me to a perspective that I have never forgotten – a fuller recognition that we are all connected, that whatever happens to someone else cannot help but affect all of us, as well – especially if we have an emotional reaction to it. That eamotional reaction is a clue that there is a hidden passageway inside this most unwanted situation that can lead all of us, should we choose to seek it, to uncharted territory that brings with it deeper insight, closer connection and greater freedom.

It's as if each of us is one tiny colored piece of glass inside a kaleidoscope. With each turn of the cylinder -- with each turn of events -- all the shards of glass shift in position to adjust to the movement. With each spiraling twist, all the pieces relocate in relation to each other. And with each new-found position, a brand-new picture of reality organically emerges, should we dare to notice. I love this. It was my lesson, my gift from that horribly, unwanted moment in my life. Of course, I would still so earnestly choose to have my dad die of a heart-attack in his sleep and be spared the slow decline that he actually experienced; but given that it is not up to me, I will gladly accept the gift hidden in the pain of my resistance.

  • nancy willbern

So, the other morning, in that twilight state between not fully asleep but not fully awake, I felt myself bombarded with a litany of embarrassing, humiliating, shameful moments from my past. It was if they all lined up and took their turns to have their way with me. I found myself defenseless in the face of their attacks, believing in the obvious truth of their indictments.

Those of you who share my fundamentalist Christian roots will know what I mean when I state, matter-of -factly, that guilt and shame are revered as sacred Christian virtues. When I was growing up in the one-and-only-true-church, the preacher, Brother So and So, who towered over us from the pulpit, speaking with the ordained authority of God would admonish us, three times a week to look for the sin that we all knew was lurking in the recesses of our beings. “You know what I am talking about,” he would proclaim, “Look inside your soul, find the darkness hidden there, and then walk down the aisle as your Brothers and Sisters sing, and confess your sins and then ask for forgiveness. Come now, as we stand and sing.”

I haven’t darkened the doors of my childhood church since I was 32 years old, but this “invitation” as it was called still lives in the marrow of my bones, right alongside the engrained, now unconscious habit of searching for the dark sins that are hiding in my heart and soul. The Catholic Church has always proclaimed, “Let me have your children until they are six, and they will stay indoctrinated for the rest of their lives.” Or something to that effect. That adage is absolutely true. And no, I wasn’t raised in the Catholic tradition, but the reality of that statement holds.

That painful, egregious litany of past “transgressions” was a slide show of my personal shadow. It flashed before me all the horrid and regrettable moments that I so wish I could erase from my memory bank, to disclaim as parts of me. And that is the tale-tell sign of the shadow at work. The shadow is the container of those aspects of the self that we try, ever so hard to repress, to keep hidden from ourselves and certainly, from anyone else. They are the moments in our lives when an unbidden, unwanted aspect of the personality popped out, caught us by surprise and exposed to others some sign of unseemly weakness, ranging from simply being uncool to out-and-out self-serving or thoughtless or Heaven-forbid mean or intentionally deceptive. In response to a shadow outburst, we wince, we side-step, we want to cover it up or a favorite is to project it onto someone else. It becomes like a hot potato we want to toss anywhere we can with as much finesse as possible. Anything to not get caught holding it.

That’s what we do outwardly. Inwardly, many of us, those of us raised with strict prohibitions, for sure take these moments, relentlessly hold them against ourselves and then vow, once again, to not ever let them happen again. We use those shadow outbursts to hyper-vigilantly remind ourselves how have to do it better next time. But inevitably, we repeat it. We do it again and again, and then the whole cycling self-incrimination starts all over one more time, with seemngly no way out. We think of the shadow as the dark side of the self, the one to be expunged, if only we could.

From a completely different perspective, one I was certainly never taught, we can begin to see the shadow-self as a trickster-friend in disguise. To do this, we have to go back to those humiliating scenes and instead of stopping with just a replay of the unwanted behavior and recoiling, we can choose to approach a little closer, slow the film down and go inside that earlier version of ourselves and ask, “What was happening inside myself at that moment when I wanted to be funny at someone else’s expense? When I left the bedside of a dying friend prematurely, before making a full connection? When I acted like an awkward 7th grader in a group of gifted women? When I sacrificed myself so I wouldn’t have to be alone? When I cut someone deeply with my words? When I retreated when I should have moved forward? When I basked in the position of a self-righteousness victim to justify my blaming? Can I be with her, that one who did the unseemly thing? Can I stay with her long enough to hear what she was feeling, what she was making up about herself, what she was experiencing inside her heart and body at that moment? Can I stay with her long enough to ask her what she was most afraid of?

From this wider, deeper perspective the shadow shifts from becoming something to run from, something to disown – to a doorway into the heart. It becomes the alarm bell to remind us to reconnect. The shadow in the service of love alchemically mutates from Satan, the Lord of the Dark -- to Lucifer, the Bringer of Light.



Image credit: Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay, free images


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