Therapy as Liberation

This article does not say anything new, and none of what is written here belongs to me. I am learning to be more permeable to the wisdom embodied by Black and Indigenous leaders – some of my teachers include Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Sonya Renee Taylor, Resmaa Menakem, Jack Forbes, Lama Rod Owens, Prentis Hemphill, Shawna Murray-Browne, and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

As a white therapist practising within the tradition of western psychotherapy, I am being called to wake up to the ways in which I have embodied and perpetuated the violent segregations that our social order is founded on even as I have worked to heal myself and others.

The evolution of western civilization runs parallel to the widening and increasingly violent fragmentation of the human ego from the rest of Being such that the more ego accumulates, the more empty and devouring it becomes; the more defined by lack and hunger and absence (see my post quoting the work of indigenous scholar Jack Forbes on what he calls “cannibal sickness” here).

Much of the suffering for which people seek out psychotherapy can be traced to this fragmentation, and yet it remains outside the framework of our field to name or face it adequately.

As therapists, we have been trained within a system that still divides body from psyche, matter from spirit. Our primary god is science. Though it is slowly catching up to the ancient indigenous, Asian and African knowledges that it had a hand in violently displacing, science still speaks predominantly in the language of the left brain. For all its wondrous achievements, science cannot take us beyond the cultural framework within which it is employed, which, in the case of white supremacist society, replicates the very splits that create suffering.

As therapists, we can treat symptoms and pursue harm reduction within an insane system driven by segregation that is killing us all, or we can work for collective liberation.

Working for liberation does not mean just talking about it; as with every aspect of healing, we can only accompany someone else as far along the path as we have ourselves travelled. I cannot help to heal another’s trauma if my own remains unhealed; I cannot be a mirror to another person’s being if my own being remains obscured from me; I cannot walk the path of liberation with another if I have not committed to my own path and to facing what I fear most in myself.

This path is a commitment to my own undoing, to the unbecoming of “me” as I have known my self. It is a confrontation with my own fragility; the blindness that enables me to do and embody harm, and the accumulations (of privilege, objects, titles) that only render me emptier.

I have to wake up and see my own white knee on the neck of George Floyd and stay with that sight.

I have to grieve the loss of being a “good person” and feel that identity collapse.

I have to reclaim the shadows I project into the world and bear the shock of knowing they are mine.

Navigating these losses as bravely as possible is my road towards liberation.

As I become less fragile and do not balk so much at falling from the tower, the plummet from inherited structures gets more familiar. Navigating the terrain deeper than what our sick civilization has offered and our 5 senses can show us demands that the left brain yield (as much as I fear its yielding and the lack of “sense” that entails). The more the right brain steers the ship, the matrix falls away and the poet-mind is in charge – this is the world speaking through me, inspiration, possession; “I” have to die a little (and then a little more) for it to happen, and the means of my death will look like demons or angels depending on how much fear there is.

As I yield and grow less afraid of what I have disowned (my blindness, my savagery, my mortal body) and the non-sense inside me, I get glimpses that my ancestors and the living world around me have never been separate; they are here and part of “me,” a concept which loosens along with my whiteness and individualism. Now the depression and anxiety and suffering I have lived with are revealed in a different light, as related to my loss of contact with this vastness, this living web. There is elation and deep grief.

As I keep yielding and asking respectfully, more of the beings my ancestors and the white collective disowned to be a separate “me” will be revealed as I actually have the experience of “them” being part of “me” and not just the belief that this is possible. I introduce myself with trepidation and humility to the cedar tree behind this house and catch the trace of a reply. When I shop for a Christmas tree, I flinch for the first time at the collection of objectified corpses. My (white) professional training cannot guide me here.

Let’s pause for a moment and check in.

What are you noticing?

This post itself has been an act of navigation, steering from the comfort of concepts and identities into their dissolution. It would be normal to feel annoyance, distraction, confusion, fear, or anger. These affects tell us our ego is pulling us away from this precipice and back towards the familiar apartheid of “normal.” They show us how ensconced we are in our left brains and separate identities, and how afraid we are of dying.

This edge space is the one I am learning to seek out and, hopefully, to find you – at the very threshold where you are also invested in separateness. If we can keep finding ourselves here, we begin to be able to choose differently.

If you are white and something you are feeling now is akin to what you feel when you hear BIPOC calling for justice, consider these edgy feelings as portals out of our sickness. There has to be fear and disorientation, otherwise the shift isn’t real. Left brain cognition alone cannot take us to where we need to go, and the absence of fear is also the absence of a way back to what is holy and whole. When we can stop fleeing our own demise, the demons will become angels reminding us that we are actually a part of Being. What seems most dangerous is in reality most sublime – the parts of us we have been missing all along.

As white people, victims and carriers of cannibal sickness, we are the prodigal sons returning to our indigenous elders and the lands and gods we have objectified, consumed, and lost the ability to perceive clearly. Our left-brain exploits have been part of the arc of evolution, but we need to evolve now or we will self-destruct.

The future is happening in no time at all. Our ancestors and descendants are right here, and our waking up is also our dying. All of Creation has been waiting for us to be brave enough.