The Sacred Mundane

Snowy_TreesA week has passed and I have had little time to write. The weather remains very warm, and what little snow we receive melts away before long. There is not much of a snowpack in the mountains and the lake is quite low for this time of year. This raises questions about summer and water.

It seems clear to many of us living in Vermont that climate change is here, and rapidly intensifying. We are reminded that climate change plays out on both the global and personal levels. The media tends to focus on the global, when it pays attention to climate at all. Even when climate is discussed, media sources seldom truly contextualize the problem. Rather, media reports fragment experience, isolating events in such a way as to make them appear more random than they are. (Climate change is a process through which Earth’s long evolved ecosystems are degraded, fragmented, and stripped of coherence and meaning, in relatively short order.)

Psychotherapy often does the same. By focusing on individual experience, societal issues become abstracted and distanced. For instance, it seems very difficult for young adults to understand their indebtedness to college loans in context. Rather, they tend to place the burden for their “failure” on themselves. In contrast, as one of the many millions of people who graduated college without debt, I see the issue as a failure of community, as the willful imposition of a sort of carefully crafted indentured servitude. When working with impoverished young people, I often wonder how to move from the person as problem to societal values as the problem, how to shift the very ground of our conversation in a way that is useful to the client. I also wonder how we might open the door to larger conversations about how we fail to care for our children and youth, as well as our elders, and thus, our future.

Even Narrative Therapy frequently falls under the sway of totalizing, distorting ideas. The central premise of Narrative Therapy, that “the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem,” easily becomes subverted as the therapist (and often the client) subtly focus on behavioral change even when the problem is the society in which the person is embedded. There is also the real lure of the heroic, the temptation to focus on the apparently mythic exceptions to life as the client understands it, at the expense of the client’s very real history of embeddedness in systems of distortion and oppression. Can we keep in mind that both are important?

I suspect that while exceptional experiences are crucial to the life of Self, the mundane also has deep roots in the soul, and likely offers more opportunities for meaning making than we may know. I am not suggesting therapists refuse to seek exceptions, any more than I would suggest no longer noting and challenging cognitive distortions. Rather, I am arguing for a practice that gives preference to the client’s lived experience and their understanding of what that experience may mean.

Perhaps the mundane, when allowed to be expressed and explored in context, offers us the best entry into the mythic, into those enormous moments of aliveness, connection, and continuity we so  crave, and which are so often absent from public and private discourse. In the shaman’s world, the First Ones and Holy Ones, those who gave shape to the created world, are often immediate. If we pay attention, we may well find they are present in the large tasks we face, the life tasks that transcend the everyday, and in the mundane.

Unlike the Western worldview in which the sacred and profane are divided, the everyday becoming profane and distant from the sacred, in the shaman’s world, they are interwoven. Indeed, one may understand the world, and life, as inherently sacred. This does not mean that evil is banished; no, evil is very much present, the outcome of fragmentation and decontextualization. Seen in this way, evil becomes the effect of intentional, and to a lesser extent, unintentional, efforts to erase or confound our histories, and, thus, our experiences of continuation and connection, to self, family, culture, and the sacred. It is therefore useful to understand shamanism and  psychotherapy as inherently sacred and political practices, and the impulse to normalize evil, as, well, evil.

The invitation to simply normalize the many forms of oppression and harm we face, systems that fragment, degrade, and erase entire ways of being, might, then, give us pause.

11 thoughts on “The Sacred Mundane

  1. The climate change we see all over the world now and I find it important, that we also educate people about, what to do ourselves to help our earth to survive. Global talking is not enough.
    I like your point about integrate the ways of psychotherapy and look at this with more holistic eyes, than we are doing now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Michael.

    1. Irene, as you so often point out in your blog, we are all interconnected, as we are with all other beings. Talking has indeed become secondary to shared, thoughtful action. Mental health, emotional health, physical health, and spiritual health area all intertwined with all else. That is so hard for most of us to grasp, let alone hold on to. I often wonder how we can support one another in standing in that knowing.

      1. You are right Michael, this is a not easy topic to get through to other people with. I think, this demand that we are more open-minded and open to our world too. Unfortunately I see many people living in the same area, where they have lived all their life, work the almost same place for years, go home, eat and look at TV-shows or reality shows, go to bed and start all over next day. These people know all about, what is going on in the TV, but not much about the world. I wish that there were a way to open their eyes to the world, without anything dramatic need to happen for them first.
        I think that more education will help, all over the world. It is amazing, what education can give to people, they open up to learn new things and also to learn about other things in same time, just because they are in a learning process. We should be in this process all the life and every day.

      2. Irene, I would like to believe that education helps. Actually, there are many studies that confirm this.I believe, though, that nothing teaches better than visiting third world countries for a period of time, and working with refugees. These experiences are transformative. I increasingly imagine we may all, at one time or another, become refugees. Being homeless or fleeing abuse also make us refugees.

        Anyway, I am glad you are in the process of knowing and remembering every day. This permeates your blog, along with the scent of oranges and almonds.

      3. I believe, that you are right with your ideas about working with refugees and being homeless or refugees ourselves. Both are very transformative in many ways Michael. We learn to do our best to enjoy life every day. Thank you Michael.

  2. Michael,
    This is the very heart of our human condition. I will remember this essay as one of the very best. Sometimes overcoming individual circumstances really are beyond possible and calls for a compassionate response from the larger society. I am weary of charity struggling to fill the void. Governance is able absolutely and needs to do so much more.

    1. Yes, charity is a thin response often. As we spiral into change that we cannot imagine, we so need one another’s goodness and aid, if we are to make it through. Sane governance would certainly increase the odds.

  3. I sometimes think we’re currently caught up in a period of change from which we won’t be able to turn back – global change such as climate change, national change in which all our important services are being cut back and then the resulting impact on people and the way we behave.

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