Tag Archives: survival strategies

what is spiritual for me is what is deeply rooted in my erotic body

Yesterday, I got to have a conversation with my friend Emily about what we do at Writing Ourselves Whole. Emily is a seminary student, and wanted to talk some about the interweave of survival, desire, and spirituality. It was a very interesting hour and a half! What does spirituality have to do with writing about sex (or writing about anything), particularly for sexual trauma survivors?

My definition of the erotic is quite expansive, thanks to Audre Lorde. In her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” she writes, “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling […] a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Over the years, I have come to describe the erotic, as Lorde does: embodied and “creative energy empowered.”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, writes about this idea of “flow,” that state of being in which one is wholly absorbed in an activity or situation. Mindful creative engagement (such as a freewriting practice) connects us to our flow, to that place where we are fully engaged in what we’re doing, where we’re open to new ideas and we trust our instincts, all of which are markers of transformative practice.

Flow is an experience of embodied and creative energy empowered; when we are in flow, we are in touch with our erotic selves – by which I mean our wholly creative, embodied, and intuitive selves. What I encourage, particularly in sexual assault survivors writing groups, is that writers practice listening to the pull of their own writing, that they practice trusting their intuition and creative instincts, in order to rebuild the frayed relationship with the core of themselves, with the intuition that we both needed to listen to and needed to ignore if we wanted to survive.

Survival, is, of course, a deeply creative act — particularly active survival, when we are just trying to stay alive and as whole as possible under the onslaught of someone’s violence. But when we are actively surviving trauma, we are not able to attend fully to our instincts or our embodied creative selves: we armor up, we put parts of ourselves away, we shut down internal access to our bodies, we work to forget rather than know, we try to make very little of ourselves available for hurting. We, metaphorically and sometimes literally, roll ourselves into a ball like the pillbug, trying to protect as much of our soft stuff as we can. The process of healing is the process of releasing ourselves wholly back into the world, unrolling, exposing our soft parts again, trusting that we can do so and will not die. This process can take years — for me, it’s taken twenty, and I’m certainly not done yet, I hope. Writing practice has been my steady companion while I’ve worked to unfurling; and as I type these words now, I see a matter-of-fact difference: when I was first beginning to write as a way to heal, I took my notebook to a cafe and hunched down over it, writing as messily as possible, so that I could hide myself and my words. Now I sit straight up in front of a computer, typing words that anyone could read if they looked over my shoulder. It’s no little miracle, this transformation, the possibility of this opening and openness, is what is true.

For me, what is spiritual is what is deeply rooted in my erotic body: my connected body, my complicated and desiring body, my whole body. I do not experience a sense of connection with other until I am able to have a sense of connection within myself.

When I am engaged in any work or task in which my creative energy is embodied and empowered, I am able to open out to the possibility of connectedness with others — with nature, with people, with the whole messy mystery of the world. For me, spirituality is interwoven with the erotic — with the sense of deep desire to undo the isolation that was necessary for my survival and know and connect with all of myself, as well as the world and community around me.

It took a long time for me to even conceive of being connected to such a thing as flow; the very fact that I can imagine allowing most of myself to concentrate my consciousness on a task at hand (rather than keeping psychic watch and hyper-vigilant for any possible coming attack)  is a mark of healing.

In that same essay, Audre Lorde also writes, “[O]nce we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.” During our experience of trauma, and in the immediate aftermath, many of us who are survivors expended a lot of energy trying to keep ourselves from feeling. I don’t know about you, but for me, there was no safety in joy, no safety in expansiveness. What was safe was held in, armored, tightly bound up. Through practices like freewriting, walking, dancing, I began to trust it when joy would creep into my skin — I began to trust that the joy would not be immediately taken away, or used against me. Over years, thousands of hours writing, and maybe millions of words in notebooks, I found myself able to trust the voice of my erotic self — my empowered and embodied creative self. If I think of a spiritual self, that’s her. The words she has to offer me are hard won and pulled up straight for the psyche; I write them down and follow where she wants me to go. This is my spiritual practice. It’s the only one I really know.

extra:ordinary – learning to trust our truth

(I have continued to gather submissions for the extra:ordinary project — stories from our community of our recovery, resistance and resilience — and I am excited to share with you our next piece from Janice in California. I am so grateful for her words — thank you for holding her words here.)

Child of Sorrows

Infant, uncovered, cries alone.
Defenseless child of sorrows
holds her breath, listens in the dark, and
weeps alone in silence, afraid to fall asleep.

Where is mother when
she calls, “Mama”?
Where is God of love?
“Suffer the little children.”
Why must children suffer?
Why do adults
betray her trust?

From her struggle
in the hush of winter,
she flies on voyages
to the stars
until the light of dawn
returns her to
her body.

How does a toddler distinguish the truth that is taught by the one she honors and trusts?  She is taught holy verses:  The lion and lamb shall lie down together.  Who is the Lord?  The Lord is Our Father.  Obey the Lord.  Honor your Father.  Your Father loves you . . . too much.  Fear not . . . but I was filled with fear and Sore afraid.  Our Father . . . hallowed be Thy name.  Thy will be done.  I don’t understand . . . why does Thy will hurt me?  What does this teach a vulnerable child?  In whom should she trust?  Trust in Our Father?  First she trusts everyone.  Then she trusts no one.  Who can she talk to when her mother won’t listen to “stories”?  Where does a child go when home is not safe?  Who can she trust when she can’t trust her parents?  Can your child trust you?

Am I alone?   That’s hard to believe.  Yet, I, a preacher’s kid, have not located a reference to other PKs who were sexually molested by a Protestant pastor parent.  Are your voices still silenced?   

AWA writer friends know my history.  I am grateful for these safe writing groups, the excellent therapist I had and the journals I continue to fill.

Janice
California

balance happens

graffiti: to the far right, the word Balance, then a grey circle, the, to the far right, a blue bass drummer, marching away

Up at 5 this morning, and actually got out of bed before the first snooze went off. This morning’s tea is nettle-dandelion-mint-anise-cardamon. This morning’s candle is blue. This morning’s thinking is vision and balance.

F! and I pulled our cards last night, the first time in this new place; is that right? I pulled Temperance, which in the Medicine Woman Tarot is called Balance — could it be more perfect, given yesterday’s blog post?

I could hardly think of a question for the cards, just something for right now, about work or school or relationship or… yeah … any one of those. And she gave me Balance, Synthesis. Here’s what the text says: “You have acted, you have tried, now you must integrate the experience with everything else that is you.” And: “You are the actor, I am the integrator of your actions. Take time for me. Temperance, the Divine Blending, happens automatically whenever you relax.”

Oh. Right. (Wait — really?)

So this goes right back to the self-care maintenance thing I was thinking about yesterday — it’s not just that we need moments of quiet, of relaxation, of deep breathing or other forms of mindfulness and conscious embodiment to maintain a well-being, to lower our stress levels, to help us stay out of the crisis zone, but also this: balance happens naturally when we relax.

I worry all the time that I have too much going on and not enough time to reflect on what’s happening, on all the different pieces of my life, on how things fit together. Here’s what this card is reminding me: balance comes when I make time for it to come — and I can’t force balance. This feels like a paradigm shift for me: It’s not something I can work on. It’s not something I can make happen. Balance happens when we slow down; reflection occurs naturally during moments of quiet, meditation, exercise, conversation over dinner. Integration of experience is something our bodies and consciousnesses know how to do — just like our muscles know how to integrate a new movement or stretch, with periods of tension and release. We need the release.

Constant busy-ness (tension) keeps this reflection, integration, at bay — and sometimes that is a survival strategy. It certainly has been for me: let me always be too busy to really slow down and let the feelings catch up with me. (We also have an ethic of over-busy-ness in our different communities, particular social change and activist communities — if you’re not exhausted and burning out, you’re not doing enough. This ethic isn’t helping us do our work better, unfortunately. ) Slowing down, even for a moment, can become frightening. I spend so much time running, I don’t know what I’m going to get hit in the face with if I stop for a second and turn around.

Turns out, when I do, it’s just my body, my sensations, wanting to catch up — this history, this conscious self that catches up and catches her breath.

It’s difficult to believe that it’s not my job to make everything happen right — to force myself to balance, to integrate, to relax. Just reading the second half of that sentence makes me chuckle, but only a little: that’s the feeling so many of us have, I think — that we have to make it happen. But balance isn’t forced. It just comes naturally when we give it breathing room, when we take time for a walk, when we make time for things we love: cooking, swimming, time with friends, long baths, phone calls, reading, art, walks, craft time, morning meditation… we get to let it happen. There’s some trust involved here, and practice, I think. Always practice.

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What’s a prompt around this? One might be not to write at all — but to set down the pen and rest for 5 minutes. Just close your eyes and let the breathing come, let yourself notice your breathing, let yourself just notice what thoughts come and let them pass through. Notice if any tension arises, notice where in your body you are feeling tensed, where you are feeling relaxed. Notice how it feels to be supported by your chair, notice how your hands feel on your lap or on the table or wherever they are resting. Set a quiet alarm for 5 minutes, if you want, so you don’t have to worry about the time. Or simply let yourself rest with your eyes closed for a few minutes.

It can be powerful, too, to write a vision of what your or your character’s life would look and feel like if it were more balanced — take 10 minutes and see it on the page: what does your or their morning look like? What’s your ideal, most balanced day? How do you or they feel, going through this day? What people are there? What smells, sounds — let all your senses out on the page. (Notice, too, what people or sights or sensations aren’t there, but don’t spend a lot of attention on this part — let yourself vision what you want!)

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Thank you for the ways you support balance in others’ lives, how you nurture and care for friends, family (chosen or blood or both or…). Thank you for the slow, deep breaths you take for you, too. Thank you for your inherent creativity, the brilliant stuff you were born with and that no one can take away. Thank you for your words!