Monday, August 29, 2011

Houses: Enriching & Deepening Our Relationship to the Houses We Live In and the Houses that Live in Us

      Houses live in us as we live in them. Your house nurtures, protects and regenerates your body and spirit. In your house you are free to dream, let your imagination wander and cultivate inner life. In your dreams the house is a potent image that both reflects and transforms the psyche. Changes in your life are often connected to changes in these inner houses, just as any changes in the house you live in can create inner shifts that lead to outer change. When a client tells me that he/she is buying a new house or remodeling, we explore the changes that are likely to take place in their lives in response to the changes in the houses they live in. In this article we’ll be exploring how to enrich and deepen our relationship with houses through imagination—both the ones we live in and the ones that live in us.

After the death of my father, I had a series of dreams extending over nine months in which my house (not the one I lived in then in everyday reality) was being remodeled. The dreams first focused on rebuilding the foundation, then progressed to the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. In the final dream of this series, the garden was being tilled and new seeds planted. At this point I discovered a new extension to the dream house, containing rooms that I had not known were there before.

            These dreams spoke vividly to the reorganization and transformation of my psyche that was activated by my father’s death. I noticed a remarkable connection with the room that was being remodeled in the dream and the corresponding part of my life. For example, the rebuilding of the foundation corresponded with the early weeks after my father’s death when I felt that the ground had given way. Nothing felt secure anymore, a common experience with the death of a parent. When the dreams shifted to the kitchen, I was going through a period of reassessing how I nurture and feed myself—on both a physical and soul level. The dream of the renovation of the living room reflected the painful tearing apart of old structures to make room for an expanded sense of self. And the dream of the garden being seeded along with the discovery of a new wing of the house were soon followed by some exciting developments that forced me to tap new resources and talents. I felt the same excitement in response to these new challenges as I felt exploring the new rooms in my dream.

            You can gain valuable information about what is stirring in your psyche through the inner houses you access through dreams and active imagination. Sometimes the same inner house will appear over and over for weeks or months, as it did for me after my father’s death. This can be a house from your childhood or from some other period of your life. You may have experienced some fear or conflict at this time that is relevant to the current situation. This can also be a house you currently live in or a house that you have never seen in outer reality. Even a house that you know may have different rooms.

            Many people have had significant house dreams at some point of their lives—some so powerful that they are still remembered years later. But you can also use active imagination techniques to access your inner house.

The house is more than a box we live in; it is a soul activity to be retrieved from the numbness of the world of modern objects. Each place of the house, each room, each hallway, closet, stair and alcove is a distinct structure that animates different aspects of soul. . . Each room contains a mythic universe.
Robert Sardello


Close your eyes and shift your attention to the inner landscape of your psyche. Imagine some setting for your  inner house. This can be in nature or in a city or town. Awaken all your senses as you explore this environment. Smell, touch, taste, look and listen. When you feel satisfied that you are fully present in your body in this imaginal place, then look for your house. When you find it, approach it, noticing details as you move closer. Is it small? Large? Rustic? Modern? Once you have reached this house, circle around it, looking carefully at all sides. Find the front door. What does it look like? Step into the house. Look all around you: what kind of room is this? Is the room light or dark? How is it furnished? What is the color of the walls, floors and furniture?
            Move on to explore the rest of the house—the halls, any stairs, all the other rooms. Is there a basement or an attic? Start by observing these rooms in as much detail as you can. Then go back to the room (or rooms) that feels most compelling or intriguing to you. It may be that this room relates to a part of your psyche that is activated at this time. Spend some time in this room, looking around and exploring. You can rearrange, redecorate, or renovate this room. Bring in new furniture, paint the walls, put in a new floor, take down or put up walls, open up or close off windows. Another more dramatic possibility is to tear down this house and rebuild a new one.

            After you do this exercise, you may want to understand more fully what the different rooms of your inner house may mean symbolically to you. Take some time to explore your associations with a living room, a bedroom, etc as though you were trying to explain what these are to a person from another planet. You can also reflect on the purpose of each room and how each part of the house relates to the whole. Remember that “each room contains a mythic universe.”

            A client in crisis consulted me. As we discussed his difficult situation, he realized how much he lived from crisis to crisis rather that from any sense of larger vision. I asked him to create a five-year plan, a task he struggled with: all he could identify was that he wanted to live in Hawaii. I encouraged him to describe his dream house, first to me and then on paper. With eyes closed, he described the house as he saw it in his mind’s eye. He was shocked and excited by how vividly and clearly it appeared to him. After our session, he continued to write pages about the house, describing each room, the furnishings, and the surrounding landscape. As this dream house came to life in his imagination, he was surprised with how easily the rest of this five-year plan fell into place.

            If you choose to renovate or rebuild your inner house you may activate forces in the psyche that instigate change in your outer life. I’ve observed that even working on the house you live in has the same effect. Our houses in everyday life work on us as we work on them!

Our house was not unsentient matter—it had a heart and a soul, and eyes to see with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benedictions. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out in eloquent welcome—and we could not enter it unmoved.
Samuel Clemens

            In her first session, a client expressed her frustration with the stagnation in her life. She wanted change but felt at a loss in how to go about creating it. In exploring this concern together, we discussed the house she had bought years before which was in need of renovation. She had been putting this off but when I suggested that working on her house might just activate change in her outer life, she decided to go ahead. She started with the foundation. In working with the metaphor of the house, she recognized that working with the foundation might well stir up forces deep in her psyche.

            She soon discovered that the foundation couldn’t be repaired without extensive excavation of the earth under the house. She realized at this point that the work within would be deeper than she had originally anticipated. Since the space beneath the house was so small, it was necessary to cut a hole in her floor in the middle of the kitchen for the workers to get to the crawlspace under the house. This hole remained open for the months that the soil was dug out and the foundation rebuilt. During this time, my client had a vivid dream in which amorphous things from under the house were gushing through the hole, as though what had been buried in the unconscious was now free to move into consciousness.

            Occasionally my client would venture down this hole, crawling under the house to see for herself how the work was progressing. She felt that this was a journey to the underworld, as she crawled on hands and knees in the dirt, coming across old bones and carcasses of animals that had accumulated over the years. The powerful and disturbing dreams she had during these months reflected the close contact with the unconscious that she had established by working on the underside of the house. She unearthed memories of her childhood that had been dormant. As long as the hole remained open, the unconscious forces flooded her psyche. She realized that she could close off the hole if she felt too overwhelmed. But she saw this open hole as an unparalleled opportunity for healing in the depths of her psyche.

Our house in everyday life work on us as we work on them.

            Once you’ve made this connection between changes in the house you live in and changes in your life, you can undertake building, remodeling, redecorating or moving with more awareness of what you may be stirring up in your life. You can choose to work on a part of your house with the intention of catalyzing energy and change in a related part of your life. For example, redecorating or remodeling your bedroom may well create changes in your most intimate relationships.

            Even a seemingly minor project such as building or repairing a fence can have an impact. A client recently undertook the tedious work of repainting her fence. She realized that in spending so many hours focused on painting the fence (which created a boundary around the house), she was also feeling inspired to set clear boundaries in her work relationships.

            As you can imagine, buying or building a house can initiate radical changes in your life. Before you move or build, create a house in your imagination that reflects your dreams. Experience this house fully with your senses A friend who is in real estate asks her clients to make a wish list of the qualities they most want in their house, then to clarify the top two priorities from this list. Her clients often find houses that embody the qualities that they have defined.

            It took thirty-two years for psychologist Carl Jung to build his dream house out of stones on the shores of the lake at Bollingen. There was no working plan; the house was inspired entirely by his imagination. He described it as a “kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts. . .It might be said that I built it in a kind of dream.”

            Houses foster a dance between our inner and outer worlds. As we become more attuned to the nature of this dance, we realize how profoundly the houses we live in enrich our inner lives and how the houses in our dreams can revivify our outer lives. Through the imagination our houses come alive for us; we learn to live more fully in them.

Friday, July 15, 2011

For A Prisoner

Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.   Rumi

            September 25 2008 I received a letter from Pelican Bay Penitentiary, the first of many letters in a correspondence that would reveal what life is like inside a solitary prison cell but more importantly how a deep healing is possible in that barren, hostile environment. An inmate named Paulo had found and read one of my books on grief, The Infinite Thread, in the prison library. He was desperately reaching out for some support after hearing of his 19-year-old nephew’s accidental death. This death was devastating to his large Samoan family (Paulo could trace his family back 9 generations); he felt overwhelmed with his own grief but also was at a loss in supporting his family. He worried about his sister and her young son. His only means of communication were handwritten letters—with an occasional phone call. No counseling was offered; he had no one to talk to. He was left alone with his grief and became lethargic, depressed and anxious. By the time we had exchanged a couple of rounds of letters, he received news that his wife had died—a guard delivered the news; he was not allowed even a phone call to his daughter.
            I learned that Paulo had been incarcerated at that time for 15 years, with the past 3 years in solitary. Since I wanted to relate to him first of all as a human being who was grieving, I did not ask what his offense had been, even though he offered to answer any questions I might have. He was housed in the SHU Security Housing Unit, a prison within a prison where inmates live 23 hours a day in concrete soundproof 8X12 ft cells with no windows, metal doors (with dime sized holes) that opened and closed electronically, fluorescent lights often left on day and night. Once a day (though not every day) prisoners leave their cells to exercise alone for one hour in a “recreation” yard that has high concrete walls. Paulo has not felt the sun on his body or seen a tree in years. He is not allowed phone calls, correspondence courses, music, human touch, more than one care package a year.
            Intent on healing his grief, he asked for my guidance. Even though it seemed at first unimaginable that someone living in these conditions could effectively grieve, I suggested he create a sanctuary in his cell, a place where he could focus for 10-20 minutes each day on each deceased family member, one at a time. He would begin his sanctuary time by just sitting with whatever was surfacing in his body, feelings, thoughts—not trying to change anything, simply opening to what is in that moment. After ten to twenty minutes had passed, he was to get up, shift his attention away from the grief. What was important was to create a contained, special place for his grieving, drop deeply into it for a specified time, then let it go. This way the psyche would not get overwhelmed and begin to shut down. Once this foundation was established, I offered other exercises to work with and heal whatever was unresolved.
            Setting up an altar, with pictures of his nephew and wife, Paulo dove into his grief with a dedication and intensity that amazed me. As my clients know, this takes tremendous courage. He embraced the pain, regrets, sadness, and anger. He talked to his deceased loved ones, wrote them letters, did guided imagery exercises for nurturing the ongoing inner relationship with his nephew and wife. By now, he had also uncovered his deep grief over the death of his grandparents who had raised him and who had died a few years before he went into prison. Paulo realized that his unresolved grief over this huge loss had been instrumental in his getting into trouble with the law and being sent to prison. As he peeled away layers of the pain that had encrusted his heart, he realized where he needed to forgive himself—that is always deep, challenging work but he did not shirk from it.
            His letters to me grew longer, more thoughtful, probing and insightful. He was recovering the self he had lost along the way, accessing the caring, compassion and curiosity that had always been there, hidden underneath all the pain. Whatever he learned for himself, he was eager to share with his mother, daughter and sister. Genuinely concerned for their well-being, he asked me how he could best support them. He read voraciously the poems and articles about grief I sent. One of these was John O’Donohue’s poem “For A Prisoner”. This poem so deeply resonated with him that he shared it with the other prisoners in his pod, shouting it out line by line to the inmate in the cell next to him, who wrote it down and then read it to the next inmate and so on through the entire pod.

For a Prisoner

Caged in a cold, functional cell,
Far from the comfort of home
With none of your own things,
In a place that is gray and grim,
Where sounds are seldom gentle,
Amidst the shuffle of dumbed feet,
The crossword of lost voices,
The one constant note
Is the dead, trap-shut sound
Of unrelenting doors that
Make walls absolute.

Though you have lost the outside world,
May your discover the untold journey
That await you in the inner world.

May you come to recognize
That though your body is imprisoned,
No one can imprison your mind.
May all the time you have on your hands
Bring you into new friendship with your mind
So that you learn to understand and integrate
The darkness that brought you here.

Within this limited space,
May you learn to harness
The stretch of time.
May your compassion awaken.
May you learn to recover the self
You were before you lost your way
And draw from its depths
Some balm to heal your wounds.

Behind the harsh rhythms of prison life,
May you find a friend you can talk to
And nurture the natural kindness
To become more free in your heart
And lighten the outer constraints.

May your eyes look up and find
The bright line of an inner horizon
That will ground and encourage you
For that distant day when your new feet
Will step out onto the pastures of freedom.
                        John O’Donohue

            Over the past few years he has embodied much of the spirit of this poem. He has discovered a rich inner world where he could heal his wounds, where his compassion could awaken, where he could recover his lost self. He knows that no one can imprison his mind; he is now studying transpersonal psychology (as well as many other subjects) and wants to write a book on grief for prisoners. He embraces the simple moments of his day with a new appreciation: “I came in off the yard not long ago. I was the last one so I got extra time outside. I walked, taking in the fresh air, read some, also was deep in thought reflecting on life and different lessons that change us, making us stronger and wiser.” When I reflect on the transformation this man has accomplished, I am struck that he is free in a way that many people in the world are not. He is at peace with himself.
May all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free from suffering.