Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Joe Omundson

Path of healing

In my completely non-professional, non-therapist, spectator opinion: healing from trauma is an iterative cycle of growth. It happens naturally as long as we are healthy enough to roll with our emotions, love ourselves, and accept life as it happens. Personal growth is inhibited when we have problems that prevent us from going through this cycle in a productive way.

I believe that every person has unlimited potential. Statistically, not everyone will achieve their potential in this life, because we live inside systems that don't always have our best interest in mind, and that tends to have a serious detrimental effect on people's lives. But on an individual level I believe that lives can be turned around from the darkest of places.

None of these steps is easy, fast, simple, or comfortable. Any one of these steps could take years to comprehend, nevermind execute. But I think, overall, this is the process that has to happen. Of course, it's different for everyone, and there could be extra steps, fewer steps, or they could happen in a different order.

1) Get away from whatever the source of your trauma is. Abusive people, damaging situations. Get to a place where you can at least survive without getting more damaged by the people who are involved in your life. This can mean moving away, changing your job, cutting contact with certain friends and relatives, or finding a specific sub-group of people who relate well to your experience and won't inherently judge you as a bad person. Find a safe space in life where you can breathe.

2) Within this space, the immediate trauma can stop accumulating. You might still be bleeding and agonized, but at least the knife isn't being twisted around inside you anymore. Try to find stable people who will hold safe space for you, who you trust, who are willing to put some effort and love into you because they see how good you are. Try to come to terms with the fact that what happened to you wasn't fair and it wasn't your fault. That you are still a valuable person who deserves love, warmth, and good things. Seek therapy, seek healing, seek to further your understanding of yourself and the factors that shaped your life.

3) With less hurt coming into your life you can try to drop the most self-destructive coping mechanisms. The good people surrounding you have got your back, so you can put a little bit less effort into defense, and redirect that energy toward some kind of practical life improvement. As an example, maybe you can focus on having a healthier relationship with food, and in turn you will feel better physically and maybe eliminate more sources of dis-ease.

4) As you find more strength and acceptance in yourself, you can start to do more surgery to heal your past wounds. Part of healing from trauma is re-experiencing your past and accepting it fully, sitting with all the pain that comes up. As you heal more, with support from loved ones, and with healthier habits, you can increase your tolerance for reliving those experiences. In earlier stages it might be more important to simply feel OK to get through the day, using distraction or other tools to avoid suicidal thoughts, so doing this work isn't always a good idea. But eventually the wounds will have to be reopened and exposed to the light for the deepest healing to take place.

5) You'll go through cycles where you experience your grief and trauma again. (This is the cyclical part of the process that I mentioned in the first paragraph.) Things will feel dark, you will feel like you've lost progress, like things are hopeless. But if you pay attention, you'll learn something from it, and when you come around to feeling better again the deep pain will be a bit lighter. You can apply to your life the things you learned, and live with a greater understanding of your own motivations, purpose, and influence. This can unlock new situations with greater potential, leading you to people who support you even more and the freedom to enjoy your self expression. Then, it goes back around to the dark place and you do the whole thing over again, looking ever deeper into your existence to find compassion and love.

6) As you become skilled at managing your own grief, you can start to help others with their own. This can be done earlier in the process too. Talking with other people about their experiences is helpful for everyone involved. Verbalizing what you've learned about love and healing can help cement it as more of a reality in your own life.

Here are some common problems that can get in the way of healing:

  • Not being able to recognize the difference between love and abuse. If you can't recognize which people are treating you well and which ones are manipulating you, it is hard to find the company of truly supportive friends. One way to fight this is to work on recognizing your internal state through some kind of meditative practice, and learn to notice how different people affect your experience when you interact with them.
  • Distractive habits that prevent you from looking inward at all. Some people are so uncomfortable in their own skin that they self-distract constantly. Are you joyful? Angry? Confused? Lonely? If you don't know how to tell, it's hard to learn about yourself or deal with the reality of your emotions.
  • Being in a situation where you feel you can't make the initial break from your abuser(s). Maybe the abuser is a spouse or family member upon whom you are financially, emotionally, or otherwise dependent, and you'd fear for your well-being if you were to leave. I don't know the best resources to recommend, but I know there are domestic abuse shelters and other resources available, and I hope you can find something helpful.
  • Unwillingness to act contrary to other people's expectations. Often our families and friends have ideas about how we should act that are less than useful for us. They might not know the depth of what you have experienced, or have enough empathy to understand why you are the way you are. Sometimes you have to disappoint people in order to take care of yourself.
  • Fear of change. Some people are so afraid of what the future might hold that they will hold on to any semblance of control available to them. This can mean a refusal to let go of people and situations that are harmful. It's important to know that change is often your friend, especially when it takes you in a direction that gives more room in your life for positive growth.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Joe Omundson

Cognitive dissonance

I'm fascinated by cognitive dissonance. Even the way those six syllables pronounce themselves feels exciting; what it represents for me personally, and as a universal human phenomenon, is one of the most interesting things I've found in life.

I like how Wikipedia defines it. "Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values."

It's the feeling I had when I hated the ways the women in my life had been treated yet found myself imitating some of the same actions toward them. When I desperately believed in God yet felt no basis for it. When I volunteered at a needle exchange and experienced heroine and meth users as normal people. When I met a drag queen who was referred to as male and female interchangeably.

There's a wide world out there with innumerable perspectives, ideas, and realities. Layers of interconnection, cause and effect. Natural laws that provide a basis for biological experience and human culture; artificial systems of rules that populations tacitly agree to live by. As we go through life we are bound to discover aspects of reality which contradict our conditioned truths.

But our minds seek internal consistency. We want stability in the world around us and it's uncomfortable when our foundations are challenged. So, we seek to reduce these conflicts in our minds in a number of ways.

Sometimes we deny any information that challenges the worldviews in which we are established. No, people aren't gay by birth! God wouldn't do that. They're just doing it for attention.

Sometimes we come up with more elaborate justifications to hold on to our beliefs. Well, maybe some people are inclined to be gay, but it's still a choice to act on it, and God can help heal that disorder.

Other times we actually allow our preconceived notions to be changed. Wow, I guess I was wrong about gay people; there's nothing bad about them and actually their love is just as beautiful as mine.

I believe that the best thing we can do with cognitive dissonance is learn to notice when we're experiencing it, and embrace it as a learning tool instead of fighting against it. It's not the disequilibrium itself which is painful but rather our anxious struggle to avoid it.

Cognitive dissonance can reveal that in our formative years, two concepts were tied together which were not related. Or, it can show us that there is an underlying connection between two ideas that we perceive as totally separate. Life is a sorting process, a constant refinement of our experience, and the more willing we are to reevaluate our preconceptions the more our consciousness is able to evolve.

When we realize that something in our worldview conflicts with reality, we have a new opportunity to adjust ourselves to become more in line with truth. An erroneous belief is about to expose itself for eradication. While this process can be uncomfortable in the short term, it leads to a more harmonious existence in the future.
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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Joe Omundson

More questions that killed my faith

(For questions 1-3 see this post.)

4) God's answers to prayer

The premise: When you pray to God, he answers. He might answer "yes", "no", or "maybe". It might be immediate or it might take a while. It might be mysterious, or roundabout, or it might be a direct response to what you asked for. But you can trust that he always answers.

The question: If any result, at all, can be used to say "look, God answered my prayer", isn't it impossible to disprove prayer? In that case, what meaning does it have? Unless there is real evidence that prayer is effective, how is praying to God anything more than a nice sentiment? If the Christian God is the only true God, shouldn't the result of Christians' prayers be measurably different that those of other faiths? Why do devotees of all religions observe a similar benefit from spending time in prayer, meditation, or worship?

There are a lot of Bible verses that promise tangible results to prayer. For example, Matthew 7:7-11:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

Why don't Christians take this literally? Why do they worry about losing their jobs, if they really believe that all they have to do when they can't afford food and shelter is pray to the God of the universe and he will provide?

"Well, that's not how it works. Other verses say you have to pray according to God's Will for your prayers to come true. You can't just get whatever you want from God. And you aren't supposed to put God to the test."

If your heart was filled with the Spirit when you accepted Christ, don't you know God's Will? Isn't that already how you're praying? So why not believe the Bible and expect results, as so many verses promise? This bit about praying according to God's Will is just another layer of illusion. If you pray and it came true -- must have been God's will. Didn't come true? I guess it wasn't his will for you. In other words: whatever is going to happen is going to happen and you can't change it with prayer, because his will is beyond our understanding. "Don't put God to the test" -- in other words, ignore the fact that the Bible's promises about prayer aren't reliable.

The answer that satisfied me: The voice of God is something we can create in our own heads. We are good at seeing patterns where there are none. We are good at dancing until it rains and then believing our dance made it rain. In any measurable test, prayer doesn't work in a supernatural way. You could pray to your refrigerator and get the same result as praying to God: some of the requests happen, some don't. Prayer is a placebo, and it works the same in many different religions. It's just a tool to help people access a part of their own minds... not direct communication with an omnipotent supernatural being.

5) Draw near to God and he will draw near to you

The premise: God loves his children, and he speaks to them to tell them they are his. If you open up your heart to him you will experience his abundant love, the same love which will keep you amazed for eternity in heaven. Sometimes you might go through a "desert time", a dry spell of not feeling God or hearing from him, but this is part of a lesson he's teaching you and ultimately his love for you is infinite and perfect.

The question: Then why do so many Christians never feel any real presence of God, despite years of authentic devotion and honest attempts to open up to his love, hours and days spent crying for his presence and desperately yearning to feel held by him?

Those years I spent searching for his love and assurance... why didn't I ever hear anything back or experience anything like a loving supernatural force?

The answer that satisfied me: The idea that there is a God who wants you to feel loved by him simply isn't true. Some people are good at feeling imaginary love and other people aren't. It's another placebo. For some people the effect is strong enough that it really helps them feel happy on a day-to-day basis; other people get nothing out of it. If it works for you, they will say "great, isn't God's love amazing?" If it doesn't work for you, "just hang in there and keep trying, God won't give you a bigger dry spell than you can handle, he really does love you, don't expect that your needs are going to be met in any specific way because that's arrogant and God's ways are beyond our understanding." If we believe that God will absolutely draw near to us if we draw near to him, and he isn't drawing near to us, then clearly we aren't doing a good enough job of drawing near to him.

6) Anyone who leaves the faith was never a Christian

The premise: If a Christian decides to leave the faith, it's not because they made a rational choice after fairly evaluating the Christian experience. It's because they never authentically experienced God and his perfect love; anyone who is a true Christian enjoys God's love so much that they would never, ever choose to leave. All real Christians remain believers forever.

The question: Is it easy to become a Christian, or not? When pastors give altar calls at the end of their sermons, they lead the congregation through a simple prayer of inviting Jesus into their hearts and accepting them as their personal lord and savior, and then they inform anyone who followed along that they are now saved and going to Heaven. If one prayer is enough for the Holy Spirit to come in and change your heart forever, then how can it be true that someone who honestly seeks God for years and then decides to leave was never a Christian?

The answer that satisfied me: This is nothing more than a way to invalidate the personal experience of those who reject Christianity. If Christians accepted that some people give God a fair trial and still end up disbelieving, it would cast doubt on the idea that God's grace is perfect, that his salvation is delicious, that his Holy Spirit always does incredible heart work. So, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, Christians are fed an easy solution: that person was never a believer.

This logic is fragile because most Christians will eventually have a close friend or relative who leaves the faith after being a devoted Christian. When that happens, the Christian has a choice: they can either reject the logic that a real Christian never leaves the faith, having known their friend's heart intimately, and be forced to wonder why the Holy Spirit doesn't work 100% of the time; or they can turn against that friend and criticize them for being a heretic because they simply cannot accept the idea that losing faith is possible. The more fearful the person is, the more likely they are to choose the 2nd option, because they don't want to accept that someday they could come to the same conclusion. They want to believe their own fate is sealed and secure and that the doubts they have will never increase to an unbearable level like their friend's did.

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