NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Perception” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
In the 1999 film The Matrix, the protagonist, Neo, is offered two pills by a guide who has awakened him from a global hallucination. “This is your last chance,” Morpheus says. “After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
In psychotherapy, we take the red pill.
Many of us go through our lives under the enchantment of a Spell.
The Spell is not cast by sorcerers or sinister machines. Instead, it is built from unconscious messages we receive as children, injuries we suffer, and thoughts, feelings, and behaviors we develop to protect us from harm. Sometimes the Spell forms in reaction to abuse, neglect, or trauma, but often it is simply the product of what we learn – directly or indirectly – about ourselves, others, and our possibilities. As we grow up, it becomes a grid through which everything else is perceived and it “protects” us from experiences, relationships, and challenges that could foster self-actualization. It is as if, to shield our garden from a hailstorm, we cover it with a tarp, but then we forget to take it down when the storm has passed.
For example, a boy born into a working-class family might learn by example that he will be a blue-collar worker when he grows up. Despite straight A’s in school and the advice of teachers and guidance counselors that he has great aptitude for science and mathematics, he becomes a factory worker like his father and grandfather before him. Or the daughter of authoritarian parents, instructed to “stop being a baby” whenever she cries or asks for help, learns to hold in her feelings and to see herself as strong and independent. But as she grows up, she may be unable to break through barriers to connection and intimacy she does not even know are there.
When we created our Spells, they helped us navigate our early lives. But as we emerge, they constrain us, like tight-fitting shoes we have outgrown.
The Spell, as defined by psychologist Jim Grant, encompasses what in other branches of therapy might be called coping mechanisms, defense mechanisms, mistaken beliefs, and dysfunctional patterns of behavior. The concept of the Spell, though, is more inclusive. It places our lives in the context of the powerful folk tales, myths, and stories that are the underpinnings of our culture and allows us to use these tales as instruction manuals for our own liberation.
Investigating the Spell takes us on a one-way trip out of what William Blake called our “mind-forged manacles” and opens the doors of perception. Then we can see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Breaking our Spells gives our true selves free reign to fully emerge. But to break them, we must recognize, challenge, and interrupt them. Spells, though powerful, are much like computer programs, in that they follow a set pattern of thoughts, feelings, and actions. When you interrupt that pattern, the Spell weakens. When you interrupt it often enough, it loses its power entirely.
Recognizing our patterns is usually the first step in Spell breaking. By reflecting on what we do and listing the steps we follow, we can see where and how our responses are programmed. If, for example, we have been in a series of unsatisfying romantic relationships, we can find the common denominators in the mates we have chosen and identify the negative patterns each of those relationships has had. When we see these patterns clearly, we can choose a different type of relationship. If we are in an unsatisfying career, we can look at our job histories and see what has led us to the work we’ve done and what, in each job, has encouraged negative outcomes. Then we can make different choices, moving forward. Although we may not get our next steps exactly right, we have a far better chance than when we merely repeat our patterns, hoping for different results. I often think of the Bill Murray film Ground Hog Day in this context. Murray’s weather man protagonist has what seems to be an infinite number of chances to try things differently. We may not have so many chances, so there is more urgency to waking up.
The Spell has its own voice and vocabulary. Frequently, when I’m working with clients, I hear them use a particular tone and vernacular when they act out habitual conflicts or speak in the voice of their inner critics. It soon becomes clear that this is the tone and language of their Spell. Often the Spell uses the voice of a family or community member who was damaging or threatening – who had some power over us as children and who continues to exert that power internally.
The Spell also tends to use a few carefully selected words. These words are like incantations that interrupt our efforts to awaken when we don’t challenge them. But, they are also like the “tells” in poker players that give away their intentions. For example, when we catch ourselves using the word “just” multiple times in a paragraph – “I just did it because I just didn’t care what happened and I’m just tired of…” – we can suspect the Spell is using smoke and mirrors to cover its handiwork. When we feel “overwhelmed,” we can know that the Spell is attempting to convince us to turn back from what might be a path to liberation. Each of us has our own Spell vocabulary, but these words, in particular, are common to many Spells.
Fundamental to Spell-breaking is recognizing Spell beliefs about yourself and others. These take the form of subliminal messages that tend to limit our interactions mainly to those that will propagate our Spells. Beliefs that contribute to feelings such as helplessness, hopelessness, perfectionism, anxiety, self-denial, and other difficult emotional states can usually be teased out and disproved fairly quickly. Most of us have only a few of these beliefs, and identifying them goes a long way toward dislodging the Spell. I discovered this several years ago, when I ran a group for recovering addicts. One day I had 14 attendees. I asked each to write down as many reasons as they could for continuing to use their drug of choice. Nobody had more than five or six. Then I collated all the individual lists and came up with only 12 unique reasons. Thus exposed, all 12 were easily seen as untrue.
Another critical component of Spell-breaking is recognizing who, in our circles of friends, family, and associates, is an ally of our Spell and who of our true selves. We may need to redefine our relationships with Spell allies – or end them. We may need to foster our relationships with those who support our true selves – or develop new ones.
Once we can identify our Spell patterns, voices, beliefs, and allies, challenging the Spell becomes easier and more effective. We can challenge Spell beliefs by exposing and disputing them. We can challenge Spell patterns by choosing to do something else. We can challenge Spell voices by considering the source: Has it been trustworthy in the past? Has it ever been a reliable guide? If the answer is no, then we refuse to listen.
As we learn to recognize and counteract our Spells, they get weaker and our true selves strengthen. Eventually, these two parts reach a point of equilibrium. This is when the Spell, recognizing that it may not be in charge much longer, sometimes kicks itself into high gear.
We created our Spells to help us, and they still believe they are essential to our survival. They don’t want to give up without a fight. They puff themselves up like blowfish and, like the man behind the curtain at the end of The Wizard of Oz, try to get us to once again undertake their missions. They tap into any weaknesses they can find in order to bring us back to the comfortably uncomfortable state they know how to manage. If we fall for this Spell ruse, we can lose our hard-won ground.
During this crucial period, we must resist the temptation to repeat our patterns and, going on trust in the process and our will to move forward, continue to push in the direction of our true selves. When we do, the air goes out of the blowfish, the curtain is pulled aside, and the Spell loses its hold. The energy we have been supplying to it now fuels our growth.
In The Wizard of Oz, the larger Spell is broken because the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and Dorothy have each done the work to break their individual Spells. They can now see the “Great and Powerful Oz” for what he really is. Even Toto is no longer deceived. In the movie, the revealed master Spell turns benevolent. The Professor awards the Lion a medal of honor, the Tin Man a ticking clock, the Scarecrow a diploma, and he tells Dorothy, who now wants only to return home, that she already has the means.
Sometimes this benevolent transformation happens with our Spells, too. More often, the Spell simply vanishes, no longer necessary. Or, it may wait in the wings, seeking an opportunity to return, but we can keep it at bay simply by continuing to practice what we have learned as we progress along our own Yellow Brick Road.