"How am I to know the good side from the bad?"
"You will know, when you are calm. At peace, passive."
―Luke Skywalker and Yoda (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
There’s a running joke in my family: “Jamie, what do you do?” My brother first asked it when I moved back from Europe and worked several part time jobs during graduate school. I gigged in coffeehouses for tips, taught a little guitar, picked up some writing and research work, served as a substitute teacher, and I coached speech and debate. Over fifteen years later, I can still get that question. My stepson once asked me, “Jamie, how many jobs do you have? I count eight. Or is it nine?”
Yes, my primary vocation is as a trauma therapist. Yet this work enables me to also work as an educator/trainer, author, advocate, media producer of educational content, mentor of others and leader of a training organization. My interest in holistic healing also drives me to work as an expressive arts therapist, musician, dancer, yoga teacher, and reiki master. And while collectively that’s many roles and numerous tasks, they all fuse together in helping me to realize my ultimate vocational purpose—to facilitate transformative experiences for myself and others. At least that’s the line I’ve been testing out in the press bio. Yet if I’m keeping it very real and true to my pop culture nerdiness, I vocationally identify as a Jedi knight. Or perhaps even a Jedi master…
This connection struck me so potently during my second viewing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker over the holiday season. So as to not give away too much for those who haven’t seen the film, let’s just say that the heroine of this generation, Rey, kicks some major ass. And these feats come after her training takes her to a new level of depth and thorough exploration of her own dark side. I am a Jedi knight because I fight for the good of humanity that is represented by the light side of the force. My mission is to paint light in this world, and by doing so, illuminate people’s ability to connect with the light of their own true nature. I also teach people not to be afraid of their shadows—the dark side of the force that may lure them or even take root within them. I can do this work because I’ve met my dark side face-to-face and I am fervently committed to deepening my training.
The Force as we call it in the fictional Star Wars canon is very real indeed. Call it reiki (the movement of life force energy), chi, prana, shakti, nefesh, universal alignment, or the Holy Spirit. You can even see it as the enthusiasm that is generated when people come together for a common cause. We’ve witnessed that collective power manifest for the dark side (e.g., hate groups of various brands) or for the light side of the force (e.g., charities and advocacy organizations, mutual help movements). We are called to be in attunement with and to work with the life force that dances through us every day. Our training—combined with our motivation—decides where the energy will flow.
There’s a yogic teaching which states that energy follows attention. So where we place our mind and our efforts, there our life force will flow. In the tradition I study, we teach that eventually a conscious crossover happens. With enough training and patterning, attention follows energy. In other words, the force will guide us. I’ve lived through many crossover experiences where my attention could have been pulled either way. Yet enough training in the light side of things has made it more likely that the light will triumph. That’s why I am sober. That’s why—despite my difficulties—I’m living the most adaptive life that I can. And that’s why I relish helping others connect with their light.
Master Yoda is my true role model and teacher as a clinical professional. During my doctoral studies I reconnected with the Star Wars films as an adult and thought, “Why aren’t they teaching Jedi in graduate techniques courses?” Indeed, it’s the same frustration that I voice about why our graduate training doesn’t involve the vast wisdom of yoga (not to be confused with Yoda, yet the similarity is revealing) and Eastern philosophy.
I advised many clients in recovery over the years that they could use Yoda, or the Force itself, as their Higher Power. Yoda’s famous teaching, “Do or do not, there is no try,” explains why daily practice and routines allow me to dust off and clear my ego enough to connect with the light side of the force. I have a Yoda statue on my altar and puja table at home where I keep other spiritual pictures and statues. That’s how much his archetypal wisdom feeds me, clearly inspired by Star Wars creator George Lucas’ penchant for Joseph Campbell. Yoda’s teaching that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” is the perfect blend of Buddha and 12-step teaching on resentment that I need reminded of on the regular. When I think of Yoda imparting this wisdom to Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, I’m reminded that I do and will always have the potential to turn. For the Force is one—it’s not separate and it’s all encompassing. It’s the ultimate polarity. How I practice and choose to heal determines where my energy will flow and how it will serve me… and the world.
As Rey proudly declares in The Rise of Skywalker during her fiercest battle, “I am all the Jedi.” She is my beacon for realizing the healing possibilities of oneness. So today, and I hope that for all the days of this life, to remain a Jedi knight. My sweet friend James, who geeks out with me about many things, recently called me a Jedi master, and this may have been the greatest compliment I ever received. He challenged me to look at all of the areas in my own life in which I have gained mastery and I’m grateful that today I can see it, even as I train for a greater sense of mastery over the perils of my ego and the lure of the dark side. Moreover, in this life I live I am privileged to be a mentor, teacher, and guide for others in their quest to be led from the darkness to the light. If those thing make me a master, I accept.
May I do Yoda proud in my vocation.
So as my brother might ask, “What do you do?” Share in the comments here in the blog or wherever this gets shared on social media. Go to your favorite movies, books, or art sources for meaningful metaphor or allegory. Let’s investigate the marvelous interplay of how people are living their purpose out there in the world. Or, if you believe you have not yet tapped into this purpose, how would you like to identify?
Have fun and go with it…
Photo Credit: Christina Dine
For as long as I can remember, people have labeled me the “smart” kid. Being smart was my identity that earned me a curious combination of respect and bullying from my peers in elementary school. My teachers would marvel, calling me a “walking Encyclopedia,” yet never quite knowing how to handle my social ineptitude, which I now know was a behavioral and emotional response to complex trauma. In high school I was voted the “class brain,” and there are several painful stories of people—both would-be romantic partners and friends—finding me too smart for them. Even the spiritual name that my teacher gave me, Pragya, means intelligent, wise one, specifically attributed to the goddess Saraswati’s holistic knowledge. I can acknowledge that my unique breed of intelligence allows me to do many big things in the world as it relates to my business, writing, advocating, training and mentoring others…all that jazz.
So why do I still feel so fucking dumb when it comes to navigating my own life and recovery? I’ve clocked more hours in trauma-focused therapy than I’ve spent working on my advanced degrees. You are never going to meet anyone more willing to work on her own shit, and I’ve done that from a variety of perspectives since I first got sober in 2002. Spiritual direction, intense yoga practice, reiki, Rolfing and the whole menu of bodywork, intuitive exploration… you name it, I’ve done it. I even gave some of the old fashioned religion that was the source of so much of my own trauma a try here and there, on the off chance that they were “right” all along. These last two months of 2019 revealed to me another profound layer of the deep damage that these experiences created, impairing my ability to function as I’d like to in the world. I’m still wading through what has been revealed with my village of helpers and may share more publicly at a later time. I will say this in the spirit of candidness that has come to define my approach to mental health advocacy: I still have a hard time shaking the core belief that I am stupid as it relates to trusting myself and my own judgment. Being hopeful as it relates to anything connected to personal happiness sets off an allergic reaction of sorts in me, sending me back to the I am stupid and I am cursed beliefs that were put there by a variety of abuses, especially the ones that deeply connected to spiritual or identity issues. I often ask myself, “How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?”
And in that second question rests a big part of the answer—I am not stupid, yet I can be foolish. Somewhere during this month from hell that was December 2019, it dawned on me that foolish is my one word intention for 2020. I’ve engaged in this ancient practice of embracing a word at the dawn of each year for almost a decade now, and foolish certainly is the most curious choice of a word to emerge. Yet it has, so I’m going with it.
There are many meanings of the word foolish dating back to Middle English, with many pejoratives like weak-minded, silly, or lacking judgment offered up as definitions. Yet one definition which is largely associated with the Holy fool archetype is “an ardent enthusiast who cannot resist an opportunity to indulge an enthusiasm.” That’s certainly me. Have you ever seen me dance? Or geek out about something that incites my interests and passions? Or bubble with an Anne Frank-like optimism that even with all of the shit happening in the world, people are still really good at heart?
One of my most precious spiritual influences, the Dutch theologian Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) cast a very beautiful light on what it means to be foolish in his complied reader Spiritual Formation (2015). Foolish means “slow to believe.” He goes on:
Foolish is a hard word. It can also crack open a cover of fear and self-consciousness and lead to a whole new knowledge of being human. It is a wake-up call, a ripping off of blindfolds, a tearing down of useless, protective devices. You foolish people, don’t you see? Don’t you hear? Don’t you know?
Wow. I’ve been in this process of my healing for quite a while now. And framing it this way allows me to offer a new compassion to myself. My hesitancy to believe beautiful things about the reality of my true self, my nature, and the non-abusive reality of the Divine is a legitimate response to the impact of trauma. It’s been slow going for sure yet when I look at the progression of my life since I first started questioning things at the age of 19, I can see that I’ve learned quite a bit. My belief about myself and my spirit have shifted immensely. Of course I can get tripped up when I fall into some of the same patterns or get tangled up in the same knots, especially as it relates to love and personal relationships. I’ve had quite a bit of shame to wade through being a public figure in the trauma recovery movement and ending up in a second marriage that was abusive on every level. Cops were called, the whole nine yards—in time, I may choose to reveal more publicly yet this is a big step for me saying this much out loud.
“How can a smart person be so dumb? When will I ever fucking learn?,” I cried out many nights as I scrambled for a way to get out and end up with my sanity intact.
Today, just over two years later, the important point to emphasize is that I got out, and more than that, I’ve forgiven myself for being human and maybe even a bit foolish. It’s taken me a long time to learn certain things, and that education continues. May I be kind to myself about this reality in 2020 and in whatever years I may get to live beyond that.
May I also recognize that being foolish isn’t all bad—teasing out the doubts and being eager to learn new ways of being in the world fuels my sense of curiosity that always keeps this life interesting. And the enthusiasm that comes with being foolish—every time I feel my own smile on my face I can tap into some sense of gratitude for not losing that child-like sense of wonder, even though I’ve felt battered around by the world quite a bit. One of my favorite artists, Krishna Das, wove these beautiful verses called My Foolish Heart into one of his chants:
My foolish heart
Why do you weep?
You throw yourself away again
Now you cry yourself to sleep
My foolish heart
When will you learn?
You are the eyes of the world
And there’s nowhere else to turn
It’s little wonder I embraced these verses as an anthem of sorts in the wake of getting out of my marriage. As I’ve listened to them over and over again in the past weeks, I’m hearing an invitation to trust myself more, to trust in the process of it all with greater abandon. There may still be some big healing projects that need to take place for this trust to fully crystallize, and I’m game. Like any holy fool, I cannot resist the opportunity to indulge the enthusiasm.
Photograph of Dr. Jamie by Mary Riley
Institute for creative mindfulness
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