The Value of the Past; or, Lost In Liminal Space With Commander Sisko

20121230-151720.jpg

Photo — The amazing Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko

As food for thought, and as a meditation for the New Year, I offer my thoughts on the significance of the past, with some reflections on LRH and Star Trek: DS9 in the mix. Enjoy, and I wish you joy and blessings in the New Year!

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Liminal. I have a friend who is very fond of that word. “I am in a liminal space, in terms of where my life is headed right now.” I heard him say this many times a few years back, when his life was in flux. What does it mean? “Liminal” means “on a boundary or border”. Another way to say it might be in between, or “border-ish”, to borrow a term from Stephen King. Psychologically, to be in a liminal space, like my friend, generally means to be in transition. Crossing over from one place, stage, or state of being, to another. The liminal space is that place which is both, and neither. The place where the old is dying, and the new is being born, and neither process has reached fruition yet.

Birth. The solstices, New Years Eve. The end of the 13th b’ak’tun in the Mayan calendar. Death. These are collective experiences of the liminal. Birthdays, weddings, graduations, changing jobs, leaving a church, divorce, illness, death. These are personal experiences of the liminal. When we find ourselves in a liminal space, we are called — in ways both big and small, subtle and profound — to lay the old to rest, as we begin to perceive what is newly emerging in our lives and make space for that to grow.

What does it mean, to lay the old to rest? “The past is past”; “water under the bridge”; “baggage”. Clichés which make it clear that in our culture we presume that the past is useless, a burden to be left behind. Carrying “baggage” means we are holding on to past experiences in a way that creates a burden in the present, and a barrier to the future. Putting the past behind you is presumed to equate with opening the way for new — and better — things to come. There is truth in this idea, but a problem arises when we carry it too far. It is important that we do not end up seeking an escape from our past and the impact of our experiences, in the belief that this will somehow make us whole.

My training as a healer includes extensive education in a field known as Somatic Psychology. Body-centered psychotherapy, and Dance/Movement therapy are the modalities I practiced when I was a therapist. This included a great deal of training in trauma issues, and pre- and peri-natal experiences. One of the foundational precepts of my training was that the way we have dealt with the pain, injuries, and overwhelming experiences of the past has a direct bearing on our ability to function and thrive in the present. Conversely, our way of being in the moment — movement, posture, breath, our blind spots, strengths and limitations, and habits of thinking — offers a great deal of information about our past experiences and how we have coped with them. Especially when we are not conscious of the memory, or of it’s true impact on us.

Scientology watchers will see that there are certainly parallels with scientology in my training. Naropa, where I was trained, and it’s associated programs such as Windhorse and Friendship House, have been a good place for some very troubled ex-scis to land, because of this parallel. The past is incredibly important in traveling the “bridge to total freedom”. Auditing is essentially a process of calling up (or mocking up) memories, fleshing them out in detail, and then applying a type of emotional extinction technique to eliminate the ostensible impact of the past in the present. However, Hubbard did not invent any of these concepts. Pre- and peri-natal memory, memory retrieval and extinction, and trauma disorder theory did not come from the “Source”.

In my experience, for ex-scientologists, researching the origin of these concepts and how they evolved can be a valuable part of shedding the cult programming. (It is not the topic here, but I will offer some links at the end for those who are interested.) Hubbard co-opted these ideas and twisted them to his own ends, and part of that was to convince people that past is pathology. Instead of regarding our personal history as a source of information and fodder for growth, he portrayed it as something to manipulate or shed — using his “tech”, for a small fee. This was, of course, an important element in keeping his “church” profitable. Everyone has a past, no one is conscious of the whole thing.

The past can serve as a kind of catch-all, where we can put the blame for everything that is wrong now. LRH sold the seductive idea that we can somehow return to some native state of infinite potential and calm, if only we can “unmark” ourselves by erasing the past — or certain select parts of it. The presumption being that the lingering impact of our past experiences and choices, in this life, can only be what keeps us stuck in our confused and limited state. In scientology, auditing serves to free us from this inherently limiting impact of our past. When we reach the limits of our past in this lifetime, we delve into past lives and their impact. Eventually, we confront that impact as an external, invading parasitic force, known as body thetans. The past is literally a pathogen, and must be sloughed off in the name of “survival”. Of course, this is easy to interpret as a projection of Hubbard’s own unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions and choices, and their lingering impact.

Hubbard seems to have created an entire system designed to negate the reality of his own unpleasant past — by erasing what he could with lies and processing, and diminishing the importance of the rest by inventing a context of billions of years. A context in which the span of one lifetime, and certainly one act within that lifetime, is utterly insignificant. The core identity becomes an abstraction, a “thetan” that has experienced everything and is limited by nothing — an empty assertion describing something that has no meaningful way of manifesting within our human experience, with it’s inevitable messiness, limitations and confusion. There is nothing you (as a thetan) don’t already know, and nothing ever to correct or apologize for, because the “whole track” renders it all unimportant. There is nothing you cannot do or be, no human limitation or obligation you are subject to. This is an incredibly corrosive ideology, which demands that you renounce your humanity — the part of you that can be deeply affected by your experience, and carry that impact forward into the next experience, as well as feel compassion and empathy for the limitations of others. It is a recipe for dissociation, even psychosis, and sociopathic behavior.

It is also a reflection of a cherished conceit in our western culture. Whatever the agenda — planetary clearing, self-actualization, total enlightenment, etc. In America, we are very fond of the idea of “reinventing” ourselves in the name of moving forward. We firmly believe in the promise of “starting over”, of beginning a “new chapter” in our lives. We “wipe the slate clean”, “cut all ties with the past”, or “find closure”, so we can “keep it moving”. We are even willing to embrace disaster or catastrophic loss, by focusing on how it provides us a “new beginning”. We will kill a relationship or partnership that is still viable, but in need of nurturing — “let it burn” — so we can find a new happiness sprouting from the ashes. Or so we say.

Is this really true? Is the secret of happiness and well-being contained in our ability to sever ourselves from what is past, or to manipulate and control its impact? No, experience has taught me that this is a kind of escapism. It is the product of a deeply dysfunctional value system that revolves around denial and abdicating responsibility for the impact of our actions and choices. It is a way of compensating when our functioning creates a result we dont wish to deal with. It is Mark McGuire, sitting in front of a congress investigating performance-enhancing drugs and talking about how he does not want to dwell on the past, as a way to avoid simply saying what he did and when. It is the government, refusing to investigate clear evidence of heinous war profiteering by American defense contractors in Iraq, because it is too painful and divisive to look at and we need to move on. It is L Ron Hubbard, ditching his wife and taking to the high seas on a grandiose mission to save mankind, in order to evade responsibility and avoid scrutiny for his dishonest actions and false promises.

The true value of the past is revealed when we confront it head on, and own it as a part of who we are today. This is how we keep moving forward on whatever path is formed by our life circumstances. Think of it this way: our experiences are the ground on which we walk, and our habitual response or applied training and wisdom are the way we walk that path. The impact of the past exists as a charge or momentum in our movement. Attempting to deny that impact collapses that charge and has the paradoxical effect of keeping us stuck in those past experiences. If we have done something wrong, our feelings of remorse and responsibility are what drive us to make amends. When we have been hurt or suffered a loss, our pain and anger can propel us to seek justice or find some way to make our loss meaningful. When we acknowledge our past and the emotional impact it has had on us, emotion becomes a momentum, propelling us forward.

Which brings me to an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that explores these ideas in an elegant fashion. The title is “Emissary”, and it is available on DVD, Netflix streaming, iTunes, etc. (season 1, episode 1). In this, the premiere episode of this series, we are introduced to some great characters in a difficult situation, where they must live in the aftermath of a very ugly past. In particular, there is Commander Sisko, the “captain” in this series. He is a Starfleet officer, a war veteran, and a father, who lost his wife years earlier under terrible circumstances, in the midst of battle. He has never dealt with this traumatic loss, and is a very bitter and tortured man because of it. Now, he finds himself stationed on a distant post, in a turbulent area, with a young child; he is unhappy, and he is contemplating a “clean break” with the past.

Before he can do that, however, he has a mission to carry out. In the process, he finds himself dealing with spiritual matters, and strange artifacts that give him a vision of his painful past. Ultimately, Sisko is led to an encounter with entities known as “the Prophets”; aliens who live in a “wormhole”, outside our space-time continuum. In the process of making “first contact” with these aliens, Sisko finds he must explain such basic concepts as time, death, and love. His communication with these aliens is entirely telepathic, and they use people and images from his own memory as a medium and context for the conversation. Thus, Sisko finds himself talking to his late wife, his child, and others from his past as he attempts to explain. Revisiting key moments in his past, the Prophets probe him for understanding of the nature of his existence. Linear time is a very strange concept to them, and Sisko attempts to explain how we leave the past behind and move towards the future. He even attempts to use baseball as a metaphor, as seen in this clip.

Yet, they keep returning to the traumatic moment in time when Sisko lost his wife, and the prophets ask, “if all you say is true, then why do you exist HERE?” Confronted with her body, Sisko asks “why do you keep bringing me here?” The prophets reply, “we do not bring you here, YOU bring US here. You exist here.”. At first, Sisko does not understand. When he finally stops, and really looks at where he is, he breaks down and finally grieves his loss. The Prophets help him realize that the nature of his existence is NOT linear. The past is always with us, and how we relate to it is a part of our existence in any moment. (see the clip here, the first 1:30 of this video)

I highly recommend this episode, and the entire series. Sisko’s journey is a remarkable one, from the perspective of trauma and healing, and the role of spirituality and destiny in our lives. There are other equally compelling characters, and each one has a past they must confront and learn from. Major Kira Nerys, a former guerilla fighter on an occupied planet, who must learn how to cope with peace and freedom. Jadzia Dax, who has a unique physiology as a “joined” being, a young woman with a very ancient parasite inside her, sharing her consciousness and seven lifetimes of memories. Odo, the “shapeshifter”, who has no idea what he is or where he comes from. Deep Space Nine is all about reconciling the past and coping with an unforseen future. It is dark, and contemplative, and ironic. It is my favorite Star Trek series. I hope you check it out, and allow it to inspire some reflection on the meaning and value of the past, as we move into a New Year.

Peace.

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Some informative links; explore them!

An article on memory extinction, including a basic definition:
“Memory extinction is a process in which a conditioned response gradually diminishes over time as an animal learns to uncouple a response from a stimulus”

-Memory extinction research at Scientific American

-Pre- and peri-natal psychology article on Wikipedia

-Pre-natal memory research at Scientific American

-Another therapeutic approach using Pre-natal and early memory

Somatic Psychology article on wikipedia

-An overview of the origins of somatic psych

Science vs. Faith; or, Janeway finds religion?

20121025-195137.jpg

“False dichotomy” is one of my favorite terms. Here is a definition from Wikipedia. Essentially, a false dichotomy is a type of logical fallacy where two points or sides of an argument are placed in opposition to each other as if they are the sole options to consider. Often the two options are portrayed as mutually exclusive: as in, “you are either for us or against us, there is no middle ground.” When I first learned this term, I fell in love with it, because it illuminated a very popular ploy in our culture that I hate. When people want to pursuade you of their point of view they will often try to polarize it with something that forces you to accept their point as the “right” option.

A good example can be found in the post 9-11 era. Often, the pundits who were carrying water for the White House (as Rush Limbaugh put it in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty) would pin down opponents of White House policy as “hating America” or “supporting the terrorists”. “Why do you hate America?” was a popular response to any criticism. Either you support the president, or you hate this country — that is a false dichotomy. It was very effective for a time.

A false dichotomy ignores the possibility of a third (or more) option, in order to manipulate perception. By presenting people with an either/or dilemma, you can force them towards an option they don’t really want. In-groups of all types, like cults and political parties, use this ploy to cultivate the blind loyalty of their members. For instance, scientology doesn’t have to convince their members that donating more than they can afford is a GOOD idea. They simply have to assert that the only other option is failure to support the “noble” goal of clearing the planet. If that’s what you want, fine. If you buy into this, and you care about being a good scientologist, you will pursuade yourself to take out that second mortgage to up your “status”. The false dilemma does not allow for other possibilties: perhaps a “good scientologist” would refuse the relentless demands for money; or perhaps being a “good scientologist” is a questionable goal if it means being scammed.

Learning to recognize a false dichotomy is useful in being an independent and open-minded thinker. It keeps you from falling back on lazy, black-or-white understanding of matters that are subtle and complex. It makes you suspicious of jingoism and easy answers. There is a bit of mental discipline involved, to train yourself to examine the questions as well as the answers. If the question is skewed by a particular bias, then any answer is of limited value. Questions can easily be framed to exclude certain info from consideration that might undermine a given point of view. Human nature is such that most of us actually use this kind of thinking, in order to justify the easy assumptions and biases we apply to the world. This is normal, and not necessarily bad. It is an expedient way of simplifying the complicated experiences we deal with every day. Who has time to take everything in? It only becomes a problem when you come to depend on it as a way to validate your point of view.

My favorite example of a false dichotomy our culture embraces is “science vs faith”, aka: “mysticism vs materialism”. The idea that these two things are mutually exclusive is a popular one. I would go so far as to say it serves as the unspoken backdrop for a lot of the conclusions we draw collectively, as to what ideas should be taken seriously. The willingness to put faith in religious or mystical ideas is even seen as a barometer of intelligence and rationality. The assumption being, the more mystical, the less intelligent, in general. Those who report experiences that are generally regarded as “paranormal” — that is, unaccounted for by our current science — are seen as foolish or irrational at best. It begs the question: are these two conceptual filters, mysticism and materialism, truly mutually exclusive? I think not. It seems obvious, considering that science does not have exclusive claim to intelligence, reason, or even pragmatism.

Understanding that is key to resolving this false dichotomy, which is based on the unspoken idea that one side or the other does have such an exclusive claim, and there should be a clear “winner” there. This is not confirmed by practical experience. Science functions through precise measurement and accurate and thorough analysis and rectification. In our culture, there is a tendency to equate objective precision and accuracy with a larger sense of intelligence and truth. This is a misleading assumption. These things overlap, but they are not the same. Immediate human experience and perception, although subjective and often “irrational”, are an equally important part of the big picture. Forgetting this can lead to accepting things like e-meters, or doctors’ prescriptions, even when they don’t actually work as promised.

It is a big topic I am addressing, but the point I want to toy with here centers on some simple questions. What happens when your direct, practical experience is firmly outside the bounds of what science can currently measure and explain? Is it ever truly rational or intelligent to dismiss the simple fact of your sensory experience just because you do not understand it? How pragmatic is it to ignore what is happening right in front of you, because it cannot be easily explained? These are questions that have a lot of personal relevance for me. I am a very intellectual and linear person by nature, and when I was younger I had no use for mystical or paranormal matters. If it wasn’t established as proven by good science, it was just an entertaining fiction in my view. However, direct and undeniable experience has forced me to look at the things science cannot explain, and take them seriously.

I think it is not a question of whether the paranormal is “real” or not. It is a question of when science might eventually reveal the mechanisms behind things we experience that are as yet still mysterious. There is no either/or dichotomy here. Why? Because science is incomplete, and so is human understanding. Neither one can claim to have all the answers in any given situation. “No scientific explanation” is not the same as “not real”. “I don’t believe that” is not the same as “not true”. Which leads, oddly enough, to an episode of Star Trek: Voyager that I would like to share with you as food for thought on this question.

The title is “Sacred Ground”. Even if you don’t like Star Trek, or sci-fi in general, I still recommend that you seek out and watch this episode. (Netflix streaming has it; season 3 episode 7) It is an exceptional story that deals quite elegantly with the question of science vs. faith / materialism vs mysticism. The Captain in this series, Janeway, is a woman of science who is strictly devoted to correct procedures and rational decision-making. However, she is also devoted to her obligation as Captain to keep her crew safe. So, when a crew member is dying and the only solution involves faith and intuition, she is put in a fascinating double-bind.

All their technology and analysis can’t help in this situation, and she must trust a “mystical” source for the answer. She must also confront her own assumptions and expectations and set them aside in order to save the day. As usual, time is terribly short so she has to disregard her personal discomfort and take her best shot. Fortunately, she has a very helpful guide. If you don’t care to seek out the episode (although I very highly recommend it) here’s a you-tube summary, complete with terrible mystical music, that covers the high points.

Spoiler alert: of course, she saves her crew member. But she has to let go of her need for an explanation and trust in what she has learned. Thus, she is led to an epiphany — science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Then, of course, the ship’s doctor does eventually find a sci-fi scientific explanation for the whole thing. But this clip shows, by that point Janeway is not much impressed by the “why” .

It is left up to the viewer to decide why she reacts that way. It seems the scientist has learned some respect for the nature and value of faith, as it functions for an intelligent and pragmatic person.

There are different kinds of knowing. That is the idea I offer for your consideration…

Peace.